Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, and Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future
Reality exists. This has become a controversial proposition in today’s “culture wars” milieu, where my vehement assertion is equal to your demonstrated fact, but it shouldn’t be. Reality isn’t always obvious, as when talking about pollution that doesn't’ leave air crunchy or water flammable, but even when we can’t clearly detect reality, it still exists. And if anybody tells you it doesn’t, you should immediately investigate who’s bankrolling their message.
Journalists Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber have won the prestigious Orwell Award for unpacking the money trails behind many widely held opinions in contemporary culture. Turns out, our opinions have a detectable family tree, one often openly for sale. The wealthy and powerful plow remarkable funds into the public relations and spin industry, to ensure our opinions accord with their financial interests. Often at the expense of reality.
Rampton and Stauber’s first book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You, took its name from a cute Tom Tomorrow cartoon. But, they reveal in a later chapter, a PR representative contacted them late in the production process, asking them to change their title, because they literally had a campaign underway to convince Americans that sewage sludge, which includes industrial runoff and is frequently radioactive, would make good agricultural fertilizer. Satire writes itself.
They describe an industry which actively pitches a malleable reality. A network of advertisers, paid experts, and Solomonic eminences spread viewpoints that (coincidentally, I’m sure) accord with whoever signs their paycheck. These agencies interrupt the news you depend upon to intrude opinion, often at odds with demonstrable fact. But it creates the appearance of debate and controversy in public spheres. And fights that should end, instead continue indefinitely.
The most interesting chapter deals with President Clinton’s attempt to create national health care. Running in 1992, health care wasn’t Clinton’s side issue; he won the plurality in no small part behind pledges to standardize medicine access. Even Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole warned Republicans not to run against health care in 1994. But by 1995, an industry-funded PR campaign had rebranded the effort as Hillarycare, made it poison, and killed it in Congress.
After a brief detour into farming practices, Rampton and Stauber’s third book, Trust Us, We’re Experts, describes how PR professionals apply their techniques directly to science. It goes into further depth into something they previously touched on, the use of paid third-party representatives and front groups. Organizations with seemingly scientific names and superficially neutral mission goals, are actually in the pockets of industries profiting from the status quo.
|Tom Tomorrow's original toxic sludge cartoon. Click to enlarge.|
You’d have to dig deep to find independent or university-affiliated scientists who dispute certain claims: that humans are driving global warming, or secondhand smoke causes cancer, or organochlorides endanger wildlife. Yet somehow, these stories remain hotly debated in news media. Keeping the mass population confused keeps debate alive at the legislative level, and culture-wide efforts to redress these problems are consistently DOA.
Mass media debates, subsidized by “think tanks” with opaque money trails, create the illusion of 50/50 splits. But on issues of immense moment, our authors demonstrate, debates are kept alive by as few as three experts who make their living doing the Sunday talk-show rounds, mostly supported by non-scientific backers. The illusion of controversy prevents meaningful change from beginning, even on issues wholly uncontroversial inside scientific communities.
Both books emphasize the role a highly credulous, and often cash-strapped, news media plays in perpetuating these debates. TV news especially, a source of network prestige during the Cold War, is a neglected stepchild today, desperate for low-cost content, and often reruns PR-produced content strictly “as-is.” Reader’s Digest, which cultivates an appearance of generalist dispassion, often works hand-in-glove with PR agencies and their backers.
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest anyone profits when debates continue interminably. But our authors demonstrate, people who profit off the status quo needn’t win debates to really win. If debates on, say, global warming drag, we’ll continue burning hydrocarbons and strip-mining mountains because, hey, why not. Bankrolling paid experts who don’t win debates, but merely cast doubt on material evidence, bolsters corporate profits exponentially.
Consider the debates that seem perpetual. Health care and global warming are merely the most visible examples. Why would anybody believe, against the evidence of short winters and prolonged droughts, that Earth’s climate is becoming less hospitable? Because the illusion of controversy keeps stories alive past their sell-by date. When stories that seem ironclad remain debated, it’s often best to consider who profits. Some people get rich watching our world burn.