Here’s Your Handy-Dandy Propaganda Detector
Journalists love slogans about journalism, and one of their favorites is Hemingway's insistence that writers need to "develop a built-in bullshit detector." The tools of skepticism are at the center of the reporter's craft. To be used in the public interest, these tools must be dusted off and sharpened, especially in this season of overheated political advertising, spectacle and oratory.
Read on, and I will share with you seven of my favorite propaganda detection tools. The cool thing is that, unlike my power drill or lawnmower, these tools need not be returned. In fact, feel free to pass them along to others. Used well, they will help you keep the citizens you serve from being fooled, confused or dazzled.
No politician, Republican or Democrat, would admit he or she is in the propaganda business. And no journalist I know would admit to being an enabler of the propaganda efforts of a particular political party. Like it or not, every scripted moment of every convention, every syllable of every campaign speech, is an act of political propaganda. It follows that to cover politics responsibly, reporters must come equipped with a tuned-up, turbo-charged propaganda detector.
In an anthology of essays on language, I stumbled upon a pamphlet titled "How to Detect Propaganda," published in 1937 by a short-lived organization called the Institute for Propaganda Analysis.
As you can imagine, the years leading up to World War II frothed with propaganda. The Institute, co-founded by Clyde R. Miller of Columbia University, was an early advocate of what we now called "critical literacy." The pamphlet begins, "If American citizens are to have clear understanding of present-day conditions and what to do about them, they must be able to recognize propaganda, to analyze it, and to appraise it."
As you will see, the word "propaganda" -- originating with Catholic evangelism in the 17th century -- has gone through significant semantic change since then. It was once a neutral word to describe strategies of persuasion –- for good or for ill. In our time, the word has become pejorative. Now people want to be called not "propagandists" but "advocates," a choice which expresses its own form of propaganda.
To be able to identify different forms of propaganda, it helps to define it. The American Heritage Dictionary still prefers the neutral definition: "The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause." I like the 1937 definition better: "Propaganda is expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends."
That last phrase, "predetermined ends," is most important. Those ends could be the establishment of the Third Reich or the reconstruction of New Orleans; building a detention center in Guantanamo or a new baseball stadium in St. Petersburg; promoting white supremacy or preservation of the white tiger. But in propaganda, the ends must precede the means of persuasion. Theoretically, this makes propaganda different from science or journalism, which both establish reliable methods for getting at some version of the truth. To adapt language from the pamphlet, it's the difference between "getting at" something and "getting something across."
The pamphlet argues that "We can more easily recognize propaganda when we see it if we are familiar with the seven common propaganda devices." I list the seven here with reference to the current battle for the presidency:
1. Name Calling. Bad names are the most prolific forms of propaganda, especially when you are trying to diminish an opponent as "liberal" or "most liberal" or "ultra-conservative" or "extremist" or "hypocritical." McCain is "out of touch" because he owns seven homes. Obama is merely a "celebrity" with a "rock star complex," but no real experience.
2. Glittering Generalities. This device requires "virtue words" that describe ideals that no one could argue against, a strategy often referred to as "motherhood and apple pie." Here is Michelle Obama: "It was the greatest gift a child can receive: never doubting for a single minute that you're loved, and cherished, and have a place in this world. And thanks to their faith and hard work, we both were able to go to college. So I know firsthand from their lives –- and mine –- that the American dream endures."
3. The Transfer. Used both for and against causes, this strategy transfers the authority or status of one person or institution onto another. When Obama invokes the names of Abraham Lincoln, or FDR, or JFK, or MLK, he tries to transfer some of their charisma onto him. When Republicans made fun of the Corinthian columns that served as a backdrop for Obama's speech as "too Roman," they tied Obama to imperial ambition.
4. The Testimonial. In politics these are often called "endorsements." These come not just from politicians, but from celebrities –- athletes and entertainers –- who shed their blessings on a candidate or a cause. Oprah Winfrey has testified on behalf of Barack Obama; Joe Lieberman on behalf of John McCain.
5. Plain Folks. Crucial in political propaganda, the supporter of a candidate or a cause must persuade the audience that the chosen one, no matter how wealthy, is a man of the people, or a loving mother, or the kind of person you'd want to share a beer with. Look for homey words like "town," "village," "farm," "diner," "bar," "train," "folks," "coal mine," "kitchen table."
6. Card Stacking. Think of this as a full-court press of persuasion, the kind that the Bush administration undertook in support of the war in Iraq. List the accumulated justifications for war: weapons of mass destruction, destroying a dictator, regime change, establishing democracy, fighting terrorism, securing the flow of Middle Eastern oil. Those for the war would support such card stacking; those against would argue those justifications fell like a house of cards.
7. The Band Wagon. This is the "everyone is doing it" technique. Look for a candidate staging a speech in a stadium. Look for words like "journey" and "battle" and "movement" and "march" and "mandate for change." Tyrants are especially good at this: Hitler used cinema to capture and romanticize huge rallies in support of the Third Reich.
A useful distinction, one made in this 1937 essay and by Aldous Huxley in 1956, reveals the difference between "emotional" propaganda and "rational" propaganda. Lapel pins, bumper stickers, flags, banners, dogs, little children, tearful supporters, dead relatives, slogans, catchwords, music –- all appeal primarily to our emotions. As responsible journalists, we must not succumb to these ourselves, and we must point them out to citizens so reason and critical thinking can help balance emotion and passion.