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Joan Shaw
    Joan Shaw

Weapons of Mass Deception - The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq,  by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

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Jeremiah Had It Right

All the time I was reading Ramton's and Stauber's Weapons of Mass Deception, I kept thinking of the prophet Jermiah's lament -- perhaps delivered while he was in a serious snit about the usual recalcitrant masses around him -- "There are none so blind as those who will not see." I admit that it was reaching a bit on my part to connect Jeremiah's quotation to the addiction so many Americans seem to have on turning for their take on the country's and the world's situation to Network and Cable TV news, not to mention the overhwhelmingly right-wing Talk Radio. Because the sum total of actual knowledge they accumulate for their trouble, according to a survey mentioned below, is very close to zero.

Well, that's all right. To each her own and all that. And besides, a large majority of Americans knew that to be true for some time. Except.  Given the government's and corporations' use of propaganda followed by polls to whip up enthusiasm and support, for instance, for a foreign war, each one of these viewers, knowing next to nothing about a situation, has nevertheless plenty of say on which mass of trouble our government will haul us all into. "An overwhelming majority of American people want to go to war!" trumpets the media and TV and talk radio. And the depressing thing about these polls is that they're more or less true.

The authors of Weapons of Mass Deception explain in their latest book just why this happens. Rampton and Stauber are part of the Center for Media & Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization founded ten years ago, in 1993. The Center‛s mission is to investigate propaganda in both corporations and governments. In their words,

Whether the issue is health, consumer safety, environmental preservation or democracy and world peace, citizens today find themselves confronted by a bewildering array of hired propagandists paid to convince the public that junk food is nutritious, pollution is harmless, and that what's good for big business and big government is good for the rest of us.

Besides Weapons, the Center has published three other books, Trust Us, We‛re Experts (a description of PR spin doctors and "independent experts"); Toxic Sludge is Good for You! (an analysis of image manipulation); and Mad Cow U.S.A. (governments colluding with beef producers to suppress important facts about interspecies transmission of mad cow disease). The Center also publishes a  quarterly, PR Watch. All three books listed above were written by Rampton and Stauber with the help of the Center‛s research staff

In this, their newest book, Weapons of Mass Deception, the two authors zero in on government propaganda. They discuss selling the United States to the world, not by doing, but by saying, and this by means of hiring high-priced public relations propagandists. They discuss selling the Iraq war to the American people, the uses of fear to keep Americans compliant, the hijacking of the air waves for propaganda, and how lies are propagated in such a way that they sound like truth. The chapter on "fronts" is an education in itself. Fronts are groups with high-sounding names that are covers for special interests, often corporations, but also religious right groups and, of course, the government itself. And they're conceived and controlled behind the scenes by the ever present and supremely clever PR organizations.

What is Impropaganda?

In clicking through the Center‛s site and through the online material from its quarterly PR Watch, I came upon an interesting piece called, "What is Impropaganda?".  It was Edward Bernays (1891-1995), this article explains, who first used this term when he, as the father of public relations, described his work as propaganda." I hope," he added, referring to parts of his work, "[that] it's not impropaganda."

The implication here is that there is good propaganda and bad, or impropaganda. And perhaps there's something to that. We all use propaganda of some sort in the effort to make things sound better than they are – a young son's visit to the dentist, for instance. The doctor's reassurance before surgery that there will be only a "little discomfort." A bit of propaganda is often the only way to get things moving.

But Edward Bernays was the father of something else, too, intimately connected to public relations – the "front group," as noted above. The term, "front," was bandied about incessantly by Joe McCarthy during the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s when there were so many groups in the United States that were claimed by him to be "Communist fronts" that it was impossible to keep them straight. The term continues to have a darkish aura about it, and is seldom heard anymore, but the concept is nevertheless out there, helping to sell things – pharmaceuticals, baked goods, Humvees, environmental exploitation, war.

The fronts these days are put forward as third party "authorities," and it seems there are plenty of experts
with PhDs and professional titles that can be bought by them -- scientists, doctors, geologists, even military officers. In his book,  Propaganda, Bernays, putting the best possible face on it, claimed that this type of manipulation was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society.

But Felix Frankfurter, in complaining of this use of third party authorities and propaganda in general in the late thirties and early forties, pointed out the dangers of propaganda in subverting governments, using Nazi Germany as an example. Rampton and Stauber describes how this type of subversion could be done today through examples from the past.

Babies Torn From Incubators

The authors, in fact, do a meticulous investigative report on one of the most infamous uses of propaganda via high-sounding fronts in the first Gulf War, Desert Storm -- the" babies torn from incubators" story. The emotional appeal arising from this story helped build support for the war to free Kuwait from Saddam's Iraq. Engineered by the world's largest PR firm at the time, Hill & Knowlton, it operated under a classic PR front group designed to hide the campaign's sponsorship by the Kuwaiti government and its collusion with the first Bush administration – Citizens for a Free Kuwait. Over the next six months, the Kuwaiti government channeled $11.9 million to Citizens for a Free Kuwait, whose only other funding totaled $17,861 from 78 individuals. The better part of the group's budget – $10.8 million of it – went to Hill & Knowlton in the form of fees.

The important part of Hill & Knowlton's campaign was the "Human Rights Caucus" hearing in the United States. This caucus was an outwardly official looking congressional proceeding, though nevertheless a private one, funded by the Citizens for a Free Kuwait front.

During the caucus,  a 15-year-old girl, identified by her first name only to keep her safe from retaliation, testified that while she was a volunteer at a Kuwaiti hospital, Iraqi soldiers stormed the place, tore premature babies, at least a hundred of them, from their incubators, left them on the cold floor, then made off with all the equipment. The story was disseminated through the media, during which the number of incubators looted from the hospital ballooned to exactly 312, implying an actual count.

An outraged Amnesty International (among other groups) took up the cause and started its own investigation. Naturally enough, American people were horrified.

Two months after the war was over, Anmesty International found the story to be a total fabrication, that the PR firm had coached the teenager in her emotional testimony, and that she was actually a member of the Kuwait royal family. The Kuwaiti doctors interviewed not only disclaimed any such outrage, but added that there were only a handful of incubators in the whole of the country.

It was an unfortunate instance of overkill, since Saddam had performed more than enough atrocities in Kuwait for which there was an enormous pool of witnesses ready to come forward. But assaults against babies have proven terrifically effective for drumming up war fever. In World War I, for instance, German soldiers, "the Huns," were depicted as bayoneting babies and even eating them. Further, it wasn't a case of "any means to a good end" because the whole embarrassing episode cast a blight on Amnesty International and other groups who championed, and broadcast on their own, this so-called atrocity. How many will rush to their aid in the future, wondering if whatever atrocity they're describing is another piece of theater?

The Air War

The American media has become an important player in terms of feeding war fever, as we've seen in just the past year. This material, what amounts to sophisticated propaganda, is overwhelmingly directed at American sensibilities and concerns and little at educating the viewers on the situation worldwide. Rampton‛s and Stauber‛s Chapter on the media noted that CNN, with a 24-hour news schedule, had barely half the size of the newsgathering network worldwide of BBC, and, as they put it, "a fraction of what the three largest international newswire services maintains on a permanent basis." So not only are Network and Cable television viewers confined to the American and administration slanted news on the most-viewed channels, they get little or no exposure to the world of facts behind the news to temper their judgments. The authors go on,

While Operation Desert Storm was underway in 1991, a research team at the University of Massachusetts surveyed public opinion and correlated it with knowledge of basic facts about U.S. policy in the region. The results were startling: ‛The more TV people watched, the less they knew....Despite months of coverage, most people do not know basic facts about the political situation in the Middle East, or about the recent history of US policy towards Iraq‛. Moreover, ‛our study revealed a strong correlation between knowledge and opposition to the war‛.

The point being made here is that people with access to world news in the print media, could not see an overwhelming  reason to rush into the first Gulf War.

This phenomenon was the subject of a book I read in 1997, The More You Watch, the Less you Know, by Danny Schechter of GlobalVision and MediaChannel.  At the time I read this, we didn‛t even have a television, didn‛t pine for one, and got our news mainly through the print media by way of the Internet and quarterlies and NPR. So I felt pretty smug about it.

But feeling smug is not smart when Network and Cable News kept hyping the second war with Iraq so that the American people rallied behind an administration that used high priced PR propagandist feed the drumrolls (and paid for it, incidentally with taxpayer dollars). The use in this case of "true lies" – the sheer repetition of one lie, taken up by the media, by front groups, then coming full circle back to the administration and used by them through announcements in the media citing the increasing support for the citizenry for war – the use of this type of psychological brain washing is breathtaking. It has the flavor of the  round robin kind of journey involved in money laundering, only in this case, it's propaganda laundering.

And how often have we heard that facts to back up lies cannot be brought forward to the American people because that information is classified? For instance, the facts to back up the charge of  Saddam's ability to hit Britain with weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of declaring war? Of drones capable of reaching American shores carrying nuclear missiles? Of the insidious  linking of Saddam and the September 11, 2001 attack by means of rhetorically juxtaposing the two in the same sentence so that nearly 70% of the American people were under the impression that Iraq was behind the September 11 atrocity?

By this time, the poverty of facts behind these charges is fairly well known, but it's too late to back off a war that's devastated an already shattered country and killed perhaps ten thousand Iraqis and over 400 Coalition soldiers, and maimed, so far, at least 1200 American soldiers.

Weapons of Mass Deception is altogether a fascinating study of the manipulation of the current, easily available, methods of communication. The only trouble with the book that I can see is that the people who should read it are the very people who wouldn't bother, who prefer getting their news through Network and Cable news, or worse, through talk radio.

–Joan Shaw


Click to buyClick to buy Weapons of Mass Deception - The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq

Propaganda by Edward L. Bernays - available, used, at Amazon, and also available in most university and large city libraries

The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations by Larry Tye (Author) (Paperback) This is a good read on Bernays' work

The More You Watch The Less You Know  by Danny Schechter

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