BOOK REVIEW: unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation

unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation

Huckster marketing and spin has been around since the days of snake oil—which was a real product that didn’t actually contain snake oil and didn’t actually cure anything. That didn’t stop its creator Clark Stanley, from making a mint on the stuff before finally being shut down. The author tells us:

To promote his pricey cure-all, Stanley publicly slaughtered rattlesnakes at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

In the new millennium, another questionable product made from dead exotic animals– emu oil –has supplanted snake oil. Like old Clark Stanley, emu oil peddlers have made outrageous claims about the near-magical power of their lotions, balms, and pills. Methinks the emu oil scam is simply the last gasp of ratite farmers who learned the hard way that America wasn’t going to turn en mass from beef to large flightless bird meat.

UnSpun isn’t the type of book to read if you are a rabid partisan who can’t stand to hear anything criticizing your own side. Right, left, and middle all get their dues here, when they decide to stretch the truth for PR purposes.

One major way partisans control the debate is to control the language used. Think “partial birth abortion.” Think “assault weapon.” Both highly emotional terms that get the sort of reaction the spinners want. Regarding the latter term,

The so-called “assault weapon ban” signed by President Clinton in 1994 didn’t really ban assault weapons…fully automatic weapons of all kinds were outlawed around the time of George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Bonnie and Clyde. … In fact, all that the assault weapon law “banned” was the manufacture and import of certain semiautomatic weapons, which can’t be fired any faster than an ordinary pistol or rifle despite their military-style looks.

Despite the reality, the text notes that that over half of Americans polled believe the “assault weapons ban” outlawed both fully- and semiautomatic weapons.

Food, particularly of the unhealthy variety, is also advertised by some master spinners. KFC dipped to new ethical lows when they tried to spin their greasy fried chicken as a diet food:

KFC used the same sort of “literally true falsehood” in an attempt to palm off fried chicken as health food. One of its ads showed a woman putting a bucket of KFC fried chicken down in front of her husband and saying, “Remember how we talked about eating better? Well, it starts today!” The narrator then said: the secret’s out: two Original Recipe chicken breasts have less fat than a BK Whopper.”

That was literally true, but barely. The fried chicken breast had 38 grams of total fat, just slightly less than the 43 grams in a Burger King Whopper. However the chicken breast also had three times more cholesterol…more than twice as much sodium…and slightly more calories. … Not to mention that saying something has less fat than a Whopper is like calling a plot of ground les polluted than your local landfill.

The FTC charged KFC with false advertising. Speaking of fast food hucksters, unSpun appropriately mentions “Dr. Evil” himself, Washington lobbyist Richard Berman and his various mouthpiece groups. Berman is perhaps the king of deceptively-named organization, and that should tell you something about his anticipated public response should he be entirely truthful.

Things are not often as they are described. … The Montana-based Evergreen Foundation is supported by companies that cut down trees, and the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom isn’t run by consumers but was set up by a lobbyist for the booze and tobacco businesses.

The CCF and its even more deceptively-named offshoots (like the Humane Society for Shelter Pets and Humane Watch ) are now on the attack against animal welfare groups on behalf of Berman’s clients in industrial agribusiness. Animals aren’t his only targets. Berman also has his crosshairs on low-wage workers who would like to unionize, via his anti-union Employment Policies Institute.

[T]he group’s executive director is Richard Berman, who (we can discover by plugging his name into our search engine) is a Washington public relations man who was once an executive vice president of the Pillsbury Restaurant Group, owner of the Burger King chain, which employs thousands of low-wage workers.

Classy. Clearly, getting both sides of the story is especially prudent any time Berman gets involved.

(Review originally appeared on goodreads.com)

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