Synthesis/Regeneration 11   (Fall 1996)


John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton's Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

reviewed by Don Fitz, Gateway Green Alliance

John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton's Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, Common Courage Press, 1995. 236 pp., Biblio, index. Paper, $16.95 from Center for Media & Democracy, Box 702, Monroe ME 04951; 207-525-0900.

In 1962, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring dramatically documented effects of toxic herbicides such as DDT. The chemical industry hit back with a vengeance. "Even before her book was published, Velsicol chemical company tried unsuccessfully to intimidate its publisher into changing or canceling publication. The National Agricultural Chemical Association doubled its PR budget and distributed thousands of book reviews trashing Silent Spring." (p. 124) The war against Silent Spring illustrates the new PR mode of operation.

The foundations for modern PR were laid in the 1830's when "penny presses" began receiving most of their revenue from advertisements. Within a few decades, corporations were paying for advertisements designed as news articles. Today, corporations accomplish a much more sophisticated version of the same technique with the "video news release" or VNR. Hi-tech corporate studios manufacture news releases that look authentic enough for distribution to newsrooms. TV viewers often get the corporate picture while thinking they are watching film produced by the station.

"The 150,000 PR practitioners in the US outnumber the country's reporters."

News giants have been carrying out "bottom line journalism" for decades. A major corporation buys up a small or medium sized newspaper, promising no threat to local editorial policy. But as they slowly tighten restrictions, lower pay, and increase workloads, the old editorial staff leave and are replaced by those experienced at taking stories from national press syndicates. Those who produce syndicated stories often find that if they write in ways favorable to corporations, they receive speaking invitations which pay thousands of dollars. Thus, canned PR plugs replace local, in-depth reporting. Currently, ". . . the 150,000 PR practitioners in the US outnumber the country's 130,000 reporters." (p. 2)

Stauber and Rampton's Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! provides seemingly endless accounts of PR firms' trying to convince people of the virtue of things that anyone in their right mind would perceive as a vice.

Not limiting themselves to consumer products, PR firms have had major roles in gaining US support for right wing military dictatorships. "In 1933, the Nazis turned for guidance to Ivy Lee, the U.S. pioneer in public relations." (p. 149) Lee told Congress that ". . . he had advised the Germans to abandon their persecution of the Jews." (p. 149) Not convinced, Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) which required those working for a foreign government to register with the Criminal Division of the Justice Department.

Since World War II, the FARA has been systematically ignored by those working for regimes using torture and mass murder in Turkey, Guatemala, Nigeria and Haiti. Right wingers hired PR firms to manufacture a picture of Nicaraguan contras as a bastion of freedom and twist the image of democratic elections held by the Sandinistas.

Perhaps the crowning jewel of PR military images was the Gulf War. Since Iraq's Saddam Hussein had previously been portrayed as a great friend of the Free World, it was necessary to do a 180o turn of the public's eye. The PR firm Hill & Knowlton (H & K) produced and placed dozens of VNRs on US TV stations while rarely (if ever) identifying their client as the corrupt Kuwait government.

The title of their book comes from Stauber and Rampton's brilliant description of the sludge industry. The problem began with the modern sewage system, which never bothered to separate human from industrial wastes. According to Stephen Lester of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, U.S. sewage sludge contains over 60,000 toxic substances.

U.S. cities are desperate to find something to do with mountains of sludge. New York City tried ocean dumping. But fishermen complained of decreased catches and diseased fish. As Congress voted to protect fish, the sludge industry decided that the most profitable approach would be to spread sludge on farm fields.

The first step was to clean up the name of the industrial representative. In 1960, the "Federation of Sewage and Industrial Wastes Associations" became the "Water Pollution Control Federation." Today it is the "Water Environment Federation" (WEF). With a clean name, it went to work finding a nice word to replace "sludge." After rejecting 250 bids, it settled on the term "biosolids."

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency modified its standards in 1992, it replaced the word "sludge" with "biosolid," which comes under regulations for fertilizers rather than hazardous waste. The WEF currently has a massive campaign to persuade farmers and regulatory agencies that using sludge in fields is the economically healthy route. Communities in Bowie, Ariz., Sierra Blanca, Texas, Sparta, Mo. and Lynden, Wash. are on the front line of battles to prevent themselves from being dumped on.

In Islip, NY, 25-year-old Harry Dobin ran a coffee truck at a Long Island Railroad station 1,000 feet away from a sludge composting site. In July 1991 he began suffering health problems. Doctors treated him for asthma, arthritis, Weggener's disease, Lyme disease, kidney disorder and bronchitis. Finally in January 1992 when he could no longer breathe, they performed a lung biopsy and discovered Aspergillus fumigatus, a common product of sludge composting. By the time the disease was diagnosed, it was unstoppable, spreading to his spine, his legs, and finally his heart, leading to his death on September 23, 1992. (pp. 119-120)

WEF's "Biosolid Public Acceptance Campaign" has successfully persuaded Del Monte, Heinz and NestlÚ to reduce their opposition to sludge-grown fruits and vegetables. While the PR industry has an image of euphemizing that which is vile, the industry devotes at least as much energy to vilifying virtues. Stauber and Rampton's exposÚ of how PR firms systematically sabotage the opposition to corporate America makes their work a landmark contribution.

The public relations industry carefully cultivates activists who can be coopted.

David Steinman documented that US foods contain hundreds of pesticides and other cancer-causing contaminants. His book, Diet for a Poisoned Planet, recommended that readers stick to organically grown raisins. The California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB) hired the PR firm Ketchum to deal with the crisis. Months before the publication of Diet, Ketchum had attempted to obtain a copy of the book's galleys and publisher's tour so that the PR firm could shadow Steinman's appearances by having pro-pesticide spokespersons in town before or during his book promotion. EPA science advisor Dr. William Marcus authored the introduction to Diet. After resisting attempts to remove his introduction, Marcus was fired from the EPA. Similar campaigns to burn books before they were printed were directed against John Robins' May All Be Fed and Jeremy Rifkin's Beyond Beef.

PR tactics have not been foreign to the nuclear industry, especially in its beginning years, when the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was promising electricity which would be "too cheap to meter." In 1957, the AEC commissioned a study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory. It found that "An accident at a larger, 1,000-megawatt reactor could kill as many as 54,000 people, cause property damage of nearly $300 billion, and radioactively contaminate an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania." (p. 36) Stunned, the AEC became determined to counter the view that nuclear reactors were unsafe. It withheld publication of the Brookhaven study, claimed that it had never been completed when reporters heard of it, and similarly covered up major power plant disasters.

Not limiting themselves to undermining books and suppressing information, PR firms carry out espionage campaigns against environmental groups, with aims of coopting their leaders. Corporations wishing to do "opposition research" can contact PR firms who advertise their extensive files on progressive organizations.

The public relations industry . . . carefully cultivates activists who can be coopted into working against the goals of their movement. This strategy has been outlined in detail by Ronald Duchin, senior vice-president of PR spy firm Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin [MBD]. . . In a 1991 speech to the National Cattlemen's Association, he described how MBD works to divide and conquer activist movements. Activists, he explained, fall into four distinct categories: 'radicals,' 'opportunists,' 'idealists,' and 'realists,.' He outlined a three-step strategy: (1) isolate the radicals; (2) 'cultivate' the idealists and 'educate' them into becoming realists; then (3) coopt the realists into agreeing with industry.

According to Duchin, radical activists 'want to change the system; have underlying socio/political motives' and see multinational corporations as 'inherently evil. . . These organizations do not trust the . . . federal state and local governments to protect them and to safeguard the environment. They believe, rather, that individuals and local groups should have direct power over industry. . .

Duchin defines opportunists as people who engage in activism seeking 'visibility, power, followers and, perhaps, even employment. . .The key to dealing with opportunists is to provide them with at least the perception of partial victory. . . If your industry can successfully bring about these relationships, the credibility of the radicals will be lost and opportunists can be counted on to share in the final policy solution.' (pp. 66-67)

While PR firms hold one hand outstreched to "realistic" activists, their other hand beckons right-wing hate groups. ". . . Many of the same companies that are funding anti-environmental extremists are also pouring money into mainstream environmental groups. Joe Lyford, Jr. reports in Propaganda Review that corporate sponsors of the World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, National Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation also funded about one-quarter of the 37 organizations described in the Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations." (p. 127)

Perhaps the most grotesque pattern of cooptation is that of Earth Day:

. . . Earth Day USA began . . . to make April 22, 1995 the biggest eco-publicity blast of all time. . . What about decisions by previous national Earth Day groups to screen large corporate contributions? According to board member Jerry Klamon, that approach was passÚ. 'We would work with companies others probably wouldn't, because we see the need for the "carrot" approach. These companies need to be . . . brought along.' Klamon's St. Louis group accepted funding from Monsanto. . . [Klamon said] 'These PR people are obviously good at penetrating the American consciousness.' (p. 136)

Jerry was one of the four people who formed the Gateway Green Alliance. Political greens should never forget that Newt Gingrich began his career as a liberal environmentalist and it was only after realizing which side his bread was buttered on that he evolved (devolved?) into what he is today.

Activists often become demoralized by what seems like endless infighting with those who want an "understanding" approach towards corporations. One of the most frequent complaints is "I expect the attacks we get from the polluters. But I can't take what happens inside our own organization." Though people who have been coopted by corporate "nurturing" probably vastly outnumber those who intentionally try to undermine groups, their effect can be just as devastating. Activists can become worn out haggling with those who say they want to protect the environment but who continuously make excuses for the corporations which are destroying it. Organizers can be the target of whispering campaigns that they are "paranoid" for not showing trust. Activist meetings can be disrupted by screaming tirades against those who "block consensus" to work with polluters. In extreme cases, organizers are subjected to threats of lawsuits by corporate sympathizers.

The first impulse for many is simply to leave. Of course, there is nothing that would please polluters more than for activists to walk away. Stauber and Rampton's Toxic Sludge hammers home that PR firms relentlessly study how to discredit, disrupt and demoralize movements which threaten their clients. As firms increase the sophistication of their "low intensity warfare," progressives will find that the struggle to keep their organization together is identical to the struggle to protect public health.

Note: All page numbers in parentheses are from Stauber & Rampton.

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