Interview with a Flak Catcher

Sheldon Rampton speaks about the “dark side” of the public relations industry in a voice that never strays from soft-spoken and even-tempered. “We’ve become ideologically isolated from the rest of the world and I think that the propaganda that led us to this war—which didn’t all begin with the Bush administration—is qualitatively different and worse.” One of the reasons is that we’ve “lost the ability to communicate with the rest of the world.” The Observer met with Rampton while he was in Austin talking about PR as it relates to his latest book, Weapons of Mass Deception: the Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. Co-written with John Stauber, it’s an addition to a growing list of colorfully titled books such as Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! and Trust Us, We’re Experts. Their prescient Mad Cow U.S.A., written in 1997, is gaining renewed popularity due to the recent discovery of the disease in Washington State. Rampton and Stauber teamed up in 1993 when Stauber founded the non-profit Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin and the two began writing and editing the quarterly PR Watch (

Initially skeptical, Rampton soon realized the breadth of the topic. “Of all the things we possess, the ability to control our own mind is really very important,” he says. “That’s why I like to write about it and I’m preoccupied with it.” As he points out, “When you have enormous power concentrated in a small number of hands, it’s not terribly surprising that they will try to exert power over people’s thinking in ways that reflect the propaganda approach rather than a more democratic approach. They don’t want to share power with all the other voices in a democracy.”

The following is an excerpt from the Observer’s conversation with Rampton:

Texas Observer: What got you interested in the public relations industry?

Sheldon Rampton: It really came about through my co-author, John, who has been a long-time environmental activist. In the 1980s he was very active in the campaign against the Monsanto company’s plan to genetically engineer bovine growth hormone—this synthetic genetically engineered hormone that they inject into dairy cows to force them to give more milk. He was involved in the campaign against that at the national level, in the national planning meeting of consumer groups, small farmers, and environmentalists. They got a phone call from this woman who said, “I’m with a group called the Maryland Citizens Consumer Council and we’d like to come to your meeting because we want to support the cause; we’re really concerned about this, too.” She came to the meeting and they didn’t think that much about it until about six months or a year later. Someone connected with Monsanto happened to brag to a reporter that they had a mole in the meeting. Come to find out the phone number [of the woman from the “Maryland Citizens Consumer Council’] rang at Burson-Marsteller, a large public relations firm that was working with Monsanto. John got really ticked off and said, “I’m going to get these guys.” (Laughs) He started to check around and found other cases of infiltration of organizations and came to me with these stories and said, “Let’s start this newsletter, PR Watch.” My reaction at the time was, “You know, these are really interesting stories, they’re fairly colorful, there’s sort of a film noir quality to them. You’ve got these people skulking around, but is there really enough about the public relations industry to justify doing a whole newsletter?”

I certainly didn’t know anything about public relations at the time. I had some background as a newspaper reporter and I also had worked as a typesetter. It turns out that we never run out of stuff to write about and I don’t think we ever will. There’s certainly no shortage of stuff to write about as long as George W. Bush is in the White House. I see him—at least for me—as a full-employment president.

TO: Is the Bush administration worse than its predecessors?

SR: I think all governments—not just in the United States but in the world—tend, to some degree, to lie to their people about certain things. In the United States, especially with regard to issues of war and peace, there’s a very long history of the government engaging in deliberate public relations campaigns to lead people into supporting wars. What’s somewhat different about right now is that people in the United States are living in a little bubble of media coverage and public opinion. We’ve lost the ability as a nation to really understand how the rest of the world sees us and we’ve lost their respect. Even if the United States were the Mother Teresa of nations —which we are not—the rest of the world would be alarmed at the amount of power we’ve got. And when we use that power in ways that show that we’re not listening, that tends to polarize things even further. Past empires—great nations in history—have gone down this path before, convinced that the only way forward for them is to try and control even more and more of the world until they become overextended and the rest of the world rebels against them. I think that’s where we’re headed. It’s not just due to the propaganda that John and I write about, but propaganda occupies a special role. Powerful nations typically generate propaganda systems to help extend and expand and maintain their power—what we’re seeing in the United States.

In that regard it’s not that different from the days of the Roman Empire. The fact that Caesar’s face was stamped on every coin was an early propaganda device. Every time someone made a cash transaction they saw his picture. And in a world where they didn’t have newspapers and other things, that was a very powerful, symbolic statement of who was in charge and what was right and proper in the world. The fact that the United States has developed this huge propaganda arm is part and parcel of the fact that we have become this very powerful nation in the world.

TO: Can you say that public relations is propaganda or is it trickier than that?

SR: Well, everything’s trickier—the world’s a complicated place. But the people who founded the public relations industry in the early 20th century got their start working on war propaganda for the Wilson administration. Edward Bernays, who is generally identified as the “father of public relations,” wrote books with titles like Crystallizing Public Opinion, Propaganda, and Engineering Consent. The term propaganda has been around since the Christian Crusades. It was coined and used by the Catholic Church to mean “propagation of the faith.” They saw it as a very good thing. Obviously the Muslims of the day had a very different attitude toward that propaganda than the Catholic Church did. But when the term was first coined it wasn’t seen as a bad thing, it was seen as doing Christ’s work. It wasn’t really until the 20th century that the term came to acquire negative connotations because of the uses of propaganda during the first World War and then subsequent uses of propaganda by the Nazis, by the Soviets, and so forth. The theorists in the early 20th century who were developing theories about propaganda referred to it as the “hypodermic model of communication,” in which your goal is to literally inject your ideas into people’s minds. It’s not surprising that we find examples of propaganda that go far back in time, because the history of humanity is largely a history of people living under rulers who order them around and oppress them. But the course of history over the past two centuries has seen great strides for democracy. One of the reasons that propaganda as an industry has become as vast as it has in the United States is precisely as a response to that.

I think the passion for democracy is still as strong today as it ever was internationally, as well as in the United States. Just from my readings of the public relations industry trade press, I know that the people who are working in corporate PR find the degree of public expression of activism and other manifestations of democracy very troubling. They think it’s out of control. A big part of their work is figuring out how to manage activism. From the point of view of the activists who read my books—some of them come away depressed: “Look at all these things that people are doing to try to manipulate us, we can never win, we can never win…”

Well, if you read the PR trade press, they sound pretty frustrated too: “Look at all these activists who came together really quickly in Seattle using the Internet. They couldn’t have done that 10 years ago and look how many of them did it. We’re being trumped by all these people in these different movements.”

It is really striking that there were mass demonstrations in the United States and throughout the world before the war even started. That doesn’t mean they were able to stop the war from happening, but it does mean that the public is capable of self-organizing outside the realm of places where you can control them just by getting your message on the nightly news—which the government can still do very effectively. The reason they’ve been as successful as they have at getting support for the war in Iraq has less to do with the power of the propaganda itself than it does with the terrible feelings that people have had following September 11—the sense of crisis and fear and desire to put an end to those fears by putting faith in their leaders. You can imagine a nightmare world in which our leaders constantly use fear to control us, but I don’t think that’s sustainable over the long term.

TO: I wanted to talk a little bit about the concept of propaganda by omission. In the book, you deal with that concept in the context of Saudi Arabia.

SR: You can usually find that propaganda consists of two parts. One part is on the public stage that everyone’s supposed to see. The other is the part that you’re not supposed to see, like who’s funding them. It’s almost like a magician’s trick; they’re using sleight of hand to keep you from seeing. A lot of the propaganda around the war in Iraq has been specifically aimed at keeping people from talking about Saudi Arabia. A lot of the propaganda around the issue of Saddam Hussein’s human rights violations, like the atrocities against the Kurds, has focused on very selectively presenting the part about Saddam Hussein having committed these atrocities while making sure to avoid the part about how the United States was supporting Saddam Hussein at the time he committed them.

You had Colin Powell in Halabja, where Iraq gassed and killed by general estimates about 5,000 people. Colin Powell said, “This atrocity alone is so bad that it constitutes a justification for the war.” This is the same Colin Powell who in 1988, the year that the atrocity occurred, was National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan and persuaded the U.S. Congress not to pass the Prevention of Genocide Act in 1988 for that very same act. Yet here he is 15 years later saying [Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds] justifies overthrowing the government.

Foreign policy is the part of government policy that most people have the least to do with. If it’s some other aspect—like welfare policy or environmental policy or something that affects the economy—people see how that affects them personally. But if it’s something happening in Iraq people just don’t pay attention. It’s easier to manipulate them because they don’t pay as much attention to things outside this country. There’s a lot of different reasons for the historical amnesia. One is the shallowness of TV culture. There’s also a longstanding historical attitude about isolationism on the part of the American people, which is part of the reason that it was that difficult to get the U.S. public in line to support the first World War. But that isolationist tradition still persists in a lot of ways.

We have this strange paradox in that we are intervening in all these other countries around the world at the same time that our population is less interested in events happening outside our borders. Right now we have soldiers engaged in trying to run cities in Iraq who can’t even read street signs. Very few people had any interest in studying the languages or culture or anything about the Middle East before we sent these troops in there. Now we’re trying to run the place.

You can call it historical amnesia, but I think there’s something even worse about it. There’s a real cognitive gap between what we’re trying to do and our degree of being interested in—even understanding—what we’re trying to do. I don’t think any other nation in history has ever been this way. Look at the British Empire for example. They were trying to run countries like India, but they actually had a lot of interest in India. You can find it in their culture. They were really engaging in some way, trying to understand the cultures where they were intervening and trying to operate an empire. We’re in denial. We’re intervening in all these places while trying to imagine that we’re not.

TO: What are you working on now?

SR: Our working title is Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America into a One-Party State. We’re going to look at the way this propaganda approach to communication has influenced democratic decisions, including elections, but also other institutions and democracies such as, for example activism itself, which is one of the pillars of democracy though you don’t see it in the Constitution. The idea that you should have an active and engaged population in which everyone is participating in public policy is a very important part of democracy and [managing activism] is a big part of what the public relations industry does. They’ve written whole books in which they express a great deal of alarm about the threat of activism.

They’re not just concerned about leftist activists, they’re concerned about activists of any kind. Right-wing activists bother them almost as much sometimes. The idea that activism is a bad thing or a disruptive thing to society—and that you should have a special class of PR people who are managing activism—is itself a threat to democracy. I’m concerned by the way that the Republican Party has become a single party dominating a lot of the institutions of power in the society. They control all three branches of the federal government. Contrary to popular belief, they control large swatches of the mass media. They’re moving aggressively to increase control over state governments as well—definitely in Texas and California.

Jessica Chapman is a graduate student in journalism at UT-Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST