In his classic (and massive) work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, author William L. Shirer, who was an American correspondent living in Berlin in the years leading up to World War II, talks about the effect that false reporting had on him and the German people:
“I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.”
In hindsight, with the Nazi criminals and their crimes being so well known to us, it may be hard to understand how Shirer was taken in by the German propaganda machine. But Shirer didn’t have the benefit of knowing what you and I now know. The steady drip of an opinion in your ear, no matter how false that opinion may be, has an effect. This is how gossip works. It is how it destroys relationships, careers, and lives. The media is, in many cases, just a giant gossip machine and it very often sets out to destroy people.
Recently, I was watching a war flick where a team of special forces soldiers penetrates enemy lines and positioned themselves on a mountain to spy on the enemy in the valley below. Finding the enemy target they were sent to destroy, one of them takes something that looks like a rifle and, through a scope, he directs a laser beam onto it. He then radios a warship, telling them that the target has been sighted. They relay that message to a jet fighter many miles away. The pilot acknowledges the message, depresses a red button with his thumb, and a Tomahawk missile screams to life beneath his aircraft and disappears into the clouds on an earthward trajectory. Moments later, the soldiers, safe atop their mountain perch, watch as the depot explodes in a ball of fire.
This is how media often works. The media points a laser headline on something or someone they want you to hate, love, or fear; they manipulate you with a misleading headline; and then they fan the flames.
Here are a few of the tactics and tendencies employed by the media:
Ad Hominem: This Latin phrase literally means “against the man.” This is a common tactic on the Left. Don’t like the argument? Can’t think of any logical rebuttal? Attack the man. The idea is to smear, discredit, and destroy his/her reputation.
“Fact Check”: This one is, perhaps, my favorite. The very fact that such a claim purports to be the final, unbiased authority on all that is true should garner your skepticism.
The Non-Factual Narrative: This one is the most devious of all. I have seen it done many times. Quite recently. Locally. It is taking a collection of facts and arranging them to create an often dark, but always false narrative.
Let’s say that you work as middle management at a bank. Let’s say that bank is under investigation for some reason. Let’s say that you were put in jail as a drunk college student on spring break in 1988. The juicy headline reads: “Bank under investigation managed by executive with criminal past.” The headline contains facts. But do you see how the “facts” were used to give a false impression? Your “criminal” offense is totally unrelated to the bank or the investigation.
“Clickbait”: This one is used by everyone left, right, and center. They are headlines like this:
“My girlfriend dumped me and then this happened”
“I met Ronald Reagan as a child and you’ll never guess what he told me”
“These ladies shine in their new skimpy bikinis!”
“Doctors say this food will make the weight come off in days”
“The IRS doesn’t want you to know this legal way to cut your taxes in half”
They are all designed as bait to get you to “click.” Why? Because clicks are part of the data that companies track carefully. It has great financial implications.
Repeated Outrage: Let’s use the example of recent abortion coverage. In the last few weeks I have read a lot of articles on abortion. I have been keeping track of the language used by pro-abortion types and words like “dark ages,” “horrific,” “terrifying,” “extremist” and so on appear regularly. If you hear it often enough, you start to believe it.
False Connections/Moral Equivalence: Again, the abortion issue serves as a convenient example. Have you noticed the connections some have tried to make between the pro-life position and all that is evil in the world? The pro-life platform has been equated to misogyny, bigotry, patriarchy, ignorance, and tyranny. These are false connections but who is pointing this out?
Journalists Defending Journalists: The murder of Muslim journalist Jamal Khashoggi by order of the Saudi Crown Prince has received a lot of attention. Why? It is undoubtedly because he was a columnist for The Washington Post. Christians are slaughtered by the tens of thousands every year. That barely makes a headline.
Personal Agendas: Media members can themselves be manipulated by others to accomplish their personal agendas. (I have experienced this, too.) Media members may themselves use their positions to do harm to people they simply don’t like. I recall some years ago a university president being attacked by a Christian magazine editor on the basis of his moral conduct. What very few readers knew, however, was that the editor was both jealous of and competitive with that university president.
Labeling: Most people are terrified of being labeled racist, homophobic, bigoted, sexist, or a number of other things. The media knows this very well and often wields the power like a cudgel to discredit opponents.
Of course, there are many fine people who report the news with integrity. But that is increasingly becoming the exception rather than the rule.
Can you think of any tactics or tendencies that we have missed?
Let us know!