“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society…We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is the logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organised.”
If you have read the first and second posts in this series, you'll know that I am skeptical about news media, partly because I believe that there are two giant, glaring problems with the quality of media in the West.
News is increasingly taking the form of yellow journalism, that is, it is being presented in a way that is dumbing us down. Even more troubling, news is often thinly veiled propaganda masquerading as news - intended to mold public opinion or manufacture consent.
Mark Twain said it best when he spoke to the conundrum of news consumption. He suggested that avoiding the news altogether leaves us uninformed, but that consuming news inevitably misinforms us at least some of the time. What can we do about this massive problem, short of avoiding news altogether? Here are 5 remedies to avoid being dumbed down and manipulated by the mainstream media:
Yellow journalism is a type of media which presents little legitimate or well-researched news, using eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers, increase ratings and ad revenue. Yellow journalism exaggerates events, scandal-mongers, and tends to be sensationalist.
In this prophetic piece, written in 1991, C. John Summerville proposes that you can observe the current rise in yellow journalism simply by comparing news reports from 50 years ago to those of today:
The Enquirer [a tabloid] shows where the whole business is headed. Remember: News is what sells newspapers. In the old days, editors took a more high-handed approach and gave the public what they thought grown-up, serious-minded people would want to know about. But Newspeople have gotten smarter, and we’ve gotten dumber. They know that deep down, we don’t care if our daily News is entirely authentic so long as it is entertaining—like pro wrestling. So we can expect to see even the most respectable newspapers gradually becoming more and more like the National Enquirer. Anyone who doubts that statement might take a look at a newspaper of fifty years ago to see how far we’ve come already.
Additionally, there is a problem with the Buzzfeed mentality which has proliferated online - shorter and shorter blips of superficial information without any context are passed off as news, as opposed to long form thought-provoking investigative journalism - which does a much more thorough job of informing us. Summerville states:
By jumping from subject to subject, it showed very clearly that News is a concentration on the ephemeral—the flotsam and foam on the surface of history. It reminded us that it is not the job of the News to tell what all this means in the Bigger Picture. It’s nobody’s job to do that any more. That is why our concentration on the News is dumbing us down.
The other major problem is that of propaganda masquerading as news. The manipulation of public opinion is not new, but in the last century it has become both routine and systematic. Disturbingly, in May 2012, the American Congress overturned the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which had placed restrictions on the use of military propaganda and psychological warfare against American citizens. What that means is that the government can now legally disseminate counterfactual information passed off as news.
None of the above is doing us any favors when it comes to staying accurately informed and learning how to think, which why is I propose that we fight back with these 5 criteria:
1. Learn How to Identify Propaganda
Ellul thinks that we are easy victims of propaganda because we define it in the wrong way. Propaganda isn't just lies and tall tales - it is often distortions such has half truths and out of contexts truths. Modern propaganda is a sociological consequence of technology, and it thrives in a technologically advancing society.
I believe that the conscious manipulation of public opinion for nefarious reasons is unethical. Various groups manipulate public opinion in order to gain the upper hand using covert means. Ellul identifies some key features of modern propaganda which you may notice are often present in the media today. Learning about these characteristics can help you to identify propaganda:
- Propaganda Prevents Dialog - “To be effective, propaganda cannot be concerned with detail... Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins… it does not tolerate discussion; by its very nature, it excludes contradiction and discussion.”
- Propaganda is Total - “Propaganda must be total. The propagandist must utilize all of the technical means at his disposal - the press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings, [Internet]. "
- Propaganda Must Be Subtle at First - “Direct propaganda, aimed at modifying opinions and attitudes, must be preceded by propaganda that is sociological in character, slow, general, seeking to create a climate, an atmosphere of favorable preliminary attitudes… The ground must be sociologically prepared before one can proceed to direct prompting.”
- Propaganda Must Be Nonstop - “[Propaganda] must fill the citizen’s whole day and all his days… Propaganda tends to make the individual live in a separate world; he must not have outside points of reference…successful propaganda will occupy every moment of the individual’s life: through radio [in the car], newspapers at home, and through [TV, the Web,] and movies in the evening. The individual must not be allowed to recover, to collect himself, to remain untouched by propaganda during any relatively long period… It is based on slow, constant impregnation.”
That propaganda is nonstop is one reason why I don't always follow the news. Unless you have a lot of Stoic mental discipline, too much news consumption leads to a sense of helplessness at not being able to do something in the face of so many terrible problems. We should remember that what happens in the world is largely out of our control.
2. Seek Out Dialog and Long-Form, Investigative Journalism
Some sources for thought provoking long-form journalism include Aeon.co and LongForm.org. A few investigative journalists and sources include Seymore Hersh, Greg Palast, Jim Hightower, ProPublica.org, Washington Free Beacon, and the Center For Investigative Reporting.
One Youtube channel that does a good job with debate and dialog is The Rubin Report.
It is important to reassess various news sources periodically to see if they are still high quality. Corporate media consolidation means that just a few companies now control most mainstream news outlets. It's best to look elsewhere for a plurality of views.
3. Read Books on Diverse Subjects
If News were just one of many things that we read each day, it wouldn’t have the same impact. If we read philosophy, history, science, theology—regularly—we would be able to make much better sense of the day’s events. But we don’t. We’re too busy to manage anything but the News, and we’re getting almost too busy even for that. So the papers and the TV stations are learning to package it for us in ever more “attractive,” i.e., ephemeral, forms.
Reading a stack of old papers is nothing like rereading a classic novel, for example. We might find the novel more impressive the second time around. We are impressed again with the author’s insight, not dismayed by an editor’s shallowness. What passed for ideas in the newspapers once seemed daring and advanced (if sort of self-evident). Now they seem juvenile.
4. Sharpen Your Critical Thinking Skills
My friend Dr. Greg Sadler has posted videos of his entire series of critical thinking lectures from one of his philosophy classes on Youtube. These are absolutely great resources if you want to learn more about how to think clearly and avoid errors in reasoning.
You can also use the Socratic Method to confront your own beliefs. You may find that some of your beliefs are baseless or lacking. Christopher Phillips notes that the Socratic Method is "A way to seek truth by your own lights." It is way of examining the world which anyone can do. It is also a way to introduce children to philosophy.
Critical thinking classically consisted of the Trivium; grammar (input), logic (process), and rhetoric (output). Grammar has to do with defining terms so that we know what we are talking about. Logic is the process of examining arguments, and rhetoric involves debate and persuasion. You can learn more at the Trivium Education website. To learn more about the 3 parts of rhetoric, see Ethos, Logos, Pathos. For more about logical fallacies, see my article on Brain Fodder.
Learning how to think critically takes time, which is why I'm always studying logic rhetoric, and critical thinking.
5. Don't Take Sides Politically
Remaining politically independent helps you to avoid a group think mindset and entrenched belief systems. If you are a long-time member of any political party, it might be wise to apply the Socratic Method to your beliefs. Read some diverse political philosophy and make sure you are examining opposition sources. That way you won't get corralled into a belief system which never changes.
If all of this seems time consuming and daunting, remember to take Socrates' advice that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being. We should always try to learn and to grow.
You May Also Like:
How to Make Yourself Immune to Propaganda
Are Covert manipulation Techniques Unethical?
How to Think Critically: The Basics