Surfacing Malcolm Gladwell

Philip Agee, the CIA agent/whistleblower. explained in his book (CIA diary) that one of the key propaganda techniques they used was getting stories into “third world” newspapers and then using these as “local” assessments of the International Communist Conspiracy. It was called “surfacing”, I recall [and, reluctant anymore to trust my memory, I’ve googled – see end of this post…]

I was reminded of the term when reading a VERY interesting account of exactly where Malcolm Gladwell comes from, and what he has written about tobacco and corporations etc.

The specific bit is this -

For those not familiar with public relations industry lingo, “third party” refers to a PR technique in which a corporation’s marketing message is delivered to the public through seemingly independent journalists, academics, non-profits, think tanks and other respected “third parties” in order to bolster the credibility of “the message” and to conceal the ties between the message and the messenger. In other words, Gladwell was seen as a secret tobacco-industry propagandist.

In journalistic terms, “third-party advocate” simply means “fraud.” But here’s a more nuanced description of the third party technique and its importance to corporate messaging from a Burson-Marsteller PR expert, courtesy of SourceWatch:

For the media and the public, the corporation will be one of the least credible sources of information on its own product, environmental and safety risks. Both these audiences will turn to other experts … to get an objective viewpoint.

Developing third party support and validation for the basic risk messages of the corporation is essential. This support should ideally come from medical authorities, political leaders, union officials, relevant academics, fire and police officials, environmentalists, regulators.

Ah, bless the Tinterwebs.

From an online version of CIA Diary

Headquarters’ propaganda experts have visited us in ISOLATION and have displayed the mass of paper they issue as material for the guidance of propaganda throughout the world. Some of it is concerned only with local issues, the rest often has world-wide application. The result of the talks was to persuade most of us that propaganda is not for us – there is simply too much paperwork. But despite that, the most interesting part of propaganda was obviously the business of orchestrating the treatment of events of importance among several countries. Thus problems of communist influence in one country can be made to appear of international concern in others under the rubric of ‘a threat to one is a threat to all’. For example, the CIA station in Caracas can cable information on a secret communist plot in Venezuela to the Bogota station which can ‘surface’ through a local propaganda agent with attribution to an unidentified Venezuelan government official. The information can then be picked up from the Colombian press and relayed to CTA stations in Quito, Lima, La Paz, Santiago and, perhaps, Brazil. A few days later editorials begin to appear in the newspapers of these places and pressure mounts on the Venezuelan government to take repressive action against its communists.

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5 Responses to Surfacing Malcolm Gladwell

  1. Antonio Dias says:

    People underestimate the damage done. Gladwell has been more pernicious than that other Malcolm and his news organizations, because he was taken as the real thing.

  2. yeltnuh says:

    Sheesh. Now I’m grumpy. It’s so hard, sometimes, to spot these guys.

  3. Sam Gunsch says:

    Thanks for posting this.

    … simply because of his popularity, I definitely had uncritically assumed he was ‘the real thing’ as described by Dias.

    I simply never mustered motivation to actually read Gladwell’s books due to my cynicism about business-hype books that have felled what must be continents of forests since the 1970’s.

    BTW… you may know, Canada has its share of those who have managed to establish themselves in Gladwell’s role as a ” “third party” media-asset”.

    Donald Gutstein has written the most in-depth treatment that highlights these players.

    http://donaldgutstein.com/reviews/book-describes-how-business-propaganda-subverts-democracy/

    Book Describes How Business Propaganda Subverts Democracy
    Roy LaBerge. CCPA Monitor. Oct 2009. Vol. 16, Iss. 5, p. 5 (1 pp.)

    Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy, by Donald Gutstein, Key Porter Books, 376 pages, $22.95, paperback.
    Readers who suspect that major corporations heavily influence the mass media will find their suspicions fully confirmed in Not a Conspiracy Theory, How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy, by Donald Gutstein.
    ….
    Gutstein exposes “the incestuous relationship” between the mainstream media and big business. He writes that, because of the success of its corporate propaganda, business is not just one voice among many in the democratic debate: “It controls the debate.”

  4. Jonathan Atkinson says:

    Thank god the Malcolm Gladwell backlash has begun! Despite the media fawning over one of the supposed foremost intellectuals of our time there’s always been something of the ‘emperors new clothes’ about his work. The guy’s an accomplished self publicist and to hear he has corporate PR form comes as no surprise. The more of these pseudo intellectuals who fleece people (and often public sector organisations) for vast amounts of consultancy and appearance fees we can take out the better!

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