Thursday, January 7, 2010

The U.S. Propaganda Industry: Part I

Watching the documentary flick 'Atomic Cafe' (sent to me by my brother Jerry) the other day, my mouth was agape at the sheer volume of nonsense and gibberish that could be tucked into 2 hours of film. From the skating over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the removal of the natives from Bikini Atoll (for A- and H-bomb test), to the 'duck and cover' nonsense of the early 50s - the movie was a case study in concerted propaganda. Oh, and I nearly forgot the choice segment where soldiers exposed to nuclear tests in Nevada are told they "don't have to worry" - that the radiation can only get to you if you have wounds or tears in your skin!

Where and how did this crap ever get started? How in general, has the propaganda industry become so formidable in the country (since the issues in 'Atomic Cafe' are but one subset of a whole constellation up for disinformation, as I will show).

In this first part, I will explore the origins of the American propaganda mills. Recall, in an earlier entry, I also mentioned my German friend Kurt (a former Hitler Youth) who was shown many of Leni Reifenstahl's films in the early 40s. He was told that German master propagandists obtained their lessons at American knees.

And one name kept recurring: Edward Bernays.

Bernays believed firmly in the value of hierarchy in society. He posited - like earlier aristocrats and elitists (especially from the elitist Wall Street and Robber Baron crowd), the existence of an 'intelligent few' with whom he would deign to share his methods. But the vast bulk were 'masses' who were owed no special consideration. These fully deserved to be engineered by the processes of information, toward an array of desired ends.

Bernays, for his part - began his career in Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information. The objective was to drumbeat millions of recalcitrants into seeing the need for War. War to 'make the world safe for democracy' - in the words forged by Bernays first PR hacks. Later, much later - PR firms and sales-marketing departments would use the CPI as a template for their own efforts to mold the American mass mind. Whether that was for stock-mutual fund investment, or supporting the Gulf War in 1991, or buying a particular brand of beer.

Of course, Bernays left much more of a foundation for manipulative deceit than merely the CPI. For example, in 1923 he published what became the official manifesto of all future public relations 'Crystallizing Public Opinion'. As the title implies, the basic goal was to drumbeat the maximum number of 'the masses' into a homogeneous and consistent consent. But do it without their awareness. The key was to frame the content in such a way the person would believe it to be 'common sense', or 'patriotism' to accept it.

Five years later came Bernays' definitive work 'Propaganda' - whose principles were to be later adopted wholesale by Goebbels and Reifenstahl. It was in this book that the master betrayed his intents - if ever there was any doubt before:

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country."

And here we see for the first time the term 'invisible government'. Which Bernays instantly equates to 'the true ruling power of the country'. In effect, he has taken the Bill of Rights and smashed it into a thousand pieces. Contrary to the claims of Madison or Hamilton, in the view of PR the citizens of this country possess no 'unenumerated rights' - above and beyond what are listed. Or even the rights ('enumerated') that are listed. Citizens are merely inert pawns (or 'consumers') to be moved about at will by the 'invisible government' of PR and its assorted spin doctors and high priests.

This brings us to consider exactly how corporations became involved in hiring PR firms to burnish and further their image. Most observers believe it can be traced to the era of the 'muckrakers' in the U.S., at the turn of the last century. These red-blooded, as opposed to milquetoast journalist, exposed real government graft and corruption. And did it on a regular basis. They gave business no end of headaches. From Ida M. Tarbell's 'History of the Standard Oil Company', to Lincoln Steffens' 'The Shame of the Cities', to the searing 1906 effort 'Treason of the Senate' by David Graham Phillips. (In the latter, Phillips meticulously documented how the U.S. Senate and business leaders colluded against the public interest. )

To defeat these vexing truths, and twist them into more palatable morsels the public would accept, corporate PR and spin doctoring was born. Beginning very humbly with the 'Public Relations Bureau' in Boston, it compounded and grew - spurred on by Bernays' various works and tracts. By the late 1980s it metastasized to the point that in excess of 2,000 public relations firms resided in the U.S. and other countries.

Professionalization with various societies spurred credibility for the constellation of PR firms and workers. These included the founding of the Public Relations Society of America in 1948, The International Public Relations Association in 1955, and The International Association of Business Communicators in 1970. Over the years, the whole field of corporate PR has been witness to some of the more stunning 'massifications' of the public mind.

Acceptance or consensus for items that in any normal circumstance - and devoid of the 'spin' - would be seen for the nonsense they are. These include:

- acceptance and use of an industrial waste phosphate fertilizer spinoff (HFA - or hydro flourosilicic acid) for fluoridation of drinking water

- general acceptance & use of highly toxic chemicals - endocrine disruptors, i.e. in pesticides or weedicides, without full awareness of their deleterious effects

- acceptance that 'fats' in foods are the culprits in causing various cancers, as opposed to environmental carcinogens such as toxic chemicals (for which there is hundreds of times more evidence)

- the naive belief that global warming arises from 'natural cycles' rather than anthropogenic sources, despite there being vast accumulations of evidence for the latter.

- the belief that the year 2000 commenced the 'new millennium' - to enable marketers to take advantage of prospective customers earlier, and drumbeat them into expensive celebrations, trips etc.

In each of these - most of the power derived from the PR practitioners (also called 'flacks') working covertly. Not being detected. However, in two devastating articles appearing in The Toronto Star, starting with 'Confessions of A Spin Doctor' (June 21, 2000) by Eric Sparling, the mask of PR lies and manipulations was ripped away.In steady and no-nonsense prose, Sparling recounted the variety of lies he told for his sponsors as a 'Spin Doctor' for the PR-industry. He also pointed out how large amounts of content appearing in daily newspapers are mere concessions to PR firms, as opposed to genuine news.

He noted that if the news that really counted were printed, as opposed to PR fluff and fabrications, we'd read about how 'industrial nations are still living beyond their means' or similar stories. (In my opinion, how Bush and the Supreme Court stole the last election in the U.S., or what the TRUE Bush poll numbers are, stripped of exaggerations and lies).

It was interesting that around the time Sparling's first piece appeared, another media story came out- about how the Sales-Marketing Dept. at the Los Angeles Times had attained more access and control over the paper's news-editorial dept. than journalistic objectivity would have allowed. It seemed to reinforce the fact that what we have in the press rooms now are no longer 'muckrakers' - but toadies who are all too willing to do anything to avoid offending their corporate overseers and masters.

It made me recall some chilling words of Kurt when last I saw him at the Frankfurt Bahnhof in 1978:

"Look and learn. It is only a matter of time before the propagandists entice your people to do something politically that ordinarily would be totally against their good sense. And that will be the beginning of the end."

At which juncture I was painfully reminded about how the U.S. media, acting as cheerleaders for Bush Jr., drumbeat the American people into the unwise, and likely illegal, invasion of Iraq.

Next: Propaganda Mills: from Atomic workers, to flouride to the JFK Assassination

No comments: