This week's lesson, originally given before we invaded Iraq, in part to take out weapons of mass destruction, is a guest lecture by Dr. Nancy Snow on propaganda.
Memo To: Students of Supply-Side University
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: How to Cook Up a War
How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print. – Karl Kraus
This lesson originally ran on October 11, 2002, as I watched the Pentagon warhawks and their allies in and around the White House lay the groundwork for the war against Iraq they had been planning long before Mr. Bush became President the year earlier. Today, on the first anniversary of the invasion, I note the NYTimes lead editorial tells us:
It's...important to remember that none of this might have happened if we had known then what we know now. No matter what the president believed about the long-term threat posed by Saddam Hussein, he would have had a much harder time selling this war of choice to the American people if they had known that the Iraqi dictator had been reduced to a toothless tiger by the first Persian Gulf war and by United Nations weapons inspectors. Iraq's weapons programs had been shut down, Mr. Hussein had no threatening weapons stockpiled, the administration was exaggerating evidence about them, and there was, and is, no evidence that Mr. Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.
Never mind that it was clear at the time that Saddam was a toothless tiger, but was presented as a monster ready to use weapons of mass destruction at a moment's notice. The Times itself fell for most of the propaganda dispensed by the warhawks and to this day repeats much of material fed to its reporters over the years, having gotten into the habit of doing so. Today's lesson includes a discussion about propaganda by a specialist in the topic who could see how information was being manipulated by the administration's warriors to serve their ends. Were the American people lied to? Senator Kerry thinks so, but there was so much disinformation spread over so many years by so many people that you now cannot find anyone in the upper reaches of the U.S. government who lied from start to finish. Everytime I hear President Bush or his national security team speak about Iraq I still hear bits and pieces of propaganda they heard or read about and which they still believe as if it were true. It takes lots of hard work to get to the truth and it is probably not even possible. Debates still rage on what really happened during Passover week almost 2000 years ago.
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Memo To: Supply-Side Students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Guest Lecture by Dr. Nancy Snow
How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print. – Karl Kraus
When I was a boy in the 1940's, the word "propaganda" showed up in practically every movie involving the Nazis or the Japs. Italy was one of the Axis powers, but I don't remember anything about Italian propaganda. Mostly it was the Nazis, so the word has a kind of ugliness about it that we don't associate with "disinformation." The term "disinformation" does not sound so bad, but the dictionary says it is "false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth." That sounds worse than "propaganda," which prior to Hitler and his evil flack, Joseph Goebbels, simply applied to the missionary work of the Catholic Church in "propagating the faith."
One of the biggest problems for a journalist trying to do an honest job of covering the "news" is in spotting "disinformation." Propaganda is easy to spot because it is obviously self-serving and can be discounted accordingly. "Disinformation" is what the intellectuals at the Pentagon proposed as a vehicle for influencing global opinion, in an "Office of Strategic Influence". When the New York Times reported on OSI, it quickly became an embarrassment Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not need, so he announced it would be dissolved. The private contractors who were to have staffed the OSI, though, were kept on at some unspecified Pentagon office, obviously doing "disinformation," which is their specialty.
In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, President Bush had a hard time at first persuading the American people that this required a full-scale military buildup and war. It helped to learn that Saddam Hussein had "gassed his own people" in the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war, which meant he must be a monster akin to Hitler and Stalin. When news reached us that the Iraqi soldiers were looting and raping everything in sight in Kuwait City, this also helped our government "influence public opinion." We later learned that these stories were "disinformation," deliberately spread by the same experts who are now busy doing who-knows-what in some obscure Pentagon office. There is now not the slightest evidence that the Iraqi army deliberately killed a single Iraqi citizen with poison gas, yet there are reporters who still include those allegations as "facts" in their stories. You do not hear stories about the Iraqi army committing atrocities in Kuwait City because that "disinformation" was revealed to be false in congressional hearings after the war. You must still wonder why the ordinary people of Kuwait in public opinion polls are opposed to any further U.S. military action in Iraq.
For our lesson on propaganda today, I’ve asked Dr. Nancy Snow, an Assistant Professor of Global Communications at California State University, Fullerton to share her thoughts with us. A former cultural officer with the United States Information Agency, she is the author of Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America's Culture to the World, to explain how the U.S. “propaganda machine” works. She has recently completed a second book, Information War: American Propaganda, Opinion Control and Free Speech Since 9/11 (Seven Stories Press, 2003) she suggested I use excerpts from a long interview she recently gave to an “alternative website,” Guerrilla News Network. The interview was so good, I’ve decided to use most of it.
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GNN: Tell me about your second book?
It’s a collection of writings that document some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the post-September 11th media and mind manipulation environment, things like the propaganda priming in America and the world that took place prior to dropping bombs in Afghanistan, what makes Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld such a natural propagandist for the hardliners in the Bush Administration, and the work of the propaganda CEO and former Madison Avenue maven Charlotte Beers at the State Department who is known as the “queen of branding” and whose most challenging client is improving Uncle Sam’s image in the war on terrorism.
Naturally, I also include the here today/gone tomorrow Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) that seems to have morphed into the less ominous sounding Office of Global Communications that was announced in late July and is expected to be “up and running” by fall 2002. Just what this new office will do exactly is hard to say. On the surface it seems to be just government duplication of what the State Department is supposed to be doing on behalf of the American people, namely public diplomacy, or attempting to overcome the “why do they hate us?” perplexity inherent to U.S. economic and military projection around the world. At a deeper level, the Office of Global Communications seems to be a way for the Bush White House to control information that doesn’t jibe with the “softer sell” position at State. The State Department is known as pushing diplomacy to the nth degree while this current White House is pushing a more aggressive preemptive strike position in foreign policy.
I also address the language of the New War—how the Bush people seem to be caught in a cycle of naming and then renaming things, going back to the President’s linguistic misstep of calling the war on terrorism a “crusade” against the Islamic Taliban that was soon dropped in favor of our standard war rhetoric—good fighting evil—to Operation Infinite Justice that was quickly dropped in favor of Operation Enduring Freedom.
GNN: The question of propaganda has become a major part of this war on terrorism; what makes it different than any other aspect?
The propaganda war is the most integrated part of the New War; it’s the part of the war on terrorism that is probably the most hidden from view but the most pervasive. I like to say that we’re the fish and propaganda is the water. We’re in a surround-sound of language and image control. Think about how quickly the administration declared a WAR on terrorism. Once war is declared, debate is done. President Bush called on all good citizens and soldiers to do their duty and defend the homeland. This is why Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) was referred to as the “lone dissenter” in Congress when she very judiciously could not issue a blank check to the administration to carry out the War on Terrorism (WOT) however it seems fit, a vote that by the way was taken just 48 hours after September 11. She was honoring the U.S. Constitution and its system of checks and balances before the freewheeling whims of an executive run amuck. She should have been applauded and heralded for her conservative and cautious approach to the use of power and force in response to the attacks of September 11th but instead she was called a traitor and un-American.
Does the United States own a copyright on the word freedom? You’d almost think so by how often it’s batted around like a tennis ball. Why isn’t the American press challenging these empty statements?
Un-American is a favorite name-calling device for someone to use to target someone with whom you vehemently disagree. It conjures up old Redbaiting devices that stifle free speech and dissent from the status quo or conventional wisdom on public issues. It creates a chilling effect on people to stop testing the waters of our democratic right to question the motives of our government. This is what I mean about the propaganda environment we encompass. We’re deluged with name-calling devices, glittering generalities like “freedom” and “democracy” that we all hold close to our hearts—they are the warm and fuzzy buzz words that are said to separate us from our enemies. Remember President Bush being asked about why they attacked us? He said, “They hate freedom.” What exactly is that supposed to mean? How can the top elected official of the wealthiest and arguably most powerful nation on earth get away with these 50-cent responses? Does the United States own a copyright on the word freedom? You’d almost think so by how often it’s batted around like a tennis ball. Why isn’t the American press challenging these empty statements? We’re so conditioned as a public to accept the surface answer to so much of what our institutions in power state that we’re at the point of a media mental illness.
GNN: What are some of the new propaganda methods that the Bush Administration has employed?
New York Times reporter Victoria de Grazia published a piece weeks ago called “The Selling of America, Bush Style,” in which she lays out some of the programs in place, including a new $520 million Congressional appropriation to focus on “disaffected populations” in the Middle East and South Asia and the establishment of a 24-hour Arabic language satellite news network called Radio Sawa (together). Charlotte Beers at the State Department is undertaking the biggest PR effort in the history of U.S. foreign policy that will use traditional public relations and marketing techniques like focus groups, market research, and video projects about Muslim Americans to show the U.S. to the world as a tolerant and open society. Beers has said that she will use one of the “best practices” of modern advertising—a strong emphasis on the emotional with the rational, but from what I understand about modern American advertising techniques, the emotional wins out. Do we really think that our detergent company or rice manufacturer wants us to think critically about our consumer staples? I think they simply want us to buy their product over their competitors.
What’s so fascinating about all these PR efforts is how reconstituted they appear. The United States has a one hundred year history of marrying commerce with politics and tapping public relations to “brand” America abroad. Woodrow Wilson had his George Creel and the Committee on Public Information to sell WWI to Americans and overseas audiences. Wilson himself told the International Congress of Salesmanship to “go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy and convert them to the principles of America.” That was in 1916. Is today all that much different? No, not really, but it’s more intensified now because we have the technology age to aid the efforts to brand and we have the unpredictable dark cloud of that catch-all new enemy, terrorism, magnifying our efforts.
Charlotte Beers at one time headed J. Walter Thompson, one of the top ten PR firms in the world. One of George Creel’s enlisted men in the propaganda effort of WWI was James Webb Young of J. Walter Thompson, who led information efforts to demoralize the German people. Victoria de Grazia describes how U.S. propaganda efforts function in comparison to other forms: “Publicity, with private sector support, was the handmaiden of a government that presented itself as opposed to heavy-handed involvement abroad and sought to circumvent autocratic leaders to get the humane, rational message of the American people directly to peoples with similar aspirations. Other regimes may propagate hard-nosed ideology, but American democracy had lofty ideals.” Her point that publicity institutions working with the private sector were the handmaidens of American propaganda was exactly what Propaganda, Inc. describes about the function of the U.S. Information Agency both during and after the Cold War.
She also makes a significant point about the United States. There is no other country in the world that matches ours for developing such close links between commerce (salesmanship) and the business of government (statesmanship). None. Since World War I, advertising has mixed with selling war, foreign aid, and even cultural exchanges.
This creates a real dilemma for the United States government in 2002. How can the numero uno propaganda nation avoid overplaying its hand by mixing the Big Sell with a government effort to inform and educate people elsewhere about American society? It cannot. We will continue to read occasional reports from the Council on Foreign Relations or the U.S. Public Diplomacy Advisory Commission gnashing their teeth over our hyper-advertising approach to reshaping America’s image in the world. This is what the U.S. is to the world—the ultimate salesman. And just like a tiger doesn’t change its stripes, so doesn’t the U.S. become something it’s not. We appear to the world like the world’s Barnum & Bailey, and remember what P.T. Barnum said, “A sucker is born every minute.” We shouldn’t be surprised that anti-Americanism is on the rise one year after we had global sympathy in the days following 9/11. The President’s go-it-alone rhetoric just fans the flames of this growing enmity.
The Bush Administration’s propaganda efforts on Iraq underscore a sense that this administration needs the world more as an audience or convenient backdrop to doing exactly what it’s going to do anyway. Until and unless the world sees a picture of American society full of debate and dissent about the direction our country is going in, I don’t hold out great hope for any short-term gains in improving our global image, whether or not we cool it on the advertising. What I’m trying to do in my own work is to reach out with friends here and abroad to mount some kind of open dissent and protest against a U.S. administration that is neither acting in the American public interest nor in the interests of a global civil society.
Now I’m not so naïve to believe that the New York Times, the so-called “newspaper of record,” is printing all the news that’s fit to print about what the Bush Administration is doing outside public eye. There’s plenty in this new media/mental mind management era that is out of public reach and public comment, hidden in so-called black budgets that merge intelligence, covert action, with information and psyops programs. There’s also plenty that we as citizens allow the U.S. press to get away with by not pressing Bush and other people in power about what they mean by Axis of Evil and the defense of freedom. Whose freedom? My freedom or your freedom? Freedom for McDonnell Douglas or Exxon Mobil? Haven’t we graduated from the Dick and Jane reading series to a place where we can aggressively debate foreign policies that put innocent people in harm’s way? I remember last fall hearing Representative Henry Hyde ask something like, “How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue engendered so much hatred?” That question seemed to sail around the Internet as an example of a nation of leaders out of step with how others see us. He’s the chair of the House International Relations Committee and is now promoting the Freedom Promotion Act of 2002. Naturally. In his statement to the press about this new legislation, he said, “If any nation has been a greater force for good in the long and tormented history of this world, I am unaware of it. We have guarded whole continents from conquest, showered aid on distant lands, sent thousands of youthful idealists to remote and often inhospitable areas to help the world’s forgotten. Why, then, when we read or listen to descriptions of America in the foreign press do we so often seem to be entering a fantasy land of hatred?”
I find statements like these counterproductive to improving American relations with the world. I’m less concerned about our image than I am about our true relationships. I want to be able to connect with my international counterparts and meet citizen-to-citizen. Some of our elected officials seem focused on underscoring how good or great we are because we say so. Do you think Rep. Hyde has actually sat down with some members of that foreign press who criticize to get an accurate measure of the source of that criticism? It shouldn’t surprise our government that we are held in mixed review. No government, including our own, is immune to engaging in actions that harm, especially since governments are often driven by their own narrow self-interests. But the propaganda message is that no really, we’re the greatest nation on earth, perhaps in P.T. Barnum’s view, the greatest show on earth. I think the world’s people and its press are becoming weary of this refrain.
GNN: How has propaganda changed over time? We bemoan it infiltrating the media today, but during World War II, the newsreels produced by the “press” were pretty much indistinguishable from the military’s objective.
Recall the now legendary Eisenhower outgoing speech of 1961 in which he said that our country must “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.” He’s famous for providing the military industrial complex (MID) to our lexicon, but I think he might have wanted to add another M. Today’s landscape, or at least the landscape of the last 50 years or more, is a military-media industrial complex (MMID). The military and media absorb the bulk of our research sources in technology. Anything that’s invested in information technology in the U.S. is first applied in the media and military sectors and then filters down eventually to the mass consumer society. Consumers are the last to get access to new technology that will make our lives freer and easier to challenge the power establishments.
Having said that, wartime propaganda in the 20th century and beyond has always been impacted by the American motion picture industry and American press. Can you imagine the propaganda potential of film with a captive audience of hundreds of millions in the early part of the last century alone?! In Phil Taylor’s book, Munitions of the Mind, he describes the massive film operation set up by the Office of War Information just months after the Pearl Harbor attack. What we used to call the U.S. War Department (now the Department of Defense) spent annually over $50 million on film production during World War II to propagate the message of the war both here and overseas. The famous Hollywood film director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life), became Major Frank Capra during the war and was asked by General George C. Marshall to make the Why We Fight documentary war series. The free press is comprised of people like you and me who are just as subject to a swell of patriotism and ultra nationalism as is anyone else. I think we like to idealize that the press will truly separate its personal feelings about a story and report objectively, but World War II was the “Good War” and was thought then to end all wars. The American press worked in tandem with the military objectives of the U.S. Government as part of their sense of duty to country in wartime.
Today propaganda infiltration of the media system is more intense than ever. You certainly cannot turn to the Internet as a source of “the absolute truth” since the Internet functions as an open media system and is subject to the same rumor mongering and gossip as a National Enquirer. The Internet, as media and democracy scholar Robert McChesney notes, is also being colonized by the corporate landscape. (That’s not to say that there aren’t some good critical sites and I do use the Internet regularly to conduct research, but always with an eye toward the source of the information.)
The elite media outlets have gradually replaced the democratic pursuit of truth for undemocratic placement and distribution of planted publicity stories. As John Stauber (Toxic Sludge is Good for You) says about the U.S. public relations industry, most of what we the audience thinks is news is just publicity for some person or organization and was likely placed in the news by some publicity organization with a vested interest in seeing that person or organization promoted. I recently saw the PR guru Fraser Seitel on the Fox News Channel show, “The Factor with Bill O’Reilly.” The discussion was whether or not Rosie O’Donnell had tainted her reputation by publicly attacking the publishers of her failing Rosie magazine. Seitel was asked what first piece of advice he would give O’Donnell if she were to call on him. He said, “First, pay me.” His honest statement spoke to exactly what’s going in the media/propaganda system. It’s pay to play. The public often doesn’t know what is going on because we’re just the spectators in the crowd watching the gladiators go at it. “Will Rosie cave to the public pressure?” becomes newsworthy and functions as a propaganda technique to assign a sense of meaning to the meaningless. It filters up to the highest echelons of our government where Presidents make statements like “they hate freedom” and get away with that. As long as we continue to allow the media to function as a manipulative mind manager without fear or disfavor, we’ll continue to see the brain-numbing effects of a society ultimately incapable of critical judgment and social resistance...
GNN: How has advertising and propaganda mixed? Did you see how the Army has developed its own video game and is giving it out free to kids?
To a certain extent, advertising is our modern society’s propaganda distributor. The U.S. Army, like all our armed forces, has gotten very sophisticated about their target audience—young people, particularly young people who are against the odds in this economy and need the information and technology skills to make it. They are no fools. Modern warmaking is like a video game. It’s no coincidence that universities like USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (http://www.ict.usc.edu) with its close ties to the Hollywood film industry is now working with the military to develop cutting edge virtual reality technology from the entertainment and game development industries to help train the modern solider and future soldier. There are billions of resources that go into maintaining a modern military like that of the United States. It’s not all tanks and soldiers. Much of it is technology geared toward persuasion and information management. Since we don’t have a draft and have to rely on an all-volunteer armed force, then the military has to continue to come up with clever ways to work through all the advertising clutter and capture their declining audience. The “Army of One” campaign is working with MTV and VH1 to produce video diaries—a sort of Real World Kabul instead of a Real World Las Vegas. Since the techniques are similar with popular music overlays and quick cut shots, to the viewer it looks the same. These activities are symptomatic of the triumph of the image and media over content. I may be beating the drum again, but I cannot emphasize how much of our media now is so content-poor and image-rich, which just serves to capture the eye, manipulate our emotions, and short-circuit our impulses. The propaganda and advertising industries are adult obedience industries. They tell us how to feel and what to think about and we increasingly follow orders without questioning why.
GNN: I find it strange that the government is publicly announcing so many of their propaganda operations. Isn’t propaganda by its very nature stealth to some degree?
There’s still plenty hidden from view, particularly the nastiest stuff like psyops and psywar operations that target our inscrutable enemies, wherever they may be. But given the reality that critical consumption of news and information is lacking in our society (we don’t have the proper tools to till the soil or a critical mass to respond), the government has gotten the message that we really won’t get alarmed and so we continue to have the ampage turned up bit by bit. It’s the proverbial frog in the water with a mixture of counter intelligence programs thrown in. We often hear about the mid- to late 60s being the watershed turning point in our history, not just in the U.S. but also worldwide. Assassinations of change agents were rampant from Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X. The COINTELPRO programs shut down social change establishing a permanent foothold and the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 allowed increased American involvement in Vietnam. The worldwide student movement of 1968 was very effectively put down. The idealistic change agents of then are the fading baby boomers of today who get recast in films like The Banger Sisters. If you want to know about a truly investigative role by an elite press, you have to watch a historical film like All the President’s Men. Any young gung-ho types at the Washington Post or New York Times haven’t replaced Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and Dan Ellsberg. No, instead, the growing reactionary refrain is that the “liberal” New York Times is being too hard on the Bush Administration, as if that is the extent of our criticism continuum. I suppose it’s the best we can do as frogs slowly heating in the boiling pot. The question remains, will we jump out before it all reaches a boiling point? I would imagine that the Iraqi decision and the Bush Doctrine’s mandate to conduct preemptive strikes wherever and whenever may be that boiling point but I’m not sure if we have the energy to jump out and save ourselves.
GNN: What is the future of propaganda? Will we not be able to see?
That’s an apt metaphor, being figuratively blind to what’s really going on. Where is the Marvin Gaye of today? He’s my American Idol and I’m not sure Kelly Clarkson is up to the task. Have you noticed how quickly pop songs are ending up in commercials? It used to be that it was considered in bad taste to overcommercialize one’s music but now everything is for sale, including our very souls it seems. I think we are beginning to see clearer but it’s like seeing through gauze. You have to squint through the murky pseudo-reality of the media. You have to seek out the silence in between the shouts of the commercials and Clear Channel programming that keeps us focused on those tragic spaghetti stains on our shirts or where the latest N’Sync hit sits on the charts. Every time you see something that substitutes for clear seeing, let these media programmers know. We might want to try some guerrilla marketing along the lines of Adbusters and send in blinders to our local TV and radio stations. Demand that they start making sense and utilize all our senses, not just what will deliver eyeballs to advertisers.
I’m astounded at the amount of creative time, energy, and money that goes into music videos and commercials. The Media Education Foundation produced a documentary of the advertising industry called “Advertising and the End of the World” that showed the behind-the-scenes attention to detail, perfection, and the creation of fantasy that goes into million dollar commercials. As Sut Jhally says in the video, if an alien were to land today on such a commercial set or fashion shoot, what might he conclude? That we value advertising and its cousin global capitalism to such a high degree that we will ignore all other human values of social wellness and human connection. So much of our news now is just a brief interlude from an ad for more fantasy injections. No wonder political and civic participation is on decline. The ad tells us that little can be done because it’s not what we value. If we do see public interest ads, they often come now in the form of the Advertising Council (formerly the War Council) that delivers those freedom reminders. Hey, just in case you thought it appeared regularly that we don’t have true freedom, here’s an advertisement to tell you that we do. Put a flag on your house just in case we’re monitoring your devotion to freedom.
Having said all the above, just like I said a year ago, I have a lot of faith in the human spirit to seek out change when it looks as if nothing but conformity will do. We are amazingly creative beings and keep coming up with ways to resist being seen as automatons. I have the most faith in younger people than myself, who are seeing clearer than their elders through the clutter zone and are beginning to reject the mind virus that is turning our world into a global billboard.