"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 April 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Toxic Shock


[what im listening to this week-

Journalists and politicians

trotted out the special language

earlier this month as the Los

Angeles Times caught Microsoft

trying to manipulate public

opinion - and, as a result,

government action - with a phony

ground swell of popular support.

"The elaborate plan, outlined in

confidential documents obtained

by the Times, hinges on a number

of unusual - some would say

unethical - tactics, including

the planting of articles,

letters to the editor and

opinion pieces to be

commissioned by top media

handlers but presented by local

firms as spontaneous

testimonials," the Times story



Looking for reactions from the

politicians who were supposed to

be swayed by the Microsoft

campaign, the Times got a great


quote from an unnamed, though

swaggering, state attorney

general, and please do take a

moment to ponder the phenomenon

of elected officials talking

tough to the media while hiding

behind a curtain of anonymity.

"When it comes to knowledge of

computer technology, I take my

hat off to Mr. Gates," the AG

said. "But if he wants to enter

the field of political intrigue,

I say welcome to my world, Mr.

Gates, I'm ready to do battle."


Yeeaaaahhhhh, baby! Locked,

loaded, and ready to rock! You

the hard, cold man! Bring on the

smelly, skinny guy with the

glasses! (Note to unnamed

government lawyer: Get over



The Times report was an

important story, and Microsoft

is awfully sleazy for trying to

pull that kind of thing. But

careful readers couldn't help

catching a few small, troubling

contradictions in the 10 April

article. After the Times

reporters tagged the company's

plan as "unusual," for example,

it was interesting to note that

a politician who didn't mind

being named, the attorney

general of Michigan, Frank J.

Kelley, had this to say: "I've

been battling this type of PR

gimmickry for a long time, and I

can smell it 40 yards away. It

represents arrogance, and it's

personally demeaning to me. Bill

Gates would have been better off

if he or one of his

representatives had picked up

the phone and called me."


[dambuilders- might want me around

He can smell what from 40 yards

away? And he's been battling

this sort of thing for a long

time? But it's so unusual,

right? The Times story also

notes that, "The campaign

appears to have been drafted by

Rory Davenport, of Edelman

Public Relations (the PR firm

used by Microsoft), director of

'grass-roots and political

programs' in Washington." Pretty

specific title for a senior PR

executive running an unusual new

kind of public misinformation



In fact, and pretty obviously,

Microsoft is the fish in the

cell block of massively

dishonest corporate PR; CEOs

across the country have to be

looking on in wonder as this

single company gets its fingers

slammed in a drawer for doing

the very same things that

thousands of business flacks do

to earn a paycheck every single

day, without consequences. And

politicians, who live by

drinking just this very blood

for breakfast, lunch, and

dinner, seven days a week -

attorneys general included -

really shouldn't be forgiven for

talking tough about something

scribbled into every page of

their daybooks. As the Times

report explains, "Sources close

to Microsoft said the proposed

campaign is an outgrowth of the

company's growing fears that it

is being outgunned in the media

by rivals and perhaps even

hostile state officials. One

stated goal of the campaign is

to counter 'negative, reactive

coverage that is driven by the

state attorneys general.'" Hey,

stop using manipulative and

self-serving PR against my

manipulative and self-serving

PR. Maybe the Times can catch

itself slinging a bit of

calculated bullshit designed to

look like spontaneous

testimonials, but probably not.


One of our favorite books on the

distortion of public dialog by

corporate PR peddlers is

actually kind of awful to read. Toxic

Sludge Is Good for You, a

detailed account of the PR

industry by longtime

public-relations watchdogs John

Stauber and Sheldon Rampton,

suffers from an excess of

detail: And here's a couple

hundred other ways that

corporate manipulation spreads

lies into the mainstream of our

cultural discussion without

leaving fingerprints. It's the

kind of book that you read while

jiggling your leg,

simultaneously furious and



Among the old, widely used,

way-too-common tactics that PR

firms use to manipulate the

public view of issues affecting

their corporate - and

governmental - clients, as the

Toxic Sludge authors

exhaustively explain, are games

like "astroturf" campaigns.

Designed to look like

grass-roots campaigns, community

efforts bubbling up out of

neighborhoods and groups of

people - environmentalists, for

example - with a common set of

concerns, these are organized

efforts to create front groups

with misleading names to hide

their real intentions. The group

that spontaneously banded

together in 1989 to kill a newly

proposed additional federal levy

on gasoline, Americans Against

Unfair Gas Taxes, was actually

set up by a PR firm paid by the

American Petroleum Institute -

which is itself funded with

corporate money from the oil



[ harvey danger- carlotta valdez ]

Once a phony front group is set

up and working, other tactics

come into play. Again, Stauber

and Rampton provide

nearly numbing descriptions.

Most intriguing is the

"patch-through," a telephone

boiler room operated by a PR

firm, usually using a phony

"Citizens for the Environment"

kind of name. From Toxic Sludge:

Telephones can also be used
very effectively to deluge a
targeted legislator with
constituent phone calls....
(Patch-through firm) Optima
Direct has communications
switches specially designed for
this purpose. Malik explains:
"I'm talking to you, and I say,
'Hey, are you with me on this
issue?' and we have a little
conversation. You say, 'Yeah,
I'll talk to my legislator.' I
say, 'Great, I'll connect you
now.' You need a shop that has a
switch that you can push a
button and they are connected,
and they are off, and your live
operator is on the outbound
talking to the next person.'

"Uh, yeah, hello? I'm calling to

say that, uh, House Bill 1654

is, uh, bad for families? Did I

get that right?"


A few pages later, the Toxic

Sludge authors describe a

similar effort aimed at creating

the same effect with letters,

rather than phone calls: "The

call is then passed on to

another [PR firm] employee who

creates what appears to be a

personal letter to be sent to

the appropriate public official.

'If they're close by we

hand-deliver it. We hand-write

it out on little kitty-cat

stationery if it's a little old

lady.... [We] use different

stamps, different



Just for perspective, PR pioneer

Edward Bernays - who helped

tobacco companies tap into the

large market of women who

wouldn't smoke because of the

social stigma with ploys like a

1929 protest for "female

emancipation" by women marching

through New York lighting, ahem,

"torches of liberty" -

describes, in his biography, the

instance in which a friend who

had visited leading Nazi

officials told him that Josef

Goebbels had kept a copy of one

of Bernay's books on his

bookshelf. Not surprising; among

the more recent clients of US PR

firms are the government of

Nigeria, Anastasio Somoza's

Nicaraguan dictatorship, and the

Haitian regime of "Baby Doc"



[spoon - cvantez]

Microsoft is

much-maligned - facing

congressional hearings, ongoing

hostility from the Justice

Department, threatened lawsuits

from state attorneys general,

and a barrage of hostile

reporting like that recent

Mother Jones cover story and

the April report in the Times -

and it certainly deserves much

of the attention and some of the

vilification. But you have to

notice, just paging through the

index of a book like Toxic

Sludge Is Good for You, that

something is missing. When

companies that sell far more

horrifying products, and make as

much or more money selling

products equally ingrained in

our daily lives, use the same

kind of tactics without being

similarly attacked what does

that mean? How, with more than

enough devils to go around, do

we hang a sign on a single

company - identifying it,

simply, as The Devil?

courtesy of Ambrose Beers