Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Government PR Contracts

Here’s a Washington Post article about the Pentagon offering a $20 million public relations contract for a firm to collect and disseminate good news about the war in Iraq. Now I don’t know or care how you feel about the war in Iraq, but the very idea of the government using PR flaks to sell their policies really ought to piss you off. The entire public relations industry is dedicated to the premise that the truth simply does not matter, only what you can do or say that will cast your client in the best light, regardless of whether they deserve to be so cast, matters. In other words, they are in the business of generating propaganda.

Now I know that all politicians use PR people. That is, in the end, what Karl Rove, Dick Morris and all other campaign managers really are. But this administration has been particularly loathsome in this area, having government agencies produce fake news stories and distribute them to the media (and even more appalling, the media used those stories without telling anyone that they were government propaganda). The key to a healthy, functioning democracy is a well educated citizenry, but that premise presupposes that the information there are given is accurate – in other words, we must begin with the assumption that truth matters. Given that the whole point of PR is opposed to that, any use of PR firms by government agencies should be illegal.

Comments

  1. #1 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    September 1, 2006

    Hell, Bush and his boys have been doing it for years.

  2. #2 Ian H Spedding FCD
    September 1, 2006

    Doesn’t the Pentagon have a point?

    A news editor gets two stories out of Iraq.

    The first is a bomb going off in a market-place, complete with footage of the explosion and the gory aftermath. The second is about the completion of a project to repair sewers in a suburb of Baghdad.

    Which story is the editor going to use?

    News media do not report news. They select it, edit it, manipulate it, sensationalise it and, occasionally, make it up.

    There are good, honest journalists around, without doubt, and good stories do get through. But anyone who doubts that a lot of news is spun as much as what comes from PR hacks needs to take a closer look at what they’re reading and watching.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    September 1, 2006

    At a time when every single breathlessly positive prediction the administration has made about Iraq has turned out to be false (mostly because of their own bad choices, I maintain, not because of inevitability), I don’t think they have much of an argument that the problem is just that the press isn’t reporting the good stuff. The country is so unsafe that the press can’t possibly be out there seeing that good stuff for fear of attack or kidnap (would you do that job? I sure as hell wouldn’t). Different media outlets are going to focus on different aspects of the job, and that’s fine. As long as what they do report on is accurate, that’s all I really care about. But a PR firm’s job is premised on not caring whether it’s accurate, only about whether it serves their client’s interests.

  4. #4 Jeff Hebert
    September 1, 2006

    I breathlessly await Ian Spedding, FCD’s condemnation of the media for obsessing about two little buildings getting knocked down by planes on a day when literally millions of Americans were NOT blown up and burned to death, and thousands of American cities went about their way with no terrorist attacks.

    It’s a shame the “good journalists” weren’t able to get their word out but instead got swamped by “PR hacks” spinning the news to focus only on that pesky negative plane attack.

  5. #5 Ted
    September 1, 2006

    The key to a healthy, functioning democracy is a well educated citizenry, but that premise presupposes that the information there are given is accurate – in other words, we must begin with the assumption that truth matters.

    Under some philosophies truth does matter; under other’s it’s a lot more helpful to apply a Gaussian blur filter to it and not to focus on the edges or clarity. Just a smidge — .5 pixel diameter is sufficient. If I take your glowing picture and fuzz it up a bit, it’s still your picture but am I lying? It’s a representation of you that was so very transient that your friend had to remove the light from your ear IIRC. The story was that it was reflection, but it may have been something else; we only have your word for that. And if I fuzz it up just a bit more, what’s the harm if it adds to the cohesive whole?

    The proposal, which calls in part for extensive monitoring and analysis of Iraqi, Middle Eastern and American media, is designed to help the coalition forces understand “the communications environment.” Its goal is to “develop communication strategies and tactics, identify opportunities, and execute events . . . to effectively communicate Iraqi government and coalition’s goals, and build support among our strategic audiences in achieving these goals,” according to the statement of work that is publicly available through the Web site…

    Anecdote time:

    I know a guy that was a practitioning founder of what’s known as “Open Source Intelligence”, or OSINT. Sort of like the characters in the movie, Three Days of The Condor, but a lot less sexy, no good looking babes, and Redford was on vacation. Also a lot more tedious and at the tactical level. The job was to read public articles from various sources, watch TV news and political shows and then synthesize them into something useful at the strategic and tactical levels. Sometimes the synthesis process took months because it followed the progression of a story as it was replayed and re-edited regionally.

    Sounds good in theory, but in execution, not so much. My friend got very disillusioned in the synthesized product because various agencies acted behind the scenes in funding story placement, so in the end you couldn’t tell if the synthesis was valid and represented a real POV or strongly influenced by our own government intervention behind the scenes — infusion of funds to opposition editors and so on. To think one agency knew what another agency was paying would be to assume competence. Wrongly. Because of compartmentalization. The steady result is somewhat akin to the informational buildup to the Iraq war — story placements, and an uncertainty if you were being played. But you had to assume truth with a Gaussian blur to think that the gov would stoop to that.

    The military has their own people for this stuff – called Information Operations – and they focus on improving the outcome so that the military mission would be a success. Some people call it propaganda, but the military insists that IO is not propaganda; it’s an evolved information warfare theory much more sophisticated. Examples of sophistication and subtlety in the real world would be like bombing the Al Jazeera stations and personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq and then doing days worth of followups about how unfortunate it was.

    Well, if this theory was working or was effective as a strategy, we wouldn’t be outsourcing it to the civilians, but this SOW is really just an guise of more specialization while we transform the military into a more unconventional, special forces (which by the way tends to be more secretive and less transparent than conventional forces).

    I suspect that most of the IO personnel are now patrolling Baghdad because they became useless in their assigned jobs and the military needed to muster every warm body to put on the streets of Baghdad in our new, adjusted strategy. The military is still looking for some payback on this whole theory of information warfare while we watch from the sidelines and have a choice for information sources.

    Unfortunately, they’re not liable to conclude that the internets are working against them and that’s why their message isn’t working. Until the next terrorist attack on US soil when the backbone routers go dead for our protection, that is.

  6. #6 Norma
    September 1, 2006

    “Now I don’t know or care how you feel about the war in Iraq,. . .”

    You’re kidding, right?

  7. #7 Stogoe
    September 1, 2006

    ‘sophisticated’ propaganda is still propaganda. It disgusts me that corporate and government have aligned so much that every act a government body takes is sold as a ‘product’ to be consumed or not, and not as something that actually affects people.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    September 1, 2006

    Norma-

    Why would I be kidding? Some of my readers will be against it, some will be for it, some rather ambivalent like me. But regardless of anyone’s opinion on that subject, they should be appalled by government propaganda like this.

  9. #9 Ian H Spedding FCD
    September 1, 2006

    Jeff Hebert wrote:

    I breathlessly await Ian Spedding, FCD’s condemnation of the media for obsessing about two little buildings getting knocked down by planes on a day when literally millions of Americans were NOT blown up and burned to death, and thousands of American cities went about their way with no terrorist attacks.
    It’s a shame the “good journalists” weren’t able to get their word out but instead got swamped by “PR hacks” spinning the news to focus only on that pesky negative plane attack.

    No one is suggesting bad news should not be reported. That would be censorship. But if not reporting bad news is wrong then surely the same should be true of not reporting ‘good news’.

  10. #10 Jeff Hebert
    September 1, 2006

    No one is suggesting bad news should not be reported. That would be censorship. But if not reporting bad news is wrong then surely the same should be true of not reporting ‘good news’.

    It’s not a question of “right and wrong”, it’s a question of “what’s news”. On 9/11, the fact that some people managed to carry on their normal lives was not news; the fact that two planes were driven into towers was. Ditto Baghdad. If you’re in the middle of a raging civil war, THAT’s the news.

    It would be like saying “This man is being shot to death, but in the meantime his portfolio’s doing quite well!”

    I hope you’ll forgive the long quote here, but I think Cafferty says it well (as quoted on MediaMatters):

    CAFFERTY: You know, I just have a question. I mean, the coverage — they don’t like the coverage, maybe, because we were sold a different ending to this story three years ago. We were told we’d be embraced as conquering heroes, flower petals strewn in the soldiers’ paths, unity government would be formed, everything would be rosy. This, three years after the fact, the troops would be home. Well, it’s not turning out that way. And if somebody came into New York City and blew up St. Patrick’s Cathedral and in the resulting days they were finding 50 and 60 dead bodies on the streets in New York, do you suppose the news media would cover it? You’re damn right they would. This is nonsense: “It’s the media’s fault the news isn’t good in Iraq.” The news isn’t good in Iraq. There’s violence in Iraq. People are found dead every day in the streets of Baghdad. This didn’t turn out the way the politicians told us it would. And it’s our fault? I beg to differ.

  11. #11 Splash
    September 2, 2006

    Yes, the PR industry is in desperate need of regulation. They are highly paid professional liars whose purpose is to generate mass “consent” for policies that benefit their corporate clients from Dow and Monsanto to the US military.

    The best series of studies I have seen on the PR industry is by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton: “Toxic Sludge is Good For You,” and “Trust Us, We’re Experts” – and they expand on this background in their later books, “Weapons of Mass Deception” and “Banana Republicans.” Indispensable. More info at their website, prwatch DOT com.

  12. #12 Ian H Spedding FCD
    September 3, 2006

    Jeff Hebert wrote:

    It’s not a question of “right and wrong”, it’s a question of “what’s news”. On 9/11, the fact that some people managed to carry on their normal lives was not news; the fact that two planes were driven into towers was. Ditto Baghdad. If you’re in the middle of a raging civil war, THAT’s the news.

    I remember many years ago, when the IRA was trying to turn Belfast into Baghdad, there was a press release about aircraft company Short Brothers signing a contract to sell aircraft to the US Air Force. This was a big deal, both because it was a big economic boost for Northern Ireland and because it was extremely rare for a foreign manufacturer to sell to the USAF.

    On the day of the signing ceremony an IRA bomb went off and the story, not surprisingly, was crowded off the TV screens and front pages. The bomb was unquestionably news but so was the aircraft deal in terms of what it could have meant for the future of the province. What got reported was news but was it the ‘truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth’?

    News isn’t just reported it’s chosen and that act of choice inevitably biases what viewers and readers learn and, hence, the impressions they form of given situation.

    Terrorists are well aware of this. They know they cannot defeat Coalition forces in Iraq in open battle but they can influence what appears on the nightly news which, in turn, can influence the political will to continue the fight.

    You don’t need many bombings and shootings to fill the TV news slots each day and give the impression of a “raging civil war”. And that’s propaganda.

  13. #13 JS
    September 5, 2006

    You don’t need many bombings and shootings to fill the TV news slots each day and give the impression of a “raging civil war”. And that’s propaganda.

    But if there actually is a civil war going on, then it’s also true.

    This image, while a little dated, seems to argue that there is a civil war going on:

    http://tinyurl.com/ff6xn

    – JS

  14. #14 Ted
    September 5, 2006

    CAFFERTY: You know, I just have a question. I mean, the coverage — they don’t like the coverage, maybe, because we were sold a different ending to this story three years ago. We were told we’d be embraced as conquering heroes, flower petals strewn in the soldiers’ paths, unity government would be formed, everything would be rosy. This, three years after the fact, the troops would be home. Well, it’s not turning out that way. And if somebody came into New York City and blew up St. Patrick’s Cathedral and in the resulting days they were finding 50 and 60 dead bodies on the streets in New York, do you suppose the news media would cover it? You’re damn right they would. This is nonsense: “It’s the media’s fault the news isn’t good in Iraq.” The news isn’t good in Iraq. There’s violence in Iraq. People are found dead every day in the streets of Baghdad. This didn’t turn out the way the politicians told us it would. And it’s our fault? I beg to differ.

    I occasionally like Cafferty, but if he’s the best we can do, we’ve got really serious problems.

    From his quotes:

    1. …This, three years after the fact, the troops would be home.

    Good lord man, the appropriations for permanent bases is in the budget with the Democrat approval. We’ve expected to be in permanently the middle east for five years now — we’ve shifted headcount from Europe and moved out of Saudi Arabia so that we can be in Iraq — nicely bookending Iranians and Syrians. We never expected to be out of Iraq. Only the most addled would expect that having broken Iraq we’d leave it broken and whistle Dixie.

    2. …This is nonsense: “It’s the media’s fault the news isn’t good in Iraq.” … This didn’t turn out the way the politicians told us it would. And it’s our fault? I beg to differ.

    Uhh, no — it is the media’s fault because the American public can be led to water and furthermore, expects to be led to water — remember the 86% approval of the initial invasion? Where was this realism in 2002 and 2003 when the media was fellating the administration? What happened to Donahue? I’m not a fan of Donahue, but it is instructive that the voices of dissent were silenced in favor of patriotism. Or maybe it was silenced in favor of nationalism.

  15. #15 Jeff Hebert
    September 5, 2006

    You don’t need many bombings and shootings to fill the TV news slots each day and give the impression of a “raging civil war”. And that’s propaganda.

    And yet now the generals in Iraq are saying publicly what has been obvious for some time — we don’t have the “impression” of a civil war, but an actual, you know, civil war. If a hundred people a day got killed in my city, the news is not that a new coffee shop opened, as pleasant as that is. The news is that there are a hundred people a day getting killed in my city; pretending otherwise is whistling past the graveyard, trying desperately to pretend that reality isn’t reality.

    I get the feeling that this administration and its apologists have completely become convinced that perception really is reality. What’s important, they seem to be saying, is not what’s real, but only what people (and only certain people at that) THINK is real. Everything’s a PR campaign, regardless of what pesky facts there might be.

    The mask came off with this particular administration during Katrina, when you could actually SEE them denying reality in favor of media perception — “Heckuva job, Brownie”. They don’t seem to care about actually doing a good job, just looking like they’re doing a good job.

    This argument is in the same vein. It doesn’t matter that Iraq really is in the middle of a civil war and that there are dozens of murders & attacks a day, it only matters how we sell what’s going on in Iraq to the American public.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.