Some Notes on Research

Some of the factoids I used in the second “Kids and Kommercialism” post were lifted from the website of the National Institute on Media and the Family. As with other borrowings here, that shouldn’t be taken as any kind of endorsement. They seem basically okay if you scan quickly through their website, but things look at bit different when you look at their board of directors. If you aren’t already hip to this tactic, it often pays to check out the board of a nonprofit, or even a for-profit, to get more insight into where their real priorities and values lie.

Notice, for example, that while the National Institute on Media and the Family carefully lists academic credentials – “Dr.” and “PhD” – for key staff, there are no academics, no researchers or psychologists or sociologists or media studies professionals, on their board (at least none for whom their academic position or credentials merited listing).

So who is on the board?

First is Jane A. Brattain, who is identified only as a “Community Volunteer and Parent,” which should already set off some alarm bells.  Boards are usually stacked with useful people – and useful, for nonprofits, generally means people who can bring in money, or they are connected in the field or bring some management/governance expertise. And their affiliations are given. So who is Jane A. Brattain? Just some next door neighbor with a kid, who helps out in the school cafeteria?

A spot of googling reveals that Jane Brattain is the former director of consumer affairs for Target Corporation, who retired 17 years ago to be a stay-at-home mom to daughter, Katie. She also serves on Park Nicollet Health Services’ board of directors – she got involved with that organization after being treated by them for breast cancer, using expensive equipment she and her husband donated  – and is past president of the Breck School’s Parents’ Association. (The Breck School is a private, Episcopalian college prep school.)

Jane’s husband, Don Brattain, would appear to be a venture capitalist and proud Oklahoma State University alum (class of ’62). They live in a large lakeside house at 20700 & 20710 Linwood Road in Deephaven, a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul. [I include this info basically to show you how easy it is to get a lot of info very quickly and easily on anybody – we now know the name of Jane’s daughter, where she went to school, and where they live – in 5 minutes.]

What does all this tell us? Very wealthy, middle America family. Private school. Consumer affairs at Target. Into all of that we can read – reading between the lines, and making various assumptions and generalizations – a set of values and concerns, and, frankly, they aren’t mine. I’m sure she is genuinely, perhaps passionately, concerned about children and the media.  But I doubt she worries about the same things as me, about corporate bias, relentless materialism, the racism and sexism and homophobia.

What about the rest of the board?

Next is Lannie Dawson, Senior Vice President and Director of Media Services, at something identified only as “Martin Williams.” Googling (“Martin Williams” Minnesota) reveals that it is really…. martin|williams – an advertising agency whose clients include, in addition to this nonprofit, L. L. Bean, the beer company Anheuser-Busch, the Boy Scouts, and the drug company Pfizer (makers of Viagra, Celebrex and Zoloft).

After her on the board is Nathan Dungan, President and Founder of Share Save Spend LLC. “Share Save Spend” is a company that produces guides on financial management and Dungan seems to have a particular interest in teaching kids the idea of money values.

Board member James Forman is an attorney at Oberman, Thompson & Segal: “a Minneapolis law firm primarily representing businesses in the areas of labor and employment law and commercial litigation.”

And so it goes, right through the board.

Target, Pfizer, Budweiser beer, Boy Scouts, lawyers, PR agents, venture capitalists, advertisers, business executives, teaching kids about money values, defending businesses in lawsuits brought by employees and consumers…  Now we know where the National Institute on Media and the Family’s real values and priorities come from.

Think Tanks and SourceWatch

Similarly, in that same post, I noted that the Center for Consumer Freedom – which was quoted in a New York Times article – is really just a front for PR and spin from some industry groups, including in particular the fast food industry.

Think tanks with powerful but covert biases and PR agencies like this, often operating under high-concept names like “Center for Consumer Freedom,” have become a regular feature of the news.  They always have someone available who is happy to appear on a talk show or give a sound bite or quote, so reporters and producers end up using them to fill things out, and they have managed to pass themselves off as a genuine source of information. But they are no more genuine than a TV ad.

In a way, they have reduced us all to a status like that of children, who don’t have adequate critical distance on the marketing messages they receive.  By operating covertly, and under titles containing words like “Freedom” and “Heritage” and “Research,” they subvert what critical faculties we do have to help us make sense of the news. Imagine if the “Center for Consumer Freedom” was called something transparent instead, like, say, the “Center for Fast Food Industry Support.”

But help is out there! When you hear or read the name of one of these organizations, you can pop over to SourceWatch.

In their own words,

SourceWatch is a collaborative project of the Center for Media and Democracy to produce a directory of the people, organizations and issues shaping the public agenda. A primary purpose of SourceWatch is documenting the PR and propaganda activities of public relations firms and public relations professionals engaged in managing and manipulating public perception, opinion and policy. SourceWatch also includes profiles on think tanks, industry-funded organizations and industry-friendly experts that work to influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of corporations, governments and special interests. Over time, SourceWatch has broadened to include others involved in public debates including media outlets, journalists, government agencies, activists and nongovernmental organizations.

I can’t recommend SourceWatch highly enough.

In fact, if any of you out there are hot Web2.0 coders, I have a project you can help with.  What I want is a Firefox plug-in that will show a pop-up whenever I hover over the name of one of these agencies, giving me the skinny on them from SourceWatch.

Even more useful would be something that would do that on TV – show a blurb, in for instance the close-captioning text, about each agency as it is mentioned in the news, or whenever an agency name appears in the title of some talking head – but obviously that is a bit of wishful thinking, unlike the internet plug-in, which should be do-able.

A related service, SpinWatch, based in the UK, is “an independent non-profit making organisation which monitors the role of public relations and spin in contemporary society. Spinwatch … promotes greater understanding of the role of PR, propaganda and lobbying.”

But while SourceWatch is a directory/database you can consult quickly for the truth behind some think tank’s facade, SpinWatch is more for reading than researching, for its dissection of the spin in various news reports and press releases.  Reading SpinWatch’s posts is good training for developing critical media skills, the ability to read and rebut the spin and PR that masquerades so often as news these days.

A Couple of Other Research Tools

CorpWatch (“Holding Corporations Accountable”) has a good primer on how to research corporations here.

Crocodyl is another excellent resource for investigating corporations, and is also a really interesting project in its use of the internet for activist collaboration. As they describe themselves:

Crocodyl is a collaboration sponsored by CorpWatch, the Center for Corporate Policy and the Corporate Research Project. Our aim is to stimulate collaborative research among NGOs, journalists, activists, whistleblowers and academics from both the global South and North in order to develop publicly-available profiles of the world’s most powerful corporations. The result is an evolving compendium of critical research, posted to the public domain as an aid to anyone working to hold corporations increasingly accountable.

A related resource that has been around for a long time in print and online is Multinational Monitor, which is particularly concerned with corporate activity in the developing world.

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