Tag Archives: Propaganda

Some Thoughts on the Lessons of Vietnam and the General Who “Lost” the War

A few weeks ago, I was dealing with a mold issue in our RV’s bathroom. (Note: If you see mushrooms growing out of a crack in the wall, it’s usually a bad sign.) Having resigned myself to working with gloves, wearing a mask, sitting uncomfortably on the floor for at least an hour, I resolved to find a long audio program on YouTube and let it play while I worked. I happened upon a presentation by Dr. Lewis Sorley, based mainly on his book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. (You can find the video at the end of this post.)

I had studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate history major back in the 1980s, so much of what Sorley had to say covered old ground for me. Back in those days, of course, we could still refer to it as America’s Longest War without worrying whether some other disastrous Asian war might overtake it. After all, we had “learned the lessons of Vietnam,” right?

Later, as a student at Squadron Officer School, I certainly thought we had learned those lessons. From a policy perspective, the first lesson had to be clarity of purpose. On the military side, we would never again fight a limited war of attrition; instead, we would use overwhelming force to achieve clear objectives. In a nutshell, this is the “Get-In-and-Get-Out” Doctrine: Know your objectives. Achieve them in minimum time with minimal loss of life.

We would absolutely avoid any future quagmires. Or so we thought.

I should mention that several other lessons — both spoken and unspoken — arose out of the Vietnam experience. The practice of embedding journalists within fighting units came out of the beliefs that the press should not have been permitted to work as independent observers and that allowing them to move freely in South Vietnam had been a mistake.

An expanding set of myths about why we lost the war blossomed quickly into an alternate history in which unreliable draftees, fickle politicians in Washington, pinko journalists, and the hippy peace movement conspired to keep us from winning.

Some of these myths took hold naturally, as veterans told their personal stories, relating with frustration how the body counts didn’t seem to matter, that the V.C. would return again and again, that the stupid war of attrition didn’t work, and what’s more, nobody seemed to give a damn that it wasn’t working. That much was true.
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Understanding that we, the readers, are part of the story

I have a weakness for watching murder mysteries on Sunday night TV. I have long learned to identify the most innocent looking character whom we cannot imagine possibly being involved in the crime being eventually discovered to be the villain of the show, but that’s not being clever. It’s just a matter of knowing how often the stories turn out that way. What I find myself doing, sometimes, is replaying the early part of an episode online to see what it was I missed, or how the creators manipulated me into misinterpreting little details early on. In hindsight I can see how they can be interpreted so differently.

What I am learning by this is that the real story is not happening on the screen, but it is happening between the creator, me, and the screen. The writers or directors are playing with my mind and emotions. The creators are using the screen to perform illusionist tricks like a magician. They are deflecting my attention in ways they control in order to make me marvel at the end how clever they were to pull the rabbit out of the hat or whatever.

I can rarely discover the trick in a TV murder mystery plot any more than I can discover the magician’s trick merely by watching the performance.

And this game between creator and audience is a fact of all writing. (Including what I am doing right now.) Not only writing, but all verbal communication.

Speakers, authors, normally count on their audience to follow the content of their message without, as a rule, being distracted by who is saying it, the techniques they are using, and how it is that they are guiding the audience to respond in a certain way to the content. Usually the speaker or writer will begin by winning the confidence of the audience by appearing to take them into their confidence or declaring their institutional authority of some kind. Once that is done (and understand that that process is also part of the game or play with the audience) the audience becomes immersed in the world of the story or news report.

When we share what we have seen or heard with others we will generally repeat the story we have heard. We are less likely to remind them or even ourselves of how the presenter led us into the story world in the first place.

I was reminded of all of the above the other day when I came across a couple of lines by Martin Dibelius (Studies in the Acts of the Apostles) reminding his readers that New Testament scholars too often have delved straight into examination of the stories in Acts and the gospels as if they are historical, or at least to ask if they could be historical, without first and foremost stepping back and examining the way the author has told the stories. What was the author doing vis a vis the reader by presenting the story itself and by presenting it with the details he selected and in the way he did?

There are more important and significant messages bombarding us than biblical studies, of course, and there those questions are obviously more important.

It took me some years to learn to try to avoid saying, “I heard that such and such happened….” and to say, rather, something like, “I heard from so and so at this or that place  that such and such happened …. ” The latter takes a little more effort, but it is safer ground, as many of us have come to learn.

 

“It would never happen the other way around”

Nick Davies (Wikipedia Commons)

Some readers protest when I attempt to convey a Palestinian perspective or concern that I think deserves to be more widely known and respond by stressing the official Israeli version of events as if that is the real truth and all we need to know. Sometimes I try to respond by explaining that their knowledge is shaped largely by one-sided mainstream media reporting. An elaboration of that same point is made by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media by Nick Davies. The link is to a Wikipedia article explaining who Nick Davies is.

There is now a network of pro-Israeli pressure groups who specialise in orchestrating complaints against the media. HonestReporting has offices in London, New York and Toronto and claims to have 140,000 members on whom it can call to drench media organisations in letters and emails. . . .  Camera, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, uses street demos, pressure on advertisers, formal complaints and email showers. Giyus, Give Israel Your Support, supplies its members with a browser button which they can hit to send them any article which they deem offensive, and software called Megaphone to assist them in launching mass complaints. Memri (the Middle East Media Research Institute), Palestine Media Watch, Bicom (the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) and Israeli Embassy staff all supply more energy for the fence. They share aims and⁄or funding sources with the immensely powerful network of organisations which lobby governments and political parties on behalf of Israel.

The result is that some facts become dangerous: to report Palestinian casualties; to depict the Palestinians as victims of Israeli occupation; to refer to the historic ousting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes; to refer to the killing of Palestinian civilians by Zionist groups in the 1940s. The facts are there, but the electric fence will inflict pain on any reporter who selects them. Words themselves become dangerous: to speak of ‘occupied territories’; to describe Palestinian bombers as anything other than ‘terrorists’; to reject the Israeli government euphemism of ‘targeted killings’. Crucially, there is no lobby of similar force on the Palestinian side. The pro-Israeli groups are able to claim numerous victories.

Honest Reporting claims:

‘Since 2000, the organisation prompted hundreds of apologies, retractions, and revisions from news outlets.’

They cite, in particular, their campaign against CNN, which saw them sending up to 6,000 emails a day to the chief executive and which resulted in their being invited to CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta to meet managers who, they say, ‘showed a genuine sensitivity to HonestReporting’s concerns’. They had complained that CNN was failing to describe Palestinian bombers as ‘terrorists’; that too little attention was being given to Israeli victims; and that CNN had been willing to broadcast videotaped final statements by bombers. Following the meeting, they note, CNN.com started referring to ‘Palestinian terrorism’ and ran a special series on Israeli victims, while the chief executive issued a ban on the use of videotaped statements by bombers. HonestReporting also quotes from transcripts of CNN broadcasts in which the anchor in Atlanta interrupts the correspondent on the ground to put the Israeli case.

HonestReporting also claims credit for Reuters’ decision to stop referring to Hamas as a group seeking an independent state and to describe them instead, for example, as ‘Hamas, sworn to Israel’s destruction’; and for the Washington Post’s decision to change a website headline from ‘JEWISH TODDLER DIES IN THE WEST BANK’ to ‘JEWISH BABY SHOT DEAD ON WEST BANK’ within ninety minutes of HonestReporting starting to complain. The New York Times printed a fulsome apology for publishing a photograph of a pro-Israeli demonstration which showed anti-Israeli protesters in its foreground. A survey by fair.org found that in 90% of references to the Palestinian territories occupied by the Israeli Army, American cable news described them only as ‘contested’ or ‘disputed’ or even as ‘Israel’.

The BBC has been targeted particularly heavily, winning HonestReporting’s annual award for dishonest reporting. One senior journalist there told me:

‘The lobby insinuates a sense of fear. If the editor of the Today programme knows that an item will make the phone ring off the hook, he may think twice about running it. Sure, the lobby works. I can think of numerous examples where I have felt the brunt of it.’

One member of staff at the BBC recalls the former press officer at the Israeli Embassy in London, David Schneeweiss, persuading a Today producer to set up a story about Yasser Arafat’s involvement in corruption, even though BBC correspondents in Israel said there was nothing in it.

‘You get correspondents there who will file a piece about Palestinians and be told by London ‘Nice piece, but it needs an Israeli voice.’

And that would never happen the other way around. Two extensive academic surveys have found that the BBC routinely gives more airtime to Israeli voices than to Palestinian and that it focuses more frequently on Israeli victims than on Palestinians. The judgements are there to be made.

Davies, Nick. 2009. Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media. London: Random House UK. pp. 123f

More than a Simple Mistake in Mainstream Media

The headline speaks of Rachel Maddow but the article is about a systemic failing in mainstream media:

Though she doesn’t often bring it up these days, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow remembers how the media abetted the Bush administration’s lies justifying the 2003 Iraq invasion. That was when elite (in many cases handpicked) journalists spent months serving as stenographers for the push to war, parroting every carefully crafted leak without question. They dismissed skeptics as disloyal and spiked stories that would have raised questions about the narrative. When they got caught, they declared “never again.”

Yet with Rachel Maddow as their poster child (along with David Corn, Luke Harding, Chris Hayes, the entire staff at CNN, and hundreds more), journalists over the last two years repeated every mistake their predecessors had made in 2003.

They treated gossip as fact because it came from a “source” and told us to just trust them. They blurred the lines between first-hand knowledge, second- and third-hand hearsay, and “people familiar with the matter” to build breaking news out of manure. They marginalized skeptics as “useful idiots.” (Glenn Greenwald, who called bull on Russiagate from the beginning, says MSNBC banned him after he criticized Maddow. He’d been a regular during the Bush and Obama years.)

They accepted negative information at face value and discarded information that did not fit their pre-written narrative of collusion.

Buren, Peter Van. 2019. “How Rachel Maddow Turned Into Infowars.” The American Conservative. Accessed April 5, 2019. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-rachel-maddow-turned-into-infowars/.

There’s something seriously wrong here and it goes well beyond any single reporter or commentator:

Though the wars across the Middle East the media helped midwife are beyond sin, the damage done to journalism itself is far worse this time around. With Maddow in the lead, journalists went a step further than just shoddy reporting, proudly declaring their partisanship (once the cardinal sin of journalism) and placing themselves at the center of the story. In one critic’s words, “In purely journalistic terms, this is an epic disaster.”

Very seriously wrong:

There’s a difference between being wrong once in a while (and issuing corrections) and being wrong for two years on both the core point as well as the evidence. There is even more wrong with purposefully manipulating information to drive a specific narrative, believing that the ends justify the means.

In journalism school, the first is called making a mistake. The second, Maddow’s offense, is called propaganda.

 

Searching for Facts Beneath the Propaganda: Syria

James Harkin

It’s taken me a little while but it was worth it. The article is long (about 10,000 words) and after having read it I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any shorter. Anyone who is interested in how news media works, how information is sourced in the age when competing groups and individuals can disseminate their respective viewpoints always backed up with live images of what we are assured is supporting evidence, and how one goes about digging down beneath all these reports and seeks to find out what actually happened and why by visiting the site and talking to witnesses, will find What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War by James Harkin, published in The Intercept, very informative.

I imagine most of us tend to read any news from war zones with a sense of provisionality, of thinking, ‘Well, that’s what we’re hearing now and people are using that news story to justify further involvement in the war, further killing, but who knows how long it will be before the truth ever comes out, if ever.’ James Harkin’s essay certainly reinforces justification for that response to war-time news.

The author’s research was supported by a fellowship at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Benjamin Decker at the Shorenstein Center’s Information Disorder Lab provided open-source investigative support and Rahaf Safi at Harvard’s Kennedy School contributed research. Other research and translation support was provided by Victor Lutenco of the Kennedy School and Hannah Twomey of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London.

Media Coverage of Israel-Palestine — Update

The findings demonstrate a persistent bias in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian issue — one where Israeli narratives are privileged and where, despite the continued entrenchment of the occupation, the very topics germane to Palestinians’ day-to-day reality have disappeared. . . . While subtle, a consistent disproportion in article headlines — which by default gives a greater airtime to one side or occludes certain key issues — can impact public perception. — Owais Zaheer

It calls to attention the need to more critically evaluate the scope of coverage of the Israeli occupation and recognize that readers are getting, at best, a heavily filtered rendering of the issue.

. . . .

Since 1967, the year that the Israeli military took control of the West Bank, there has been an 85 percent overall decrease in mention of the term “occupation” in headlines about Israel, despite the fact that the Israeli military’s occupation of Palestinian territory has in fact intensified over this time. Mention of the term “Palestinian refugees,” meanwhile, has declined a stunning 93 percent. 

But there is also a hopeful silver lining:

Despite this grim political reality, there have been significant changes in U.S. media coverage of the conflict, driven in part by popular pressure coming from social media. There are also signs that Israel is becoming a partisan issue dividing liberals and conservatives in the United States, with polls showing that growing numbers of Americans would like their government to take a more evenhanded stance on the conflict.

U.S. government policy has yet to reflect these shifts in public sentiment, with the Trump administration falling over itself to project an unprecedentedly hostile and uncompromising stance toward Palestinian claims. Hard-line supporters of the Israeli government have seemingly shifted their approach from winning “hearts and minds” to punishing opponents: publishing blacklists of Palestinian activists, censoring public figures vocal about the conflict, and advocating for laws to restrict boycotts of Israeli goods.

Nonetheless, people who have followed U.S. debate on the conflict for decades say that there are serious tectonic changes occurring at the level of the American public, both in media and popular sentiment.

“Although news coverage is not evenhanded and is still generally skewed towards the Israeli perspective, there has been a massive shift over the past five years in how this issue is both reported and discussed in the United States,” said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a D.C.-based progressive think tank.

“We are seeing a shift in the types of stories that are being covered by major outlets, as well as the stances that public figures are willing to take. There are still huge problems, but things are changing. The discourse on Israel-Palestine is nothing like it was in decades past.”

From The Intercept

The full report:

Download (PDF, 617KB)

What If Core Curriculum for Elementary Civics Education Included Corporate Propaganda?

What if the following had been part of the core curriculum for every junior high school or equivalent in western industrial democracies:

The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance:

  • the growth of democracy,
  • the growth of corporate power,
  • and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.

There have been two principal aspects to the growth of democracy in this century:

  • the extension of popular franchise (i.e. the right to vote)
  • and the growth of the union movement.

These developments have presented corporations with potential threats to their power from the people at large (i.e. from public opinion) and from organized labour. American corporations have met this threat by learning to use propaganda, both inside and outside the corporation, as an effective weapon for managing governments and public opinion. They have thereby been able to subordinate the expression of democratic aspirations and the interests of larger public purposes to their own narrow corporate purposes.

Corporate propaganda directed outwards, that is, to the public at large, has two main objectives:

  • to identify the free-enterprise system in popular consciousness with every cherished value,
  • and to identify interventionist governments and strong unions (the only agencies capable of checking the complete domination of society by the corporations) with tyranny, oppression and even subversion.

The techniques used to achieve these results are variously called ‘public relations’, ’corporate communications’ and ’economic education’.

Corporate propaganda directed inwards, that is, to employees of the corporation itself, has the purpose of weakening the links between union members and their unions. Techniques employed in the United States for this purpose come under the broad disguise of ‘human relations’, ’employee participation’ and ‘employee communications’.

From the beginning of the century large-scale, professionally organized propaganda campaigns have been a key feature of the political activities of American business.

Carey, Alex. 1997. Taking the Risk out of Democracy : Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty. p. 18 (my formatting)

Masters of Propaganda — tutors of Saudi Arabia, alumni include Hitler

It has been a trying couple of weeks for Saudi Arabia. First, a tweet from an account associated with the Saudi government appeared to threaten Canada with a 9/11-style attack if they continued to “stick their nose where it doesn’t belong.” . . . . .

And then, not long afterwards, the Saudi government beheaded and crucified on a public pole a Burmese man found guilty of murder. . . . . .

Then, on August 9, a Saudi jet targeted and destroyed a school bus full of children in Yemen. . . . . .

How does one manage the “optics” for a country that behaves this way? First, you need to recruit as many public relations men and lobbyists as possible. This is exactly what Saudi Arabia has done . . . . . hiring some of the best PR and government relations firms in Washington and London.

These firms know how to mold public opinion. They are heirs to the father of the dark art of “public relations,” Edward Bernays . . . . .

(Michael Horton in The American Conservative, Aug 14, 2018.)

Which brings us to how the United States in particular became the world’s leading practitioner of propaganda.

Contrary to common assumptions, propaganda plays an important role — and certainly a more covert and sophisticated role — in tech­nologically advanced democratic societies, where the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion.

In contrast, under authoritarian regimes power and privilege are not open and vulnerable to dissenting public opinion.

— Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy (p.12)

A more anodyne term for propaganda is “business and corporate public relations”.

In the fifty years 1890 to 1940:

Least experience of democratic institutions Limited experience of democratic institutions Longest experience of liberal, democratic institutions
Italy & Japan Germany England & USA
Least competent propaganda Nationalist Socialist propaganda better organised, more vociferous, more versatile Public relations propaganda is the most highly coloured and ambidextrous, more-so in USA than England

Compare the Soviet Union:

One area of social science that is ordinarily assumed to be useful to a total­itarian regime is research on social and political attitudes … Ironically, psychology and the other social sciences have been employed least in the Soviet Union for precisely those purposes for which Americans popularly think psychology would be used in a totalitarian state political propa­ganda and the control of human behaviour.

Democracy must be seen to be done, but the will of the elite powers-that-be must be protected and advanced. Hence, after Edward Bernays another early propaganda theorist, Harry Lasswell, as early as 1938 wrote that in the modern world more could be done by illusion than coercion and that a professional class had emerged for that purpose:

The modern world is busy developing a corps of men who do nothing but study the ways and means of changing minds or binding minds to their convictions. Propaganda … is developing its practitioners, its teachers and its theories. It is to be expected that governments will rely increasingly upon the professional propagandists for advice and aid.

An early illustration of “democratic propaganda” read more »

News, Information and Propaganda (How the Three Become One)

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

In a recent post I pointed out how information overload, even of hard facts, can function as propaganda rather than as a genuinely educational resource. At the time I made mention of Jacques Ellul as the source for this particular point. Here are Ellul’s words (in translation and with my own bolded highlighting for the tl;dr types) from his 1965 book, Propaganda:

That propaganda has an irrational character is still a well-established and well-recognized truth. The distinction between propaganda and information is often made: information is addressed to reason and experience—it furnishes facts; propaganda is addressed to feelings and passions—it is irrational. There is, of course, some truth in this, but the reality is not so simple. For there is such a thing as rational propaganda, just as there is rational advertising. Advertisements for automobiles or electrical appliances are generally based on technical descriptions or proved performance—rational elements used for advertising purposes. Similarly there is a propaganda based exclusively on facts, statistics, economic ideas. Soviet propaganda, especially since 1950, has been based on the undeniable scientific progress and economic development of the Soviet Union; but it is still propaganda, for it uses these facts to demonstrate, rationally, the superiority of its system and to demand everybody’s support.

Here Ellul presents examples of modern “rational and factual propaganda” such as

  • the French economic film Algérie français which is “overloaded with economic geography and statistics. But it is still propaganda.”
  • education in Mao’s China being based on “pseudo-rational proofs”
  • American propaganda in the form of “rational and factual” news bulletins of the American services “based on ‘knowledge’ and information”.
9 Ernst Kris and Nathan Leites have correctly noted the differences, in this connection, between the propaganda of 1914 and that of 1940: the latter is more sober and informative, less emotional and moralistic. As we say in fashionable parlance, it is addressed less to the superego and more to the ego.

We can say that the more progress we make, the more propaganda becomes rational and the more it is based on serious arguments, on dissemination of knowledge, on factual information, figures, and statistics.9

Purely impassioned and emotional propaganda is disappearing. Even such propaganda contained elements of fact: Hitler’s most inflammatory speeches always contained some facts which served as base or pretext. It is unusual nowadays to find a frenzied propaganda composed solely of claims without relation to reality. It is still found in Egyptian propaganda, and it appeared in July i960 in Lumumba’s propaganda in the Belgian Congo. Such propaganda is now discredited, but it still convinces and always excites.

Modern man needs a relation to facts, a self-justification to convince himself that by acting in a certain way he is obeying reason and proved experience. We must therefore study the close relationship between information and propaganda. Propaganda’s content increasingly resembles information. It has even clearly been proved that a violent, excessive, shock-provoking propaganda text leads ultimately to less conviction and participation than does a more “informative” and reasonable text on the same subject. A large dose of fear precipitates immediate action; a reasonably small dose produces lasting support. The listener’s critical powers decrease if the propaganda message is more rational and less violent.

Propaganda’s content therefore tends to be rational and factual. ….. Besides content, there is the receiver of the content, the individual who undergoes the barrage of propaganda or information. When an individual has read a technical and factual advertisement of a television set or a new automobile engine, and if he is not an electrician or a mechanic, what does he remember? Can he describe a transistor or a new type of wheel-suspension? Of course not. All those technical descriptions and exact details will form a general picture in his head, rather vague but highly colored—and when he speaks of the engine, he will say: “It’s terrific!”

It is exactly the same with all rational, logical, factual propaganda. After having read an article on wheat in the United States or on steel in the Soviet Union, does the reader remember the figures and statistics, has he understood the economic mechanisms, has he absorbed the line of reasoning? If he is not an economist by profession, he will retain an over-all impression, a general conviction that “these Americans (or Russians) are amazing. . . . They have methods…. Progress is important after all,” and so on. Similarly, emerging from the showing of a film such as Algérie française, he forgets all the figures and logical proofs and retains only a feeling of rightful pride in the accomplishments of France in Algeria. Thereafter, what remains with the individual affected by this propaganda is a perfectly irrational picture, a purely emotional feeling, a myth. The facts, the data, the reasoning—all are forgotten, and only the impression remains. And this is indeed what the propagandist ultimately seeks, for the individual will never begin to act on the basis of facts, or engage in purely rational behavior. What makes him act is the emotional pressure, the vision of a future, the myth. The problem is to create an irrational response on the basis of rational and factual elements. That response must be fed with facts, those frenzies must be provoked by rigorously logical proofs. Thus propaganda in itself becomes honest, strict, exact, but its effect remains irrational because of the spontaneous transformation of all its contents by the individual.

We emphasize that this is true not just for propaganda but also for information. Except for the specialist, information, even when it is very well presented, gives people only a broad image of the world. And much of the information disseminated nowadays—research findings, facts, statistics, explanations, analyses—eliminate personal judgment and the capacity to form one’s own opinion even more surely than the most extravagant propaganda. This claim may seem shocking; but it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener: they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image. If a man is given one item of information, he will retain it; if he is given a hundred data in one field, on one question, he will have only a general idea of that question. But if he is given a hundred items of information on all the political and economic aspects of a nation, he will arrive at a summary judgment—“The Russians are terrific!” and so on.

A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyzes them. They are caught in a web of facts and must remain at the level of the facts they have been given. They cannot even form a choice or a judgment in other areas or on other subjects. Thus the mechanisms of modem information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual, who cannot get out of the field that has been laid out for him by the information. His opinion will ultimately be formed solelv on the basis o£ the facts transmitted to him, and not on the basis of his choice and his personal experience. The more the techniques of distributing information develop, the more the individual is shaped by such information. It is not true that he can choose freely with regard to what is presented to him as the truth. And because rational propaganda thus creates an irrational situation, it remains, above all, propaganda—that is, an inner control over the individual by a social force, which means that it deprives him of himself.

Ellul, J., 1973. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Reprint of the 1965 ed. Vintage, New York. pp. 84-87

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How News Media Can be Dangerous

A day after I posted The Limits of News Media as Information Sources Mano Singham posted what could even be called a companion piece, We need more analysis, less reading of tea leaves. He begins (I have reformatted it)

Political news coverage consists of roughly three parts.

  1. First there is the reporting of an actual event that occurred (i.e., what makes up the ‘new’ in news).
  2. Second, there is an explanation of the context in which the event occurred that consists of the history and background that led to the event and the people involved, plus any actual consequences, such as how a new law that has been passed will be implemented in practice and how it will affect people.
  3. And finally there is the question of What It All Means, which consists of drawing broader conclusions and predicting future events based on the news event.

It is that middle bit that gets omitted or at best seriously abbreviated from most news reports.

Without that middle bit consumers of news are left without the most important details of all.

The second part requires not only some knowledge and expertise but also time spent in careful analysis.

Without that middle bit the news story is open to feeding popular beliefs, prejudices, misinformation, ignorance. Without that middle bit news stories potentially add fuel to bigotry and stereotypical and political, cultural, racial, etc biases.

How can it be otherwise? The news stories have to be selected and presented on the basis of what will catch the attention of the consumers and give them material they find interesting. Naturally the stories be selected and presented in a way that will tap into what is going to emotionally involve readers and viewers.

Many years ago I was required to study a couple of books by Jacques Ellul, one of them titled Propaganda. One counterintuitive detail he mentioned really pulled me up. He said that the very fact of mass media overloading consumers with enormous amounts of information, that is factual information, can in effect be a way of propagandizing a society. Information overload does not allow time for analysis or reflection and investigation. It ends up fueling the beliefs and attitudes that are taken for granted, “correct”, and so forth.

Jacques Ellul

The Limits of News Media as Information Sources

Frequently when I post something on topical subjects (e.g. “understanding Hamas”) someone will comment that my views are grounded in ignorance and supply a link to a webpage, often a mainstream news media article, to enlighten me of the facts.

When I see a news media article I will read it but I will also be conscious that it is but a single report that cannot possibly tell the “whole story”. We know the proverbial many witnesses of a car accident.

But let’s break that down a little.

Firstly, the news media report is usually the work of a journalist who needs to collect information. How often are they an eyewitness of the event? And even if they are an eyewitness, is that enough to report “the whole story”. (Again the proverbial soldier in the trenches reporting on a battle of which he necessarily witnessed only a part.) Who does the reporter interview for the information? And recall that the questions one asks and how they are framed can determine the types of answers one gets.

We know that very often reporters will rely upon official statements. Official statements themselves are generally the claims of certain politically interested parties. So again, how can we be sure we are reading “the whole story”?

And the media organization itself needs to generate revenue. They need to produce a product (news) that will in turn be sure to generate that revenue, so it is necessary for them to best study how to present the news, as well as to make decisions about what news should be prioritized. News has to sell to a particular market for the media organization to survive.

And that will always necessarily mean much detail needs to be stripped from the story, if background informative details were ever collected in the first place.

People who work for the organization are no doubt on the whole very sincere and believe wholeheartedly that they are doing a public service. That’s good, too, for the organization because it doesn’t want to struggle with any sort of cognitive dissonance.

So I keep in touch with “what’s happening” through mainstream media but at the same time I understand how filtered what I am reading necessarily is. It can never tell me the whole story.

For the whole story I always need to do a little bit of digging behind the media reports. That usually means finding reputable research into the actors of various news events. I mean scholarly and/or investigative journalist research. And I can never rely on just one piece of research. I always need to follow up the sources of certain works (via following through the sources mentioned in endnotes) and comparing with other research by other scholars, perhaps with a different perspective or background.

Or at least it means searching out news reports from diverse and often contrary political and other points of view. Such diversity won’t give final answers, in most cases, but it will generally make one aware of questions that need to be asked of each report and where further information is required.

And what I invariably learn is that one comes to have a very different perspective and understanding of what one reads in the news media when one comes to know a little of the persons, the organizations, the history of what is being reported.

Just to reduce this to a micro and personal example:

Some years back there was a newspaper and tv news report of a man who had shot another, killed him. In the news media he was a murderer, a villain in a dramatic story that caught the public’s attention. It just so happened that I knew that man personally for some years and considered him a friend. I spoke to him while he was waiting for his trial and later visited him a few times in prison. I knew a side of him that never made it to the media, or if it did, it was always in a distorted fashion. I am thinking of the many times his wife had betrayed him, his daughters turned against him, and I could only say I would have absolutely no idea what I would have done had I been in the same situation as he had been. But through the media the story was always black and white, or at most just a few hints of grey but never enough to lead anyone to question the core of the narrative.

Stories of events in the mainstream media are never comprehensive and can never, by definition, provide a genuine understanding of what has happened, why, or seriously inform us about the persons involved.

 

Still True After All These Years

The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news—things which on their own merits would get the big headlines—being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

From George Orwell’s 1945 Preface to Animal Farm

It surely applies to more than just the media industries in countries like the UK, USA, Australia . . . . .

 

Democracy, data and dirty tricks —

Are any readers old enough to recall Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders? I see Amazon sells a reissued 2007 edition of it. My copy was already old, published 1960, when I first read it. Hidden Persuaders was my introduction to the way the science of psychology was used by the marketing industry to influence potential buyers by subtle manipulation of emotions.

Much later I finally caught up with Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky; then Taking the Risk Out of Democracy by Alex Carey. Many other works on media have followed and I can now say I have some awareness of the history and methods of how stealthily propaganda has worked to guide “the masses” ever since Edward Bernays and the World War 1 era.

Tonight I watched Four Corners play the ITN documentary Democracy, data and dirty tricks. The promotional blurb reads

Four Corners brings you the undercover investigation that has left social media giant Facebook reeling through the unmasking of the secretive political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Four months in the making, this ITN investigation for Channel 4 in Britain used hidden cameras to reveal the tactics used by the UK firm Cambridge Analytica to influence elections and undermine the democratic process in several countries.

Propagandists know the importance of avoiding any message that looks like propaganda. Soviet and Nazi propaganda was too crude to genuinely persuade millions. Hence control by fear was even more important than the message. Propagandists in western style democracies are far more successful because they are far more subtle. They know how to manipulate behaviour by appealing to emotions. Head arguments and cold facts are irrelevant.

In the program key persons in Cambridge Analytica are filmed boasting how they won the election for Trump by a mere handful of 40,000 votes in key states. It was their research that led them to target those states and focus on the margin of potential swing voters.

Can we begin to raise awareness and push for the role of propaganda to be taught in high schools as part of a core civics curriculum? Without such community awareness how can we expect democracy to ever survive surface.

 

 

 

 

 

Forbes Posts Article on the Cruelty of White Evangelicalism, Then Pulls It

On 11 March 2018, Forbes posted Chris Ladd’s article, “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” It didn’t last the day. You’ll probably want to read it, as well as Forbes’ weak-tea explanation for taking it down.

We’ve discussed many times here how censorship traditionally works in the West. The government rarely gets involved, nor does need to, since the press dutifully polices itself. Even in the digital age, our media gatekeepers still keep at it, perhaps out of habit, but mostly out of cowardice.

These dinosaurs, reaching the end of the line, stumbling toward extinction, haven’t given up yet. And when somebody crosses the line, they’re ready to scold the offenders and tell them their message is “way out of bounds.”

As we all know, the truth has boundaries.