Kill the Messenger

Peggy O’Mara: February 17, 2015

I watched the movie, Kill the Messenger, recently. It’s the story of Gary Webb, an investigative journalist who wrote a series of stories in 1996 about the connections between the CIA and the Nicaraguan contras. The CIA denied his allegations and his story created a firestorm of criticism of both the government and the media, according to Don Wycliff of The Chicago Tribune. Wycliff goes on to say;

I think he got the treatment that always comes to those who dare to question aloud the bona fides of the establishment. First he got misrepresented…. Then he was ridiculed as a conspiracy-monger….In the end, Web was rendered untouchable.

In the film, Jeremy Renner, who plays Web, says, “When you are right above the target, they give you the most flack. They conceptualize you.” To conceptualize someone is a means of distracting from the original story by shifting the focus to the storyteller and raising doubts about his or her veracity and character. Effectively, it means to kill the messenger.


Conceptualizing is one of the techniques used today to manipulate the media and is often achieved through astrosurfing. According to Source Watch, “astroturf refers to apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms.”

Campaigns & Elections magazine defines astroturf as a “grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.”

Astroturf is a perversion of the grassroots for the purpose of manipulating others into changing their opinions for fear of being “outliers.” In “Vaccines, PR and the News Cycle,” Kristen Michaelis says,

In the large firms that tend to represent corporate, political, or celebrity interests, there are entire divisions of hundreds of interns dedicated to monitoring and influencing online media — doing everything from leaving comments on blogs and news sites to harassing users on Twitter, from leaving a string of hostile anonymous asks on Tumblr blogs to charging headlong into Facebook discussions.


In her Ted Talk, veteran journalist, Sharyl Attkisson, identifies the signs of propoganda and astroturfing:

  •  Use of inflammatory language such as crank, quack, nutty, lies, pseudo, paranoid and conspiracy.
  • Claims to be debunking myths that aren’t myths at all.
  • Attack an issue by conceptualizing or attacking the people, personalities and organizations surrounding it rather than addressing the facts.
  • Most of all, astrosurfers tend to reserve all of their public skepticism for those exposing wrong doing rather than the wrong doer. Instead of questioning authority, they question those who question authority.

Watch Attikson’s Ted Talk.


One of the most notorious astroturf companies is Bonner & Associates. According to Source Watch, “Bonner & Associates is a lobbying/public relations firm that specializes in “grassroots” and third party campaigns. Its website says it “locate[s], educate[s], and mobilize[s] … [o]rganizations and constituencies that matter politically … to support our clients’ positions credibly and effectively.” In 1995, Campaigns and Elections magazine estimated that astrosurf lobbying had become an $800 million industry.

Bonner & Associates has used pretend grass roots campaigns to loosen fuel-efficiency standards, support clear cutting of forests, defeat the Clinton administration’s proposed health care reform, and oppose the Kyoto Agreement on climate change. In 2002 O’Dwyers PR Daily reported that Bonner & Associates “has done work for Boeing, Ford Motor, Merck, Proctor & Gamble and Northrop Grumman, among others.”

Merck is the sole manufacturer of the MMR vaccine. Headquartered in Kenilworth, New Jersey, Merck has 70,000 employees and reported $18.2 billion in US revenues in 2014 and $42.2 billion worldwide.

An article, “The Expanding Vaccine Market” on the Pharmaceutical Processing website outlines the growth picture for vaccines worldwide:

Vaccines continue to be one of the brighter spots for  pharmaceutical companies in the current market, and revenues for vaccine products are expected to continue their double-digit growth in the future..

The Market for Vaccines

The vaccine market is generally separated into two segments: pediatric and adult. Pediatric is larger but adult vaccine revenues have grown faster….World sales of pediatric vaccines exceeded $12.7B in 2010, increasing 10.1% over 2009 sales of $11.5B on rising sales of combination, varicella and other products. Sales of pediatric vaccines are projected to increase at a compound annual rate of 8.4% from 2010 to 2015.

Most vaccine revenues are earned by five companies: Sanofi Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., Pfizer, and Novartis. They held nearly 80% of the market as of 2010.


Pharmaceutical companies are not the only ones who engage in public relations to support their point of view. So does the US government and in particular, the CDC. On Tuesday, February 10th, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee held a Hearing on Vaccine-Preventable Diseases at which pediatricians and CDC officials stressed the need for mandatory vaccines. In the powerful article “Top 10 Lies Told During the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases Hearing“ one critic says, “The hearing was one long propaganda session devoted to getting those who are questioning vaccines to stop doing so.”

Glen Nowak is a Professor of Advertising and Public Relations and director of the Grady College’s Center for Health and Risk Communication. He spent six years as director of media relations at CDC and six years as communications director for CDC’s National Immunization Program. While at the CDC, Nowak prepared a power point entitled “Increased Awareness and Uptake of Influenza Immunization” to help increase the rate of flu vaccine. In the power point, Nowak makes several recommendations regarding effective communication and vaccines. They include the following:

  • Associate the disease with severe illness and/or outcomes.
  • Associate the disease with cities and communities that have significant media outlets.
  • Associate the disease with people not generally perceived to get serious complications from it.
  • Use medical experts and public health authorities to publicly state concern and alarm and to urge vaccination.
  • Frame the risk as “very severe,” “more severe than last or past years,” and “deadly.”
  • Publish continued reports from health officials and the media that the disease is causing severe illness and/or affecting lots of people—helping to foster the perception that many people are susceptible to a bad case of the disease.
  • Show visible/tangible examples of the seriousness of the illness (e.g. pictures of children, and people getting vaccinated)
  • Continually reference the importance of vaccination.

Even Disneyland got in the act. As the measles outbreak spread last month, Disneyland executives sent a series of emails to California health officials asking them to emphasize that the theme park was not responsible for the illnesses and was safe to visit.

In one of the email exchanges, Disneyland’s chief medical officer, Dr. Pamela Hymel, forwarded to California’s top epidemiologist, Dr. Gil Chavez, a statement from Disneyland’s public relations arm with “some points,” including: “It is absolutely safe to visit these places, including the Disneyland Resort, if you are vaccinated.”


All this reminds me of a lyric from “Ballad of a Thin Man” by Bob Dylan.

Because something is happening here

But you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mister Jones?

Many have commented on the extreme vitrol and the viscious hyberbole that has accompanied the public discourse about the recent measles epidemic. It is now clear to me that the discourse is more than public. It is bought and paid for.

(read the full article at

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