What You’re Seeing and What You’re Reading
Propaganda in the Age of Trump
What do you think when you hear the words “Hillary Clinton”? The “Mueller Investigation”? “The New York Times”? Chances are good that the words that come to mind are “Crooked Hillary”, “Witch Hunt”, and “The Failing New York Times”. That is to say, chances are good that what comes to mind is propaganda.
There are many brilliant journalists and analysts engaged in very significant discussions about our political situation. But brilliant as they are, they often make the critical error of directly transmitting Trump’s statements to their audiences.
The sad truth is that under the Trump administration, the media has become an unwitting disseminator of propaganda. In the process of reporting statements made by this administration, they are being duped into fulfilling the purpose of those statements — which is to skew, distort, and distract public opinion. It is important to consider the dynamics of this messaging so that the media can cover, expose, or dismiss it in a responsible manner.
The Propaganda Landscape
Simply stated, propaganda is false information that is disseminated through media. There has always been propaganda — there have always been people who wanted to recast “facts” in a way that served them. In the past, to a great degree, propaganda has been countered by journalism — the free press is often able to investigate, uncover and report the truth behind key stories.
But times have changed. Today, we’re bombarded by a flood of unchecked propaganda everywhere we turn! And this is not just by Fox News and some fringe publications — this is propaganda that is flooding mainstream media channels — CNN, MSNBC, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the like.
The problem is that today’s propaganda is being pushed directly from the White House. Traditionally, the press tends to accept messages from the White House with a degree of respect and deference. And in any case, messages from the White House are — practically by definition — newsworthy! Journalists now face a challenge that has never been faced before — how to disentangle reporting on policy and issues from the propaganda that surrounds them.
So far journalists are largely failing to meet this challenge. Every day, in the context of even their most critical reporting, propaganda is seeping through the cracks. There are four key facets of this: branding, amplifying rhetoric, legitimizing disinformation, and creating distraction.
Case I — BRANDING
We all know that Trump likes to “brand” things he doesn’t like with disparaging nicknames. These are normally seen as schoolyard insults or taunts, but the purpose behind these nicknames is much more pernicious. Through regular repetition of these nicknames, Trump aims to create a mental association between the subjects of his nicknames and certain characteristics. This is not inconsequential — we have seen that, as more and more people came to associate the Mueller Investigation with the words “witch hunt”, the perceived legitimacy of that investigation was increasingly challenged.
It might be worthwhile for journalists to report on a new nickname — just once. But repeating it — when quoting Trump, showing his tweets, or even broadcasting his rallies — serves his purpose. Simply put, the nicknames have no place in everyday reporting.
Case II — AMPLIFYING RHETORIC
Once again, there is no way around it: what the President of the United States says is newsworthy. Yet, when reporting on what Trump says, journalists are making the mistake of quoting his rhetoric directly.
For example, in a recent diatribe, Trump tweeted these incendiary words –
We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of Communists, they hate Israel, they hate our own Country, […], they are Anti-Semitic, they are Anti-America, … [and] are running on an agenda that is disgusting
There are many problems with this, but consider just one: how can a journalist quote this without amplifying and spreading such hateful, slanderous words to their entire audience? Frankly, it can’t be done. Trump’s words are direct, visceral. When journalists quote him, they invite their audiences to share in this visceral experience.
It might be argued that people are smart enough to dismiss wrong or inciteful information when it is presented in the context of critical reporting. However, journalists can’t assume that their audiences pay attention to the actual reporting! Indeed, people might just be glancing at the headlines, catching the soundbites or reading the tweets. For this reason, it is problematic if Trump’s talking points are regularly and repeatedly broadcast loud and clear, even in the midst of the most poignant rebuke.
There is an easy solution to this. There is no reason to put Trump’s words on screen. And rather than quoting his statements verbatim, they ought to be paraphrased in passive form. For example, this last message might be reported as:
Shockingly and without substantiation, Trump claims that AOC and her fellow Freshmen Congresswomen are communists who hate Israel and hate the United States. He goes on to call their agenda “disgusting”.
Put another way, the problem is grammatical in nature. Reporting in this manner would take Trump’s statement, whose subject is the congresswomen, and properly re-cast it as a statement whose subject is Trump himself.
Case III — LEGITIMATIZING DISINFORMATION
There are many brilliant journalists and analysts engaged in very significant discussions about our political situation. But brilliant as they are, they often make the critical error of taking Trump at his word.
For example, MSNBC’s Joy Reid has recently scoffed that Trump believes the Russia investigation is a hoax, and, in referring to Russian interference in U.S. Elections, her MSNBC colleague Brian Williams mused that this is “something our own president doesn’t happen to believe”.
It’s fair to report what Trump claims or denies. But there is no reason to report that this is what Trump actually believes. In fact, the Trump administration has been such a study of falsehood that it is fair to assume that this is not what Trump believes! Rather, it is a view that Trump wants people to believe is legitimate. The simple act of accepting Trump’s statements at face value during a critical discussion endorses the false notion that his stated positions are valid; this opens up a discussion of there being “two sides” of even the most audacious claims.
Case IV — CREATING DISTRACTION
Propaganda has the effect of shaping perception, but it also has the effect of providing distraction by crowding out other stories.
In early July, a dozen members of the House of Representatives visited migrant detention facilities on our southern border, and came back to report on the appalling conditions they witnessed. Coverage of this was intense, until Trump responded with what many considered to be racist rhetoric regarding four of these elected officials.
The national media went berserk — the question “is Trump a racist?” dominated the news for a week! But the real news is that that was a distraction — the real story was — and still is — the abhorrent conditions faced by migrants detained at our border.
It is often joked that we can “walk and chew gum at the same time” — that we have the capacity to pay attention to multiple issues at once. But this isn’t true. Journalists are limited in number and have limited resources; the number of “headline” stories is limited, and audiences have limited attention. That the media can be manipulated away from covering such an urgent issue is profoundly disturbing.
Context — Radio Silence
In the context of such a barrage of information coming from the White House, it’s easy to lose sight of a source of information that has all but stopped. The press briefing. No longer are representatives of the administration holding press conferences during which events and policies are presented and members of the press can question them.
This has implications on many levels, but in the context of propaganda, what should be noted is that, in the dearth of substantive information and transparency, nearly the only thing the press has to report on is soundbites and tweets! In this manner, intense coverage of the propaganda is all but assured!
An Emerging Threat
Up to this point, I have discussed tactics the Trump administration is using to push propaganda through otherwise objective news channels. But there is a serious emerging threat that needs to be watched.
In mid-July, Trump hosted what he called a “social media summit”, to which he invited an assortment of right-wing pundits, provocateurs and conspiracy theorists.
Inviting these people to the White House “legitimized” them as journalists. In time, we can count on these people to serve as new outlets for Trump’s message. Couple this with the “fake news” slur he so often promotes, and you can see how the stage is being set for a large-scale “debate” about what the truth really is!
And indeed, there is movement on that front — in October, CNN published a story with the headline “frustrated with news coverage, Trump suggests launching own network”.
Reporting Separate Stories
Ultimately, Trump is gaming the system. He is using outrageous soundbites and tweets to hijack the media into disseminating his propaganda. I believe that the key to reporting on the Trump administration would be to break down his messaging into separate stories.
Imagine if Trump were to speak about tariffs and immigration in a single speech. The media coverage would likely consist of wholly separate news stories on each of these topics. In the same way, if Trump were to speak about immigration and engage in inciteful messaging in the same speech, it makes sense to to cover these as separate stories. Stories about policy and issues should discuss policy and issues only — absent the rhetoric. And stories about the rhetoric should maintain Trump as their subject, and discuss his aim to color public opinion, challenge established facts, and create distraction.
Shortly after he announced his candidacy, Trump declared “I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.”
Alas, this has come to pass. Ever since his candidacy was announced, the media has chased after his every word, and in the course of doing so, has allowed him to to prejudice, deceive, enrage, and distract the public.
The media is at fault. Simply put, by accepting Trump’s words at face value, quoting him verbatim, showing his tweets on screen or in print, and reporting on his rhetoric within stories about policy, the media is unwittingly amplifying — that is to say propagating — his propaganda. This is a threat to the practice of objective political reporting, and this, in turn, may well be a threat to our nation as a whole. What’s more, the genie may be out of the bottle now — propaganda may come to characterize our political landscape forevermore!
Although the prevalence of propaganda in media presents us with new challenges, these challenges are not insurmountable. But in order to do so, people who produce or respond to media — journalists, analysts, elected officials, and candidates — need to acknowledge the nature and scope of the problem! Only by understanding the propaganda landscape can we find sure footing and clear messaging.