by Larry Tye
book review by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
Today, few people outside the public relations profession recognize the name of Edward L. Bernays. As the year 2000 approaches, however, his name deserves to figure on historians' lists of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
It is impossible to fundamentally grasp the social, political, economic and cultural developments of the past 100 years without some understanding of Bernays and his professional heirs in the public relations industry. PR is a 20th century phenomenon, and Bernays -- widely eulogized as the "father of public relations" at the time of his death in 1995 -- played a major role in defining the industry's philosophy and methods.
Eddie Bernays himself desperately craved fame and a place in history. During his lifetime he worked and schemed to be remembered as the founder of his profession and sometimes drew ridicule from his industry colleagues for his incessant self-promotions. These schemes notwithstanding, Bernays richly deserves the title that Boston Globe reporter Larry Tye has given him in his engagingly written new book, The Father of Spin.
In keeping with his obsessive desire for recognition, Bernays was the author of a massive memoir, titled Biography of an Idea, and he fretted about who would author his biography. He would probably be happy with Tye's book, the first written since his passing.
The Father of Spin is a bit too fawning and uncritical of Bernays and his profession. We recommend it, however, for its new insights into Bernays, many of which are based on a first-time-ever examination of the 80 boxes of papers and documents that Bernays left to the Library of Congress. The portrait that emerges is of a brilliant, contradictory man.
Tye writes that "Bernays' papers . . . provide illuminating and sometimes disturbing background on some of the most interesting episodes of twentieth-century history, from the way American tobacco tycoons made it socially acceptable for women to smoke to the way other titans of industry persuaded us to pave over our landscape and switch to beer as the 'beverage of moderation.' The companies involved aren't likely to release their records of those campaigns, assuming they still exist. But Bernays saved every scrap of paper he sent out or took in. . . . In so doing, he let us see just how policies were made and how, in many cases, they were founded on deception."
In an industry that is notable for its mastery of evasions and euphemisms, Bernays stood out for his remarkable frankness. He was a propagandist and proud of it. (In an interview with Bill Moyers, Bernays said that what he did was propaganda, and that he just "hoped it was 'proper-ganda' and not 'improper-ganda.'")
Bernays' life was amazing in many ways. He had a role in many of the seminal intellectual and commercial events of this century. "The techniques he developed fast became staples of political campaigns and of image-making in general," Tye notes. "That is why it is essential to understand Edward L. Bernays if we are to understand what Hill and Knowlton did in Iraq -- not to mention how Richard Nixon was able to dig his way out of his post-Watergate depths and remake himself into an elder statesman worthy of a lavish state funeral, how Richard Morris repositioned President Bill Clinton as an ideological centrist in order to get him reelected, and how most other modern-day miracles of public relations are conceived and carried out."
Many of the new insights that Tye offers have to do with Bernays's relationship with his family and his uncle Sigmund Freud, whose reputation as "the father of psychoanalysis" owes something to Bernays' publicity efforts. Bernays regarded Uncle Sigmund as a mentor, and used Freud's insights into the human psyche and motivation to design his PR campaigns, while also trading on his famous uncle's name to inflate his own stature.
There is, however, a striking paradox in the relationship between the two. Uncle Sigmund's "talking cure" was designed to unearth his patients' unconscious drives and hidden motives, in the belief that bringing them into conscious discourse would help people lead healthier lives. Bernays, by contrast, used psychological techniques to mask the motives of his clients, as part of a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping the public unconscious of the forces that were working to mold their minds.
Characteristically (and again paradoxically), Bernays was remarkably candid about his manipulative intent. "If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it," he argued in Propaganda, one of his first books. In a later book, he coined the term "engineering of consent" to describe his technique for controlling the masses.
"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society," Bernays argued. "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. . . . In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."
This definition of "democratic society" is itself a contradiction in terms -- a theoretical attempt to reconcile rule by the few with the democratic system which threatened (and still threatens) the privileges and powers of the governing elite. On occasion, Bernays himself recoiled from the anti-democratic implications of his theory.
During Bernays' lifetime and since, propaganda has usually had dirty connotations, loaded and identified with the evils of Nazi PR genius Joseph Goebbels, or the oafish efforts of the Soviet Communists. In his memoirs, Bernays wrote that he was "shocked" to discover that Goebbels kept copies of Bernays' writings in his own personal library, and that his theories were therefore helping to "engineer" the rise of the Third Reich.
Bernays liked to cultivate an image as a supporter of feminism and other liberating ideas, but his work on behalf of the United Fruit Company had consequences just as evil and terrifying as if he'd worked directly for the Nazis. The Father of Spin sheds new and important light on the extent to which the Bernays' propaganda campaign for the United Fruit Company (today's United Brands) led directly to the CIA's overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala.
The term "banana republic" actually originated in reference to United Fruit's domination of corrupt governments in Guatemala and other Central American countries. The company brutally exploited virtual slave labor in order to produce cheap bananas for the lucrative U.S. market. When a mildly reformist Guatemala government attempted to reign in the company's power, Bernays whipped up media and political sentiment against it in the commie-crazed 1950s.
"Articles began appearing in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly, Time, Newsweek, the New Leader, and other publications all discussing the growing influence of Guatemala's Communists," Tye writes. "The fact that liberal journals like the Nation were also coming around was especially satisfying to Bernays, who believed that winning the liberals over was essential. . . . At the same time, plans were under way to mail to American Legion posts and auxiliaries 300,000 copies of a brochure entitled 'Communism in Guatemala -- 22 Facts.'"
His efforts led directly to a brutal military coup. Tye writes that Bernays "remained a key source of information for the press, especially the liberal press, right through the takeover. In fact, as the invasion was commencing on June 18, his personal papers indicate he was giving the 'first news anyone received on the situation' to the Associate Press, United Press, the International News Service, and the New York Times, with contacts intensifying over the next several days."
The result, tragically, has meant decades of tyranny under a Guatemalan government whose brutality rivaled the Nazis as it condemned hundreds of thousands of people (mostly members of the country's impoverished Maya Indian majority) to dislocation, torture and death.
Bernays relished and apparently never regretted his work for United Fruit, for which he was reportedly paid $100,000 a year, a huge fee in the early 1950s. Tye writes that Bernays' papers "make clear how the United States viewed its Latin neighbors as ripe for economic exploitation and political manipulation -- and how the propaganda war Bernays waged in Guatemala set the pattern for future U.S.-led campaigns in Cuba and, much later, Vietnam."
As these examples show, Tye's biography of Bernays is important. It casts a spotlight on the anti-democratic and dangerous corporate worldview of the public relations industry. The significance of these dangers is often overlooked, in large part because of the PR industry's deliberate efforts to operate behind the scenes as it manages and manipulates opinions and public policies. This strategy of invisibility is the reason that PR academic Scott Cutlip refers to public relations as "the unseen power."
Bernays pioneered many of the industry's techniques for achieving invisibility, yet his self-aggrandizing personality drove him to leave behind a record of how and for whom he worked. By compiling this information and presenting it to the public in a readable form, Tye has accomplished something similar to the therapeutic mission that Freud attempted with his patients -- a recovery of historical memories that a psychoanalyst might term a "return of the repressed."