When we think of “propaganda,” there are definitely some connotations to it. We think, usually, of World War II Germany or Soviet Russia where propaganda was not even called that, it was just “news.” In Germany, propaganda was such an effective tool for shaping the minds of people that the allies actually employed similar propaganda tools. In the United States, for example, posters imploring people to buy war bonds, grow “victory gardens,” conserve metal for the production of weapons, and so on.
It was an all-out war, being fought in the newspapers, on radio, and in official posters and the war was all around you. The government couldn’t get away with it for long, though, as people grew wise to it, and eventually the outright rah rah propaganda fell out of favor in exchange for a more subtle form of propaganda: planted news.
While it has a rich and storied history, planted stories are not unique to the past. In fact, we’ve come to learn in recent years that the government is not only still doing it, but is doing it in such a way that it’s barely discernible from real actual hard news. Often you’ll see it as the alphabet networks will refer to the same story using the same terms. Recently, the federal government under George W. Bush was very big on “Video News Releases.” They were so reviled that a bill was authored in 2005 to try and counteract the practice of pre-packaging news stories for the news networks by the federal government. Unsurprisingly, that legislation died in committee and never made it to a vote.
What made people so angry about Video News Releases was that they reeked of “propaganda.” It was a scary word! We shouldn’t do that sort of thing! Even the GAO believed that Video News Releases were propaganda unless disclosure statements came along with them. In 2004 and 2005, the government knew that they were setting themselves up for trouble. In reality all that happened was that the propaganda went from covert to more covert.
Sometimes it’s a photo op where all the cameras for all the networks just happened to be in the same place at the same time and just happened to catch a politician doing something to humanize them (like the First Lady “surprising” a Target by going in to buy just a few things).
The news media never cops to this, either. This sort of thing is what they call “news,” now. It’s newsworthy that the First Lady showed up at Target “unexpectedly” and “surprised” everyone. No one knew she was coming except for one of the largest news organizations in the world, The Associated Press, (ABC and CBS ran the story into the ground) who, like good little lapdogs immediately snapped photos and shared her shopping trip as a human interest story.
This is the sort of thing that those who are “in the know” refer to as “soft news.” It isn’t really “news,” in any sense of the word. There’s no pressing issue, story worthy of note, or narrative that affects all of us. In this case, it was just a human interest story, but it happened to coincide with an opposing narrative that Michelle Obama is cold and out of touch with every day people. Her shopping like the regular commoners happened at a time when she was receiving very heavy flak for her anti-obesity campaign, which was soundly ridiculed by nearly everyone including students at schools who found the new “compliant” lunch menus to be inedible and unappealing.
The AP, however, made sure that they were there to show everyone just how in touch she was, and how she shopped at Target just like the rest of us.
While this is mostly an innocuous example of the kind of propaganda we face on a regular basis, it isn’t always. What if the motive is much more sinister? More deceptive?
Let’s talk, for a bit, about the Benghazi attacks of 2012. Within moments of the embassy attack, the media outlets in the United States had the motive clear. It was retaliation for a YouTube video. Without exception, every major news outlet ran with the story. MSNBC (and by extension NBC News) not only went with that explanation but ran wall to wall coverage on just how bad that video actually was. MSNBC stuck with that explanation for years until leaked documents proved the exact opposite. Not only did the State Department know that the YouTube video had nothing to do with the attack on the US embassy, but was in fact planned ten days in advance of the attack.
To this day, people still insist that the YouTube video sparked the attack. Why? Because the news that it was planned well in advance never made it to the mainstream media until long after it was surpassed by other stories. When it was combined with the poor handling of security at the embassy, Hillary Clinton called Benghazi “old news,” and like good soldiers, the media fell in line and dropped the subject entirely. It was over. Why? Because Hillary Clinton said it was “old news,” and that was good enough for them.
But what if it wasn’t just the media following along on the “message” that the government was trying to put out? What if agents inside the US government were actually influencing reporters and their reporting from outside the newsroom? And even worse, what if the media were actively complying with it?
Now is where we really get into the meat and potatoes of the issue. On October 1st of this year, an email was leaked from Phillip Crowley at the State Department. It was addressed to “H,” (Hillary Clinton) and her inner circle at State. Here’s what was said:
CBS has said that the emails weren’t true and Crowley was just trying to score points with Clinton. Assuming that’s true (which, frankly, I don’t believe it is), why didn’t CBS run with that story? If someone from State was trying to influence the reporting of a story and an interview with someone as high-profile as Julian Assange, isn’t that a story in itself? Even if you completely buy the official CBS explanation of what Crowley intended, isn’t his action worthy of a story?
I sure think it is. I imagine most Americans would think it is. CBS, however, did not. Were it not for a leak, we never would’ve seen this email. That’s frightening.
Sometimes, though, we don’t even get to hide behind the backroom dealings. In some cases, the propaganda machine is blatant, obvious, and overtly troubling. Consider the President’s remarks after the shooting at Umpqua Community College. In his feigned exasperation, the President exhibited what some could call some cocky arrogance as he smugly told the media…
“I would ask news organizations, because I won’t put these facts forward — have news organizations tally up the number of Americans who’ve been killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade, and the number of Americans who’ve been killed by gun violence, and post those side by side on your news reports. This won’t be information coming from me, it will be coming from you.”
Instead of the mainstream media reminding the President that he is not, in fact, a news director, they leaped to his side to help him make his case. In what could only be called the most blatant example of the media going to bat for the President in our lifetime, they ran the stories (and most of the outlets that did didn’t even bother to provide any kind of critical analysis).
CNN was the least critical, providing a laundry list of Presidential talking points in their piece as fact. There is not a critical word to be found in the entire piece. The numbers are taken from the CDC, not broken down in any meaningful way, and a helpful graph is available which, CNN was so proud of, that they ran on their Facebook page.
Essentially their caption amounts to “We were asked, and we complied. Yay us.”
The Washington Post was somewhat skeptical of the political point of the statement, but still did the research and tossed out a piece of flaming propaganda for all to enjoy. In its piece, they added even more spin to the statement, including any strengthening they could of the numbers. They even added extra credit to their homework by digging back further into older stats to buttress their point. While they earn points for being skeptical in a token way, they lose many for the fact that they not only did the assignment as asked without question, but then did further research to make the point stronger (even with the skepticism added in).
In spite of the fact that The Washington Post does nothing to explain what “gun violence” is (whether it’s one on one crime, self defense, police shootings, suicide, etc.) they arrive at a conclusion that, unsurprisingly, is right in line with the teacher’s:
There are a lot of other factors that can be overlaid here to add some gray space: preventability, trends, definitions. Regardless, it’s clear that terrorism holds an outsized role in political debate for the demonstrated threat it poses to American citizens. It’s less clear, using solely the metric of annual deaths, that gun violence should then necessarily be the first priority.
Yeah it’s less clear, but we all know what you’re saying. While you’re making a nice point about the specifics of the gun number, you’re at the same time downplaying terrorism. If you move a see saw by making one side lighter or one side heavier, you’re still moving the see saw in your desired direction.
Then there’s Vox Media. Liberal to the bitter end, and largely considered to be the next big media outlet. Reliably in the back pocket of the President since its inception, Vox has no qualms about doing their homework.
Presented as a news story and linked to from his Twitter account, Zack Beauchamp bragged about doing his assignment.
In it, after gushing about the President’s “impassioned” speech, he made sure to praise the President for his statement:
“The point Obama is making is clear: We spend huge amounts of money every year fighting terrorism, yet are unwilling, at the national level, to take even minor steps (like requiring background checks on all gun sales nationally) to stop gun violence.”
The narrative that we don’t address gun violence is a common refrain, and it’s still untrue. For instance, Beauchamp here calls for background checks completely ignoring the fact that there was nothing in this man’s history that would’ve set one off, his guns were all purchased legally, they were purchased from a federally licensed firearms dealer (which was how they were found to be purchased legally in the first place) and none of the guns violated any laws.
Even though he went to bat swinging at every pitch and got everything wrong aside from the raw numbers, his homework assignment and the thoroughness with which he completed it, earned him a Tweet.
I’m sorry, but if you’re in the media and the President is thanking you for the way in which you framed a story that he told you to write, shouldn’t you be horrified? A real journalist would be. Then again, a real journalist probably wouldn’t have done the assignment to begin with.
But a propagandist would!
The time is now and more than ever to pay all media stories the skeptical eye they deserve. We are being spun, and it’s happening with reckless disregard for the truth or journalistic integrity. When the White House can plant a story and mainstream media outlets not only run with it but work to make the point stronger, there is a serious integrity issue that should immediately turn us away from what we’re reading.
It’s become cliche to say you shouldn’t trust the mainstream media, but if recent incidents are any indication, that’s a cliche I’ll be more than happy to take into my heart and make a way of life.