A perfect storm for propoganda


There are five factors in the current information environment that together constitute a sort of perfect storm for the promotion of certain ideas that serve the interests of powerful people and institutions. That is, they make for a perfect storm for the rise of propaganda. They are:

1. shrinking resources for journalism,
2. power shifting to elite journalists,
3. power shifting to official sources,
4. individualism as a way of seeing the world, and
5. individual identity and psychology

1. Shrinking resources for journalism. Between 2001 and 2009 it is estimated that approximately 25 percent of newsroom staffs at the nation’s newspapers were eliminated. I focus on newspapers because “most of what the public learns is still overwhelmingly driven by traditional media-particularly newspapers.” That’s according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

2. Power shifting to elite journalists. As newsrooms continue to shrink, fewer and fewer newspapers can afford to send reporters out to see things for themselves. Former New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Bill Walsh reported last year that “daily papers in every major American city have scaled back their Washington bureaus or closed them altogether.”

Walsh adds that “To save money, newspapers fill their pages with stories from subscription wire services such as The Associated Press and Reuters.” In addition to wire services, many newspapers now save money by subscribing to one of the news syndicates run by the major papers, such as The New York Times Syndicate, Tribune Media Services, the Washington Post Writers Group, and so forth. For example, on the day I am writing these words, every non-local story in my local newspaper the Star Tribune comes from the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the LA Times, or simply “news services.” This is a typical day, and it’s most likely the same in your town. So national and international news events are now mostly reported from the point of view of the “big boys” at the big papers. Or, as former New York Times columnist Russell Baker calls them, “top-drawer newspeople.” I quoted Baker a few years ago in these pages on the subject of class and its effects on journalism. He wrote in The New York Review of Books in 2003:

“Today’s top-drawer Washington newspeople are part of a highly educated, upper-middle-class elite; they belong to the culture for which the American political system works exceedingly well. Which is to say, they are, in the pure sense of the word, extremely conservative…This is not a background likely to produce angry reporters and aggressive editors…the capacity for outrage had been bred out of them.”

I have also reported in these pages on the difficulty in finding out what “top-drawer newspeople” are paid, but the minimum salary for a “top” reporter at the NY Times this year is estimated to be about $93,000.00. That puts them in the top 10 percent of income earners in the United States. In contrast, a top reporter at the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader makes just $36,000, somewhat below the median income in the United States.

I’m not talking only about income, but more broadly I’m talking about the somewhat-difficult-to-measure issue of social class. Press critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun puts it simply, saying that “the upper strata of the Washington press corps has always come from the prep-school-Ivy-league circuit, the sons and daughters of America’s ruling class.”

When these “sons and daughters” receive information from other members of their class, they are naturally inclined to believe them. People tend to more readily believe people who are “just like them.” That’s why we so often see news reports that claim to tell us what “Democrats believe,” or “Republicans believe.” Reporters don’t know what these people “believe,” they only know what they say they believe. But “top-drawer” reporters are not skeptical of their powerful sources, so they report their statements as fact.

3. Power shifting to official sources. Elite journalists may still be on the job, but they, too, are being forced to work with fewer resources. With less and less time available to gather information, reporters increasingly rely on people to feed it to them. The problem is, most of the time it is fed to them by powerful, non-journalistic actors who see and/or portray events from a certain self-interested point of view. PEJ puts it this way: “Shrinking newsrooms are asking their remaining ranks to produce first accounts more quickly and feed multiple platforms [blogs, websites, etc]. This is focusing more time on disseminating information and somewhat less on gathering it, making news people more reactive and less proactive.” This, in turn is “leading to a phenomenon in which the first account from newsmakers – their press conferences and press releases – make their way to the public often in a less vetted form, sometimes close to verbatim. Those first accounts, sculpted by official sources, then can rapidly spread more widely now through the power of the Web to disseminate, gaining a velocity they once lacked. That is followed quickly by commentary. What is squeezed is the supplemental reporting that would unearth more facts and context about events.”

What they mean by “supplemental reporting” is sometimes referred to as “enterprise reporting.” In the journalism world, this is defined as “stories not based on press releases or news conferences.” There is a cost associated with “enterprise reporting” – that is, what we used to call “journalism” – so we have less and less of it, and more and more of the “verbatim” passing along of what is sometimes called “spin,” and which I call public relations.

4. Individualism as a way of seeing the world. Individualism is a central part of the U.S. way of seeing the world. In the realm of journalism, this leads to a number of outcomes. For one thing, it justifies and explains why reporters are so dependent on interviews with and press conferences by the people “making the news.” The best sources for serious challenges to the groupthink of institutions is the workers, soldiers, and lower-level functionaries that have less at stake in the outcomes (and who more closely see what is really going on). And the best way to understand institutions and the systems of which they are a part is to de-focus on the individuals within them and observe outcomes and patterns over time. U.S. journalists rarely do these things, as they are trained to zero in on whichever individuals happen to be speaking for the institutions the reporters are covering. As a result, what we get are endless debates about who is to blame for something, or which executive can “turn things around,” or who is a “strong leader.” What we almost never get – due in large part to this unconscious bias towards the individual – is a serious discussion of how systems and institutions work, and how they have a life of their own.

When reporters spend most or all of their time listening to and looking at individuals speaking about their personal role in events, or that of their superiors, they come to see things through the eyes of the individuals. What’s wrong with that? Well…

5. Individual identity and psychology. Every person wants to believe they are a good/worthy/competent person. Thus, when confronted with evidence of “negative” behavior (behavior expected to meet with disapproval), most of us will take a defensive posture in the interest of retaining our idea of ourselves as good people.

Within the individual, this need to be “good” requires that one’s mission, agency, administration, or party maintain a positive identity, first of all with oneself. But secondly, one’s public identity must be protected. And here we really get into the realm of public relations.

No matter how heinous or criminal someone’s behavior may be, if you ask them directly about it, they will almost invariably have some reason why it wasn’t so bad. Maybe we tell ourselves that what we did was done in the interests of the greater good (“We had to torture those people in order to keep ourselves safe.”) Or it wasn’t our fault (“It was such a huge hurricane we couldn’t have known that the levees would break.”) Or it was out of anyone’s control (“No one could have seen the housing bubble.”) When reporters spend most of their time speaking with individuals who not only have this universal tendency, but also share many of their ABCs (attitudes, beliefs, and conceptions of how the world works), it becomes more difficult to question the basic rationale of a policy. After all, they are being repeatedly told that the failure is due to a lack of resources, or obstruction by the other party, or the cunning enemy, or bad intelligence, or… whatever the official spokesperson is paid to say. Or actually believes.

The official spokespeople, or their anonymous cronies who are so often quoted in the media, most likely do believe what they are saying. That’s partly why they are there instead of someone less invested in the PR. But it doesn’t really matter if they believe it, or if it’s just a snow job. Either way they will spend as much time as necessary in order to maintain a positive self-identity, and to maintain their good reputation with the public.

In summary, then, here is how the perfect storm for propaganda works:

Everyone needs to see themselves as a good person. When reporters talk to representatives of institutions that sometimes do horrible things, they thus hear these “good people’s” rationalizations. Reporters resemble and relate to these people, so they easily accept the rationalizations. Socialized to see things individualistically, they think these individual perspectives are not only valid, but are the best source for “truth” about what is going on.

Less well-socialized reporters might challenge these sources, but since they have failed to rise to the top of their profession (in part because they are less well-socialized), they have fallen victim to budget cuts and are out of the picture.

What remains is a group of elite, well-socialized reporters relying for their (and our) information on other elite, well-socialized spokespeople and leaders whose job, and inclination, is to put their behavior in the best light possible. The predicable result? Propaganda.