Powell Memo Blueprint: Impact on Mass Media and Communications

Page - September 2, 2011
Lewis Powell recognized the significance of favorable public opinion as fuel for policies that benefit large corporations over people. The Powell Memo outlined how corporate ownership and influence in the media could be leveraged to craft a favorable image of big business and its ambitions.

The Powell Memo on Television:

"Moreover, much of the media − for varying motives and in varying degrees − either voluntarily accords unique publicity to these "attackers," or at least allows them to exploit the media for their purposes. This is especially true of television, which now plays such a predominant role in shaping the thinking, attitudes and emotions of our people."

(Direct link to this quote in the Powell Memo)

Powell believed that the media of his day abetted and promoted anti-business views. He recognized that if the largest companies were going to influence the trajectory of American politics, they would have to improve their standing in society by deflecting popular criticism, especially on television. Powell supported an increase in media presence of pro-corporate ideologues who could label viewpoints critical of corporations as biased. Yet rather than focus on how corporations could enhance their image on TV, Powell endorsed the notion of attacking the media's alleged liberal bias, directly or through surrogates. Since Powell’s memo, right wing groups like Accuracy in Media (AIM) have obsessed for decades over creating a "liberal media" bogeyman, accusing mainstream news broadcasters of a left-leaning bias, thereby threatening their claim of objectivity (and possibly undermine their support among corporate advertisers) and effectively shifting the news frame in a conservative direction. (See more on AIM in the "Complaints" section below).

The media landscape is significantly more conservative and partisan today than it was in Lewis Powell's day in part due to the decades-long campaigns waged by AIM and others (see Fairness and Accuray in Reporting). Top-level news programs like Fox News regularly accuse other mainstream media outlets of a "liberal bias," though studies on the subject repeatedly show no basis for the claims. A recent study by Media Matters of Sean Hannity's hour-long show about liberal bias, for instance, concluded that his claims were based on selectively edited quotes from media personalities to make them appear more opinionated.

The Powell Memo on Media Ownership:

"Most of the media, including the national TV systems, are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend upon profits, and the enterprise system to survive."

(Direct link to this quote in the Powell Memo)

In spite of his complaints about the news media's bias, Powell pointed out the leverage that companies had (even then) over media outlets they owned or advertised through. Powell insinuated that such leverage can be used to promote or restrict certain content. Corporations have since tightened their ownership grip over the broadcast media while funding groups that succeeded in destroying the Fairness Doctrine (see below) and attacking independent media. 

According to author Ben Bagdikian's 1983 edition of "The Media Monopoly," fifty companies controlled the majority of the U.S. news media. Now, just six major companies dominate the U.S. media--General Electric, Walt Disney, News Corporation, Time Warner, Viacom and CBS. In particular, News Corporation's Fox News channel has become infamous for its ideological bent and repeated factual distortions. Polls by the Pew Research Center, the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, and NBC/Wall Street Journal have correlated greater levels of misinformation among Fox News viewers when compared to other mainstream media outlets.

Major damage to the media's willingness to balance commercial and public interests resulted from the removal of the Fairness Doctrine, which was designed to ensure that broadcasters present opposing viewpoints about public issues. (The Fairness Doctrine should not be confused with the equal-time rule, which requires TV and radio stations to provide equal coverage to any opposing political candidate that asks for it.) Although Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, saying it violated the broadcasters' free speech rights, members of Congress have recently proposed to reinstitute the rules as a check on the increasingly partisan bias of cable news programs. The FCC has since declared the doctrine and some 80 rules that go along with it "outdated and obsolete."

The Powell Memo on Media Complaints:

"Complaints − to the media and to the Federal Communications Commission − should be made promptly and strongly when programs are unfair or inaccurate."

(Direct link to this quote in the Powell Memo)

Despite the increased concentration of corporate ownership over major news media, conservative activists continue to follow Powell's advice by complaining to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about biased coverage against the political right wing. 

According to a new FCC estimate obtained by Mediaweek, nearly all indecency complaints in 2003—99.8 percent—were filed by the Parents Television Council (PTC), a conservative activist group founded in 2001 by L. Brent Bozell III. Bozell is a leading right-wing media watchdog and President of the Media Research Center (MRC), a $13 million/year operation (2010) that "educates and mobilizes the general public against runaway liberal media bias." Funding for MRC and the PTC come from dozens of conservative and family foundations, including Scaife, Koch, Bradley, Olin, Castle Rock (Coors), and others. (See page 24 of MRC's annual report, Media Matters and ExxonSecrets).

While corporate front groups and right-wing ideologues label and attack "liberal media bias," many companies directly counter specific instances of unfavorable media coverage. Koch Industries has invested considerable resources into attacking stories and reporters and promoting selected articles and blogs through a public relations website called KochFacts.com. Staff from Koch Industries directly pressure journalists and writers through publicized letters of criticism, enforcing a fabricated narrative of victimization that closely matches the rhetoric of Lewis Powell.

Other corporations have invested in different strategies to influence public perception. The public relations industry has grown to a size ($3.36 billion in 2010 according to Ad Age) and level of sophistication that might have been unimaginable to Powell. Today it is common for reporters to be outnumbered by public relations professionals in important hearings by three to one, as was the case in hearings regarding the BP oil spill.

Although heavily influenced by Lewis Powell's ideas, the development of public relations experts and organizations began before the Powell Memo. Founded in 1969 by Reed Irvine, Accuracy in Media (AIM) was built to provide "fairness, balance, and accuracy in news reporting." In his memo, Lewis Powell recommended that pro-corporate propaganda be promoted in the interests of "balance, fairness and truth." Soon after the Powell memo was written, AIM (which started as an all volunteer group) began receiving significant funding from major conservative donors like Richard Mellon Scaife's foundations, whose finances come from Scaife's industrial business fortune.

In 1972 AIM started publishing the AIM Report, a newsletter dedicated to "correcting" serious media errors. AIM began buying stock in major media corporations in 1975, which enabled its representatives to attend news companies' annual shareholder meetings and exert direct pressure on media executives. (Powell addressed this tactic specifically in a section of the memo titled "Neglected Stockholder Power.") By 1984, Accuracy In Media was powerful enough to bully PBS into showing a pro-war documentary AIM produced attacking PBS' coverage of the Vietnam War.

Recently AIM has pushed to cease funding for public broadcasting and has questioned the "validity of concerns about global warming."

An overall shift in the mainstream media's ideological tone was already apparent in the mid 1980's. As Lewis Lapham wrote in Harper Magazine's 2004 "Tentacles of Rage" article:

"By 1985 the Wall Street Journal had become the newspaper of record most widely read by the people who made the decisions about the country's economic policy; the leading editorialists in the New York Times (A. M. Rosenthal, William Safire) as well as in the Washington Post (George Will, Richard Harwood, Meg Greenfield) ably defended the interests of the status quo; the vast bulk of the nation's radio talk shows (reaching roughly 80 percent of the audience) reflected a conservative bias, as did all but one or two of the television talk shows permitted to engage political topics on PBS."

The Powell Memo on Aggressive Tactics:

"While neither responsible business interests, nor the United States Chamber of Commerce, would engage in the irresponsible tactics of some pressure groups, it is essential that spokesmen for the enterprise system − at all levels and at every opportunity − be far more aggressive than in the past."

(Direct link to this quote in the Powell Memo)

Whether or not Justice Powell would have supported the specific tactics that the Chamber and other corporate front groups use today, he would certainly have been delighted by the Chamber's aggressive style.

The Chamber's use of "irresponsible tactics" has been heavily scrutinized following the hacking of emails and website material from the security firm HBGary Federal by the online activist group, Anonymous. Anonymous' hacks revealed a project being planned for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with the explicit purpose of targeting progressive groups that stand in their way. Namely: Think Progress, U.S. Chamber Watch (a project of the Change to Win labor coalition), and other progressive watchdog groups and employees. The U.S. Chamber has since attempted to distance itself from HBGary Federal.

A trio of companies (including HB Gary Federal) known as Team Themis, named after the Greek Goddess of "divine justice," was assembled by Hunton and Williams, a law firm working for the U.S. Chamber. The specific purpose of the group was to create a Corporate Information Reconnaissance Cell (CIRC). The CIRC would use a combination of online search technology to compile Internet data on a specific individual or group, supplemented by off-line techniques including infiltration.

Using one of Hunton and Williams' own attorneys as an example, HBGary Federal demonstrated Team Themis' ability to cross-reference multiple online resources in seconds, ranging from Facebook to background checks. The result was a document that not only contained phone numbers and other basic information, but also dug into deeper levels, displaying a target's (or their spouse's) driving and court records, their political contributions and other personal information. Internal documents released from the hack showed that HBGary Federal was also planning to engage beyond Internet research in what they call "Influence Operations," "Vulnerability Research," and "Exploit Development."

While less dramatically devious than the hacking scandal, the U.S. Chamber demonstrated Powell's preference for "aggressive" action in its stance against global warming science and associated policy solutions. The Chamber's unapologetic obstruction of  scientific-based global warming policy led Nike to drop off the Chamber's board, while three utility companies (Pacific Gas & Electric, Exelon and PNM Resources) and Apple resigned from the Chamber altogether. Apple's resignation letter expressed frustration that the U.S. Chamber would not "play a constructive role in addressing climate change."

The Powell Memo on Corporate Speakers:

"In addition to full-time staff personnel, the Chamber should have a Speaker's Bureau which should include the ablest and most effective advocates from the top echelons of American business."

"The two essential ingredients are (i) to have attractive, articulate and well-informed speakers; and (ii) to exert whatever degree of pressure – publicly and privately – may be necessary to assure opportunities to speak. The objective always must be to inform and enlighten, and not merely to propagandize."

(Direct link to this quote in the Powell Memo)

While Lewis Powell focused on building a cadre of speakers within the U.S. Chamber, the business community's network has evolved into a broad array of pundits, academic allies, think-tank policy experts and ideological attack dogs. "Issue experts" and "scholars" at groups like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Cato Institute are constantly pushing the corporate agenda -- deregulation, tax cuts, subsidies, and other programs that benefit large companies rather than taxpaying citizens. Some, such as AEI's "F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow" Steven F. Hayward, hold positions that are openly identified with their corporate sponsors.

Some corporate front groups, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), promote their ideological agenda by offering expertise on "important issues" like "Regulatory Reform" and the "Nanny State," presenting business as the underdog against an oppressive, overreaching government. New media sources with pro-corporate slants, such as BigGovernment.com, Powerline blog, TownHall.com and others serve to amplify perspectives favorable to industry by cross-posting the same material on multiple sites.

References and More Information:

Polluter Watch -- http://www.polluterwatch.com

Source Watch -- http://www.sourcewatch.org

Exxon Secrets -- http://www.exxonsecrets.org

DeSmogBlog -- http://www.desmogblog.com

Media Matters -- http://www.mediamatters.org

Free Press -- http://www.freepress.net

Multinational Monitor's list of corporate front groups:
http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/links/scat.php?scat_id=14

American Rights at Works' analysis of "The Anti-Union Network": http://www.americanrightsatwork.org/the-anti-union-network/home/

Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future. Tarcher, 2002. More information available at: http://www.prwatch.org/books/experts.html.

C. Edwin Baker, Media Concentration and Democracy: Why Ownership Matters. Cambridge U. Press, 2006. More information available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=yxA1Cc8pB3UC&dq=Baker,+Media+Concentration+and+Democracy:+Why+Ownership+Matters&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

David Brock, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy. New York: Crown, 2004. http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Republican_Noise_Machine.html?id=j6tefbeatiMC.

Robert W. McChesney et al., The Future of Media: Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007. More information available at: http://www.amazon.com/Future-Media-Resistance-Reform-Century/dp/1583226796.

Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way we Read. New York: Verso, 2001. More information available at: http://www.amazon.com/Business-Books-International-Conglomerates-Publishing/dp/1859847633.