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Using history to manipulate the public

In November 2011, campus police at the University of California, Davis used pepper spray against seated legal protesters on the campus quad.

News footage of the incident was shown across the nation and around the world. It prompted a public pre-Ferguson debate about the over-militarization of police forces. The campus police overreaction left UC Davis with a terrible reputation.

It’s hard to imagine that UC Davis could have made its public image worse, but last week, five years after the incident, the Sacramento Bee reported that UC Davis “contracted with consultants for at least $175,000 to scrub the internet of negative online postings” about the 2011 incident. The campus also increased its public relations budget from $2.93 million in 2009 to $5.47 million in 2015.

The campus has both undergrad and grad history studies, yet engaged in manipulation of its own history. A Maryland company called Nevins and Associates pandered to campus officials with its claim that there was “venomous rhetoric” about UC Davis and promised to “expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the chancellor.”

Chancellor Linda Katehi, who survived the 2011 incident, is now under renewed pressure to resign. Note that the money was spent not just to improve the campus image but the chancellor’s image, not a proper use of university funds. Moreover, buying into the notion that the internet can be scrubbed in the way described has to be one of the most spectacular instances of gullibility since Sharron Angle hired fundraisers who charged her at least $4.4 million to raise $9.6 million.

Manipulating history is a common method of manipulating the public. On March 12, 1928, Los Angeles water czar William Mulholland inspected the latest leaks in the Saint Francis Dam and pronounced the structure sound. That evening, the dam gave way, the water behind it destroying numerous communities on its way to the sea. Did Mulholland do what a responsible official does – admit error? Hardly. The Los Angeles water department tried to acquire all extant photographs of the disaster to give it as much control as possible over the historical record of the disaster.

I have a book, “The Commissar Vanishes,” that I sometimes use as a visual aid when I speak to groups about this matter. The Soviet Union often manipulated group photographs to remove people who had fallen from political favor – or to return them if they recovered standing.

The same kind of thing happened in the United States. A photograph of Ulysses Grant was created from three photographs to show him in a noble mounted pose. Life magazine once altered one of the photos taken at Kent State University after the 1970 killings.

One public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, got big money for helping the Kuwaiti lie the United States into a war in 1991 by rewriting the history of the Iraqi invasion, including sending the daughter of the Kuwait ambassador to a highly publicized congressional hearing to pose as “Nurse Nayirah” and testify falsely that she witnessed Iraqi soldiers killing hundreds of babies at al-Addan hospital in Kuwait City.

In 2007 when Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons was trying to void the appointment of a state gambling regulator by his predecessor Kenny Guinn, his aides claimed that the Guinn appointment would take the state “back to the dark ages when politics and personal interests ruled the Gaming Control Board. This administration is not for sale.” People with a better knowledge of history promptly pointed out that there had never been such “dark days” in Nevada gambling regulation history.

The problem is that after all these techniques are used, nothing is changed. If a person or institution has a public relations problem, it is almost automatic that they have a real problem. Dealing with it instead of the publicity is both more honest and more responsible.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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