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Newman’s Own PR War (On Nuclear War)


Danny Schechter

When

he took off his sunglasses, you knew it was screen star Paul Newman. Those blue

eyes always give him away. One day last week, I found myself staring into them

from behind a video camera, as Newman recorded a message beginning with a

recollection of "Torn Curtain," a movie he made in the 1960s for

Alfred Hitchcock.

He

reminisced briefly about a speech he gave playing a scientist defending the

United States from nuclear war.

He

mentioned that the movie had doubled its investment.

But

no, this wasn’t a segment for "Entertainment Tonight," a TV program I

admit I once produced some segments for. And no, this was not a commercial for

an investment firm hyping entertainment stocks.

Newman

was in front of this camera not as an actor but as an advocate, using his

persona, and in the process voluntarily being used, to make a point about an

issue he’s been passionate about for decades.

"Seventeen

years later, in 1983, Ronald Reagan – another actor – gave the same speech in

advocating Star Wars. Only that production lost $70 billion, and there was no

return on investment," he opined.

Newman’s

statement was part of a campaign to challenge the so-called Son of Star Wars, a

laser-equipped, multibillion dollar missile defense system shored up by claims

that it will be able to shoot down missiles from space after they launch. He

characterized it as a Pentagon boondoggle: "malarkey — hitting a bullet

with a bullet." (CLICK HERE TO SEE THE VIDEO.)

Newman

has perhaps been better known in the last decade for his "Newman’s

Own" [LINK] popcorn and other products (his company doubles as a

philanthropy) than his movie roles. Yet here he was, lending his reputation and

celebrity to a cause that certainly deserves more visibility – the call to

reduce and retire nuclear weapons. His appearance was arranged by a progressive

public relations firm, Fenton Communications, (LINK) run by my old friend David

Fenton as part of an effort to get media visibility for critics of the

administration’s newly revived missile defense system.

There

are three times as many PR people today in the United States as there are

reporters. Monitoring groups like MediaChannel-affiliate PR Watch [LINK]

regularly expose the powerful behind-the-scenes role of PR people in getting

their clients and issues into the media. They triumph at "scientific

studies" paid for by drug companies to give credibility to their own

products. Thanks to PR wizardry and media sloppiness, those studies are often

reported without their funders being identified or their agendas explained.

While

the public relations world, with its mission of "engineering consent"

always in the fore, is dominated by giant firms firmly wedded to corporate

agendas, a growing number of progressive PR companies are at work, too,

challenging the system and championing oft-marginalized issues. Some are more

activist than others. Some command high fees. Many have learned how to be

effective. Some, like Cause Communications, publish manuals (LINK) on how you

can do it yourself.

With

Newman on tape, David’s colleague Josh Baran, as savvy a PR honcho as there is

in the business, can open another front in his war against nuclear war on behalf

of an organization called GRACE (LINK). Lawyer Alice Slater is GRACE’s organizer

in chief, steering the campaign to persuade the United Nations and the U.S.

government to abolish weapons of mass destruction in the same way that slavery

was abolished more than a century ago.

Like

many advocates, Alice knows that when her issue is not on TV, it doesn’t exist

for the American people. She also knows that she can’t get it on TV by herself.

She was smart enough to recognize she needed professional help from a skilled

strategist like Josh. And she went out to raise the money to rent his services.

(Note: Right-wing groups learned the importance of good PR years ago.)

Baran

is an anomaly in an industry that is primed to serve corporate interests far

more than the public interest. Having cut his teeth on handling projects for big

Hollywood studios and then, briefly, for Bill Gates, he decided to marry money

with meaning by working with a firm that served issues he could believe in. He

went from selling the makers of Windows to opening some new windows for

"celebrities" he believes in, such as the Dali Lama. (LINK to TIBET

SITE) Josh played a key role in ensuring a 50,000-person turnout in New York’s

Central Park for the Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit last year.

Twenty

years ago, he worked with Paul Newman on the Nuclear Freeze Campaign. He

grimaced when I reminded him that during that semi-successful effort — the

nuclear arms race fizzled for a while because of a large public outcry, though

it has yet to be fully frozen — Paul Newman debated his Hollywood nemesis

Charlton Heston about the freeze on a TV show moderated by Phil Donahue. It was

also aired on a program I produced for. "They decided to do that when I was

out of the room," Baran says now, disclaiming responsibility for the

segment after the fact. Newman, for his part, admitted to me: "I didn’t do

very well." Heston, a master demagogue, had been better briefed by the

Reaganites then engaged in escalating the Cold War. His well-scripted comments

pushed Newman’s folksy and more personal approach onto the defensive. The

debacle underscored how the wrong media visibility can backfire.

By

pretaping – and with no Heston baiting him – Newman has far more control over

what he wants to say and recorded his current message in just two takes. He

fine-tuned the script and did his thing with aplomb. I was there because Baran

had hired our TV company, Globalvision (LINK) (How’s that for sneaking some of

our own PR into this column?), to produce the taping and edit a short news video

to try to give the nuclear issue more visibility. By supervising the shoot, I

got a chance to schmooze with the star. Ironically, at this point in his career,

Newman could have handled the whole exercise without so much help.

Baran

& Co. have been able to generate some attention for the nuclear weapons

cutbacks, more than the issue’s had in years. But like many PR people "flacking"

critical issues, he is frustrated about how closed and close-minded many

segments of the media are. It’s an uphill battle to get attention for critical

ideas in a print or TV environment where reporters often function as

stenographers for those in power or as extensions of show biz.

That’s

why projects with deeper pockets no longer rely on just PR. Our friends at

TomPaine.com, (LINK) another MediaChannel affiliate, also advised by Fenton, buy

ads in the New York Times to call attention to issues being spotlighted in their

online Web journal. They, like many others, mix "paid media" with

so-called free media (which is rarely free).

That’s

what it has come down to: If you want to be taken seriously, you have to buy

visibility, one way or another.

Finally,

on a personal note, as a journalist I am usually uncomfortable doing PR on the

side. But in a climate where independent news magazines like GlobalVision’s

human rights TV series (www.globalvision.org) can’t even get on public

television, smaller media companies have to produce projects for clients just to

survive. Of course, one has to draw a clear public distinction between sponsored

programming and journalistic endeavors. That line is often blurred and always

needs to be disclosed.

Years

ago, my late mentor, Nation editor Andrew Kopkind, once said of his stint with

Time magazine, "I used to work for Time, or was it sell?" He meant

that mainstream journalists often see themselves – and, in fact, are – selling a

product as much as reporting a story. If that’s true, then meaningful

distinctions between journalism and public relations are more nebulous than we

think.

 

Danny

Schechter produced 10 documentaries with GlobalVision, where he serves as vice

president and executive producer. He is the executive editor of MediaChannel

and the author of News Dissector, a collection of his columns and writings,

available online from Electronpress.com [www.electronpress.com/dschechter.asp].

 

 

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