PR Watch Has Its Eyes Open

Joel Bleifuss

Ten years ago John Stauber decided to take on the media arm of corporate America: the public relations industry. From his home in Madison, Wisconsin, he founded PR Watch, a quarterly magazine that tracked the machinations of the hired guns who stealthily attempt to manage public perception and thereby shape public policy.

Today, PR Watch has grown into an institution that, in addition to putting out the magazine, has an active Web presence (www.prwatch.org) and an annual budget of $200,000, which comes from grants, donations, subscriptions and profits from the four books Stauber and his colleague Sheldon Rampton have written. Their most recent, Weapons of Mass Deception, which was excerpted in the September 1 In These Times, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for the past seven weeks, despite the fact that the only mainstream review it received was in the San Francisco Chronicle.

On the Web, Stauber and Rampton continue to unmask deception in a daily feature, “Spin of the Day.” On October 15, for example, they reported that Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, the Iraqi who helped in the so called “rescue” of Jessica Lynch, received a $300,000 advance from Harper Collins for his new book, Because Each Life is Precious: Why an Iraqi Man Came to Risk Everything for Pvt. Jessica Lynch. In addition to the book contract from a company owned by Rupert Murdoch, Rehaief was given asylum in the United States and a job at the D.C. lobbying firm the Livingston Group. His book is being promoted by his Livingston Group colleague Lauri Fitz-Pegado, who is infamous for her work at Hill & Knowlton PR in 1990 coaching the Kuwaiti girl called “Nayirah” in her shocking but phony testimony to Congress that she’d seen Iraqi soldiers murdering Kuwaiti babies.

Stauber measures success in part from the phone calls he and Rampton receive from reporters who read their first book, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You, while in journalism school. “Our work has helped to highlight the extent to which the mainstream corporate media passes on public relations as news,” says Stauber. “About 40 percent of what they read, see or hear in the mainstream media is a result of government or corporate public relations campaigns. What we are seeing is a continuation of a very bad trend. As magazines and newspapers and TV networks and stations downsize journalists, they are not reducing news coverage, they are just using more public relations and passing it off as news.”

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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