It’s 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 talk about.
In Mad Men’s early 1960s, the dark art 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 magic tricks.
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.
Don Draper to Don Rumsfeld
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 easily exposed.
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 exist.
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 healthcare 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 official brush-offs.
Indeed, if anything unifies the mainstream media today, it is the principle of embracing outraged denials first and ask- ing 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.
The media-industrial complex
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 and mendacious.
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 expose 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 ceasefire.
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.
“Olbermann’s 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 non-independent 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.
Who is curbing the watchdogs?
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, the Huffington Post and the blogosphere 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 re-election 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 – illustrates just how much concepts like truth, fact and empiricism have already been eroded, and how far along Mad Men 2.0 already is.