the new culture of public relations and media manipulation,
never mind spin—just lie and deny
difficult to know exactly why AMC’s Mad Men has become
such a hit, but it is a safe bet that its popularity is not
merely a product of the television show’s smooth writing,
superb acting and retro-cool clothing. What has taken the
program from Law & Order-watchable to Sopranos-style
phenomenal is its exploration of advertising and public relations—the
psychological manipulations that we’re immersed in but rarely
In Mad Men’s early 1960s, the dark arts of selling
and spinning were being perfected and modernized. Before television,
advertising was largely based on the repetition of anodyne
fact—the theory being that if you simply hard-sell a product’s
virtues, ingredients and effects, that product will eventually
fly off the shelves. In the television age, as Americans became
more media literate and thus cynical, vendors began using
ad firms to sophisticate their pitches with subtlety and insinuation.
Getting to watch that mercurial process via Sterling Cooper
(the fictional ad agency in the show) is a voyeur’s delight—like
being allowed to watch David Copperfield construct his elaborate
The key to Mad Men’s formula is the assumption that
viewers realize most media products have become, to one degree
or another, propaganda. We get that gatekeepers with subjective
interests—whether governments or corporations—will shape the
information they provide so as to promote or protect those
interests. Free television shows are accompanied by hypnotic
advertisements, news broadcasts don’t typically attack their
sponsors, and governments omit official information that might
damage the administration in power. A half-century into the
information revolution, we grasp how all of those subjectivities
conspire to influence us.
Not surprisingly, that mass psychological maturation is once
again inspiring those with a vested interest in controlling
information to develop new techniques. Thus, even as Mad
Men grabs audience share with its potent retrospective
on the original revolution in contemporary advertising, the
business of information packaging is now experiencing a second
revolution—a conversion to Mad Men 2.0. And this time, that
business is following the worst lessons from its past.
In the last decade, America has witnessed the evolution of
the head-pounding hard sell and brain-massaging soft pitch
into what can be called “outraged denial.” Its key component
is replacing spin—the artful highlighting of partial truths—with
a total rejection of all facts.
This PR device is based on the theory that in a post-Watergate,
post-Monicagate world, the public will view spinned parsings
as admissions of guilt, yet accept enraged refutations as
ineluctably true. Through decades of commercials, congressional
testimony and political punditry, we’ve been taught to believe
that institutions and individuals may evade and prevaricate,
but they will never defend or promote themselves with brazen,
up-is-down fabrications because they know such lies can be
Of course, this expectation of minimal honesty is precisely
why we’re moving from the Don Draper zeitgeist to the Don
Rumsfeld paradigm—that is, from finesse to outraged denial.
When a company’s safety standards or earnings reports are
criticized, the corporate parent today inevitably denies all
charges with gusto, knowing we have trouble believing an angry
denial isn’t at least somewhat true. When a political figure
is asked about sex with an intern or prior knowledge of a
terrorist threat, he doesn’t acknowledge any of the verifiable
facts—he angrily rejects the entire line of questioning as
irresponsible conspiracy theory, knowing that we don’t want
to believe he could lie so brazenly.
Certainly, the Internet explosion and the proliferation of
news outlets have made uncovering untruths easy. In theory,
this should deter institutions and individuals from employing
outraged denial. Yet the opposite is true.
Thanks to so many news sources fragmenting the audience, almost
no single source is powerful enough to enforce empirical truths
against outraged denial. Indeed, for every objective blog
that fact-checks a congressperson’s statements, three partisan
blogs defend that lawmakers’ fibs. For every reporter who
uncovers discrepancies between a CEO’s public speech and his
company’s SEC filings, five PR firms exist to “prove” no discrepancies
Thus we find ourselves in a perverse situation: As information
becomes easier to obtain and cynicism rises, outraged denial
by the 21st-century Mad Men becomes more pervasive.
Today, Tea Party protestors vehemently deny that patients
will be given a choice of insurance provider under universal-health-care
proposals that statutorily preserve said choice; Washington
Republicans deny that the wealthy pay lower effective tax
rates than middle-income earners—even as IRS data proves just
that; Democrats deny that a filibuster-proof majority in Congress
means they have any power to pass legislation; and the banking
industry denies any relationship between billions in taxpayer
bailouts and billions in lavish executive bonuses.
Deception has always been part of public life. And today’s
dishonesty might be tolerable if the press charged with policing
the truth was not part of the problem.
As PBS’s Bill Moyers has documented, the early 2000s saw the
national press corps aid and abet the Bush administration’s
worst outraged denials after 9/11. When antiwar activists
said the government was lying about Iraq intelligence, the
White House’s indignant denials were amplified by nearly every
corporate media outlet. When legal scholars insisted the president
was violating the constitution with torture memos and warrantless
wiretapping orders, again, the press corps largely echoed
Indeed, if anything unifies the mainstream media today, it
is the principle of embracing outraged denials first and asking
questions later—or not at all. And recent brouhahas suggest
that the same media is intent on adopting this venal axiom
for its own purposes.
In 2003, PBS’s Charlie Rose repeated an oft heard outraged
denial about media objectivity. Responding to independent
journalist Amy Goodman’s assertion that vertically integrated
parent conglomerates now directly shape news decisions, Rose
said, “I promise you, CBS News and ABC News and NBC News are
not influenced by the corporations that may own those companies.”
As evidence, he said, “I know one of [those companies] very
well and worked for one of them.”
The Don Drapers of today were no doubt celebrating. Here was
a trusted, seemingly impartial voice—on no less honorable
a network than PBS—personally testifying to the objectivity
of corporate media. It was advertising at its most subversive
Two years prior, NBC’s president publicly lobbied politicians
against a government order forcing the company’s owner, General
Electric, to clean up its PCB mess in the Hudson River—a move
that raised questions about whether NBC could objectively
cover one of the largest environmental disasters in American
history. Similarly, eight years before Rose’s outraged denial,
CBS News—the very network Rose bragged about working for—backed
off a tobacco industry exposé after pressure from its lawsuit-averse
executives. The affair was such an emblematic example of corporate
manipulation of the news that it became an Academy Award-nominated
film, The Insider.
Fast forward to 2009. In a front-page story, The New York
Times reported that the same Charlie Rose who denied any
corporate influence on news decisions had brokered a deal
in May between the CEOs of General Electric and the News Corporation
to stop their respective news organizations, MSNBC and Fox
News, from criticizing each other.
The inspiration for the détente was explicitly economic—not
journalistic. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly had been responding
to criticism by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann with attacks on General
Electric’s business practices. According to the Times,
the News Corporation felt its bottom line was threatened by
Olbermann’s continued attacks on its credibility, and General
Electric felt similarly besieged by O’Reilly—and so the two
corporations agreed to a cease fire.
Even in the age of Mad Men 2.0, the story was a public embarrassment.
Olbermann, whose show rose to prominence based on its persistent
O’Reilly criticism, has ceased to question him in the two
months since the agreement. Meanwhile, General Electric spokespeople
were not only answering media inquiries about MSNBC news decisions,
they were bragging about their heavy-handed tactics.
Yet, instead of acknowledging any of the facts, Olbermann
proceeded with outraged denial. In his first broadcast after
the Times story, the MSNBC anchor seethed that he was
“party to no deal” and labeled the Times reporter,
Brian Stetler, one of the “Worst Persons in the World.” Yet
Olbermann never bothered to address the simple fact that General
Electric’s management had issued an order that he followed.
In fact, just hours after his denial, Olbermann told Salon.com’s
Glenn Greenwald that he “found nothing materially factually
inaccurate about” Greenwald’s assertion that the whole affair
was, indeed, an example of corporate control of the media.
actions in this matter truly insult all of the viewers that
look up to him as a non-coward voice in the media,” wrote
Jason Linkins, who reports on media issues for the Huffington
Post. “He is, quite simply, playing his viewers for fools.”
Just as Olbermann fought off the General Electric story, critics
raised questions about why his show continued to promote Richard
Wolffe as a disinterested “political analyst” at the same
time Wolffe was a full-time PR consultant for Public Strategies,
Inc.—a company whose clients have a financial stake in the
very policy debates that are discussed on MSNBC.
When asked if Wolffe would be barred from appearing on the
network because of the dual loyalties, MSNBC executives said
absolutely not. They promised only to “disclose Richard’s
connection” in the future. (Olbermann, to his credit, later
unilaterally said Wolffe would not be welcome on his show.)
It was as if a lack of transparency—and not the glaring conflict
of interest—was the major transgression.
Wolffe is one of many figures promoted as independent journalists
while simultaneously being paid by decidedly nonindependent
clients. In 2005, there was Doug Bandow, the Cato Institute
scholar who was paid by Jack Abramoff’s lobbying clients to
write corporate-friendly op-eds under the guise of principled
conservatism. The same year, “journalist” Armstrong Williams
was exposed for pocketing $241,000 in cash from the Bush administration
to promote the White House’s education agenda. That episode,
of course, looked miniscule compared to The New York Times
exposé uncovering financial connections between defense contractors
and former generals who were appearing on television to promote
the Iraq War.
Mind you, this isn’t just a Bush-era phenomenon—it continues
today. In August, CNN announced that Bill Schneider would
be working both as its “political analyst” and as a paid operative
with Third Way, one of Washington’s most notorious corporate
front groups. In recent weeks, executives at PR firm Burson-Marsteller
were caught looking to drum up business from a company featured
in a regular Wall Street Journal column that is written
by Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn.
In almost every instance, the canned response is outraged
denial at any suggestion that media corruption is systemic
and widespread rather than isolated and anomalous.
A democracy that permits outraged denial to turn truth into
a subjective concept will not remain a democracy for long.
It will become an Animal Farm run by those with the biggest
microphone, sharpest bayonet and maddest Mad Men. Preventing
that devolution requires a true independent media—one free
from corporate control and therefore free to aggressively
police the truth.
The good news is that vibrant independent media is not a pipe
dream. In an Internet Age whose cost of information distribution
is as close to free as it will ever get, outlets like Talking
Points Memo and the Huffington Post point to real potential.
The bad news is the status quo’s incentive system.
Today’s corporate, political and media landscapes actively
encourage the current trajectory. Incumbent politicians who
employ outraged denial to cover their lies rarely face electoral
consequences—in fact, most of the time, there are electoral
rewards. (One of many examples: Joe Lieberman winning reelection
after pretending he was fighting to end the Iraq War.) Same
for the business world: The financial crisis shows that companies
will be rewarded with taxpayer gifts when they lie and cheat
their way to speculative disaster.
Inside the media, it’s worse. As corporate outlets trim staff
and rely more on low-paid freelancers, those freelancers are
economically motivated to split time between nonpartisan journalism
and PR consulting. This trend intensifies as media companies
stop requiring any modicum of personal financial objectivity
from their part-time help. What, for instance, would keep
someone like Wolffe from selling himself to business clients
when his media platform doesn’t require him to preserve any
shred of independence?
That question, and its obvious answer, illustrate just how
much concepts like truth, fact and empiricism have already
been eroded, and how far along Mad Men 2.0 already is.
Sirota, an author and syndicated newspaper columnist living
in Denver, also is a senior editor at In These Times,
where this article first appeared. Source: featurewell.com.