An Antidote to the Spin Doctors

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.”

So, in 1993, he founded the Madison, Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy and with Rampton has written three books detailing the high crimes and misdemeanors of the public relations, advertising, and corporate media industries.

As he told told executive editor Craig Cox during a recent stop in Minneapolis, this mission probably will occupy him for the rest of his life.

As you say, this is serious stuff. But people nowadays are pretty media-savvy. Is the spin really as effective as you make it out to be?

Propaganda is always invisible, and in any society people always think that if they’re smart, or cynical, or skeptical, or educated, they won’t fall victim to the propaganda. But they do.

But we’re seeing more and more emphasis on media literacy. Can that have an impact?

In 1999 Diane Samples, who used to be in PR but has gone into nonprofit media literacy, invited me to a national media literacy conference. It blew my mind to see the extent to which the media corporations had co-opted the media literacy movement. For instance, the conference was funded by a $25,000 grant from Channel One, the people who have brought television advertising into the schools.

It’s hard not to be cynical about these issues. How do you stay hopeful?

People ask us that a lot. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being extremely skeptical–if you’re not cynical you’re not paying attention. The thing is not to get lost or wallow in depression. The opposite side of cynicism is martyrdom, where people destroy their lives for the cause, and that doesn’t help either, because who wants to follow people who are crucifying themselves? I avoid too much cynicism by occasionally stepping way back, taking weeks off, going to the Boundary Waters or Mexico or Central America and getting completely away.

What’s giving you hope these days?

There are a lot of hopeful signs if you look at the weekly papers, the community papers and radio stations, the fact that In These Times, Mother Jones, The Nation, Whole Earth, Utne Reader–a lot of publications–have survived. And look at the younger generation and their activism as exemplified by the big protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C. I see a real willingness to stand up for what is right.

How do you gather your information?

My biggest source of information is e-mails sent to my office or to me personally that steer us to a Web site or to a publication. We have access to the Lexis-Nexis database, which I find absolutely invaluable. It’s expensive, but you can spend a day in the library researching any issue for free via Lexis-Nexis and you’re going to come out of there as a sort of mini-expert yourself.

But you must read a newspaper.

I start every day when I’m home by reading The New York Times.

With skepticism?

With humor, with skepticism, with outrage.

What about TV?

Actually, if I’m around at 5:30, I’ll tune in the network news, but people think that if they watch the evening news they’re informed. They’re more likely to be misinformed and confused and alienated and convinced there’s nothing they can do. Where did the idea come from that you could tune in to some corporation whose job is to scare you to death into buying mouthwash and deodorant and get good information about what’s important? The news is a massive myth.

Is there one book you like to recommend?

Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred. It synthesizes all the big issues: ecology, the environment, the quick fix, the high-tech sell job.

So, if you could make one law, what would it be?

If I could wave my hand as the benevolent despot and make a sweeping change in the U.S. legal system, I would undo the hundred years of court decisions that have given corporations all the rights of citizens and relegated all the rest of us living, breathing human beings to second-class citizenship.

Another law that I’d like to see instituted is to require nonprofit tax-exempt organizations to reveal every labor union, corporation, trade association, foundation, and institutional funder that’s given them more than a thousand dollars in a year. We assume that nonprofit organizations are going to behave in ways that benefit society, but the reality is that almost every nonprofit organization is willing to accept corporate money. Philip Morris is one of the biggest corporate philanthropists: They’ve learned how to co-opt nonprofit organizations very well.

So that’s one part of the solution to corporate media manipulation. Any others?

Unfortunately, the solution always comes down to clichés and truisms: constant vigilance, developing critical thinking, and recognizing the difference between, as Caleb Carr says in his new book, Killing Time, information and knowledge. Ultimately, we all have to live our lives at both a personal and a societal level. So I advocate getting personally involved in issues you are most concerned about and hooking up with real organizations that encourage and promote grassroots activism on those issues. The real day-to-day grunt work of confronting polluters and figuring out solutions and figuring out how to live a healthy, activist life and make social change is conducted by citizens who realize that it does fall on their shoulders. They have to get out in their community and do it.

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