“Pretty kitty!” cries the toddler — as he reaches to pet the fluffy black critter with the white stripes that’s wandered into the yard.
Pffffft! Some kitty!
Experience teaches its lessons vividly. But when it comes to evaluating information that we have no personal experience with, even many educated adults can’t tell the kitty (truth) from the skunk (propaganda and disinformation).
Has this ever happened to you?
Reading the morning paper, you come across a wire-service article on a subject you know well — guns. The article is filled with biased language (“gun violence,” “spraying bullets” “million moms”) and statistics that are either made up or cooked from highly unscientific methodology (“12 students killed by guns every day,” “43 times more likely to be killed by a gun in your own home”). You grumble about media bias, then turn the page. There you read an article from the same wire service. But this one is on a subject you have no particular knowledge of. “World Population Headed for 10 Billion by 2010.” “Unemployment Reaches New High of 9.3 Percent.” “Study Shows Women’s Risk of Heart Disease as High as Men’s.” “Polar Ice Caps Shrinking,” “Income Gap Increases between Blacks and Whites,” “New Vaccine is Safe, Says CDC.”
And you believe it. Because you have no specific reason NOT to. You may even pass the latest newsbit to co-workers at the proverbial water cooler. Or worse, you base votes, daily anxieties, political contributions, and donations to charity on what you’ve learned. Your children hear similar information on TV and they believe it. They go to school, where their teachers treat such news stories as fact. The entire culture is steeped every day in “news” whose credibility relies entirely on our blind faith.
Yet every other news item may be as untrustworthy as that anti-gun editorial that masqueraded as “news.”
How do we tell truth from fiction, or recognize when half-truths and twisted language are being used to manipulate us, without spending our lives tracking down every obscure databit or factoid behind every news story? We can’t. Not 100 percent — though we’ll describe some easy ways to recognize those propaganda skunks when we see them. But first, how did things get this way?
“The science of ruling”
It all began with Sigmund Freud.
More precisely, it began with Edward L. Bernays, Freud’s American nephew and disciple. In the early 20th Century, Bernays took the crude, razz-ma-tazz occupation of press agentry, added psychological manipulation, laid it all on top of some of the most shocking elitism imaginable — and created a little-understood but all-pervasive pseudoscience: public relations.
Here’s what Bernays believed about people like you and me:
- That we are driven by “the passions of the pack in … mob violence and the passions of the herd in … panic.”
2. That we have “logic-proof compartments” in our minds that “prevent [us] from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction.”
3. And that we are “remarkably susceptible to leadership.”
These weren’t just casual observations. An interviewer who spoke with Bernays late in his long life was struck by the way he repeated and repeated his distrust of ordinary people, and his belief that we not only don’t think, but can’t think.
Bernays believed that he and other members of the elite were exactly the leaders we needed to save us from our primitive, animal-like selves — and to save orderly society from us.
“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind,” he wrote, the elite could “control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it … just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline.” He further said, “The duty of the higher strata of society — the cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual — is therefore clear. They must inject moral and spiritual motives into public opinion.”
Inject their idea of “moral” and “spiritual,” that is. And they weren’t merely using metaphors. Bernays and the intellectual, governmental elite for whom he practiced his new “science” literally believed that they must “creat[e] man-made gods … who assert subtle social control” to “bring order out of chaos.”
Of course, another word for “chaos” is freedom — the millions of free choices made by individuals.
What Bernays and his followers aimed for instead was a kind of hive-like cooperation. Their task: to persuade us to see the world exactly as they wish us to see it — so that we would then live as they wish us to live, buy what they wish us to buy, believe what they wish us to believe, fear what they wish us to fear, and hate whom they wish us to hate.
Foundations, “experts” and mass manipulation
The first thing Bernays did was to start establishing “… more institutes, funds, institutions, and foundations than Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Filene together.”
Why? Because if it’s necessary to “scientifically” manage our “group mind,” then who better do it than certified “experts” and sages — people we are predisposed to trust without question?
Bernays’ institutes, however, were designed to produce whatever statistics or pronouncements Bernays and his clients wished.
For instance, Bernays neglected to tell the public that his Temperature Research Foundation, whose goal was “to disseminate impartial, scientific information concerning the latest developments in temperature control as they affect the health, leisure, happiness, and economy of the American people” was actually funded by the nice folks selling Kelvinator refrigerators.
That pattern has continued to this day — with thousands of (tax-exempt!) research foundations aggressively promoting everything from genetically engineered foods (with funding from Montsanto, DuPont, and Coca Cola) to citizen disarmament, and with charitable foundations provoking anxiety over an endless stream of new, “scientifically proven” problems.
Governments, war, and catastrophe
Using dubious studies and well-paid “experts” to sell products or politics is, sadly, not the worst of Bernays’ legacy as the founder of modern public relations.
It was Bernays who, working for the U.S. government, helped whip Americans into World War I by propagating the mantra “Make the world safe for democracy.”
Just as Bernays was Freud’s disciple, Bernays himself had disciples. Here’s one you’ll recognize: Joseph Goebbels. Hitler’s propaganda chief used Bernays’ book Crystalizing Public Opinion as the basis of his campaign to prepare Germany for the destruction of the Jews.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, it came out that that many of the most terrible claims made about Saddam Hussein and Iraq had been issued by the giant PR firm, Hill & Knowlton. And who was its client? The government of Kuwait. Some claims were true, some doubtful. But true or false, Americans were shamefully manipulated into war frenzy by covert, highly paid agents of a foreign government.
(Pretty ironic that the very elitists who sought to save us from our allegedly savage natures have spent so much effort coaxing us into war and destruction.)
Most of the daily PR that masquerades as news doesn’t produce such calamities. Nevertheless, its overall impact is dangerous. It helps destroy both independent thought and freedom. It helps transfer money and power from individuals to giant institutions.
Are we saying that every journalist working today is consciously lying with the goal of controlling us? No. But from journalism school onward, reporters are steeped in the premises of control — the belief that the duty of the communications elite is not to find out the truth and convey information, but to mold the masses.
Even when they don’t set out to deceive us, reporters often propagate false or misleading information. Because of time pressures, budget limitations, demands from their bosses, personal biases, and sometimes through sheer laziness, reporters often simply pass along “news” provided to them by corporations, foundations, political organizations, and government agencies. They may trim it, rearrange it, reword it a bit, and add an interview to it. But one thing they rarely do is seriously investigate the reliability of information that’s handed to them.
And every one of those institutions producing those news releases and white papers has an agenda. They want your tax money, your submissiveness, your contributions, your faith, your purchases, your unquestioning belief in their causes, and ultimately they want to control what you believe, how you live, and what you think.
Or what you think you think.
Don’t get skunked
Here are nine simple tips to avoid getting skunked by biased news.
1. If you see a statistic, doubt it. “Three million Americans homeless,” “12 students killed by gun violence every day.” “Average home price rises.” Unless you’ve personally reviewed the data and the methodology, assume all statistics are untrustworthy. In the three examples given here, the one about homelessness was simply made up by political activist Mitch Snyder and repeated for years by irresponsible journalists. The claim about dead students rests on several bizarre assumptions: first, that anyone under 24 is a “child,” then that all “children” are “students,” then there’s a dollop of sheer imagination added on top of that. The one about “average” home prices … well, if you understand the differences between “means,” “medians,” “averages,” and “modes,” you can come up with almost any “average” house price you want, depending on whether your aim is to puff up the status of a community or lower its property taxes.
2. Just because a claim comes from an “expert” doesn’t make it true. Remember that every foundation or institute, even the most famous, has an agenda. The most eminent scientists can be bought. Even the most renowned “expert” can be just plain flat wrong. Dr. Arthur Kellermann (he of the “43 times more likely to die” claim) and the gently named “Americans for Gun Safety” aren’t trustworthy just because they sound unbiased or authoritative. And celebrities — even the ones on your side — don’t possess any magical connection to the truth.
3. Just because something happened after doesn’t mean it happened because of something else. When you hear a statement like, “Poverty decreased after the Johnson’s Great Society programs went into effect,” it sounds plausible to assume the programs caused the drop. But never assume a cause and effect relationship unless you can actually demonstrate one. (In fact, in this case, the connection is unprovable and the statement is downright false. Poverty rates had been plummeting before those programs took effect. They flattened out soon afterward and have remained nearly static for more than 30 years as the programs have grown bigger and more plentiful.) Unless you establish cause and effect, then it’s just as logical to assume that Al Gore lost the presidential election because Elvis was sighted at Burger King in 1978, or that Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate because Monica Lewinsky gained 90 pounds.
4. Watch for biased language. Biased language comes in many flavors. Gun owners may be most familiar with the kind that’s used against us (like the politically concocted term “assault weapon,” or “gun violence,” which makes it sound as if Glocks and Rugers are prowling the streets on their own, stalking victims). But examine the language of any news article. Look for terms designed to evoke automatic agreement or automatic distaste, rather than convey information: “sensible,” “common-sense,” “Frankenfoods,” “mean-spirited,” “slash,” “moms,” “urgent,” “needy,” “reasonable,” “for the children,” “sacred,” “greedy,” “homeland” — the list is endless. And yes, you’ll catch us using biased words in this article. Emotional words, judgmental words, angry words, stirring words belong in writing that’s designed to inspire, outrage, or otherwise move us. But when you see emotion-evoking words in the so-called news, beware.
5. Question conventional wisdom. If “everyone knows” something — but the truth can’t be independently verified, then perhaps you should be the one who questions what “everybody knows.” One thing “everybody knows,” thanks to incessant propaganda and misleading statistics, is that guns are more likely to endanger their owners and owners’ children than to prevent crime. This isn’t true, but the myth has prevented many women (the very people who most need the equalizing protection of firearms) from learning to use guns and effectively protecting their families. How many have become victims as a result of this single bit of propaganda? Remember, “everybody” once knew you could “scientifically” detect a person’s character by feeling the bumps on his head. “Everybody” once knew women shouldn’t be educated because all that brainwork would draw energy away from their reproductive organs. “Everybody” once knew the earth was flat. It’s remarkable how often “everybody” gets it wrong.
6. If the news makes you feel fear or anxiety, take a deep breath and give yourself a reality check. Do you think it’s only a matter of time until the oceans are dead and devoid of living creatures? Do you fear that criminals lurk on every street corner? Do you worry that the world will soon collapse in a chaos of starvation? Do you believe America is suffering from a plague of mental illness, desperately requiring treatment? Sometimes there’s genuine reason to feel anxiety about the news. There certainly was on September 11, 2001. There certainly is if a serial killer s loose in your neighborhood. But most of the time, when we read “scientific” or sociological “news” reports on “rising tide of gun violence,” “threat to the global environment,” or “new health threat to our children,” we need to ask: Who benefits? As often as not, news stories reporting nebulous threats to our well being are created to help some non-profit group get more funding, help political interests drum up knee-jerk support for new laws (“We must DO SOMETHING about …!”), or persuade you to buy something. (Isn’t it funny how all those news stories about rising depression rates and childhood mental illness match up so well with the rising tide of drug-makers’ feelgood ads on TV?)
7. Anybody claiming to be “just plain folks” probably isn’t. When 40,000 “gun-control” advocates showed up in Washington calling themselves the “Million Mom March,” they weren’t merely using biased (and inaccurate) language. They were trying to give a grassroots appearance to an effort driven by millions of dollars in foundation funding and deep political connections. (The media forgot to tell us that the “ordinary housewife” who organized the group was a former press secretary for Dan Rather who also had family connections to the Clintons.) Similar tricks are used by corporations, who like to put ordinary employees’ faces in ads and news stories as a means of saying, “We’re not a multi-billion dollar, soulless, inter-global conglomerate; we’re ’just folks.’ Just like you.” Don’t believe it unless you know it for sure. Particularly don’t believe any political movement is “grassroots” if the approach is slick or if the alleged “grassroots” group comes out of nowhere with big money and big media connections.
8. Don’t accept dehumanizing of opponents. In some ways, dehumanizing opponents is the most obvious of all forms of bias in the news. It’s also the cruelest because, by setting opponents up as non-humans, it can lay the groundwork for the annihilation of a minority group or the destruction of liberty. The classic example is Hitler and Goebbels using propaganda to persuade Germans that Jews were nothing but “vermin” or “cancer.” Yet we tend not to notice dehumanization unless we sympathize with the maligned group. We know that when government agents and the media use terms like “extremist,” “religious fanatic,” “gun nut,” or “hate group,” they’re justifying injustice against unpopular people. Yet we may not object to epithets like “left-wing lunatic,” “pinko,” or “bomb-throwing anarchist.” Or “right-wing Islamic fundamentalist.” It’s a matter of whose ox is being gored. Nevertheless, when you see any dehumanizing, demonizing epithets in the “news,” no matter who the target, it’s once again time to beware.
9. Polls tell us more about pollsters than about reality. A friend of ours was once asked to participate in a survey to “determine [her] risk of being a victim of ’gun violence.’” One of the risk factors was, “Have you ever heard gunfire near your home?” Asked in downtown Washington, DC, that question might actually assess a risk. But our friend — who lives in the woods between a shooting range and a quarry where kids plink at soda cans — just burst into laughter. This is one of many problems with polls. They try to squeeze a complex reality into a soundbite (and often do it in a biased way, besides). Ask a thousand people, “Do you favor reasonable gun control?” and an overwhelming majority invariably says, “Yes!” The media trumpets the figure. But get specific and it’s a different story: “Would you favor Senator Shoehorn’s gun registration plan if the cost were $700 million or higher?” “Do you believe members of your household would be safer if the law required you to lock your guns away where you couldn’t reach them quickly?” Suddenly, public support for “reasonable gun control” plummets.
With the exception of a very few well-designed, unbiased polls, all polls are essentially meaningless. Their value lies in PR.