07 May 2007

Anatomy of a disinformation campaign

Maybe you've seen this story around about the guy sueing his drycleaners for $65 million. A friend of mine blogged it a few days ago, and it lead me to wonder what was going on.

I was immediately skeptical of the story, having read Teresa Nielsen Hayden's long essay Common Fraud. I've blogged it before, because it's one of the best essays in the blogosophere, and important for every American citizen to read.

TNH lays out how corporate money underwrites a campaign to mislead the public into believing in an epidemic of outrageous lawsuits, and how difficult it is to root out the truth. She says, memorably:

deceiving us has become an industrial process

So the $65 million pants story struck me as fishy. Because how did this story come to be?

Consider the way that corporate interests created the widespread misreporting of the McDonald's coffee case in order to feed the myth of frivolous lawsuits. If you'll pardon the pun, consider me once burned, twice shy.

The guy filing the lawsuit obviously is not really expecting to win $65 million in a lawsuit. So there's at least something important about him, and his intentions, that this story doesn't make clear.

I do know that this story suits the interests of the American Tort Reform Association just fine. And I'd bet $65 million, if I had it, that they prepared this story and wrapped it up with a bow for Lubna Takruri, Associated Press Writer.

I commented as much on my friend's blog, and he promised me dinner if I could prove that the ATRA were behind the story. So I did a little detective work.

Searching Google News I found 8 articles about “Roy Pearson,” the guy filing the suit, on or before 1 May, starting with a Washington Post column by Marc Fisher.

On 1 May, the ATRA press release went out, and also on that day the SF Examiner ran an editorial by the head of the ATRA on the subject. I saw a couple of other letters to the editor from this character while hunting, but I lost the links and cannot provide dates. But it makes me suspect that every major paper in the country got a letter from this guy.

Another seven articles turned up on the subject the next day, doubling the tally.

When I commented on my friend's blog around midday on 3 May, another 20 articles had turned up.

I also emailed Mr Fisher of the Post, who dismissed the idea that he would follow up a story from an “interest group;” he said that the story came from a guy at the courthouse who was disgusted with what had happened.

Now that the story's been picked up by the AP wire, it's everywhere. The AP story quotes the ATRA ... but there's no way to tell if the Associated Press actually got the story originally from the ATRA.

No new information about Pearson's intentions has become available.

Looks like the trail is cold, and I didn't quite win dinner. Do the stories make clear what the hell is going on? No. Do the stories advance the ATRA's agenda? Hell yes. Did the ATRA pump up the story? Definitely. Is that why it was covered by AP? Unknowable.

Lots of smoke, but no fire. There's something deeply fishy about the whole story. The forces of “tort reform” certainly have both motive and opportunity. But I can't prove that there's a corporate disinformation campaign driving the story's spread, I'm just a guy with a blog. This a job for journalists, but journalists can't be trusted to do this kind of detective work.

This is exactly what Teresa Nielsen Hayden was cautioning about. Deceiving us has become and industrial process.


Update: Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Hilzoy both have interesting comment threads on the story.

1 comment:

Katherine Summer said...

I saw that story in the Berkeley Daily Planet while I was having my coffee at Arizmendi the other morning. Worst paper EVER.