Medicare VNRs Were "Propaganda" Says GAO
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
CEO

Medicare VNRs Were "Propaganda" Says GAO

Government VNRs "violated federal law"... Caterpillar faces boycott over Israel link... Gap shows social reporting not so chilled by Nike ruling... Vagelos critical of drug companies on pricing PR

Paul Holmes

Those controversial VNRs distributed by the Department of Health & Social Services violated federal law, the General Accounting Office says. The agency said the videos were a form of “covert propaganda” because the government was not identified as the source of the materials, which were broadcast by at least 40 television stations. According to a New York Times report, “The agency also expressed some concern about the content of the videos, but based its ruling on the lack of disclosure.” What’s interesting about the ruling is that the materials were clearly identified to reporters as coming from the DHSS—but most of the stations that aired the footage declined to share that information with their viewers. In other words, the lack of disclosure was the fault of the reporters, not the government agency. Does this render the use of VNRs by any government agency illegal? If so, shouldn’t the ban also extend to press releases? Is this a can of worms or a storm in a teacup?

Peace groups are threatening a boycott of Caterpillar, because some of its heavy duty bulldozers are used by the Israeli government to level Palestinian settlements in Gaza—and have killed Palestinian civilians and western protestors in the process. The threat sounds absurd—bulldozers don’t kill people; people kill people—except that, as this Salon article points out, the company’s Code of Worldwide Business Conduct envisions its products contributing to an “environment in which all people can work safely and live healthy, productive lives, now and in the future.” Author Farhad Manjoo asks, “Is that the case in Gaza? Advocates of [a shareholder] resolution say that shareholders should be wary that Caterpillar’s business with Israel is turning the company into a military contractor, which is not necessarily the image you’d want associated with a company that thinks of itself as a builder of civilian dreams.”

This week’s sign that the apocalypse is upon us: American Progress reports that Sen. James Inhofe (the same Sen. Inhofe who is more outraged by the outrage than he is by the torture of Iraqi prisoners), received an award for his support of “rational, science-based thinking and policy-making.” Inhofe, who heads the Senate’s environmental committee, has suggested that human-caused global warming is a “hoax,” so the award is surprising, until you learn that it came from the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy, a group that receives funding from Exxon Mobil and other large corporations. Says American Progress, “The astonishing spectacle of Inhofe receiving a science award points to a disturbing truth of American politics today. Science is a highly partisan and politicized issue, and both sides in the climate debate claim scientific support for their positions.”

The Financial Times (subscription required) reports that fears about a “chilling effect” on corporate social reporting in the wake of the much-discussed Nike vs. Kasky settlement appear to have been misplaced, at least if The Gap’s new report is anything to go by. The company says the new report provides “the greatest degree of transparency we’ve ever provided.” Others agree. Says Dan Rees, director of the U.K.’s Ethical Trading Initiative, “In the past, they’ve been very much doing things on their own and have attracted quite a lot of criticism for not engaging. What I understand about Gap’s approach, and one of their motivations for joining ETI, is that they’re saying: ‘Now we want to engage with NGOs on the ground where it matters.’”

Former Merck chief executive Roy Vagelos—he was at the helm at a time when Merck was consistently America’s most admired corporation, according to Fortune—is critical of the pharmaceutical industry’s public relations position on drug pricing in an interview with Wharton Business School’s online publication. Vagelos says the industry “blundered by not quickly reaching an agreement to provide AIDS drugs cheaply to African nations.” Many companies, he says, don’t realize the benefits in better employee morale and favorable press coverage that come from doing good deeds. “At Merck, Vagelos and his executive team decided in the 1980s to give away a drug that could cure river blindness in Africa… The decision, however, was controversial. Merck, a profit-making drug company, was clearly expected to earn profits from drugs coming out of its laboratories—not give them away free. But Vagelos said the favorable publicity resulting from the decision was invaluable. It energized the Merck labs and instilled in the company a sense of mission. ‘We could hire almost anybody we wanted for 10 years because of the feeling in the company.’”

After the number of customers visiting Krispy Kreme declined “for the first time in living memory,” the company blamed the Atkins fad for its reversal of fortune, which led to a 29 percent slump in its stock price. But Slate’s Daniel Gross is skeptical. “One could make the case that Krispy Kreme’s fall—the stock is off by about 50 percent since last summer—has little to do with the diet. Part of the stock decline is simple retrenching after Krispy Kreme’s excessive rise. After all, despite the scaled-back earnings forecast, Krispy Kreme’s sales are still growing at a healthy 25 percent clip, thanks to new store openings, higher prices, and a push into other retail channels.” Gross also kvetches about the company’s “clumsy growth strategy” and the fact that it has “diversified poorly.” The good news: “The question for investors in Krispy Kreme—and in other companies who have staked their future on high-carb products—is whether Atkins exerts a lasting influence on consumption patterns. I’m guessing it won’t…. Don’t worry about the fads, worry about the financials.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins makes the astonishing suggestion that the Bush administration is not spinning enough. Jenkins is outraged at the administration’s failure to defend or explain the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq. He seems to think President Bush’s pseudo-apology is simply appeasement. He wants the U.S. to get out there and be more vigorous in its campaign for hearts and minds—although he doesn’t suggest the proper way to spin the torture and murder that went on in Abu Gharib in such a way that the U.S. could come out of it looking like the good guy. Jenkins is right about one thing, though: the demise of the U.S. Information Agency has clearly hampered efforts to conduct successful public diplomacy. The USIA had its faults, occasionally crossing the line from information into propaganda, but it would surely have lent much-needed public relations expertise to a process that has been driven to this point by advertising and spin.

Advertising Age reports on a plan by marketing executives to ensure that editorial coverage loses all credibility. Marketers, including Matthew Spahn, director of media planning at Sears, Roebuck & Co., would like to be able to pay for product placement in editorial coverage, thus ensuring that such coverage—the stuff on which public relations has traded—loses all value. (Some magazines, the article says, already do allow the practice.) Others “must answer to advertisers who demand sales executives come into a meeting with more than a schedule and rate card. Marketers and their media buying agencies want ever-more-creative ideas, and with ad-page sales still lagging for this year’s first quarter, many titles are under competitive pressure from not just their own category, but other media as well.”

A year ago Lt. John Oliveira was aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Mediterranean Sea, serving as public affairs officer for the 5,000-troop aircraft carrier, speaking to the national and international media defending the U.S. invasion. But in an interview with Democracy Now, he explains his disillusionment with the current war effort: “As things started developing for Iraq, things just weren’t making sense to me. But obviously, I had taken on oath and went off to war in January of last year, and I just didn’t realize at the time what kind of an impact that that would have on me once things started, when I had to get on television every day to talk to the American people and the international public and continue to sell them on the administration’s policies, which I did not believe in, and as the war progressed, obviously, we discovered more things.”

Slate’s William Saletan examines the Bush press conference, and discovers that the President has his own definition of credibility. Many people believe credibility comes from (a) telling the truth and (b) delivering on your promises. But for President Bush, that would mean finding the weapons of mass destruction he insisted were the reason to attack Iraq, or living up to the values of democracy and freedom espoused by the administration during the invasion. Fortunately, Bush doesn’t have to do either of those things to live up to his own definition of credibility because, as Saletan explains, “To Bush, credibility means that you keep saying today what you said yesterday, and that you do today what you promised yesterday…. When the situation is clear and requires pure courage, this steadfastness is Bush’s most useful trait. But when the situation is unclear, Bush’s notion of credibility turns out to be dangerously unhinged. The only words and deeds that have to match are his. No correspondence to reality is required. Bush can say today what he said yesterday, and do today what he promised yesterday, even if nothing he believes about the rest of the world is true.”

Slate provides a fascinating account of the OxyContin myth, suggesting that maker Purdue Pharmaceuticals is the victim of sensationalistic and irresponsible reporting. According to reporter Maia Szalavitz, “the entire OxyContin ‘epidemic’ is based on a false narrative that asserts that the majority of OxyContin addicts begin as drug-naive pain patients.” Reporters interested in the real story “would have noted that government data shows that 90 percent of OxyContin abusers have also taken cocaine, psychedelics, and other prescription painkillers.” But “reporters don’t like this narrative, so they ignore it. This tired, predictable storyline leaves reporters with unsympathetic protagonists: Who wants to read about scummy addicts scamming doctors? Grandma’s back pain making her into a pharmacy robber is much more compelling; unfortunately, it almost never happens.”

Oh what a tangled web… Condoleeza Rice says Richard Clarke “was in every meeting that was held on terrorism. All the deputies’ meetings, the principals’ meeting that was held and so forth.” But White House press spokesman Scott McClellan, who must have gotten a completely different set of talking points, complains that “Dr. Rice, early on in the administration,” McClellan said yesterday, “started holding daily briefings with the senior directors of the National Security Council, of which he was one. But he refused to attend those meetings, and he was later asked to attend those meetings and he continued to refuse to attend those meetings.”

The UN Commission of Human Rights has asked for a new report on business responsibilities for human rights after a controversy surrounding a previous proposal. A recently issued Draft Decision “instructs the High Commissioner to compile a report on the scope and legal status of existing initiatives and the legal standards relating to human rights.” The commissioner will compile the report in consultation with all relevant stakeholders, including nations, companies, business associations, international associations and non-governmental organizations. Companies had complained about being shut out of the previous discussion. “Any process that is designed to be open from the beginning rather than starting from a pre-determined outcome is a drastic improvement from what we got in the first round of this process,” said Adam Greene, vice president of labor affairs and corporate responsibility for the U.S. Council for International Business.

Ari Fleischer is long gone as the White House press spokesman, but maybe he was worried he was getting rusty, or maybe he just missed lying to the media, but he fired off this letter to The New York Times in response to a Paul Krugman column that recalled Fleischer's warning to comedian Bill Maher that "Americans should watch what they say." Unfortunately for Fleischer’s attempt at revisionist history, they keep transcripts of these things, as Slate points out here. It’s a reminder, says Timothy Noah, that Fleischer “was not just a liar but (to borrow a phrase coined by Newsweek's Evan Thomas) an exuberant liar.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Maura Reynolds on the Bush administration’s approach to the news media: “It was easier to cover the Kremlin than it is to cover this administration. The main difference I find is that the Russians at least were upfront about when they weren’t going to talk to you and when they weren’t going to tell you something. This administration tries to say they’ve told you something ... or have answered your question when in fact they haven’t.”

Republicans campaigning for office this year have been provided with talking points that include the assertion that “global warming is not a fact,” among others—a notion that appears to support the contention that when the empirical evidence fails to match the dogma, the empirical evidence should be thrown out. But apparently even some moderate Republicans find it implausible that voters will swallow this rhetoric. Rep. Mike Castle, (R-Del.), says the strategy is too negative and defensive and doesn’t address the fact that pollution continues to be a health threat. “If I tried to follow these talking points at a town hall meeting with my constituents, I’d be booed,” said Castle. Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, meanwhile, who left the Republican Party in 2001 to become an independent, called the memo “outlandish” and an attempt to deceive voters.

The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait believes he knows what’s wrong with White House press secretary Scott McClellan: “He’s not a natural liar.” Chait, like others before him, contrasts McClellan’s inability to lie convincingly with that of his predecessor. “When asked a direct question, our natural impulse is to answer it honestly. The capacity to do otherwise is useful for any press secretary but particularly so for the current administration, whose domestic agenda has never commanded popular support and which relies heavily upon secrecy and message discipline. Fleischer was in this sense the perfect Bush press secretary. His ability to prevaricate and dodge, without betraying himself through physical or verbal tics, represented a kind of genius. Alas, what came so easily to Fleischer utterly eludes McClellan. If the two of them ever sat down at a poker table, Fleischer would probably walk away with all of McClellan's money and the shirt off his back.”

Researchers at Rutgers University watched 63 episodes of The Simpsons and issued a report calling for the show’s producers to change Homer’s eating habits, on the grounds that he’s sending a bad message to the countless thousands who want to be just like him. According to the Rutgers’ report, 40 percent of the health “messages” in The Simpsons go against doctors’ advice and “fats, sweets and alcohol, particularly beer, doughnuts and salty/fatty/snacks accounted for 52 per cent of all foods eaten in this program.”

Slate ploughs through some of the latest crop of annual reports—all 390 pages in one case—to find some details the companies would rather keep hidden. “Their girth declares: Look how honest we are,” says author Michael Leder. “But what’s amazing in the new round of reports is that they often reveal the seamy, self-dealing, overpaying practices that created the scandals to begin with.” For example, former Stanley Works CEO John Trani, “who attracted controversy two years ago when he proposed moving the Connecticut-based company to Bermuda to avoid taxes” is collecting $243,750 a month under his retirement agreement—four times as much as the CEO who replaced him, John Lundgren. Gannett, meanewhile, is paying former CFO Larry Miller $600,000 a year under a consulting contract—$40,000 more than Miller made when he was working full time for the company. Gannett will also continue to pay for Miller’s car and his membership at a local country club.

The Bush administration’s multi-billion dollar campaign to win the hearts and minds of citizens in the Arab world and beyond is having results, The Washington Post reports. A poll by the Pew Research Center shows increased support in Muslim countries for suicide bombings and other forms of violence; 82 percent of Jordanians, 40 percent of Moroccans, 41 percent of Pakistanis and 15 percent of Turks said such violence could be justified. Majorities in Pakistan and Jordan had favorable views of Osama bin Laden, while majorities in Jordan and Morocco said attacks against Americans and Westerners in Iraq are justified. Majorities in seven of the eight foreign countries surveyed said the war in Iraq hurt or had no effect on the war on terrorism, and only in the United States did a majority believe that the ouster of Saddam Hussein will make the Middle East more democratic. It will obviously take several billion dollars more to turn the entire world against us, but at least the administration can point to impressive progress on what appears to be its number one goal.

Warren Buffet’s annual missives to shareholders are always interesting. Reading this year’s musings, you can’t accuse him of self-interest and it’s hard to dismiss him as some sort of disaffected pinko, which means his ideas have to be taken seriously. Says Buffet, calling for the wealthy to pay a greater share of taxes: “If class warfare is being waged in America, my class is clearly winning.”

The Department of Agriculture continues to do the absolute bare minimum to convince people that U.S. beef is safe, and in the process continues to ensure that big overseas customers like Japan won’t be coming back any time soon. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman said the agency will spend an additional $70 million to test as many as 268,000 animals a year, up from the current goal of 40,000, but still far short of testing procedures in Europe and Japan. “Although we appreciate the USDA effort in this issue, this is still far from what we were expecting to see,” says a Japanese agriculture attaché.

Activist shareholders are enjoying more success this year, with the high-profile rebuke to Disney’s Michael Eisner only the most obvious example. The Indianapolis Star reports on a reversal at SBC, which a year ago successfully blocked shareholder resolutions seeking to link executive pay to performance. “Twelve months later, SBC has changed its mind and is implementing a new executive compensation system. One reason for the change: independent board director James Henderson,” who now heads the executive compensation committee.

The Wall Street Journal wants to know what happened to Lou Dobbs, who has built a successful franchise at CNN around his unquestioning enthusiasm for laissez-faire capitalism—until recently, when he started to question the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to overseas markets. Says the Journal, “The ferocity of Mr. Dobbs’s attack has surprised and even angered some observers used to associating the well-known Republican financial journalist with spirited defenses of capitalism and cozy interviews with America’s top chief executives.” The transformation is particularly confusing because even most liberal economists accept that outsourcing is healthy for American business, at least in the long-term. The (not entirely convincing) conclusion is that Dobbs is in it for the ratings.

The Gadflyer, which describes itself as “a new progressive voice” launches with a spirited attack on the mainstream media, and its lack of aggression pursuing wrongdoing within the Bush administration. Senior editor Sean Aday has several criticisms, one of which is that the media settles on a caricature of a candidate and then looks for evidence to back it up, ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit the neat stereotype. This year, for example, the GOP is trying to define John Kerry in terms of his flip-flops. Says Aday, “Of the many problems with this type of reporting, perhaps the most serious is that it lets other candidates off the hook for similar transgressions. Bush has flip-flopped at least as often as Kerry (give him bonus points for doing it in a shorter period of time, though). But he is escaping the same scrutiny because in the cheap novelization of the campaign offered by the press, if there’s one flip-flopper (or liar, or dumb guy) there can’t be two.”

I think I’m more encouraged by this than either CNN, which reports this story, or the producers of The Daily Show, its subject. A poll released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited Comedy Central’s The Daily Show as a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news. The Daily Show producers are suitably modest about their role in informing the public, but anyone who tunes in regularly will know that host Jon Stewart does a better job than any network news anchor of cutting through the spin. During the Gulf War, The Daily Show was much more skeptical—okay, cynical, but the cynicism was appropriate and correct in this case—about the conventional wisdom, and Stewart “keeps it very truthful and straightforward,” as one teenager told CNN.

A judge rails amusingly against a frivolous lawsuit filed by people who claimed they were misled by ads quoting phony movie reviews. “This is the most frivolous case with which I have ever had to deal. Imagine the great contribution this case will make to our quality of life and to justice in America. . . . No longer will people be seen lurching like mindless zombies toward the movie theatre, compelled by a puff piece."

Lovers of irony will note that at the foot of this article about the relatively obscure role played by CFO, there’s an apology. A photo of Enron CFO Andy Fastow was misidentified as a photo of Worldcom CFO Scott Sullivan. Fastow is the world’s most famous CFO and he’s still not a recognizable figure.

If you’re still eating beef after the mad cow scare, enjoy this article from Slate, which details the gruesome trip from pasture to plate enjoyed by American livestock (and suggests ways of eating less horribly slaughtered cows, pigs, sheep, and chicken). Sample passage: “Pregnant sows live in narrow ‘gestation crates’ about 2 by 7 feet, too small to turn around in with slanted floors that allow waste to drop through….  Sows are impregnated again and again, until they’re sent to the slaughterhouse at around age 3 (in more natural conditions a pig can live into its teens).” Still taste good though.

Is White House press secretary Scott McClellan “dissipating the goodwill he had for not being Ari Fleischer?” That’s the contention of one White House correspondent interviewed for this Washingtonian article, which says McClellan “lost it” last week as he struggled not to answer questions concerning the President’s “service” in the National Guard. The criticisms of McClellan are similar to those of Fleischer. According to CBS correspondent John Roberts, “We don’t get our questions answered most of the time.” But whereas Fleischer was a Washington insider who would occasionally go off-the-record in less formal settings, McClellan came up with the Bush Texas operation and seems uncomfortable departing from the party line in any setting. According to the article, “The confrontation created talk among White House correspondents as to whether McClellan could stand the pressure as it builds during the 2004 campaign season.”

If you’ve seen the latest anti-tobacco advertising campaign, in which a company that makes “Shardso’Glass” freeze pops finally admits “there’s no such thing as a safe shard of glass,” you might have noticed that it gives a web address (www.shardsoglass.com) for further information. Curious to find out whether the site was real, I typed it into my browser and found a clever parody that extends the ad campaign’s message with pages that deal with “glass pop addiction” and “shards-related ailments” and offers a message from the CEO: “Our glass pops are the nation's leading consumer frozen treats containing glass shards and we are currently shipping our products to many third world countries with more relaxed health codes and legal restrictions.” You can even purchase a limited edition Shardso’Glass T-shirt.

A Wall Street Journal editorial misses the point of the debate over outsourcing so completely you have to believe they’re being deliberately obtuse. Responding to presidential hopeful John Kerry’s criticism of a Bush administration official who argued that moving software and other white-collar jobs offshore was a good thing, the Journal says, “By reducing costs, outsourcing gives companies more money to invest. More investment means more jobs, especially jobs with higher value added. It’s also good for shareholders.” All of that may be true, as may the Journal’s contention that Kerry’s rhetoric was overblown (he compared the CEOs of companies engaging in outsourcing to Benedict Arnold). But the problem isn’t that outsourcing will be good for shareholders in the long-term, it’s that it’s horrible for workers in the short-term, and neither the corporations involved nor the Bush administration (nor the Journal) seems to care enough to offer a solution.

“What’s the little blond kid in the IBM ad selling?” Slate wants to know. What he’s selling, of course, is Linux, but what intrigues Slate’s Seth Stevenson is that the ad, which has aired on network sports programming and elsewhere, is targeting an opinion leader audience that includes, according to an IBM spokeswoman “CEOs, CFOs, and prime ministers.” Says Sullivan, “At first glance, this seems inefficient. Along with a few CEOs and prime ministers… IBM is also reaching millions of people (e.g., everyone I know) who have no clue what this ad is for, even when they've seen it dozens of times.” But he takes the spokesperson’s word that “the stakes in this fight are so shockingly high that the ad is worth every penny. And I guess when you're up against Microsoft, you’ve got to roll out some big guns.” And anyway, he loves the ad: “This is a don’t-change-the-channel spot. That blank-faced kid in a big white room is a totally eye-catching image. And that's before they roll out the intriguing celebrities.”

I blame The Full Monty. After the hit movie made stripping popular, it spawned a female counterpart, Calendar Girls, and now the British obsession with baring their assets appears to have spread to soccer players. Players from the lower division club Scarborough had apparently entered into an agreement with “lad” magazine Zoo (think Maxim without the sophistication) that if they scored against higher ranked Chelsea in a knock-out tournament next week, all their players would simultaneously drop their shorts and moon spectators, with the words “Zoo Weekly” tattooed on their rears. As The Guardian reports, “Facilitated by the football agent Eric Hall, it was an ambitious plan in that it meant 10 footballers assembling in the correct order.” Fortunately, the plan has been scuppered by soccer authorities. “Pulling down your shorts on a football field is a) against our regulations because it is ungentlemanly conduct,” explained the FA spokesman Adrian Bevington. “And b) it is also against the Fifa regulation which stipulates that footballers are barred from using their bodies or undergarments beneath their kit as advertisement boards.”

The New York Times reports that Citibank, bowing to pressure from environmental groups such as the Rainforest Action Network, will no longer accept financing deals involving projects and corporations criticized by the group on environmental grounds.

Slate devotes a column to the most vacuous press releases of the Democratic presidential primaries so far, and it makes for hilarious reading. Among my favorites is the one announcing that ESPN commentator Chris Berman has endorsed Joe Lieberman, which quotes Lieberman’s New Hampshire state director Peter Greenberger: “As the Pats continue their march towards the Super Bowl, another great New England Patriot—Joe Lieberman—is making his march towards the Superbowl of Politics: The New Hampshire Primary.” And that’s only the eighth worst press release on the list!

An investigative piece in the New York Times looks at Wal-Mart’s practice of locking night workers into its stores. According to the Times, night shift managers often don’t have keys, employees are told they will be fired if they leave through the fire doors (unless there’s a fire), and managers with keys refuse to come let people out even in emergencies. So horror stories abound: employees with broken legs, cuts requiring stitches, and wives in labor are stuck in the stores until morning. In once case, an employee who reported a colleague throwing up repeatedly was told, “Find one of the mattresses. Have him lay down on the floor.” The company says employees can use the fire doors in such emergencies; that most of the complaints are from years ago, before policies were changed; that employees are locked in for their own safety; and that locking people in is common industry practice—a claim other retailers deny. Meanwhile, we eagerly anticipate the day when employees get a vote in Fortune’s Most Admired Corporations survey—which Wal-Mart topped last year.

The Columbia Journalism Review offers a testament to the value of good media training. It’s more a lament, actually, since it comes from a journalist, who decries the fact that spokesmen who have been through media training refuse to be bullied by reporters. Media training, says Trudy Lieberman, “teaches people all the fancy steps they need to answer the questions they want to answer, not those of an inquisitive reporter. The result: in too many cases, interviews become excuses to practice public relations, and instead of shedding light, they cloud public discourse.” She cites several examples, all of which beg the question: Instead of whining about the interview subject, why not issue a call for reporters who aren’t afraid to ask tough questions and be just as tough when they don’t get any answers?

Is the milk mustache campaign unconstitutional? Some of the people forced to donate a dollar per head for every cow they own think so. The mustache campaign—which has featured celebrities sporting milky upper lips in ads for several years—is funded by a check-off, which is mandatory for cattlemen. But some, particularly those who use organic faming methods and eschew growth hormones and the like, feel that being forced to pay for ads they don’t agree with, and that lump them together with other, less fastidious, farmers, is a violation of their free speech rights. As this Washington, Pa., report observes, the Department of Agriculture argues that “because most milk sold in the country is generic, and prices and distribution are tightly regulated, a joint marketing campaign is the only effective way to compete with other, less regulated beverages, such as soda and beer.”

Northwest Airlines is the latest company to share customer data with government agencies and the lie to its customers about it. The nation’s fourth-largest airline insisted in September that it “did not provide that type of information to anyone.” But Northwest acknowledged last week that at that time, it had already turned over three months of reservation data to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center.

Here’s some twisted logic from the editorial columns of The Wall Street Journal. The publication suggests that Oracle is being hoist by its own petard, because the company that joined others in attacking the Microsoft monopoly is now being blocked from taking over PeopleSoft by concerns about the antitrust implications of the deal. One big difference (which the Journal itself notes) is that while Microsoft controls 90 percent of the operating system market, Oracle and PeopleSoft together have just 11 percent of the HR software business. Another, more significant difference, is that owning the operating system is different, because it gives you a unique advantage in designing other software—and the ability to render some software unusable. In effect, the Journal is arguing that if you accuse someone of a crime, even if they’re guilty of that crime, you shouldn’t be surprised if you’re falsely accused of the same crime yourself.

Oddly enough, Donald Trump’s new television show completely fails to mention that the self-proclaimed “most successful retail developer in New York” only kept himself afloat because he had so much debt his bankers were afraid to let him fail. Perhaps the producers of The Apprentice recognize that contestants competing for a job in the Trump empire are unlikely to be able to put that kind of advice to any good use. Slate’s Dennis Cass has seen some of the show—which he describes as “Survivor for Future Business Leaders of America” and praises it thus: “Finally, a show that captures two of the least savory aspects of having a job: busting your ass for no apparent reason, and sucking up to a boss whose status you can never attain.”

The fact that Wal-Mart ranks among Fortune’s Most Admired Corporations is an indication of just how narrow the magazine’s definition of “admired” is—focusing on a single constituency (the financial community) and criteria that emphasize financial performance. An even-handed investigation of the company by the L.A. Times raises interesting issues: the company’s impact on communities, the attractive bargains it offers consumers, the somewhat less attractive jobs it offers workers. Many of the same people who shop at Wal-Mart stores lost their better paying, better benefits jobs because their employers were unable to compete with the retail giant. Wal-Mart giveth, and Wal-Mart taketh away.

I wouldn’t necessarily consider Mother Jones the most objective source on consumer safety issues, but the fact that this story includes quotes from a Republican congressman’s office gives it some credibility. The story details the efforts of “die-hard Republican” small business owner John Munsell to expose flaws in the meat safety inspection process—the implication is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ConAgra and other large agribusiness companies—and includes supporting evidence from the Government Accountability Program, which investigated Munsell’s claims. Expect more of these stories as reporters focus on the safety of the food supply in the wake of the mad-cow scare.

To promote its new sepsis drug, Slate reports, Eli Lilly has created a public relations program it calls “The Ethics, the Urgency and the Potential,” based on the premise that it is “unethical not to use the drug.” The company has funded a $1.8 million project called the “Values, Ethics & Rationing in Critical Care Task Force,” in which bioethicists and physicians from various American medical schools will examine the ethics of rationing certain drugs and services. “It is a brilliant strategy,” says author Carl Elliott. “There is no better way to enlist bioethicists in the cause of consumer capitalism than to convince them they are working for social justice.” But are they? Elliott is clearly not convinced. “Funding bioethics is less an act of corporate good will than the latest move in a larger strategy: buying off the entire apparatus of academic medicine,” he says. “So the next time you meet a bioethicist, pay close attention; he may look like a bioethicist, but when you peel back his mask, you just might see the adman smiling back.”

More on the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry from the U.K.’s Observer, which claims: “Hundreds of articles in medical journals claiming to be written by academics or doctors have been penned by ghostwriters in the pay of drug companies.”

As if Abercrombie & Fitch didn’t have enough on its plate—after withdrawing a catalog that critics said bordered on child pornographythis CBS story raises questions about its hiring practices. Most of its in-store sales staff are young, attractive—and white. Does the company discriminate on the basis of race, or just—as ex-employees charge—merely on looks? Says an Asian-American who couldn’t get a job at A&F, “It’s dominated by Caucasian, football looking, blond hair, blue eyed males. Skinny, tall. You don’t see any African American, Asian Americans And that’s the image that they’re portraying and that they’re looking for.”

The First Amendment Center takes an interest in a recent court decision that allows Suzuki to reopen a decade-old dispute with Consumer Reports, which in 1988 published a negative review of Samurai, alleging it had a tendency to rollover. The company responded aggressively at the time, with a crisis communications strategy that has become a useful case history for companies that believe they’ve been wronged. But now it’s taking the case to the courts, based on a 1996 article that included highlights from the magazine’s past, and enabled Suzuki to take an end-run around the statute of limitations.

Chevron Texaco may regret complaining to the ombudsman at the Sacramento Bee about the paper’s coverage of a trial in Ecuador, where the company is accused of polluting “swaths of tropical rainforest.” The ombudsman devoted two columns to the case. The first addressed some interesting broader issues: “Are statements from corporate public relations departments merely spin to be ignored? Are reporters so predisposed to believe that all such statements are spin that they approach corporations with closed minds? Does the press have a responsibility to play by a corporation’s policies on dealing with the media?” The second included some reader responses. But the conclusion of both columns was that the Bee was under no obligation to parrot the corporate spin on the case.

McDonald’s has apparently failed in its attempt to redefine the word “McJob,” included in the most recent Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.” Sorry to break it to the folks at Mickey Ds (who should be spending more time trying to figure out why their advertising is so awful) but that’s what the word McJob means to me and to millions of others. The company’s CEO, Jim Cantalupo, called the definition a “slap in the face” to the 12 million people who work in the restaurant industry, but the San Francisco Gate quotes Merriam Webster’s rejection of Cantalupo’s demand for a change: “For more that 17 years ‘McJob’ has been used as we are defining it in a broad range of publications,” citing everything from The New York Times and Rolling Stone to newspapers in South Africa and Australia.

Elsewhere in our fast food nation, KFC’s new advertising campaign is trying to sell us all on the idea that fried chicken is good for you. Slate’s Rob Walker, for one, isn’t buying. “KFC is plunging forward with this campaign, giving no apparent thought to the possibility that some will find it preposterous,” he says, pointing to a press release in which the company explains that it intends to “educate the public” that “fried chicken can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.” Walker finds the campaign not only lacking in credibility but also flawed in strategy: “KFC will not go broke for having underestimated the stupidity of the American public, but I don't think this campaign is going to do much for sales. But the problem isn’t that the ad is misleading (since it’s fooling no one); the problem is that it so badly misunderstands the point of fried chicken.”

The most cogent explanation of what Martha Stewart (allegedly) did wrong appears at Joe Bob Briggs’ website: “Martha’s Boo-Boos Explained.” A fine retort to those who believe the party line that Martha is being persecuted just because she’s a woman.

The “Coalition Provisional Authority” running Iraq, dissatisfied with the networks’ continued insistence on running news rather than coalition press releases, is about to create its own broadcast operation, the New York Observer reports, with the capacity to produce news, live from Iraq, 24 hours a day, and feed it to network affiliates, among others. According to Dorrance Smith, the authority’s senior media advisor the news service will free up the American public—and the CPA—from reliance on network news “interpretation.” Says Morley Safer of CBS, “It’s a way of trying to control the bad news, it’s as simple as that.” The approach echoes the Bush strategy of circumventing national media and going directly to local affiliates, presumably on the assumption that the affiliates lack the sophistication to ask difficult questions. But, “I think the people who operate in the stations are far more sophisticated than Mr. Smith thinks,” says Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News. And sooner or later, they’re going to rebel against the administration’s patronizing assumptions.

A majority of the American public believes in angels, and wants creationism taught alongside evolution, while many politicians still don’t believe global warming is real. It’s time for science to reclaim the moral high ground, argues Cornelia Dean in The New York Times. “Far too often, talking to reporters is a no-win proposition for scientists,” she says, pointing out that the doctrine of “balance” to which most media subscribe means finding someone who believes the earth is flat and giving them equal time. But “we need scientists’ help to get it right,” says Dean. “Sometimes even we don’t get that help…. Sometimes the scientist is just unable or reluctant to tell the story in words a lay audience can understand. As a result… journalists regard scientists as elitist, unable to talk except in jargon, obsessed with trivial details, isolated in ivory towers and unwilling to take a stand on matters of public importance.”

The Bush administration, having failed to locate real terrorists such as Osama or Saddam, is turning its formidable firepower on Greenpeace, using an obscure anti-piracy law to prosecute the group for a protest on board a lumber ship. “For two hundred years, the United States government has refrained from prosecuting advocacy groups whose members occasionally engage in peaceful civil disobedience to convey a constitutionally protected message,” says the ACLU. “The prosecution of Greenpeace indicates a sea change in that policy.”

More weblog

View Style:

Load 3 More
comments powered by Disqus