Three ways to hide propaganda

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Quite a number of newspapers had on the front page this past week a decision by Wal-Mart to “slash prices on generic drugs to $4 for a month’s supply.” Actually, the Wal-Mart plan—initially limited to the Tampa, Florida area but soon to expand nationwide—will only cover 300 out of roughly 11,000 generic drugs available, but that didn’t stop Florida Guv Jeb Bush from claiming that “This act of good corporate citizenship will help consumers manage health care costs.”

Wal-Mart: a “good corporate citizen?” Well, it’s true, as the Los Angeles Times politely put it, that “Wal-Mart offers little in the way of health benefits to its employees.” Maybe they’re talking about the fact that over one-half of Wal-Mart employees—at Wal-Mart, they are called “associates”—have no health benefits at all. Or, possibly, that the average full-time “associate” electing for family coverage would have to spend between 22 and 40 percent of his or her income just to cover the premiums and medical deductibles.

One has to read pretty deeply into the news reports to find out that “there is a huge profit margin in the generics,” and that “Wal-Mart appears to be taking some of those profits from the traditional middlemen to lower the prices it is charging for these generic drugs.”

The Times report also stated, without comment, that “Wal-Mart said that by covering one-fifth of the generic drugs it prescribes at its more than 3,000 United States pharmacies, the new program would make it possible for thousands of people to buy drugs they either cannot afford or currently ration, sometimes by cutting pills in half, to cut costs.”

Nowhere in any of the numerous news accounts I read did I see any attempt to engage with the obvious questions: Why are so many lifesaving drugs unaffordable to so many people in the first place? Shouldn’t a PR gimmick like the Wal-Mart decision to “slash” prices on a few drugs be unnecessary and irrelevant in a wealthy country like the United States?

Instead of delving into such ideas, the Times chose to end its September 22nd report, amazingly, with this paragraph: “Wal-Mart’s chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., said that ‘competition and market forces have been absent from our health care system, and that has hurt working families tremendously.'”

Hidden Propaganda 2: Thank You, Mr. Billionaire
All over the news last week was the story of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s decision “to fight global warming by investing in alternative fuels with all the profits from his Virgin airline and train businesses over the next 10 years—an estimated $3 billion.”

Sir Richard’s announcement, made at a “three-day summit of political leaders, tycoons, corporations and nonprofit groups” in Manhattan last week organized by Bill Clinton, was widely reported in the nation’s media. The New York Times, in its report, found an expert in philanthropy who commented that Sir Richard’s decision is an example of a shift in “the way wealthy people were pursuing a legacy.” The expert said that “This is all new—the scale, the vision, the techniques and the decentralized nature of it.” The Times also produced a quote from another well-known billionaire, Ted Turner, who “called Sir Richard’s plan a ‘brilliant move.'”

All in all, the coverage was mostly more of the familiar “feel-good” news about the power of billionaires to change the world for the better—as long as there’s a profit in it. Turner mentioned that part of the “brilliance” of the airline mogul’s move is that “He’ll probably make more money off of this [“philanthropy,” that is] than he would off the airlines themselves.” Save the world, and make a handsome profit = Brilliant!

I don’t know what the average person makes of stories like this one, but I had three thoughts about it.

First of all, I wondered what $3 billion means in the scheme of things. Now, don’t get me wrong: $3 billion dollars is a lot of money, at least for people like you and me. In fact, it is roughly equivalent to my personal income for the next 200,000 years, should I continue to work that long (yes, I said two hundred thousand years). For a government like the United States, however, which collects taxes from hundreds of millions of individuals and businesses every year, this is not a lot of money.

Consider, for example, that one major public custodian of the environment in this country, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has an annual budget of around $8 billion. If you have a calculator handy, you will see that Sir Richard’s annual commitment equals about four percent of the annual funding for this single agency.

My second thought: The Bush administration, in its most recent budget proposal, wanted to cut the funding for the EPA by about 6 percent, which amounts to fifty percent more than the total commitment from Sir Richard. If one adds together the total cuts recommended by the Bush administration for this federal environmental agency over the past four years, the cuts would total about 13 percent ($8.4 billion in 2004, $7.3 billion proposed for fiscal 2007).

My third thought: There were maybe thirty or forty articles in the nation’s press on the $3 billion decision by Sir Richard and its potential impact on global warming. In contrast, my database search of the nation’s newspapers for the month of February (that’s the month that the “President” announced his 2007 budget) revealed not a single article focusing on the impact of the proposed cut in EPA funding, despite the fact that this elected official’s decision would equal between $4 billion and $5 billion over the same period as Sir Richard’s commitment.

Hidden Propaganda 3: Where Is It Hiding?
So, I’ve just looked at two stories: one about Wal-Mart making generic prescription drugs available at tremendously-reduced costs, and another one about a British billionaire plowing some of his billions into research to address the threat of global warming. How are these two stories connected, and where in the world do I see Propaganda in the two of them?

Well, in the Wal-Mart story we see wide media coverage of an act of public-health “good citizenship” on the part of a wealthy and powerful corporation, coupled with a general failure on the part of the media to discuss the broader public health failure which is the very thing that makes this corporate decision (I guess) relevant and newsworthy. In the Branson story, we see wide media coverage of an act of environmental “good citizenship” by a wealthy and powerful individual, coupled with a system-wide failure by the media to report on what is certainly a more significant act of environmental “bad citizenship” by our elected leadership.

What amounts to Propaganda, in my mind, is the failure to mention an idea that, within the doctrinal system unconsciously accepted by most of us, is essentially unthinkable. And that unthinkable idea is the idea that effective action in regard to major social problems could be undertaken by means of non-wealthy, non-corporate entities (you and me) working together—through government or in other ways.

By failing to mention that idea, while highlighting the behavior of unaccountable private entities—in regard to health care, global warming, or whatever—the media AS AN INSTITUTION perpetuates a number of important ideas, including the idea that the only power that is effective is private power. That idea may be true, but it’s highly debatable, and thus should not be assumed as the basis for news stories. Such an idea is not a “fact.” It’s an attitude, or perhaps a belief, or maybe a conception about how the modern world works. Attitudes, Beliefs, and Conceptions, you’ll recall from last week, are what I call the ABCs of Propaganda.

A conspiracy? No. It’s highly unlikely that any of the individual reporters or editors who collectively shape the daily news patterns intend to perpetuate such ideas, or any ideas at all. But that doesn’t matter. If the effect of these sorts of patterns of reporting is to reinforce certain ideas and marginalize other ones, then that amounts to Propaganda. And the very unconsciousness and non-factual nature of it is what makes it what I call Deep Propaganda.

Since this idea—the idea that influential people can be unconscious Propagandists—really bothers some people, let me put it another way: Imagine that a significant number of the big-time journalists who set the media agenda had not unconsciously accepted the idea (probably a long, long time ago) that power inevitably rests in the hands of a few wealthy individuals and corporations. Once you imagine that, then you might imagine that those journalists would not consider the thoughts and actions of the wealthy more newsworthy than the actions (or inaction) of publicly-accountable entities. Finally, you can imagine that the general patterns of the daily news that we all experience would be significantly different. That’s a lot of imagining!

To further illustrate, I’ll quickly give a hint of how I might cover the two stories I highlight this week, were I to suddenly be made the Mega-Editor of the U.S. Media.

First, the Branson story. I likely would not cover this one at all. If I did cover it, I would place it in the context of a gesture—perhaps a cynical one, perhaps a well-intentioned one—but in any case one that is far less significant than the our larger, system-wide, failure to seriously address the genuine crisis of global warming. I might even find an “expert” or two to question the social usefulness of letting a single individual amass such wealth in the first place (and by running a polluting business like airlines, to boot!).

In regard to the Wal-Mart story, I would place it in the context of the ongoing lunacy of leaving drug research and development (largely) in the hands of the private sector. Furthermore, that lunacy would have gotten extensive and ongoing treatment in the media for years before the Wal-Mart decision was ever reported. In fact, it’s possible to imagine that, if we had the kind of media that I would like to see, we wouldn’t even HAVE such a thing as Wal-Mart, since our economic system—like the media that reports on it—would be largely cooperatively-owned and controlled, with no single corporation having as much power as Wal-Mart seems to have.

As you can see, the very nature of Deep Propaganda is that it is much more than simply the foundation for our daily news reports. It also is the foundation for our understanding of the everyday policies and institutions that shape our lives. To question Deep Propaganda, then, is to question the basis for “the way things are.”

Consider that recent opinion surveys show that approximately two-thirds of United Statesians right at this moment believe that “things in this country are seriously off on the wrong track.” Maybe this is a particularly good time to do some serious questioning of “the way things are.”

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