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Profile: Sheldon Rampton

Sheldon Rampton was a participant or observer in the following events:

’Nayirah’ testifying before Congress.’Nayirah’ testifying before Congress. [Source: Web Fairy (.com)]An unconfirmed report of Iraqi soldiers entering a Kuwaiti hospital during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (see August 2, 1990) and removing newborns from their incubators causes a sensation in the US media. The rumor, which later turns out to be false, is seized upon by senior executives of the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which has a $11.9 million contract from the Kuwaiti royal family to win support for a US-led intervention against Iraq—the largest foreign-funded campaign ever mounted to shape US public opinion. (Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the firm should have been held accountable for its marketing campaign, but the Justice Department fails to intervene.) The firm also has close ties to the Bush administration, and will assist in marketing the war to the US citizenry. [Christian Science Monitor, 9/6/2002; Independent, 10/19/2003; Public Relations Watch, 6/3/2007] Hill & Knowlton uses a front group, “Citizens for a Free Kuwait” (see August 11, 1990), to plant the stories in the news media.
Congressional Hearings - Hearings on the story, and other tales of Iraqi atrocities, are convened by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, chaired by Representatives Tom Lantos (D-CA) and John Porter (R-IL). Reporters John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton will later characterize the caucus as little more than an H&K-funded sham; Lantos and Porter are also co-chairs of the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, a legally separate entity that occupied free office space in Hill & Knowlton’s Washington, DC offices. The star of the hearings is a slender, 15-year old Kuwaiti girl called “Nayirah.” According to the Caucus, her true identity is being concealed to prevent Iraqi reprisals against her or her family. Sobbing throughout her testimony, “Nayirah” describes what she says she witnessed in a hospital in Kuwait City; her written testimony is provided to reporters and Congressmen in a media kit prepared by Citizens for a Free Kuwait. “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital,” she tells the assemblage. “While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where… babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” [Christian Science Monitor, 9/6/2002; Los Angeles Times, 1/5/2003; Public Relations Watch, 6/3/2007] The hearings, and particularly “Nayirah’s” emotional tale, inflame American public opinion against the Iraqis (see October 10, 1990 and After) and help drum up support for a US invasion of Iraq (see January 9-13, 1991).
Outright Lies - Neither Lantos, Porter, nor H&K officials tell Congress that the entire testimony is a lie. “Nayirah” is the daughter of Saud Nasir al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US. Neither do they reveal that “Nayirah’s” testimony was coached by H&K vice president Lauri Fitz-Pegado. Seven other “witnesses” testify to the same atrocities before the United Nations; the seven use false names and identities. The US even presents a video made by Hill & Knowlton to the Security Council. No journalist investigates the claims. As author Susan Trento will write: “The diplomats, the congressmen, and the senators wanted something to support their positions. The media wanted visual, interesting stories.” It is not until after the war that human rights investigators look into the charges. No other witnesses can be located to confirm “Nayirah’s” story. Dr. Mohammed Matar, director of Kuwait’s primary care system, and his wife, Dr. Fayeza Youssef, who runs the obstretrics unit at the maternity hospital, says that at the time of the so-called atrocities, few if any babies were in incubator units—and Kuwait only possesses a few such units anyway. “I think it was just something for propaganda,” Dr. Matar will say. It is doubtful that “Nayirah” was even in the country at the time, as the Kuwaiti aristocracy had fled the country weeks before the Iraqi invasion. Amnesty International, which had supported the story, will issue a retraction. Porter will claim that he had no knowledge that the sobbing little girl was a well-rehearsed fabricator, much less an ambassador’s daughter. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporters will ask al-Sabah for permission to question his daughter about her testimony; he will angrily refuse. “Naiyrah” herself will later admit that she had never been in the hospital herself, but had learned of the supposed baby murders from a friend. In a subsequent interview about media manipulation during the war, Fitz-Pegado will say: “Come on.… Who gives a sh_t whether there were six babies or two? I believed her.” She will later clarify that statement: “What I meant was one baby would be too many.” [CounterPunch, 12/28/2002; Independent, 10/19/2003; Public Relations Watch, 6/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Susan Trento, Tom Lantos, Sheldon Rampton, US Congress, United Nations Security Council, Saud Nasir al-Sabah, US Department of Justice, Mohammed Matar, Lauri Fitz-Pegado, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, ’Nayirah’, Amnesty International, Bush administration (41), John Stauber, Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Fayeza Youssef, John MacArthur, John Porter, Hill and Knowlton, Congressional Human Rights Foundation, Jack O’Dwyer

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

President Bush signs an executive order creating the Office of Global Communications (OGC—see July 30, 2002), whose mission is to “ensure consistency in messages that will promote the interests of the United States abroad, prevent misunderstanding, build support for and among coalition partners of the United States, and inform international audiences.” The OGC soon sends out a daily “Global Messenger” e-mail of talking points to administration officials, US embassies, Congress, and outside recipients. It organizes daily telephone conference calls to coordinate foreign policy messages among US government agencies and representatives of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. PR expert Sheldon Rampton later writes, “These activities may sound innocuous. The idea of ‘ensuring consistency’ is a cardinal rule of PR crisis communications, whose practitioners try whenever possible to make sure that all messages flow through a single, controlling channel. In practice, however, ensuring consistency leads to a concerted effort to enforce a ‘party line’ on all messages emanating from the US government, effectively silencing officials whose point of view contradicts the official institutional message.” [PRWatch, 4/2003; US State Department, 9/28/2004]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Sheldon Rampton, Tony Blair, Office of Global Communications

Timeline Tags: US Military, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

Sheldon Rampton.Sheldon Rampton. [Source: Sheldon Rampton]Author Sheldon Rampton, an expert on public relations and propaganda, observes that the Bush administration uses what he calls “the framework of a ‘propaganda model’ of communication” in releasing information to the public and coordinating communications between administration officials and outsiders (see Early 2002 and Beyond, January 2003, and March 6, 2003). Rampton says such a model’s “strategies and assumptions are fundamentally contrary to a democratic model.… The goal of the propaganda model is simply to achieve efficient indoctrination, and it therefore tends to regard the assumptions of the democratic model as inconvenient obstacles to efficient communication.”
Inherent Contradictions - Rampton notes that using the propaganda model as a communications strategy on such a large scale is impossible in the long term. One problem the Bush administration is facing is in countering the growing disaffection with the US among other nations while simultaneously refusing to listen to criticism from these nations. He cites as examples Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s contemptuous dismissal of European opponents to the Iraq invasion as members of “old Europe” (see January 22, 2003), and Bush’s dismissal of recent worldwide protests with over 11 million participants by saying he doesn’t “decide policy based upon a focus group.” Rampton writes, “Bush’s statement speaks volumes about his inability to think outside the framework of a propaganda model of communication.” The Bush administration is an avid consumer of polls, though it goes to extraordinary lengths to give the impression that it does not. Columnist Joshua Green recently wrote that instead of using polls to determine policy, as the Clinton administration was often accused of doing, in the Bush White House, “[p]olicies are chosen beforehand [and] polls [are] used to spin them.… Because many of Bush’s policies aren’t necessarily popular with a majority of voters, [his pollsters’] job essentially consists of finding words to sell them to the public.” The administration has similar problems with spreading propaganda among foreign nations, particularly among Middle Eastern nations. Rampton writes: “The real problem with the Bush administration is that it doesn’t listen to anything but focus groups. It never thinks of public opinion as worth considering in its own right, and instead merely uses it to refine the message points that go out each day in its ‘Global Messenger’ emails” (see January 2003).
Self-Indoctrination - Rampton notes that while the Bush administration’s propaganda efforts often fail to produce the desired effects, at least to the degree desired, such persistent propaganda practices often have more success in “indoctrinating the propagandist themselves.… The discipline of ‘ensuring message consistency’ cannot hope to succeed at controlling the world’s perceptions of something as broad, sprawling, and contradictory as the Bush administration’s foreign policy. However, it may be successful at enabling people like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to ignore the warnings coming from Europe and other quarters. As our leaders lose their ability to listen to critics, we face the danger that they will underestimate the risks and costs involved in going to war.” [PRWatch, 4/2003]

Entity Tags: Donald Rumsfeld, Joshua Green, Sheldon Rampton, Bush administration (43), Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: US Military, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

The Center for Media and Democracy’s John Stauber and author Sheldon Rampton lambast the Pentagon for its recently revealed propaganda program that, in their words, “embed[s] military propagandists directly into the TV networks as on-air commentators” (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond). But Stauber and Rampton are even more critical of the media’s refusal to deal with the story. They note, “In 1971, when the [New York] Times printed excerpts of the Pentagon Papers on its front page (see March 1971), it precipitated a constitutional showdown with the Nixon administration over the deception and lies that sold the war in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers issue dominated the news media back then. Today, however, [New York Times reporter David] Barstow’s stunning report is being ignored by the most important news media in America—TV news—the source where most Americans, unfortunately, get most of their information. Joseph Goebbels, eat your heart out. Goebbels is history’s most notorious war propagandist, but even he could not have invented a smoother PR vehicle for selling and maintaining media and public support for a war…”
Journalistic Standards Violated - According to the authors, the news outlets who put these analysts on the air committed “a glaring violation of journalistic standards.” They cite the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, which enjoins journalists and news outlets to:
bullet Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived;
bullet Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility;
bullet Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity;
bullet Disclose unavoidable conflicts;
bullet Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable;
bullet Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage; and
bullet Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money.
Networks' Silence a 'Further Violation of Public Trust' - The networks who used these analysts observed none of these fundamental ethical guidelines. “They acted as if war was a football game and their military commentators were former coaches and players familiar with the rules and strategies,” Stauber and Rampton write. “The TV networks even paid these “analysts” for their propaganda, enabling them to present themselves as ‘third party experts’ while parroting White House talking points to sell the war.” Stauber and Rampton call the networks’ decision to almost completely ignore the story a further “violation… of the public trust…” They fix much of the blame for the Iraq debacle on the media, noting that the war “would never have been possible had the mainstream news media done its job. Instead, it has repeated the big lies that sold the war. This war would never have been possible without the millions of dollars spent by the Bush administration on sophisticated and deceptive public relations techniques such as the Pentagon military analyst program that David Barstow has exposed.” [PRWatch, 4/25/2008]

Entity Tags: Joseph Goebbels, Society of Professional Journalists, New York Times, John Stauber, David Barstow, Center for Media and Democracy, Nixon administration, Sheldon Rampton, US Department of Defense, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: US Military, Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda

Authors and columnists Diane Farsetta and Sheldon Rampton show that the Pentagon’s recently revealed covert propaganda program using “independent military analysts” to promulgate Pentagon viewpoints about Iraq and the war on terror (see April 20, 2008 and Early 2002 and Beyond) is “not only unethical but illegal.”
Congress Prohibitions Since 1951 - According to every appropriations bill passed by Congress since 1951, “No part of any appropriation contained in this or any other Act shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by the Congress.”
Congressional Research Service Finds Government-Funded Propaganda Illegal - A March 2005 report by the Congressional Research Service defines “publicity or propaganda” as either “self-aggrandizement by public officials… purely partisan activity… covert propaganda.” Farsetta and Rampton explain, “By covert propaganda, GAO [the Government Accountability Office] means information which originates from the government but is unattributed and made to appear as though it came from a third party.” The GAO has determined that government-funded video news releases (VNRs) are illegal when an agency such as the Defense Department fails “to identify itself as the source of a prepackaged news story [and thusly] misleads the viewing public by encouraging the viewing audience to believe that the broadcasting news organization developed the information. The prepackaged news stories are purposefully designed to be indistinguishable from news segments broadcast to the public. When the television viewing public does not know that the stories they watched on television news programs about the government were in fact prepared by the government, the stories are, in this sense, no longer purely factual—the essential fact of attribution is missing.” Farsetta and Rampton argue that the supposedly “independent” commentary by the complicit analysts is little different from the VNRs. The GAO has also noted, “The publicity or propaganda restriction helps to mark the boundary between an agency making information available to the public and agencies creating news reports unbeknownst to the receiving audience.”
Justice Department Finds Propaganda Cannot be Funded by Government - And in 2005, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) found that after the Bush administration had been caught paying pundits to write op-eds favorable of administration policies, “OLC determined in 1988 that a statutory prohibition on using appropriated funds for ‘publicity or propaganda’ precluded undisclosed agency funding of advocacy by third-party groups. We stated that ‘covert attempts to mold opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties’ would run afoul of restrictions on using appropriated funds for ‘propaganda.’” Farsetta and Rampton write: “The key passage here is the phrase, ‘covert attempts to mold opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties.’ As the [New York] Times report documented in detail, the Pentagon’s military analyst program did exactly that.” [PRWatch, 4/28/2008]
Pentagon Says Program Legal - Former Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita says the program is simply a “mirror image” of the Pentagon’s program of embedding journalists with combat units in the field, and Pentagon spokespersons insist that the program was merely to ensure that the US citizenry was well informed about the war. [New York Times, 4/21/2008]

Entity Tags: Sheldon Rampton, US Department of Defense, US Department of Justice, Diane Farsetta, Congressional Research Service, Bush administration (43), Government Accountability Office, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ)

Timeline Tags: US Military, Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda

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