'The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society," wrote Edward Bernays, regarded as the "father of public relations," in his influential 1928 book, Propaganda. The U.S. government seems to have taken this message to heart, spending significant resources on public relations efforts.
Federal agencies have spent about $1 billion a year over the past decade on advertising and public relations, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. Even this figure likely understates the actual costs, the GAO notes, due to imprecise budget classifications and the difficulty in defining "public relations" activities and personnel.
The Defense Department is responsible for the largest share of public relations activity by far, accounting for 40 percent of all federal public relations personnel and 60 percent of all PR spending. The Department of Veterans Affairs experienced the largest rate of increase in public relations spending during the period, doubling its PR staff from 144 in 2006 to 286 in 2014 (which was, probably not coincidentally, the year the VA hospital negligence and wait time scandal broke).
The government's public relations services include perfectly legitimate functions, such as providing notice of impending regulations and public comment periods or informing the public about health and safety threats. But when the Health and Human Services Department launches an expensive pro-Obamacare advertising campaign, or the Pentagon tries to spin and influence media coverage of military actions, the question we must continually ask is: When does public information cross the line to propaganda?
A report last year from Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake criticized what they called "paid patriotism," the practice of the military paying pro and college sports teams to perform on-field flag ceremonies, surprise homecomings, wounded warrior tributes, ceremonial first pitches and the like. "Americans deserve the ability to assume that tributes for our men and women in military uniform are genuine displays of national pride, which many are, rather than taxpayer-funded DoD marketing gimmicks," they stated.
And a 2008 New York Times investigation revealed that the retired military officers who serve as "military analysts" on many news programs oftentimes parroted administration talking points in exchange for special briefings and access to administration officials, which many of them used to advance their own business interests by pursuing government defense contracts.
As Reason magazine's Eric Boehm argued in a pointed criticism, "To be fair, the Department of Defense's PR team has a tough job. They have to sell the American public on the value of foreign military interventions (something most Americans generally oppose) and have to spin the bombings of hospitals and the droning of innocent civilians at wedding parties as being in the best interest of America's defense — or at least as something other than war crimes."
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It is bad enough that the government spends our own money in ways with which many taxpayers would disagree, but it is a double slap in the face when it uses those hard-earned dollars to pat itself on the back for these infringements or tries to manipulate our opinions and behavior.