|Number 180||November 22, 2002|
At a time of war, rest assured that any government is focusing its efforts on the minds of the domestic population as much as on the bodies of the foreign enemies. It's a strange brew that results when the ever-more-sophisticated public relations savvy of our political elites combines with the overwhelming "market share" provided those voices by the mass-market media in the modern corporate environment. This week I share a little chronology that gives a rather surreal hint of what our government might be up to as it attempts to "sell" its current wars to a skeptical public. The details are always new. The overall strategy is about eight decades old, which I'll talk about in coming weeks.
Thanks once again to all of you who have sent in the contributions! Even though the Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive ended a month ago, donations continue to arrive at the old post office box. It means a lot to me. Thanks as well to those of you who have sent in notes and E-mails in response to some of the recent issues. Very helpful, morale-boosting, and constructive comments, all! And, finally, welcome to the new readers this week. I look forward to hearing your comments, too.
Until next week,
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is no joke, especially that part about freedom of the press. The best defense against a dishonest state—or any powerful institution—is an organized population informed by an independent press. In theory, corporate and government power to manipulate the public would be seriously limited by a press that would hold them accountable to the people. So, why doesn't the press in the United States, for the most part, do that? It's not a conspiracy, but they are, in a sense, in cahoots. In the modern era, government efforts at manipulating information are inseparable from, inspired by, and modeled after the practices of the public relations industry.
In the world of public relations, the reality of any situation is far less important than the public's perception of that reality. Neither an ad agency nor a campaign manager are judged by the quality of their product or the qualifications of their candidate. They are judged by sales and votes. Increasingly, and predictably, politicians spend more time on honing their "message" and their "image" than they do on acting in accord with their principles, trusting the press to report what they say and mostly ignore what they do. Is it any surprise, then, that the politicians who make it to the top believe they can "sell" any policy they want with the right combination of PR and power? Including war?
The problem comes when you see that both the government and the corporate media are interested in the same thing: getting their "message" out to the largest number of people possible. In the government's case, it wants to get people excited about its wars and other policies; in the media's case, it wants to get people excited about its advertisers' products. Two huge institutions aiming at the same mass audience—they need each other, which doesn't bode well for the idea of an independent press.
Consider the question "Why do they hate us?" that has echoed through the nation in the wake of September 11th. In response, our political leaders have steadfastly refused to consider the possibility that some of the ill-will that feeds the scourge of terrorism may have its roots in the policies and actions of our government over the years. Instead, the problem is presented as a "failure to understand" the United States on the part of the rest of the world. The answer? Better public relations, better marketing of "Brand USA."
This PR/War intersection is worth looking at, but it's awfully hard to see in "real time." Most of it, after all, is secret. So, over the next few weeks I plan to look at some history. I'll be focusing on some of the ideas for manipulating the public born in World War I, at the dawn of the Age of Advertising. Many of the ideas born then have survived and thrived up to the present day in the selling of wars large and small. My hope is that, if we understand more fully the ways in which we have been consciously manipulated during previous wars, and the ways in which we have been and still are vulnerable to such manipulation, the better we will be able to defend ourselves against it. At the very least, there are some fascinating stories to tell.
Here is a little propaganda chronology that I think you will find illuminating.
THE YEAR 1927...
Here is a remark from the classic study by legendary social scientist Harold Lasswell, "Propaganda Technique in the World War." (He was referring, of course, to World War I, the War to End All Wars) "Indeed, there is no question but that government management of opinion is an unescapable corollary of large-scale modern war. The only question is the degree to which the government should try to conduct its propaganda secretly, and the degree to which it should conduct it openly."
Despite his belief that the need for secret propaganda is part and parcel of "modern war," Lasswell goes on to point out that "It is bad tactics, however, to announce blatantly to the enemy that a ‘Director of Propaganda in Enemy Countries' has been named." It may have been a bad idea but, as Lasswell pointed out, British newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe had been appointed to precisely this post in February 1918. 75 years pass, and we find ourselves in...
THE YEAR 2002, FEBRUARY 19TH...
Keep in mind Lasswell's idea of "bad tactics" as you peruse the following excerpt from an article that caused quite an uproar when it was published in the New York Times ("All the News That's Fit to Print"), nine months ago now, under the headline, "Pentagon Readies Efforts to Sway Sentiment Abroad":
"The Pentagon is developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policy makers in both friendly and unfriendly countries, military officials said... Headed by Brig. Gen. Simon P. Worden of the Air Force, the new office [the "Office of Strategic Influence"] has begun circulating classified proposals calling for aggressive campaigns that use not only the foreign media and the Internet, but also covert operations... General Worden envisions a broad mission ranging from ‘black' campaigns that use disinformation and other covert activities to ‘white' public affairs that rely on truthful news releases, Pentagon officials said..."
THE NEXT DAY, FEBRUARY 20th...
As part of the uproar caused by the Times' article on the previous day, Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith on the 20th was asked some interesting questions on this subject. They were not widely reported, spoken as they were at a breakfast meeting of a rather obscure group called the "Defense Writers Group." Here's a part of the transcript of that meeting:
FIVE DAYS AFTER THAT, FEBRUARY 25TH...
Here's "President" G.W. Bush, speaking to reporters at the World Trade Center:
THE NEXT DAY, FEBRUARY 26TH...
Speaking of the Secretary of "Defense," here are the words of Secretary Rumsfeld at a Defense Department News Briefing: "I met with Undersecretary Doug Feith this morning, and he indicated to me that he has decided to close down the Office of Strategic Influence."
Recalling Professor Lasswell's "bad tactics" remark, one may think that this was the end of the official U.S. government office aimed at propagandizing "enemy countries." One would be incorrect in thinking that, however.
On October 31st, 2002, Charles H. Dolan, Jr., Vice Chair of the federal government's Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, speaking at a symposium of (who else?) the Public Relations Society of America, said this:
"While the United States wages a war against terrorism, there is an additional theater—one of communications—and the battleground is the hearts and minds of the Arab people. This battle is fought not in the air, but over the airwaves and in the newspapers of the Middle East. The Commission recently made several recommendations to the President and Secretary of State to improve the efficacy of this information campaign.
"One of these recommendations is to fully implement the White House Office of Global Communications that you have probably heard so much about. Our Report noted that the White House already coordinates communications across agency lines to reach a number of large domestic audiences. But what we are recommending is that a similar effort be directed toward international audiences. Every agency needs to be on message if we are to have an effective public diplomacy. The Office of Global Communications located in the White House is the place to coordinate this message."
More on this office in a future issue of Nygaard Notes.
POSTSCRIPT TO THE EPILOGUE:
Bear in mind the very real possibility that there never was any actual plan for an "Office of Strategic Influence" at all, and that the entire leak about this "Disinformation Office" was planned, and was itself an instance of a so-called "black campaign." (Why, after all, would the office "begin circulating classified proposals" to the press? Aren't they classified?)
But why, some might ask, would the government do such a thing? Well, for one thing, these leaks provide an opportunity for the Pentagon and the President to act out mock outrage at the idea that "somehow our government would never tell the American people the truth," to use the President's elegant phrasing. By pretending to cancel a program that would act so reprehensibly, the myth that our government is above lying to its people is perpetuated in the public mind, and all subsequent press releases become just that much more believable.
This may sound quite convoluted, but that's how you have to think when you try to understand the world of covert operations. And public relations.