Peanut Institute tries to sell its product as a nut to reap benefit of red meat mortality study

This week’s news release by the Peanut Institute uses a common misunderstanding fed by an accident of language to deceive us into thinking that its healthy product is even healthier.

The news release repackages the earlier announcement of the release of a massive study of food consumption and mortality by the Harvard School of Public Health which concludes that eating red meat is associated with a thirteen percent increased risk of death. That means that every time you eat red meat, you lower your life expectancy by increasing your chances of getting cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

As it turns out, nuts are the best food to substitute for meat. The study shows that replacing one serving of red meat with one serving of nuts per week reduces mortality risk by 19%. It’s a 14% reduction for poultry and whole grains; 10% for legumes and low fat dairy; and 7% for fish.

The news release keeps referring to the peanut as a “nut.” Some examples:

  • The headline: “PEANUTS #1 NUT CONSUMED IN US”
  • “Over half the nuts eaten in the US are peanuts…”
  • “According to USDA data, peanuts account for about half of all nuts eaten in the US…”

But wait a minute! Peanuts (or goober peas as Burl Ives used to call them in that folk song) are a legume not a nut, which means they can only claim a 10% edge over red meat, not the 19% reduction of a real nut.

The Peanut Institute finally confesses the truth but not until it gives us quotes from a Harvard professor about the benefits of replacing animal protein with plant protein followed by a paragraph about the fact that eating peanuts and peanut butter can reduce the risk of heart attacks in half, but only eating them five or more times each week.”

Only buried at the very end of the article do we get the fact that peanuts are not nuts, and we get it wrapped in more health claims: “With lots of nut and legume choices (peanuts are, technically, a legume), Americans are increasingly choosing peanuts and peanut butter.” Immediately afterwards, the release immediately calls peanuts a “nut” twice in the following sentence.

There can be no doubt that the Peanut Institute, as a matter of policy, tries to pass the peanut off as a nut because a nut is presented as healthier than legumes in this study.  In a sense, the Peanut Institute hopes to take advantage of people’s ignorance. It’s a strategy that many businesses and politicians seem to be employing in the current era.

The Peanut Institute deception makes little sense: peanuts are quite healthy and the substitution of peanuts for meat in a diet is a good thing, even if eating nuts is better.  Peanuts are a domestic crop, quite inexpensive and have more uses than most nuts.  There are plenty of good stories to tell about the lowly peanut. Why risk alienating people by trying to tell them a not so little white lie?

Both this specific news release and the underlying strategy of mislabeling peanuts are ill advised, not only because they are unethical, but because they can’t possibly work.  That “peanuts are legumes” is one of the “fun facts” that nutrition curricula repeat throughout the grades, like “the tomato is really a fruit” and “carrots are good for your eyes.” In other words, at the first mention of “peanut is a nut,” a large percentage of editors and reporters who see this news release will shout at the paper or computer screen, “Peanuts are legumes, you fool!” Some may use stronger invectives than fool. If the Peanut Institute is lucky, the media will stop reading the release then and there.  Otherwise they will see the Peanut Institute’s weasel-like admission of the truth and recognize that the institute is not dumb, but manipulative. If I were still a reporter, I would never forget the Peanut Institute’s attempt to distort.

The fact of the matter is that there was nothing that the Peanut Institute could have done in a news release to spin the coverage of the story towards peanuts. The media rightfully focused on the central finding, which was that red meat is bad for people to eat, and the more you eat of it, the worse it is for you.

The Peanut Institute would have been much better off if it had contacted reporters and editors with a short statement about what the report might mean for sales of peanuts and other legumes and an offer to arrange an interview with a peanut executive about the link between what you eat and disease, either immediately or in the coming weeks. That might have attracted a follow-up business or health feature story and would have been the appropriate way to try to take advantage of a news story to gain coverage of the organization and product.

As punishment, let’s send Burl Ives and the Georgia Militia after the peanut brains who thought up this mistake of a news release.


Some long overdue notes on Lowe’s canceling of its ads on a reality TV show about Islamic-American families

When the news hit last month that Lowe’s, the home improvement chain, was canceling its ads on “All-American Muslim,” a reality show about Muslim families in Michigan, it was with some guilt that I decided not to write about it. The guilt came because I felt very strongly that the Lowe’s decision was overtly anti-Islamic, which to my mind is no different from anti-Semitism and racism. I had my reasons for not commenting, one ideological and the other personal.

From the ideological viewpoint, I did not want to appear to be supporting a reality show, for these reasons:

  • These shows are often scripted, which means the reality part is fraudulent. In addition, they often contain edited sequences that do not reflect accurately what the unedited camera saw (which I am now calling “Breitbart editing” after the trust fund baby turned right-wing provocateur who turned a government official’s impassioned plea for racial understanding into a false example of black-against-white racism and got all the mass media to believe it).
  • The shows take as their basic premise the ideology of mindless consumerism—the idea that all human emotions and interactions reduce to engaging in commercial transactions. 
  • The shows manufacture talentless celebrities. At least Lady Gaga can sing a little.  The horde of Gosselins, Snookis, Tone Tones and Kardashians have no visible reason for being lionized by mass culture, other than the fact that they were featured on these shows as “real people.”
  • None of the real professionals behind these shows—the camera crew, editors, writers and directors—get union wages, which increases the profit for the show’s producers and TV networks, and therefore exemplifies one of the main ways that the top 1% have created a nation of rich and poor over the past 30+ years: replacement of union workers with non-unionized workers who make much less. 

But I also had a personal reason:  Three months earlier, I had analyzed a similar decision by a small-town Pennsylvania school board to cancel a production of Kismet, an early 50s musical which presents a very homogenized Arabic environment. I really didn’t want to repeat what I said at that time, even though it applies quite directly to the Lowe’s situation. 

Remember, it took the complaint of one man in Florida to cause Lowe’s to drop its ads on “American Moslem.” Years ago I faced the very same situation as PR counsel for a large supermarket company. An advocacy organization with a name that included the word “American” wanted the supermarket company to put brown slip covers on copies of Cosmopolitan, GQ and other supposedly racy magazines that the supermarket displayed on its shelves. An absurd request, since the material was far less risqué than what kids could see on TV and billboards. Another major supermarket had recently agreed to this organization’s demands. Instead of knee-jerking to this unnecessary assault on first amendment rights, I had an associate do some research. We found out that in the previous three years, only one complaint of the more than 50,000 that the supermarket had received had mentioned risqué magazine covers; I should point out that virtually all of the company’s stores were in rural areas or small towns, places in which one would be more likely to receive such a complaint. The other fact I uncovered was that this foundation consisted of one individual who ran such a website. We did not agree to the covers, and we received no further complaints.

It was either a strategic mistake or an expression of racism for the school board to cancel its production of Kismet, and the same goes for the Lowe’s decision to cancel its ads.  Both deserved the criticism they received at the time.

The reason I am bringing it up now is because I want to pick at a puff piece in yesterday’s New York Times about Laurie Goldberg, the public relations executive for TLC, the cable network that produces and runs “All-American Muslim.”

The high end mass media (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist and National Public Radio) are always running pieces which praise professionals of one sort of another for doing what, for the profession, is standard operating practice.

I might not have singled out this puff piece, except for one thing: the writer, Brian Stelter, throws out an extraordinarily stupid idea about crisis communications.  Here’s the key quote: “Despite all its controversial shows, TLC’s brand has remained mostly unblemished these last few years. That may be in part because, while Ms. Goldberg is genial and helpful with reporters off the record, she routinely doles out no-comments to them on the record, thereby refusing to make big stories bigger. She declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.”

The writer wants us to believe that because she officially says no comment but feeds the reporters information on the sly that she has kept the TLC brand from being harmed by controversy. But isn’t controversy what has created the TLC brand? The old saying that even bad press is good does not apply to industrial companies, hospitals and politicians, but it does apply to most controversies involving those appearing on the screen in television entertainments. All the controversies mentioned in the article (Sarah Palin’s reality show and the divorce of the Gosselins) enhanced the ratings of the shows, and I’m sure that the controversy over “All-American Muslim” has juiced up its ratings.

The fact that Goldberg answers questions off the record suggests that TLC knew that the controversy was good for business and would likely help the shows’ ratings. In my experience, if a company is worried that more information will fan the fires of bad publicity, they limit information to a “no comment.” The companies with the best PR professionals will not say “no comment,” but instead will give a statement that describes why they can’t comment, e.g., “the company has a legal obligation to keep employee matters confidential.”

The article gives us the impression that Goldberg is effective in tamping down controversy, yet the strategy that he says she uses is guaranteed to keep the controversy in the media—just what TLC wants. And it seems to have worked.

One sign of a puff piece are puff quotes.  In this article, the only people quoted are Goldberg’s bosses and a writer for People Magazine, which thrives on the type of tidbits of gossip that are the stock and trade of entertainment PR. PR people and celebrity media work hand in glove, since the one supplies the gossip that the other publishes.  The article contains no quote from any independent communications expert.

I have nothing against Goldberg, who is probably a competent professional.  What I object to is the article, which pretends to be about crisis communications, but is really a veiled advertisement for TLC’s reality shows. Thumbs down to TLC for carrying this dreck, thumbs down to the New York Times for willingly being an accomplice to TLC’s PR campaign and thumbs down to Lowe’s for pulling its advertising for the wrong reason. 

BP hollow advertisement for Gulf Coast beaches and seafood neglects what makes each Gulf state distinctive

While watching five minutes of one of the professional football games this past Sunday, I experienced a very bizarre TV commercial. 

On the surface, it had markings of a typical spot promoting tourism: people having fun doing things and eating. But right away, this commercial seemed different. The people in the ad joyously proclaimed that they were from four different states, all along the Gulf of Mexico: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.  They seemed to be engaged in a very friendly rivalry over which state was the better place for a vacation.

But something seemed out of place, something seemed strange: The Floridians weren’t talking about theme parks.  The Louisianans weren’t talking about either Cajun food or riverboats.  The Mississippians said nothing of casinos.  And the Alabamans breathed not a word about football.  No one was talking about what made their state distinctive.

Instead every image was of people doing one of two things:

  • Eating seafood, assumed to be locally caught.
  • Enjoying the beach and water activities.

This act of extreme homogenization of four very different states and the distillation of their similarities into two attributes seemed bizarre. It made me feel a little ill at ease because I kept wanting them to “show me the Mickey,” or at least a football play.  I would have settled for a shot of a jazz band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”   I just couldn’t believe that anyone would think they could sell people on traveling to any of these four states just for a sandy beach and fried shrimp.

But it all made sense at the end of the commercial when we learned on an almost empty still screen that BP Oil sponsored the spot.

In other words, running this spot is part of the reparations that BP is paying the Gulf states for the 2010 Deep Horizon oil spill, which sent oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico for three months.

It looks to me as if the committee that cobbled together the concept for this spot used the heavy-as-a-Mack-truck touch characteristic of BP’s interactions with the public during the three months in which nothing the experts tried could cap the leak.  Notice first, the avoidance of the problem, much as BP tried to avoid speaking about the leak: Nowhere in the commercial does anyone say that the Gulf of Mexico shore had a problem. Instead we get the squeamishly happy assertions by proud state supporters that their state is the best place to vacation, all exemplified by the images of succulent seafood and pristine shorelines that prove that the Gulf Shore is fine. Only those who remember the images of oil-covered birds and enormous slick floating ovals will get the connection.

Note, too, how narrowly the commercial addresses the unspoken public issue of the spill’s aftermath and nothing else.  That’s why there’s no room to mentioned Florida’s theme parks or Louisiana’s red beans and rice. Every image and statement focuses solely on how the public issue plays out for people who want to go on vacation: beach activities and seafood. A lawyer must have figured that one out. It was this kind of narrow response that made BP chair Tony Hayward look so uncaring and uninformed.

Finally, note that way the message—that Gulf waters and beaches are clean—is married to a product for sale, to wit, vacationing on Gulf beaches. Someone on the committee insisted that as long as BP was going to do “image advertising,” some industry should benefit. 

Of course, none of the states will benefit from an ad such as this one.  No one says, “Honey, let’s go to a Gulf beach this next vacation,” the way they may say, “Let’s go to Europe” or “Let’s go to Africa.” It will take many years and more money than BP will want to spend to establish the idea of the Gulf as a region to visit. And why would any of these states want to homogenize their image? Why would Louisiana want to tell people that it’s “just like Alabama?”  Meanwhile, all of these states already have their own clear image to tourists, which depends to a small degree only on seafood and beaches. 

The ineptness of the ad would astonish if BP did not already have a track record for awkward and rigidly controlled communications.  It seems as if BP has a tin ear to how the public reacts to anything other than the price of gasoline.

Perhaps the most unneeded products ever are beauty aids like dye and sparkles for women’s privates

Thanks to an article published today by the Associated Press (AP), the American public now knows more than we need to know about a brand new category of products and services: cosmetics for a woman’s most private part.

Here are examples of ways to decorate the vagina that the article mentions:

  • “Vajazzling” — gluing on sparkly gems such as Swarovski crystals to jazz up a bikini wax.  According to the AP story, a New York spa charges $25 for house designs like a butterfly or dragon, and as much as $100 for custom designs.
  • Pubic hair dyes, which are now available in salons and beauty stores.  The $14.99 product works like normal hair dye but the company that makes it says it is formulated to be safe for the pubic area.
  • The Schick Quattro Trimstyle Razor now has a bikini trimmer on one side.  Let’s quote the article: “An ad for the product, which first aired in Europe and shows women dancing to a catchy song called ‘Mow the Lawn’ as they trim hedges, became a viral hit online.  A toned down U.S. version of the ad shows shrubs shrinking into various designs as women walk by them – an allusion to trimming the bikini line.”
  • A TV actress described her favorite tattoo on her vagina to a late-night talk show host.

I can’t imagine a more unnecessary product or service than something to enhance the appearance of the vagina.  These are perhaps the most unneeded products ever sold.

Over the decades, I have gathered anecdotal evidence concerning the appearance of this most private part of a woman through informal interviews with hundreds of straight men and a small number of gay women, often over a drink or in a locker room.  What I have found is that whether a woman is 110 pounds or 300 pounds, virtually all men or women who are interested in women are completely enchanted to be able to look at, touch, etc., a woman’s vagina in its natural state without enhancement.  Many may prefer that a woman shave under her arms or her legs and some may like perfume, makeup or jewelry. But when it comes to the vagina, no woman has to do anything to make hers look more attractive to virtually any potential sexual partner.   

But it’s the American way to commoditize all emotions, human interactions and relationships, that is, to make the purchase of a product the primary way to express the emotion, initiate the interaction or pursue the relationship. 

One way to get people to reduce all emotional aspects of life to buying things is to make them feel insecure about themselves.  Another is to create a need that doesn’t really exist, such as the need for feminine deodorants and douches that the marketers created about 30 years ago (even though soap and water should be enough to keep anyone’s genitals “fresh”).  FYI, the article also discusses risqué new ads for feminine deodorants and new sanitary products that have bright colors and designs on them.

Products and services to decorate the vagina use both of these marketing strategies. They attempt to extend to the vagina the insecurity about their looks that many women develop because of the constant drumbeat of celebrity culture about idealized beauty that so often depend solely on the purchase of other products; thus the celebrity tattoo.  At the same time, the products fill a newly created need:  to make the vagina more alluring or appealing to the loved one.

One truism of marketing is that sex sells, and in this case, the Associated Press is using sex to sell the American ideology of consumerism.  The article titillates, but behind the titillation is the same old message:  Buying something is the basis of all relationships, celebrations, manifestations of love, respect and all other emotional states, and every other emotional component of life.   To coin a phrase, the American ideology is “salvation through consumption.”

We see similar articles every day for other products and services, plus an avalanche of advertising, all dedicated to getting people to make a purchase to express an emotion or improve an emotional situation.  But in the case of products and services to decorate the vagina, added to the ideology of “salvation through consumption” is an ugly kind of anti-feminism.  It strikes me, for example, that shaving the vagina returns a woman to pre-pubescence, and thus symbolically more under the control of and less a threat to the (insecure) adult male.   

Mallard Fillmore creates a fantasy news media that’s far more liberal than in real life.

Right-wing accusations that the mainstream news media is liberal, if not left-wing, predate Bruce Tinsley, whose “Mallard Fillmore” comic strip appears daily in Conservative-leaning media.  Tinsley’s contribution to what has been a constant propaganda theme since the Viet Nam War era is to create a parallel cartoon universe peopled by a regular set of absurd caricatures who participate in a daily drama built on lies, exaggerations and false premises. 

Some of Tinsley’s recurring characters include a liberal/left-wing news reporter, newscaster, news director, caveman, teacher, educational administrator and university professor (since another myth perpetrated by Tinsley is that our educational establishment is left-wing).  These people spout off exaggerations of left- wing opinions and obvious absurdities into which Tinsley sprinkles a good bit of lying. The topics come from the usual right-wing breviary: global warming, unions, public schools, the “language” police, any and all taxation, affirmative action, attempts to influence citizens to eat a healthier diet and any type of government regulation.  

Satire has long used exaggerated forms of social and political types, but what turns “Mallard Fillmore” into pure propaganda is that his satire does not reflect reality, but creates an alternative world that often has little to do with what is actually happening in the real one.  Because the detail in the lies and exaggerations is so precise, it’s impossible to tell when Tinsley is “just kidding” and when he is quoting something that someone actually has said or might say.

Yesterday’s “Mallard Fillmore” strip perfectly exemplifies the Tinsley approach.  Our hero, a standard issue cartoon duck, is watching television in his cozy armchair.  Meanwhile, a newscaster is speaking from the television set.  Here is what the TV newscaster says:

“It’s been a wild year in weather, from a super-hot summer caused by man-made global warming…to last winter’s record-cold temperatures due to natural cyclical patterns…”  

The expression on the duck’s face says it all: The newscaster is another manipulative expert trying to convince us of the existence of global warming through false reasoning. We are supposed to conclude that the news media is part of a global warming hoax.

But the reality of the situation is much different:   As I have noted a number of times in OpEdge, the mainstream news media go out of their way to undercut the science behind global warming.  For example, a search of “hot weather global warming” on Google News produces a mere 143 stories, virtually all of which say that one summer does not make a global warming trend.  In contrast, the freakishly cold winter of 2009-2010 produced a number of false assertions that the cold proved that the earth was not warming.

The false heart of Tinsley’s misrepresentation of the news media’s advocacy of global warming is his centering of the strip on TV news.  Most of the news about weather comes from TV weather personalities.  A study a few years back by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that only about half of approximately 570 television weathercasters surveyed believe that global warming is occurring, and fewer than a third believe that climate change is caused by human activities.  It’s far more likely that the real version of the imaginary news anchor in the comic strip would make a snide side remark questioning global warming than use limited anecdotal evidence to defend the concept.  (FYI, only half of all TV weather personalities are meteorologists and none are climatologists; none are experts in long-term climate trends.)

So, it’s a complete lie, but it feeds into the myth of “liberal” media bias in a funny and memorable way.  It is also easy to view the strip as a reflection of reality, and thus it can be used as secondary evidence by the benighted know-nothings who propose that climate change is not occurring in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence gathered over more than a century.

Tinsley’s strategy then is to create a situation that looks like a traditional satire of reality (right down to anthropomorphizing cute animals) but is in fact based on myths.  In this case, the myth is that the news media is actively promoting a false idea.  The reality is that the idea is true, but that much of the news media is impeding its dissemination by publicizing the distortions and illogical reasoning of those opposed to the idea.

Iowa straw poll symbolizes today’s elective process: those with money get more say in the voting

The first vote of the presidential election cycle took place this past weekend, and Michele Bachmann squeaked out a 400-vote (one percentage point) victory over the septuagenarian libertarian Ron Paul.   The question on everyone’s tongue is if the straw vote of just under 17,000 Republican regulars and enthusiasts in Ames, Iowa will change the complexion of the race.  Will other also-rans besides Pawlenty drop out?  Will contributors line up now to fill Bachmann’s coffers? 

Instead of analyzing the results of the straw vote, I want instead to examine its place in American politics, especially as a symbol of how money has subverted the one-person one-vote principle of representational democracy.

We start with two simple facts, reported by a number of sources: Straw voters had to pay $30 a piece to vote, and the campaigns of the various announced candidates “footed the bill, throwing in a lunch of barbecued pork, grilled hamburgers and ice cream as an enticement to spend part of the day in Ames.”

A little simple arithmetic reveals that Michelle Bachmann probably paid about $150,000 directly to people to have them vote for her.

And make no mistake about it, the paid-for-in-full Iowa straw voters have more of a say in who will be elected president in November of 2012 than any other voters do. 

The concept that applies to the situation is the tabula rasa, or blank chalkboard.  In philosophy, tabula rasa is the theory that individuals are born without built-in beliefs or knowledge and that their knowledge comes from experience and perception.  A corollary of the tabula rasa theory is that the first mark on the blank chalkboard of the mind tends to have more meaning to people than later marks, because that first mark is the only thing on the chalkboard at the time, i.e., the only experience or facts known by the person.

The application in communications is that when considering any issue, most people begin with a clean slate.  The first facts and opinions they hear about the issue tend to shape their reaction.  I have applied this principle for more than 25 years in advising companies and nonprofit organizations how to respond to a potential crisis or get people to believe their side of the story in a crisis or regarding an important issue.

For example, my public relations firm was asked to publicize the position of a well-respected private college after a large Pennsylvania healthcare system tried to steal its name and use it for its new medical college.  We decided to announce the college’s lawsuit late in the business day so that the healthcare system had no time to respond.  The first day articles all told the story from the college’s point of view using the college’s facts.  The result was that the public and elected officials all came to the immediate conclusion that the healthcare system was in the wrong.  We were first out of the gate, and therefore created the reality accepted by the world.  After days of bad publicity for the healthcare system, the lawsuit was quickly settled out of court to the benefit of the college.  We won by putting the first mark on the tabula rasa.

In a profound sense, the Iowa straw vote is the first mark on the tabula rasa of the presidential political season.  No matter how small a mark it is, it takes on an unwarranted large significance by virtue of there being no prior indicator of true voting sentiment.   So this first straw poll vote is more influential, by definition.  Over time, the significance of the Iowa straw vote will fade, as more and more votes are taken in the various states.  But for the time being, the actions of less than one thousandth of one percent of eligible U.S. voters are driving the early phase of the election cycle, in which we discover which of the candidacies is viable.  Some candidates will soar and other fall by the wayside based on how campaign contributors and other voters react to the Iowa straw poll.

Yet only people who paid could vote, and those who did vote mostly received the voting fee from the candidate for whom they voted. 

The Iowa straw vote thus symbolizes the whole electoral process:  people with money have more say in who is elected. 

The candidates with the most money:

  • Always get more coverage by the news media, always get more positive coverage in early media reports and always are considered frontrunners even if early polls suggest otherwise.  Proof positive is this year.  The news media has already decided that Mitt Romney (and now the other money-bags, Rick Perry) are frontrunners, and took the Huntsman candidacy quite seriously simply because Huntsman has hundreds of millions of his own money to spend, if he chooses to do so.
  • Can afford to stage more special events and thereby get even more news coverage.
  • Can do more advertising and hire more people to go door-to-door, make phone calls and attend rallies.

What that means is that to win an election, the candidate must either have a lot of money or appeal to those who give a lot of money to campaigns.  A candidate may have views that reflect the overwhelming majority of citizens, for example Dennis Kucinich, and yet never get a chance to be taken seriously, because the views he/she favors are not the views of political donors.  It has been many an election since the winner of a presidential election spent less money than his opponent. 

Most people can only vote.  Those with money to spend can also influence how we sort out candidates and issues, and thereby limit our choices to those candidates that support their positions on the issues that they care about, even if those positions and issues do not represent the will of the people.

There has always been a bias towards money in American politics, but it’s gotten a lot worse since our right-wing Supreme Court overturned laws limiting corporate campaign contributions last year.  And it will continue to get worse until we can pass campaign financing laws that will survive the gauntlet of corporate toadies that now represent our Supreme Court majority. 

Weekend deaths remind us that living in a celebrity culture means never having to think.

Let’s pretend that we’re the gods and goddesses of media coverage and we’re faced with the dilemma of deciding how much time and space to spend reporting on the deaths of two prominent people.  We know in advance that we will assign 5,715 Internet stories to the more significant death and 728 to the less significant one. 

It just so happens that one of candidates for major media coverage is male, the other female, which makes it easier to conceal their names until we complete the comparison of credentials: 

  • He led an organization of 2 million, which serves as the primary security force for another 300+ million.  She sold 1 million pop records and performed in front of maybe 1 million people.
  • He implemented a major but flawed policy change that gave gays greater career opportunities through a compromise and then repudiated the policy as too conservative a response to social change and the imperatives of equal rights.  She renewed a pop music style to make it one of the numerous musical genres that fragmented popular music in the first decade of the 21st century.
  • He was a role model for everyone—a refugee who rose in the ranks of the military of his adopted land.  She served as a negative role model through her self-destructive drug and alcohol abuse.
  • He was one of the most influential people in the world by virtue of having led the downsizing of military spending that with increases in federal taxes fueled the real economic growth of the Clinton years.  She had a wonderful singing voice.

Many of you have already guessed that he is General John Shalikashvili, who succeeded General Colin Powell as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs and served from 1993 until 1997 under President Clinton.  And I think many of you know that she is Amy Winehouse, who by dying at the age of 27 has joined the necrophilic’s pantheon of self-destructive pop stars such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.

Even after writing for more than two decades about how celebrity culture makes us stupid, I am nevertheless shocked by the results of comparing the Internet coverage of these two deaths: 5,715 stories for the death of Amy Winehouse and a mere 728 for General Shalikashvili.  That’s almost 8 times more stories for Winehouse.  We’re not talking Michael Jackson, who had hits in three (or was it four?) decades. 

We would be wrong to blame the Internet for the celebrity mentality that proposes that as a society we should spend more time talking about the lessons to be learned from the life and death of a maybe-not-minor-but-certainly-not-major pop singer than of one of the most important peacetime generals in U.S. history.  The Internet merely reflects all the news media and in fact most Internet news sites have print or broadcast affiliates or borrow most of their news stories from print or broadcast news-gathering operations. It’s just easier to count Internet placements, thanks to advanced search engine technology.

If it’s not the Internet, then, why does the mass media encourage us to engage in celebrity-driven, consumption-focused and history-deficient intellectual lives? 

The answer comes, as is often the case, by following the money.  A very small number of large companies such as Rupert Murdoch’s multinational corporation (and Gannett, Bertelsmann, Clear Channel and a few others) control most of the daily newspapers, radio and television stations and Internet news-gatherers.  A very small number of people sit on the boards of directors of these organizations. 

These media titans may not make every individual decision that leads to the death of a Winehouse assuming greater significance than the death of a Shalikashvili.  But they set the policies that lead to a focus on celebrity culture as opposed to a focus on politics, economics, war and peace, social equity, civil rights and the other long-term issues that shape our lives.  These very wealthy and influential people want to keep the American people dumb and focused on consumption. 

Government of big business, by big business and for big business wants taxes and regulations to perish from the Earth

Yesterday morning’s news brought two stories that together exemplify our current system of government: regulators who are in bed with the regulated; legislators whose sole constituency comprises big businesses; a government dedicated to lowering taxes and regulations above all else.

The first story I saw yesterday led the first page of The New York Times.  It was a very well-done report on the truly offensive efforts of large multinational companies such as Apple, Duke Energy, Microsoft and Google to get Congress and the Obama Administration to declare a repatriation holiday, which means that for a period of time, income earned in other countries that companies returned to the United States would be taxed at 5.25% instead of the current 35%.   Instead of paying the taxes, multinationals are just storing the money in the foreign countries where they earned it.

In the Times article, the companies and their supporters in Congress piously say that the money transferred back to the United States would be put to good use investing in new facilities and businesses and thereby creating new jobs.  But that’s not what happened last time we had a repatriation holiday in 2005, brought to you by Bush II and his economic team.  That tax break lured $312 billion back to the United States, but 92% of it went into dividends or buying back company stock.  No additional jobs were created. 

The Times article does not answer the obvious question:  What did the people who got the dividends and sold the stock do with their new riches?  Primarily the wealthy and large institutions own stocks, and when they sell those stocks and receive their quarterly dividends, they typically reinvest in other stocks, as opposed to opening new ventures or buying stuff that creates additional demand which creates more jobs.  We can assume that most of the $312 billion brought home in the 2005 repatriation holiday  went right back into the stock market, which means not only did it add no additional jobs, it contributed to the forming of the big bubble that burst three years later.

It’s just a bad idea.  Instead of giving large multinationals a one-time tax break, we should tax them for all income earned abroad even if they keep it abroad, which would probably require some type of international treaty.

Beyond manifesting the egregious piggy-ness of these large companies which already enjoy an historically low tax regime, the Times article shows which special interests really have power in Washington, and the degree to which politicians swallow the false myth that lowering taxes will free money for investing in new jobs. 

Lobbying to get a special tax break for rich multinationals who currently pay too little in taxes involves corruption of Congress.  The other story of interest in yesterday’s news involved corruption of the executive branch whose agencies administer federal laws.  The Associated Press (AP) reported that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has for years routinely lowered standards of nuclear plant operation when plants couldn’t meet the original standards.  And in many cases, the NRC ignored the regulation altogether.  

Here is a small quote from what is a very extensive—and chilling—AP article about foxes guarding the chicken coop who have the power in their hands to nuke the whole darn farm:

“Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards.

Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered in the AP’s yearlong investigation. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident.”

Meanwhile, the public thinks we are operating the safest nuclear power plants in the world. 

These stories from yesterday morning are just two of the almost daily examples of the contemporary corruption of the executive and legislative branches by big business and big money. 

It’s a good thing we have the judiciary.  LOL.  Late yesterday afternoon, the faint hopes concealed behind that sarcasm were dashed. 

It wasn’t a matter of corruption of the judiciary we learned about yesterday afternoon, but of its distortion of constitutional law.  In the same day, the Supreme Court ruled that two lawsuits could not proceed: the class action against Wal-Mart for sexual discrimination and the lawsuit by eight states and environmentalists against polluting utilities.  Just two more examples of the activist agenda that the current pro-business majority of justices have been pursuing since John Roberts became Chief Justice in 2005. The Roberts Court has expanded the rights of corporations and lifted restraints from them, largely giving our biggest businesses carte blanche to do whatever they like.  Now that’s not corruption, but it sure smacks of what psychologists would call “enabling behavior.”

Perhaps Abraham Lincoln had it only half right in the Gettysburg Address:  we have government of, by and for, but it’s looking more and more as if it’s “of big business, by big businesses and for big business” and that the only things that are going to perish are a clean and safe environment and the middle class.

I’m sure someone is going to believe the big lie about torture producing the evidence that found bin Laden.

Sometime this past Monday, the head of the House home land security committee, Republican Peter King of New York, made the claim on Fox TV that waterboarding and other torture led to the information that identified Osama bin Laden’s location.  (Readers may remember King for his support of Irish Republican terrorists or for his special hearings in which he effectively accused every Moslem living in the United States of suborning terrorism.) Former Vice President and current Prince of Darkness Dick Cheney also bragged on Fox that enhanced interrogation techniques contributed to finding ObL.   John Yoo, who wrote the legal memos that used tortuous reasoning and claimed new rights for the executive branch to justify torture, said that finding ObL proved that the Bush Administration’s torture policies worked.

Of course it was a supposition based on air, which is a nice way of saying that King, Cheney and others lied.  Whatever… In point of fact, no information leading to the location of ObL came from waterboarding or any other torture technique.  Even the Donald (and I mean Rumsfeld, who trumps the other Donald) stated unequivocally that torture did not lead to the locating of ObL.   

That hasn’t prevented Conservative media and websites from drinking the “torture worked” Kool-Aid.  

Moreover, there are four interlocking media phenomena at work that may keep alive the myth of torture finding ObL long after the news cycle ends:

  1. The vacuum of news:  Although we have more news outlets, we have fewer professionals gathering news.  As Pew research has demonstrated, most news starts with newspapers, and they’re getting smaller than ever.  But space and time must be filled, and into the online and broadcast vacuum rushes news commentary (much as your humble OpEdge does).  Into this vacuum rush lies like torture found ObL or the President was not born in this country, if for no other reason than that the repudiation of the lies can masquerade as news (while spreading the lie).
  2. The “Three Penny Opera mirror effect,” named so because a literature professor of mine once said that when this wonderful light opera first came out in Berlin in the late 20’s of the last century, all of the bourgeoisie loved it even though it was a socialist play that excoriated bourgeois values.  My professor said that the play became a mirror which substantiated the views of whoever was viewing it.  Applied to this situation, I mean to say that conservatives will believe the drool about water-boarding finding ObL, because they will believe anything the Kings and Cheneys of the world say; the more outrageous the statement to us, the more believable to the Mr. and Mrs. Rightwing Kool-aid Drinker.  In the same way, the believer will see those telling the truth as liars because of the believers’ previously fixed belief in the lie they believe.
  3. The fragmentation of the news media.  The Internet has led to the creation of more media outlets not tied to mainstream values.  The way people look for information on the Internet—in a directed, focused manner that zeroes in on exactly what is desired has infected how they view news.  It used to be that leafing through a newspaper or news magazine exposed someone to the full mainstream view of the issues of the day.  But now people can create their own little media worlds in which the only inhabitants are media that advocate only what they already believe and the only thing they see, even in online mainstream media, is fodder for their views.
  4. The “Matt Drudge gambit,” which enables media to proffer the most outrageous and scurrilous views by reporting what a disreputable reporter, media outlet or even politician, such as Matt Drudge, Michelle Bachmann or Glenn Beck, has said even if it’s almost assuredly false. In this case, mainstream and conservative media can keep the controversy alive by quoting King, Cheney and their ilk.  NPR played this game in its coverage of the so-called controversy yesterday evening. So did the New York Times this morning in a front-page article which starts with John Yoo’s assertion and then spends the rest of the story disputing it. 

I’m going to go out on the limb a little to say that over the next two years one of the minor themes of the right wing will be to say that the finding of Osama bin Laden demonstrates the value of enhanced interrogation techniques.  It won’t be the top myth they spout, but it will be one of the right’s playing cards, especially when preaching to the choir.

I want to close with the words my cousin Marshall Dayan, an attorney who defends convicted prisoners on death row from state assassination, emailed me about the capture (and not the killing) of Osama bin Laden: “The manner in which he was located and caught proves that the appropriate response to the 9/11 bombings was a criminal justice response, not a military response.  He was located and identified by painstaking investigation used in the criminal justice model; he was not caught “on the battlefield.”  We spent trillions of dollars fighting wars that did not advance the search for and apprehension of Al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11; they were all caught and killed using fairly straightforward criminal justice investigative techniques. 

Why would Direct TV create an ad in which the logic makes one want to not buy the service no matter what?

Sometimes the logic in an ad backfires by creating a situation in which no matter what the viewer concludes, the astute thing to do is not buy the product or service. 

Take, for example, the current Direct TV “reading of the will” TV commercial: The scene is a large conference room in which all the chairs are facing towards a large desk behind which a high powered attorney reads the will of a wealthy man.  First the attorney says that the business, house and all money go to his trophy mistress, which delights her but pastes a frown of disapproval and disappointment on an elderly and primly dressed woman who is obviously the wife or ex-wife.  Then the attorney announces that the Direct TV package with access to 6,000 movies and other shows goes to the obviously ne’er-do-well son.  The son starts to whoop it up for joy, while the wife once again squeezes a frown of disapproval and disappointment.  Then comes the sell—$29 and some change a month for the Direct TV package, the son’s shouts of joy, ever and ever more manic and louder, serving as background.

The message is supposed to be that the package is very valuable, because some rich guy is so grateful to have it and some rich and bitter crone wants it. 

But let’s dig into the logic a little.  These rich folk treat the Direct TV package as being worth as much as the rest of the dead man’s empire: The will has a special clause about it.  The wife treats losing it exactly the same way that she takes losing the fortune. And the son—he cares not for the fortune but exults in the bequest as if it were the best thing that ever happened to him.

My point: that if these rich people value the Direct TV package so much, it must be too expensive.

Of course, there’s the opposite view, which is that the son is completely loony. But who would listen to a guy like that?  If someone goes gaga about getting an inheritance worth about $360 a year, he’s probably too stupid to trust his opinion about a product or service.

It’s a difficult either/or for Direct TV.  Either your endorser has no credibility or the service is too expensive.  Not a pretty plate of poison from which to pick!

The problem with the logic stems entirely from the fact that the ad makes fun of the customer, one of the most common mistakes of all ads.  The vignette is marginally funny, but the humor is at the expense of a customer, whose thought process we are then supposed to emulate.  But why would I imitate the thought process of an obvious dunce? And why would I buy a product from someone who makes fun of me? 

Ads which make fun of the customer always raise these questions.  The one exception is the beer ads in which young men are made to act like risk-taking slacker-doofs, because in fact much of the target market of young men aspires to this image.

In the case of Direct TV, I think the ad backfires, even among the many people who don’t analyze the logic of the sell.  The lack of logic I believe acts subliminally on the viewers, making them feel a little uneasy when the spot ends.

TV commercials never get distributed nationally without first being tested in front of focus groups, which are groups of 10-20 people who represent the target market, led by someone whose interests will usually be advanced if the group likes the product or ad under review.  We’ll never know for sure, but I suspect that the fact that this commercial aired is more evidence that the results of focus groups research are often suspect.