|Number 584||September 16, 2015|
Well, once again this issue of Nygaard Notes is a bit longer than I planned. So this editor's note will wish you "Happy Reading!" and leave it at that.
On August 17th the front page of the Business Section of the New York Times featured a story headlined "Where Clicks Reign, Audience Is King." The piece began by noting that "the phrase 'Cecil the lion' now returns about 3.2 million Google News results." The Times went on to say,
"Since the days when most major cities supported multiple newspapers, the news media has long been subject to groupthink, and prone to search for sensation. But as more readers move toward online social networks, and as publishers desperately seek scale to bring in revenue, many have deplored a race toward repetitive, trivial journalism, so noisy that it drowns out more considered work... [The result is that] there have been complaints from various corners of the media world that online news has deteriorated, and that it is now focused on the viral at the expense of the substantive."
That has been my experience. The result is a different kind of propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless.
It was almost 18 months ago that I was writing about Ukraine and the crisis unfolding there at the time. In that context, I offered the following advice: "If you don't know anything about Ukraine (and I'll bet you don't), then DO NOT read or watch any mainstream media about that nation until you get some background. That's actually the first tip in my list of Concrete Tips for Media Propaganda Self-Defense, which I'll be publishing one of these days."
What I actually started doing "one of these days" (which is now, I guess, one of those days), is that I produced a handout that I have given to many people in many settings. I called the handout "Media Propaganda Self-Defense: Some Concrete Tips," and people have told me that they have found it useful in fighting off the eternal tsunami of propaganda that faces us every day in the media. After all this time I have not gotten around to publishing the list in these pages. It's time to follow through on my promise! So, over the next few issues of Nygaard Notes I will present all 10 of the Concrete Tips, adding some detail and nuance that I didn't have room for in the handout.
By way of introduction, here is the list—without any detail or nuance:
Concrete Tip #1: NEVER USE NEWS MEDIA TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO A SUBJECT.
Concrete Tip #2: THE MEDIA—CORPORATE OR "PROGRESSIVE"—SHOULD BE ONLY A PART OF A WELL-BALANCED INFORMATION DIET.
Concrete Tip #3: FORMULATE YOUR QUESTIONS BEFORE LOOKING AT THE NEWS MEDIA
Concrete Tip #4: SET YOUR OWN NEWS AGENDA
Concrete Tip #5: READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE
Concrete Tip #6: DON'T "TRUST" ANY NEWS SOURCE
Concrete Tip #7: INTERROGATE YOURSELF AS YOU READ/WATCH
Concrete Tip #8: KNOW YOUR ABCs (Companion to Tip #7)
Concrete Tip #9: NOTE THE METACOMMUNICATION
Concrete Tip #10: START BY ASKING THE TWO BIG QUESTIONS
Now, if that list makes complete sense to you, then there may be no reason to read this series. Or, maybe there is. What I am trying to say, after all, may be quite different than what you think I'm trying to say. In any case, I'll lay out the 10 Tips, and you can see for yourself. We'll start, not surprisingly, with Concrete Tip #1: NEVER USE NEWS MEDIA TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO A SUBJECT.
If a subject appears in the news about which we know nothing, or almost nothing, then what do we do? Here's what we do: We refrain from reading about it in the news until we have learned something about it from other sources. That's because, if we allow the daily mass media to introduce us to a subject, we will likely be forever confused on that subject.
With this in mind, we come up with Concrete Tip #1for Media Propaganda Self-Defense:
NEVER USE THE NEWS MEDIA TO INTRODUCE YOURSELF TO A SUBJECT.
As I've made clear in the pages of Nygaard Notes on many occasions, when we read a news story about which we have no background, we end up doing all sorts of crazy things in order to make sense of it. Since the reporter who wrote the story has her own ideas about the larger meaning of the story, uninformed readers will often just "go along" with the premises upon which the reporter is resting her story. In other words, readers will very often accept the attitudes, beliefs, and conceptions about the world that the reporter used in putting the story together. That's a bad idea, since reporters are like everyone else, and thus subject to the same misguided ideas as anyone. Reporters—especially big-time reporters—run the additional risk of spending so much time talking to powerful sources that they often end up seeing as reasonable the views of those powerful sources. Sometimes they are reasonable, sometimes they're not.
Here's a simple example: I spoke last week about jury selection in Caddo Parish Louisiana, and how District Attorneys there and elsewhere manipulate the jury selection process in order to keep blacks off of juries. In the process of researching the story, I ran across a recent news report that quoted the District Attorney in Caddo Parish in a way that illustrates how "facts" get into the news, while the context necessary to assess them disappears. (This was almost my "Quote" of the Week last week.)
The acting District Attorney in Caddo Parish is a man named Dale Cox. Mr. Cox said this to The Shreveport Times back in March: "I'm a believer that the death penalty serves society's interest in revenge. I know it's a hard word to say and people run from it, but I don't run from it because I think there is a very strong societal interest as a people. I think (revenge) is the only reason for it. ... I think we need to kill more people. … I think the death penalty should be used more often. It has come to the place in our society where it is used less often, and I think crime in our society has expanded so expeditiously ... that we're going the wrong way with the death penalty that we need it more than ever and we're using it less now."
That's a remarkable statement, but how are we to judge whether, or why, the word revenge is "hard to say," or whether it's a good idea to "run from it"? There's no way to do that without some context, and some information, that was not provided by the Shreveport Times. Secondly, is there a "strong societal interest" in revenge? The Times doesn't tell us. Thirdly, Cox appears to be basing his statement on the idea that the death penalty deters crime. Well, does it? Again, The Times has nothing to say here. (For the record, there is no deterrent effect, in Louisiana or anywhere else.)
Finally, Mr. Cox thinks that crime rates are up, but in fact the crime rate in Louisiana has been declining more or less constantly for the past 10 years, according to just-released statistics from the state of Louisiana. The Shreveport Times could have mentioned this, but didn't.
The reporting of Cox's comments provides a crude example, but the same need for context applies to virtually any news story you can think of. Weather news, for example, is distorted by a lack of knowledge of climate patterns. Economic news is widely misinterpreted due to faulty understandings of economic principles. There's a general misunderstanding of, or ignorance about, all kinds of other subjects in the news: immigration, drug abuse, taxation levels, government spending, living conditions in other countries, etc etc etc. Such ignorance allows propaganda to flourish in the news system.
The daily mass media offers lots of details about lots of things. But, as we can see, details without context can lead us astray. We can protect ourselves by making an effort to acquire enough history and context to give us some "anchors" to which we can attach the facts we find in the news. This will help us to evaluate the validity of the facts, and will more generally help to give them meaning. Also, having a bigger picture in our minds will allow us to categorize things more accurately. ("Oh, this is an example of that!")
In summary: The media gives us facts, but the meaning we assign to those facts—and our capacity to notice the facts that are missing—depends on the bigger story of which those facts are a part. Without that bigger story, we are vulnerable to the intentional and unintentional propaganda that runs rampant in the mass media. The answer is to turn to the media only after you have enough information to evaluate what you find there.
If you're like most people, a huge percentage of your information about what is going on in the world beyond your direct experience comes from the daily news. And by that I mean both the news that comes to us via large news corporations and also the daily news that we get online. This is not good, and the reason why will be explained here, as I lay out Concrete Tip #2 for Media Propaganda Self-Defense:
THE MEDIA—CORPORATE OR "ALTERNATIVE"—SHOULD BE ONLY A PART OF A WELL-BALANCED INFORMATION DIET.
There are a number of ways to go about seeking points of view that you can use to check and balance the ideas upon which the daily news is based. It's not that these points of view have "the truth." They just give us alternatives to consider. Complexity is the enemy of propaganda.
Here are a few places to go and things to do to diversify and balance your daily diet of information, which in turn will help you ward off the effects of the propaganda that so easily infects the uninformed who consume a diet made up of nothing but the daily news.
It's always good to spend time with sources that go deeper than the "news" can or will go. Books are the best in this regard. Most non-fiction books are not written for money (which immediately differentiates them from the mass media), and they're long enough to give the context and background for their arguments, unlike daily media (See Concrete Tip #1). Some books, of course, do little but endorse and legitimate the messages we get from the media. So choose carefully, based on recommendations by sources who share your values.
Classes and Workshops
Classes and workshops don't have to be the ones typically found in schools or universities. Political and community groups, for example, often offer them. Sometimes they're called "discussion circles" or "dialogs"—we used to have events called "teach-ins." Once you start looking, you'll find such events happening near you, I predict. At least I hope you will! Attend one that interests you.
Talk to smart people
When I say "smart people," I mean people who have really been paying attention to something for a while. If you have a friend who's really "into" something, talk to her about it! You'll no doubt learn something, and maybe the most important thing you'll learn is that it is more complicated than you thought—whatever it is!
If you're interested in particular areas of the world, I suggest that you subscribe to the newsletters of people who study that area, or who work in solidarity with the people there. MERIP, for example, the Middle East Research and Information Project. Or Report on the Americas, from NACLA (The North American Congress on Latin America). There are millions more.
Here's what's different about such sources of foreign news, as opposed to daily media sources: They cover areas that they think are important in and of themselves. The mass media, on the other hand, tends to talk about other parts of the world only when they are perceived to pose some kind of threat to "US interests". The result is that the larger world, to most USAmericans, is either threatening, or else it's invisible. It's not that "No news is good news." Rather, when it comes to other countries, the US media seems to think that good news is no news.
Domestically, there are advocacy groups that not only put out news about almost any issue you can think of, but also offer background and context on their issue of concern. Just reading the list of "issues" considered by The Drug Policy Alliance, for instance, tells you how narrow and misguided the "War on Drugs" really is. The Sentencing Project has a lot to say about criminal justice issues. For economics, I read Monthly Review, the Real World Economics Review, Dollars and Sense Magazine, and many more. Find your own group, one that talks about your main interest. Then read their history and background pieces, their "Frequently Asked Questions," and their overview of the issue. It'll be different than the information you have unconsciously picked up from the mass media. You'll thus be less gullible.
Do a Case Study
Occasionally it's a good idea to take the time to do your own case study. That is, research something in depth, spend some time with it, become an "expert" on it. It doesn't really matter what it is. ANY case study will lock into one's brain the idea that the world is a complex place, a place where every issue and event is embedded in a context and a history. Once that idea is locked into your brain, then the superficiality of mass media reports will be much easier to notice. Maybe—if you're lucky—it will become impossible NOT to notice. Depending on what you research, you'll often find yourself noticing how uninformed, ill-informed, or deluded many people are on "your" subject. And if so many are deluded about that, then...???
At the very least, if you decide to do a case study on a subject that interests you, you'll find yourself digging below the surface of whatever it is, and you'll have fun doing it.
In summary, then: Read books; take a class; talk to informed people; read specialist and activist stuff; do a case study. All of these things will provide nutrients that you can't get from a diet composed of nothing but the daily news. That's why I suggest that what we call "the media"—whether it be corporate or progressive/alternative—should be only a part of a well-balanced information diet.