Page 12


INTERVIEW Interview with the Flak Watcher BY JESSICA CHAPMAN 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 warwhich didn’t all begin with the Bush administrationis 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 \(www.prwatch. org 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, its 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 coauthor, 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 hormonethis 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 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 himat least for meas a full-employment president. TO: Is the Bush administration worse than its predecessors? SR: I think all governmentsnot just in the United States but in the worldtend, 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 notthe 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 empiresgreat nations in historyhave 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 powerwhat 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 2/13/04