The Birth of Spin

Deciding What You'll Swallow

excerpted from the book

Trust Us We're Experts

by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam Publisher, 2001, paper


Science and the Intelligent Few"

... [Edward] Bernays developed his "science" of public relations in the 1920s-a decade that also saw the beginnings of mass production, mass communications, mass consumerism, and a belief in technological progress as a quasi-religion. All of these trends shared a faith in the notion that society's problems can be engineered away, that democracy is dangerous, and that important decisions should be left in the hands of experts. In addition to psychoanalytic theory, Bernays drew heavily from the ideas of nineteenth-century French social philosopher Gustave Le Bon, a vocal

critic of democracy who fretted that "the divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings." Stuart Ewen, a historian and author of PR: A Social History of Spin, notes that Le Bon feared "that the mob at any moment could seize society and destroy all he held sacred. Le Bon starts to examine the social psychology of the crowd. For him the crowd is not driven by rational argument, but by its spinal cord. It responds solely to emotional appeals and is incapable of thought or reason. Somebody interested in leading the crowd needs to appeal not to logic but to unconscious motivation." For Bernays in particular, Ewen notes, Le Bon's ideas "are applied to virtually everybody. Almost no one is seen as capable of rational thought. The most efficient way to win hearts and minds is through emotional appeals. By the 1920s, Le Bonian social psychology is used to design organizations that constantly take the temperature of public feelings. Survey research, polling and focus groups are all built around the science of how to lead the public mind."

Ewen interviewed Bernays near the end of his life and was struck by his "unabashedly hierarchical view of society. Repeatedly, he maintained that, while most people respond to their world instinctively, without thought, there exist an 'intelligent few' who have been charged with the responsibility of contemplating and influencing the tide of history.... He expressed little respect for the average person's ability to think out, understand, or act upon the world in which they live.... Throughout our conversation, Bernays conveyed his hallucination of democracy: a highly educated class of opinion-molding tacticians are continuously at work, analyzing the social terrain and adjusting the mental scenery from which the public mind, with its limited intellect, derives its opinions."

Expanding on Freud's theories about the unconscious motives for human behavior, Bernays believed that people are not merely unconscious but herd-like in their thinking, "subject to the passions of the pack in [their] mob violence and the passions of the herd in [their] panics.... The - average citizen is the world's most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own 'logic-proof compartments,' his own absolutism, are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction."

Fortunately, Bernays added, being herd-like also made people "remarkably susceptible to leadership." He saw public relations as an applied science, like engineering, through which society's leaders could bring order out of chaos and muddle. "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind," he argued, it would be possible to "control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.... Theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline."

To exercise this type of control was not just an option, it was a duty: "It is certain that the power of public opinion is constantly increasing and will keep on increasing. It is equally certain that it is more and more being influenced, changed, stirred by impulses from below.... The duty of the higher strata of society-the cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual-is therefore clear. They must inject moral and spiritual motives into public opinion." A public relations counselor could accomplish this, Bernays said, because his special training and insight into human nature "permits him to step out of his own group to look at a particular problem with the eyes of an impartial observer and to utilize his knowledge of the individual and the group mind to project his clients' point of view."

Of course, the mind of Edward Bernays had its own share of "logic-proof compartments." To begin with, there is the obvious contradiction in his notion that a public relations consultant can simultaneously be both an "impartial observer" and a special pleader for his client.

The Experts Speak

One of the striking historical facts about the Great Depression is the complete failure of society's economic and political experts to see it coming, or to deal with it sensibly once it arrived. Fourteen days before the crash, Irving Fisher had predicted, "In a few months I expect to see the stock market much higher than today" Fisher, America's most distinguished and famous professor of economics at Yale University, was so overconfident that he personally lost a fortune equivalent to $140 million in today's dollars when the market collapsed. John Maynard Keynes, the most famous British economist, lost the equivalent of £1 million. The headline in the New York Journal on the day after Black Thursday was "Experts Predict Rising Market." The Harvard Economic Society responded to the news by telling its subscribers, "A severe depression such as 1920-21 is outside the range of probability. We are not facing a protracted liquidation."

As it became apparent that the Depression was more than a temporary downturn, President Hoover appointed Edward Bernays to his three-member Presidential Emergency Committee for Employment. "It was really a public relations committee," Bernays recalled in his memoirs. Hoover's refusal to countenance "socialist" ideas such as social security and public works programs left the committee with few options. "We encouraged various ways of spreading employment: through reduced daily and weekly schedules, shorter shifts, alternating shifts and rotation of days off.... We urged employers to find personnel willing to go on furlough without pay; to disclose duplication of wage earners in the same family, as a measure of spreading wages; to maintain lists for preferential employment and to determine the adequacy of part-time wages." In the end, however, Bernays realized, "these efforts were all ineffective. Particularly unsound was the share-the-work idea, which put the onus of sacrifice on the shoulders of the wage earner instead of the employer." Advertisers and businesses offered empty slogans such as "Be patriotic and spend money," "Spend ten cents more each day and help drive hard times away," or "Help the jobless by doing your Christmas shopping now." As the economy careened into deeper and deeper trouble, newspapers resorted


to desperate cheerleading. "Optimism Gains as U.S. Speeds Jobless Relief," read one headline. "Hoover's Drive to Aid Jobless Shows Results," read another. "President Declares Voluntary Cooperation of Industry Will Solve Problem."

In 1932, Bernays joined Hoover's doomed campaign for reelection. He helped line up experts to sing Hoover's praises, including a pair of Yale economists who predicted that the economy was now on a "sound foundation" and "the run of the dollar had been stopped." He formed a "Non-Partisan Fact-Finding Committee," which issued a poll showing Hoover trouncing his opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Outside the circle of businessmen and their sycophants, however, no one believed a word of it. The election of Roosevelt brought new experts into power, with new and grandiose ideas about what could and should be done to secure the general welfare. For Hoover and the old guard, it was the end of an era and everything that they believed in, but for Bernays and the propaganda industry, business was booming like never before.


Deciding What You'll Swallow

Hard Science and Liquid Truth

The power that science wields in modern society is a reflection of its ability to create knowledge that is as close to infallible as any product of human endeavor. Reasonable people may disagree in their opinions about Shakespeare or religion, but they do not disagree with the laws of thermodynamics. This is because the theories of science, especially the hard sciences, have been developed through methodologies that require verification by multiple, independent researchers using clearly defined, replicable experiments. If the experiments do not bear out a hypothesis, the hypothesis must be rejected or modified.

The very prestige that science enjoys, however, has also given rise to a variety of scientific pretenders-disciplines such as phrenology or eugenics that merely claim to be scientific. The renowned philosopher of science Karl Popper gave a great deal of consideration to this problem and coined the term "pseudoscience" to help separate the wheat from the chaff. The difference between science and pseudoscience, he concluded, is that genuinely scientific theories are "falsifiable"-that is, they are formulated in such a way that if they are wrong, they can be proven false through experiments. By contrast, pseudosciences are formulated so vaguely that they can never be proven or disproven. "The difference between a science and a pseudoscience is that scientific statements can be proved wrong and pseudoscientific statements cannot," says Robert Youngson in his book Scientific Blunders: A Brief History of How Wrong Scientists Can Sometimes Be. "By this criterion you will find that a surprising number of seemingly scientific assertions-perhaps even many in which you devoutly believe-are complete nonsense. Rather surprisingly this is not to assert that all pseudoscientific claims are untrue. Some of them may be true, but you can never know this, so they are not entitled to claim the cast-iron assurance and reliance that you can have, and place, in scientific facts."

... although Americans still give ritual lip-service to democracy, the concept has lost much of its meaning. In fact, it has become boring and irrelevant in most people's lives. Our political process functions formally the way we think it should-campaigns happen, votes are cast, someone ends up taking an oath of office- but the ugly truth, as we all know, is that the campaign promises are empty rhetoric, based not on what the candidates believe but on what their expert pollsters have told them we want to hear. If you ask the managers of these ever-more-expensive propaganda campaigns why they have vulgarized the democratic process, they will frequently tell you that the problem is not with them but with the voters, who are too "irrational," "ignorant," or "apathetic" to respond to any other kind of appeal.(Like Clotaire Rapaille) they have come to the conclusion that there are words they must not use, concepts they dare not utter. Apparently people today are less hungry for serious talk and less capable of comprehending it than the half-literate voters a century and a half ago who turned out in multitudes and sat for hours listening to the debates between Abraham Lincoln and William Douglas.

"The minute you begin to view the public as something that doesn't operate rationally, your job as a publicist or journalist changes," Ewen observes. "The pivotal moment was when those who provided the public with its intelligence no longer believed the public had any intelligence.'' It is disturbing to see how frequently this ideology, which corrodes democratic values in an acid bath of cynicism, surfaces today among the political insiders who claim to govern in the name of democracy and popular sovereignty. "On issue after issue, the public is belittled as self-indulgent or misinformed, incapable of grasping the larger complexities known to the policymakers and the circles of experts surrounding them," observed author William Greider in Who Will Tell the People, his 1992 study of the Washington political establishment. "The public's side of the argument is said to be 'emotional' whereas those who govern are said to be making 'rational' or 'responsible' choices. In the masculine culture of management, 'emotion' is assigned a position of weakness whereas 'facts' are hard and potent. The reality, of course, is that the ability to define what is or isn't 'rational' is itself loaded with political self-interest.... For elites, the politics of governing is seen as a continuing struggle to manage public 'emotions' so that they do not overwhelm sound public policy."'

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