Number 585 September 30, 2015

This Week: Media Propaganda Self Defense Tips - Part 2

"Quote" of the Week: "It's Not the Way He Works."
Media Propaganda Self-Defense, Concrete Tip #3: YOU Ask the Questions
Media Propaganda Self-Defense, Concrete Tip #4: Asking Questions About... What?



More Self Defense tips this week. Numbers 1 and 3 appeared last week, this week we have numbers 3 and 4. There are ten of them, altogether. I hope they're useful. Especially since there are 6 more of them.

Now, a sneak Preview of next week's issue. It's... The Fall 2015 Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive! Yes, it's that time of year again, when I remind people of what it takes to keep this ongoing experiment in independent journalism... critical thinking... unorthodox essay-writing... —whatever you want to call it—coming to your inbox dozens of times each year. You know that Nygaard Notes is free and that every issue is immediately offered into the public domain. And the only way this can happen is YOU. Look for details in the next issue of Nygaard Notes, coming your way the first week of October.

Until then, keep asking your own questions and setting your own news agenda (details below).

See you next week,



"Quote" of the Week: "It's Not the Way He Works."

Ben Carson is a candidate to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. He's currently the third most popular of the many candidates, behind Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, according to the most recent CNN poll.

In the September 21st issue of TIME Magazine there was a feature called "Ben Carson's Campaign Rules." It reads like this (and is Part One of the "Quote" of the Week):

"Rule #4: Stay Low-Key. Carson's team made a decision never to attack another candidate, even if Carson gets hit first. 'It's not Dr. Carson," [Carson Communication Director Doug] Watts says. 'It's not the way he works.'"

Now here's Part 2 of the QOTW:

"I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that."

That's Ben Carson himself, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press." Those words were spoken on September 20th.

These two comments reflect a widely-shared way of thinking that understands something as an "attack" only when it's a conscious targeting of a specific target. Therefore, when Carson rejects as unfit an entire group (and a large group, perhaps 3 million Muslims in the United States) somehow it is apparently not seen as an attack. This allows his aide to say that attacking "another candidate" is "not the way he works." He appears to mean that Carson doesn't attack native-born, white Christian candidates. People who don't fit those criteria can be attacked because... they shouldn't be candidates in the first place?


Media Propaganda Self-Defense, Concrete Tip #3: YOU Ask the Questions

If you're like most people, you often end up being a passive recipient of whatever information your news source has decided to include in the daily news flow. There's another way to do things, and that way gives rise to Concrete Tip #3 for Media Propaganda Self-Defense:


When you look at a news site, or watch television news, or read a newspaper or magazine, what do you find there? You find answers to some questions. That is to say, the reporter has gone in search of answers to certain questions, and those answers make up their news story. But which questions were they asking? That's the question we should all be asking.

This idea—that the job of a journalist is to ask questions—I first discussed in these pages back in 2006. While most people think that the writing of articles is the reporter's main job, I made the simple—but not obvious—point that before a reporter writes down her answers to any questions, she has to have made some decisions about which questions she would ask.

Now, if we accept the idea that the job of a journalist is to ask questions, then a reporter who reaches the Big Time (what I call an "agenda-setting" journalist) will be one who typically asks the "right" questions and avoids asking the "wrong" ones. Exactly what is judged to be "right" and "wrong" in the typical big-time newsroom is a function of all sorts of forces that are at work there. You can go look at NN #344 "Media and Propaganda, How It Happens Part 2: What Does a Journalist Do?" for my explanation of some of those forces.

But the point here is this: The questions that a reporter asks may or may not be the questions YOU want to ask. And that's a dangerous situation. Here's why: Anyone who opens the newspaper, or turns on the electronic news, without formulating their own questions ahead of time, will soon find that the only questions to which they have the answers will be those asked by the journalist. In fact, if you're a regular consumer of news, the journalist's questions might come to BE your questions, without you even noticing. It's another sneaky form of (usually) unconscious propaganda, and here are a few examples to illustrate how it works.

When Donald Trump last June accused "Mexico" of "sending" immigrants to the United States who are drug-smugglers and rapists, perhaps the most prominent question asked, and answered, in the mass media was "How will this affect Trump's chances of winning the nomination?" Another question was, "How do statements like this affect the Republican Party's ability to win the votes of Latinos?" There are much more important questions that could, and should, be asked. This could have been a teaching moment, in which a mass audience could have learned something about the history of the use of racism and xenophobia in U.S. politics. It's not difficult; just Google "southern strategy" for an introduction to this subject.

Instead of a teaching moment, Trump's outrageous comments become just a part of the ongoing horse-race election coverage. If the media had ongoing coverage of the role of racism in public life, they'd be asking different questions—very difficult questions—of Donald Trump and his campaign.

As I type these words, Pope Francis is on his way to the United States. Think for a moment: What do you think is important to know about his visit? That is, what questions would you like the media to ask as they prepare their coverage of the visit? On the front page of the New York Times today we have two articles. One headline is "An Elaborate Welcome Mat for a Simple Pope," and it uses the front-page space to detail "an unimaginably vast set of tasks in advance of Francis' arrival on Tuesday." The other article—"Church Rises and Falls on Immigrant Tide"—talks about the effect of the Pope's visit on the size and health of the institutional Church in the U.S. The Washington Post weighed in with this: "Just How Important Will the Catholic Vote be in 2016?"

The questions that I would ask are quite different, such as "What will the Pope say about climate change, and how will it affect U.S. politics?" Or, "How will USAmericans respond to the Pope's radical ideas about capitalism and, more broadly, materialism, which he recently referred to as a "spiritual cancer"? I would ask why it is that the Pope is far more popular among USAmericans than is the Church that he leads. If it is true, as many media outlets have said, that this Pope is a "rock star" in the United States, and around the world, why is that? What does this Pope symbolize that generates these sorts of responses from Catholics and non-Catholics alike?

These are my questions. What are yours? If you can formulate your questions about issues in the news—or, better yet, if you can come up with questions on issues NOT in the news—then you are far ahead of most people, who "follow the leader" as they read or watch the news. How to deal with what is not in the news just happens to be the subject of Concrete Tip #4, which appears below.


Media Propaganda Self-Defense, Concrete Tip #4: Asking Questions About... What?

Back in 1963, political scientist Bernard C. Cohen said this: "The media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about."

That comment captures a big part of the reasoning behind Concrete Tip #4 for Media Propaganda Self-Defense:


This Tip is obviously related to the previous Tip, Tip #3, where I suggested that you formulate your questions before looking at the news media. Tip #3 reminds us that it's a good thing to explore the unexplored territories in the news stories we see. Whether the news story is about Donald Trump, or Syrian refugees, or the Pope's trip to the United States, what is it that we need to know? But... why are we thinking about Trump at all? Or Syria? Or the Pope? Or Stephen Colbert? Or whatever else is on the front page?

Tip #4 reminds us that the most basic question we should ask—and the one that is always answered for us unless we interrupt the process—is the question: What deserves our attention in the first place?

The world is a big place, and we can't pay attention to all of it. One of the most powerful effects of the daily "news cycle" is to, in effect, tell people what deserves attention. And what does not deserve our attention. Without a conscious decision to travel other pathways, our minds will inevitably begin to go with the herd, as steered by mass media.

A good thing to remember is that the mass media respond to power. That is, they talk to powerful sources, and the priorities of those sources become the priorities that are passed on through the media. That is, we end up thinking about what the newsmakers are thinking about (or the ones that they want us to think about).

As one example, consider that the stock market is not "the economy." (as Dean Baker explained clearly in an article last month). Yet if you get your news from the mass media, likely you think much more about the stock market, and you think less, or not at all, about the real economy. That's because powerful people have a lot invested in the stock market. As for the rest of us, about half of Americans do not own any stock at all, either directly or through retirement accounts. Yet we are a part of the real economy. So why do we hear—every hour of the day!—about the Dow Jones Industrial Average?

I've written many times in these pages about the amazing, unbelievably huge military structure in the United States. But readers of the media likely remain unaware of the existence of most of the hundreds of military bases maintained around the world, let alone what goes on there.

Some absolutely wonderful evidence of the failure of our media system to inform the residents of the most powerful country in the world comes in the form of a new feature from IRIN, the Integrated Regional Information Networks. They're an international news agency, formerly operating out of the United Nations but now independent. The new feature is "Forgotten Conflicts: Drawing Attention to the Wars We Neglect." If you visit their website, you'll see, "As you read this, there are more than 40 conflicts unfolding in countries around the world." Most readers will not have heard of the conflicts in:

* South Kordufan, "where civilians have taken to living in caves to survive the endless bombing"

* Casamance, "West Africa's longest-running civil conflict"

* Southern Thailand, where "The civilian toll is staggering and yet news of the bombings, the beheadings, the pernicious pursuit of soft targets like teachers and monks, barely makes it out of the region."

Other "forgotten conflicts" include Indonesia, where "at least 100,000 have been killed since 1969; the Philippines, (another 100,000 killed), Mali, (4,000), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (more than 600,000 displaced), and the list goes on.

Learn more on the IRIN website.

That's a very abbreviated list, but the point is simple: The list of things about which the media "tells" us to think—through the pattern of decisions that characterize the agenda-setting media—is quite limited and shaped by very non-democratic forces. To change that reality will require a change in the institutional nature of the media system. But, in the meantime, keep in mind Concrete Tip #4 for Media Propaganda Self-Defense, and remember to SET YOUR OWN NEWS AGENDA.