Mad Men 2.0

America is experiencing a PR revolution that promotes outraged denial over fact-based persuasion.

David Sirota October 5, 2009

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.

A trusted, seemingly impartial voice­—on no less honorable a network than PBS—testified to the objectivity of corporate media. It was advertising at its most subversive and mendacious.

In Mad Mens 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 Mens 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 911. 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.

David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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