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Thursday, January 24, 2013

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Writers, story-tellers, song-writers, and artists are among those who are asked this question, and often they have no more clue than anyone else. “What made me think of that?” one might muse. Is the creative mind simply more open, more receptive, to its own emerging phantasms? Where do our dreams come from—and where they go when we wake?

How about more practical ideas—an idea for a new business or even an idea about what would be good or bad legislation for Michigan or the United States?

The deeply held ideas we call our “beliefs”? Where do they come from? From our parents, our education, television, friends, the Internet, newspapers, politicians, “spokespeople,” the air we breathe, our own independent philosophical investigations? What think you?
The best public relations is invisible. While it’s easy to spot advertising—the stuff that blatantly urges you to go buy something—PR subtly convinces you to change the way you think. Advertising urges you to do something now; PR is patient. Advertisers pay for the time and space devoted to their messages. Good PR usually gets free media space because it is presented as unbiased information.
 - Wendell Potter, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)
Read that last sentence again, please. Here, I’ll repeat it: “Good PR usually gets free media space because it is presented as unbiased information [emphasis added]. So what our politicians tell us, what we hear and read in news media, what we pass along to each other, and even our own belief-forming thought—all that is constantly being shaped by well-bankrolled, behind-the-scenes forces. Now please look again at the subtitle: This is more than a book about the health care so-called “debate,” and the author is more than just another pundit urging his opinion on you. Wendell Potter worked for 25 years in public relations.

This book is also a lot more than just another exposé. The author tells of a very personal journey, beginning with his parents’ and his own origin in a poor rural Appalachian mountain community. He also traces from its origins the development of public relations in this country—who first came up with it, where the first college class was taught, what kind of ethics restrained early practitioners, and where PR has come in less than a hundred years. For example, “crisis management” was first developed by Ivy Lee, cofounder of the Parker & Lee agency in New York, who counteracted bad publicity about industrial massacres and strike-breaking with carefully written and distributed press releases. Press releases, he discovered, did reporters’ jobs for them, and reporters were happy to hand in a release rather than investigating a story for themselves.

A contemporary of Lee, Edward Bernays, enterprising son of Jewish parents, Potter tells us, is “generally credited with coining the term ‘public relations counselor.’” It was Bernays who came up with a wildly successful campaign to attract more women to smoking cigarettes, equating smoking with equality and calling cigarettes “torches of freedom.” Why do I mention his Jewish heritage? Because according to a citation Potter’s to Bernays’s autobiography, in 1933 the noted public relations counselor was disturbed to be told by a guest in his home, a guest who had recently been a guest in the home of Joseph Goebbels, that Goebbels had “at least one of Bernays’s books” on his shelves. Hitler’s use of slogans and manipulation to move crowds was well know, also, and Potter says that Bernays “fretted publicly about ethics later in his life.”
Looking back, he said that had he known the dangers of tobacco, he would not have accepted the American Tobacco account. “No reputable public relations organization would today accept a cigarette account since their cancer-causing effects have been proven,” he wrote in 1986. Also late in life, Bernays appealed to the PRSA [Public Relations Society of America] to police its ranks, arguing that circumstances allowed unethical behavior without any sanctions, legal or otherwise. “There are no standards,” he said.
“No standards.” What does that mean? Anything goes. There are, you may object, legal limits, but let’s look closer at that idea, too.

As Americans, we treasure our freedom of speech. At the same time, we hold onto the idea that “what’s good for General Motors,” i.e., more generally, Big Business, is good for us all. Enter a new American entity, the front group. A front group is created by PR people but not identified with an affiliation to any particular corporation or political party. PR people begin with focus groups, private citizen volunteers, and they test phrases with these groups to see what responses are evoked by certain words and phrases. Say that you find, as PR folks did, that the phrase “government takeover” generates a high fear response. A front group is then organized under some intentionally vague name, chosen because the words have positive focus group response. A website is set up, and the “group” begins to issue statements warning about, say, “a government takeover” of health care. The phony group also buys advertising but never in the name of the industry or any particular business or corporation: the point of PR is to make it look like some group of public- and like-minded citizens just got together in a grassroots kind of way.

Here’s a personal backtrack: I remember in the 1970s when my employer, Western Michigan University, announced that we were going to be given a choice between our old, traditional insurance and a new health maintenance organization (HMO). What surprised me was the high correlation of features shared by the HMO alternative and “socialized medicine” as the fear-mongers had presented it. Why, I wondered, were these features (e.g., limited list of approved health care providers) nightmare outrages if part of a government program but reasonable and desirable if offered by a for-profit private company? I have never had a satisfactory answer to the question. Only slogans come back: “government takeover” and “socialized medicine” vs. “the American way.”
The best example of the industry’s secrecy is the medical-loss ratio, which, as I mentioned previously, is the measurement of the share of premium spent on actual health care. The trend since Clinton’s plan failed has been unmistakable. In 1993, the leading insurers used about 95 percent of premium dollars on medical benefits, according to the consulting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The merger wave and the new philosophy about health insurance pushed MLRs down sharply, so that by 2007 the number was 81 percent. By contrast, Medicare has consistently had a ratio greater than 97 percent since 1993.
What Americans pay in and what they get back: that’s what the MLR measures, and there are the numbers. What about increasing health care costs and inflation in general?
If the [insurance] industry had chosen to raise premiums at the exact pace that it increased spending on health care from 2000 to 2008, insurers would still have made substantial profits without pushing millions of people to go without health benefits. But during those years, insurers raised family premiums 2.5 times faster than the rate of medical inflation, 3.3 times faster than that of wages, and 4.6 times faster than that of general inflation.
Insurance was costing more at the same time that those buying it were getting less, and many could not afford to buy it at all.

The picture that emerges in this book is the clear subversion of the democratic process, but Potter’s examination of the insurance industry (“Industry”? What do they make? Why is every business these days called an “industry” and every income-generating plan called a “product”?) is one case study in a much larger economic development. We all recognize that politics is rife with public relations specialists, doing all they can to shape candidates to our fears and desires. The greater truth is that every important issue that comes before those politicians, once they are in office, has also been manipulated in similar ways. What do “the people” really want? Which voices are theirs? Have we all been hoodwinked before we even open our mouths?

For example, one justly deep fear of the American people has always been the invasion of personal privacy by government. Is the parallel to socialized medicine and HMO’s obvious to you? The greatest threats to the privacy of Americans here at the beginning of the 21st century, as far as I can see, come not from our government but from private interests against which the government is able to offer little protection. Again, please look up your own sources on privacy and data mining. Do you view your concerns for privacy and for freedom as contradictory?

In 1963, in his justly famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. warned of “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” in the struggle for human rights, insisting that the present was a time of “fierce urgency.” For Wendell Potter, the present is a time of fierce urgency in the war of independent thinking against public relations. The problem is that the enemy is invisible. We have already been infiltrated. We may even be unknowingly complicit, unpaid soldiers on a side we never chose.

Potter does not tar all PR with the same brush. Like any tool, PR can be and is often used in the service of good. He does, however, end his introduction with these words:
...I believe that unless we do fight back—and with urgency—the twenty-first century will be dominated by the retrenchment of democracy and the unbridled growth of corporate power, enabled by increasingly unchallenged propaganda.
Who were “Citizens United”? Did you unite with them? Isn’t it ironic that putting the government of the United States up for sale was accomplished without any need for a bloody coup, that it was put on the auction block by our own Supreme Court (three dissenting), reasoning on principle?


dmarks said...

I strongly agree with the Citizens United decision in its specifics: a few people decided to make a film critical of a sitting US Senator, and the campaign finance laws of the time made it a crime. I am strongly opposed to criminalizing dissent. The ruling found in favor of these people's right to have criticized a sitting US senator.

In the general, I have a more mixed view. I think the part about corporations being people is insane. But I agree in the general with how the ruling lifted censorship which prevented people from speaking out on political issues. There is absolutely nothing in the Bill of Rights to strip people of free speech rights if they are associated with organizations.

I do support limits on contributions to campaigns. Of course, why not? This is not protected or speech at all.

P. J. Grath said...

Just as sensible-sounding legislation often carries with it dismaying riders, every court decision decides not only one case but also sets more general precedents, especially as spelled out in the opinions. It is not that individuals associated with corporations were being denied free speech but that now, with this decision, corporations are accorded rights equal to those of individuals, although we all know that only people have opinions and that few individuals can muster up the kind of money or legal power available to corporations. You say that financial contributions are not speech, dmarks, but doesn’t this decision protect them as if they are? That’s certainly how the decision seems to have been interpreted.

I agree completely that dissent should not be criminalized. The question relating to this post would be whether or not a front group posing as a grassroots citizens group constitutes dissent--or do we not want to try to make the distinction, and if not, why not?

P. J. Grath said...

Getting back to the issue of health insurance, my stats showed me that someone was reading an old post of mine this morning, and it bears on the discussion:

dmarks said...

As for "You say that financial contributions are not speech" I am not clear on if the decision protects campaign contributions, but if it does, that is an aspect of the decision I would oppose.

As for the last part, I believe there should be no distinction to allow the government to group dissenters into "front groups" or "grassroots citizens groups" and censor one and not the other. Aside from the act of censoring even one side destroying the heart of the First Amendment, this is so highly subjective...

...whether or not something is a grass roots or front group depends on whether or not the person deciding happens to like the group or not. In mainland China and Iran, for example, the official protesters paid by the regime to chant to demand the deaths of all Americans, crush dissidence, keep up China's war against Tibet, etc are considered by the government to 'grass roots groups', and every single anti-regime dissenter and human rights advocate is described as being paid by foreign devils, Jews, etc.

I don't trust any government to make such a distinction.

P. J. Grath said...

Good point, dmarks, and I was having the same suspicious thoughts. Still, I would really like the public at large to be able to tell citizen groups from corporate-funded fronts that look like citizen groups. I guess it's another case calling for eternal vigilance.... And maybe we can help one another by spreading the word.

One piece of information in Potters book that shocked me beyond many other, larger outrages named a British ethicist whose name and some of whose work I know as a PAID SHILL for TOBACCO! I did some searching, and indeed was was well paid for writing and placing articles favoring cigarette manufacturers. Not a marketer, not a salesman, not a lawyer, but a philosopher! Sad, sad, sad. I shared the information with some of my fellow philosophers, and though it's 9-year-old news many of them had never heard it.


dmarks said...

Disclosure, "sunshine laws" and vigilance: applied to business expenditures as well as government deeds.

P. J. Grath said...

Re "sunshine laws," see for state-by-state regulations on access to information.

dmarks said...

I implied earlier, but didn't outright state as such that I believe that such sunshine and open information should apply to the doings of businesses as well. Of course they want to guard everything as confidential, but is there really a need for that other than matters such as "what ARE those 11 herbs and spices in the Colonel's chicken?"

As for free speech and campaigns, I favor limits on campaign controbitions. I entirely oppose limits on those outside the campaign on the ability to be able to criticize candidates and politicians, at any time regardless of when the election day is. This is the censorship I applaud "Citizens United" for getting rid of.

The gray area, the difficult part, is the coordination between outside advertising/information groups and the campaigns themselves. There's a lot of subjectivity here, and yes it is hard to enforce.

But I don't think anyone should ever run afoul of the law merely for making a film that is critical of a sitting US Senator.

P. J. Grath said...

The vision your second paragraph brings to my mind, dmarks, is that of rapidly vanishing direct campaign contributions and the mushrooming of allegedly unaffiliated critical groups. That is, won’t everyone rush into the grey area? Here again, every solution creates new problems, and we have to think carefully about which problems we can live with more easily. A friend mentioned in conversation the other day her mother's advice about choosing a mate for life: look carefully at the person's faults, not his good points, because what you love won't be a problem, while the faults may well become magnified over the years.

I’m curious about the openness you want from business. For instance, what about the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process? Quite a bit more important to all of us than the herbs in fast food chicken. What else? Open books, as in how much spent and where? Payroll information? How much do you want to be transparent, and how do you see it affecting competition? Also, would you apply the transparency rules to all businesses across the board?

dmarks said...

Oh yes, certainly on the fracking chemicals. It's one thing if they keep them inside a plant somewhere, but another thing entirely when they are spreading them all over the place (including road surfaces!) outside.

There's a lot I don't know about the fracking chemicals being secret. Is it really to prevent competitors from getting important secret formulas? Or honestly, just to cover it up so no one in the public will complain.

Payroll information? Probably not. But I'd like to see a the expenditures on lobbyists made public.

P. J. Grath said...

Okay, that answers some of my questions. Thank you for joining me in conversation, too. We come at these questions from different starting points, so an exchange of views is good for both of us, I'm sure.