The Flack Catchers


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.

The further you read,
the greater the risk
of paranoid fatalism.

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 enlightenment.”

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