In July, Jeff Ruch, who directs Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, issued a relevant but discouraging assessment to the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs of the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform: “The federal government is suffering from a severe disinformation syndrome.”
Ruch was referring specifically to recent surveys by his organization and the Union of Concerned Scientists revealing that federal scientists are routinely pressured to amend their findings. One in five scientists contacted said they had been directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information, Ruch testified, and more than half reported cases where "commercial interests” forced the reversal or withdrawal of scientific conclusions.
But government isn’t alone in confusing public understanding of crucial issues. Media organizations also contribute. A recent example is Newsweek magazine’s Aug. 1 cover story on Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts, which aggressively dismissed reports that Roberts is a conservative partisan. Two primary examples cited were the nominee’s role on Bush’s legal team in the court fight after the 2000 election, described by Newsweek as “minimal,” and his membership in the conservative Federalist Society, which was pronounced an irrelevant distortion. Roberts “is not the hard-line ideologue that true believers on both sides had hoped for,” the publication concluded, and “seems destined to be confirmed.”
The facts suggest different appraisal, however. According to the Miami Herald, Roberts was a significant “legal consultant, lawsuit editor and prep coach” for Bush’s arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2000, and, as the Washington Post has revealed, he was not just a Federalist Society member, but on the Washington chapter’s steering committee in the late 1990s.
More to the point, his roots in the conservative vanguard date back to his days with the Reagan administration, when he provided legal justifications for recasting the way government and the courts approached civil rights, defended attempts to narrow the reach of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, challenged arguments in favor of busing and affirmative action, and even argued that Congress should strip the Supreme Court of its ability to hear broad classes of civil-rights cases. Nevertheless, most press reports on Roberts echo Newsweek’s excitement about his “intellectual rigor and honesty.”
Whether such coverage qualifies as disinformation is debatable, but it does serve as an example of how journalists assist political leaders, albeit sometimes unwittingly, in framing public awareness. As a practice, this is known in both government and public relations circles as “perception management.”
An evolving tactic
In 1987, the Department of Defense developed a propaganda and psychological warfare glossary that included an official definition of the term. Perception management incorporates tactics that either convey or deny information to influence “emotions, motives, and objective reasoning,” explained the DoD. For the military, the main targets are supposedly foreign audiences, and the goal is to promote “actions favorable to the originator’s objectives. In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations.” The Reagan administration preferred a different term, “public diplomacy,” while the Bush administration calls it “strategic influence,” but both refer to the same thing.
Organized government efforts to manipulate public perceptions date back at least to the 1950s, when people at more than 800 news and public information organizations carried out assignments for the CIA, according to The New York Times. By the mid-1980s, CIA Director Bill Casey had taken the practice to the next level: a systematic, covert “public diplomacy” apparatus designed to sell a “new product” – counter-insurgency in
During the first Bush administration, domestic disinformation was handled through the CIA’s Public Affairs Office. This operation was charged with turning intelligence failures into successes by persuading reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories that could adversely affect purported national security interests. The
One strategy was to insert psyops (psychological operations) specialists into newsrooms. In February 2000, a Dutch journalist revealed that CNN and the U.S. Army had agreed to do precisely that. The military was proud enough of this “expanded cooperation” with mainstream media to publicly acknowledge the effort.
As the Iraq War began, word leaked out that a new Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence was gearing up to sway leaders and public sentiment by disseminating sometimes-false stories. Facing censure, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly denounced and supposedly disbanded it. But a few months later, he quietly funded a private consultant to develop another version. The apparent goal was to go beyond traditional information warfare with a new perception management campaign designed to “win the war of ideas.”
How does perception management work? One important tactic is to influence opinion by presenting theories as if they are facts. For example, “Bad as things are in
Another approach is to massage information, thus promoting the preferred spin. For example, stories that assert that the
Sometimes, however, the only approach that works is to fabricate the news.
Selling the war
The jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to reveal how she learned the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was outted by columnist Robert Novak two years ago, sparked widespread condemnation from the press. Many journalists expressed deep concerns that their future ability to gain the trust of confidential sources would be undermined. Miller was, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the author of best-selling books; in short, an eminently reputable journalist who didn’t deserve punishment for protecting sources.
However, Miller’s real importance in the world of unnamed sources leads in a different direction, exposing how perception management techniques have been applied during the Iraq War.
Based upon what members of Mobile Exploitation Team (MET) Alpha related to Miller, she reported that a mysterious, unnamed scientist had led them to a site where he had buried evidence of an illicit weapons program. Her story included the scientist’s charges that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had transferred illegal weapons to
The catch was that her story came entirely from secondary sources and had no independent confirmation. She never met the scientist and her copy was submitted to military officials before it was released. Yet, when Miller appeared on PBS’ NewsHour the same day, she said, "Well, I think they found something more than a smoking gun,” and turned her one unnamed scientist into several. Other news outlets quickly jumped on her article and statements to argue that the war was justified after all. By the next day, headlines across the country proclaimed "Illegal Material Spotted."
As it turned out, the evidence wasn’t there, and a day later Miller was reporting that there had been a "paradigm shift." Now she said MET Alpha was looking for "building blocks" and "precursors" to those weapons, another effort that ultimately proved fruitless. Next, her unnamed source informed her that the focus had changed to a search for scientists who could prove there had once been a WMD program.
This was only one of many stories produced by Miller that backed up administration arguments, only to be proven wrong or obsolete later. In many cases, she subsequently “clarified” or backed away from an initial characterization. But just as important as the content, disseminated widely through her appearances on programs like Oprah and Larry King Live, were her associations and actual sources of information.
By her own admission, the majority of stories she wrote about weapons of mass destruction came from Ahmad Chalabi, the exiled leader of the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress who hoped to replace Saddam Hussein. "I’ve been covering Chalabi for about 10 years," Miller told Baghdad Bureau Chief John Burns, another New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner who became angry with her over an article on Chalabi. “He has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper." Furthermore, MET Alpha used “Chalabi’s intel and document network for its own WMD work,” she admitted.
Equally relevant was Miller’s association with the Middle East Forum, which promoted her as a speaker on "militant Islam” and “biological warfare." Founded by Daniel Pipes, the forum was in the forefront of the push for an invasion of
In Woodward’s book on the Iraq War, Plan of Attack, Secretary of State Colin Powell describes Feith as running a “Gestapo office” determined to find a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. In A Pretext for War, a book on the abuse of
Their plan, called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” centered on taking out Saddam and replacing him with a friendly leader. “Whoever inherits
After joining the Bush administration, Feith created the Office of Strategic Influence. Senior officials have called it a disinformation factory. He later launched the Office of Special Plans (OSP). Officially, its job was to conduct pre-war planning. But its actual target was the media, policymakers, and public opinion. According to
According to Bamford, OSP’s intelligence unit cherry-picked the most damning items from the streams of
The final step was to get Powell to make the case to the UN. This was handled by the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a secret office established to sell the war. WHIG provided Powell with a “script” for his speech, using information developed by Feith’s group. Much of it was unsourced material fed to reporters like Miller by the OSP. Such techniques continued to prove useful after the invasion.
Shaping the environment
Like other forms of perception management, the manipulation and misuse of reporters isn’t new. In the 1960s, the FBI used large dailies like the San Francisco Chronicle to place unfavorable stories and leak false information. In
Within a few days, Webster had organized a press conference to announce that a foreign terrorist had been caught in a conspiracy with
Initially, journalists presented the government’s version without asking many questions. After all, why else the high bail, 24-hour guard for the judge, metal detectors, and armed officers on the courthouse roof? As the trial proceeded in U.S. District Court in
However, once local reporters had time to observe the defendant, a small, fair-haired woman with a mild demeanor and open smile, the huge security team began to look like overkill. And as the media coverage shifted, the general public also gave the case a second look and the story gradually unraveled.
The verdict, delivered on
But beyond this small
This story has a happy ending: When Berster returned home to
Today, controlling public opinion clearly involves more than what was once simply labeled propaganda. Over the years, businesses and governments have developed a large toolbox of tactics to promote the stories they want to see and prevent others from being aired or published. In some cases, this involves what has become known as spin, or “white propaganda,” arguments that tend to move opinion in a specific direction. For journalists, the pitfalls include institutional constraints, commercial imperatives, close relationships with sources that have hidden agendas, the temptation to focus on easy targets, and a tendency toward self-censorship. There is also a great danger, exacerbated by the Internet, that rumors or speculation will be confused with reality.
In other words, perception management is about more than censoring or pushing an individual story. Rather, it involves the creation of an overall environment that promotes the uncritical acceptance of questionable assumptions – and a press corps willing to promote them.
As Noam Chomsky puts it, "The point is not that the journalists or commentators are dishonest; rather, unless they happen to conform to the institutional requirements, they will find no place in the corporate media." The fact that the interests of owners shape what is defined as news is one of the main structural “filters” underlying newsgathering, he notes.
When confronted with such a critique, many journalists reject it as “conspiracy” thinking. Translation: it’s paranoid, extreme, and therefore irrelevant. Unlike any other employees, most insist that they are independent of supervisory control or outside influences, and free to pursue any story, wherever it leads, as long as they adhere to the first commandment – objectivity.
But as anyone who has worked in a news organization knows, each story involves a series of subjective judgments about what is important, relevant, or permissible. And almost every source – from a disgruntled local bureaucrat to Deep Throat – brings an agenda of his or her own
Greg Guma is co-editor of
For the full story of the Berster case —