EcoMole: The 2004 Falsies Awards
The Weekly Spin / The Center for Media and Democracy
January 28, 2005

Credit: The-Edge
This year marks the beginning of a new tradition for the Center for Media and Democracy. To remember the people and players responsible for polluting our information environment, we are issuing a new year-end prize that we call the "Falsies Awards." The winners of the Falsies Awards for 2004 are:

A video news release or VNR is a simulated TV news story. Video clips paid for by corporations, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations are commonly passed off as legitimate news segments on local newscasts throughout the United States. VNRs are designed to be indistinguishable from traditional TV news and are often aired without the original producers and sponsors being identified and sometimes without any local editing.

When a VNR touting the controversial Medicare reform law ended with "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan, reporting," Senate Democrats called foul. The VNR, which aired on 40 stations between January 22 and February 12, 2004, was paid for by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The "reporter" was actually employed by a production company contracted by the Ketchum PR firm to create the VNR for HHS. The US General Accounting Office concluded that the VNR had violated a ban on government funded "publicity and propaganda.

Karen Ryan was back in the news in October. This time Ryan "reported" on the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind law. A Freedom of Information Act investigation revealed that the US Education Department paid $700,000 to the PR firm to produce two VNRs as well as to rate newspaper coverage according to how favorably reporters described No Child Left Behind. "A number of local stations ran the VNR as is, and added a local twist by simply having their own reporter read the script," reported, a journalist watchdog website. "The stations that took the time to have their own reporters record the script of the No Child Left Behind VNR had to have been fully aware of what they were doing: knowingly deceiving their viewers about the origins of the story -- not to mention committing plagiarism -- by passing off as their own original reporting words actually written by a PR company hired by the Bush administration."

The formerly exiled Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress were exposed as hucksters who befriended powerful men in Washington and played an instrumental role in selling the Iraq War. The US major media finally examined the extent to which the INC and Chalabi used funding provided by the US Congress to position themselves as a central source for much of the now-discredited "intelligence information" that the Bush administration used to justify the March 2003 invasion.

"The former Iraqi exile group that gave the Bush administration exaggerated and fabricated intelligence on Iraq also fed much of the same information to newspapers, news agencies and magazines in the United States, Britain and Australia," Knight Ridder reported in March 2004. "A June 26, 2002, letter from the Iraqi National Congress to the Senate Appropriations Committee listed 108 articles based on information provided by the Iraqi National Congress's Information Collection Program, a US-funded effort to collect intelligence in Iraq. The Information Collection Program was financed out of the at least $18 million that the US Congress approved for the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi from 1999 to 2003."

Following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the US gave Chalabi one of the 25 seats on its hand-picked new Iraqi Governing Council. The Pentagon's $335,000 monthly payments to the INC's intelligence program continued until May 2004, when US intelligence agencies began reporting that Chalabi may have actually been a double agent working for Iran.

Stories of so-called "guerrilla marketing" abounded in 2004. From martinis to cell phones to TV programs, this stealthy form of advertising usually features paid agents subtly promoting a product to an unsuspecting audience. According to Shawn Prez of the marketing agency Power Moves, stealth techniques are especially effective with teens. "By the time the message gets out, they don't even know they've been hit; they don't know that they've been marketed to." Prez said. Our favorite examples of guerilla marketing include the following:

• In New York, attractive men and women flashed their underwear at strangers outside Grand Central Terminal to promote a local health club. The underwear featured the logo of the club along with the words "Booty Call" to promote an exercise class that works the butt muscles. (We swear we're not making this up.)

• A fictional blogger, invented by an ad agency, posted blog entries claiming that a new Sega video game caused him to suffer blackouts and uncontrollable fits of violence.

• At Fourth of July cookouts throughout the United States, guests brought Al Fresco chicken sausages to throw on the grill, without telling the other guests that they were actually working to earn premiums from a PR firm that was hired to promote sales of the product.

"This idea -- the commercialization of chitchat -- resembles a scenario from a paranoid science-fiction novel about a future in which corporations have become so powerful that they can bribe whole armies of flunkies to infiltrate the family barbecue," observed Rob Walker in the New York Times.

Food industry lobbyists met repeatedly and privately with Bush administration officials while the administration was drafting rules to protect the nation's food supply from bio-terrorism. "The resulting regulations don't fully protect the public interest," stated the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris) and others lobbied to weaken proposed regulations requiring importers to notify the Food and Drug Administration before food shipments arrive from overseas. One GMA lobbyist explained, "We all want regulations to protect against bio-terrorism, but in a way to... allow the business to operate in an efficient manner." The Bush administration's Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson had nothing to say about the problem until after the 2004 presidential election, when he announced his resignation plans. In his departure speech in December, Thompson warned of possible health-related terrorist attacks. "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," he said.

Corporate lobby groups such as the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) launched a fierce counter-campaign against the proposed Norms on Business and Human Rights, which were developed by a subcommission of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The Norms require businesses internationally to refrain from activities that violate human rights, constraints that have been vigorously opposed by the ICC and the Royal Dutch/Shell oil company, a self-proclaimed leader in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement. A 2004 report by Christian Aid documented that Shell's operations in the Niger Delta (Nigeria) are still causing serious problems for local communities. The report also found that most of the community development projects presented in Shell reports on CSR are failing. "Hospitals, schools and water supply systems are built but never start working, and roads are mainly used to boost oil production," reported CEO. "It is clear that the company is determined to prevent the emergence of international mechanisms through which communities could hold it accountable to its pledges."

In August, the Daily Kos Weblog uncovered an Astroturf (fake grassroots) initiative by the George W. Bush reelection campaign, which generated ghostwritten letters-to-the-editor that found their way into at least 60 newspapers. This wasn't the first time that the Bush administration tried this trick. The National Conference of Editorial Writers is now taking the issue seriously. On NCEW's e-mail listserv, some 600 subscribers (mostly editorial page writers and editors) can alert one another to suspicious letters.

A leaked memo by Republican advisor Frank Luntz advised GOP politicians to avoid the words "preemption" and "war in Iraq" when talking about the Bush administration's pre-emptive war in Iraq. "To do so is to undermine your message from the start," he advised. "Your efforts are about 'the principles of prevention and protection' in the greater 'War on Terror.'" According to the June 2004 Washington Post, Luntz also recommended that "No speech about homeland security or Iraq should begin without a reference to 9/11."

After touring the Democratic National Convention's "free speech" protest zone in Boston, US District Judge Douglas Woodlock proclaimed: "One cannot conceive of other elements [that could be] put in place to create a space that's more of an affront to the idea of free expression," said US District Judge Douglas Woodlock, after touring the Democratic National Convention's "free speech" protest zone in Boston. The Boston Globe described the zone as "bordered by cement barriers, a double row of chain-line fencing, heavy black netting, and tightly woven plastic mesh," with "coils of razor wire" along elevated train tracks. A lawyer for activists compared the zone to "a maximum security prison, Guantanamo Bay, or a zoo." That's not to say the Republican National Convention in New York City was a celebration of civil liberties. The New York Police Department engaged in pre-emptive arrest tactics to stop activities planned by demonstrators.

Several key advocates for the invasion of Iraq are now profiting from Iraq's reconstruction. "As lobbyists, public relations counselors and confidential advisors to senior federal officials, they warned against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, praised exiled leader Ahmad Chalabi, and argued that toppling Saddam Hussein was a matter of national security and moral duty," reported Walter F. Roche Jr. and Ken Silverstein in the Los Angeles Times. "Now, as fighting continues in Iraq, they are collecting tens of thousands of dollars in fees for helping business clients pursue federal contracts and other financial opportunities in Iraq." Among the profiteers:

  • Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, Jr., a founding member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI) who used his Pentagon connections to arrange for a debriefing of a Iraqi defector provided by the Iraqi National Congress who gave false information about Iraqi biological warfare laboratories (see award-winner #2 above);

  • Randy Scheunemann, founding president of the CLI; and Washington lobbyist K. Riva Levinson, who while at Burson-Marsteller's BKSH & Associates did PR work for the INC on the US State Department's tab.

    "Wal-Mart is working with Hill & Knowlton on a PR campaign designed to rehabilitate the much-maligned company's reputation in California and pave the way for 40 new Wal-Mart Supercenters in the state in the next few years," PR Week reported in October. The world's largest retailer published an "open letter to California residents" in 15 California newspapers on September 23. "As the company has grown, we've become a target for negative comments from certain elected officials, competitors and powerful special interest groups," Wal-Mart wrote. Wal-Mart has announced plans to increase retail space by 8 percent. The company is also facing a class-action suit for sex discrimination.

    The Center for Media and Democracy would also like to recognize the following efforts to expose and counter spin in 2004:

    Tami Silicio and the Seattle Times brought the first images of US military casualties to the American mass media in April 2004. Silicio, a Kuwait-based cargo worker whose photograph of flag-draped coffins of fallen US soldiers was published in the Times, was fired along with her husband. Her employer, a private contractor, said it decided to fire her after receiving a complaint from the military about her violation of the Pentagon's ban on images of soldiers' caskets.

    For the complete details, including links to further information about the recipients of the 2004 Falsies, visit this story online at:

    PR Watch, Spin of the Day, the Weekly Spin and Disinfopedia are projects of the Center for Media & Democracy, a nonprofit organization that offers investigative reporting on the public relations industry. We help the public recognize manipulative and misleading PR practices by exposing the activities of secretive, little-known propaganda-for-hire firms that work to control political debates and public opinion. Please send any questions or suggestions about our publications to: Daily updates and news from past weeks can be found at the "Spin of the Day" section of the Center website: It is emailed free each Wednesday to subscribers.

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