We’re surrounded by propaganda because we believe it
Nobody trusts the media today and with good reason. The media are almost without exception lying to us. Why do they lie to us?
Because we’re not paying attention and we prefer it that way.
First, we believe myths
The media foster a set of myths regarding how they function. Believing these myths impedes our individual ability to view the news from a critical perspective.
Nearly 40 years ago, I was taught the following myths while taking journalism courses in college.
Investigative journalism is mostly bunk.
Most news stories are produced through independent investigative journalism.
This is entirely untrue. Truly independent journalism of an investigative nature was only marginally true when I was studying to become a journalist, and within five years of receiving my degree, it became obvious that independent investigative journalism was on the skids. Blame the 24-hour news cycle, but the truth is it was a goal that journalists never quite achieved. Woodward and Bernstein made it seem possible, but human nature screwed it up.
Humans don’t like hard work and investigative journalism requires effort and independent thought.
Most news stories today are banged out from press releases or using a resource known as Journalist’s Resource, a product of the Harvard Kennedy School of Journalism and the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy. This newsletter provides journalists with “in depth” information on developing hot topic issues and suggests what tack journalists ought to take in their “reporting”. I first learned of the Hunter Biden laptop story from Journalist’s Resource about five minutes after the story posted on the New York Post. How did JR have “in depth” coverage of the story that quickly?
Does it matter?
Obviously, Journalist’s Resource had the information ready to go before the story ran and had already decided to tell journalists the New York Post story was a fake story, a Russian disinformation campaign. Journalists other than the New York Post reporters decided to run with that narrative, some of them even using the JR buzzwords. We now know the FBI was already investigating Hunter Biden based on information gleaned from his laptop, but for several months after the story broke, if you brought up what seemed pretty evident, “journalists” would tell you it was all a disinformation scheme and if you believed it, you were ill-informed, duped by a bot. Pay no attention to the corroborating information coming from Hunter’s business partners.
Oftentimes, when I receive my copy of Journalist’s Resource, it gives me the heads-up to know which mainstream media stories to distrust, and I go looking for other sources that might — maybe — be less biased. That way, though I might have inaccurate information, I have more of it, so my chances to digging to the truth of a matter are slightly higher than if I narrowed my sources of information.
There are a few independent investigative journalists still actively working in the news media. Sheryl Attkisson, James O’Keefe, Elijah Schaeffer, Drew Hernandez, Andy Ngo, and Glenn Greenwald are some examples of truly independent and genuinely investigative journalists. You’ll notice not many of them are on the liberal end of the spectrum — Glenn Greenwald has managed to remain true to his journalism training while still remaining firmly in the left-leaning camp. Most people I know are familiar with the names because they’ve been deemed “quacks” and “Russian bots” by the mainstream media who would love to see them regulated out of existence.
Why does the mainstream media feel that way?
The vast majority of journalists graduate from very left-leaning colleges and then go to work at left-leaning media outlets. They tend to run in herds rather than follow the path less traveled, and so their news coverage tends to be similar to the news coverage of their fellow journalists. Bob Woodward makes occasional attempts to remember his past glory and when he manages it, he’s still an amazing journalist, but for the most part, he is an establishment journalist these days and often sounds like he’s writing directly from Journalist’s Resource. Similarly, Anne Applebaum of the Atlantic used to be a steller journalist and this week totally dismissed the Hunter laptop story as not worth paying attention to. It’s as if their left-leaning political persuasions render them incapable of agreeing with reality if it might make their preferred political party look bad.
Anyone not walking in lockstep with Journalist’s Resource is clearly peddling misinformation.
If you believe that, there’s this bridge that goes from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and I hold the deed….
Just the facts
If the Kyle Rittenhouse or Ahmaud Arbury trials taught us anything, it should be that journalists often don’t deal in facts and almost always bring their own conclusions to the story. Unfortunately, they often draw their conclusions before they gather their facts. This means they also know beforehand which facts they can ignore to write a story that reaches their predetermined conclusions.
The number of reporters I know who were unaware until the trial started that Kyle Rittenhouse didn’t kill any Black people was astounding to me. These are people I went to school with and/or worked in the field with, and they should know better, but they would go off on rants about how Rittenhouse was a white supremacist shooting black people. In fact, of the four people Rittenhouse shot at that night, the only one he missed was a Black guy — so-called Jumpkick Guy, who was apparently trying to beat Rittenhouse to death. The assailant’s testimony was so unreliable, the prosecution didn’t want to use it. Journalists didn’t bother to report that tidbit and so the American people went into the trial assuming Rittenhouse’s crime was a hate crime of a white guy indiscriminately shooting Black people, when in fact it was a self-defense trial involving a white defendent who shot three white guys who attacked him. If you watched the trial, you came to believe Rittenhouse would be dead if he hadn’t defended himself. If you didn’t watch the trial but just listened to the pundits in mainstream media, you are still pretty sure there had to be a racially-motivated hate crime there somewhere.
Somewhere in there is the truth, but you won’t likely get it from a news reporter.
Do you know that Ahmaud Arbury grabbed Travis McMichaels’ rifle? The struggle over the weapon is what led to Arbury being shot. Even though McMichaels was found guilty, the fact is Arbury provoked his own shooting. What might have happened or might not have happened if Arbury had continued on his way out of the neighborhood rather than violently confronting McMichaels? Who knows because that isn’t what happened. He grabbed the gun, McMichaels refused to give it up, and Arbury was killed. Most people are completely unaware of that detail of the McMichaels trial because journalists ignored that part of the trial.
This does not absolve the McMichaels of all guilt.
I personally had to change my opinion. I initially believed the McMichaels should be found guilty of murder because they shot Arbury without provocation. I now believe Travis McMichaels was at worst guilty of manslaughter. And, yes, you’re allowed to question the decision of a jury and a judge, whether they served justice or were intimidated by the media coverage of the trial and the suggestions that violence would occur if the verdict wasn’t what some people wanted. The moment Arbury tried to take possession of the rifle, he turned an incident of unacceptable racist stalking into a fight for life and that changes the complexion of the trial altogether.
Or should have if we’re interested in justice.
I was taught news writers were simply to report facts in their stories and leave their opinions to themselves. As a journalist, I learned how hard that is to do. We all have feelings about topics, and those feelings will color our reporting if we let them. Most reporters today report from their feelings far more than from the facts. In both of the referenced trials, journalists omitted the fact that the victims tried to grab the gun that killed them before a shot was ever fired.
The omission of those facts makes the coverage of both these cases into emotional appeals rather than fact-based journalism.
Objective news isn’t reality.
Another myth perpetuated by the news media is that there is an objective reality (actual “news”) that is simply reported. You can trust your news media, the one that supports your political affiliation or that is based in your own country. You can’t trust the news media of foreign enemies or even in-country competition because they are systematically slanting and distorting the news.
It is true that you can’t trust state-owned media. Because the government cuts their paycheck, the “journalists” working for state-owned media are highly unlikely to ever report untoward goings-on in the government. Fox News is never going to give you the inside scoop on the Murdoch family. When CNN’s primary anchor was the brother of the governor of the State of New York, you couldn’t trust anything CNN said about the Cuomo administration.
On the other hand, Al Jazeera strives for accuracy when reporting on European and American news. Would I trust their Israeli coverage? No! Would I trust their coverage of the UK? Probably. Most of the time. Maybe not always.
You can’t take media veracity for granted. Always verify.
Vast information, limited space
News writing and history parallel each other in some ways. In both cases, there is a massive background of facts and a restricted amount of space to devote to those facts. It is true the restrictions on space were somewhat alleviated with the creation of the Internet, but the store of available information also increased.
The result in both cases is that 99.9% of the “facts” are never mentioned. If objectivity or fairness in news reporting is thought of as equivalent to presenting all the facts and only the facts, objectivity and fairness are a myth. No human possesses all the facts, and there’s not enough newsprint and ink or time even in the 24-hour news cycle to present all the facts even if someone knew them all. It isn’t even possible to present all the important facts. Determining what is “important” is such a myriad and individual decision. The reporter thinks one set of facts is important, her editor thinks other facts matter more, and the readers may think the story completely missed what was important to them.
That’s a dance I’m well-familiar with.
The truth is the news media give the public what the public wants. How do they know we want it? Subscriptions and clicks. With today’s online press, it’s pretty easy for the algorithm to figure out what the public wants. Most people want to be told what they already agree with, so that’s what the newspaper in your local town (which keeps its doors open only by subscription and advertising) gives you. In a very conservative small town in the Midwest, readers might be more likely to click on stories about government corruption when the Democrats are in power. In a very liberal city on the coast, readers might be more likely to click on stories about how the government is taking care of the homeless. Neither group of readers is interested in hearing that any of this is their fault, so of course, the newspapers don’t state that. Fox News markets to conservative people, so focuses on Joe Biden’s corruption and apparent mental decline, knowing that its viewers will eat that up. They are unlikely to mention any selective editing that may have been done to make Joe look especially senile. CNN markets to progressives so focuses on Joe Biden’s green initiatives and how unemployment is dropping. They are unlikely to mention that if you substantially close down the economy for two years and then reopen it, you’re not creating jobs — you’re merely refilling jobs that were illegal last year at this time. Both feel they’re telling the truth and yet they don’t agree because of the biases held by the reporters and the slant their audience prefers.
How do you know when the media is lying to you?
You can pretty much assume that all media lie at some point or other, but critical consumers of news should always ask:
“What did the reporter leave out of this article? Would I think differently if other facts had been highlighted here? What if this article was written by someone who held the opposite point of view to the reporter who wrote this story?”
If you take a pause while reading an article and consider these three questions, you may discover a lot of news stories are little more than propaganda.
To critically assess the news may seem difficult. You have to choose to study alternative worldviews, learning how to interpret events from multiple perspectives. It doesn’t mean readers have no opinion, but they are aware of other viewpoints and can see the slant in reporting from those viewpoints. This is accomplished by seeking out multiple sources of thought and information, not simply those of the mass media. Learn to identify the viewpoints embedded in news stories. Because discerning news consumers are aware of multiple world views, they can deconstruct news stories by understanding how they might be written from different perspectives. They understand news stories are a blend of fact and interpretation and respond accordingly.
This assumes they’re well-read enough to know the difference.
Unfortunately, a lot of Americans have attended many years of schooling in which they don’t appear to have learned how to think critically. This does not require a Master’s degree or an expert instructor. It simply requires skepticism. To avoid being manipulated by journalists who report their opinions as if they were facts and often adhere to a political agenda, readers must learn to assess news stories for their clarity and accuracy. This means rejecting the notion that journalists are objective and fact-based, and paying attention to contradictions and inconsistencies in the news, particularly when these occur in the same story. Recognize journalists and their editors support an agenda in support of their own causes and interests. Most don’t think of their stories as propaganda. Many of my former colleagues believe they’re reporting the truth, not just as they see it, but as it truly is. Sometimes, their manipulation is as simple as paying attention to the facts they prefer and ignoring facts that don’t suit their agenda. How are you to know what’s not there?
You don’t unless you look to other sources for a well-rounded news experience.
Polls indicate most people would like journalism to undergo reform, but providing consumers with non-biased writing would force journalists to entertain worldviews they find objectionable. They believe they’re right and most of the journalists I know believe they need to correct the biases of, particularly conservatives, because they feel conservatives are wrong. They don’t necessarily base that on the personal knowledge of conservatives. This libertarian may be the only “conservative” they know. Journalists are as self-centered as anyone else. They believe what other people tell them about people they don’t interact with. They can’t conceive that ideas differing from their own might be right and they’re certain anyone holding a viewpoint antithetical to the ones most of their colleagues hold must be wrong.
Journalists are as tribal as anyone else.
Assuming there’s a self-aware journalist or three out there, they probably work for Fox News, Blaze TV, or the New York Post. I’m not saying these outlets present unbiased news. Fox News isn’t better than CNN because they report the conservative side of the news. They’re just as biased as CNN, but in the other direction. You’re still getting half the story, if you’re even getting that. It’s just the other half of the story from what you might have caught on CNN.
Watch both and you’ll be better informed than 90% of the country.
I applaud journalists who can write for an audience that wants a certain flavor of news, even if the journalists personally don’t agree with it. It takes a degree of self-control to accomplish that. It is the right way to do journalism, but it is also an exceedingly rare way to report the news.
Reporters aren’t supposed to determine what their readers want, think, hate, or fear. People can actually make up their own minds about the information they receive if they receive fairly complete information. It’s too bad they don’t currently. A journalist’s job is to present the news, but the demands of their job are determined by the broader society and the world views of its members. Human beings see the world in egocentric and socio-centric terms. They’re uncomfortable with having their minds broadened. They want their present beliefs and values confirmed and their tribe to win. If it loses, they want to be told the game wasn’t important, the other side cheated, or the officials were biased against them. On the other side of the equation, if their tribe is caught cheating, they want to be told the other side is misinterpreting or even manufacturing the evidence.
Notice the people are as tribalistic as the journalists who serve them?
Reform isn’t likely because journalists won’t engage with ideas they disagree with and because their readers don’t want to engage with ideas they disagree with. If journalists started presenting news based on facts rather than feelings, consumers would reject their articles as biased propaganda. How you overcome that hurdle is a mystery to me.
Regulation would fix that?
You think it would? I doubt it. There are those who say if the government just silenced the “wrong” side of any debate, the world would be a calmer, more trustworthy place, but would it? Really?
First, we don’t know what the “right” side of almost any news article truly is because we only know a portion of the facts. If we silenced one side to support the side we think is right, we would end up not knowing many facts and that lack might mean we don’t know the most important facts. We would be less informed than we currently are and that’s not a good thing.
Does it matter Hunter Biden’s laptop is being thoroughly investigated and there is growing evidence his father — our president — was involved in some deep corruption involving the governments of both Russia and Ukraine? Those two countries are now at war and if Joe Biden took money from one, the other, or both, that might influence his decision-making involving American involvement in the war. Some Americans might think it doesn’t matter. One side is wrong and the other right, and so there’s only one answer for what our involvement should be.
But do we really know?
Should we the people of America agree to go to war because our government is (possibly) responding to the highest bidder? Wouldn’t it be lovely if our media presented the facts? But they don’t. You sense it.
The polls say most people don’t trust the media. That’s because the media isn’t trustworthy.
Would regulation make that better? I don’t think so because then the government the media is supposed to be reporting on would have tremendous power to control what the media reports about the government.
Just pause and think about that a moment. The Framers said we needed a free press to report on government corruption. Currently, journalists only do that when their tribe is not in office, but do we really want the government — regardless of party control — telling journalists what they can and can’t report? How does that make news more trustworthy?
I already distrust the media and government separately. Why would I then trust them when they’re inextricably bound together?
Why would you?
Lela Markham is an Alaska-based novelist and commentator who believes we can’t reform the media, but we can reform ourselves.
Guest Author | Lelamarkham