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By Brooke Shelby Biggs
April 1998, CMP

The irony from Redmond just never stops.

According to highly sensitive, confidential documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times (more on that irony later), Microsoft has been planning an unethical media strategy to win back the public's good faith. Mind you, this is the good faith Microsoft lost after being accused of using business practices that were illegal and, well, unethical.

Perhaps you should sit down while the shock wears off.

This points up the real problem with Microsoft's positioning itself as a media company. If it owns the airwaves (or can buy them), it can manipulate public opinion.

The details of this covert PR campaign are hilariously shocking. Microsoft planned to commission news articles, letters to the editor, and op-ed testimonials, written by Microsoft's own spinmeisters, but signed and submitted by local businesspeople who would be paid for their efforts. All this chicanery to create the appearance of a vast grassroots groundswell of public affection for Microsoft.

No, really: Paid agents of Microsoft would fake these heartfelt expressions of brand loyalty and slip them past the media gatekeepers, and there they would be in the newspapers on breakfast tables nationwide. You can't buy advertising that good, obviously, or Microsoft would have done that instead.

It lends a whole new meaning to the term "making news."

How tough do you suppose it would be for Microsoft to get these stories on MSNBC or in Slate? And there have been rumors circulating within the print journalism crowd that Microsoft might be looking to buy several newspapers to expand its media empire. How handy might that be?

Yet even without these channels, news organizations would certainly bite if offered something other than the "evil empire" spin from the usual suspects in the software business community. Of course, the reason the pro-Microsoft perspective is so fresh and alluring is because actual local businessmen don't feel that way.

But the capper is that Microsoft's spokespeople denied the plan, then denied the denial. How very Microsoft.

If you think Microsoft would never be so brazen as to control the news, then have a look at the MSNBC website archives and search on the words "Microsoft" and "antitrust." The top article when I last looked was a soft-pedaled blurb about the news that 12 states were on the verge of suing Microsoft individually. (Notably, the documents the LA Times uncovered mentioned the 12 attorneys general of those states as primary targets for the PR campaign. It wasn't just public favor Microsoft was manufacturing -- it was legal hay.)

Better yet, try to find mention of the Microsoft media blitz story. Despite the fact the story was carried by both the Reuters and AP wires, CNN, ABC News, The Washington Post, and dozens of other mainstream news operations, Microsoft's own news outlet stayed mum.

Yet the calmness with which the online media has taken this story is the most unnerving thing of all. David Coursey, commentator at ZDNN, had this blase question for readers: "So, Microsoft wants to encourage its friends to make a loud noise on its behalf -- do you really think Netscape hasn't been trying to do the same thing? Or any other group with interests in Washington?"

Problem is, there's a big difference between "encouraging friends" and "pimping for lackeys." This was a plan to deceive editors and plant stories deceptively portrayed as spontaneous to create the false illusion of public support for the company. It wasn't just one guy asking his buddies to put in a good word for him.

It is an old ploy. The U.S. government (and probably dozens of other nation states) has used it in its efforts to turn Cubans against Castro and Salvadorans against the Sandanistas. Sociologists call it "black propaganda."

From Paul Linebarger's 1948 study entitled Psychological Warfare: Black propaganda operations, by definition, are operations in which the source of the propaganda is disguised or misrepresented in one way or another so as not to be attributable to the people who really put it out.

Coursey's justification that "everybody's doing it" ignores the fact that what everybody does -- aggressive public relations -- is white propaganda. Microsoft's exposed plan was a blatant case of the black variety. It clearly planned to use the media, which trades on its objectivity, as a pawn for its own ends by means of deceit.

But I have to say that I got a chuckle out of reading the story in the LA Times. This is the newspaper that, under cereal tycoon Mark Willes, has decided to merge the advertising and editorial sections of the newspaper, subordinating news judgment to the bottom line. Each section actually has to account for profit and loss. If a story about George Michael's spanking the monkey in a public restroom makes more papers fly off the shelves than that downer story on Bosnian atrocities, well then, Wham! There's your lead story. Selling editorial space is a heartbeat away.

The LA Times and Microsoft's marketing department: two peas in a pod. Stay tuned for updates on merger negotiations, and imagine -- MSLAT.