11 November 1998 Rev. 6 April 2000
2,300 words

What's wrong with that?
Corporations adopt methods of left activists
Massive resources, legitimate debates, sometimes deceptive

New York--Jane Brody should be fired for her story, "Health Scares That Weren't So Scary," said John Stauber, co-author of "Toxic Sludge is Good for You," a book about how the PR industry manipulates the media.

In her New York Times story, on 18 August, Brody debunked the carcinogenic effects of Alar and electromagnetic radiation, the link between coffee and pancreatic cancer, and the dangers of bovine growth hormone (BGH), complained Stauber.

That story was merely a rewrite, with no balance, of material from the American Council for Science and Health, a "front group for the chemical industry," said Stauber at a panel on "PR: Manufacturing Activism" at the New School for Social Research on 11 November 1998, co-sponsored by the New School's communication department and the independent Center for Communication, New York. (Transcripts of earlier meetings, and a calendar of upcoming meetings, are at the Center's web site.

Stauber is executive director of the Center for Media & Democracy, Madison, WI. His book describes the tactics of PR firms that create "grassroots" organizations to lobby for corporate interests.

(One of the problems with BGH, Stauber elaborated later, was that cows with higher milk production are more likely to get mastitis. Farmers treat mastitis with antibiotics. The FDA prohibits the sale of milk with antibiotics, and milk is tested only for approved antibiotics. So farmers use unapproved antibiotics, which are not detected. At the very least, BGH milk should be labeled, he said. Furthermore, Monsanto claims that the FDA safety studies are proprietary; they should be open to public review, said Stauber. Anti-BGH activists also cite Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly and SS Epstein, Int J Health Serv 1996;26(1):173-185) [Medline]; also click on "Related Articles". Monsanto's case is at the Monsanto web site. I interviewed an anti-GM scientist myself at the Gene Media Forum.)

(Brody dismissed the danger of electromagnetic radiation on ACSH's say-so. But according to Science News, 30 January 1999, (1) Antonio Sastre reported in Bioelectromagnetics, February 1998, [Medline] that 60-hertz electromagnetic fields altered human heart rhythms in a way associated with heart attacks, and (2) David A. Savitz reported in a followup in American Journal of Epidemiology, 15 January 1999 [Medline], that men who worked in strong electromagnetic fields were "far more" likely to die of heart attacks.)

Housewife activists

Also on the panel was Jack Bonner, president of Bonner & Associates, the largest firm that organizes grass-roots support for corporations and trade organizations, such as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association and auto manufacturers opposed to the Clean Air Act. Bonner, a former aide to conservative congressman John Heinz, is also a target of Stauber's book, and of William Greider's "Who Will Tell the People."

Another panelist was Barney Calame, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, who said that a bigger, and growing, problem was lawyers who have learned to manipulate reporters by leaking documents. He also explained how he approached science coverage.

Bonner defended the Brody story. It was merely a recap of all the stories that had been exaggerated, he said. "How many inches," he asked, did the NYT print "attacking corporate products, and how many defending?" Alar "wasn't nearly as bad" as it was portrayed on the front pages.

Corporations and their PR firms have "learned to mimic and copy social activism used by the labor unions and real grass roots group," said Stauber.

Stauber first ran into these groups as an activist fighting Monsanto's efforts to get BGH approved and marketed. People from a group called "Maryland Citizens' Consumer Council" came to meetings, presenting themselves as housewives who were interested in BGH. "They were housewives, but housewives who were employed by Burson-Marsteller," said Stauber.

"What is so objectionable about that?" rhetorically asked moderator Bernice Kanner, marketing correspondent of Bloomberg LP.

"What disturbs me most," said Stauber, is that the PR industry has taken over the appearance of grass roots activism, with much greater resources than individual citizens could ever bring. They've used those resources, for example, in the health care debate, where ordinary citizens were "blown out of the water" by the pharmaceutical industry and the health care industry. The media regards health care reform as "politically dead" and ignores it, even though that is "not reflecting the feelings of the citizens of our country."

"And deception is a problem," said Stauber. "They're not really Maryland housewives." They've been sent there by Monsanto.


"You think it's bad that corporate America would try to communicate its feelings to the citizens of this country?" asked Bonner.

It's bad, said Stauber, that corporations, with all their money, have been able to drive the citizenry out of the debate. The sheer imbalance itself is a problem. America is an oligopoly.

"Then why didn't the Republicans win?" asked Julia Glidden, vice president, Fleishman-Hillard/New York, who does crisis communications for the airline industry. Among her projects, she worked with TWA after Flight 800 crashed.

They did win, said Stauber. "We have one party," he said. "It's called corporate America."

"As long as they identify themselves," they are simply participating in the democratic process, said Bonner, raising his voice to stentorian levels. "You think it's not fair because corporations can spend more money?"

How about the contributions of unions to the election, said Bonner. "Ralph Nader got a lot of money from the trial bar," he said, citing a Forbes article by Peter Brimolow. "Do you disclose your contributors?" (The Center for Media & Democracy is a 501(c)(3) corporation, with an annual budget of less than $100,000 a year, said Stauber.)

Traps for reporters

"I don't think that phony grass roots organizations are as big a problem," said Calame. At the WSJ, a bigger problem was interest groups getting reporters to buy into their cause. "We find some companies and industries come to us with a bunch of documents, with information we couldn't get any other way," he said. The reporter gets excited and wants to do the story."

"John Scanlon came to us with a dossier on Jeffrey Wigand," said Calame. Scanlon was working for the tobacco companies, and Wigand, a former employee of Brown & Williamson, was testifying that tobacco executives knew that nicotine was addictive. "He wanted to give us a tremendous amount of information, but we couldn't say where we got it. Some of it was really dynamite." But they wouldn't take it under those terms. They finally got it, and upon analysis, some of it turned out to be "selectively chosen," he said. "Some things were overlooked." They wound up writing a story on the attempt to discredit Wigand instead.

Trial lawyers also offer documents to reporters, said Calame. "They have a huge amount of documents and trade information." Trial lawyers exchange information among themselves, and often share it with reporters. It's very easy for reporters to think, "I've got this great stuff."

"It's OK to take that stuff," said Calame, but "to buy into it can lead us astray." It's been happening more and more, he said.


What about the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), I asked. STATS offers to help reporters on deadlines understand breaking science stories involving statistics. Their board is composed mostly of people who are sometimes good scientists, but take minority positions that go against the consensus. They don't disclose their funding sources on their web site, but according to the Christian Science Monitor, they are funded by 2 unidentified conservative organizations. They seem to be engaged in deception, I said.

"That's a lot of guilt by association," Calme. "In the real world there are a lot of sources. Very few of them are pure, and each journalist has to sort them out. I can't get agitated by deception."

"You have to be a big boy," said Calame. "There are lots of people out there. You're trying to sort out my messages. Some of them really believe it." People try to delude you all the time. When they take "devious means," he said, "it hurts their credibility but it is not fatal."

"The whole thing about help on deadlines is tricky," said Calame. "That's a time to be more understated. There is tomorrow." The people who help you on deadlines "have to be tried and true."

"We have a global news staff," said Calame. "We have bodies and resources, we have a family that believes in what we're doing."

Quality journalism was the "golden goose" that comes back in a circle, said Calame. It enabled the WSJ to practice good journalism, and quality journalism made them more profitable.

In response to a question about advertiser influence, Calame told the story of how, in 1954, General Motors threatened to cancel their advertising, and not speak to their reporters, if the WSJ published a story revealing the next year's cars. During the 1950s and 60s, the WSJ put enough money into liquid assets that they would be able to keep publishing even if 5 big advertisers pulled out.

"But it is much tougher in some entities, particularly radio stations," said Stauber.

Placing on CBS

Irina Posner, executive director of the Center for Communication, said that she had been a TV producer at CBS Reports 10 years ago. "Jack Bonner's work is encouraged by what's happening in the field of media. There's not enough time. Research libraries no longer exist. Jack is responding to this vacuum."

Posner went into PR. "I found myself producing video news releases," she said. One successful placement at CBS left her dismayed. They re-recorded it with Linda Ellerby reading the identical script, she said.

"My firm does not do video news releases," clarified Bonner. "People on the left were also going to you at the last minute and giving you a biased point of view. On TV the public is watching 60 Minutes. 60 minutes rips into corporate America weekly." So does Dateline and 20-20, he said. "If you were to do an analysis," he was sure those programs would be 10:1 against corporate interests.

"Since [the corporations] own the networks, the question becomes a little more serious," said Stauber.

The "cynicism" was "terribly distressing," said Glidden. "We assume that the journalist is going to research it."

A case history

"We are encouraging citizens to become involved in a point of view," said Bonner. "You take your point of view to the public as an advocate." He tells them, "Here's this issue, here's why we think you should support our point of view." Ideally, they should express that point of view in their own words. He tries to get someone from a legislator's home district "to express why the issue is important to someone from the home district."

If the farm bureau head finds out about something of importance to farmers, "the fact that he found out about it from GM or from a box of rice crispies is not really relevant," said Bonner.

For example, said Bonner, in the 1980s, he represented the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (basically Ford, GM and Chrysler) when they were lobbying against the CAFE standards in the Clean Air Act, which would have required them to increase the gas mileage of their fleets from 26-27 miles per gallon up to 40 mpg. The benefits are that the country would be consuming less gasoline, and emitting less CO2. We would be less dependent on oil from the Middle East. The problem is that the cars would have to be very small.

"We went to third-party groups, and told them up front that we were working for GM," said Bonner. "Our experience is that it's infinitely better to be up front."

"Some people didn't want to be forced into smaller cars," said Bonner. "The chance of being harmed in an accident is much higher." People who live on farms, people who have large families, people who are disabled, would have trouble with the mileage requirements.

"There's two sides and there are tradeoffs," said Bonner.

"Why does it trouble you," asked a member of the audience, "that we think that government should be run by people and not corporations?"

"Corporations represent numbers of people, shareholders," said Bonner. "I do not think that the right of free speech should be denied to organizations and corporations."

Unfair coverage

Members of the audience complained of unfair coverage. When New York City was proposing laws to prohibit smoking in restaurants, Philip Morris funded a group called the United Restaurant and Tavern Association, and the newspapers quoted them as if they were representing real interests. The weekly newspaper Our Town placed a Phillip Morris ad in the same issue as a puff piece on Phillip Morris. Stauber's book, written with Sheldon Rampton, describes how Philip Morris paid Burston-Marsteller to create the National Smoker's Alliance.

Stauber gave me a review copy of "Toxic Sludge" ($16.95), so here's my review: It's a dense 236-page, well-indexed and footnoted compendium on the methods of corporate PR against anti-corporate activists, with special emphasis on deceptive and unethical practices. An appendix contains an overview of major PR agencies and Ketchum's Clorox PR Crisis Plan. The weakness is that they uncritically accept the scientific claims of activists, even when there is a legitimate debate. The strength is that they reveal unpublicized outrages and (for journalists) explain some subtle and dangerous manipulatory techniques. The story of how Mary Lou Sapone, an agent for US Surgical, infiltrated animal rights groups, and entrapped Fran Trutt, a disturbed woman, into a bomb attempt on US Surgical's president Leon Hirsch, has an uncanny resemblance to the story of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky.

Covering science

After the meeting Calame held court as members of the audience complained to him about perceived deficiencies in the WSJ's coverage. He patiently argued with them at length. One man complained about the global warming coverage. In science stories they can't always figure out who is right and who is wrong, said Calame. Instead, "We're trying to show the process" of arriving at a scientific conclusion, he said.

A science writer complained that the WSJ was ignoring the important story of Peter Duesberg's theory on AIDS. The WSJ covers the major journals, Calame explained. There was nothing new about Duesberg's work, he said. The science writer cited a recent journal article, and Calame dismissed it as "not a major journal." They argued over what was a major journal. Calame spoke knowledgeably about the activities of prominent biologists and major journals. "Cell is a major journal," said Calame.

Calame's wife is a biologist, he said.

--Norman Bauman