March 31, 2003
UCSC faculty field media calls about war
By Jennifer McNulty
As an expert on propaganda, psychology professor Anthony Pratkanis was
braced for calls from reporters following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But he wasnt expecting his phone to ring off the hook for days.
And days. And days.
"It finally slowed down today," Pratkanis said a week after
the U.S. military action began.
Among the media outlets that have contacted Pratkanis about war propaganda
and psychological operations are Newsweek, the Washington
Post, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, National Public Radio, the
Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Toronto Star,
Sacramento Bee, Scripps Howard News Service, CBS News, KION/KCBS
TV, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Kansas City Star, Hamilton
Spectator in Ontario, Contra Costa Times, KCBA-TV, MSNBC
News, and South China Morning Post, Hong Kongs biggest
Pratkanis and other UCSC faculty are in demand as journalists seek
insight into various aspects of the war.
Pratkanis, a social psychologist, has evaluated the success of the
U.S. militarys psychological warfare campaign in Iraq, as well
as the Bush administrations attempts to build--and preserve--public
support for military action domestically and abroad.
Not surprisingly given his expertise, Pratkanis has mastered the art
of communicating complex concepts in an effective sound bite.
"I view communications as even more important than the bombs and
bullets," Pratkanis told Newsweek magazine during a question-and-answer
session on the importance of propaganda. "If you dont win
the hearts and minds of people, you can win the military war and lose
the big war."
In an interview with Scripps Howard News Service, Pratkanis discussed
flagging U.S. communication efforts on the international scene and said,
"If this were a football game, we've been blown out in the first
Pratkanis, coauthor with UCSC research professor Elliot Aronson of
the book Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion,
told the Toronto Star newspaper that the fight for public opinion, or
"spin," is "part of every information campaign, whether
youre running for president or advertising a brand of cola."
Or selling a war.
More so than in the past, Pratkanis feels he is helping "define"
the story for reporters, explaining the psychological principles underlying
persuasion efforts and providing context regarding the importance of
propaganda to the overall war effort. Many reporters have called back
for clarification or second interviews, he noted. "Some of these
interviews have lasted an hour or more, and theyve called back
after theyve talked with other people," he said of reporters.
"They really want to understand whats going on."
As spectators, it can be hard to know whos winning the spin game
and even who is telling the truth, conceded Pratkanis, who discounts
Bush administration reports of the wars progress. Often the truth
is unknown until long after a war is over, he said. "Sometimes
Americans accept atrocity stories only to find out later that they never
happened, as in World War I and the first Gulf War," said Pratkanis.
Other times, the American public has rejected atrocity tales that were
later confirmed, as with the Holocaust during World War II.
The Bush administration did a poor job of preparing the American public
for war, setting high expectations for a quick and easy war that now
appears unlikely, said Pratkanis. "Opinion polls show high support
for the war, but a look behind the numbers shows how soft that support
is and reveals a sizable, well-organized minority opposed to the war
and deep levels of distrust for George Bush in certain segments of society,"
Pratkanis has been known to turn the tables on reporters and ask a
few questions of his own after being interviewed. "Its especially
interesting to hear from reporters overseas," said Pratkanis. "Talking
with the reporter from the South China Morning Post, I was really
struck by how much they hate Americans there."
Pratkanis, who makes his home telephone number available to reporters,
estimates he spent 30 hours being interviewed by reporters during the
first week of the conflict.
"I applaud the efforts of UCSC professors who take the time to
share their expertise with journalists," said Chancellor M.R.C.
Greenwood. "They are providing a valuable public service, and their
insights contribute to informed public debate."
In addition to Pratkanis, history professor Edmund "Terry"
Burke has fielded media calls, as have politics professors Isebill "Ronnie"
Gruhn and Ronnie Lipschutz, and environmental studies professor Alan
In a Salinas Californian article, Richards and Burke expressed
fear that the invasion is fueling intense hatred of the United States.
"People everywhere in the world, no matter how awful their government
is--and [Iraqs] government is pretty awful--rally around their
country when it is attacked by force," Richards told the newspaper.
"The Bush administration has managed to create a situation where
whatever happens, we lose. And they did this, I might add, against the
advice of people whove been working in the Mideast at all levels
of government and inside and outside of government... This was a war
driven by ideologues who dont know what theyre doing."
Return to Front Page