A Writer’s Exploration: Trust and Deception

As I sat down to write this week’s Exploration entry I found myself lost on subject matter. Lately, my head has been filled with such items as propaganda, public opinion, and other historical public relations topics. I have been reading a lot about Edward Bernays lately, if you haven’t noticed my other blog entries, along with other related subjects. To say the PR world isn’t consuming me would be outlandish, so I won’t. The combined topic of ethics and deception has called my attention this week, but this is a writing blog so I need to stay on focus.

Recently, in the online forum for my MFA writing workshop, a debate broke out about the ethics and creative freedom applied to nonfiction. More specifically, was a fabricated life story labeled as nonfiction that became a number one seller acceptable because it may have had a positive impact on the readers’ lives? I am referring to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and how it was revealed to be a lie by Oprah Winfrey on her former TV show. The argument came down to two basic sides: was he deceptive and therefore committed a heinous act by lying to his audience? Or was it okay because nonfiction in general cannot be truly accurate as it is based on memories and interpretations in the first place?

Now I really don’t want to go down this road on a matter that is a few years old, but it does resonate with the matters I have been reading about Edward Bernays and his grandiose claims of affecting the American fabric through his Big Think schemes. Don’t get me wrong, I admire his accomplishments, even if some were contrary to his own claim to strong ethics, like his push to increase women smokers during the 1920s through the 40s for the American Tobacco Company, beginning with the Torches of Freedom stunt. It was revealed in his files that he turned over the the Library of Congress – 805 boxes from his nearly eighty year career – that he was well aware of the scientific findings about the ailments and carcinomas smoking caused. Yet he used his tools of public relations to persuade the public that such findings were wrong, and that any moderate smoker who was neither a child nor elderly would be unharmed. I could not believe I was reading this about the man who made ethics a top priority in The Father of Spin by Larry Tye, a biographic history of Bernays and the birth of the public relations discipline.

You could say I felt deceived. Not that his work performed forty years before my birth would have made me a smoker today, but his ethical proclamations in his books Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda make him a hypocrite. Disappointment ensued in my perception of this new hero I recently found, but then, he was only a human behaving as humans do – imperfectly and fighting to stay ahead of the herd.

Looking back at what I just wrote it feels more like a confessional and venting outlet, not as fun as I normally aim for. I do know this – in his posthumous state he is still teaching me how to spot the lies and use truth as a tool to get the job done, even if it means keeping it under wraps for awhile. He did eventually lead a campaign to stop smoking in the 1960s and admitted his personal guilt on the matter. He has also taught me a lesson I saw portrayed on last week’s episode of House of Lies – don’t trust anyone until you know their angle.


4 thoughts on “A Writer’s Exploration: Trust and Deception

  1. No, I think this is more than a vent, David — you've fastened on what I think has become one of the key perspectives in any kind of persuasive dealing with the public any more . . just a breath of insincerity is enough to sabotage a message. Given my own generational obsessions, I tend to think some of this has its roots in the politics of the 60s and 70s, where people started becoming very skeptical of "official" sources . .


  2. I think you are right about that change beginning in the 60s, tying in with the drastic cultural changes and high-profile events of the time, many of which were political. Even looking Bernays in that period, it seems his critics found his methods to be dated by then. The public no longer trusted expert opinions coming from a single professional source – a common Bernays tactic – leading the way to today's cultural skepticism.


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