Friday, June 02, 2006

The Most Evil (Legal) Profession

The most evil profession goes by several different names. The most common, I think, are 'marketing', 'public relations', and 'perception management.'

These are three different names for "the practical science of deception." These people make it their job to fill your environment with lies with the intention of manipulating you into making choices that are not in your interest, because your poor choices will make their clients wealthier and more powerful. They do this because those clients promise to share their wealth and power with these hucksters of deceit.

In this profession, how well one does is directly proportional to how well the individual manipulates the tools of deceit and how willing one is to do so. A sure way to fail in this profession is to develop a moral conscience. Tell a client that you will not take his case because he is seeking to promote a lie that will make him wealthy and powerful at the expense of others, and he will find somebody else willing to take his money. The greatest masters of deceit with the least discerning conscience rise to the top.

Of course, there are a number of different people working in this field and they have different moral qualities. However, taken as a whole, those who have a concern with accuracy and honesty are clearly too few and too weak to have much of a voice

Does this sound harsh?

Harsh does not imply “factually incorrect”.

This posting is actually an extension of the posting a two days ago about the activities of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. They have proved themselves willing to help energy companies act in ways that threaten serious damage to every coastal city for a share of the wealth and power the energy companies can accumulate.

This posting is also prompted by news stories in recent days of government agencies producing "video news releases." These are propaganda pieces that are made to have the appearance of a news segment. The organization that makes this video then distributes it to news stations, who then broadcast the propaganda piece as a part of their regular news broadcast. The whole piece has the look and feel of a neutral third party providing the viewer with information on this individual or organization, when it is in fact the individual or organization giving you information about itself.

One thing to note about this practice is that it is not new.

When I started to participate in political campaigns, I found out that most newspaper articles about a political candidate were written by that candidate's staff. We would sit around a table and write something up that said, "Senate candidate John Smith today condemned the Opposing Party's call today for . . ." The press release was written in the third person, in a tone and manner that allowed it to simply go to the typesetter. These press releases would then appear in the newspaper as they were written.

Public relations companies are, among other things, experts at writing press releases. One of their jobs is to create press releases and other materials that appear to be written by neutral third parties and to get those pieces in the press.

This system is not hidden. Go to the web site of any company, large organization, or political candidate and you will find a set of "press releases." Press releases are, by definition, articles written by organizations and candidates in the third person so that they can appear in "objective" media outlets as written.

Public relations companies are, among other things, experts in the art of creating press releases. It is only natural that they would extend this practice to video news releases as well.

However, I want to make here that, even though there is precedent in the print media for this type of deception, this does not make it right. We cannot build a moral defense of slavery on that institution’s long history, or even the fact that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (among others) owned slaves. Rather, the moral condemnation of the video news release applies to the print news release as well, regardless of how long it has been around.

This practice of generating propaganda that has the look and feel of a third-party ‘objective’ product extends into other realms as well. In fact, an event that precipitated my writing this blog involved watching a documentary on global warming on the Discovery Channel. The documentary was clearly written and produced by global warming denialists who wanted to give their propaganda an appearance of scientific legitimacy. The pure evil of this campaign of deception gave me a strong shove into writing a blog where I could show just how evil these types of people are.

More generally, this concerns a practice of creating advertisements that have the look and feel of condemnation a long tradition A long tradition of slavery is not a moral defense of that iAttention iMore generally, they are experts in creating material that appears to be objective whose intention is to get better wealth and power for their client by manipulating the viewer.

Video news releases are nothing more than a video form of the press release.

Another example of this science of deception was one of the motivating factors behind my starting this blog. I watched a show on the Science Channel on global warming. One would expect that the Science Channel would present good science. Instead, this show was clearly the product of global-warming deniers with as much scientific merit as your average tarot card reading. No peer-review by the scientific community would have cleared this piece of trash. Yet, here it was, appearing on my television, a 60 minute 'infomercial' for energy-company disinformation appearing as a legitimate science documentary.

Here was an example of a multi-million dollar project to manipulate people in ways that would prevent them from protecting their lives, health, and property from a real threat because convincing us to sit on our hands and do nothing would mean billions of dollars in profit for their client.

These masters of the science of deception kept the tobacco companies making billions of dollars by hooking one generation after another on a drug that would ruin their health and take the lives of many of them. There is a great deal of moral condemnation that we can give to those who kill for a profit, but no less goes to those whose job it is to market these products to those who will use them and die.

These masters of the science of deception sell people "natural remedies" that, at best, do nothing for the individual and, at worse, actually do real harm -- because convincing people in ways that sacrifice their health makes money for their clients.

These masters of the science of deception toss us into a soup of fear and confusion where we are told that the only way out is an invasion of Iraq -- because a war with Iraq means billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to individuals and companies who paid good money to get their people elected (through yet another campaign of deception that portrayed President Bush as a uniter, not a divider, and as a decent and moral individual).

This is, in fact, a science of deception.

This is the way the industry works. A company decides that it wants the people to promote a lie, because getting the people to accept this lie will make their clients wealthier and more powerful. To do this, they first have a brainstorming session where they come up with a number of theories about which lies would be most readily accepted. They then design experiments – polls, focus groups, and other tests – to determine which of their hypothetical lies would be most readily accepted. They conduct their experiments. Then, they pick the scientifically tested and approved best lies to release on the people of the world.

As a result, we find ourselves up to our neck in a muck of deception and fiction, designed, tested, and funded because of its ability to cause us to make bad choices that make other people rich and powerful.

The reason we find ourselves in this situation is because we create a culture that rewards masters of the art of deception – and those who employ them – with wealth and power rather than with the contempt-driven condemnation they deserve.

What we should be doing is identifying these masters of the science of deception wherever they are, exposing them, and treating them, socially if not legally, like we would sexual predators or neighborhood drug pushers.

The most important thing we need to do is to keep them away from our children, warn our children of their existence, and warn our children that people who grow up to do such things are despicable and evil and, “I cannot be proud of you if you take up or participate in that type of life.”

People who devote their lives to that which makes others worse off, by surrounding them with deception that seeks to fog their judgment, deserve just this type of condemnation.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Hume's Ghost for raising this issue.

8 comments:

Derek Scruggs said...

This is silly. You're making absolute statement (public relations is evil) that is easily disproved in context. What about the press release to announce the development of the polio vaccine? Was that PR person evil?

Press releases are, by definition, articles written by organizations and candidates in the third person so that they can appear in "objective" media outlets as written.

Really? Can you point me to that definition? Or did you just make this up? This strikes me as sloppy thinking, especially for someone who is generally very precise with language.

To condemn "press releases" is like the "war on terrorism" - the statement obfuscates more than it elucidates. A tactic is simply a tactic, not objectively good or evil.

Derek Scruggs said...

As a follow on, here's a press release I'm really glad a PR firm took the time to write. I would've liked to have seen this on TV, complete with footage of Pablo Mastroeni.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Derek

You are absolutely correct.

Somewhere in editing this one of the paragraphs that I had written apparently got deleted. I do not approve of making blanket statements of whole groups, so I had a paragraph that specifically stated that I am talking about an overall disposition of a group that clearly has individual exceptions.

However, the type of argument you provide would not counter the claims that I made even in the original statement. To say that "this is the most evil profession" is not to say that they do no good; only that the ratio of evil to good is particularly low. Individual examples of "good" press releases would not refute such a claim.

What would refute it is evidence of an effort of those who are a part of this community to police the actions of those within the community and to censure in some way those who are engage in deceptive practices.

There are groups like this, such as factcheck.org and prwatch.org. However, these are outsiders looking in on the industry, rather than insiders making any type of attempt to encourage a devotion to truth and rejection of deception among their own members.

As I said, your basic charge, against my article as originally written, was accurate. It would be false and prejudicial to say that everybody involved in the Public Relations industry has no moral conscience. I deny that this is the case.

I just wish that the industry as a whole was one where those with a conscience were powerful enough to police those of their members who do not.

Joe Otten said...

Alonzo, a few years ago I would have entirely agreed with you, and I would write things like this.

Today I am not so sure. You could make similar arguments about criminal defence attorneys. They put forward partial arguments, sometimes lie, usually defending someone who deserves to be punished. But they are a necessary part of an imperfect but good system. A less confrontational justice system might work as well or better, who knows, but the same system as we have, just without defence attorneys would work much worse.

Of course there are extreme examples that are worthy of condemnation and punishment, but the work of the typical defence attorney is not.

And similarly marketing. It certainly manipulates people's desires, when successful. But does it tend to thwart desires generally rather than fulfil them? I guess the desires it creates are often thwarted, and often fulfilled. How does that get weighed?

And is marketing a necessary part of something bigger - in which case it might be unfair to regard marketers with contempt? Even then, perhaps it is still right to treat them with contempt, to discourage talent from being applied that way, and to encourage people to take care what they believe.

Martin said...

We have a friend who is vegan for moral reasons. But if she finds a report on the harmful effects of meat, she's all too happy to include those reports in her advocacy. If another report says that meat isn't so bad, she doesn't objectively include that in her conversations, because she is advocating a cause.

Likewise, when I was asked to participate in a focus group for a movie discount card, I wanted the card to only apply to admission, not concessions, because I never bought concessions and I preferred a card that worked for me. Another woman in the group shouted at me for not being fair to those who DID spend money on concessions. But my role was to advocate what _I_ wanted, and not to be a "fair" judge.

Sometimes one has to be an advocate and not a judge. Were my vegan friend and my frugal self being immoral for taking a side? In both cases, *maybe* a middle ground would be better for more people. But in both cases, we were speaking for causes we believed in strongly. What say you to that sort of thinking?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Joe Otten

I have the experience of actually having taught courses in the philosophy of law that included sections on legal ethics. There are standards for lawyers (including criminal defense attorneys) which can result in disbarment if those standards are violated.

Granted, a lot of attorneys violate those rules, or bend them to the point of breaking. Furthermore, I do not agree with some of the rules and would not call them 'ethical'. However, having said this, a standard of conduct that can result in disbarment if they are broken is a significant improvement over what we get from these "masters of the science of deceipt."

Martin

I do not imply that there is a requirement to judge, I am talking about simple acts of deception. If the focus group asked you what type of discount card you wanted, and you gave an honest answer, then the woman who shouted at you was in the wrong. She wanted you to lie for the benefit of others. She was angry at you for telling the truth. She was in the wrong, not you.

On the other hand, your vegan friend who selectively uses data, I would say, is being dishonest if (1) she makes no attempt to verify the truth of the statements she uses, or (2) she has reason to believe that they are not true but uses them anyway.

This does not mean that she needs to include everything written on "both sides" of an issue. There is a difference between this requirement (which I have condemned in previous posts), and the requirement that what one does include needs to be verified as true and left out if it cannot be verified.

I do not hold that one needs to present both sides of an issue. I do hold that, when presenting one side of an issue, one needs to take care to avoid making false statements.

If you would like to put it that way, this is the "middle ground" that I advocate. You don't have to be "fair", but you do have to be honest.

Hume's Ghost said...

I don't believe press releases are inherently wrong. The problem is one of disclosure. If you're reading or watching an advertisement you need to know that. And absolutely under no circumstances should the government VNRs be presented as if they are indenpendent news report.

Its a matter of transparency. If you're writing an article about how great Ford trucks are, and Ford trucks paid you 50,000 dollars, you need to disclose you that were paid 50,000 dollars.

The CMD that spurred me to ask Alonzo's views on this subject indicates that there are vast amounts of covert propaganda in our culture that we are largely unaware of.

A democracy can not work if people do not know the truth. Each one of the fake news reports represents a tiny assault on the truth. And when they aggregate, they represent an assault on the concept of democracy.

Anonymous said...

When watching a commercial we know its all exadurated so we act accordingly.

But when a commercial is served to us as a report, especially a scientific one, which is supposed to be absolutely accurate, than we act as if exadurations are the accurate truth.
So our personal profit vs. loss equation gets thrown completely out of whack.

That's how our desires are thwarted and that's why covert commercials are bad.