The Real Thing: Democracy as a Contact Sport
and Robert Weissman
few weeks ago, we received an invitation to attend an event at the Library of
was about to make an "historic contribution" to the Library of
Congress, and the Library, and Coca-Cola, were inviting reporters to cover the
event. We accepted the invitation.
learned from the morning papers that the "historic contribution" was a
complete set of 20,000 television commercials pushing Coca-Cola into the
American digestive system.
the one where the kid hands Pittsburgh Steeler Mean Joe Greene his bottle of
Coke, and in return, Mean Joe tosses the kid his football jersey? Or what about
on a hilltop in Italy where the folks start sing "I'd like to buy the world
a Coke and keep it company"?
event was at the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building -- named after the
Thomas Jefferson who, in 1816, wrote: "I hope we shall crush in its birth
the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our
government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws our
we pull up at the appointed hour (7:15 p.m. on November 29, 2000) at the Thomas
Jefferson building, and there's a traffic jam created by stretch limousines
blocking the entrance.
addition to lowly reporters, the 400 or so guests included ambassadors, members
of Congress, corporate chieftains and other dignitaries. Good thing we dressed
Main Hall is this absolutely stunning room, with marble staircases. A string
quartet is playing. Waiters are serving Coke in classic bottles. The food is
fabulous -- lamb chops, trout, Peking duck. We rub shoulders with the Ambassador
"aristocracy of our monied corporations," as Jefferson put it, had
taken over the place, and Coca-Cola wanted to make sure that everybody knew it.
all, Coke could have just donated the ads to the Library and left it at that.
But this wasn't about Coke's largesse. It was about public relations -- whether
the public would view the company as a racist company (Coke had just agreed to
pay $192.5 million to settle allegations that it routinely discriminated against
black employees in pay, promotions and performance evaluations) or a junk food
pusher (consuming large quantities of sugared Coca-Cola has led to ours being
one of the most overweight generations in history) -- or instead, a generous
contributor to the Library of Congress.
Billington, the Librarian of Congress, was called on to deliver good things to
Coke, and he did. He turned over the keys of the Main Hall to Coke, and Coke
decked the place out with its logo, stitched in red beside the logo of the
Library of Congress. Television sets were placed throughout the hall, the better
for the Ambassadors and members of the Democratic Leadership Council to check
out the commercials.
was selling the soul of the library to one of the world's most powerful
corporations. In addition to the ads, Coke was establishing a fellowship at the
Library for the study of "culture and communication" -- one fellow
will receive $20,000 a year for the next five years.
Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, was outside the event, protesting.
"It is not the proper role of the taxpayer-financed Library of Congress to
help promote junk food like Coca-Cola to a nation that is suffering skyrocketing
levels of obesity," Ruskin said. "It is crass commercialism for James
Billington to degrade Jefferson's library and founding ideals into a huckster's
without shame, Billington introduced Doug Daft, the president of Coca-Cola, who
said that "Coca-Cola has become an integral part of people's lives by
helping to tell these stories." Nothing about profits. Nothing about
overweight kids. Nothing about racism.
Daft spoke, the room went dark, and the ads ran on the television screens.
Nostalgia swept the room. When the ads were finished, the lights went back on
and the crowd cheered.
80 high school students, dressed in Coca-Cola red sweaters, filled the marble
staircases and sang -- "I want to buy the world a Coke." Again, the
crowd cheered. Doug Daft, standing downstairs, came back to the microphone to
continue his statement. We were upstairs at this point, and we looked down at
him and asked, in a loud voice -- "Why are you using a public library to
promote a junk food product?"
room went quiet. Library of Congress police charged up the marble staircase.
Doug Daft put his hand to his ear and shouted back to us: "What did you
a louder voice, we shouted back: "Why are you using a public institution to
promote a junk food product?"
next thing we know, we are on the ground. The Library of Congress police had
tackled us. Again, the crowd cheered -- not for our question, but for the
were dragged downstairs, past the Ambassador from Burma, and hauled outside,
where police officers from the District of Columbia were waiting for us.
of the Thomas Jefferson building came running a man from Coke. "This is a
private event," the man from Coke told the police. "I'm from
first, the police wanted nothing to do with the man from Coke. But the man from
Coke insisted. They huddled.
the man from Coke didn't want us arrested for asking an obvious question.
Apparently, the man from Coke didn't want a public trial. The man from Coke was
standing up for our First Amendment rights to ask his boss a question.
police said we were to leave the grounds. And we weren't to come back. Ever.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).