Number 344 September 8, 2006

This Week: What Does a Journalist Do?

Quote of the Week
Off the Front Page: Dumb and Dumber in the U.S.
Norm Coleman = Fox. U.N. = Chicken Coop
Media and Propaganda, How It Happens Part 2: What Does a Journalist Do?


Last week, in Part 1 of "Media and Propaganda, How It Happens," we looked at the media as an industry, focusing on the buyers, the sellers, and the product being sold. We also considered some of the things about the media industry that tend to steer the news in certain directions rather than others. But what about individual journalists, and their role in producing the "news?" They don't all sign an "Intent to Propagandize" agreement when they go to work for the corporate media, do they? Of course they don't.

And if you ask working journalists—as I have on many occasions—if their news judgement is affected by advertisers, or by flak-producers, or by stockholders' desire for profit, or by any of the other factors I mentioned last week, they will universally deny being affected in any way. Usually they are offended. So, this week, I take a look at the job of the journalist, and how it is that they so often end up playing a role in the propaganda business despite their best intentions.

Welcome to the new subscribers this week! I look forward to your feedback, ideas, concerns, and all that stuff. I really do love to get mail, and not just from new subscribers. I answer all of it, too, and we learn from each other that way, y'see. Welcome aboard!



"Quote" of the Week:

In the January 2005 issue of the magazine Monthly Review, in an editor's note on propaganda, appeared these words:

"Following the First World War some of the leading figures in the development of modern communications research in the United States, such as Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell, pioneered the exploration of propaganda techniques, arguing that manipulation of populations was necessary for managing formally democratic societies....

"In the work of Lasswell and others ... propaganda became a sophisticated tool geared to mass audiences, subject to the mass media, and controlled by those with economic and political power. These and related ideas on the organization of communications for the benefit of elites became enormously influential in the training of professional journalists, who, though schooled to professional standards of objectivity with respect to disputes between the leading factions of the ruling class, nevertheless had to learn to follow the overall establishment bias, internalizing the ruling values, if they were to hope to rise within the institutional order of the media."

How journalists "rise within the institutional order of the media" is the subject of this week's Nygaard Notes.


Off the Front Page: Dumb and Dumber in the U.S.

On page 24 of the September 7th New York Times was an important (worthy of front page) news item headlined: "Report Finds U.S. Students Lagging in Finishing College." The focus of the story was the release of a report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, called "Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education." This report should be a wake-up call to anyone concerned with higher education in the United States. Too bad almost nobody will hear about it, since it's ‘way off the front pages. For a hint of what's in the report, here are two interesting paragraphs from the Times' report:

1. "The United States, long the world leader in higher education, has fallen behind other nations in its college enrollment and completion rates, as the affordability of American colleges and universities has declined..."

2. "Over all, the report said, while other nations have significantly improved and expanded their higher education systems, the United States' higher education performance has stalled since the early 1990's."

Not only does the report compare the U.S. to other countries, it also compares state-to-state, and gives all sorts of information that is not so directly tied to education. It's worth a look. Find the report on the web at



Norm Coleman = Fox. U.N. = Chicken Coop

In the media today (September 8th) is a report that Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman has been appointed by the White House (on the recommendation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) to represent Congress as a delegate to the United Nations when it meets this month. Oh, my. The local paper in Minnesota reported this in a tiny story on the bottom of page 12, with the simple headline "Sen. Coleman Named Delegate to United Nations." The Associated Press story had a more informative headline: "Bush Administration Will Appoint Fierce Senate Critic of United Nations to U.S. Delegation." Fierce critic, indeed.

Each of the major parties recommend a lawmaker as its representative in the official delegation to the UN. The president's staff makes the nominations official, and the Senate approves them. The Democrats appointed Barbara Boxer. Ms. Boxer is not a "fierce critic" of the UN, which is what one might hope for an official delegate.

But this is, after all, the Bush administration, well-known for their dislike of any rules or institutions that might possibly limit their freedom to... well, to do whatever they want. And at or near the top of their "We Don't Like This" list is the United Nations. (Evidence: John Bolton is the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. See for a few reasons why I say this.)

Meanwhile, it is the U.S. Congress that approves the considerable share of U.N. funding that is provided by our very rich and very powerful nation. And that is where our own Senator Norm Coleman comes into the picture. In fact, I had written a piece a couple of months ago about Norm Coleman and the United Nations, then ran out of room to put it in the Notes. So, in honor of Mr. Coleman being named one-half of the official U.S. Congressional delegation to the United Nations, here is that article:

"Leverage for Reform" = Extortion

Consider this definition of the word "extortion," from the Oxford English Dictionary:

"The act of obtaining something from a reluctant person by threat, force, importunity, etc."

Now consider that the United States, by virtue of the size of its economy, currently pays 22 percent of the assessed budget for the United Nations.

Next, consider that the United States has been using its power to try to force a range of changes in the way the United Nations is run. Last December a cap on spending at the U.N. "was adopted under pressure" from the United States as a part of this effort to reform the U.N.

Now, here are the first two paragraphs of a story on this issue in the June 29th New York Times:

"The General Assembly budget committee lifted a cap on United Nations spending Wednesday night, thus averting a showdown that once threatened to shut down the organization's activities by the end of June.

"The measure passed by consensus, without a vote, in the 191-nation committee, but the United States, Australia and Japan declared that they were officially ‘disassociating' themselves from the decision."

And, finally, here are the final two paragraphs of this short article, which I highlight because I live in Minnesota and this threat of extortion by the junior Senator from our state has not been reported in either of the local newspapers.

"In Washington, Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who has been a harsh critic of the way the United Nations is run and has called for the resignation of Secretary General Kofi Annan, said, ‘It appears that the reform of the United Nations has been left in the dust. I intend to urge my colleagues in the Senate to use our funding to the U.N. as leverage for reform, including withholding funds if reform fails to move forward."

This sounds a lot like Mr. Coleman wants the U.N. to live by the Golden Rule. As in, "Those who have the Gold get to make the Rules." Such use of one's power—in this case, financial power—to threaten people with retaliation if they don't do as you want is called extortion. It should be reported in the home-town newspapers. And they should call it what it is.


Media and Propaganda, How It Happens Part 2: What Does a Journalist Do?

Since most of us don't typically go to a White House press conference, or travel to New Orleans after a hurricane, or head off to a war zone, our information system produces people we call "journalists" who go to such places and ask the questions that the readers of their newspaper might ask if they were there. The journalist, in other words, is a surrogate for you and me.

Fundamentally, therefore, the job of a journalist is to ask questions. The news reports that we see and hear every day are nothing more than the answers to those questions.

Writing down the answers is what most people think of as the reporter's job—and that is a necessary skill for a reporter—but before writing down any useful answers, one has to come up with the right questions. Keep that in mind as we explore the job of the journalist a little further.

What Makes a Successful Reporter? The Sisson Documents

First of all, by "successful," I am talking about conventional success. That is, success as measured in terms of rising up in the media world to a position of status, wide distribution of one's work and the influence that comes with that, and a relatively high income. How does a journalist achieve such success?

If you accept my idea that the job of a journalist is to ask questions, then a successful reporter will be one who typically asks the "right" questions and avoids asking the "wrong" ones. That's simple enough. What is not simple, and not at all obvious, is exactly what defines that "right" and "wrong." To explain how not-obvious it is I will now briefly refer back to World War I. (I wrote more about this in Nygaard Notes #186, if you want to read the original version.)

Back in the days of World War I, a man named Edgar Sisson was the associate chairman of the Committee on Public Information, President Woodrow Wilson's wartime propaganda ministry. In the spring of 1918, Sisson made a trip to the brand-new Soviet Union, where the Bolsheviks had recently come to power. Recall that, in 1918, anti-communism was not yet the national religion of the United States; the great enemy at that time was Germany, and all efforts in this country were aimed at getting people to hate the Germans.

So, Sisson comes home and presents to President Wilson some documents he had obtained "under dramatic circumstances" in Petrograd. The documents "proved," in Sisson's eyes, that "the present Bolshevik government is not a Russian government at all but a German government acting solely in the interests of Germany and betraying the Russian people, as it betrays Russia's allies, for the benefit of the Imperial German Government alone." This was the "spin" put on these documents when the CPI published them as Pamphlet #20 in the War Information Series, "The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy." And this spin was widely believed and reported, as reflected in the headline in the New York Times of the day: "Documents Prove Lenin and Trotzky Hired By Germans."

The documents turned out to be crude forgeries, and false in every important respect. But, no matter. As James Mock and Cedric Larson wrote in their book Words That Won the War: The Story of the Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919, "By the great majority of Americans [the Sisson Documents] were accepted as proving not only German connivance in the Bolshevik Revolution (which connivance nearly everyone was prepared to grant on the grounds of reasonableness if not actual proof) but also that Lenin and Trotzky were serving only a German cause."

And that's it, in a nutshell: A journalist with a future in mass media will exhibit an ABILITY AND WILLINGNESS to base her or his articles on premises that "nearly everyone is prepared to grant on the grounds of reasonableness." That is, articles that will not alienate the mass audience that media needs to produce to attract advertisers.

To summarize, a successful reporter will:

1. Have a good sense of what his or her readers will believe and won't believe. In other words, he/she must know what their readers will accept without question—AND—what will have to be justified.

2. Have a knack for writing articles that answer questions that interest readers and that readers would ask themselves.

3. Write stories that alienate neither his/her sources nor his/her editor.

To put it in the "asking questions" framework, a successful journalist will habitually ask—and answer—the "right" questions, and avoid the "wrong" ones, using these guidelines (usually unconsciously).

Journalists like to tell themselves that they produce news that is "balanced" and "objective" and "verifiable" and so forth. (They'll tell you, too, if you ask them.) They'll also tell you that their job is to "tell stories," and I agree. But here's the problem: The only things that can really be "verified" are the individual facts, or groups of facts, within a story. Whether or not the overall story makes sense depends on a whole other set of things. And those things are all matters of opinion and unverifiable beliefs. I'm talking about ideas about how the world works, about economics, about political systems, even about abstractions like "human nature" and "good and evil."

So, believe it or not, we are now getting into the realm of Propaganda. And how that works will be the subject of next week's Nygaard Notes.