Fwd: The Flack Catchers

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Sat Apr 14 2001 - 02:50:05 BST

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    The Flack Catchers
    by Chisun Lee


    Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry
    Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future delivers both delight
    and dismay to the hypochondriacs and conspiracy theorists among us. "Ha!"
    we can crow. "We were right!" The Fortune 500 do employ a vast
    underground army of twisted manipulators and elite mercenaries to win
    greater profit at the expense of our minds and bodies!

    "How far will people in power go to manipulate and control our
    perceptions of reality?" the authors ask. The question is even more
    ominous than it sounds. To Rampton and Stauber, the struggle for consumer
    rights is no mere tussle over dollars and cents; at stake are the
    fundamental principles of liberty and justice.

    Not even the most venerable institution is sacred as the authors uncover
    how money trumps morals, and deception can be found even in the brightest
    corners of scientific America. Some of the usual suspects‹PR firms Hill &
    Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds‹are
    pulling the strings. But dancing on the other end are the American Cancer
    Society, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American
    Medical Association, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
    government agencies, network news media, university professors, and maybe
    even your next-door neighbor.

    As a simple history resource, Trust Us touches on many of the 20th
    century's most infamous industrial disasters and dilemmas: Hawk's Nest,
    leaded gasoline, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, global warming, genetically
    modified food, pesticides, and of course big tobacco. But with the aid of
    previously unreleased internal corporate documents, insider PR
    blueprints, other journalistic investigations, medical studies, and
    hindsight, Rampton and Stauber also reveal how our understanding of these
    crises has been shaped by the experts, and how these perceptions could be
    harmful to our health.

    Alarmingly relevant now that supermarket meat aisles seem more like
    minefields, a chapter on food biotechnology reveals just how far and wide
    an industry will go to obscure the potential harm of their products. In
    one example, biotech giant Monsanto‹once a leader in saccharin, PCBs, and
    Agent Orange production‹successfully blocked negative news coverage of
    the bovine growth hormone rBGH with the aid of a vast PR web and, of
    course, talented lawyers.

    With innocuous-sounding groups such as the American Dietetic Association
    and the International Food Information Council weighing in, Monsanto
    managed to pressure, cajole, and mislead editors and reporters at such
    prestigious outlets as USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street
    Journal. When two Florida television news reporters nevertheless put
    together an exposé suggesting that rBGH had never been adequately tested
    for its cancer-causing potential, that cows were getting sick from it,
    and that supermarkets were not taking promised measures to screen
    rBGH-using suppliers, Monsanto sent in the lawyers. The investigation
    never aired, and both reporters were eventually fired.

    Trust Us, We're Experts! is an education in public relations from the
    folks at the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, which puts out the
    quarterly PR Watch. The authors drop morbidly fascinating tidbits of
    insider information. One of them: Companies can purchase software that
    helps them gauge the tolerance level of shareholders for unsavory
    business practices, like, say, environmental destruction or the ravaging
    of third-world populations.

    The further you read, the greater the risk of paranoid fatalism. With
    billions of dollars and some of the world's greatest minds working
    against us, aren't we doomed? How can we ever again read the newspaper,
    eat dinner, go for a swim, take a walk, swallow a pill, trust anyone, or
    be sure of anything? We begin to question the most minor
    assumptions‹after all, the ones about oat bran as a cholesterol fighter,
    red wine as a weapon against heart disease, and zinc as a shortcut around
    the common cold apparently rest on shaky ground.

    The best defense, argue Rampton and Stauber, is active skepticism.
    Skepticism of the experts, people who come at you from a position of
    authority with a vast body of information and an agenda. And active
    seeking of the truth, preferably in concert with others who are dedicated
    to rooting out corporate evil.

    Of course, if you've really learned your lesson, your first question will
    be: How much of this book is a crock? The authors aren't taking any
    chances‹they've provided extensive footnotes. If you're still skeptical,
    why not do as they say and investigate them? Call up the Center for Media
    and Democracy; demand a list of funders and their contributions.

    There isn't likely to be much corporate support there. These guys come
    from the far side of liberal. Saying so is not to detract from their
    exhaustively detailed reportage and calmly convincing tone; indeed, the
    book is generally light on rhetoric, and there's hardly a radical quoted.
    But the public stranglehold of corrupt experts is framed as a crisis of
    "democracy," which the authors see as not just freedom from having your
    mind messed with, but also a level of engagement that drives citizens to
    become their own experts. And in their conclusion, Rampton and Stauber
    reveal the depth of their colors: "Activism enriches our lives in
    multiple ways. It brings us into personal contact with other people who
    are informed, passionate, and altruistic. . . . It is a path to

    Corny, yes. But by that point, we need something warm and fuzzy to cling

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