"In this time of testing, our troops can know: The American people are behind you," George W. Bush said in his national address last Tuesday night at Fort Bragg.
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A popular Texas bumper sticker reads: "The only mad cow in America is Oprah." Not anymore, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that the first confirmed home-grown case of mad cow is a Texas beef cow.
As Sheldon Rampton and I report in Mad Cow USA, the United States failed to take the measures necessary to stop the spread of the fatal dementia dubbed mad cow disease. However, a successful PR campaign by industry and government has, to this day, fooled most of the press and the public into believing that all necessary steps were taken long ago. A major part of the effort to spin and intimidate media coverage involved suing Oprah Winfrey under the Texas Food Disparagement Act, after her 1996 program examining mad cow risks in America.
"I visit the States three or four times a year, and watching the television news in hotel rooms in the last three years has been like witnessing a time-lapse study of emasculation," writes Henry Porter, the London editor of Vanity Fair magazine, in his ruminations about the unmasking of FBI official Mark Felt as "Deep Throat," the Watergate whistleblower.
In January 1989 the R.J.Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) was desperately trying to salvage its 'smokeless' Premier cigarette from marketing oblivion. On behalf of RJR Matt Swetonic, then a Senior Vice President in Hill & Knowlton's New York office, set out to court Kenneth Tomlinson, the then Executive Editor of Readers Digest, in the hope of garnering favorable media coverage. (These days Tomlinson is the controversial Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
For RJR the attraction of pitching the Premier story to the Readers Digest was precisely because for decades it had relentlessly highlighted the deadly impact of smoking. Favorable media coverage of Premier could not only undermine tobacco control activists arguments against cigarettes but could help reverse the relentless march to market share dominance of Philip Morris's Marlboro brand.
Late Friday, June 24, is a perfect time to bury bad news in Washington, DC. That's when Mike Johanns, the United States Secretary of Agriculture held a news conference. He announced that a beef cow suspected last November to be positive with mad cow disease, and finally properly tested, was indeed positive. Even now the USDA is keeping secret which state the cow was from, but Texas has long been mentioned in media articles.
Whither the fight against fake news?
In April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published a Public Notice on video news releases (VNRs), video segments designed to be indistinguishable from actual TV news reports. According to the FCC, current regulations mandate that viewers be told the source of a VNR only when stations are paid to air it, or when the VNR deals with a political matter or controversial issue. The Public Notice also asked for further information on the use of VNRs.
In response, nine comments were filed by the FCC's June 22 deadline. Two were filed by individuals supporting additional measures to ensure disclosure. Six were filed by VNR companies and associations of broadcasters and public relations practitioners. Not surprisingly, these argued against strengthening disclosure rules.
The US government's elaborate cover-up of mad cow dangers in the United States has begun to unravel. Twenty-four hours after our successful protest (with Organic Consumers Association) of the US Department of Agriculture's mad cow dog-and-pony show in St. Paul, USDA Secretary Johanns was forced to admit that a cow tested last year and declared safe in fact DID have mad cow disease, or at least has tested positive on the definitive Western Blot test recently administered by USDA and considered the 'gold standard' for BSE testing.
I've often charged that the USDA is hiding US cases of mad cow by using the wrong testing procedures and by failing to conduct food safety tests on millions of animals and this announcement proves it. USDA finally used the correct test -- the Western Blot test -- on this suspect animal and it has proven to be a case of mad cow disease.
The online free encyclopedia Wikipedia defines "dog-and-pony show" as a public "display that is somewhat pathetically contrived." That's what the new U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, is convening this Thursday, June 9, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Secretary Johanns will lead a roundtable discussion dominated by the most powerful agricultural lobby organizations in the United States to spread the good news that mad cow disease is no longer a problem in North America. The invited participants include the American Farm Bureau, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Meat Association, the National Milk Producers and the National Renderers Association. Not a single consumer, human health or public interest group was invited to speak, nor were any scientists who research mad cow and related diseases, such as Nobel laureate Dr. Stanley Prusiner. The USDA hopes to convince the assembled news media that it's time to open the U.S. border to Canadian cattle and time for Japan and Korea to accept U.S. beef and cattle.
In the heart of Sydney's Ryde Valley - Australia's drug industry alley - fifty marketing managers and PR advisers from major drug companies, including Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, pondered the industry's poor public standing.
The drug industry representatives – used to hustling everything from drugs for guys struggling with their love life to cancer cures – were seriously depressed. "I am appalled by our reputation," Group Vice-President Far East Region for Schering Plough, Rod Unsworth, told a panel of industry heavy-hitters discussing "reputation management" at the third Australian Pharma Marketing Congress.
Unsworth, who describes himself as a "passionate" supporter of the industry, bluntly told the mid-May gathering that the drug industry in Australia was way behind even the tobacco industry in its efforts to rebuild its political stocks.
Unsworth warned the panel of the potentially fatal consequences of the Australian industry's defensive posture. "If we say we are going to just look after the opinion leaders and we don't give a damn about the public, we are dead. And if we let the debate be about price, we are dead," he said.
In a series of announcements in the aftermath of the tsunami that swept that swept through East Asia and parts of Africa on December 26, 2004, Pfizer committed itself to contribute a total of $20 million in cash and $60 million worth of medicines. Pfizer's staff chipped in a further $2 million.
However, at a recent drug industry marketing conference in Sydney, Pfizer Australia's Manager of Government Affairs, David Miles, said that the company would have been better off being less generous. "We would be better off giving five million and shutting up," Miles said, only a little jokingly. "As soon as you get into big numbers people think you can double or triple it."