Faking Bad: PR, Propaganda and the Press

Mark Fisher Illustartion



By Leon Horton


“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” (1)

– Edward L. Bernays, PR guru (1891-1995)


Vile comments, outright lies, slanderous leaks… where would we be without Donald Trump and his ranting midnight tweets? Still in the land of make-believe, if you ask me. So President 45 likes to rail against fake news when he’s not creating it, so what? The powers that be have been doing that since the invention of the printing press. Mainstream media is having a right old time of it selling us on the dangers of fake news proliferating across social media and the internet: “Untrue, untrue, read all about it”, the headlines cry, like bullshit was something new. And the politicians are boiling in their think-tanks: “It’s an outrage! Something must be done! Fake news is a threat to democracy!”


There’s just one problem with this moral outrage: it’s PR spinning myths on behalf of the mythmakers. News reporting is in freefall. The old guard politicians have been caught, to use tabloid vernacular, with their pants down. For too long the media and the “powers that be” have remained complacent about their position of trust and their ownership of control of the lines of communication. Bloated spiders squatting at the centre of their webs, gorging themselves on lies, half-truths and spurious claims, the occupying powers are fat and scant of purpose. So they do what any glutton does when beleaguered: they keep on eating – biting the hand that feeds them with all the teeth PR can wield.


The relationship between public relations and the so-called free press is difficult to assess: the blurred line between real news and the self-serving spin of commercial concerns and political agendas is as old as – dare I say it – the Sermon on the Mount. From its accepted origins in the US in the 1920s, PR has extended its dirty, manipulating fingers from the whiskey-sodden ad agencies of Madison Avenue into almost every aspect of our daily lives: telling us how to behave, what to think, what to accept as truth. That many of us recognize when we are being seduced by PR – by its bright trinkets, baubles and dross – brings no comfort when you consider even the most trusted quarters of mainstream media are not only dazzled themselves but are complicit in it.


In these days of disparity, of massive social, political and religious upheavals, of escalating wars and serious environmental issues, we are ever more reliant on the media to explain the times we live in and the problems we face. But this is the age of twenty-four-hour media coverage, of cross-platform access, where journalists and commentators are under increasing pressure to find material to fill the headlines; often at the expense of serious investigative reporting. As a result, hungry media outlets – even the good old BBC – are forced to turn to unreliable suppliers. And that’s when the PR companies walk through the door, proffering their sugared pre-cooked ready-meals.


In their 1985 book PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News, authors Jeff and Marie Blyskal write: “PR people know how the press thinks. Thus they are able to tailor their publicity so that journalists will listen and cover it. As a result much of the news you read in newspapers and magazines or watch on television and hear on radio is heavily influenced by public relations people. Whole sections of the news are virtually owned by PR…. Unfortunately, ‘news’ hatched up by a PR person and a journalist working together looks much like real news dug up by enterprising journalists working independently. The public thus does not know which news stories and journalists are playing servant to PR.” (2) 


But this is nothing new. Consider what Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais say in their 1955 book Labors Untold Story: “One night, probably in 1880, John Swinton, then the pre-eminent New York journalist, was the guest of honour at a banquet given him by the leaders of his craft. Someone who knew neither the press nor Swinton offered a toast to the independent press. Swinton outraged his colleagues by replying: ‘There is no such thing, at this date of the world’s history, in America, as an independent press. You know it, and I know it.


‘There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinion, and, if you did, you know beforehand it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things, and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allowed my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation would be gone.


‘The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press.


‘We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.’” (3)


He knew it, and we know it: the public relations industry and the mainstream media are virtually indistinguishable. But while most of us are adept enough at spotting damage-limitation and blatant spin when we see it splashed across the headlines, to blithely accept this as the norm is to give credence to the lie that it is a relationship based on collaboration and not corruption. To truly understand the toxic nature of this dangerous marriage, we need to return to a time before propaganda became a dirty word…


Dateline: New York, 1929. At a time when women smoking in public was seen as unladylike and associated with prostitutes, thirty New York debutantes parade along Fifth Avenue, openly smoking Lucky Strikes cigarettes in an act of defiance and emancipation. Journalists are informed that the cigarettes are “torches of freedom” – that this is women’s liberation in action – and the story is picked up by newspapers all over the United States. Within days, women everywhere are taking to the streets and lighting up.


This was big news in its day. Except that it wasn’t. It was completely fabricated. The debutantes were, in fact, models hired by publicist Edward Bernays – who, in turn, had been hired by George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, to increase sales of cigarettes. The event is regarded by many as the moment that launched a whole new industry: public realtions. That the press had been fooled by this publicity stunt received little complaint – tempered, no doubt, by increased newspaper and magazine sales – and from that day forward the writing was on the wall.


Born in Vienna in 1891, Edward Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and used his uncle’s reputation and theories of psychoanalysis to develop his own reputation as a thinker and theorist. Bernays described himself as a psychoanalyst to troubled corporations, and he furthered this image by authoring several books on the subject, including Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda. He defined his profession as akin to that of a “practicing social scientist whose competence is like that of the industrial engineer, the management engineer, or the investment counsellor in their respective fields.” (4)


In his 1928 work Propaganda, Bernays sets out his mandate: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised 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 moulded, 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.” (5)


With the rise of the Nazis and their appropriation of propaganda techniques in the 1930s, it isn’t clear if Bernays came to regret his words, but even by the politics of the 1920s they make for uncomfortable reading:  “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.” (6)  Bernays was by no means the first practitioner of PR techniques, but within the industry itself he is often considered the godfather.


Today, PR is a multi-billion dollar communications medium in its own right – a vast empire of control, answerable to no one.


In the introduction to John Stauber and Sheldon Ramptons 1995 book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You (Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry), journalist and editor Mark Dowie writes: “The modern ‘account’ managed by a PR/advertising giant can now package a global campaign that includes a strategic blend of ‘paid media’ (advertising) and ‘free media’ (public relations). Add to that some of the other standard services offered by most PR firms – including ‘crisis management’, industrial espionage, organized censorship and infiltration of civic and political groups – and you have a formidable combination of persuasive techniques available to large corporations and anyone else who can afford to hire the services of a PR firm.” (7)


How, then, did PR, with its cache of tried and tested methods for creating pseudo-events, manufacturing free publicity and managing public image, manage to bleed from the adverts selling us cigarettes and mouthwash into the editorials of so-called hard news? How have journalists allowed this to happen? The truth is PR hasn’t merely leaked into the news: it has saturated it. And if journalists themselves can’t tell the difference, then what hope is there for the rest of us? Surely, that’s the real story.


It is an accepted fact within the industry itself that the media hardly ever report on themselves. Only when they absolutely cannot ignore a story, such as illegal phone tapping by their own masters, will journalists bite each others’ tails. This is one industry where dog eats dog at their own peril, but in 2009 award-winning Guardian journalist Nick Davies did just that with the release of his book Flat Earth News.


A seminal piece of investigative journalism, Flat Earth News exposes the extent to which the global media has become polluted by PR and propaganda, and is a must read for anyone concerned about journalism. In discussing the influence of PR on his profession, Davies asserts:


“The overt links to the media and the whole well-worn idea of ‘spin’ scarcely begin to capture the breadth and ingenuity of the tactics which are now used by the global industry of public relations. And it is this huge industry of manipulation – targeted at a structurally vulnerable media – which feeds falsehood and distortion directly into news channels.” (8)


What Davies means by a “vulnerable media” is puzzling at first, but in great detail he describes how time and again the press has fallen foul of PR and been caught out reporting unsubstantiated stories as fact. From the anticipated millennium bug crash that never came to pass, to the supposed legality of the Bush/Blair war on Iraq, to the false assertions made daily by the Daily Mail, in Flat Earth News Davies brilliantly captures an industry in crisis and a profession under orders to relay lies and “sex up” the truth.


The problem, as Davies sees it, is essentially one of supply and demand: a dearth of supply, exacerbated by serious cuts in the number of journalists, and a constant demand by the corporate owners to maximize output and profits. Media moguls, the likes of Rupert Murdoch, have systematically bought up an industry that once prided itself on its duty and freedom to tell the truth, bent it to their own commercial and political wills and made such severe cutbacks in staff that few journalists making a living today have the time or resources to pursue a story through serious investigation. Instead, they are forced to rely on pre-packaged stories handed down to them by PR companies and news gathering (wire) agencies such as the Press Association or Reuters.


To gauge the degree to which the UK media, and by extension the global media, is reliant on stories coming “off the wire”, Davies commissioned a team of researchers from the journalism department of Cardiff University to investigate a sample of news stories running through the most prestigious British newspapers, namely The Times, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph, throwing in the Daily Mail for good measure. What they found was startling.


Across a total of 2,207 print stories over the course of two weeks, the research team revealed that 60% consisted wholly or mainly of wire and/or PR copy, with a further 20% containing elements of wire/PR to which more material had been added. They were unable to identify the source of 8%, which left just 12% of the stories where the researchers could be sure that all the material had been generated by the reporters themselves. Moreover, only 1% of wire stories admitted their sources, preferring to use the misleading “by a staff reporter” or using a named reporter who had rewritten the agency copy. Further to this, 70% of the stories passed into print without being checked for accuracy.


Davies draws the conclusion that: “taken together, these data portray a picture of journalism in which any meaningful independent journalistic activity by the press is the exception rather than the rule. We are not talking about investigative journalism here, but the everyday practices of news judgement, fact-checking, balance, criticising and interrogating sources, etc, that are, in theory, central to routine, day-to-day journalism.” (9)


Next, Davies’ team turned their attention to broadcasting and found an equally dire situation in UK commercial news: “By 2004, the eleven different companies which used to own the ITV network had collapsed into a single monopoly whose regional newsrooms saw their journalists and film crews cut, while young graduate trainees were pulled in on cheap wages to fill the gap. In 2006, ITV announced plans to cut their budget by a further £100 million while giving their shareholders £500 million.” (10)  With such drastic cutbacks to their traditional supply lines, broadcast journalists found themselves in the same unenviable position as their print colleagues – forced to rely on ready-made, pre-packaged material from unsubstantiated sources: PR on a plate.


Surely, though, there is still a corner of news journalism safe in the hands of the BBC, mindful of its public service remit and the security of the licence fee? Not so, according to the Cardiff researchers. After attempting to justify the licence fee by introducing an internal market, in 1997 the BBC announced a huge 25% cut in staff over the following five years. Then, says Davies, “In March 2005, the new director general, Mark Thompson, proposed another 13% cut, including 12% of the jobs in BBC News and 21% in Factual and Learning. By October 2007, he was announcing the removal of another 500 journalists from News as well the loss of half of the remaining 1,200 staff in Factual and Learning. And all this was happening as the corporation was increasing its news output by moving into twenty-four-hour broadcasting.” (11)


No matter how we look at this picture, either as expedient cost-cutting or as ruthless business practice, the fact remains when you cut away too much fat you start to slice into healthy flesh – and when you do that the whole body goes into shock. For those working within the industry, the “vulnerable media”, who, quite rightly, have a duty of care for their own work and for their readers and audiences, the pain of amputation might be too much to bear.


In his final analysis, Davies concludes: “The tendency for the new media to recycle ignorance… flows directly from the behaviour of the new corporate owners of the media who have cut editorial staffing while increasing editorial output; slashed the old supply lines which used to feed up raw information from the ground; and, with the advent of news websites, added the new imperative of speed. Working in a news factory, without the time to check, without the chance to go out and make contacts and find leads, reporters are reduced to churnalism, to the passive processing of material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied for them by outsiders, particularly wire agencies and PR. In these circumstances, the news factory will produce an effective and reliable product for its readers and viewers and listeners only if those outside suppliers are delivering an effective and reliable account of the world. Are they?” (12)


One of the biggest outside suppliers, the UK’s Press Association, has such credibility with British media outlets that it is treated as a reliable source that does not require checking. In December 2004, for example, the BBC issued a notice to news staff that the Press Association could be “treated as a confirmed, single source” (13) that can be put straight out on the airwaves. All of the UK’s national and regional newspapers subscribe to the PA’s news service, as does ITV and the major websites handling UK news.


Unfortunately the Press Association face the same problems as other media outlets: slashing staff, including their own journalists, while increasing output. This problem is compounded by the fact the Press Association, like Reuters, is a news agency not a newspaper. Wire agencies are under no obligation to check whether their stories are true, they simply report what they are told and sell the information on – creating an open door for PR.


Just as the UK media is over-reliant on the Press Association for its domestic news, most international newspapers, broadcasters and websites rely heavily on just two wire agencies: Associated Press and Reuters. Both agencies claim their daily output of news to be consumed in one form or another by more than a billion people across the globe – a monopoly that, left unchecked, is inevitably a target for PR – and both agencies suffer under the weight of staff shortages and increased workloads. On the face of it, who can blame the public relations industry when they choose to capitalise on this?


When necessary, of course, public relations companies fiercely defend their own activities – more so, even, than the reputations of their clients – and will use all the tricks of their loathsome trade to publically attack and denounce their detractors. In 1995, Ron Levy, then president of the North American Precis Syndicate, told PR News its readers should view Toxic Sludge Is Good For You… as being more concerned with selling copies than presenting a balanced view of PR and urged them to see if the book “(a) only says nasty things about the great PR firms, or (b) presents both sides, including how much good the great PR firms are doing… to save lives, avoid blindness and other health tragedies, and help people get more happiness out of life.” (14)


Authors Stauber and Rampton responded to this self-aggrandising, sanctimonious rubbish: “We know this book doesn’t tell the “whole story” about public relations. PR practitioners are engaged in promotional and publicity campaigns for clinics, schools and deserving charities that benefit the public. The techniques of public relations are not all inherently bad. But positive uses of PR do not in any way mitigate the undemocratic power of the multi-billion dollar PR industry to manipulate and propagandize on behalf of wealthy special interests, dominating debate, discussion and decision-making.” (15)


It might be too late to disentangle the mangled body of mainstream media from the pile-up on the (dis)information super highway. The wheels of the press keep on churning. The concept of a free, independent press, considered a cornerstone of democracy, is a fundamental body counted upon to guarantee our freedoms, to expose injustice and corruption, to hold to account those who would seek to violate our civil liberties and rights. But when journalists, the very people charged with upholding these self-evident truths, are denied the institutional backing and the raw material to do their jobs properly, when pre-packaged PR is presented as fact, then, as newspaper proprietor Joseph Pulitzer predicted in his 1904 article in the North American Review: “A cynical, mercenary, demagogic, corrupt press will produce in time a people as base as itself.”(16)  And if that happens, all that will be left won’t be fit to print.


Source Notes


(1) Bernays, Edward L, “Propaganda”, (Routledge, New York, 1928), pages 47-48.


(2) Blyskal, Jeff and Marie, “PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News”, (New York: William Morrow & Co, 1985), page 28.


(3) Boyer, Richard O, and Morais, Herbert M, “Labors Untold Story”, (Cameron Associates, New York, 1955).


(4) Bernays, Edward L, Public Relations”, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1957), page 4.


(5) Bernays, Edward L, “Propaganda”, (Routledge, New York, 1928), page 9.


(6) ibid.


(7) Dowie, Mark, Torches of Liberty”, introduction in Stauber, John and Rampton, Sheldon, “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry”, (Common Courage Press, 1995), page 3.


(8) Davies, Nick, “Flat Earth News”, (Vintage, 2009), page 167.


(9) ibid, page 53.


(10) ibid, pages 66-67.


(11) ibid, page 67.


(12) ibid, page 73.


(13) ibid, page 75.


(14) Stauber, John and Rampton, Sheldon, “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry”, (Common Courage Press, 1995), page 205.


(15) ibid.


(16) Pulitzer, Joseph, “The College of Journalism”, (The North American Review, May 1904), page 680.


About the Author


Leon Horton is a journalist, humorist and cultural attaché to the Altered States. After gaining his masters from the University of Salford, he worked as a court reporter at Manchester Crown Court, cut his wings on local rags, enjoyed a failed stint as the editor of Old Trafford News then returned to freelance writing. His work is published in International Times (UK), Nexus New Times (Australia), Literary Heist (Canada), Empty Mirror (US) and Erotic Review (UK). Despite his hopes and aspirations, Leon still lives in Manchester, England, and can be contacted at [email protected]

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