October 26, 2018 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Propaganda Is Scarier Than Bombs

Right-wing media is to blame. So is legit journalism.

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Thursday’s edition of the Editorial Board was about the right-wing media’s effect on legit journalism. It exists in a wholly separate realm (Fox News mostly). It operates according to a deranged internal logic that does not defer to the authority of fact, because fact has no authority independent of the realm’s deranged internal logic.

Right-wing media pulls on our view of political reality, warping it as if it were a invisible planet transecting our orbit of understanding. Its power is such that even journalists who try hard to function impartially feel its pull. They end up smuggling its delusions unwittingly into public view, giving them the feel of respectability and truth.

This sounds like overstatement, but it’s probably the opposite.

According to Yochai Benkler, the power of right-wing media, in combination with four decades of cultural, political and institutional shifting, is such that the Russians could not have influenced the outcome of the 2016 election without it.

Benkler and colleagues write in Network Propaganda that Kremlin disinformation was minor by comparison. Because right-wing media is planetary, and because xenophobia, racism, bigotry and closed-loop “truths” are its core, it is susceptible to foreign manipulation. Whatever the Russians added to this cake was a thin layer of icing.

You’d think straight-ahead journalism would be the cure for this ill, but I’m doubtful. Straight-ahead journalism has a problem (well, many problems, but let’s focus on this one.) It does not know how to properly handle sources who are themselves deeply steeped in right-wing media. Making matters worse, reporters who talk to people deeply steeped in right-wing media end up sanitizing what sources say.

This can be done in bad faith. In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Gilad Edelman revealed Salena Zito’s habit of whitewashing her sources. Zito is a CNN contributor, Harvard fellow and co-author of The Great Revolt. Edelman compared an audio recording with one of her sources to what she said that source said in print. Present is his distaste for corruption and fraud. Absent is his xenophobia and racism. (This is just one of a host of journalistic sins Edelman found.) Edelman said it’s not clear that Zito did this consciously, or whether she’s the victim of unscrupulous editors with an “instinct for projecting their own pathologies onto their opponents.”

But sanitizing sources can be done in good faith, too. NPR broadcast this morning a report by Rachel Martin on how immigration is playing out on the Texas border. Martin said one source was upset about fraud and corruption, but that’s not what the source said. In an anecdote about her time working at a local jail, the source said she asked immigrant detainees, “‘Why do you keep coming back if you get arrested?’ [Answer:] ‘Oh, because I can get my teeth cleaned, and my medicines!’”

It’s Martin who interjects at this point to say: “So you think there are too many illegal immigrants who are exploiting the system.” The source then says, “Yes, that’s the part I don’t like. It’s makes me very angry.” But if we take what she said at face-value, we know that’s not the part making her angry. What makes her angry is immigrants.

As I said, I think Martin meant this in good faith. The “Morning Edition” co-host was doing what reporters do. Reporters sum up what sources say even when sources have not initially said what we say they said. This is a professional necessity, because most people do not communicate in ways in which we need them to communicate.

But add this professional necessity to fear of being seen as a media elitist, and not a little bit of white privilege, and it’s easy to see how that combination can result in whitewashing the racism and xenophobia out of a source’s statements. Or worse, that combo lends credence and respectability to political views that most people most of the time would recoil from if those views were presented in their naked state.

Making all of this worse is straight-ahead journalism’s tendency to believe whatever ordinary people say. While we are professionally inclined to parse the tea leaves of official double-speak, we have a bad habit of suspending all disbelief when it comes to talking to normal people who appear to know what they want from government.

But if you talk to normal people long enough, you know that’s false.

Most people have no idea what they want politically. Most people don’t understand how government works. Most people don’t know the citizen’s role in a democratic republic. Most people, even the well-educated, end up repeating what they hear on news media outlets they trust. On the Texas border, that outlet is almost certainly Fox News. So you can see how reporters, by relaying to the public what ordinary people say to them, end up laundering right-wing propaganda without knowing it.

I don’t know that I have a solution other than greater awareness among working journalists that this is happening. I do know that insidious disinformation scares me more than assassination attempts. (A dozen mailed explosive devices have been intercepted, as of this morning; as of this writing, authorities have taken a man into custody.) Our president is coming frightfully close to achieving the objective of despots in terms of right-wing propaganda. As George Orwell said:

If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’—well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five—well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs.

In case you missed it

(Subscribe now and you’ll never miss an edition!)

Civility Isn’t Dead. It’s Just on Vacation
A consensus on public behavior will return after the battle is won.

Voting and the Practice of Liberal Virtue
Voting matters even if your vote isn’t counted.

Never-Trump Republicans, Please Pick a Side
When the president marks people as the enemy, there is no center.

Yes, We’re All Fighting. But That Doesn’t Matter
What matters is what we’re all fighting for.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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