"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It seemed like an auspicious debut: The new magazine Hi was just off the presses and it generated heavy buzz. It was glossy. It was young. It was fresh and hip and just a little bit sexy. The multimillion-dollar launch across 14 countries got headlines worldwide. And for the U.S. State Department that seemed to be good news, because Hi is a government publication issued to win hearts and minds in the Arab and Muslim world.
While produced by a private company, Hi is just one part of a U.S. campaign to convince citizens of Arab and Muslim countries to look a little more favorably on the United States. Critics have called it “soft-sell propaganda”; press reports from the Middle East have suggested that much of the young-adult target audience finds it laughable. All of which suggests that it will have little impact in offsetting long-held negative attitudes toward the United States — suspicions worsened almost universally by the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In “Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War in Iraq,” co-authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber explain why efforts like Hi have almost inevitably failed. “The United States lost the propaganda war a long time ago,” Rampton told Salon, citing the wisdom of an Arab-American news executive. “They could have the prophet Mohammed doing their public relations, and it wouldn’t help.”
That hasn’t stopped the Bush administration from trying. Last Thursday, the White House announced its plan to launch a round-the-clock television station, a competitor to the al-Jazeera network — albeit with a slightly different perspective. Congress has approved $32 million to fund the project, with another $30 million to follow soon.
But to Stauber and Rampton, projects like Hi and the new TV station prove only that the Bush administration understands neither the Middle East nor the art of communication. Aided by Roger Ailes’ flag-waving “news” crew at the Fox network and the timidity of the mainstream press, the propaganda campaign at home has been relatively effective, they say. But though Bush doesn’t seem to realize it, the Middle East isn’t Texas. Across the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world, people loathe America for its Israel policy and for its decades of manipulation and arrogance. No glossy magazine or advertising campaign is going to change that. What might work, Stauber and Rampton say, is having a real dialogue with the Middle East — not just talking, but listening, too.
“Weapons of Mass Deception” is a readable, witty, fact-filled catalog of the U.S. government’s attempts to counter the tide of anti-U.S. sentiment that the Bush administration abruptly discovered in the Muslim world after Sept. 11, 2001. It starts with the story of Charlotte Beers, former chairwoman and CEO of two of the world’s top ad agencies, J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather. She was hired after 9/11, as Colin Powell explained, “to change from just selling the U.S. … to really branding foreign policy.”
Efforts like these eventually cost $1 billion a year. Where did the money go?
A $5 million failed “Shared Values” advertising campaign was a typical Beers project. The TV commercial showed average Muslim Americans going about their daily lives, enjoying the lack of religious and racial discrimination in the U.S. Meant to be broadcast in Islamic countries, the “Shared Values” ad prominently featured a woman running in shorts. Deemed offensive to Muslims, the ad was not permitted to be broadcast on many important television stations in Egypt and other largely Islamic countries.
Another Beers’ idea was Radio Sawa, a station playing music by corn-fed American superstars. Radio Sawa broadcasts plenty of pop, but also features hourly news with a distinctly pro-America perspective. Rampton and Stauber admit that Radio Sawa has had a certain level of popularity — but they say that most of its audience simply tunes out the talking.
Early this year, polls by the Pew Research Center indicated that the United States’ public image had plummeted around the globe, including in the Arab countries targeted by Beers and her “public diplomacy” crew. When Egyptians were asked in the poll if they had a “favorable” view of the United States, only 6 percent said yes.
With her campaign subject to critical harpooning, Beers resigned in March of this year, citing “health reasons.” Much of the media was surprisingly explicit in calling her State Department work a failure.
Much of the research for “Weapons of Mass Deception” came from their Web site, PR Watch, and their “Disinfopedia,” an “encyclopedia of propaganda” about “public relations firms, think tanks, industry-funded organizations and industry-friendly experts.” Previous joint projects by the former investigative journalists include the books “Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future” and “Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry.”
Rampton and Stauber spoke with Salon by phone from Madison, Wis. They explained why American pop radio isn’t going to prevent future al-Qaida attacks, how the Pentagon may be falling for its own propaganda, and why Bush turned the “war on terror” into the war in Iraq.
What’s the difference between government-sponsored P.R. and propaganda?
Sheldon Rampton: From the very outset, public relations was steeped in propaganda, but the term “public relations” sounds less offensive to most ears, so it’s the term they prefer. Public relations is constantly looking for new euphemisms for itself, because every term they use for it eventually becomes synonymous with manipulation or deception in the public’s eyes.
So they come up with other terms, like “community relations” or “reputation management” or “perception management.”
What does a “perception manager” — or, more specifically, Charlotte Beers — do?
Rampton:They spend their days planning propaganda. [laughs] The job of someone who’s doing “public diplomacy” is to try to come up with ways of influencing the opinions of people outside of the United States to view the U.S. and its policies in a more favorable light. That description of their task is not terribly different from the way most scholars would define propaganda.
In the book, you describe the P.R. efforts of Charlotte Beers in Arab and Muslim countries. Can you describe her tenure in the State Department a bit here?
Rampton: Charlotte Beers’ task was not to promote the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. Her specific task was to create a more favorable impression of the United States overseas, especially in Arab and Muslim countries.
Charlotte Beers’ work was a good example of the limits of propaganda as a form of communication. It’s one of the myths about propaganda that it’s some all-powerful force that can hypnotize people into accepting things that they wouldn’t otherwise believe.
Propaganda is sometimes successful at deceiving people, but oftentimes it’s much less successful at influencing its target population than it is at helping the propaganda team deceive themselves. I think Charlotte Beers’ campaign is an example of that.
Every quantitative indicator that anyone has shows that her campaign, rather than helping, probably contributed to the decline of public opinion regarding the United States. Several of her campaigns became objects of ridicule.
The approach of her campaign — that you can “brand” America — is something that’s bound to attract resentment. It contains a number of undemocratic assumptions about how communication should happen.
“Branding America”? What does “branding” mean, in regards to a country?
Rampton: Charlotte Beers was an expert in “brand management.” Branding, in general, is the idea of getting people to associate emotional values with the product or idea you’re trying to sell.
This is what advertisers are always saying in one form or another. “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” They try to get you to buy an automobile, not because it is a form of transportation, but because it makes you feel powerful. Or it makes you feel sexy. They try to sell things on the basis of these emotional reactions that they’re trying to get you to develop.
That manipulation is tremendously successful in a lot of cases, right?
Rampton: It is successful in advertising. But the problem Charlotte Beers was facing when she did her campaign was that she was trying to communicate to an audience that was much more hostile and likely to view with suspicion everything she was trying to communicate.
In the book, we quote Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News. His point is that the United States has been doing propaganda in Arab and Muslim countries for a long time, the people there are used to it, and the skepticism they feel is from decades of history. The way he put it is that the United States lost the propaganda war a long time ago. They could have the prophet Mohammed doing their public relations, and it wouldn’t help.
John Stauber: Also, there’s essentially two types of propaganda: advertising and public relations. The difference is that advertising is usually perceptible and in your face. If you spend enough money on it and it’s clever enough and you utilize effects and thrills, you might be able to sell a product.
Advertising can work well for branding because it’s so pervasive. But it’s not subtle. I think the idea that an advertising approach — and Charlotte Beers was a product of Madison Avenue — to “brand” America and change the minds of Muslims about American policies was absolutely the wrong way to go.
There’s this split in the propaganda industry and between the advertising and the P.R. people. The split came about because of the idea that the best approach to manipulating public opinion in Muslim countries was to turn to advertising.
Advertising is blatant manipulation. If there were ads on our TV trying to convince us that Osama bin Laden’s ideology and religion were really wonderful, it would be just as ridiculous as these ads Charlotte Beers was trying to run in Muslim countries.
If there were a P.R. plan that didn’t insult the intelligence of the audience and that was more nuanced, could it change public opinion of the U.S. in Arab and Muslim countries?
Stauber: Overall, the idea that people who are deeply wounded and offended by their personal perception of U.S. policy and the role of it in their lives — the idea that those people can be completely turned around with pop music, advertising and third-party experts … just shows the hubris of the U.S. governmental approach to public opinion outside the United States.
Rampton: If they had had more dialogue, instead of one-way attempts at communication, then they’d have had more success. But even there, the main thing that undermines the propaganda campaign has been the Bush administration’s push to war.
John and I wrote — in our first book together, titled “Toxic Sludge Is Good for You” — a passage about a P.R. campaign to sell people on the idea that “good” sludge is a good fertilizer. Part of that campaign involved trying to persuade people to live next door to places where “good” sludge was being used as fertilizer, like on the farm next to them.
They tried to persuade them that it was harmless to their health … and that it didn’t even smell bad. [laughs] We got a letter from a woman who said: “They tell us there’s no danger, but they also tell us there’s no smell. And every day when I walk outside my door I can smell this stuff, so how am I supposed to believe it when they say there’s no danger, when they won’t even admit there’s a smell?”
The evidence of people’s experience is a powerful thing in itself. And the experience of people in Muslim and Arab countries is as powerful a factor — probably more powerful a factor — in shaping their opinion of the United States than anything we can say by way of propaganda.
Why weren’t people in the Arab world pleased with the United States for the removal of Saddam Hussein from Iraq?
Rampton: As long as there’s a contradiction between our stated goals for the region, which is that we support democracy and good things for the people in the region, and our actions, which consist of allying ourselves with repressive regimes so we can get their oil, public opinion is always going to be in a downward spiral.
Stauber: With Saddam Hussein, for decades the United States essentially looked the other way. People who lived in the Middle East, people who have suffered under Saddam Hussein, understood very well that as long as he was serving the interests of the U.S., he was our friend and ally. His great crime in the eyes of the Bush administration wasn’t gassing his own people, it was appropriating oil that belonged to the ruling family of Kuwait.
There’s a deep and understandable cynicism, and it’s not just a feeling that, ‘Hey, we’re Arabs, we’re Muslims, we don’t get any respect from the United States.’ It’s a long, sordid history of U.S. support for horribly repressive regimes. Saddam Hussein was a wonderful ally to the U.S., until he misunderstood how far he could go.
So it isn’t possible for the U.S. to strike a balance in regard to hot-button issues? On one side, for example, you’d have the support the U.S. gave to Muslims in Kosovo, and on the other, the situation in Palestine and the U.S. backing of Israel?
Stauber: I don’t think any of us really think that way. Just look at the U.S. response to France over this whole affair. I don’t see people boycotting Canadian maple syrup. But the Canadians very loudly kept out of this war and were proud not to support the U.S. in it. But France — there’s something about France! [laughs]
There’s this emotional, anti-France attitude in the U.S. that really was set off by France’s stand on this whole situation. Rational analysis may be a factor, but it’s based on a gut feeling about how we’re treated.
Rampton: There’s definitely an emotional component, but also, there’s a feeling in Arab nations and Muslim nations that the United States is supporting autocratic regimes ranging from Saudi Arabia to Morocco and giving nothing but lip service to democracy. And of course, then there’s huge resentment over Israel. And I think even if we do the right thing in a few places like Bosnia, it’s not going to outweigh the resentment they feel about the rest of things.
If you want to move the dial of public opinion away from that resentment, it’s only through a policy that’s consistently true to the principles that we say we stand for: democracy and respect for human rights. And that has not, thus far, been the policy of our government.
What do you say to other Americans who hate the idea that the United States is hated in some parts of the world? Isn’t it rational to want the U.S. to engage in some P.R. to help remedy that hatred, even if it is a shallow approach, since there is anti-American propaganda flowing the other way?
Rampton: There are two things happening right now, and one is the result of the U.S. policy that John and I have been focusing on. The other thing is the fact that for a variety of reasons, the United States has become the world’s sole standing superpower.
If you ever played the game of Risk you know that sooner or later one person would become more powerful than everyone else, and that every other player would start to worry about that one who was the most powerful on the board. And it didn’t have to do with whether we liked them or not. It had to do with the fact that the most powerful one on the board was the one we were most afraid of.
That’s part of the dilemma for the United States. We have become a superpower that at least imagines itself being capable of dominating the rest of the world without listening.
Yes, we definitely need a strategy for communicating with the rest of the world that changes the way they think about us. But a big part of that communication strategy has to involve changing the way we think about the rest of the world, and demonstrating our willingness to hear what they have to say and give them our attention.
One of the things that I found very striking after Sept. 11 was that this mood began to emerge in the United States that you could not say anything critical about U.S. foreign policy. You couldn’t try to list the reasons why this hatred exists toward the United States, without someone immediately piping up to say, “We’re so traumatized right now, it’s very insensitive of you even to bring that up. We can’t even discuss that now because the pain is just too intense.”
Stauber: Right, and there was even a phrase, “You’re blaming America,” “You’re saying we deserved it.” If you began a rational discussion about why it is that people in other countries might have a hatred for America — not a hatred to the point of flying jets into skyscrapers, but just a hatred — you couldn’t even discuss it. If you began to explore that, there’s right-wing counterattacks, and you’re just part of the “blame America” crowd.
Rampton: There are powerful taboos in place against listening to the reasons why people feel hostile toward the United States or discussing them in public. Until that happens [the taboos are removed], I don’t think we’ll be successful in changing anyone’s mind abroad about us.
You see some of the roots of this coming from the advertising-based P.R.? That the U.S. communicates only through one-direction blasts of information, and not through a conversation?
Rampton: Right. Propaganda is the attempt to influence the thinking of a target population regardless of whether what you’re saying is true or in their interests.
The message of the propaganda may be true or in their interest. For example, a very crude form of war propaganda is dropping leaflets to tell the enemy they’ll be killed unless they surrender. That may be true. It may be in their interest to surrender.
But from the point of view of the person dropping the leaflets of propaganda, you don’t care whether it’s true — you just want them to surrender. And often, propaganda, because of its nature, ends up producing messages that are not true and are not in the interest of that audience. That approach to communication is, in my opinion, fundamentally at odds with the very definition and concept of communication that is at the heart of democratic theories of how communication should take place.
In the democratic model of communication, every party is equal. You don’t have a privileged communicator whose job is to indoctrinate a passive audience. Everyone gets to speak, and everyone’s point of view has some validity. In the propaganda approach, the point of view of the people you’re trying to indoctrinate is mostly an obstacle to overcome.
Why do you think, given the failure of U.S. propaganda abroad, that the Bush administration has been so successful selling the war in Iraq to Americans?
Stauber: These major deceptions, the propaganda campaign that was waged in the United States that succeeded in confusing and misleading and fooling the American people, convinced the majority of Americans that indeed attacking Iraq was somehow a proper response to the terror attacks of 9/11. That Saddam Hussein was somehow in cahoots with al-Qaida in some way. That Iraqis were involved in the attacks on 9/11. That as Condoleezza Rice and other members of the State Department put it, “The next 9/11 might be a mushroom cloud over America” if we don’t do something about Saddam Hussein.
The question we asked at the end of the book is this: Was this the wrong war in the wrong place fought with the wrong weapons in the wrong time? Is this actually going to turn out to be something that will increase the terror threat against the United States?
And so far, it’s looking bad and getting worse.
One of the ironies here is that a critical reader, a critical thinker, someone who really wants to see what’s going on here — reading mainstream sources like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Guardian, and listening to the BBC — could come to the same conclusions that we did. But that’s not where most Americans get their news. Most Americans get their news from television, which is probably the worst single source for providing factual information and analysis.
So you also hold TV news responsible, in some way, for the propaganda that surrounded this war?
Stauber: After 9/11, we saw how the Fox network exploited the terror attacks, wrapped itself in the flag and began beating this drumbeat for war. They exploited the fears that people felt and created what an executive from another network called “the Fox effect.”
First of all, the war could have never taken place if the media had done its job of questioning the administration rather than becoming an echo chamber and propaganda arm.
But the very specific story is how Fox used this jingoistic, hyperpatriotic, rah-rah, let’s-go-to-war coverage to gain a massive market share. Fox actually became the No. 1 source for most people in the United States to get their information about the war.
The reason we subtitled the book “The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War in Iraq” is because it wasn’t just the administration or the right-wing think tanks, it was also opportunists and networks like Fox who exploited 9/11 and launched their own propaganda campaign for their own purpose. The U.S. would go to war because Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, is of that ideological persuasion and thought it would be a good idea. And to gain market share. It’s really frightening to see how in the 21st century, there’s a huge economic benefit for a TV network for exploiting the fears of a nation to promote war.
Rampton: And the United States is not the only place that this has happened. In the last half of the book we talk about the comparison between the way the war was covered in the United States vs. in other parts of the world.
Just as there is the “Fox effect” in the Western world, there’s an opposite sort of thing going on in Arab and Muslim countries. The way they compete for market share is by getting to see who can present the most outrage and direct that outrage toward the United States. The ironic thing is that if you watch Arab television, and you can actually get some of it on the Web now, it looks a lot like Fox news! [laughs]
So is the fact that the Bush administration successfully “launched” the war in Iraq proof of how powerful propaganda is inside the U.S., if not in the rest of the world?
Rampton: People on all sides of the political spectrum — left, right and center — ascribe enormous power to the media. And it does have a lot of power to influence the way people think. Brian Eno reviewed our book in England. In his review, he commented that the most important thing the media does is not that it tells us what to think, but it tells us what to think about.
For the last year, we’ve all been thinking and talking about Iraq. We weren’t all thinking and talking about Iraq before the Bush administration put it on our agenda. Up until September of last year, the first year after Sept. 11, Iraq was a very minor part of the discussion about the war on terror until the Bush administration put it there.
But what that tells you about the limitations of propaganda is that as powerful as it can be at telling us what’s on the agenda, people still exercise quite a bit of independence in their own opinions.
I think the fact that our book is bouncing around as much as it is by word of mouth reflects that there is a substantial body of opinion in the United States that was never swayed by all the red, white and blue propaganda that we write about.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)