MEDIA METER SPECIAL: A Crash Course in Media Propaganda Techniques
By Cheryl Seal
Back in the good ole days of real journalism, a clear and extremely important distinction was made between REPORTING and COMMENTARY. They were as distinct from one another as a three-piece pin stripe suit is from a T-shirt and pair of baggie Bermudas. Being exposed to today's version of "reporting" is like being at a formal affair and seeing the host show up in a vest, tie and suit jacket over a pair of stained, baggy Bermudas.
Here at Democrats.com we are clear about what we do: It is COMMENTARY, with links to news articles. We do not, like NBC, AP, or NPR, pretend to present "objective" journalism while presenting outrageously biased commentary. We ARE outrageously biased commentators and proud of it! In fact, we identify ourselves up front for what we are: DEMOCRATS.COM - as opposed to our Republican counterparts who hide their real agenda beneath intentionally vague, patriotic-sounding titles like "FreeRepublic," or "Citizens United." We don't pretend to be anything but what we are.
Here is a "mini-course" in some of the propaganda techniques being used by the media and how to spot them.
First of all, to recognize propaganda, one must first know what real reporting is supposed to look like:
NUMBER ONE BASIC RULE OF REPORTING: The Facts, Ma'am, Just the Facts
Reporters should NEVER EVER infer the thoughts, feelings, intentions, motivations, or mood of a subject(s).
As one seasoned, cigar-chomping editor I once knew said, "If ya wanna editorialize, write an editorial."
Here's a seemingly innocent example of "editorializing": On a recent NBC news show, a reporter stated that "Democrats were delighted" by the lapse of the ban on assault weapons. This statement, of course, makes the Democrats seem almost ghoulish - as if the political gain of the lapse was all they cared about! But unless this reporter had taken a scientific poll (a sampling of, ideally, at least 1,000 Democrats) and at least 75-80% of these respondants had asserted definitively that they were "delighted," the reporter cannot factually make this inference. He might factually state that "some Democrats were delighted" if he actually had spoken to several who expressed that sentiment, but otherwise, the statement "The Democrats were delighted," has absolutely no foundation in fact - though presented as "news."
But the news is riddled with inferences, opinion, and spin disguised as "reporting." And it is used to boost Bush as well as to slam Kerry. Some of it is blatant - like a recent CBS correspondent's report on the insurgency in Iraq that concluded with the statement that the violence perpetrated by rebels would probably continue, driven by "their vengeful God." In the days of real journalism, this guy would've gotten lambasted by a news editor, if not demoted to covering traffic reports.
Then there are the more subtle strategies. One insidious tactic increasingly relied on by today's "journalists," as well as their editors, is "loaded" words and phrases. Loaded words are those which push the reader to draw a conclusion about a story. For example, if a politician states quite matter of factly that he voted against a certain bill, a reporter or copyeditor (the folks who write headlines) could put a completely different spin on this innocent statement by saying SENATOR RUTABAGA ADMITS HE VOTED AGAINST THE FARM BILL. The simple little word "admits" makes it sound as if Sen. Rutabago knew he had done something shameful, had tried to hide it and was now fessing up! Here's some examples of how a simple headline can be spun by changing key words:
Here's a basic, factual headline: KERRY SAYS ECONOMY IS NOT REBOUNDING
Now check out how the sense of this can be changed:
KERRY CLAIMS ECONOMY IS NOT REBOUNDING
Implied: Kerry is making a probably unfounded accusation
KERRY WARNS ECONOMY IS NOT REBOUNDING
implied: Kerry is sounding an alarm
KERRY SUGGESTS ECONOMY IS NOT REBOUNDING
implied: Yep, there's that "waffler" again - can't come right out and make a definite statement!
Here's an example of a loaded phrase that is being used repeatedly by the mainstreamers on Democrats and Kerry in particular: "seized on," as in "the Democrats seized on the issue," or "Kerry seized on Bush's statements," etc This loaded phrase," which implies desperation, opportunism, over-eagerness, etc. has yet to be applied by mainstreamers to Bush, even when it would be ever so much more appropriate!
Loaded headlines have been flying fast and furious as bullets since CBS presented its story on Bush's failure to honorably fulfill his commitment to the Texas National Guard during Vietnam. Here's an example: "Dan Rather Concedes Documents are Suspect." Nowhere in the article - or in anything Rather has said so far - suggests he has he "conceded" anything! In fact, in the story that went with this headline, there is considerable information substatiating the authenticity of the CONTENT of the documents. But as any news editor knows, people typically read the headline and the first few paragraphs. And the info on the documents authenticity is cleverly tucked near the end of the article. This "hide the meat" story structure is an oft- used propaganda technique.
Another form of loaded phrase manipulation currently practiced by the mainstream media is what could be described as 'Big Lie Loops." Hitler's propagandists famously declared that if you a tell a lie often enough, people will believe it. So the media makes sure that loaded phrases keep reappearing to keep various lies afloat. Back in the run up to war, Al Queda and Saddam were linked in headlines and stories so often and systematically that by eve of war, an astounding 65% of Americans had been brainwashed into believing Saddam Hussein was actually involved in 9/11!!
They are doing the same "Big Lie Loop' strategy with Kerry: the Bush campaign's favorite loaded phrase for Kerry is 'Flip Flop" or "Waffler." So the media makes sure that these phrases are systematically - and pointlessly - woven into headlines and story text to keep the brainwashing potential high. I just found a classic example in the "Baltimore Sun" - a paper that has been taken over by a Chicago-based news corporation and corporazi editors and now rarely reflects the needs or attitudes of the liberal, 60%-black city where it is taking up valuable space. Anyway, on PAGE ONE of the weekend edition (Sept 18), ABOVE THE FOLD was the headline: WAFFLER PORTRAYAL HAUNTS KERRY. Unbelievable! The only reason for this headline (which makes sure the word "waffler" is the FIRST word) and its ridiculously prominent placement is "Big Lie Loop" value. As Kerry's message grew more bulls-eye targeted over the past 10 days, more sharply clear, the media has frantically scrambled to keep "flip flop," or "waffler" in prominent play. At the same time, the use of loaded phrases "decisive," "tough on terror," etc. used in references to Bush have stepped up.
On NBC on 9/16, Tom Brokaw's intro to the latest news on Bush vs. Kerry gratuitously wove "flip-flop" in: "Bush Accuses Kerry of Continuing to Flip-flop on Iraq."
Another standard technique now being used is what I call the "putting words in Kerry's mouth scam." For example, many major newspapers put out stories that claimed that Kerry said he would have "voted to go to war" even knowing there were no WMDs in Iraq. This was worked into headlines, and into the first three paragraphs of dozens of stories. Trouble is, Kerry never said that. His actual words were that he would have voted to authorize the president to declare war in a case of imminent threat. Not quite the same thing, eh? This week, the "putting words in Kerry's mouth scam" is focused on Kerry's confronting Bush over his undisclosed intention to call up more troops after the election. This has now become "Kerry says Bush has secret plan," "Kerry accuses Bush of secret plan..." . Kerry did not claim Bush had a "secret plan." But by using these loaded words, it gives the impression that Kerry is merely pushing a "conspiracy theory."
The Systematic Blurring of the Line between Commentary and Real Reporting
''THE PICKLER': A.merican P.ropaganda's Big Bertha of Propaganda
If you want to view several articles of classic, outrageous propaganda, just track down any political story written by Nedra 'Tokyo Rose" Pickler. She is so infamous for her slanted, anti-Kerry, anti-Democrat writing that she is simply called "The Pickler" by many liberal bloggers. Pickler isn't subtle in her manipulations - she euphemistically hits her readers over the head with her message. If Pickler were a columnist, this would be fine. But she is being pawned off on the public as a real "reporter." Pickler is a primary example of what has been done to the media - systematically and with intent - over the past decade: blur the line between reporting and commentary so that reporting can be more easily manipulated for political purposes.
I can't count the number of times I have had to explain to readers that I AM NOT A REPORTER - I am a commentator. Even fans want to call me an "investigative reporter" for some of my in-depth commentaries that include facts one would hope to see in the mainstream media but rarely do. But I have too much respect for journalism to contribute to the assault on its integrity by pretending to be anything but an opinionated commentator!
I suspect that what has happened is that the public has become overly saturated and thus more immune to the rantings of Limbaugh, Savage, et al., who seem increasingly more like pathetic, almost comical old blowhards whose material is listened to as an entertaining sideshow not to be taken seriously, like Jerry Springer. So now they are trying to reclaim the lost credibility by inserting the same message more sneakily into what appear to be bonafide news reports.
Btw - the rightwing radio show was invented by the GOP in 1936 to promote Alf Landon by tearing down FDR. The shows were then just 30 minutes long - 30 minutes of vitriolic smears against the president, attacking everything from his policies to his wife, personal appearance and even his dog (Fallah). After WWII, the GOP recruited "refugees" from Hitler's propaganda squads to help shape their strategy - and that basic strategy underlies the GOP's approach today. The only difference between 1936 and now is sophistication and absence of independent newspapers to counter the mud slide.
Here's an example of a Pickler hatchet job: http://cnn.netscape.cnn.com/news/story.jsp?&idq=/ff/story/0001%2F20040918%2F0623660856.htm&sc=1131&photoid=20040917DXF101&floc=NW_1-T
To call and complain to AP about Pickler, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and make sure you include Pickler's name in caps in the message bar. Or call 1-212-621-1500.
BLAST FROM THE PAST: Slanted News Techniques from the McCarthy Era have Been Revived
Back in the 1950s, veteran journalist Arthur Rowse (NPR, Washington Post, News Week, etc.) tried to sound the alarm about the systematic news slanting that was being practiced by the mainstream media. He tried repeatedly to get a book published - working title "Reader Be Damned" but could find no publisher willing to be a whistleblower. Years later, Rowse put boxes of his notes from the late 50s/early 60s out on the curb before his suburban DC area home with other cast offs of spring cleaning. In a truly providential twist of fate, I was given the boxes, which had been scooped up by a "trash picking enthusiast." Never has the information been more important because we are once again in a "McCarthyesque" period in which the media has sacrificed truth for gain.