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#517 - The Invisible Government, 23-Oct-1996

The description of America is all too familiar:

"The business class dominates government through its ability to fund
political campaigns, purchase high-priced lobbyists, and reward former
officials with lucrative jobs. Meanwhile, the working-class majority of
the American people has felt its economic and political power diminish
or disappear.... Many of the social institutions that should be the
bulwark of grassroots democracy --stable neighborhoods, vigorous
unions, independently-owned small farms and businesses --are rapidly
disappearing. Fewer than half of eligible Americans even bother to
vote, and those who do vote have little faith that good will come of
it, telling pollsters they are often voting for the 'lesser of two
evils.' Both major parties have become wholly dependent upon the same
corporate dollars to pay a new professional class of PR consultants,
marketers and social scientists who manage and promote causes and
candidates in essentially the same manner that advertising campaigns
sell cars, fashions, drugs, and other wares....

"This degraded political environment has created a rich bed of business
opportunity for the public relations industry. As citizens remove
themselves in disgust from the political process, the PR industry is
moving in to take their place, turning the definition of 'grassroots
politics' upside down by using rapidly-evolving high-tech data and
communications systems to custom-design 'grassroots citizen movements'
that serve the interests of their elite clients."

This description of contemporary America, which probably rings true to
nearly everyone who is paying attention, is taken from the recent book,
TOXIC SLUDGE IS GOOD FOR YOU (subtitled, Lies, Damn Lies, and the
Public Relations Industry) by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton.[1]
If you think you are already about as cynical as it is possible to be,
this book will jolt you: the situation is worse than anything you could
have imagined.

If you want to know how American-style "democracy" works in the late
20th century, you simply MUST read this short book. In recent years,
Stauber and Rampton have made it their business to describe the PR
industry, which manipulates the media, public opinion, and elections to
control public debate and public policy. Since publishing their
riveting little book, Stauber and Rampton have kept up a steady stream
of eye-opening reports in their quarterly journal PR WATCH.

The current PR WATCH (available on the world wide web at
http://users.aol.com/srampton/center.html) reveals a typical instance
of democracy subverted by PR corporations who engineer consent for the
Fortune 500 using "dirty tricks."

In this instance, PR WATCH reveals that the Philip Morris Company ---
the tobacco and food giant with 1991 earnings of $39.1 billion --has
paid a PR firm to create a phony "public interest" organization called
Contributions Watch which is masquerading as an "independent nonprofit"
group, supposedly gathering unbiased data on campaign contributions in
all 50 states.[2] In reality, Contributions Watch is doing something
quite different. According to internal company documents leaked to
Stauber and Rampton, Contributions Watch was created with bundles of
Philip Morris money for the specific purpose of influencing the
Presidential election, creating massive pressure on Congress for "tort
reform," and tarnishing the reputations of legitimate consumer advocacy
groups such as Consumers Union, publishers of CONSUMER REPORTS, and the
public-interest law firm, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

Tort reform was a key piece of the Republican Party's "Contract With
America" when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House of
Representatives in 1994. The goal of "tort reform" is to shield
corporations by limiting the amount of money that juries can award to
plaintiffs injured by medical malpractice or by harmful consumer
products, such as cigarettes. Both the House and the Senate --for the
first time in our history --passed tort reform legislation in March,
1996, but President Clinton vetoed it, saying such a law would
encourage "misconduct" by "irresponsible companies willing to put
profits above all else."[3]

Until PR WATCH blew the whistle on Contributions Watch, the Philip
Morris plan was succeeding. Wittingly or not, newspapers like the WALL
STREET JOURNAL were regurgitating stories served up by Contributions
Watch.[4,5] Contributions Watch was creating support for "tort reform"
using the argument that rich plaintiffs' lawyers are distorting the
democratic process with their money, supporting Bill Clinton for
President. This is in fact true, but the proper public policy to
restore democracy would be far-reaching campaign finance reform,
including full public financing of elections, not tort reform. (See
REHW426 and REHW427.) Tort reform would merely shield corporations from
liability while de-funding the Democratic Party, to the delight of
Republicans. What Contributions Watch --and the WALL STREET JOURNAL --
failed to mention is that Philip Morris itself is the largest single
campaign contributor in America --having spent a total of $2.7 million
during the past 18 months trying to influence elections --$2.1 million
of it to elect Republicans.[6]

The PR industry and dirty tricks are not new. What's new is that they
have grown out of control. The PR industry traces its roots to the work
of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays frankly discussed
his public relations discoveries --using science to manipulate the
public from behind the scenes --in several books. For example, in
PROPAGANDA in 1928, Bernays said, "If we understand the mechanism and
motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment
the masses according to our will without their knowing it." And: "The
conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and
opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.
Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an
invisible government which is the true ruling power of our
country."[1,pgs.23-24] He proudly called his scientific techniques of
opinion-molding "the engineering of consent."

Bernays in his later years claimed to be morally motivated. He had
spent a good part of his life nefariously promoting tobacco products,
yet he said, "No reputable public relations organization would today
accept a cigarette account, since their cancer-causing effects have
been proven." However, in a 1994 survey of 38 PR firms, 29 said they
would accept a tobacco account if they had the chance.[1,pg.32]

Even in the early days, it should have been obvious to anyone who
thought about it that a group of corporations with large budgets
dedicated to subverting democracy would succeed. Computers, fax
machines, and overflowing corporate treasuries have simply made it much
easier. Now in the U.S. there are more than 150,000 individuals
employed as "PR specialists." To put this number into perspective,
there are only 130,000 journalists in America and the number is
shrinking steadily as news organizations jettison reporters and rely
more and more on "news" manufactured by PR firms. (In 1991, 38% OF 2432
31% said they relied on PR people for 5 to 10 stories a week; 15% said
they relied on them for more than 10 stories; 17 PERCENT SAID THEY USED
PR PEOPLE FOR EVERY STORY. Local news reporters said they get only 15%
of their stories from PR people; editors of lifestyle pages put the
figure at 60%, and among entertainment editors, the figure is 75%.
HEALTH. The environment, of course, is part of the "health" beat.[7])

As Mark Dowie observes, "A single public relations professional with
access to media, a basic understanding of mass psychology, and a
fistful of dollars can unleash in society forces that make permanent
winners out of otherwise-evident losers --whether they be products,
politicians, corporations or ideas."[1,pg.4]

Stauber and Rampton document the dirty tricks that are routinely used
by the PR industry, such as:

** Spying on legitimate citizen groups to learn their strategies, and
in some instances publishing phony documents on the letterhead of
legitimate groups to discredit them;

** Manufacturing phony "grass-roots" groups to create the impression
that there is a groundswell of "real people" supporting a particular
corporate agenda. Michael Dunn of the Washington PR firm Michael E.
Dunn says, "The purpose of the grass-roots program is NOT to get more
Americans involved in the political system. The purpose of a grassroots
program is one purpose period, and that is to influence legislative

** Conducting smear campaigns against books before they are published
to intimidate editors into not reviewing them;

** Manufacturing gobs of phony news for TV and newspapers;

** Infiltrating groups to urge activists to resort to violence, even
including murder.[1,pgs.61-64]

** Calling every registered voter in a particular district to find out
what issue they care about most, then writing a letter to each one
saying that Candidate X is the champion of their favorite issue
(whether it is true or not).

Such "grass-roots" campaigns are only possible for those with immense
budgets. The NEW YORK TIMES reports that some phony grass-roots
campaigns cost upwards of $3 million per month --pocket change for a
corporation that nets billions each year.[8]

What is the larger meaning of these realities for the republic? Here is
Lewis Lapham, editor of HARPER'S MAGAZINE: "The permanent government, a
secular oligarchy... comprises the Fortune 500 companies and their
attendant lobbyists, the big media and entertainment syndicates, the
civil and military services, the larger research universities and law
firms. It is this government that hires the country's politicians and
sets the terms and conditions under which the country's citizens can
exercise their right --God-given but increasingly expensive --to life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Obedient to the rule of men, not
laws, the permanent government oversees the production of wealth,
builds cities, manufactures goods, raises capital, fixes prices, shapes
the landscape, and reserves the right to assume debt, poison rivers,
cheat the customers, receive the gifts of federal subsidy, and speak to
the American people in the language of low motive and base emotion."[9]

Such descriptions of our homeland have become troublingly familiar. For
people who care about America, it is time to bring back outrage. Time
to remember our history; it hasn't always been this way. Time once
again for the people to define what corporations can be, can become,
and can do.[10]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, TOXIC SLUDGE IS GOOD FOR YOU
(Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995). Contact: Common Courage
Press, Box 702, Monroe, Maine 04951; telephone (207) 525-0900. Our
opening quote is taken from pages 78-79. And be sure to check out the
quarterly PR WATCH available for $35 per year; edited by Stauber and
Rampton. Contact: Center for Media and Democracy, 3318 Gregory Street,
Madison, WI 53711; telephone (608) 233-3345.

[2] See PR WATCH Vol. 3 No. 3 (Third Quarter 1996), pgs. 1-12. And see
Douglas Frantz, "Trial Lawyers, Their Money and Their Influence Have
Become issues in the Campaign," NEW YORK TIMES October 13, 1996, pg.

[3] "Congress Passes Liability-Suit Provisions," FACTS ON FILE WORLD
NEWS DIGEST April 4, 1996, pg. 216B1.

[4] Glenn R. Simpson, "Trial Lawyers, After Flirting With GOP in 1995,
Are Sitting at Democratic Party's Table Again," WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 16, 1996, pg. A12.

[5] Max Boot, "Guardian of the Lawyers' Honey Pot," WALL STREET JOURNAL
September 19, 1996, pg. A22, which is an assault on Consumers Union,
publisher of CONSUMER REPORTS.

[6] Election data from the Center for Responsive Politics [Washington,
D.C.], "Financial Sector leads Political Spending, Business PACs Slash
Democrats as Election Fundraising Shatters Records," a press release
dated October 17, 1996.

[7] Associated Press, "Poll finds PR 'weasels' needed," ARKANSAS
DEMOCRAT, September 11, 1991, pg. 2D. The survey was done by Jericho
Promotions, a PR firm in New York City [(212) 260-3744].

[8] Stephen Engelberg, "A New Breed of Hired Hands Cultivates Grass-
Roots Anger," NEW YORK TIMES March 17, 1993, pg. A1. See also, Janet
Fritsch, "Friend or Foe? Nature Groups Say names Lie," NEW YORK TIMES
March 25, 1996, pg. A1. And Elizabeth Kolbert, "Special Interests'
Special Weapon," NEW YORK TIMES March 26, 1995, pg. A20. And see
"Public Interest Pretenders," CONSUMER REPORTS Vol. 59 No. 5 (May
1994), pgs. 316-320.

[9] Lewis H. Lapham, "Lights, Camera, Democracy!" HARPER'S MAGAZINE
August 1996, pgs. 33-38, quoted with permission.

[10] See REHW488 and REHW489.

Descriptor terms: pr industry; public relations industry; elections;
campaign finance reform; corporations; philip morris; astroturf;
sheldon rampton; john stauber; mark dowie; consumers union; trial
lawyers for public justice; tlpj; contract with america; toxic sludge
is good for you; pr watch; contributions watch; tort reform; bill
clinton; wall street journal; edward bernays;