This Week’s Talk Nation Radio for Wed. April 26, 2006
“Lying in the White House and the Media”
Produced at WHUS by Dori Smith
Good propaganda does not need to lie, indeed it may not lie. It has no reason to fear the truth. It is a mistake to believe that the people cannot take the truth. They can. It is only a matter of presenting the truth to people in a way that they will be able to understand.” Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda expert from a 1934 speech.
Welcome to Talk Nation Radio, a half hour discussion on politics, human rights, and the environment. I’m Dori Smith. Our guests this time are Kevin Murray of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and Diane Farsetta, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy.
“And his interpreter said those are tapes and DVDs of torture sessions. And there were tens of thousands of sessions.” Karl Rove speaking about tapes allegedly seen by Bernie Kerik, former NYPD commissioner.
We look at Karl Rove’s bizarre comments on “torture tapes” in Iraq, the Bush Administration’s war on bad press and a new report about faux news, commercials being inserted into mainstream network and affiliate news without notice to the public as to what they really are.
With the naming of conservative radio and TV show host Fox Network’s Tony Snow as White House press secretary the Bush Administration has taken yet another step in the direction of setting up what can only be called an official U.S. propaganda office.
We are watching a continued build up in what has been called a war on bad press. And in terms of Karl Rove we have been seeing distinct reminders lately of the kinds of methods that were used prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003.
In a speech in Houston April 12, 2006, Karl Rove told a story about torture tapes reportedly seen by former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik when Kerik was in Baghdad briefly in 2003 training Iraqi police. The story from the controversial Bernie Kerik was also used by
Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney was trying to justify the invasion by listing whatever documentation he could find of Iraqi weapons programs. (The “Cheney was trying” link tracks analysis from David Sirota, Christy Harvey, Judd Legum and Jonathan Baskin, about the Cheney speech.)
First we will listen to the Rove segment and then Kevin Murray, director of communications and advocacy at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee will help us try to make
sense of it all as we raise questions about what Rove is saying and why. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, UUSC, is a member of the National Religious Campaign against Torture
“It’s really hard for us to understand the barbarism that we find in Afghanistan and Iraq. A totalitarian regime that exalts in the complete absence of personal freedom; The complete oppression of women, the total control of thought and action, and the routine every day constant use of torture and violence on a massive scale that a sophisticated and civilized mind finds very hard to accept.
I remember sitting in my office in the second floor of the West Wing with Bernie Kerik, tough guy, grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in New York. His life was saved by becoming a cop. He told me he thought he had seen every form of violence that one human being could commit on another human being until he went to Baghdad where he went to train the Iraqi police. And he said he had cases, metal cabinets in his office full of video tapes and DVDs, and he said, “What are those?” -And his interpreter said, “Those are tapes and DVDs of torture sessions,” and there were tens of thousands of sessions captured on tape.
He took a look at some of them and said he was so revolted that he could not watch them any further and he could not stop from weeping from the violence committed on children in front of their parents, husbands and wives in front of their spouses, and torture that is just impossible for us to understand.
Faced with an attack from an ideological enemy of this sort this President made a decision grounded in the understanding that we face a different challenge at a different time. In this new century we cannot and must not wait until we are attacked again. We must confront the mortal danger we face and stay on the offense. We must confront nations who harbor terrorists and treat them the same way we treat terrorists themselves. The President articulated a new doctrine when he said, “if you train a terrorist, harbor a terrorist, free feed a terrorist, fund a terrorist, you’re just as bad as a terrorist themselves and we will defend our freedom by taking action against you. It is the way we must act in this new century.” ”
Dori Smith: Kevin Murray welcome to Talk Nation Radio.
Kevin Murray: Great to be here.
Dori Smith: We’ve listened to this segment of Karl Rove talking about Bernie Kerik and those tapes of torture and it’s quite shocking but it also raises many many questions. Where are those tapes? What ever became of this amazing encounter that Bernie Kerik had of torture being committed in Iraq before we ever got there I’m presuming?
Kevin Murray: Yeah that’s what it sounds like. I’d need to look again more into the details of what the situation was and the exact time that Bernie Kerik had this experience if it really did happen but certainly what Rove is referring to were tapes of things that happened before the United States was directly involved in Iraq.
Dori Smith: Why is he bringing this up because it sounds to me like he is trying to use this horror as a way to legitimize the invasion?
Kevin Murray: Yeah I think they are still you know having lost all of the other arguments I think they are coming back to something that they believe may have some substance to it. You would have to see the tapes and know what the real evidence was to know if there is something real in what he is talking about but I think it is pretty widely accepted that there was a lot of torture and mistreatment of people under Saddam Hussein. So that that’s a justification that he is coming back to for the war effort, one that’s increasingly unpopular with the people in this country.
The administration still maintains that it is not systematically using torture in Iraq or elsewhere and I think against all evidence it is maintaining that. And I think he is still spinning that idea with what he is saying. Subliminally he is distancing us from these horrible people that were doing this torture that required that we intervene militarily, preemptively.
Dori Smith: He is using the argument that their barbarism was so terrible that ours was perhaps not so bad?
Kevin Murray: Or maybe doesn’t even deserve to be called “barbarism” in what he is saying. You know I’d have to hear the whole speech to know where he took it from there but I think that’s at least a piece of what he’s trying to do is continue to make that argument that what we are doing is number one justified by the horrors of what came before and number two probably not as bad as this horrible stuff that he heard Bernie Kerik from the other side of the tracks describe.
You know I think for us as a faith based organization working on torture issues that whole sort of twist or post war spin of the story to the extent that it in any way justifies what are clearly policies that are leading to torture in Iraq and around the world, that’s abhorrent, it’s terrible for us as a faith based organization to hear that use of this kind of information to I think condone something that by any standard, religious or otherwise, is just simply unacceptable.
Just as we have seen a decrease in honesty in public reports from the White House, Military and State Department, we have also seen a decrease in honesty at major television corporations. They now rely on faux news videos according to Diane Farsetta, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. She joins us next to talk about the results of a ten month intensive study with research consultant Daniel Price showing how television stations use these VNRs, or ‘mini-news mercials’ without telling viewers what they are, who made them, or what they were intended to do which is influence consumer decision making just like commercials do.
Diane Farsetta welcome to Talk Nation Radio.
Diane Farsetta: Thanks for having me on.
Dori Smith: Describe what you have discovered.
Diane Farsetta: We looked at three different public relations firms that specialize in putting out broadcast material so in this case video materials and a particular product called the video news release. And what these video news releases or VNR’s are, is they are segments that are designed to look exactly like independently reported TV news segments. They are given to television news rooms and they are promoted to TV news rooms and those news rooms often air these segments as though they were part of their news programs -as though their local reporters had produced these and filmed these.
What we found is that these segments were being funded by and scripted on behalf of major corporations like Pfizer, Capital One Bank, or Panasonic, all sorts of different especially health and consumer products companies were funding these. And basically what TV news rooms are doing is allowing these segments that are little better than ads to be portrayed as though they were news reports.
I mean there have been so many different studies of television news. There were two that we cited in the report that I think are relevant here, one is that there was a study of health news just on local TV stations that found that the information was poor, it was often wrong, and it was sometimes misleading in a dangerous way.
In some of the examples that we have in our report with the video news releases from health companies they are dealing with prescription strength medications where all of the risk information was removed. So you had this totally unbalanced promotional segment going out and being presented as news.
Dori Smith: So we are going along watching the news and it’s about Iraq or Iran or the White House or perhaps a cat that got caught in a building in New York. And all at once this piece of video comes on as if it were news. Something like that right?
Diane Farsetta: Right right, and a lot of times we saw, especially in some of the health and consumer based segments, often are these things and it’s a very subtle product placement but it’s there. The public relations firms that deal in these video news releases have gotten very good about having a clear sort of promotional angle to it but one that isn’t too obvious that would turn off TV news rooms from actually airing these.
So they do get aired and much more often than we thought starting when we started this research and also the entire pre-packaged segment.
There is generally two parts to a video news release that is put out by a PR firm. One is this pre-packaged segment that’s got a publicist narrating the piece as though he or she were a reporter and then there is additional video at the end called “B Roll”. But what we saw is that over one third of the times that we saw these VNRs being aired it was just that entire pre-packaged segment put on the air by TV news rooms with no edit, often times they didn’t even bother to voice over the publicists so you had a publicist for hire being introduced by local TV stations as though they were a local reporter.
Dori Smith: There is a profit factor here. Why don’t you talk about how that works.
Diane Farsetta: Obviously in terms of the companies that are paying for these this is great. This is much better than advertising for them because if it’s an obvious advertisement, if it’s the 30 second ad on your TV screen or an ad that appears in your magazines or your newspapers you know where it’s coming from. You know that it hasn’t been fact checked and you know that the company has paid for that ad in order to persuade you to usually buy their product or buy their services or something.
But if you see a supposedly independent news reporter saying yes, you should get your child tested for allergies with this new blood test, you are going to give that much more credence than you would if you saw it as the 30 second ad or the ad in your newspaper or magazine.
And I would say that the second kind of financial pressure that’s at play here is the downsizing of television news rooms so that you have most TV stations not being able to fill up their news programming time with actual news programs. So you have these TV stations that are much more receptive to just putting on air, not fact checked as we documented, not edited even, and often more than 90% of the time that we saw not even balanced with any independently gathered footage or information; these messages that come from PR firms.
Dori Smith: You at the Center for Media and Democracy as well as the Free Press have gone after these people by filing a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission and also you have been appearing in some of the alternative –the great alternative press and Democracy Now I saw you interviewed by Amy Goodman. You along with the co-author of this report Daniel Price. Just talk about the process of filing against this sort of monolithic entity of all of these mainstream press outlets and then also of what has happened since this has come out.
Diane Farsetta: There are laws on the books that might have been broken. When there is a financial interest, when you have somebody paying to provide video footage to a TV station the TV station has an obligation to disclose to its viewers; this segment is courtesy of Pfizer or courtesy of Seaman’s, courtesy of Daimler Chrysler, whoever funded that segment. There needs to be disclosure to the news audience. –We didn’t find one instance in 98 different times of when these materials were being aired, not once did the TV station disclose to the viewers, this is courtesy of this corporation.
So right there we have probable infractions of current FCC law and we are very fortunate to have through our colleagues at Free Press, which is a national media reform organization, to be able to have contacted the Commissioner, Jonathan Adelstein who is very strong on this issue, who is very concerned about and really pointed to the public interest aspects of the licenses that broadcasters are given and the fact that these TV stations are supposed to be serving local interests. That’s why they are allowed to use the local airwaves. They are not supposed to be dressing up ads and passing them off deceptively as their own journalistic product.
So we presented our findings to Commissioner Adelstein. He was generous to come on Democracy Now with us to actually be with us at the that we had in Washington, D.C. announcing the release of the report. He is referring our findings to the enforcement bureau of the FCC and he has also said that there might be a need for strengthening even the current disclosure requirements.
So I would say in terms of the FCC, and also to say if your listeners are concerned, if they don’t want to be hoodwinked by their local TV stations I would encourage them to both look at our report on PRWatch.org and also there is a link to the Free Press website which is Free Press.net where you can send a message to the FCC about this issue.
It has been also really interesting to look at the media coverage of our report. It’s been in and of itself very enlightening I would say. And also to see the responses of the TV stations. As you said as far as media coverage it has been a lot of very good strong alternative independent media, publicly funded media, community funded media that has been covering this. We have also gotten good print coverage of this. But TV coverage as you might expect has been pretty low. And one thing that I’m working on right now in terms of a follow up to the report is a compilation of the responses that we have gotten from the different television stations that we caught airing this fake news to their viewers without disclosure.
It’s quite sad actually because we had one station that apologized to the viewers, one station that promised it would never use VNRs again, and then every other station that has made a public comment has been along the lines of well, this is no big deal, well this was one mistake, this was one slip up, you know, and they are really not taking any responsibility for this at all and they are not, again, they are not living up to the public interest mandate that they have as stations that are allowed to use the public airwaves.
Dori Smith: We’re talking with Diane Farsetta of the Center for Media and Democracy. Her April 6th report, Fake TV News, Widespread and Undisclosed, can be read online at PRwatch.org
What Diane Farsetta learned about the news industry and their lack of willingness to take responsibility for deceiving the public also applies to the team set up by Karen Hughes at the U.S. State Department –So I asked her to listen to a March NPR report where Steve Inskeep gains entry to the “Rapid Response Center” of Karen Hughes where words are constructed to be sent to government officials and embassy personnel who are about to be asked difficult questions about bad news stories that reflect badly on U.S. policies in places like Iraq.
As you shall hear there is discussion of how the center team will respond to a Time Magazine story about U.S. soldiers killing civilians at Haditha, Iraq, and also lying about it.
(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) One particular story that Arabs are seeing is of special interest to the State Department’s Adam Erli. It started last November. That’s when the U.S. said a road side bomb killed civilians in Haditha, Iraq. Then last week Time Magazine reported the civilians were really killed by American troops seeking revenge for the road side bomb. The allegations got limited attention in the U.S. media.
But the monitors here in the Rapid Response Center show that video of the bodies is now displayed on Al Arabia.
(Voice of a man) There are two aspects to this whole process. One is, what are the problems we have to deal with. The second is what do we say, you know, what’s our message?
(NPR’s Steve Inskeep)Which is what the people in the room at the State Department begin to hash out. Half a dozen people crowd around a computer screen.
(Voices) -We’ve got more messaging than this don’t we? –Yeah. —We’re using. –I’m trying to make it, trying to put in something… -Softer? …That’s not so dry. —Yeah right. -There’s nothing there that says we regret the loss of civilian life. -Yeah yeah. -Which we do always. -Yeah yeah yeah. We can say that without…. —And can we say we don’t target civilians? -And we can say that too.
(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) If this sounds a little like the war room at a presidential campaign that may be no accident. The center was started by Karen Hughes the former communications advisor to President Bush. Now, she’s the new top State Department official for what’s called, “public diplomacy.”
(Voices) We do not target civilians. Any loss of civilian life is regrettable.
(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) She assigned a career diplomat named Duncan McGinness to set up this office sending information to top officials and to every U.S. embassy around the world.
(Voice, McGinness) The ambassador for instance in Cairo now has something, he’s aware of this, so when he goes out today and he talks to Egyptians publicly and otherwise he can actually say; ” let me reiterate that we, you know, we don’t target civilians, blab la bla.”
(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) And might the Ambassador in Cairo then be getting back to you through his staff by tomorrow to day, “what you gave me to say was useless? It’s really inadequate. Do you get anger over this?”
(McGinness talking over Inskeep) They do. They do. They will say that. We had a problem when we had the secret prisons in Europe.
(NPR’s Steve Inskeep) At first the State Department had almost nothing to say about a Washington Post story that the U.S. was holding detainees overseas. On this story the department again has limited information about how civilians were really killed in Haditha, Iraq. So as Duncan McGinness types a colleague hands him a print out of words that were used after another story.
(Voices) That’s what we had for kind of a white phosphorus…oh here it is.
(McGinness) I like it, I like it.
(Voice) The loss of any innocent life is a tragedy.
Dori Smith: Diane Farsetta what do you make of this NPR report?
Diane Farsetta: Well what we would say as watch dogs of the public relations industry is what the State Department is practicing is crisis control, (laughs) crisis communications, but what’s absent in that story is that it is a crisis to a large degree of the U.S. Government’s own making in terms of divorcing the actions, in this case the actions of the U.S. Military from how they are being portrayed and what the implication is for the U.S. image.
It’s a very legitimate concern to say we want U.S. actions to be understood around the world but when you are engaging in occupations of foreign countries, when you are engaged in killing civilians as we have seen time and time again, you know the way to address that is not by repeating over and over again that the U.S. Military doesn’t target civilians. The way to deal with that is to end the occupation. The way to deal with that is to not enter into a war unless you absolutely need to for defensive purposes.
What we have seen in just following Karen Hughes’ career as the public diplomacy point person for the Bush Administration, what we have seen time and time again, whether she is doing here listening tour of Middle Eastern countries or more recently she has been concentrating on Latin America, is that her message has really been rejected by foreign audiences because it’s obviously spin and it’s obviously divorced from the reality on the ground. This just sounds like more of the same.
Dori Smith: They said the words “we do not target civilians” over and over again. This perhaps is just reminiscent of the typical propaganda style that they are using but more to the point though they have no intention of modifying the rhetoric and this reflects a policy that has been unchanging as well.
Diane Farsetta: That’s right, that’s right, and basically what they are trying to do is to have acceptance for policies that there’s obvious very valid critiques of both by people within the U.S. and of course people abroad who are being directly affected by U.S. Military operations.
This is not something that other administrations don’t do. This is the reality of U.S. Foreign Policy and of public diplomacy which we see as dressing up the term of public relations and selling a country as opposed to selling a brand. But all governments do this. All, of course, U.S. governments, Republican and Democratic do this.
The policies are based on obvious power interests but they are always sold and explained in terms of democracy, human rights, concern for the little guy, when in reality of course there is a totally different calculus going on.
Dori Smith: We did hear the term used “white phosphorus” -this is what we said with that white phosphorus story, oh yes we can use it again now that there is another atrocity being discussed; U.S. committed atrocity being discussed regarding Haditha.
Where there is no sense of responsibility, of taking responsibility for what others call “war crimes” one can hardly expect that there is going to be a sense of reality testing in so far as how people are going to actually receive this kind of press coverage and these kinds of talking points frankly.
It’s almost like the reality of what has been created as propaganda has a life that is becoming increasingly separate from the thought processes of real Americans, real Iraqis, who have to deal with what has been created here. -There use to be a term “pounding rubble into dust,” when it came to the nuclear potential for our future and what it would hold. And now it almost seems like they are pounding the rubble of this propaganda to dust beyond the point of even the most remote credibility.
Diane Farsetta: Well one of the standard propaganda techniques is called, “the big lie” and it basically says if you repeat something over and over and over again, no matter how ridiculous it is, no matter how unsupported it is by the facts, you are going to get people believing in it because they have heard it over and over and over again. You just have perception management being the main concern. You have everything being run as though it were a campaign. Everything with the political polls in mind; This is really again part of a long trajectory that both major parties have subscribed to when they are in office but I would say especially with this war with regards to this war in Iraq that those techniques are becoming worse in a way. That they are becoming more and more turned to and more and more divorced from reality.
Dori Smith: Diane Farsetta have you heard of this “rapid response” language elsewhere?
Diane Farsetta: There actually just was a story that I saw about Karen Hughes focusing her public diplomacy on Latin America and of course one of the trends that we are seeing in Latin America is the rejection of the Washington D.C. policies, of the economic policies, so you see more and more left leaders getting elected in Venezuela, in Cuba, in Chile, in so many other countries.
So that concerns the United States and so Karen Hughes last month did visit a number of Latin American countries. She is increasing aid to the area and she is also using the Rapid Response unit of the State Department to make sure that they know how the U.S. is being portrayed in these different countries. And I should say another reason why there is a greater focus these days on Latin America by Karen Hughes and other public diplomacy people is that recent polls we’ve just seen the U.S. Government’s credibility in Latin America going down. The most recent poll that I saw said three of every five Latin Americans now distrust the United States. And even if you look at the economic elites in Latin American countries they still don’t trust the U.S. -which traditionally is the one community in which the U.S. has been trusted.
Dori Smith: A lot of time and energy is being spent on this kind of self promotion. People in the Bush Administration are utilizing a lot of tax dollars defending themselves and also propagandizing right?
Diane Farsetta: There have been some attempts to quantify this. If you look, the Government Accountability Office, which is a non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, did a study about a year ago where they looked at the public relations spending in the first term of the Bush Administration versus the second term of the Clinton Administration and they found that it had increased roughly two fold.
So you do have this emphasis on PR, on spin, on the talking points, I mean you could go into the whole leak issue of Scooter Libby being authorized to have some misleading cherry picked information leaked from National Intelligence Estimates. You know these are all attempts to present a certain image, to get support for policies that have already been decided upon, especially in terms of war, they have already been decided upon.
There is a decreasing role I would say for real genuine public debate and input on the most weighty decisions like going to war where U.S. residents are literally going to be asked to risk their lives and even to die in this conflict.
A few weeks ago we had referenda in 32 different communities and 24 of those voted in popular mandate to bring the troops home from Iraq now. You know it’s interesting that the split is happening between the spin that’s coming out of Washington, D.C., and the reality is people are just realizing; you know there is an old phrase something like “you can’t spin a pot hole,” you know you can’t tell people that their everyday reality is different than it actually is. You just lose credibility. And I think we are seeing a point now, especially with regard to the Iraq war, where the Administration has lost a lot of credibility. And that’s part of the reason why there is this focus on Rumsfeld, and in addition to the calls to impeach the President there are calls to remove the Secretary of Defense.
Dori Smith: Diane Farsetta is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Media and Democracy. For Talk Nation Radio I’m Dori Smith. Talk Nation Radio is produced in the studios of WHUS at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. Try WHUS.org to listen live Wed. at 5 PM or Talk Nation.org or Talk Nation.org for transcripts and discussion.
Today’s music was by composer Fritz Heede.