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Thursday, September 20, 2012

We Live in an Era of Spin

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” — Edward Bernays, 1928

Today we live in an age of spin. By spin I am not referring to a Ferris wheel or top, but the distortion in the news and how current events and the products we buy are portrayed in our media. We live in an age where we are accustomed to 15 or 30 second commercials telling us what automobile, breakfast cereal, tooth paste, or beer to buy. We are used to these and our brain is able to process 15 or 30 seconds worth of spoken words, images, and sounds very easily.

This world of spin now affects the way we receive our news about politics and national affairs. If you have ever watched some of the news and opinion shows you will see how the talking heads will stick to their preconceived talking points no matter what question is asked of them. They will stick to the agenda that has been approved for them by the political party or politician they support. Even in so-called debate shows where the debate lasts for two or three minutes the opposing parties beat each other over the head with their talking points and rarely address the issue at hand with honesty or candor. In essence we live in a world dominated by PowerPoint.

A recent example is the issue of the terrorist attacks on our consulate in Benghazi and the so-called Romney tape.

Both domestic and foreign intelligence sources have repeatedly stated that the Benghazi was a planned Al Qaeda attack and were not spontaneous protests caused by the so-called anti- Muslim video. The most recent report of this appears in Fox News:

“Intelligence sources tell Fox News they are convinced the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was directly tied to Al Qaeda -- with a former Guantanamo detainee involved.

That revelation comes on the same day a top Obama administration official called last week's deadly assault a "terrorist attack" -- the first time the attack has been described that way by the administration after claims it had been a "spontaneous" act.

"Yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy," Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said during a Senate hearing Wednesday.”

However, his statement goes beyond White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, saying the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate was spontaneous. He is the first top administration official to call the strike an act of terrorism. The Fox Report continues:

Rice appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and four other morning talk shows to say the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans was "spontaneous" and sparked by an early protest that day outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, over an anti-Islamic video.

"It was a reaction to a video that had nothing to do with the United States," Rice told Fox News. "The best information and the best assessment we have today is that this was not a pre-planned, pre-meditated attack. What happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo."

However, that account clashed with claims by the Libyan president that the attack was in fact premeditated. Other sources, including an intelligence source in Libya who spoke to Fox News, have echoed those claims. The intelligence source even said that, contrary to the suggestion by the Obama administration, there was no major protest in Benghazi before the deadly attack which killed four Americans. A U.S. official did not dispute the claim. “

This is spin by an administration that is attempting to avoid embarrassment, yet alone culpability for its lack of providing proper security at the consulate.

We no longer have proper debates in the form of the Lincoln-Douglas debates where the two candidates stood side by side for several hours and presented theirs view on the views on the questions of the day — mainly slavery and the Dread Scott decision. There was no moderator with a specific agenda allowing a mere 90 seconds for a talking points answer. The longer these men went on the more they said and revealed their true thoughts and character. They were versed in the skill of rhetoric, not the use of the teleprompter or PowerPoint. It was up to the public to make up their minds as to who they wanted to vote for based on the fortitude, character, and philosophy expressed by the candidate.

So how did we get to the point in our national debate where we are today?

In the days of the traveling snake oil salesman he had to go from town to town with his wagon load of tonics and elixirs, set up shop and spend the day telling the assembled crowd how his preparations could cure everything that ailed you. When he had finished selling all he could he would pack up and move to the next town where he would start all over again.

In the early 1920’s radios became affordable and almost every home across the land owned one. This gave rise to more and more radio stations and the demand for more and more programing. To support the cost of the stations and programming he radio stations needed to sell air time to sponsors who would sell the products over the this new electronic media.

Unlike the traveling salesman and snake oil peddlers radio stations did not have all day to sell a sponsor’s product over the air waves. They had to do it in 30 seconds or less if they wanted to retain the attention of the listeners — thus entered the growth of the ad agencies and Madison Avenue.

These add men had already been making their living producing advertising for magazines and newspapers. With the printed media ads could contain both words and images, but on radio the commercials depended on words and music, thus the advent of the singing jingles and slogans that we can still see today. This was called branding.

People tended to believe testimonials for products on the radio. The more soothing the voice was more believable the message. This worked especially well with women who listened to the daily soap operas while their husbands were at work and usually made the decisions on what products to purchase for the family. This is why these daily 30-minute dramas were sponsored by laundry soap (thus the name soap opera), breakfast cereal, flour, and other home products.

Spin and propaganda has always been with us to some extent. When Rome burned Nero blamed the Christians and the French blamed Dreyfus for the'Destroy_this_mad_brute'_WWI_propaganda_poster_(US_version) (1) leakage of French military secrets to the Germans. Both were not only false they were clumsy. When Woodrow Wilson dragged the United States into the First World War he needed an arm of government to spin his war message to the American Public. For this purpose he created the Committee on Public Information AKA the Creel Committee due to its chairman George Creel. It was the mission of the CPI to promote Wilson’s war to the American public through the use of newspapers, magazines, posters and the newly discovered power of radio. It used every medium available to create enthusiasm for the war effort and enlist public support against foreign attempts to undercut America's war aims. Creel was a die-hard Democrat who was quoted as saying; “"an open mind is not part of my inheritance. I took in prejudices with mother's milk and was weaned on partisanship.” Other members of the CPI were the renowned political columnist Walter Lippmann and the Austrian born nephew of the famous psychoanalysis pioneers Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays. It was Bernays who would go on to become known as the “father of spin.”

Amazed by the degree to which the “democracy” slogan had swayed the public both at home and abroad, Bernays wondered whether this propaganda model could be employed during peace time. Due to negative implications surrounding the word propaganda because of its use by the Germans in World War I, he promoted the term "Public Relations". According to the BBC interview with Bernays’ daughter Anne, Bernays felt that the public's democratic judgment was "not to be relied upon" and he feared that "they [the American public] could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so that they had to be guided from above". This "guidance" was interpreted by Anne to mean that her father believed in a sort of "enlightened despotism" ideology. This was a far cry from our Founders who put their thoughts and philosophies of government in the Federalist Papers.

Bernays’ public relations efforts helped to popularize Freud's theories in the United States. Bernays also pioneered the PR industry's use of psychology and other social sciences to design its public persuasion campaigns: He is quoted as saying:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”

Bernays refined and popularized the use of the press release, following itsEdward_Bernays invention by PR man Ivy Lee, who had issued a press release after the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck. One of the most famous campaigns of Bernays was the women's cigarette smoking campaign in 1920s. Bernays helped the tobacco industry overcome one of the biggest social taboos of the time: women smoking in public. Women were only allowed to smoke in designated areas, or not at all. If caught violating this rule, women would have been arrested. Bernays staged the 1929 Easter parade in New York City, showing models holding lit Lucky Strike cigarettes, or "Torches of Freedom". After the historical public event, women started lighting up more than ever before. It was through Bernays that women's smoking habits started to become socially acceptable. Bernays created this event as news, which, of course, it wasn’t. Bernays convinced industries that the news, not advertising, was the best medium to carry their message to an unsuspecting public. This is a technique that has been refined for today’s mainstream media as lazy journalists buy the spin and ignore the facts.

One of Bernays’ favorite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of "third party authorities" to plead his clients' causes. "If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway", he said. In order to promote sales of bacon, for example, he conducted a survey of physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat heavy breakfasts. He sent the results of the survey to 5,000 physicians, along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as a heavy breakfast. This technique was used during the debate over ObamaCare when 50 people dressed in white doctor’s coats appeared on the White House lawn to promote the passage of the bill. This was pure Bernays

Bernays also drew upon his uncle Sigmund's psychoanalytic ideas for the benefit of commerce in order to promote, by indirection, commodities as diverse as cigarettes, soap and books,

In his 1928 book Propaganda Bernays argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

In the first chapter, Organizing Chaos, of his book Bernays writes:

“In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if every one went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.

It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition. We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.

Some of the phenomena of this process are criticized—the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses. The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.

As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.”

In chapter VII, Propaganda for Education Bernays writes:

“The normal school should provide for the training of the educator to make him realize that his is a twofold job: education as a teacher and education as a propagandist.”

In the book “The Father of Spin” by Larry Tye reviewers John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton write:

“Today, few people outside the public relations profession recognize the name of Edward L. Bernays. As the year 2000 approaches, however, his name deserves to figure on historians' lists of the most influential figures of the 20th century.

It is impossible to fundamentally grasp the social, political, economic and cultural developments of the past 100 years without some understanding of Bernays and his professional heirs in the public relations industry. PR is a 20th century phenomenon, and Bernays -- widely eulogized as the "father of public relations" at the time of his death in 1995 -- played a major role in defining the industry's philosophy and methods.”

Bernays' life was amazing in many ways. He had a role in many of the seminal intellectual and commercial events of this century. "The techniques he developed fast became staples of political campaigns and of image-making in general," Tye notes. "That is why it is essential to understand Edward L. Bernays if we are to understand what Hill and Knowlton did in Iraq -- not to mention how Richard Nixon was able to dig his way out of his post-Watergate depths and remake himself into an elder statesman worthy of a lavish state funeral, how Richard Morris repositioned President Bill Clinton as an ideological centrist in order to get him reelected, and how most other modern-day miracles of public relations are conceived and carried out."

Many of the new insights that Tye offers have to do with Bernays's relationship with his family and his uncle Sigmund Freud, whose reputation as "the father of psychoanalysis" owes something to Bernays' publicity efforts. Bernays regarded Uncle Sigmund as a mentor, and used Freud's insights into the human psyche and motivation to design his PR campaigns, while also trading on his famous uncle's name to inflate his own stature.

There is, however, a striking paradox in the relationship between the two. Uncle Sigmund's "talking cure" was designed to unearth his patients' unconscious drives and hidden motives, in the belief that bringing them into conscious discourse would help people lead healthier lives. Bernays, by contrast, used psychological techniques to mask the motives of his clients, as part of a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping the public unconscious of the forces that were working to mold their minds.

Characteristically (and again paradoxically), Bernays was remarkably candid about his manipulative intent. "If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it," he argued in Propaganda, one of his first books. In a later book, he coined the term "engineering of consent" to describe his technique for controlling the masses.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society," Bernays argued. "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."


During Bernays' lifetime and since, propaganda has usually had dirty connotations, loaded and identified with the evils of Nazi PR genius Joseph Goebbels, or the oafish efforts of the Soviet Communists. In his memoirs, Bernays wrote that he was "shocked" to discover that Goebbels kept copies of Bernays' writings in his own personal library, and that his theories were therefore helping to "engineer" the rise of the Third Reich.”

The next time you read an article in a newspaper or magazine or watch one of the numerous news and opinion shows on TV watch with a jaundiced eye and listen with a doubting ear. Consider the person or publication making the statement and the agenda they are promoting. Study history, not from a college professor who no doubt has a personal agenda at work in his classroom, but from various sources. Learn to identify the spin and talking points and demand more honest debate. The hand of Edward Bernays may be reaching out from the grave.

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