Scripting the "news"
Gone are the days of organic political organizing, it's all campaigns with carefully chosen spokespeople now
The summer between my junior and senior year of college I interned at a think tank in Washington D.C. I lived in a share house in Georgetown with far too many housemates. One of them was interning at the legendary public relations firm Hill+Knowlton. After just one week of the internship he was shook. With wide eyes and shaking his head he said, “literally everything that you read in the newspaper comes from our office. All of it.” He wasn’t bragging, he was confessing. If that’s what an intern is able to see, just imagine what the partners’ view of the news must be?
Fast forward a bunch of years... I noticed a change in the TV landscape in 2004 with the introduction of “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.” Reality TV started in 1992 with “The Real World” on MTV. But it was bad — badly lit, incoherent story lines, promising characters that fizzled out. Laguna Beach was different. Everything was perfectly lit. The story arc of each 30 minute episode was tight and compelling. The show was billed as a documentary and yet the “group of friends” were all spectacularly beautiful and seemed like they were cast in roles straight out of Happy Days or Beverly Hills 90210.
In interviews it emerged that the real life stories of these teenagers were not the same thing as what was depicted on screen. What was different about Laguna Beach is that these teenagers had licensed their real life name and likeness to MTV who then scripted their lives that they then acted out on screen. A soap opera, depicted as a documentary, using real life people, following a script, pretending to be whatever the script writers wanted them to be.
Reading the news now, these two trends have converged — the outsized role of public relations in shaping the news and the scripting of real life events to create a compelling fictional storyline that is portrayed as news but is not.
Ethan Lindenberger is not a person, he’s a scripted Laguna Beach style campaign. His mom is an acting coach and her story does not check out. Merck discovered this dumb kid and scripted his every word and move with special handling by Every Child by Two (a Merck astroturf group). Safe & Effective podcast has all of the details (here). No one ever explained why the public should take health advice from a teenager with oppositional defiant disorder but that does not matter when Merck is writing the script that smooths out the incoherent edges to the story.
Greta Thunberg is a campaign — the lonely aspie girl who is leading a global revolution Joan of Arc style. I happen to like the campaign (“how dare you!”) but it’s political theater, not organic political organizing.
Frances Haugen, the fake Facebook “whistleblower” is a campaign — to get government to “regulate” Facebook by demanding more censorship rather than breaking up the company for violating antitrust laws. From Glenn Greenwald:
It is completely unsurprising to learn, as Politico reported last Wednesday, that the major financial supporter of Facebook "whistleblower” Frances Haugen's sprawling P.R. and legal network coordinating her public campaign is the billionaire founder of EBay, Pierre Omidyar.
The attacks on comedian Dave Chappelle also appear to be a well-financed campaign. Trans activists got about 45 people to stand on the sidewalk for 45 minutes in front of the Netflix offices and it was front page news in every major newspaper across the country? The NY Times ran a hit piece on Dave Chappelle in 4 different sections of the newspaper over 4 days. That’s a corporate campaign, not organic political organizing.
Corporations know that stories are a powerful way to influence people. But what they are doing with these astroturf campaigns is a toxic mimic of storytelling — hollowing out actual people and using them to advance their interests. Storytelling is supposed to reveal the human struggle and help people to feel connected to each other. But these stories do the opposite by creating the illusion of humanity to advance a corporate agenda. The 1960s were characterized by organic political organizing that transformed ordinary people (with appropriate training) into heroes (Rosa Parks, Fred Hampton). Today that process has been flipped on its head as corporations and billionaires create their own social movements that treat people as objects and thwart actual long term political transformation.