Optimized press release

Policy by press release

Policy by press release refers to the act of attempting to influence public policy through press releases intended to alarm the public into demanding action from their elected officials. The practice is frowned upon, but remains effective and widely used. In modern times, the term is used to dismiss an opponent's claims, suggesting they are lacking in substance and created to generate media attention.

Use during the Cold War

Perhaps the most common use of the term refers to an infamous period during the Eisenhower administration when "leaked" documents were a common way for the various branches of the US Military to attempt to garner funding for their pet projects when traditional chains of command failed, or actively ended them. Practically any idea, no matter how outlandish, could gain some traction by simply claiming that the Soviet Union was working on a similar device.

The first, and most costly, example of this behavior was the mythical "bomber gap". After seeing the latest Soviet designs in 1955, a clamor broke out in Washington about the Soviets developing a lead in deploying strategic bombers, with estimates that hundreds would be available shortly. The result was a massive expansion of the US's own building program, which led to the eventual introduction of about 2,500 jet bombers. Although it was not revealed at the time, US intelligence services had actually made real estimates of the size of the Soviet fleet as early as 1956, placing it around twenty aircraft. Nevertheless, the tactic of claiming the gap existed, and then brushing aside any criticism as being "weak on defense", was so successful it led to a wave of similar claims.

Another famous case was a claim that suggested the Soviets were working on a global-range nuclear aircraft. An article, complete with "leaked images", appeared in the December 1958 issue of Aviation Week. The article described a system that was suspiciously similar to some of the designs currently under consideration by large US aviation companies. Concerns were soon expressed in Washington that the "the Russians were from three to five years ahead of the US in the field of atomic aircraft engines and that they would move even further ahead unless the US pressed forward with its own program". In fact, the entire article was a hoax: the aircraft appearing in the pictures was later revealed through 3rd parties to be the entirely conventional Myasishchev M-50 Bounder, which never entered production. There remains no evidence that the Soviets were even considering nuclear-powered aircraft. Nevertheless the controversy managed to secure, for a time, continued funding of US efforts, culminating in the NB-36 testbed aircraft.

Another apparent case of policy by press release during this period was the famous Look article on flying saucers. At the time the US Air Force and (later) the US Army were funding the development of the Avrocar at Avro Canada in Toronto. The article, in the 14 June 1955 edition, suggested that the recent wave of saucer reports were possibly due to Soviet flying saucers, and went on to describe them and their capabilities. It included several images that appeared to be provided to them by Avro Canada, or someone in contact with them, including a description of the control system which was identical to the one used on the Avrocar. In the end the concept proved unfeasible, and the Avrocar project was eventually cancelled in 1961. This article nevertheless remains famous to this day, as it is often presented as a US Government misinformation campaign to deflect attention away from "real" UFO's, although to exactly what end varies.

The term is more commonly used today, especially in the U.S., in reference to environmental policy. The entire body of research into global warming or ozone depletion has been repeatedly described as policy by press release.

A related term, public health by press release, is occasionally used ironically to imply official pronouncements or media campaigns belie inadequate effort or funding, though it appeared in an article warning against a pitfall from the opposite direction (potential mis-assessment of limited clinical studies by press and policymakers).


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