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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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