Stuart Ewen interviewed by David Barsamian

Stuart Ewen is a professor of media studies at Hunter College in New York. He is the author of a number of books on the media and public relations, most notably PR: A Social History of Spin.

> In the introduction to your book you say that the early years of the 20th century were a “difficult period for big business.” That may come as somewhat of a surprise to people not familiar with the history, given the ascendancy of business today.

The period in the U.S. following the Civil War was one in which resources and industrial capacities were grabbed by highly-concentrated consolidations of wealth. So whereas in mid-century you had a situation where business and ownership and markets tended to be local, from the 1870s onward the “robber barons” in all kinds of industries—particularly the steel, coal and petroleum—basically assumed control over a national industry, putting large numbers of local businesspeople out of business, creating working conditions for folks that were deplorable and wages that were extremely low. If anybody balked about that they would just bring in cheaper labor. So by the end of the 19th century, although on an economic level these big businesses had consolidated and amassed enormous amounts of wealth and economic power, in the minds of many people in the U.S. these industries were criminal enterprises. A major shift had taken place in the basic feelings of the American middle class that now private wealth was acting so irresponsibly and with such contempt for the concerns of ordinary folks that now the middle class looked to the government to deal with the injuries being caused by reckless private wealth.

> One of the early public relations spinmeisters, Ivy Lee warned that “the crowd is now in the saddle. The people now rule. We have substituted for the divine right of kings the divine right of the multitude.”

Ivy Lee was a journalist who came from a conservative Southern background and was very religiously attached to private wealth, and so from around 1904-1905 on he moved from being a journalist to telling the story of business. Ivy Lee was the representative of the railroad industry and of Standard Oil. He spoke for some of the most powerful interests in the society. When he went to them, he said, Look, you’ve got a situation where ordinary people assume that this is a democracy and that their concerns matter. If we don’t start behaving, or at least producing a story that speaks effectively on our behalf, the people are going to grab our power from us. So the history of corporate PR starts as a response to the threat of democracy and the need to create some kind of ideological link between the interests of big business and the interests of ordinary Americans.

> Around this period of the early 1900s, when the industry starts, what are the driving forces that inform its development?

One of the things that needs to be said about this early period is that on the one hand you have this huge consolidation of corporate wealth. On the other hand you have the development of a radical labor movement that is actively moving against the practices of wealth. This is a time of enormous union organizing and strikes. By the late teens general strikes are closing down certain cities. This disaffected middle class all of a sudden begins to feel it’s necessary for government regulation. They become the core of what’s usually known as the progressive movement. What the progressive movement really is in many ways is a movement that uses publicity as a way of shining a spotlight on the injuries and excesses of business and also of the ways in which business is influencing the political system in the society. So there is this flood of anti-business publicity. If you were to talk to somebody in 1904 and 1905 and ask what American publicity was about, they would be talking about anti-corporate PR, to a large extent. It’s really in response to on the one hand a militant labor movement and on the other hand a middle class that instead of identifying with the position of wealth is beginning to identify with the positions of ordinary working folks that people in the business community begin to embrace the idea of PR. The role of the middle class is an essential one in history.

> Also in the early years of the 20th century there was a very lively alternative press, the so-called muckrakers.

The muckrakers were for the most part the spokespeople for this middle class progressive movement. Some of them were journalists who found themselves working for newspapers that were taken over by newspaper chains. This is a period of time where the power of the middleperson is beginning to affect the grocer and the small farmer and to control the prices that either of them are paid or have to pay. So there’s an upsurge of middle-class antagonism to business, and a literary core within that middle-class group become known as the muckrakers, a term applied to them by Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1914 the Ludlow Massacre in southern Colorado occurs in which 14 miners, their wives, children were killed by the Colorado National Guard at the behest of John D. Rockefeller, the owner of that particular mine. How does Ivy Lee work into the story?

First of all, John D. Rockefeller by this time owns most of the energy resources of the U.S. This was a family that not only bought up petroleum but basically any potential source of energy, including by the way solar and nuclear, either to promote them or to keep them from being promoted. So what happened in Ludlow could have happened at other places. After the Ludlow massacre, there is a groundswell of outrage against the massacre, against the way in which the National Guard had worked essentially as private Pinkertons for the Rockefeller family, and at the brutality of the killing of unarmed miners and their families. John D. Rockefeller and Ivy Lee entered into a partnership that would last for the rest of their lives. Lee basically started publishing information sheets about the Ludlow massacre, indicating that the fires had been set by the miners themselves, that Mother Jones, who was active in it, was the keeper of a house of ill repute. There was one fabrication after another.

> Such as “The troops were provoked by the miners.

The spin was that the unfortunate troops had been suckered into killing the miners by the miners themselves. I should say that Ivy Lee’s campaign was not a particularly effective one. Ivy Lee’s reputation throughout much of his life was that of a paid liar.

> Was Ludlow one of the first examples of what’s called damage control?

No. The effective cases of damage control we don’t know about. You want to talk about damage control, ten years before Ludlow, AT&T was trying to essentially monopolize an industry which at that time was not a national industry. There were local phone companies all over the U.S., and for most folks a local phone company was fine. If you lived in Abilene, you weren’t going to call somebody in San Francisco, except if you were in business. So AT&T was a company that understood that a national wire system, and ultimately an international wire system, was going to be the connective tissue of a global economy. The problem was that AT&T was seen as an interloper that was trying to put local phone companies out of business. In those areas where local phone companies were strong, like Kansas City and Milwaukee, the local newspapers trashed AT&T on a daily basis as a company that was trying to wipe out our friends and neighbors. The first thing AT&T did was to start putting advertising in all those local newspapers. If you go back to the archives of the AT&T publicity bureau, it’s clear that the first salvo of advertising begins to soften a lot of local editors to AT&T. They become friendlier. Within a short period of time, in exchange for large amounts of advertising revenue, AT&T is handing pre-written articles to local newspapers, who are now in an economic relationship which encourages them to publish stories written by front people for AT&T. This was an extraordinarily successful campaign. Another thing they did was to use women operators. This was the first time a woman’s voice had ever been the interface between big business and ordinary people.

By 1912/1913, AT&T is known as “Ma Bell” around the country. What they did was to take a situation where they were viewed as a monopolistic force and reinvent themselves. AT&T was also creating a system that would be beneficial to business, so they made a decision to have their business customers subsidize their local customers. They were able to offer local phone rates at a much lower cost. It’s only in the 1970s, with the deregulation of AT&T, that local phone bills skyrocket and long-distance bills become cheap. But for a long time part of their PR policy was to say, If we want support of ordinary folks in a highly regulatory environment, we need to deliver them cheap phone service. And they did. So sometimes PR is smoke and sometimes it’s mirrors, and sometimes it’s giving a little something if the benefits of giving that little something are seen as important enough.

> In your view, do you see a legitimacy for public relations?

I think the history of public relations is a primarily illegitimate one. Most of it is about packaging reality to benefit powerful clients. If one is accurately telling the history, there are certain moments when businesses feel that their interests are so threatened, where some of what they do in the name of PR is actual policy. An example of this is in the late 1940s. If you asked anybody in January 1948 whether or not national health care was going to become a policy in the U.S., almost every political sage would have said, yes. It will be in effect. National health care was something that had been batted around during the New Deal. It was the idea that everybody has a right to medical care regardless of their economic conditions, social class, race or ethnicity. In 1948 it looked like, finally, this thing was going to be kicked in. Part of what happened during that year was that the medical-industrial complex, which at that time was primarily the American Medical Association, the pharmaceutical industries, and the insurance companies, hired a team of PR people—Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter. These were the people who had been the PR people for the supermarket chains as they seized power over local grocers and small farmers.

In any event, in the late 1940s they hired Whittaker and Baxter to defeat national health insurance. By the end of 1948, less than 12 months, it was defeated and essentially smeared as being communism. But during that very same year a lot of businesses started delivering health packages to workers. So for a worker at say, Ford or General Motors, you were getting something from business which you thought would only come from governmental intervention. Of course, by the 1970s, all of these gains begin to erode.

> Let’s go back to World War I. Wilson creates what sounds, innocuously enough, the Committee on Public Information, run by George Creel.

Wilson ran for president in 1916 on the promise that he’d keet us out of war. By spring 1917, he was about to lead the nation into war. A lot of the specialists around him say, You’ve lied to large numbers of people. There are large numbers of people who are convinced that U.S. entry into this war is ridiculous, inappropriate, and unjust. If you’re going to be able to wage this war, it can’t just be a war of arms. It needs to be a war for the hearts and minds. Two of his most powerful advisors, Arthur Bullard and Walter Lippman, convinced Wilson that the only way to wage this war was as a propaganda war as well as a military one. So the CPI was born within a week after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917.

George Creel, an old progressive journalist, a muckraker, somebody who had written critically about Ivy Lee after the Ludlow massacre, is appointed head of CPI. Very smart, because right away it aligns the war with the progressive movement. Second, you need to create a seamless environment where wherever you turn the pro-war message is coming out. So what Creel did was organize the artists, the writers, the advertising people, the publicists, the schoolteachers, and the journalists—virtually every person in society whose work had to do with influence became essentially drafted into the ranks of the CPI. It was an extraordinarily intricate propaganda apparatus. They published daily news briefings, but they also produced posters. They had speech-giving contests in public schools. They had local businesspeople and lawyers, influential people in communities around the country became members of the group called the Four-Minute Men, who would get up in movie theaters before a movie was about to show and would give a speech on behalf of the war and on behalf of being wary of those who questioned the war and the need to distrust those neighbors of yours who say anything about the war being the rich man’s war and so on.

A lot of people who had previously been working locally now were brought into a national propaganda apparatus. This is important, in part because after the war was over, even though the CPI was dismantled, you had a national propaganda machine. There’s no way of looking at the growth of the national advertising industry, and the national film industry in the 1920s without seeing the way in which the war machine, particularly the CPI, gave them the wherewithal for developing a national reach.

In addition to that, you have an interesting shift in what I would call the rhetoric of propaganda. Early on in the war, the primary strategy that Creel supports is one that says, We need to get the facts out to the people. These facts don’t necessary have to be the truth, but the idea is, Give people facts that will allow them to see the war in a certain way. People in the CPI stop talking about providing people with facts and increasingly talk about appealing to the emotions. This is the beginning of mass psychology.

The most effective propaganda is that which is invisible. If propaganda is seen as propaganda, it’s not working. One of the failures of the Soviet system was that its propaganda was always understood for a large part, from the early 1930s on, by its own people as propaganda.

> What do you mean by that?

One of the things we haven’t talked about yet is the issue of sophistication and this very strong link between PR and social psychology. Social psychology was a field that dated back to the late 19th century, particularly in France. People who were concerned about the urban masses started trying to figure out what made the mob tick because they believed that the mob no longer respected authority and hierarchy. Therefore it was necessary to understand the inner psychology of the mob so that you could offer them the pictures and stories that would subdue their rage. In the late 19th century a lot of that stuff has a wacky sound to it. By the end of the First World War, social psychology and its insights are not only being applied to the mob but are also being viewed as the way in which you influence it. The basic insight of social psychology is that people are driven not by rational judgment or by deliberation, but by unconscious drives, by the irrational, by instinctual aspects of their inner beings, things that they’re not conscious of.

From the early 1920s on, a lot of what the American PR industry and advertising industry are about is monitoring public feeling. We see it all the time today in polls and focus groups. We can produce narratives that will touch people deeply. Walter Lippman is one of the most influential American intellectuals of the 20th century, an advisor to presidents and people of power from Woodrow Wilson through Nixon and Ford. He wrote a book in 1922 called Public Opinion that is the first systematic study of how a leader can get public support for his/her policies. Lippman’s basic premise is, we live in a democracy, and yet people in a democracy are incapable of understanding the world. They’re driven by pictures in their heads. They respond to pseudo-environments. They have these mental that preordain how they will respond to the world. As a result, if one wants to lead effectively in the modern world where the economy and the society and intellectual life and culture are crossing borders as never before, Lippman is saying, to lead effectively, a leader must understand how to produce those pictures that will appear in people’s heads in order to get people to support those executive actions which he is interested in taking.

> It is Lippman who coins the term “manufacture of consent.”

What Lippman lays out in Public Opinion and in a subsequent book called The Phantom Public are the basic rules of behavior of those people who are interested in influencing public opinion. While some of the technologies have changed, the basic strategies that Lippman lays out are there from the beginning, and what is clear is, Never talk to people about real ideas. Never try to inform people about what issues are at play. Go to the gut. Symbols are more powerful than ideas. If you give people ideas they’re going to argue with each other. They’re going to debate things. But if you hit them with symbols, particularly symbols that have been separated from ideas and which have a kind of universal poignancy, you can turn a heterogeneous mass of opinion into a homogenous perception, a homogenous will. What Lippman says in the 1920s is that the key to persuasion is to intensify feeling and to degrade signification. This is his terminology. Politicians and steering committees and corporate boards have been behaving along those terms every since.

> Talk more about Edward Bernays.

Bernays was this guy who introduced mass psychology to the standard practice of PR. Bernays takes Lippman’s theory of public opinion and puts it into practice to sell soap, bacon, cigarettes, all kinds of things. He was the double nephew of Freud. His mother was Freud’s sister. His father was Freud’s wife’s brother. So this is a guy who was born in Vienna, who came to the U.S. early on in this century. Literally the unconscious is like dinner conversation at the Bernays’s household. One of the most famous of his promotions is when he went to work for the American Tobacco Company. One of the problems at the time was that women were not smoking enough in public. Why? You have to realize that this is a period of time when the health problems surrounding tobacco were considered relatively minuscule and where even doctors are giving testimonials in cigarette advertisements and women are being encouraged to reach for a Lucky Strike instead of a sweet, that this is a good diet aid. But still, there is this idea that a cigarette, this kind of miniature phallic symbol, is a symbol of masculine rights, precisely because men can smoke in public and women can’t. So he goes to a group of feminists—his wife, Doris Fleishman, was a feminist and very actively involved in these issues and pushed him in many of his campaigns. He goes to this group of former suffragettes and convinces them that they should have a march down Fifth Avenue carrying cigarettes in the air as torches of freedom. So he takes the symbol of masculine power, puts it in the hands of women, has them march, and all of a sudden the cigarette is not about tobacco, not about taste, not about smoke, it’s about freedom.

> Wasn’t Bernays the pioneer in getting expert medical opinion to promote certain advertising campaigns? Dentists agree, Doctors recommend.

Bernays talks about is what he calls “opinion leaders.” You don’t want to waste your PR on everybody. There are certain people within the society who function as opinion leaders. At times those people may be celebrities around certain issues or sports stars. But one of the conventional opinion leaders, of course, is the doctor, the lawyer, the dentist, depending on what you’re talking about. So Bernays went to certain compliant doctors and got them to go along, but then also took that opinion leader and held him up for public visibility with the idea that the opinions of some will have influence over the opinions of others.

> But there are also occasions where even though the massive public relations industry, which is so well funded and organized, simply falls flat on its face. I think of the Three Mile Island incident and its aftermath.

Part of why the history of PR is so interesting is because you see that it’s a history of a battle for what is reality and how people will see and understand reality. PR isn’t functioning in a vacuum. PR is usually functioning to try to protect itself against other ideas that are percolating within a society. So under no circumstances should what I’m saying about Bernays in terms of the use of social psychology indicate that these are automatic processes that always work. They don’t always work. They don’t always work because to some extent, despite what Lippman said, people don’t just function by pictures in their heads. They also experience things from their own lives. Often their experiences are at odds with the propaganda that’s being pumped out there.

One of the most dramatic examples of this was during the Vietnam War. Because one of the standard drills about what happened in Vietnam and why the U.S. lost the war is that there were all these cameras out in the field that started sending pictures home. The U.S. had been sending cameras out into the field in the Second World War. That was part of the assumption, that bringing pictures home was part of the way in which you created an identification between people at home and the boys at the front. So the war photography done during the Second World War, rather than turning people off, provided a kind of visual bond between people back home and the GIs overseas. But what happens in Vietnam is that a technique that might have made sense in the Second World War because of what we were fighting for and who we were fighting against, all of a sudden becomes an Achilles heel. The very openness of the battlefield to journalists and photographers, which had been part of the way you fight a war in the 1940s, becomes a way you don’t fight a war in the 1960s. If you look at the Gulf War policy—every millimeter of visibility of that war was processed through the Pentagon—you see the way in which all of a sudden the war apparatus is saying, We need to rethink how we do this stuff and we need to present them with pictures where there’s no more blood and no more dirt.

> That was true before the Gulf War. Grenada and Panama were also two very carefully orchestrated media events.

I didn’t tell that story about the First World War just for the hell of it. To some extent, just like Teflon is a development of war and all kinds of other new materials and technologies, war has often been the place where some of the most sophisticated propagandistic techniques or public information techniques have been developed. There’s no question they walk into Vietnam using weapons which are no longer applicable. In the case of Vietnam, the propaganda strategy and the reality of the war were at odds, and the U.S. has been laundering all information about foreign policy ever since.

> One of the interesting stories that you tell in PR is the Kuwaiti incubator incident in the fall of 1990. It involved Hill & Knowlton, one of the largest PR firms in the world, who incidentally were on the payroll of the Kuwaiti royal family. How did Hill & Knowlton engineer consent against Iraq and mobilize American public opinion for war?

Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller are two huge corporations which are PR businesses, both of which are attached to huge advertising agencies. Hill & Knowlton is connected to J. Walter Thompson and Burson-Marsteller is connected to Young and Rubicam. The latter was part of Nixon’s inner circle. So you’re not dealing with people who are selling peanut butter. They are people who have for a long time been engaged in big-time politics and even war on occasion. So what happens is, from the vantage point of the person on the couch, they turn on the tube one night, and they see this young, forlorn Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah who is telling the story of what she witnessed in Kuwait City when the Iraqi soldiers came in, going into hospitals, taking little babies out of incubators, tossing them on the floor to die. That’s an extraordinarily powerful picture in somebody’s head. It’s stories like that which were told in the fall of 1990 which to some extent marched this nation into war. It turns out that Nayirah is the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S. She hadn’t even been in Kuwait City during the period of time that was being talked about. The Congressional caucus committee where she was testifying was staged by a guy named Gary Hymel, a Hill & Knowlton operative who had previously worked for the Turkish government. You have a Congressional subcommittee that looks like, for the person on the couch, an investigation. It turns out that the caucus committee was not an official Congress thing. It was something staged by Hill & Knowlton. It was a good show. By the way, it came out after a while, but by that time the damage had been done.

> To continue with the Kuwaiti incubator story, when the information comes out that this whole thing is staged and fabricated, what kind of media attention does it get? Is it the lead story on the networks or on the front page of the New York Times?

It appeared in John McArthur’s book Second Front, and it was covered in some of the smaller magazines. But for the most part, this kind of story gets no coverage whatsoever. For a story like this to come out punches a hole in the whole media system. It used to be that a PR person would send out a simple press release. Now, increasingly what’s being sent out are stories that are pre-written, sometimes pre-produced for television. These video news releases where something that looks like a news story is sent to a local station. This is very common in terms of stories about pharmaceuticals, and this is the cynicism of it, the early generation of video news releases, VNRs, were totally packaged stories. The problem with them was that a lot of the people who appeared in the stories were not familiar to the normal viewers of the given show. So now a lot of these VNRs come with what’s called B-roll. If there’s somebody being interviewed, you can have pictures of the person just listening, so that you can cut in your own reporters to make it look like your own reporters at your local news station are interviewing this person. If you are in the news business and have a quota of three stories a day, I’m coming to you and saying, here’s a story, and not only that, you don’t even need to do much. We’ve already produced it for you. You have a situation where the news apparatus is completely on the take in terms of public relations.

I’ve spoken to PR people, and not those who are critical of their own profession, and they estimate that 90 percent of what you see in the New York Times has some heavy influence of public relations activity going on. What we need to do when we start looking at news stories, is to look at who the sources are and understand that when a public information officer from such-and-such spoke, we’re really talking about a PR person. Or when we’re talking about some organization that is fighting for something and we’ve never heard of this organization, we need to know that one of the things that PR strategists often do is to create these fake shell groups which are in support of this issue or which are in opposition to this issue.

A standard practice now is what is called “astroturf organizing,” where people drum up the semblance of popular opposition to something or popular support for something. The ability to create fictions of current events and fictions of public expression is what PR is all about. Those polls that are in the paper are very rarely ones that are taken to see what people think. Most of the polls, whether we’re talking about Gallup or Roper, are for hire. Even though some of the questions we see sound like they’re public interest questions, they are usually part of much larger surveys that are designed to not only measure public opinion for very specific purposes, but also to try to orchestrate public opinion for specific purposes.

> To get back to the issue of manufactured news, this should perhaps be contextualized into what’s happening in the newsroom, the enormous shrinkage of news-gathering budgets. There are fewer journalists practicing today. I don’t know what the exact figure is, but the number of people working in PR dwarfs the number of working journalists.

That’s absolutely true. Half the people in journalism want to go into PR, because they see that as the way you can be successful, which is a sad commentary, not just for the journalistic profession, but for the fate of democracy. When you have a journalistic community that has become so cynical that they don’t even see the distinction between themselves and propagandists and they yearn to enter the minions of propaganda, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. It’s an interesting parallel with what’s happening in education right now. As funding for public education goes down in the society, the entrance of big business into the educational sphere is unabated. The dovetailing of educational knowledge and advertising is astounding. There was a story in the New York Times a few weeks ago about a math book that is filled with advertisements.

> In recent years there has been a series of megamergers, takeovers, a greater concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few. This is viewed with alarm in some circles. Do you think that media concentration by definition is a problem?

When the sources of information are limited to a few people, then the rest of us are rendered voiceless. So one could certainly say that that’s something to worry about. I think that there are a lot of cracks in the system where so few organizations control so much. It’s sort of like running an empire. You could look at the Internet as a place in which corporations are moving en masse in order to move into that area. It is also a place where a lot of interesting, combative, and diverse political voices can be seen and heard. Where it will go, I’m not sure. I’m not a utopian about the Internet. But for a completely homogenized, centralized system, as it is often described, if you look at the Internet there’s a lot of shake room out there. But I also think that one of the ways in which the power of the media in our society asserts itself is within our own minds, where we begin to view the media as so powerful that we virtually have no possibility of being heard. As long as we harbor those thoughts, it’s true.

We need to question the way things function. I think that the more there is a concentration of ownership in the media the more the media system is vulnerable for being accused of being monopolistic. Part of our problem is that we live in a world where there is a great distinction between who is the author and who is the audience, who is the image maker and who is the viewer. We often tend to view ourselves as part of that audience, that viewership. The struggle that lies ahead for us is to narrow that gap, and that means ensuring that in our local school systems, as impoverished as they may be, media education is in the forefront of what we’re concerned about, from early grades. Media literacy is not just about learning how to read the lies that we’re being told. You don’t teach people how to read so they’ll be able to diagnose the lies in the books that have been written. You teach them to read in order to have an enhanced sense of the possibility of communication.

One of the intentions in my book is not merely to document the evils of publicity. Publicity is an essential thing that we need to know about and know how to do. A lot of what the book is about is the way in which publicity has been used in order to inform and educate people about the broader conditions within which they live and I think that’s a possibility of publicity that we need to embrace. Just like we can’t view images as intrinsically evil just because some people use images in order to misinform. Thomas Paine was a publicist. The Declaration of Independence is a document of publicity. Part of the power of publicity is to make a public more possible. Rather than condemn publicity, I think it is our job to reappropriate it for more meaningful and more humane purposes.

This interview was aired on David Barsamian's Alternative Radio in April 1999. It appeared online in ZMag in May 2000 and Media Channel in June 2000.

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