Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
Trust Us: Were Experts.
The subtitle of Trust Us: We're Experts is "How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future." According to Rampton and Stauber, industry manipulates scienceand therefore public opinion and policyby using covert, often unethical public-relations campaigns and scientific "experts" to protect corporate interests. Rampton and Stauber have studied this manipulative process in other books: Toxic Sludge is Good for You! (how PR manufactures consent and subverts democratic process) and Mad Cow U.S.A. (how some meat industry practices endanger public health). Their latest book, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War On Iraq, examines the aggressive marketing strategies that sold the Iraqi war to the American public. The central preoccupation of all their work is how public relations methods, heavily funded by corporate or government clients, shape public perception of risk without considerations of democratic process. They direct the Center for Media and Democracy, without business or government grants (unlike many PR front groups they target in their books), and they edit the quarterly PR Watch: Public Interest Reporting On the PR/Public Affairs Industry (http://www.prwatch.org). The special interest of Trust Us: We're Experts is the PR manipulation of science to provide biased expertise for media and public consumption as a means to advance the corporate agenda.
There are six major players in their analysis: (1) some corporations that will employ any means to enrich themselves often without concern for the public health or the environment; (2) PR firms that enrich themselves by covertly manipulating favour in the public perception, providing front groups for media exploitation, and blunting public awareness of risk or crisis; (3) scientists who (sometimes ingenuously) enrich themselves with corporate or government funding by providing "expert" opinion about corporate products and effects; (4) government agencies that (often ineffectually) serve the citizens but are easily manipulated by rich corporate lobbies and huge PR campaigns; (5) media whose content is often doctored by PR operations; and (6) underfunded public health and environmental advocates who believe in responsibility and transparency in corporate dealings since they affect the quality of human life. Using solid research (often leaked PR directives) Rampton and Stauber reveal the clandestine strategies by which industries promote bogus expertise and manage public opinion.
One of the key PR techniques to promote industry incentives, neutralize adverse situations, and blunt emotional public responses is third-party endorsements, in short, experts. There are widespread, condescending beliefs in PR and business that the public is irrational, cannot be educated about its choices, and needs to be manipulated for its own good. Authoritative value judgments by "experts" (paid by PR firms) who appear on TV news and in scientific discussions are designed to render common sense public objections invalid. (When malodorous meat industry waste was used as farm fertilizer, the public was told there was no stink.) Often bearing impressive credentials, these "experts"although presented as independentare commissioned by corporations to promote pro-industry propaganda. For example, countering anti-trust investigations with a multimillion-dollar campaign, Microsoft hired "experts" to author pro-Microsoft opinion pieces as spontaneous testimonials for newspapers, to publish full-page ads and a pro-Microsoft book. Also, when the Nigerian dictator massacred Ogoni tribespeople to suppress protests against drilling by Shell Oil, Nigeria put PR pieces in cash-strapped, black U.S. newspapers to blunt criticism. In addition, the White House engineered its incursion into Nicaragua using “Contras” by covert third-party tactics; op-ed pieces were sent to 239 editorial writers in 150 cities.
In legal and government matters, conflicts of interest must be disclosed; in corporate practice, such questions are rarely addressed. For instance, front groups that lobby for reform in bankruptcy legislation are indirectly funded by credit card companies and banks. Consumer Alert (not Consumer Union, a genuine consumers group) that opposes flame-retardant legislation and defends dangerous diet drugs, is a corporate front group. Private health companies have used PR to block health care reforms that would benefit citizens. Third-party technique gives credibility to apparently objective, independent experts (hired celebrities or scientific authorities) who enhance benefits and generate doubts about product hazards that the company itself cannot openly do.
PR successfully puts words into the mouths of news journalists. Overworked journalists often broadcast or publish (sometimes without revision, comment or disclaimer) government or corporate items that reporters will not investigate themselves. PR-run wire services deliver "news" releases to newspapers and TV through the Internet. "Video news releases" are facsimiles of entire news stories (e.g., health benefits of pharmaceutical products), packaged by PR firms and transmitted to TV stations by satellite. By one estimate, 40% of content in U.S. newspapers is generated by PR firms. Media journalists must verify reliability of sources, offer impartial news, and weed out deceptive PR propaganda.
Rampton and Stauber detail the long history of anti-democratic beliefs (Plato, Bacon, Saint-Simon, Comte, and LeBon) that assert that people cannot rule themselves without the guidance and control of a superior elite. Psychological principles have been widely applied by PR. The so-called "father of public relations," Edward Bernays (a nephew of Sigmund Freud) saw himself as a psychologist for suffering corporations. (Hired by the American Tobacco Co. in the 20s, Bernays persuaded women that, despite an anti-smoking taboo, cigarettes were a symbol of women's liberation.) Author of PR primers, The Engineering of Consent and Propaganda, he believed that public opinion needed to be manipulated to prevent chaos, that social guardians should regiment the masses without their knowing it. Today multimillion-dollar political campaigns, driven by statistical analysis and polls, are geared to sway voters who are, according to anti-democratic spin-doctors, incapable of understanding the complex issues of policymakers.
The history of "crisis management," reviewed by Rampton and Stauber, largely consists of cover-up, denial, and counter-attack. Managing public outrage is more important to PR than reducing the public hazard. In the 1930s, when poor, black miners were hired by Union Carbide (recently responsible for the insecticide gas leak in Bhopal, India that killed 2000 and injured 200,000) to dig a three-mile tunnel for a hydro-electric plant, half of them died of silicosis. Union Carbide managers were aware of the hazard, but health concerns were subordinated to company profits. Although for sixty years workers have been unaware of (and industry officials indifferent to) silicosis disease, at least one million U.S. workers are still at risk today; in the 1990s, industry lobbyists accused public-safety agencies of using "junk science" and whipping up emotions that affect business. The Industrial Hygiene Foundation (a front group for Union Carbide) countered the "junk science" with "sound science" by studying only young workers who had not yet developed disease symptoms. Rampton and Stauber describe similar histories of public concern and corporate indifference regarding the noxious effects of benzene, asbestos, vinyl chloride, and chlorine. For instance, although lead-poisoned workers went insane in a Standard Oil processing plant, in the 1920s, General Motors increased lead (euphemism: ethyl) in its "no-knock" gasoline. GM funded a whitewash scientific study about its safety (in which the word "lead" was omitted entirely!). Although strong evidence suggested that lead-exposed children suffered from lower intelligence, hyperactivity, ADD, etc., industry lobbyists retarded regulations on lead-gas emissions for over fifty years. If, after twenty years, citizens or workers fall ill, corporate responsibility is difficult to prove in court; therefore, there is little incentive for industries to change their practice.
Today, regulations allow most things to be released into the environment unless they can be proven unsafe by scientific data; action is taken only when damage can be measured. However, in the case of DDT, dioxin, CFCs, PCBs (first noted by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring), and others, waiting for a complete report of damaging health or environmental effects would be too late to prevent them. For instance, pesticides, plastics, household products, oil, cosmetics, and other industries defend the use of chlorine even though there is strong evidence to suggest it causes problems in endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems. The chemical industry believes its products are innocent until proven guilty (although there are 362 toxic compounds in the Great Lakes). Environmentalists, however, believe in the "precautionary principle": industry materials should be proven innocent before use. The public should not have to prove products are hazardous in retrospect. Industries denigrate precautionary criticism as "anti-scientific" emotionalism and scare mongering. They deny negative effects of global warming, man-made toxins, and acid rain because average consumers, unaware of the science, can be persuaded to doubt these dangers. Industrial chemical corporations like Monsanto have shifted capital into agribusiness and genetically modified (GM) foods. When a scientist announced that GM foods need more research before entering the human food chain, his credibility was damaged to cover up the shortcomings of GM products. Monsanto has developed "recombinant bovine growth hormone" (rBGH) to produce more milk in dairy cows and to fatten feedlot cattle; it has refused to label its product and, in fact, has filed suit against independent dairy-farmers who labeled their milk "rBGH-free." The American Farm Bureau (a food-industry front group) wants to expand the food-disparagement laws (Oprah Winfrey was sued by Texas cattle ranchers for "disparaging" hamburger on her nationally syndicated TV show). Corporate-funded councils have acted as "third-party experts" to promote rBGH and to bully its media critics. Unfortunately, the FDA allows biotech-food industries to monitor their own food safety. Coke, Kelloggs, General Mills, Heinz, and McDonalds use GM ingredients. Although 93% of the public wants biotech food labeled, consumers eat unlabeled GM foods without their knowledge or consent.
Science uses quantitative methodologies and verifiable results to explain the world; ideologists promote dogmas. The pretense that all scientific research is always independent and objective is insupportable. As Rampton and Stauber show, research is costly; the biggest influence upon the scientific community in the 20th century is its dependence upon corporate and government (often military) finance. Counter to the spirit of intellectual independence and free inquiry, many authentic scientists advocate for corporations in order to get financial support. For instance, pro-pesticide funding in universities has increased; funding for non-pesticide pest-control has dropped. A high percentage of academic research has a financial relation with industry; some prestigious journals have published pro-industry articles by authors not identified as working in industry. Also, pro-industry PR firms have commissioned ghosted articles and letters for peer-reviewed scientific journals and hired doctors to sign them. For instance, Wyeth-Ayerst manufactured scientific journal articles to promote a diet drug, later shown to damage heart valves and lungs. Also 98% of research about new drugs (funded by drug manufacturers) report favourable conclusions. The public needs to know the extent of corporate influence upon research that reflects a pro-industry bias.
Research that supports public health and the environment is often called "junk science," a pejorative term used by corporate PR against their critics, regardless of scientific quality; "sound science" is used by corporate PR to describe its own propaganda, also regardless of quality. Although Alar, an apple-spray, was identified as carcinogenic, for 25 years no regulatory action was taken until its dangers were broadcast on 60 Minutes, and then it was banned. In response, an arsenal of PR firms and industry-funded councils spent millions to characterize the episode as an irrational public panic spurred by "junk science." The tobacco industry has engineered the longest PR campaign in history to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking and to counteract its reputation. (Direct smoke kills about 400,000 per year in the U.S., and three million world-wide.) Each year it spends about $20 million to fight public health associations. Some scientists have taken millions from the tobacco industry for whitewash articles reprinted in national newspapers. Corporate-funded institutes and councils have attacked critics of Alar, asbestos, dioxin, toxic waste, and radon in drinking water as "junk science." Millions are pumped into PR to destroy the credibility of their critics and to sabotage effective change. For example, The American Council of Science and Health (a corporate front group) has attacked environmentalists and defended corporate polluters; its "sound science" experts have defended DDT, chemical endocrine disruptors, pesticides, food additives, asbestos, and Agent Orange. To cast doubt about global warming discussions in Kyoto, oil and auto industry groups used large campaigns (one group spent $13 million) to prevent better fuel efficiency regulation; editorials about the benefits of increased CO2 (without any credible scientific support) were widely circulated. "Junk science" does not aim to distinguish good and bad science; it is an attack against those who disagree.
Rampton and Stauber show that often it is difficult to distinguish between authentic scientific investigation and a sales campaign; presently there is no test for credibility of public policy experts. Products should be studied to assess risk. Those who reject precaution are propagandists, not scientists. Both optimists and sceptics should have a voice in decision making about technology because they raise open discussion about benefits and dangers. In addition, critics must continue to fight the false assumption that science is too difficult for citizens to understand. Democratic process is essential to decisions about policy because technical progress is not always social progress.
Ian Lea, Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences, Seneca College.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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