By Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber
Tarcher/Penguin, 2003, 248 pages, $11.95
When I worked at the United Nations during the Cold War in the 1980s, I was amazed at the propaganda I saw daily in both Pravda (the Soviet news service) and The New York Times. I'd been taught to expect it from Pravda, but not the venerable Times, then known as journalism's “gray lady,” the newspaper of record.
In fact, both operated in and out of the propaganda environments of their respective countries. The Times' distortions were much more subtle; they lay in the narrow way stories were framed. How stories are framed—and which chunks of truth's messy spectrum get highlighted-—help define how we view the world. It determines what counts as a story and what counts as real.
Today's information environment is infinitely more complex than it was in those Cold War days before the multi-voiced Internet, before the dizzying array of cable television stations, before web logs and digitally-altered photos. People are more aware of contradictory messages, and often they run from them (witness the popularity of fundamentalisms). We distrust government as much as we distrust most media, which have become big businesses. More than ever we need what John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton give us in Weapons of Mass Deception: a deconstruction of the layers of a complex propaganda machine that transcends administrations and political parties and profoundly shapes our perception of reality.
It doesn't surprise me that The New York Times has yet to review this book, even though it's consistently shown up on the gray lady's bestseller list. This book is dangerous; Rampton and Stauber see through the spin and the spin around the spin. They run PR Watch (www.prwatch.org), an on-line publication that documents how governments and corporations daily insinuate themselves into our psyches—or try to.
In this remarkably evenhanded, well-documented book, you'll learn about the people and the motivations behind the multiple messages, repeated phrases, and battles for global hearts and minds that make up a huge part of the War on Terrorism. While most Americans assume that the truth is slippery in the hands of politicians, few realize the role of public relations firms, doublespeak, and branding enumerated in this book. Yet the corporate-style marketing, Disney-designed sets, and Hollywood-influenced messages that work so well to sell products—the buying of which is sold to us as patriotic—aren't working so well on the global stage.
“Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century,” write Rampton and Stauber, “attempts to market the United States [abroad] as ‘brand freedom' came into conflict with a U.S. tendency to talk rather than listen, combined with U.S. support of undemocratic regimes whose own political objectives contradicted America's stated principles.”
The ethnocentrism I noticed decades ago on the part of the U.S.—the way our government assumed that everybody in the U.N. should think like us, while our media, when they bothered with inter-national news at all, covered the rest of the world like some odd curiosity—seems to have entrenched itself even further in our political institutions, public policy, and approaches to the terrorist threat. Television news networks in 1989 devoted 4,032 minutes to foreign stories, compared with 1,382 minutes in 2000. (After September 11, foreign coverage went up to 2,103 minutes in 2002, only to dip again until the Iraq war.)
Truly radical institutions that could change the way the world operates, such as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, get almost no attention in the mainstream U.S. press. The number of foreign news bureaus has steadily decreased in most media organizations, to the point where most news organizations found themselves as clueless as the rest of us when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
“Rather than changing the way we actually relate to the people of the Middle East, [U.S. officials] still dream of fixing their image through some new marketing campaign cooked up by Hollywood or Madison Avenue,” Rampton and Stauber conclude. They are not speaking just about the Bush administration.
The authors also take us on a tour of the propaganda tactics used by the U.S. government on its own people. This effort has been more effective than its propaganda abroad, thanks to a largely docile domestic press. They make clear that the 2003 Iraq war (as well as the one in 1991) was sold to the public based on questionable distortions and sometimes outright lies planted by public relations firms. Once these lies are repeated in the echo chamber of the media, they become “truth.”
The book serves up the best accounting yet of who said what and who knew what about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden (who scowl at each other in Tom Tomorrow's hilarious cartoon on the book's cover while film-director Bush coaches them to look like buddies).
While the book is a meticulous snapshot of what lay beneath the surface of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it invites further exploration. It gives citizens—including those who may disagree with the authors' assumptions—useful tools to understand the war on terrorism and its relationship to products such as SUVs, marketed as “urban assault luxury vehicles” to make the reptilian part of our brain feel more safe, even though the vehicles are not so safe, and even as our increased gas guzzling fuels the terrorism we say we're fighting.
The book invites viewers, listeners, and readers to examine how various media filter points of view, and whether media actually offer opportunities for dialogue between multiple points of view. It notes how many “experts” tend to be from think tanks sponsored by corporations or foundations whose allegiances give them a common perspective on current power structures.
After a description of government secrecy (even between government agencies which “need to know” if they are to protect us) and the fear-based (and fear-inducing) Patriot Act, Rampton and Stauber conclude: “Democracy and the free sharing of information … may offer our best protection against future terrorist threats. Paradoxically, this is precisely what we may surrender if we allow fear to rule our lives.”
As we figure out for ourselves what it means to be “we the people” fighting terror that comes from inside and outside our government in these dark days, books like this cut through the misinformation haze to help us determine our own best take on truth—by exploring multiple perspectives and learning from each other's experience. The new information environment, exploited to a limited degree by government and corporate propagandists, can be wielded by citizens to find our way out of our current propaganda quagmire. Just as citizens in China and the Eastern Bloc used new technology (faxes, cell phones) to overthrow corruption, we can, too, if we're aware and awake.