Sleuths of Spin
By Bill Berkowitz, AlterNet
Posted on February 22, 2005, Printed on February 22, 2005
Given the sorry state of the journalism these days, The Center for
Media and Democracy's John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton are setting
about an ambitious – yet necessary – undertaking: reinventing
Several right-wing activists/pundits/columnists have already developed
their own roadmap for reinventing journalism. The latest case is that
of Jeff Gannon, whose real name is James D. Guckert. As Gannon, Guckert
reported for a conservative news site called Talon News. Somehow,
Guckert gained access to White House briefings and and was seen tossing
softballs at White House officials. Gannon/Guckert even got called on
by President Bush at a news conference. He ended his question with "How
are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves
from reality?" referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority
Leader Harry Reid.
Gannon/Guckert had about 13 of his 15 minutes before Media Matters for
America and John Aravosis' Americablog blew the lid off his charade.
Underneath that lid was James D. Guckert on full display – he was outed
as a contributor to such sites as Hotmilitarystud.com, Workingboys.net,
Militaryescorts.com, MilitaryescortsM4M.com and Meetlocalmen.com.
The administration's payoffs to syndicated newspaper columnists
Armstrong Williams, Mike McManus and Maggie Gallagher may not be nearly
as scrumptious a story as the Gannon/Guckert Affair, but they could be
far more significant. After all, this loose coalition of the shilling
received government money to write about their support for Bush
administration policies. In early January, USA Today revealed that
Williams, a prominent African-American radio and television
personality, had received $240,000 from the Department of Education –
through a contract with the Ketchum public relations firm – for his
support for the president's No Child Left Behind project. Mike McManus
and Maggie Gallagher received their checks from the Department of
Health and Human Services to help promote the president's healthy
Sleuths of spin John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton have exposed how
corporate shills and government spokespersons manipulate the media and
undermine democracy for more than a decade. Through the Madison,
Wis.-based Center for Media and Democracy, they have produced a number
of groundbreaking books, including Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies,
Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Common Courage Press,
1995), Trust Us, We're Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and
Gambles with Your Future (Tarcher/Penguin, 2001), Weapons of Mass
Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq
(Tarcher/Penguin, 2003) and most recently, Banana Republicans: How the
Right Wing is Turning America into a One-Party State (Tarcher/Penguin,
Two years ago, the Center launched Disinfopedia, a web site that
Rampton described in a recent e-mail as "an experiment in media
democracy and citizen investigative journalism." Rampton pointed out
that Disinfopedia had "grown into a leading resource on the players who
work behind the scenes to shape public opinion and public policy."
Since its mission has evolved and expanded during the past two years,
the Center recently renamed it SourceWatch. (Disclosure: I have been
cited by SourceWatch.)
Rampton maintains that SourceWatch "is an example of media democracy in
action – an information source that is truly 'of, by and for the
people' who use it. It has become a tool that journalists and activists
use to research and report on key issues such as media concentration
and reform, democratic revitalization, environmental health and
sustainability, the war in Iraq, corporate manipulation of government
agencies, and the power and influence of right-wing special interest
groups and lobbies."
In late February, I conducted an e-mail interview John Stauber. We
covered a number of issues related to the media, starting with the
current payola scandal.
Bill Berkowitz: How do you view the recent scandals involving the Bush
administration giving payoffs to Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher
and Michael McManus in exchange for favorable coverage of their issues?
I'm very happy to see this coming out, but it's really just the tip of
an iceberg. Sheldon Rampton and I wrote our expose of the Public
Relations industry, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, ten years ago. It's
filled with propaganda horror stories. Forty percent or more of what
passes for news and information these days is the result of organized
PR campaigns. It's been wonderful to see these scandals exposed and
others such as the "Karen Ryan reporting" news reports. Karen Ryan runs
a PR firm, and her government funded video news releases (VNRs) are
aired as news by hundreds of TV news directors.
In Toxic Sludge we reported that there were already thousands of
corporate and government VNRs produced and aired each year, and that
number continues to increase. The skillful manipulation of the media by
professional propagandists, often with the consent and approval of
editors and news directors, is rampant and worsening.
Do you think there will be more revelations?
The mainstream media does a horrific job of reporting on itself, and I
think that there will be more revelations only to the extent that
independent journalists are able to document and expose these abuses.
The best PR, like the best propaganda, is invisible. In the more than a
decade that our organization has been reporting on and exposing
propaganda in the media, not one major newspaper to my knowledge has
committed a reporter to this as an investigative beat.
What can reporters do to break through the sound bite/talking points
Reporters need to understand the business of propaganda and to view the
public relations industry and the culture of spin as anathema to
journalism and to democracy. Today PR flacks outnumber real working
journalists, and many of the flacks are former reporters who know
exactly how best to manage, cajole and manipulate the media because
they are from the media. J-schools have combined journalism and public
relations and told students that it's all the same, it requires the
same skills, and there is little fundamental difference. This is like
combining accounting and embezzling as a field of study.
Today in the corporate mainstream media reporters are overworked,
underpaid and pressured to avoid topics that offend advertisers.
Reporters need to dedicate themselves to real journalism and find ways
to practice it. Journalism is a sacred trust in a democracy, and if you
don't believe that you should probably go into PR.
Your books have generally focused on the way the American people are
getting hoodwinked by PR companies that set and then explain the agenda
of powerful corporations and politicians. Is there any way to render
them less powerful?
Simply stated, PR firms are corporations that help other corporations
and government agencies to manage public information, perceptions and
policy. Many people think that propaganda doesn't exist in democratic
societies, that it is a problem of dictatorships. Alex Carey, the
Australian academic, and others have pointed out that it is precisely
in democracies where sophisticated, hidden propaganda is most
prevalent, and the news media has become the major disseminator of
propaganda, rather than a force for exposing it.
In our book Weapons of Mass Deception, Sheldon and I explained how
rather than challenge Bush's war and exposing the falsehoods and
failures in Bush's claims, the U.S. news media became a propaganda arm
of the government. It shut out and ridiculed critics of the war, and
enabled it to take place. There are many fundamental reforms that could
be legislated to limit and control the power of corporations to
dominate our news and our politics. But powerful special interests and
governmental ideologues will use the best available techniques of
propaganda to manipulate and manage public perception. It is the
responsibility of journalists, educators and citizen activists to
expose and thwart such manipulation, and it's specifically our mission.
Given such a closed system, why the efforts around building media
Twelve years ago when I founded our investigative quarterly PR Watch, I
chose the name Center for Media and Democracy for our non-profit
organization in order to emphasize the idea that without a vigorous,
independent, courageous and muckraking media, democracy cannot survive,
especially in this age of cranked-up propaganda. I've been happy to see
the term "media democracy" come into wide use. With the emergence of
the internet it has taken on new meaning in the age of blogs,
indymedia, wiki web sites like SourceWatch, and all the wonderful
reporting from web sites like AlterNet, Common Dreams, Buzzflash,
WorkingForChange, and those associated with the left[ist] press.
Media democracy seems like a catch-all phrase that is pretty ambiguous.
How would you define it?
Media democracy means that we recognize that one-way, top-down,
corporate mass communications has become much more a foe of democracy
than its friend. Democratic society is impossible without a courageous
and independent news media. The dominant mainstream media, the MSM, is
driven by the corporate bottom line and filled primarily with fluff,
sensationalism, right-wing politics, PR posing as news, and a
commitment to serve corporate advertisers. We need a powerful new
political movement to fundamentally challenge and change the corporate
media environment, and we also need to create new media that takes
advantage of internet technology to better serve democracy. Community
radio stations, non-profit media watchdogs, investigative bloggers, and
alternative news websites are all becoming important producers of
online web-based news and information that is building media democracy.
One project our organization is currently discussing with other groups
committed to media democracy is to develop standards for online
journalism that enable it to fulfill its promise of becoming a vital
media that serves our democracy.
What makes "SourceWatch" unique?
SourceWatch is unique because it is an experiment in collaborative
online investigative reporting. It's a very powerful educational,
organizing, research and networking tool that allows a growing
community of global citizens to collaborate to research and write
investigative news articles.
The open source "wiki" software that powers SourceWatch is in the
public domain, as are the articles that are written. Anyone can go to
SourceWatch and read, write and edit the information there. And every
change made in any article is logged for transparency. Bob Burton, an
investigative journalist, author and activist from Australia, is our
We are constantly striving to improve the accuracy, depth and quality
of articles on SourceWatch. It is only two years old [it was originally
launched as Disinfopedia], and we are really just at the beginning of
this experiment. Anyone who first hears about it understandably says,
as I did when my colleague Sheldon Rampton proposed SourceWatch, "what
good is it if anyone with internet access can write or edit or for that
matter vandalize its articles?" But the fact is that the vast majority
of users are dedicated to the concept of investigative online
journalism, and by insisting on journalistic standards of accuracy and
fairness, and relegating opinions to an opinion page, the experiment is
One problem it is solving is that by harnessing the investigative power
of hundreds of citizen journalists, we are finally able to keep track
of the myriad of industry front groups, PR firms, lobbyists and
anti-environmental PR campaigns that exist and are created every day.
SourceWatch has been a great success in its first two years, yet it is
just starting to take off. That said, everyone who reads an article on
the site should understand its limitations; that the article has not
necessarily been vetted by us, that no article is 100 percent accurate,
that anyone can contribute, and that it is a work in progress with no
copyright on its articles. So SourceWatch, like every other bit of the
news media, needs to be read with a critical eye. But with that
qualification I must say that I find most of the information very
accurate and much of it very unique. Wiki websites like SourceWatch are
becoming an important part of the online information environment.
Are you working on another book? What will it be about and when can we
Sheldon and I have just begun outlining a new book examining media
corruption, spin and the growing media democracy movement. It would in
some ways be a return to the territory of our first and third books,
Toxic Sludge Is Good For You and Trust Us, We're Experts. We hope to
have it out in hardcover sometime in 2006. We've co-authored two books
in less than two years, timely paperbacks exposing the selling of the
war on Iraq and the political propaganda and strategy of the Republican
right. It seems to be a good time to step back and examine how citizens
might understand and overcome the toxic propaganda emanating from the
right-wing echo chamber.
© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/21307/