Number 517 November 19, 2011

This Week: Media in an Unjust World

"Quote" of the Week: "Sweeping Cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security"
Bonus "Quote" of the Week: "The New Normal for Our Youth."
The Voter Empowerment Act: Now in the Senate
Nygaard Notes Methodology
Media and the Just World Theory
Blaming the Victims
Dehumanizing the Victims


My apologies for the long, long gap between the first installment of the Just World Theory article and this second part. I overcommitted to various things (teaching a class, working on election-related issues), and then I realized I had to squeeze in a Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive, as well. (Thank you to all of you who have pledged, or renewed your Pledge!)

In the near future I hope to be writing more about the false and outrageous dynamic summarized by the propaganda masterpiece known as the "Fiscal Cliff." (The "Quote" of the Week this week anticipates this exploration.) And, before the recent election gets too far into the past (is it old news already?) I'd like to find time to talk about how profoundly the recent campaign—and U.S. elections generally—have become even more racialized than they already were. The phenomenon is not new, but it's easier to see and decode when one of the presidential candidates is a person of color. So it's a good opportunity to talk about it.

One of the problems with Nygaard Notes is that there's always too much to say and too little space to say it. But I hope to publish the Notes much more frequently in the coming months, and hopefully do a little catching up in the process. I always look forward to any and all comments you may have about the Notes—send me your thoughts!

In solidarity,



"Quote" of the Week: "Sweeping Cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security"

One of the most common phrases in the U.S. media since the recent election has been the phrase "fiscal cliff." As an example, here's a quote from a very typical November 18th story in the London Guardian: "Congress has until the end of the year to hammer out a compromise or risk triggering the so-called fiscal cliff—a toxic mix of [punishing] cuts and tax increases that could derail the still delicate US economic recovery." That's the standard propaganda equation: January 1st = Recession. . . UNLESS we cut, cut, cut. It's not true. At least the Guardian said "so called."

For a glimpse of what's really going on, here's the "Quote" of the Week, from a November 14th posting on the excellent World Socialist Website:

"The American media has seized on the term 'fiscal cliff' and promoted it, in part, to suggest that measures which would otherwise be enormously popular—ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy or cutting military spending—are threatening, even dangerous. The main purpose of the media propaganda about the impending 'cliff' is to create a sense of financial emergency and override popular opposition to measures the Obama administration and congressional Democrats and Republicans will put forward to avert it, including sweeping cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security."

I've been writing about Social Security for many years, and the present moment may be the moment of greatest threat we've seen in all those years. Look for more on the subject in these pages soon. In the meantime, beware the phony Fiscal Cliff!


Bonus "Quote" of the Week: "The New Normal for Our Youth"

On November 4th the New York Times ran an opinion piece by a man named Aaron B. O'Connell. Mr. O'Connell is an assistant professor of history at the United States Naval Academy and a Marine reserve officer, and is the author of "Underdogs: The Making of the Modern Marine Corps." The piece had a catchy headline—"The Permanent Militarization of America"—so I read it.

Writing in the waning days of the presidential campaign, he noted, "The fact that both President Obama and Mitt Romney are calling for increases to the defense budget (in the latter case, above what the military has asked for) is further proof that the military is the true 'third rail' of American politics. In this strange universe where those without military credentials can't endorse defense cuts, it took a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, to make the obvious point that the nation's ballooning debt was the biggest threat to national security."

It's not "obvious" at all (see the first QOTW), but here's the Bonus "Quote":

"Uncritical support of all things martial is quickly becoming the new normal for our youth. Hardly any of my students at the Naval Academy remember a time when their nation wasn't at war. Almost all think it ordinary to hear of drone strikes in Yemen or Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. The recent revelation of counterterrorism bases in Africa elicits no surprise in them, nor do the military ceremonies that are now regular features at sporting events. That which is left unexamined eventually becomes invisible, and as a result, few Americans today are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names."

Why a Bonus"Quote" of the Week? Two reasons. The first is that, for my entire lifetime, the Social Security program was considered to be the "third rail" of American politics. Meaning: Politicians beware! Those who try to cut the program will suffer political death, just as anyone who touches the third rail of a transit line will be electrocuted. Has the military replaced Social Security as the "third rail"? That's up to us.

Secondly, the idea of unexamined ideas becoming invisible, and in the process becoming more powerful, has been a central premise of Nygaard Notes almost from the beginning. I call it Deep Propaganda, and many thanks to Mr. O'Connell for stating it so succinctly. Whether the idea of endless war will remain "unexamined" is, again, up to us.


The Voter Empowerment Act: Now in the Senate

All over the nation in recent months the "news" has been about so-called "Voter ID." I wrote about this back in March, pointing out that thirty-one states currently require all voters to show ID before voting at the polls. This year there are proposals pending in 13 states for new voter ID laws. Voters in my own state of Minnesota just voted down a constitutional amendment that would have required voters to show "valid photo identification" in order to vote. For more on all of this anti-democratic insanity, see my articles "An Assault on Voting Rights That Is Historic" and "Voter ID: Intentions and Effects" in Nygaard Notes #503.

It was back in June that I wrote about a piece of major legislation that had been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would make it easier to vote. As I pointed out at that time, the problems that we do have with voting in this country have nothing to do with people voting who should not vote, which is the imaginary "problem" that these Voter ID scams supposedly address. The real problem we have in this country is that many people who should vote are not voting. And that's why I called attention in June to the House bill called the "Voter Empowerment Act."

I'm happy to report that a companion bill to the one in the House has now been introduced in the U.S. Senate. On September 21st NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the bill—also, like the House bill, called the Voter Empowerment Act of 2012—which now has a paltry four co-sponsors. Judging by the rather surprised response I got from staff when I called my two senators to urge them to support the bill, there's hasn't exactly been a groundswell of support for this excellent legislation. Perhaps that's due to the fact that, like the House version of the bill, the Senate version has been completely ignored by the mass media in this country.

To learn more about this legislation, go to the Nygaard Notes website and read
"News You Missed: The Voter Empowerment Act," in Nygaard Notes #509. Or go to Senator Gillibrand's official website.

For those of us who worked so hard to say "No" to the phony "Voter ID" initiatives, here is a chance to say "Yes" to something. The Voter Empowerment Act. Spread the word.


Nygaard Notes Methodology

Since this issue and the next issue of the Notes will include a whole bunch of analysis of patterns of coverage of a certain topic, I thought it would be a good time to tell you a little bit about how I am able to do this. Do I read 1,000 newspapers every day? No, I do not. It's more like this...

I typically use the Lexis/Nexis Academic database to search mass media. It allows me to do all kinds of searches. I can search for mention of a certain name on a certain day. I can search for keywords for a certain period. I can search for keywords only in the headlines and lead paragraphs. I can search by author, by publication, published inside the United States, or outside, or both.

Here's some information about Lexis/Nexis, all from their own website, which I have no reason to doubt is true. (I use Lexis/Nexis Academic, which is not available to the general public; I have access through my University of Minnesota connections.)

Lexis/Nexis is not the only newspaper database there is, but it's the one I use. Lexis/Nexis allows full-text searches of articles from more than 2,500 newspapers, including most of the major newspapers in the United States, and all of the agenda-setting newspapers (except, for some reason, the Wall Street Journal, the nation's 2nd-largest circulation newspaper). It also indexes many English-language newspapers from all over the world.

Lexis-Nexis indexes quite a number of major wire services, updating them several times per day. These include the Associated Press, Business Wire, Agence France Presse, and PR Newswire. It also has transcripts from major television and radio networks such as ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FOX News, NBC, MSNBC, and NPR, as well as political transcripts covering congressional committee hearings, press briefings from the state, justice and defense departments, and presidential news conferences.

Sometimes I look at articles from the more than 1,000 magazines and journals and more than 1,000 newsletters used by Lexis/Nexis, such as American Journalism Review, Business and Finance Week, Newsweek, Library Journal, New Republic, and Variety.

They also provide access to a bunch of other stuff that I never look at.


Media and the Just World Theory

In the last Nygaard Notes I discussed the Just World Theory, which says that people are psychologically inclined to believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. That is, we tend to believe that the world is fair and just.

According to this theory, when we humans see injustice unfolding before our eyes—that is, when we confront evidence that the world is not a fair and just place—it's painful, and we thus choose to employ one or more of the following mechanisms to cope with the pain:

1. BLAME THE VICTIMS. We can justify the suffering if we believe that the victims "deserve" their fate because of something they have done.

2. DEHUMANIZE THE VICTIMS. We can justify the suffering if we believe that the victims "deserve" their fate because of who they are. That is, if we believe that there is something about them that allows us to categorize them as inherently inferior, or as so unlike us that they don't suffer like "we" do ("we" meaning members of a normative group that is assumed by the reporters and to which the victims do not belong). "They don't value life as much as we do," or "They're a savage people (a warlike people, a lawless people, etc), so they're used to it."

3. FOR THEIR OWN GOOD. We can try to convince ourselves that, in the end, the injustice was "good for" the victim. They benefit from their suffering, or their poverty teaches them important lessons, etc. No injustice there!

4. DENIAL/AVOIDANCE. We can deny that it happened, or avoid seeing it in the first place.

5. ACTION. We can do something about it, and try to address the injustice.

I suggest that the Just World Theory applies not only to individuals, but also to institutions and systems, even to whole societies. That is, there is not only a psychological tendency to avoid, justify or address injustice, but also a sociological pattern of doing the same. This makes intuitive sense, as institutions and systems will tend to reflect the response patterns of the people who created and maintain those systems.

I mentioned in the last Notes that there have been standards for children's television which suggest that, when children are exposed to violence, then that violence "should not be presented without indications of the resultant retribution and punishment." But what about when we turn on the news and see real violence, the kind that is perpetrated in our names, by our government? Do we also see "retribution and punishment" included in the newscast? Or do we at least hear from people who advocate for such consequences? I did a little case study to see if one institution—the mass media—follows the pattern. I decided to have a look at how the media treat the phenomenon of innocent deaths resulting from attacks by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which are commonly known as "drones."

First let's establish the injustice: Certainly it is not fair for an innocent person to be killed by a remotely-controlled flying machine. I hope, for that matter, that most would agree that it is not fair for an innocent person to be killed in any kind of violent attack. Yet it is relatively easy to find reports of such killings by U.S. drones as they go about their business in various areas of the world. And there is data to back up the reports. For example, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has reported that somewhere between 546 and 1,105 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia over the past ten years.

What does the media do when presented with reports of such killings? Does it respond as Just World Theory would predict? This issue of the Notes takes a look, assessing recent coverage of drone killings in relation to each of the five coping mechanisms listed above. The basis of my little case study is all of the news articles that appeared in U.S. newspapers in the month from January 15th to February 15th of this year and which had "drones" and "killed" in the headline or lead paragraphs. I also draw on some other media in support of my hypothesis.


Blaming the Victims

Of the 17 news articles in U.S. newspapers in the month from January 15th to February 15th of this year that had "drones" and "killed" in the headline or lead paragraphs, more than half were reporting on, or referencing, the supposed killing of either "The leader of the Pakistani Taliban," or "A militant who acted as a senior operations organizer for al-Qaeda" or "an operative of Al Qaeda" or a "foreign commander fighting for militants in Somalia," or some other official "enemy" of the U.S.

But many other people were killed during this month as well. In the U.S. press, here are the references to people killed by U.S. drones during the period, with my comments about the injustice of it all.

The February 10th New York Post reported that "The head of al Qaeda in Pakistan and his wife were among five people killed yesterday." The Post reported that "The other three killed yesterday were suspected terrorists." We are to understand that the "head" is a legitimate target, but no evidence is offered that his wife was guilty of anything. And we don't know who it was who "suspected" the others. But the reader is apparently assumed to be accepting of the idea that this suspicion was sufficient to justify their execution.

The Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA) headline on February 10th said "US Strike at Border Kills Four Militants." The article itself says that it was an "apparent CIA drone strike" that "reportedly killed four militants." To whom was it "apparent"? And who, exactly, "reported" that these people were militants? I'm fairly certain that the Spokesman Review (Circulation = 76,000) does not have a reporter stationed in the Pakistani tribal areas.

On February 9th the Washington Post headline read "U.S. Drone Strike Kills Four in Pakistan." The strike "killed four suspected militants," the article specifies. This was accomplished by firing "two missiles at a house believed to be a militant hideout." Who were the four? Was the target, indeed, a "militant hideout"? No evidence is here offered, nor apparently required. Again, we're not even told who "believed" it, nor how this "belief" came to be held by whomever.

In the February 8th Chicago Daily Herald was a section called "World & Nation in 60 Seconds," in which it was reported that "Pakistani intelligence officials say U.S. drone-fired missiles have killed eight people [when] the missiles hit a house." The Daily Herald used the remaining few seconds of the allotted 60 to report that "The identities of those killed in the attack are unknown." What, then, is being reported, one wonders? Eight people who were... murdered? Killed in battle? Killed in an act of self-defense? Accidentally killed?

Also on February 8th, the New York Times headline read, "Drone Strike Said to Kill 10 Militants in Pakistan." The article, from the Reuters news service, specified that the "drone killed 10 suspected militants." Again, we're told that "a drone fired two missiles at a house suspected of being a militant hideout." Perhaps these reports of four killed, and eight killed, and 10 killed are all reporting on the same attack? Who knows? And who, exactly, was killed? And of what were they guilty? Well, in this account, "Almost all the men were burnt beyond recognition" and "the house. . . was destroyed." And that appears to be the end of the story. Or, at least, the end of the story that we get to see.

The Just World Theory says that, if victims "deserve" their fate because of something they have done, then there's no injustice when they suffer. I reported back in Nygaard Notes #509 ("Kill List Logic") that, in the drone war, "all military-age males in a strike zone [are considered] combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." Therefore, if they are killed by a drone, they are guilty by definition—since they must be combatants or they wouldn't be close enough to be killed—and thus their killing is a form of justice.

This is the meaning of the phrase "suspected militants" and the other language to describe those killed. Victims not in that category—people who are not of military age, and not male—simply disappear in the reporting on drone strikes. In fact, in the 17 articles with "drone" and "killed" in the lead that we are considering here, neither the word "women" nor the word "children" nor the word "innocent" were ever used to describe any of the victims.


Dehumanizing the Victims

Do media outlets premise their stories on the idea that there are classes of people who are inherently inferior, and thus merit their suffering, or at least experience it differently than do the members of some "normative" group that is understood to be "us"?

This response to a threat to the belief in a Just World is a hard one to judge directly, as it would be a rare journalist, indeed, who would admit to dehumanizing any of the subjects of their reports. Likewise, few would admit to making a conscious decision to refuse to report on certain kinds of suffering for this reason. So we'll have to use our imaginations and do a little thought experiment. This is not scientific, I realize, but is nonetheless illuminating.

Imagine a drone attack on "suspected militants" in, say, London. Or in Winnipeg. Or in Sydney, Australia. Then imagine that, in addition to the 2 "militants," killed, the bodies of a half-dozen others, including children, were found in the wake of the attacks. Imagine, further, that dozens of witnesses—witnesses who are "white" and Christian, witnesses who speak English—came forward to say that the victims were just like them. That is, the witnesses say that those killed were simply residents, living in the area, who happened to be nearby when the drone attack occurred.

Finally, imagine that the news of this attack was mentioned in only a few newspapers in the United States, and when it was it was on the inside pages, as one of a series of "news briefs." Or, imagine that you never heard about it at all.

The above is, of course, fairly typical of the coverage that we do see—if we see anything—when similar attacks occur in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Somalia. This strongly suggests that not only the victims in those countries, but also the witnesses, somehow fall into a different category than they would if they were not the kind of people that they are. It seems highly likely that the news of their deaths would be treated differently if they more closely resembled the USAmerican reporters and editors who decide what I call the media's PET—Placement, Emphasis, and Tone—that is typically employed when reporting on news of the deaths of innocents at the hands of U.S. drones. Conversely, if the people working in U.S. newsrooms more closely resembled the victims we do see, one wonders if the PET in the U.S. newspapers might be different.

But there is little resemblance. While we are not told the characteristics, or even the names, of the specific victims of drone attacks, the attacks are invariably carried out in countries that are majority Muslim (Muslim populations of 97 percent or more), populated by dark-skinned people, and among the poorest in the world per capita (all countries rank in the bottom fifth of the world's nations).

As the American Society of Newspaper Editors politely puts it in their 2012 census of the nation's newsrooms, "Across all market sizes, minority newsroom employment is still substantially lower than the percentage of minorities in the markets those newsrooms serve." (And, they might add, lower still in relation to the percentage of people of color among the victims of U.S. foreign attacks.) And it's not getting better; as the National Association of Black Journalists reminds us: "The number of journalists of color continues to decline." I can find no statistics on the number of Muslims in U.S. newsrooms. The top-tier reporters and editors who are responsible for reporting on these attacks tend to be in the higher-income brackets even in this country, and rank even higher on a global scale. There is little resemblance, as I said, between the victims of U.S. attacks and those responsible for reporting on them to the only audience who might be able to do something about them.

It's impossible to tell whether the non-coverage, the lack of alarm, and the scandalously casual PET of news about the civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes is the result of a dehumanization of those mostly poor, mostly (entirely?) dark-skinned, mostly non-Christian victims. But, whatever the feelings or attitudes of the U.S. reporters whose decisions are under consideration, the result of this pattern of coverage almost certainly has the effect of dehumanizing those people, by sending a powerful message saying, "The lives of these people are not important."


Part 2 of this case study on the media and the Just World Theory continues in the next Nygaard Notes, due out on November 27.