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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 wasn’t expecting his phone to ring off the hook for days. And days. And days.



The Arabic-language leaflets above have been dropped by the U.S. military in Iraq. English-translations are shown below. Images courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense.

Anthony Pratkanis

"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 Kong’s biggest English-language newspaper.

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. military’s psychological warfare campaign in Iraq, as well as the Bush administration’s 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 don’t 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 quarter."

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 you’re 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 they’ve called back after they’ve talked with other people," he said of reporters. "They really want to understand what’s going on."

As spectators, it can be hard to know who’s winning the spin game and even who is telling the truth, conceded Pratkanis, who discounts Bush administration reports of the war’s 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," he added.

Pratkanis has been known to turn the tables on reporters and ask a few questions of his own after being interviewed. "It’s 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 Richards.

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 [Iraq’s] 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 who’ve been working in the Mideast at all levels of government and inside and outside of government... This was a war driven by ideologues who don’t know what they’re doing."

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