Albion Monitor /Commentary
Mass Mediations

Spies and Watchdogs

by Mark Lowenthal

Environmental journalists have become the catalyst for an entirely new wave in corporate public relations

A truly creepy thought occurred to me the other day while pondering the extent to which advertising manipulates my behavior: They (the ads) will only continue to get better...and better...and better...

Indeed, unlike most things of the natural world, the effectiveness of advertising is not cyclical. As the advertising and public relations industries continually refine the science of manipulating human behavior (and continue to know more and more about us) it is undeniably clear that the effectiveness of such manipulation will only become greater -- on deeper and deeper levels.

This kind of manipulation is disturbing enough when it comes to selling frozen dinners, but it gets downright scary when it comes to the production and distribution of news and information.

Yet as disconcerting as it may be, the public relations industry is making significant strides in their on-going quest to influence the news you see, read and hear.

The great irony, of course, is that in the ultra-commercialized world of mainstream news media, stepped-up attempts to manipulate the process of news gathering is largely unnecessary. Between the daily barrage of press releases, press conferences, video news releases and industry-sponsored studies, most large corporate entities have a pretty easy time getting their message out.

Still, it has historically been the news medias' responsibility to act as the public's watchdog, to hold power -- be it corporate or governmental -- accountable. But while mainstream news media take only occasional stabs at scrutinizing private corporate interests, on the occassions they decide to, they are badly out-gunned in two important areas: financial resource allocation and, most importantly, the take-no-prisoners will to get the job done.

For those who doubt this assertion, check out the latest in corporate environmental media strategy.

Long the scourge of private industry, environmental journalists have become the catalyst for an entirely new wave in corporate public relations. This stepped-up campaign features everything from focus groups, to compiling extensive personal profiles of reporters, to good old fashioned sabotage.

Besides personal information on reporters, the dossiers also tell PR managers whom to contact to complain

Up close and personal

One of the leaders of this burgeoning movement, according to Joel Bleifuss of PR Watch, is a former Wall Street Journal reporter named Dean Rotbart, who, aside from providing paid workshops to help PR professionals know "what a journalist is thinking," also publishes something called the TJFR Environmental News Reporter.

"...Let us be your eyes and ears when the environmental media convene...," quotes Bleifuss from the Reporter's promotional materials.

"...Gather vital information on key journalists...Who's the boss?...Age and tenure..."

"...Not only will you find news on journalists, we'll tell you what they want from you and what strategies you can employ with them to generate more positive stories and better manage potentially negative situations."

The primary highlight of the $395-a-year Reporter is its regular collection of dossiers that Rotbart has compiled on his former colleagues.

According to Bleifuss, the premier issue included a lengthy piece on CNN's Environmental unit, with biographies of all its top staff.

In addition to the personal information on individual reporters, the dossiers also tell PR managers whom to contact if they want to complain about a journalist's work -- as in: "Chain of command: Greg Myers, assistant city editor."

Contacted by a reporter you're unfamiliar with? Just give Rotbart a call and he will feed the name into his data base of over 6,000 journalists and fax you his or her bio within an hour.

Using surveillance and focus groups to "better understand" journalists

I Spy

Other popular strategies employed by corporate America in their quest to manipulate environmental news include the use of surveillance and focus groups to "better understand" the way journalists think and behave.

At the 1994 conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, no less than fifty self-identified environmental PR flacks were in attendance -- representing such environmentally conscious organizations as Dow Chemical, American Forest and Paper Association, the Chlorine Industrial Council and the Chemical Manufacturers Association.

And according to the February 1995 issue of Environmental Writer, and industry-funded publication of the mis-named National Safety Council, DuPont's public relations firm was engaged in a laboratory research project using 12 real journalists as paid guinea pigs to help develop a PR strategy for DuPont pesticides.

According to PR Watch's Bleifuss, who followed up on the study, one participant who asked not to be named said, "They would give us small pieces of paper which would say something like, 'DuPont makes very wonderful chemicals, and no one needs to worry.' Journalists were then told to develop a storyline based on the information on the slip of paper, while DuPont researchers observed from behind a mirrored window. When their work was done the reporters were handed envelopes that contained $250 cash."

Selling "insider" knowledge about the media to polluters

Insider trading

There also seems to be no shortage of former media professionals willing to sell their "insider" knowledge to polluting industries who are willing to pay handsomely for it.

Take William Small for instance. Small, former president of NBC News and United Press International, was the featured speaker at the 1990 convention of the Public Relations Society of America where he informed the attendees that the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- the worst man-made environmental disaster in history -- was first and foremost a PR problem.

"We are not here today to debate environmental or ethical questions. We are, at least for today, not concerned with the fate of sea otters, but with how a huge American corporation spent $2 billion on the cleanup of what was not the worst oil spill ever, yet lost the battle of public relations."

Many corporate PR machines resort to old-fashioned sabotage

Covert actions

Even with the incredibly well-financed and sophisticated strategies employed by the Fortune 500, sometimes they find themselves backed into a corner by that most tenacious of adversaries -- the truth. In such cases, many corporate PR machines resort to the more rudimentary tools of good-old-fashioned sabotage.

Such was the case with author David Steinman, who's book, Diet for a Poisoned Planet, became the object of a smear campaign orchestrated by Ketchum PR. In order to suppress his book's information about chemically-contaminated foods, "they (Ketchum) sent out personally defamatory materials to talk shows that had scheduled me for upcoming shows" -- many of which canceled after receiving the materials.

Like Steinman, noted author Jeremy Rifkin ran into similar problems during the promotional tour for his book Beyond Beef which was highly critical of the beef industry.

According to Rifkin, early in his publicity tour he discovered (upon arriving at radio stations) that, to his utter dismay, he had been rescheduled for a future show.

After talking to booking agents at a number of stations, Rifkin discovered that someone had obtained his tour itinerary and was calling stations posing as his representative and rescheduling his appearances. Though one such call was eventually traced to a large PR firm representing the Beef Council, Rifkin was never-the-less forced to cancel his book tour.

...Do people who control large, polluting corporations attempt to manipulate news and information -- while spending millions to maintain an environmentally conscious public image?

People do.

Mark Lowenthal is assistant director of Project Censored, the national media research project at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California.

Albion Monitor January 31, 1996 (

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