By Diane Farsetta
Center for Media and Democracy
January 3, 2006

[See the link above for extensive links to organizations, news articles, and other information mentioned in this article. –DS]

As Father Time faded into history with the end of 2005, he was spinning out of control.

Over the past twelve months, the ideal of accurate, accountable, civic-minded news media faced nearly constant attack. Fake news abounded, from Pentagon-planted stories in Iraqi newspapers to corporate- and government-funded video news releases aired by U.S. newsrooms. Enough payola pundits surfaced to constitute their own basketball team — Doug Bandow, Peter Ferrara, Maggie Gallagher, Michael McManus and Armstrong Williams. (They could call themselves the “Syndicated Shills.”)

The coveted Falsies Awards

Then there were the public relations campaigns that sought to redefine
reality itself. The oil and nuclear industries could be greenwashed!
Rights-abusing governments and labor-abusing companies could be whitewashed!
Junk food companies could be nutriwashed and genetically-modified foods
poorwashed! The only limitations were PR flacks’ imaginations — and their
expense accounts.

Viewed in sum, the extensive pollution of last year’s information
environment could either make you cynical or have you convinced that two
plus two really does equal five.

Here at the Center for Media and Democracy, we realized that sorting through
a year’s worth of outrageous spin to bestow this year’s Falsies Awards was
no small task. We asked our readers for help, and 846 people answered the
call, filling out our Falsies Awards Survey.

Here, then, are the winners of the second annual Center for Media and
Democracy Falsies Awards, followed by our Readers’ Choice Falsies. Lastly,
we recognize groups and individuals who used information, reason,
independent media and community organizing to counter 2005’s flack attacks
with the Center’s first ever Win Against Spin Awards.

And the Falsies Awards Winners Are…

The coveted Gold Falsies Award of 2005 goes to the video news release
industry (with a nod to their accomplices in television newsrooms).

In March, the New York Times reported, “At least 20 federal agencies,
including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and
distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years. …
Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country
without any acknowledgment of the government’s role.” Video and radio
segments from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Broadcast Media & Technology
Center, which the Times called “one of the most effective public relations
operations inside the federal government,” are very one-sided. A Center for
Media and Democracy review found pieces deriding public safety concerns
about mad cow disease as “nothing but media hype” and promoting the Central
American Free Trade Agreement as “very good for agriculture.”

It does make a twisted sort of sense, though. These video news releases
(VNRs) and audio news releases (ANRs) are produced by public relations firms
(or PR staff within companies or government agencies) to advance a client’s
agenda. They’re just like advertisements — except that listeners or viewers
think they’re independently-reported news segments. Too bad for them, but
it’s great propaganda for the corporate and government entities behind the
fake news. Everyone knows that ads lie, but who would guess that a report on
a company was actually produced by that company?

Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of fake news comes from
companies, not governments. During a March teleconference of public
relations executives, the CEO of Medialink, one of the largest VNR
companies, cautioned his peers, “Let’s remember this debate, from everything
I’ve seen, read, heard, and talked to, is purely the government. … I don’t
hear anybody issuing a healing cry over the stuff that we do day-in and
day-out; it’s really government. And I’m glad the story is kind of focused
there, because I would hate to see it broaden.” Sure thing, Larry — we
won’t tell a soul!

The Silver Falsies Award goes to the mainstream media and the Bush
administration, for “Not Counting the Dead.”

In March, a survey of more than 200 U.S. media personnel by American
University’s School of Communications found that “many media outlets
self-censored their reporting on Iraq,” often out of fear of offending their
audience. One participant in the survey wrote, “The real damage of war on
the civilian population was uniformly omitted.” Indeed, U.S. media ignored
or downplayed an October 2004 medical study that estimated nearly 100,000
Iraqi civilians had died since the U.S. invasion. The study, which erred on
the side of caution by leaving Fallujah’s high mortality rates out of its
final projections, was widely praised by public health professionals.

In October, the Pentagon began periodically releasing “enemy body counts …
to show the impact of some counterinsurgency operations” in Iraq, reported
the Washington Post. In response to a question at a December talk, President
Bush broke his silence on civilian casualties to say that “30,000 Iraqis,
more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing
violence.” This newfound candor came as Bush’s approval ratings for
“handling his job, Iraq, terrorism and the economy” were “all at
career-lows,” according to ABC News polls. Bush’s lowball estimation of
civilian deaths was welcomed as “a more realistic tone” by international
media and was quickly overshadowed by Iraq’s parliamentary elections, held
just days later.

The debate about Iraqi civilian casualties mirrors earlier, and similarly
marginalized, questions about civilian deaths following the 2001 U.S.
invasion of Afghanistan. Based on multiple news reports of each casualty,
U.S. academic Mark Herold arrived at a conservative estimate of 3,767 Afghan
civilians killed by December 2001. Yet U.S. military operations there
continued in 2005. Human Rights Watch also claims that U.S. arrest and
detention practices are “endangering the lives of Afghan civilians” and
“undermining efforts to restore the rule of law in Afghanistan.” But what do
they know about, um, human rights?

The Bronze Falsies Award goes to the U.S. military and their public
relations contractors, for “Spinning Wars and PsyOps.”

In January, the Pentagon increased media training for forces going to Iraq,
making “one or two hours of briefings by public-affairs specialists”
mandatory for Army troops, and distributing wallet-sized “talking point”
cards to soldiers. One talking point was, “We are not an occupying force,”
reported the North Carolina News & Observer.

Apparently, U.S. officials spent much of 2005 in linguistic debates.
Initially, opponents in Iraq were called “dead-enders” or “Baathist
holdouts.” When the dead end started looking more like a long slog, they
became “former regime loyalists.” That changed to “former regime elements,”
to avoid the positive connotations of the word “loyalty.” In November,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had “an epiphany.” “This is a group of
people who don’t merit the word ‘insurgency,'” he said, since that implies
that they have “a legitimate gripe.” (Remember, there are no occupying
forces in Iraq.) Rumsfeld’s half-joking re-re-re-naming suggestion was
“enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government.”

In June, the Pentagon awarded up to $300 million over five years to
SYColeman, Inc., Lincoln Group and Science Applications International
Corporation, to “inject more creativity into … psychological operations
efforts to improve foreign public opinion about the United States,
particularly the military,” reported the Washington Post. At the time, the
military contractors’ work was described as developing “radio and television
spots, documentaries, or even text messages, pop-up ads on the Internet,
podcasting, billboards or novelty items.”

That could be accurate — if Pentagon officials consider foreign news media
to be novelty items. (“Happy birthday! Put on your Al Jazeera party hat!”)
In November, the Los Angeles Times outed the Lincoln Group for covertly
paying Iraqi newspapers to print stories written by U.S. information
operations forces. The planted stories were described as “basically
factual,” although — like their VNR and ANR cousins — they presented “only
one side of events.” But in December, strategy documents obtained by ABC
News suggested that the Lincoln Group’s description of the November 2004
assault on Fallujah as a joint Iraqi and U.S. military operation was
inaccurate. “Marines and reporters said the Iraqis were only minimally
involved,” reported ABC.

Falsies Awards Dishonorable Mentions go to President Bush, for “Support Our
Props,” and U.S. Representative Tom DeLay, for “The Mug Shot Mug.”

In October, President Bush held a videoconference with U.S. soldiers
stationed in Iraq that was billed as a “back-and-forth with the troops.”
However, a premature satellite feed showed Allison Barber, a senior Pentagon
official and former president of the PR firm Sodenta, rehearsing the
“spontaneous” conversation with the soldiers. Oops! One of the Iraq troops
presented as someone with on-the-ground knowledge, Master Sgt. Corine
Lombardo, was also a flack. According to David Axe, who reported from Iraq
for the Village Voice, Lombardo’s “job when I was with the 42nd Infantry
Division included taking reporters to lunch. She lives in a fortified
compound in Tikrit and rarely leaves.”

The same month, U.S. Representative and former House Majority Leader Tom
DeLay reported to the Harris County, Texas sheriff’s office after being
indicted for campaign finance conspiracy and money laundering. He was
fingerprinted and posted a $10,000 bond, but, apparently, he felt great. In
his mug shot, DeLay grinned widely, wearing a dapper suit with his House pin
on the lapel. Also unlike your typical mug shot, the picture did not include
booking information. Reporters conjectured that DeLay’s advisors “urged him
to grin so that Democrats won’t be able to use a dour mug shot in future ad
campaigns,” according to Slate. But maybe DeLay follows the advice of Billy
Crystal’s Saturday Night Live character, Fernando: “It’s not how you feel;
it’s how you look. And you look mah-velous!”

And the Readers’ Choice Falsies Winners Are…

Many of our readers sent in their own Falsies Awards nominations. Some were
for groups, people or trends whose spinning ways the Center for Media and
Democracy has been tracking for some time. For instance:

The American Chemistry Council, which, as one Falsies Awards Survey
respondent noted, “recently launched a major PR campaign … that promotes
the economic contributions of toxics producers who are lobbying to weaken
the right-to-know annual Toxics Release Inventory report”;

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a “trade/lobbying
group” that “continues to insist that reimportation of their drugs from
third countries such as Canada is dangerous,” another respondent wrote.
“Meanwhile, they’re offshoring jobs”;

The American Beverage Association, for “announcing a bogus voluntary policy
for soda in schools at the National Conference of State Legislatures when
Coke and Pepsi lobby against state bills”;

Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, for, as one respondent put it,
promoting “her refusal to testify before the grand jury investigating the
outing of a CIA operative as a principled First Amendment cause, but, in
reality, she played a lead role in the disinformation campaign to prime
public support for a war of aggression”; and

“Cause marketing,” such as the widespread pink ribbon ad campaigns playing
on the serious health threat of breast cancer. “I am a survivor and I feel
Falsies sums it up,” one respondent told us. “We wouldn’t really need them
if we had a cure.”

Other readers urged the Center for Media and Democracy to adopt a more
global approach to the Falsies Awards. International nominees of note

British Prime Minister Tony Blair received several write-ins, for the
“oh-so-dodgy dossier,” his “persuasive” oratories about Iraq’s supposed
weapons of mass destruction, and for “lying to the people and the Parliament
of the UK” about the Iraq war;

The Downing Street Memos (and scant media coverage of them), as “a
double-edged sword” that sliced through both “the false Iraq war claims” and
the “last shred of credibility” of the mainstream media;

Ahmed Chalabi, who one respondent called “a one-man PR machine,” for having
“lied to the Iraqis, lied to the Jordanians, and last but least lied to the
Americans.” Perhaps his poor showing in December’s elections in Iraq is
not-so-instant karma?;

The CanWest Global Communications Corporation, “Canada’s leading
international media company,” for owning a broadcasting network that
“reaches more than 94% of English-speaking Canada,” as well as “10 major
metro dailies and 23 smaller daily, weekly, and community papers,” among the
many other holdings listed on their website. One respondent wrote, “We no
longer have anything close to a free press in Canada except for small
alternative publications which have trouble surviving”; and

The National Coalition for Haitian Rights – Haiti, for engaging in what one
respondent called a “partisan campaign to discredit the ousted Aristide
government,” adding, “Prior to the coup, NCHR … directly link[ed] police
abuses to the government. … Post-coup, NCHR now refers to killings of
civilians by Haitian police as ‘collateral damage.'”

And the Win Against Spin Awards Winners Are…

The public relations industry is pervasive, well-funded and highly skilled
— but not insurmountable. Indeed, the Center for Media and Democracy was
founded because deceptive PR only works when it remains unquestioned. Once
exposed to public scrutiny, front groups, hollow claims and other media
perversions lose their power. Then, debates on important issues can take
place on a more level playing ground.

For their work to overcome misleading spin and reclaim the media, the
following groups and people earned the Center’s 2005 Win Against Spin

The California Labor Federation, California Nurses Association and Service
Employees International Union, for winning their lawsuit against the use of
video news releases by Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration, to promote
workplace rule changes. A Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled that the
VNRs gave “the misleading impression that the regulations are unopposed by
any segments of the public and are not subject to criticism, thereby
discouraging any further questioning or investigation of the matter by the

Marla Ruzicka, who founded the group CIVIC (the Campaign for Innocent
Victims in Conflict) to document civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq as
a result of U.S.-led wars and lobbied Congress to provide assistance to
families harmed during military operations. Tragically, this is a posthumous
award, as Ruzicka was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad in April;

U.S. Representative Frank Wolf, for questioning the propriety of lobbying
contracts between U.S. firms and the foreign governments of China, Saudi
Arabia and Sudan. Wolf also upbraided the U.S. State Department for granting
the lobbying firm C/R International an exemption to the ban on U.S.
companies doing business with Sudan;

Voters in Switzerland, three California counties and nearly 100 New England
towns who passed resolutions opposing the unregulated use of genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) or placing a moratorium on the commercial release
or cultivation of GMOs. These victories for local food sovereignty and the
precautionary approach were won despite massive lobbying and PR campaigns
from biotech companies and major farm groups, and attempts to deny
communities the right to vote on such matters; and

Citizen journalists — especially those who risk harassment, imprisonment or
worse for using the Internet “to expose violations by their governments and
provide the outside world with information,” as Amnesty International noted
in its tribute to blogs on World Press Freedom Day. In the United States,
local news websites and distributed journalism projects (like our own
SourceWatch) made significant contributions.

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