HOW TO RECOGNIZE A SKUNK:
WHY MOST AMERICANS CAN'T THINK, BUT YOU CAN
By Aaron Zelman & Claire Wolfe
Experience teaches its lessons vividly. But when it comes to evaluating information that we have no personal experience with, even many educated adults can't tell the kitty (truth) from the skunk (propaganda, disinformation).
Has This Ever Happened to You?
Reading the morning paper, you come across a wire-service article on a subject you know well--guns. The article is filled with biased language ("gun violence," "spraying bullets," "million moms") and statistics that are either made up or cooked from highly unscientific methodology ("12 students killed by guns every day," "43 times more likely to be killed by a gun in your own home"). You grumble about media bias, then turn the page.
There you read an article from the same wire service. But this one is on a subject you have no particular knowledge of. "World Population Headed for 10 Billion by 2010." "Unemployment Reaches New High of 9.3 Percent." "Study Shows Women's Risk of Heart Disease as High as Men's." "Polar Ice Caps Shrinking." "Income Gap Increases Between Blacks and Whites." New Vaccine Is Safe, Says CDC."
And you believe it. You believe it because you have no specific reason not to. You may even pass the latest newsbit to coworkers at the proverbial water cooler. Or worse, you base votes, daily anxieties, political contributions, and donations to charity on what you've learned. Your children hear similar information on TV, and they believe it. They go to school, where their teachers treat such news stories as fact. The entire culture is steeped every day in "news" whose credibility relies entirely on our blind faith.
Yet every other news item may be as untrustworthy as that anti-gun editorial that masqueraded as "news."
How do we tell truth from fiction, or recognize when half-truths and twisted language are being used to manipulate us, without spending our lives tracking down every obscure databit or factoid behind every news story?
We can't. Not 100 percent, though we'll describe some easy ways to recognize those propaganda skunks when we see them.
But first, how did things get this way?
"The Science of Ruling"
It all began with Sigmund Freud.
More precisely, it began with Edward L. Bernays, Freud's American nephew and disciple. In the early 20th. century, Bernays took the crude, razz-ma-tazz occupation of press agentry, added psychological manipulation, laid it all on top of some of the most shocking elitism imaginable, and created a little-understood but all pervasive pseudoscience--public relations.
Here's what Bernays believed about people like you and me:
These weren't just casual observations. An interviewer who spoke with Bernays late in his long life was struck by the way he repeated and repeated his distrust of ordinary people, and his belief that we not only don't think, but can't think.
Bernays believed that he and other members of the elite were exactly the leaders we needed to save us from our primitive, animal-like selves, and to save orderly society from us.
"If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind," he wrote, the elite could "control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it ... just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline." He further said, "The duty of the higher strata of society--the cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual--is therefore clear. They must inject moral and spiritual motives into public opinion."
Inject their idea of "moral" and "spiritual," that is. And they weren't merely using metaphors. Bernays and the intellectual, governmental elite for whom he practiced his new "science" literally believed that they must "create man-made gods ... who assert subtle social control" to "bring order out of chaos."
Of course, another word for "chaos" is freedom--the millions of free choices made by individuals.
What Bernays and his followers aimed for instead was a kind of hive-like cooperation. Their task was to persuade us to see the world exactly as they wished us to see it, so that we would then live as they wished us to live, buy what they wished us to buy, believe what they wished us to believe, fear what they wished us to fear, and hate whom they wished us to hate.
Foundations, "Experts," and Mass Manipulation
The first thing Bernays did was to start establishing "more institutes, funds, institutions, and foundations than Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Filene together."
Why? Because, if it's necessary to "scientifically" manage our "group mind," then who better to do it than certified "experts" and sages--people we are predisposed to trust without question?
Bernays' institutes, however, were designed to produce whatever statistics or pronouncements Bernays and his clients wished.
For instance, Bernays neglected to tell the public that his Temperature Research Foundation, whose stated goal was "to disseminate impartial, scientific information concerning the latest developments in temperature control as they affect the health, leisure, happiness, and economy of the American people," was actually funded by the nice folks selling Kelvinator refrigerators.
That pattern has continued to this day, with thousands of (tax-exempt) research foundations aggressively promoting everything from genetically engineered foods (with funding from Montsanto, DuPont, and Coca Cola) to citizen disarmament, and with charitable foundations provoking anxiety over an endless stream of new, "scientifically proven" problems.
Governments, War, and Catastrophe
Using dubious studies and well-paid "experts" to sell products or politics is, sadly, not the worst of Bernays' legacy as the founder of modern public relations.
It was Bernays who, working for the U.S. government, helped whip Ammericans into World War I by propagating the mantra "Make the world safe for democracy."
Just as Bernays was Freud's disciple, Bernays himself had dicciples. Here's one you'll recognize--Josef Goebbels. Hitler's propaganda chief used Bernays' book, Crystalizing Public Opinion, as the basis of his campaign to prepare Germany for the destruction of the Jews.
Most of the daily PR that masquerades as news doesn't produce such catamities. Nevertheless, its overall impact is dangerous. It helps destroy both independent thought and freedom. It helps transfer money and power from individuals to giant institutions.
Are we saying that every journalist working today is consciously lying with the goal of controlling us? No. But from journalism school onward, reporters are steeped in the premises of control--the belief that the duty of the communications elite is not to find out the truth and convey information, but the mold the masses.
Even when they don't set out to deceive us, reporters often propagate false or misleading information. Because of time pressures, budget limitations, demands from their bosses, personal biases, and sometimes through sheer laziness, reporters often simply pass along "news" provided to them by corporations, foundations, political organizations, and government agencies. They may trim it, rearrange it, reword it a bit, and add an interview to it. But one thing they rarely do is seriously investigate the reliability of information that's handed to them.
And every one of those institutions producing those news releases and white papers has an agenda. They want your tax money, your submissiveness, your contributions, your faith, your purchases, your unquestioning belief in their causes, and ultimately they want to control what you believe, how you live, and what you think.
Or what you think you think.
Don't Get Skunked
Here are nine simple tips to avoid getting skunked by biased news.
1. If you see a statistic, doubt it.
2. Just because a claim comes from an "expert" doesn't make it true.
3. Just because something happened after does't mean it happened because of something else.
4. Watch for biased language.
5. Question conventional wisdom.
6. If the news makes you feel fear or anxiety, take a deep breath and give yourself a reality check.
7. Anybody claiming to be "just plain folks" probably isn't.
8. Don't accept dehumanizing of opponents.
9. Polls tell us more about pollsters than about reality.
Huff, Darrell. How to Lie With Statistics. W.W. Norton & Company, 1954. Poe, Richard. The Seven Myths of Gun Control. Prima Pub- lishing Company, 2001. Rampton, Sheldon, and Stauber, John. Trust Us, We're the Ex- perts. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001. Stevens, Richard W. Dial 911 and Die. Mazel Freedom Press, 1999.
Stevens, Richard W., and Zelman, Aaron. Death by Gun Control-- The Human Cost of Citizen Disarmament. Mazel Freedom Press, 2001. Tye, Larry. Father of Spin--Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations. Henry Holt & Company, 2002.
Wolfe, Claire, and Zelman, Aaron. The State vs. the People-- The Rise of the American Police State. Mazel Freedom Press, 2002.
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