HOW THE MEDIA DECEIVES YOU ABOUT HEALTH ISSUES
Think about how many times you’ve heard an evening news anchor spit out some variation on the phrase, “According to experts .” It’s such a common device that most of us hardly hear it anymore. But we do hear the “expert” – the professor or doctor or watchdog group – tell us whom to vote for, what to eat, when to buy stock. And, most of the time, we trust them.
Now ask yourself, how many times has that news anchor revealed who those experts are, where they get their funding, and what constitutes their political agenda? If you answered never, you’d be close.
That’s the driving complaint behind Trust Us, We’re Experts, a new book co-authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of the Center for Media and Democracy.
Unlike many so-called “experts,” the Center’s agenda is quite overt – to expose the shenanigans of the public relations industry, which pays, influences and even invents a startling number of those experts.
The third book co-authored by Stauber and Rampton, Trust Us hit bookstore shelves in January.
There are two kinds of “experts” in question — the PR spin doctors behind the scenes and the “independent” experts paraded before the public, scientists who have been hand-selected, cultivated, and paid handsomely to promote the views of corporations involved in controversial actions.
Lively writing on controversial topics such as
- bovine growth hormone
- genetically modified food
makes this a real page-turner, shocking in its portrayal of the real and potential dangers in each of hese technological innovations and of the “media pseudo-environment” created to hide the risks.
By financing and publicizing views that support the goals of corporate sponsors, PR campaigns have, over the course of the century, managed to suppress the dangers of lead poisoning for decades, silence the scientist who discovered that rats fed on genetically modified corn had significant organ abnormalities, squelch television and newspaper stories about the risks of bovine growth hormone, and place enough confusion and doubt in the public’s mind about global warming to suppress any mobilization for action.
Rampton and Stauber introduce the movers and shakers of the PR industry, from the “risk communicators” (whose job is to downplay all risks) and “outrage managers” (with their four strategies — deflect, defer, dismiss, or defeat) to those who specialize in “public policy intelligence” (spying on opponents).
Evidently, these elaborate PR campaigns are created for our own good. According to public relations philosophers, the public reacts emotionally to topics related to health and safety and is incapable of holding rational discourse. Needless to say, Rampton and Stauber find these views rather antidemocratic and intend to pull back the curtain to reveal the real wizard in Oz.
Metro Media: What was the most surprising or disturbing manipulation of public opinion you reveal in your book?
John Stauber: The most disturbing aspect is not a particular example, but rather the fact that the news media regularly fails to investigate so-called “independent experts” associated with industry front groups. They all have friendly-sounding names like “Consumer Alert” and “The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition,” but they fail to reveal their corporate funding and their propaganda agenda, which is to smear legitimate heath and community safety concerns as “junk-science fear-mongering.”
The news media frequently uses the term “junk science” to smear environmental health advocates. The PR industry has spent more than a decade and many millions of dollars funding and creating industry front groups which wrap them in the flag of “sound science.” In reality, their “sound science” is progress as defined by the tobacco industry, the drug industry, the chemical industry, the genetic engineering industry, the petroleum industry and so on.
Metro Media: Is the public becoming more aware of PR tactics and false experts? Or are those tactics and experts becoming more savvy and effective?
Stauber: The truth is that the situation is getting worse, not better. More and more of what we see, hear and read as “news” is actually PR content.
On any given day much or most of what the media transmits or prints as news is provided by the PR industry.
It’s off press releases, the result of media campaigns, heavily spun and managed, or in the case of “video news releases” it’s fake TV news – stories completely produced and supplied for free by former journalists who’ve gone over to PR. TV news directors air these VNRs as news. So the media not only fails to identify PR manipulations, it is the guilty party by passing them on as news.
Metro Media: What’s the solution for the excesses of the PR industry? Just more media literacy and watchdog organizations like yours? Or should the PR industry be regulated in some way?
Stauber: In our last chapter, “Question Authority,” we identify some of the most common propaganda tactics so that individuals and journalists and public interest scientists can do a better job of not being snowed and fooled. But ultimately those who have the most power and money in any society are going to use the most sophisticated propaganda tactics available to keep democracy at bay and the rabble in line.
There are some specific legislative steps that could be taken without stepping on the First Amendment. One is that all nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations – charities and educational groups, for instance – should be required by law to reveal their institutional funders of, say, $500 or more.
That way when a journalist or a citizen hears that a scientific report is from a group like the American Council on Science and Health, a quick trip to the IRS Web site could reveal that this group gets massive infusions of industry money, and that the corporations that fund it benefit from its proclamations that pesticides are safe, genetically engineered food will save the planet, lead contamination isn’t really such a big deal, climate change isn’t happening, and so on.
The public clearly doesn’t understand that most nonprofit groups (not ours, by the way) take industry and government grants, or are even the nonprofit arm of industry.