“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” (1)
Edward L. Bernays, PR guru (1891-1995)
Vile comments, outright lies, slanderous character assassinations… where would we be without Donald Trump and his ranting midnight tweets? Still in the land of make-believe, if you ask me. So President 45 likes to rail against fake news when he’s not creating it, so what? The powers that be have been doing that since the invention of the printing press. Mainstream media is having a right old time of it selling us on the dangers of fake news proliferating across social media and the internet: “Untrue, untrue, read all about it”, the headlines cry, like bullshit was something new. And the politicians are boiling in their think-tanks: “It’s an outrage! Something must be done! Fake news is a threat to democracy!”
There’s just one problem with this moral outrage: it’s PR spinning myths on behalf of the mythmakers. News reporting is in freefall. The old guard politicians have been caught, to use tabloid vernacular, with their pants down. For too long the media and the “powers that be” have remained complacent about their position of trust and their ownership of control of the lines of communication. Bloated spiders squatting at the centre of their webs, gorging themselves on lies, half-truths and spurious claims, the occupying powers are fat and scant of purpose. So they do what any glutton does when beleaguered: they keep on eating – biting the hand that feeds them with all the stained teeth PR can wield.
The relationship between public relations and the so-called free press is difficult to assess: the blurred line between real news and the self-serving spin of commercial concerns and political agendas is as old as – dare I say it – the Sermon on the Mount. From its accepted origins in the US in the 1920s, PR has extended its dirty, manipulating fingers from the whiskey-sodden ad agencies of Madison Avenue into almost every aspect of our daily lives: telling us how to behave, what to think, what to accept as truth. That many of us recognize when we are being seduced by PR – by its bright trinkets, baubles and dross – brings no comfort when you consider even the most trusted quarters of mainstream media are not only dazzled themselves but are complicit in it.
In these days of disparity, of massive social, political and religious upheavals, of escalating wars and serious environmental issues, we are ever more reliant on the media to explain the times we live in and the problems we face. But this is the age of twenty-four-hour media coverage, of cross-platform access, where journalists and commentators are under increasing pressure to find material to fill the headlines; often at the expense of serious investigative reporting. As a result, hungry media outlets – even the good old BBC – are forced to turn to unreliable suppliers. And that’s when the PR companies knock on the the door, selling their pre-cooked ready-meals.
In their 1985 book PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News, authors Jeff and Marie Blyskal write:
“PR people know how the press thinks. Thus they are able to tailor their publicity so that journalists will listen and cover it. As a result much of the news you read in newspapers and magazines or watch on television and hear on radio is heavily influenced by public relations people. Whole sections of the news are virtually owned by PR…. Unfortunately, ‘news’ hatched up by a PR person and a journalist working together looks much like real news dug up by enterprising journalists working independently. The public thus does not know which news stories and journalists are playing servant to PR.” (2)
But this is nothing new. Consider what Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais say in their 1955 book Labors Untold Story: “One night, probably in 1880, John Swinton, then the pre-eminent New York journalist, was the guest of honour at a banquet given him by the leaders of his craft. Someone who knew neither the press nor Swinton offered a toast to the independent press. Swinton outraged his colleagues by replying:
‘There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it, and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinion, and, if you did, you know beforehand it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press. We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.’” (3)
He knew it, and we know it: the public relations industry and the mainstream media are virtually indistinguishable. But while most of us are adept enough at spotting damage-limitation and blatant spin when we see it splashed across the headlines, to blithely accept this as the norm is to give credence to the lie that it is a relationship based on collaboration and not corruption. To truly understand the toxic nature of this dangerous marriage, we need to return to a time before propaganda became a dirty word…
New York, 1929. At a time when women smoking in public was seen as unladylike and associated with prostitutes, thirty New York debutantes parade along Fifth Avenue, openly smoking Lucky Strikes cigarettes in an act of defiance and emancipation. Journalists are informed that the cigarettes are “torches of freedom” – that this is women’s liberation in action – and the story is picked up by newspapers all over the United States. Within days, women everywhere are taking to the streets and lighting up.
This was big news in its day. Except that it wasn’t. It was completely fabricated. The debutantes were, in fact, models hired by publicist Edward Bernays – who, in turn, had been hired by George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, to increase sales of cigarettes. The event is regarded by many as the moment that launched a whole new industry: public realtions. That the press had been fooled by this publicity stunt received little complaint – tempered, no doubt, by increased newspaper and magazine sales – and from that day forward the writing was on the wall.
Born in Vienna in 1891, Edward Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and used his uncle’s reputation and theories of psychoanalysis to develop his own reputation as a thinker and theorist. Bernays described himself as a psychoanalyst to troubled corporations, and he furthered this image by authoring several books on the subject, including Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda. He defined his profession as akin to that of a “practicing social scientist whose competence is like that of the industrial engineer, the management engineer, or the investment counsellor in their respective fields.” (4)
In his 1928 work Propaganda, Bernays sets out his mandate:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.” (5)
With the rise of the Nazis and their appropriation of propaganda techniques in the 1930s, it isn’t clear if Bernays came to regret his words, but even by the politics of the 1920s they make for uncomfortable reading: “In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” (6) Bernays was by no means the first practitioner of PR techniques, but within the industry itself he is often considered the godfather.
Today, PR is a multi-billion dollar communications medium in its own right – a vast empire of control, answerable to no one.
In the introduction to John Stauber and Sheldon Ramptons 1995 book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You (Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry), journalist and editor Mark Dowie writes:
“The modern ‘account’ managed by a PR/advertising giant can now package a global campaign that includes a strategic blend of ‘paid media’ (advertising) and ‘free media’ (public relations). Add to that some of the other standard services offered by most PR firms – including ‘crisis management’, industrial espionage, organized censorship and infiltration of civic and political groups – and you have a formidable combination of persuasive techniques available to large corporations and anyone else who can afford to hire the services of a PR firm.” (7)
How, then, did PR, with its cache of tried and tested methods for creating pseudo-events, manufacturing free publicity and managing public image, manage to bleed from the adverts selling us cigarettes and mouthwash into the editorials of so-called hard news? How have journalists allowed this to happen? The truth is PR hasn’t merely leaked into the news: it has saturated it. And if journalists themselves can’t tell the difference, then what hope is there for the rest of us? Surely, that’s the real story.
[To be continued]
(1) Bernays, Edward L, “Propaganda”, (Routledge, New York, 1928), pages 47-48.
(2) Blyskal, Jeff and Marie, “PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News”, (New York: William Morrow & Co, 1985), page 28.
(3) Boyer, Richard O, and Morais, Herbert M, “Labors Untold Story”, (Cameron Associates, New York, 1955).
(4) Bernays, Edward L, Public Relations”, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1957), page 4.
(5) Bernays, Edward L, “Propaganda”, (Routledge, New York, 1928), page 9.
(7) Dowie, Mark, Torches of Liberty”, introduction in Stauber, John and Rampton, Sheldon, “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry”, (Common Courage Press, 1995), page 3.