As Father Time faded into history with the end of 2005, he was spinning out of control.
Over the past twelve months, the ideal of accurate, accountable, civic-minded news media faced nearly constant attack. Fake news abounded, from Pentagon-planted stories in Iraqi newspapers to corporate- and government-funded video news releases aired by U.S. newsrooms. Enough payola pundits surfaced to constitute their own basketball team -- Doug Bandow, Peter Ferrara, Maggie Gallagher, Michael McManus and Armstrong Williams. (They could call themselves the "Syndicated Shills.")
Then there were the public relations campaigns that sought to redefine reality itself. The oil and nuclear industries could be greenwashed! Rights-abusing governments and labor-abusing companies could be whitewashed! Junk food companies could be nutriwashed and genetically-modified foods poorwashed! The only limitations were PR flacks' imaginations -- and their expense accounts.
Viewed in sum, the extensive pollution of last year's information environment could either make you cynical or have you convinced that two plus two really does equal five.
Here at the Center for Media and Democracy, we realized that sorting through a year's worth of outrageous spin to bestow this year's Falsies Awards was no small task. We asked our readers for help, and 846 people answered the call, filling out our Falsies Awards Survey.
Here, then, are the winners of the second annual Center for Media and Democracy Falsies Awards, followed by our Readers' Choice Falsies. Lastly, we recognize groups and individuals who used information, reason, independent media and community organizing to counter 2005's flack attacks with the Center's first ever Win Against Spin Awards.
And the Falsies Awards Winners Are...
The coveted Gold Falsies Award of 2005 goes to the video news release industry (with a nod to their accomplices in television newsrooms).
In March, the New York Times reported, "At least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years. ... Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgment of the government's role." Video and radio segments from the U.S. Agriculture Department's Broadcast Media & Technology Center, which the Times called "one of the most effective public relations operations inside the federal government," are very one-sided. A Center for Media and Democracy review found pieces deriding public safety concerns about mad cow disease as "nothing but media hype" and promoting the Central American Free Trade Agreement as "very good for agriculture."
It does make a twisted sort of sense, though. These video news releases (VNRs) and audio news releases (ANRs) are produced by public relations firms (or PR staff within companies or government agencies) to advance a client's agenda. They're just like advertisements -- except that listeners or viewers think they're independently-reported news segments. Too bad for them, but it's great propaganda for the corporate and government entities behind the fake news. Everyone knows that ads lie, but who would guess that a report on a company was actually produced by that company?
Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of fake news comes from companies, not governments. During a March teleconference of public relations executives, the CEO of Medialink, one of the largest VNR companies, cautioned his peers, "Let's remember this debate, from everything I've seen, read, heard, and talked to, is purely the government. ... I don't hear anybody issuing a healing cry over the stuff that we do day-in and day-out; it's really government. And I'm glad the story is kind of focused there, because I would hate to see it broaden." Sure thing, Larry -- we won't tell a soul!
The Silver Falsies Award goes to the mainstream media and the Bush administration, for "Not Counting the Dead."
In March, a survey of more than 200 U.S. media personnel by American University's School of Communications found that "many media outlets self-censored their reporting on Iraq," often out of fear of offending their audience. One participant in the survey wrote, "The real damage of war on the civilian population was uniformly omitted." Indeed, U.S. media ignored or downplayed an October 2004 medical study that estimated nearly 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the U.S. invasion. The study, which erred on the side of caution by leaving Fallujah's high mortality rates out of its final projections, was widely praised by public health professionals.
In October, the Pentagon began periodically releasing "enemy body counts ... to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations" in Iraq, reported the Washington Post. In response to a question at a December talk, President Bush broke his silence on civilian casualties to say that "30,000 Iraqis, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence." This newfound candor came as Bush's approval ratings for "handling his job, Iraq, terrorism and the economy" were "all at career-lows," according to ABC News polls. Bush's lowball estimation of civilian deaths was welcomed as "a more realistic tone" by international media and was quickly overshadowed by Iraq's parliamentary elections, held just days later.
The debate about Iraqi civilian casualties mirrors earlier, and similarly marginalized, questions about civilian deaths following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Based on multiple news reports of each casualty, U.S. academic Mark Herold arrived at a conservative estimate of 3,767 Afghan civilians killed by December 2001. Yet U.S. military operations there continued in 2005. Human Rights Watch also claims that U.S. arrest and detention practices are "endangering the lives of Afghan civilians" and "undermining efforts to restore the rule of law in Afghanistan." But what do they know about, um, human rights?
The Bronze Falsies Award goes to the U.S. military and their public relations contractors, for "Spinning Wars and PsyOps."
In January, the Pentagon increased media training for forces going to Iraq, making "one or two hours of briefings by public-affairs specialists" mandatory for Army troops, and distributing wallet-sized "talking point" cards to soldiers. One talking point was, "We are not an occupying force," reported the North Carolina News & Observer.
Apparently, U.S. officials spent much of 2005 in linguistic debates. Initially, opponents in Iraq were called "dead-enders" or "Baathist holdouts." When the dead end started looking more like a long slog, they became "former regime loyalists." That changed to "former regime elements," to avoid the positive connotations of the word "loyalty." In November, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had "an epiphany." "This is a group of people who don't merit the word 'insurgency,'" he said, since that implies that they have "a legitimate gripe." (Remember, there are no occupying forces in Iraq.) Rumsfeld's half-joking re-re-re-naming suggestion was "enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government."
In June, the Pentagon awarded up to $300 million over five years to SYColeman, Inc., Lincoln Group and Science Applications International Corporation, to "inject more creativity into ... psychological operations efforts to improve foreign public opinion about the United States, particularly the military," reported the Washington Post. At the time, the military contractors' work was described as developing "radio and television spots, documentaries, or even text messages, pop-up ads on the Internet, podcasting, billboards or novelty items."
That could be accurate -- if Pentagon officials consider foreign news media to be novelty items. ("Happy birthday! Put on your Al Jazeera party hat!") In November, the Los Angeles Times outed the Lincoln Group for covertly paying Iraqi newspapers to print stories written by U.S. information operations forces. The planted stories were described as "basically factual," although -- like their VNR and ANR cousins -- they presented "only one side of events." But in December, strategy documents obtained by ABC News suggested that the Lincoln Group's description of the November 2004 assault on Fallujah as a joint Iraqi and U.S. military operation was inaccurate. "Marines and reporters said the Iraqis were only minimally involved," reported ABC.
Falsies Awards Dishonorable Mentions go to President Bush, for "Support Our Props," and U.S. Representative Tom DeLay, for "The Mug Shot Mug."
In October, President Bush held a videoconference with U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq that was billed as a "back-and-forth with the troops." However, a premature satellite feed showed Allison Barber, a senior Pentagon official and former president of the PR firm Sodenta, rehearsing the "spontaneous" conversation with the soldiers. Oops! One of the Iraq troops presented as someone with on-the-ground knowledge, Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo, was also a flack. According to David Axe, who reported from Iraq for the Village Voice, Lombardo's "job when I was with the 42nd Infantry Division included taking reporters to lunch. She lives in a fortified compound in Tikrit and rarely leaves."
The same month, U.S. Representative and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reported to the Harris County, Texas sheriff's office after being indicted for campaign finance conspiracy and money laundering. He was fingerprinted and posted a $10,000 bond, but, apparently, he felt great. In his mug shot, DeLay grinned widely, wearing a dapper suit with his House pin on the lapel. Also unlike your typical mug shot, the picture did not include booking information. Reporters conjectured that DeLay's advisors "urged him to grin so that Democrats won't be able to use a dour mug shot in future ad campaigns," according to Slate. But maybe DeLay follows the advice of Billy Crystal's Saturday Night Live character, Fernando: "It's not how you feel; it's how you look. And you look mah-velous!"
And the Readers' Choice Falsies Winners Are...
Many of our readers sent in their own Falsies Awards nominations. Some were for groups, people or trends whose spinning ways the Center for Media and Democracy has been tracking for some time. For instance:
- The American Chemistry Council, which, as one Falsies Awards Survey respondent noted, "recently launched a major PR campaign ... that promotes the economic contributions of toxics producers who are lobbying to weaken the right-to-know annual Toxics Release Inventory report";
- The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a "trade/lobbying group" that "continues to insist that reimportation of their drugs from third countries such as Canada is dangerous," another respondent wrote. "Meanwhile, they're offshoring jobs";
- The American Beverage Association, for "announcing a bogus voluntary policy for soda in schools at the National Conference of State Legislatures when Coke and Pepsi lobby against state bills";
- Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, for, as one respondent put it, promoting "her refusal to testify before the grand jury investigating the outing of a CIA operative as a principled First Amendment cause, but, in reality, she played a lead role in the disinformation campaign to prime public support for a war of aggression"; and
- "Cause marketing," such as the widespread pink ribbon ad campaigns playing on the serious health threat of breast cancer. "I am a survivor and I feel Falsies sums it up," one respondent told us. "We wouldn't really need them if we had a cure."
Other readers urged the Center for Media and Democracy to adopt a more global approach to the Falsies Awards. International nominees of note include:
- British Prime Minister Tony Blair received several write-ins, for the "oh-so-dodgy dossier," his "persuasive" oratories about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, and for "lying to the people and the Parliament of the UK" about the Iraq war;
- The Downing Street Memos (and scant media coverage of them), as "a double-edged sword" that sliced through both "the false Iraq war claims" and the "last shred of credibility" of the mainstream media;
- Ahmed Chalabi, who one respondent called "a one-man PR machine," for having "lied to the Iraqis, lied to the Jordanians, and last but least lied to the Americans." Perhaps his poor showing in December's elections in Iraq is not-so-instant karma?;
- The CanWest Global Communications Corporation, "Canada's leading international media company," for owning a broadcasting network that "reaches more than 94% of English-speaking Canada," as well as "10 major metro dailies and 23 smaller daily, weekly, and community papers," among the many other holdings listed on their website. One respondent wrote, "We no longer have anything close to a free press in Canada except for small alternative publications which have trouble surviving"; and
- The National Coalition for Haitian Rights - Haiti, for engaging in what one respondent called a "partisan campaign to discredit the ousted Aristide government," adding, "Prior to the coup, NCHR ... directly link[ed] police abuses to the government. ... Post-coup, NCHR now refers to killings of civilians by Haitian police as 'collateral damage.'"
And the Win Against Spin Awards Winners Are...
The public relations industry is pervasive, well-funded and highly skilled -- but not insurmountable. Indeed, the Center for Media and Democracy was founded because deceptive PR only works when it remains unquestioned. Once exposed to public scrutiny, front groups, hollow claims and other media perversions lose their power. Then, debates on important issues can take place on a more level playing ground.
For their work to overcome misleading spin and reclaim the media, the following groups and people earned the Center's 2005 Win Against Spin Awards:
- The California Labor Federation, California Nurses Association and Service Employees International Union, for winning their lawsuit against the use of video news releases by Governor Schwarzenegger's administration, to promote workplace rule changes. A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled that the VNRs gave "the misleading impression that the regulations are unopposed by any segments of the public and are not subject to criticism, thereby discouraging any further questioning or investigation of the matter by the public";
- Marla Ruzicka, who founded the group CIVIC (the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict) to document civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of U.S.-led wars and lobbied Congress to provide assistance to families harmed during military operations. Tragically, this is a posthumous award, as Ruzicka was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad in April;
- U.S. Representative Frank Wolf, for questioning the propriety of lobbying contracts between U.S. firms and the foreign governments of China, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Wolf also upbraided the U.S. State Department for granting the lobbying firm C/R International an exemption to the ban on U.S. companies doing business with Sudan;
- Voters in Switzerland, three California counties and nearly 100 New England towns who passed resolutions opposing the unregulated use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or placing a moratorium on the commercial release or cultivation of GMOs. These victories for local food sovereignty and the precautionary approach were won despite massive lobbying and PR campaigns from biotech companies and major farm groups, and attempts to deny communities the right to vote on such matters; and
- Citizen journalists - especially those who risk harassment, imprisonment or worse for using the Internet "to expose violations by their governments and provide the outside world with information," as Amnesty International noted in its tribute to blogs on World Press Freedom Day. In the United States, local news websites and distributed journalism projects (like our own SourceWatch) made significant contributions.