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the Madison Capital Times

Spin Takes It on the Chin: Stauber Shines Light on Public Relations Industry Propaganda

Rob Zaleski

Mention Jerry Brown and John Stauber flashes a wide smile.

0909 02In 1992, Brown -- who was governor of California from 1974 to 1982 -- was battling Bill Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president and was drawing huge crowds in Wisconsin. Among his staunchest supporters locally was Stauber, then a consultant on farming and consumer issues.

Yes, some observers had dismissed Brown as a flake, Stauber recalled during a recent interview, including Mike Royko, the late Chicago Tribune columnist, who often referred to Brown as "Governor Moonbeam."

But Stauber says he was drawn to Brown's candidacy because he not only came off as honest and sincere, but because he was the first candidate to proclaim that big-money corporate interests had a stranglehold on both parties and were destroying the American political system.

Brown ended up losing the Wisconsin primary by three percentage points and eventually dropped off the end of the Earth before re-emerging later to become the mayor of Oakland, Calif., and now California's attorney general.

But Stauber says working on the Brown campaign ignited a spark and made him all the more determined to help clean up the system and return government to the people.

So nine months later, after seeking the advice of activists from across the country, he took $5,000 from his savings, put together a board of directors and founded the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy out of his near west side home.

Actually, there was one other incentive, says Stauber, whose center is funded by about 30 nonprofit foundations. In 1990, while he was active in the campaign against Monsanto Corp.'s genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, he found out he'd been spied on by a public relations firm working for Monsanto.

Naturally, he was shocked and outraged, Stauber says.

"And I had this total epiphany -- so this is why social change in the United States is so difficult, because there's all this manipulation of the media and the message," he says. "And I realized as an activist that what I needed to do was make my next mission investigating and exposing this hidden business of propaganda. And that's always been the seminal mission of the center."

Starting small

In the beginning, it was just Stauber and his buddy Sheldon Rampton, a local typesetter and Princeton University grad Stauber recruited to help produce the first issue of PR Watch. The publication, which now appears quarterly on the center's Web site,, specializes in "blowing the lid off today's multi-billion dollar propaganda-for-hire industry."

Fourteen years later, the center has 10 staffers and an $800,000 budget. And nobody is more surprised, or proud, by its growth and success than Stauber, who at 54 says he's more determined than ever to expose the powerful corporate and government spin machines and diminish their impact.

"I could walk in front of a bus today and, while the center would hiccup, it would continue to survive and thrive," he maintains, "because we have an amazing staff, and the work we do is absolutely unique."

But while the center's main target in recent years has been the Iraq war and the Bush administration's exploitation of the media, anyone who has visited its Web site knows Stauber and his cohorts have gone after a vast array of public relations spinners, from producers of fake news stories to promoters of safe nuclear power plants to the state Department of Natural Resources for downplaying potential human health risks from chronic wasting disease in deer.

Stauber also emphasizes that the center is nonpartisan and, to the dismay of his liberal friends, is just as apt to attack Democrats as Republicans.

And yet, though he's highly articulate and never been one to pull punches, Stauber acknowledges that 14 years after founding the center, much of the public, even in Madison, doesn't know who he is or what his nonprofit does.

Altar boy to activist

So who exactly is John Stauber?

He's an affable, brutally candid guy who's been interviewed by National Public Radio and quoted by a number of major media outlets, including CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune. He's co-written six books with Rampton, including "Mad Cow USA," which warned that a mad cow disease crisis similar to Great Britain's in the 1990s could happen here, and "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq," which made the New York Times' best-seller list in 2003.

He's a rabid Packer fan and owns a 2004 Toyota Prius and a four-wheel-drive Subaru. And while he and his wife, Laura (a public health nurse), have lived in the same 710-square-foot house in the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood for 20 years, he still prefers the outdoors to city life, which is why he and Laura and their Alaskan malamute, Jack, spend most weekends at their off-the-grid solar cabin on 80 acres in Richland County.

He's a former altar boy, Boy Scout and football player who grew up in a "very conservative, very Catholic, very Republican" household in Marshfield in the 1960s and whose views of the world were flipped upside down by the Vietnam War.

In fact, though he was an A student at Marshfield High School, he became so disillusioned by the war and "the system" that he decided to educate himself and not attend college.

"My parents freaked out," he says, "because I had the grades and could have attended just about any school in the country."

When the war churned on in the early 1970s, Stauber hitchhiked across the country "searching for the revolution." And after failing to find it, he spent two years living by himself in Wisconsin's North Woods before realizing he was, first and foremost, a "democracy activist" who needed to return to reality and do his part in reforming the system.

Changing role

But if Stauber still isn't a household name, those who know him and are familiar with his work say he performs a valuable function.

"He's one of these thoughtful people who forces all of us to think," says Ed Garvey, who was the state Democratic Party's gubernatorial candidate in 1998.

Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, also has great respect for Stauber and suggests one reason he's not widely known is just the nature of the center's work.

"Unraveling PR or exposing propaganda for what it is isn't something that happens overnight," he says. "It's something that's done piece by piece, slowly but surely.

"Just look at the extent to which public consciousness of fake news has grown," McCabe says. "There are so many more people who, thanks to John, are now aware that some of those health segments that appear on the local news actually were produced by pharmaceutical companies or the government or some corporation in the health industry."

Even Tom Hauge, the DNR's director of wildlife management and the agency's spokesperson on chronic wasting disease, admits a grudging admiration for Stauber.

Hauge says he's well aware that Stauber has chastised the agency for not being aggressive enough in trying to stop the spread of CWD. But he points out the agency also has been criticized by those who feel that the disease "isn't a big deal" and who feel the DNR "has gone overboard" in trying to contain it.

"John's tenacious, he's forceful, all of those things, but I'm glad he's bringing that viewpoint," says Hauge, adding that the DNR is currently engaged in a major public effort to develop future CWD plans for Wisconsin.

Although Stauber's role at the center has shifted -- he's much more of a manager now -- he says he's never been as happy or excited as he is today. The ability of former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean to raise $50 million in small donations via the Internet in 2004 has opened the door for "building real democracy through the blogosphere," he says. "There's an ability now to organize funds and build infrastructure for grass-roots movements that can hold politicians of both parties accountable."

Of the candidates in the 2008 presidential race, Stauber says only one stands out as honorable and trustworthy: longshot Democrat Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. But speaking strictly as an individual -- and not as executive director of the center -- Stauber says it's already pretty obvious who the two finalists will be.

"Barring any shocking and unforeseen circumstances -- and there's plenty of time for that to happen -- there's a consensus among pollsters: Mitt Romney on the Republican side, Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side," he says.

And if that holds true a year from now, Stauber says, we'll have two people, each running as "the reasonable peace candidate." And regardless of who wins, the war will drag on, he argues, because neither Romney nor Clinton is committed to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops any time soon.

"You know, (former New York governor) Mario Cuomo called the war a gift to the Democrats -- and indeed it was," Stauber says. "So how did they handle the gift? Well, they failed to stop the surge, and they went ahead and funded the war.

"And that war will continue to drag on because the Democrats are much more interested in trying to hang this rotting, stinking albatross on the Republicans than they are in taking the courageous, risky step of dealing with the war as an issue."

The point is, Stauber says, he may be older and he probably spends more time at the cabin than he used to, but he's as fired up today as he was three decades ago.

"I plan to do this till the day I drop," he says emphatically.

If the propaganda peddlers aren't nervous, they should be.

The Capital Times © 2007

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