Article Media

Subject: How The Media Deceives You About Health Issues
Date: Tue, 27 Feb 2001 12:00:17 -0800

How The Media Deceives You About Health Issues
by Tate Metro Media
Think about how many times you’ve heard an evening news anchor spit out
some variation on the phrase, “According to experts ….” It’s such a
common device that most of us hardly hear it anymore. But we do hear the
“expert” – the professor or doctor or watchdog group – tell us whom to
vote for, what to eat, when to buy stock. And, most of the time, we trust
them. Now ask yourself, how many times has that news anchor revealed who
those experts are, where they get their funding, and what constitutes
their political agenda? If you answered never, you’d be close. That’s the
driving complaint behind Trust Us, We’re Experts, a new book co-authored
by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of the Center for Media and
Democracy. Unlike many so-called “experts,” the Center’s agenda is quite
overt – to expose the shenanigans of the public relations industry, which
pays, influences and even invents a startling number of those experts.
The third book co-authored by Stauber and Rampton, Trust Us hit bookstore
shelves in January. There are two kinds of “experts” in question–the PR
spin doctors behind the scenes and the “independent” experts paraded
before the public, scientists who have been hand-selected, cultivated,
and paid handsomely to promote the views of corporations involved in
controversial actions. Lively writing on controversial topics such as
dioxin, bovine growth hormone and genetically modified food makes this a
real page-turner, shocking in its portrayal of the real and potential
dangers in each of these technological innovations and of the “media
pseudo-environment” created to hide the risks. By financing and
publicizing views that support the goals of corporate sponsors, PR
campaigns have, over the course of the century, managed to suppress the
dangers of lead poisoning for decades, silence the scientist who
discovered that rats fed on genetically modified corn had significant
organ abnormalities, squelch television and newspaper stories about the
risks of bovine growth hormone, and place enough confusion and doubt in
the public’s mind about global warming to suppress any mobilization for
action. Rampton and Stauber introduce the movers and shakers of the PR
industry, from the “risk communicators” (whose job is to downplay all
risks) and “outrage managers” (with their four strategies–deflect,
defer, dismiss, or defeat) to those who specialize in “public policy
intelligence” (spying on opponents). Evidently, these elaborate PR
campaigns are created for our own good. According to public relations
philosophers, the public reacts emotionally to topics related to health
and safety and is incapable of holding rational discourse. Needless to
say, Rampton and Stauber find these views rather antidemocratic and
intend to pull back the curtain to reveal the real wizard in Oz.
Metro Media: What was the most surprising or disturbing manipulation of
public opinion you reveal in your book?
John Stauber: The most disturbing aspect is not a particular example, but
rather the fact that the news media regularly fails to investigate
so-called “independent experts” associated with industry front groups.
They all have friendly-sounding names like “Consumer Alert” and “The
Advancement of Sound Science Coalition,” but they fail to reveal their
corporate funding and their propaganda agenda, which is to smear
legitimate heath and community safety concerns as “junk-science
fear-mongering.” The news media frequently uses the term “junk science”
to smear environmental health advocates. The PR industry has spent more
than a decade and many millions of dollars funding and creating industry
front groups which wrap them in the flag of “sound science.” In reality,
their “sound science” is progress as defined by the tobacco industry, the
drug industry, the chemical industry, the genetic engineering industry,
the petroleum industry and so on.

Metro Media: Is the public becoming more aware of PR tactics and false
experts? Or are those tactics and experts becoming more savvy and
Stauber: The truth is that the situation is getting worse, not better.
More and more of what we see, hear and read as “news” is actually PR
content. On any given day much or most of what the media transmits or
prints as news is provided by the PR industry. It’s off press releases,
the result of media campaigns, heavily spun and managed, or in the case
of “video news releases” it’s fake TV news – stories completely produced
and supplied for free by former journalists who’ve gone over to PR. TV
news directors air these VNRs as news. So the media not only fails to
identify PR manipulations, it is the guilty party by passing them on as
Metro Media: What’s the solution for the excesses of the PR industry?
Just more media literacy and watchdog organizations like yours? Or should
the PR industry be regulated in some way?
Stauber: In our last chapter, “Question Authority,” we identify some of
the most common propaganda tactics so that individuals and journalists
and public interest scientists can do a better job of not being snowed
and fooled. But ultimately those who have the most power and money in any
society are going to use the most sophisticated propaganda tactics

Available to keep democracy at bay and the rabble in line. There are some
specific legislative steps that could be taken without stepping on the
First Amendment. One is that all nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations –
charities and educational groups, for instance – should be required by
law to reveal their institutional funders if, say, $500 or more. That way
when a journalist or a citizen hears that a scientific report is from a
group like the American Council on Science and Health, a quick trip to
the IRS Web site could reveal that this group gets massive infusions of
Industry money, and that the corporations that fund it benefit from its
proclamations that pesticides are safe, genetically engineered food will
Save the planet, lead contamination isn’t really such a big deal, climate
change isn’t happening, and so on. The public clearly doesn’t understand
that most nonprofit groups (not ours, by the way) take industry and
Government grants, or are even the nonprofit arm of industry. Detroit
Metro Times February 6, 2001