Print Propaganda 101

So it’s finally happened. With the DOJ, FBI and committee Democrats holding out until the eleventh hour, the controversial FISA memo has at last been revealed in all its Machiavellian splendour. You can click this link to read the original document should you wish.

Predictably, the spin masters in the paid-for corporate media are working overtime to downplay, minimise, ridicule and dismiss this official document as a nothingburger, after giving huge amounts of free airtime to those dedicated to preventing its publication in the first place. It’s been especially instructive to see how the mainstream media is operating right now, with any pretence of objectivity or even reasoned opinion suddenly swamped by a surge of increasingly blatant and desperate propaganda pieces.

There is no better illustration than an opinion piece by Walter Shapiro for the Guardian. It’s a classic by-the-numbers propaganda device designed to frame anyone who pays even the slightest attention to this recently de-classified document as some kind of swivel eyed conspiracy theorist.

Let’s unpack just some of the propaganda contained within.

Before we even get to the article, we’re confronted by the title: The Nunes memo shows Republicans buy their own conspiracy theories. This leaves the reader in no doubt that the Nunes memo should be associated with some kind of serious yet unspecified political paranoia.

Note also how the FISA memo has suddenly become the Nunes memo. By shifting the language away from a secretive and murky judicial procedure and pinning it to the Committee’s Republican chairman, the author reinforces the headline’s strong message of partisan shenanigans. At this point it’s important to remember that calling it the Nunes memo is not actually a falsehood, as it was in fact written and signed by Devin Nunes. This is exactly how persuasive propaganda and spin are supposed to work. By subtly shifting attention away from some ideas and favouring others, the author attempts to convince the reader that his interpretation of the world is the most plausible and trustworthy one.

After reading the headline, the next thing we see is a lengthy strapline that reads: Ever since Watergate, the standard for any scandal is whether there is a smoking gun left next to a corpse. In the case of the Nunes memo, we lack a body and the gun is a child’s toy pistol. This is actually a short paragraph culled from the article itself, but by placing it front and centre, the author makes sure you see his amusing if largely irrelevant analogy twice. Thus, before even starting in on the article proper, the reader has been primed to equate ideas of irrationality, childishness and partisanship with more serious claims of state-sponsored malfeasance arising from the memo’s, you know, actual contents. It’s not clear whether the strapline was Shapiro’s own choice or an editorial decision by the Guardian, but neither would surprise me.

As an interesting aside, you can tell we live in fascinating times when a paper like the Guardian rushes to defend the honour of highly secretive, opaque and immensely powerful US government agencies. But I digress.

Shapiro’s article begins with two paragraphs discussing the widely known hoax known as the Piltdown Man. Clearly the Piltdown Man has nothing to do with a recently de-classified US government memo, but psychologically linking these unrelated ideas is yet another method of suggesting that said memo, and those associated with it, might not be altogether on the level.

To sum up, we have a highly emotive title, a lengthy strapline which is repeated later, and an opening not suggesting, but outright declaring a commonality between the Nunes memo and the Piltdown Man hoax.

The rest of the article is an illuminating and subtly crafted blend of known facts, interwoven with a narrative of conjecture and outright speculation. It’s well worth reading if you really want to see some modern propaganda with your own eyes.

Another way to discern deliberate, targeted propaganda from ordinary opinion is to look for what isn’t there. For example, Shapiro’s piece completely fails to mention that the DOJ and FBI were threatened with contempt proceedings for witholding information legally demanded by Committee subpoena. Devin Nunes’ letter summoning both the Attorney General and the FBI Director to appear before the House Intelligence Committee to explain their intransigence is not referenced once in the article. You’d think Shapiro would want to mention it, because that letter specifically requested the very same information which is basis for the FISA memo.

If that ain’t hardcore damage control, then I don’t know what is.

As for me, my personal biases lead me to wonder just how the publication of a government memo can magically change from “extraordinarily reckless”
before its release, to a “nothingburger” immediately after publication.

Ask yourself the same question.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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