An Antidote to the Spin Doctors

PR watchdog John Stauber exposes true life tales of corporate disinformation

| May/June 2001

When John Stauber graduated from high school in 1971, he faced a career choice few of his peers considered: either go to work as a political activist or flee to the woods of northern Wisconsin. He chose the woods.
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Thirty years later, some members of the public relations industry no doubt wish he'd stayed there, because Stauber, the publisher of PR Watch!, a feisty newsletter keeping track of corporate disinformation strategies, and executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, has become one of the country's most articulate commentators on the power of propaganda in American life. His latest book, Trust Us, We're Experts! (Tarcher/Putnam $24.95), co-authored with Sheldon Rampton, reveals the secrets behind the so-called "independent experts" that industries hire to manipulate information in the media.

Stauber has come a long way from his conservative upbringing. Born and raised in heavily Republican Marshfield, Wisconsin (Nixon's defense secretary during the Vietnam War, Melvin Laird, was a family friend), Stauber was "an A student, an athlete, altar boy, Boy Scout. Then all the sudden puberty and Vietnam came together and I did a complete about-face."

He's never looked back. Tapped as a national organizer by Jeremy Rifkin's People's Bicentennial Commission in 1975, Stauber started spreading the word on corporate power and the erosion of democracy. He later worked for groups protesting the Reagan administration's policies in Central America, then joined up with Rifkin again on a campaign to alert consumers to the dangers of bovine growth hormone (rBGH).

In 1990 he initiated a Freedom of Information Act investigation of U.S. Department of Agriculture files, which revealed widespread collusion between the agency and the manufacturers of rBGH. That fall, he began organizing a small meeting of leaders of groups opposed to use of the hormone, and found himself face to face with one of the most powerful propaganda machines in the world.

"Two weeks before the meeting, I received a phone call from the Maryland Citizens Consumer Council," he recalls. "They said, ‘Look, we're a bunch of housewives and we're really concerned about bovine growth hormone and if it's approved we want to make sure kids don't have to drink milk from these cows. Can we come to your meeting?' " Later, he learned that the council was actually a front group for PR giant Burston-Masteller, which represented Eli Lilly, with Monsanto, American Cyanamid, and Upjohn, one of the four companies developing rBGH.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks that on every issue I cared about, people with power on the other side are controlling the debate with lobbying, public relations, media management," he remembers. "And absolutely no one was covering this, exposing it, or writing about it."

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