Yes, Mr. Neuharth, the Media Does Color the News

In today’s USA Today, Al Neuharth, the founder of our national MacPaper, chimes in on the controversy that has ensued since some Obama Administration officials said what seems to me to be res ipso loquitor, which in Latin means “a thing that proves itself”: that Fox News colors its presentation of news so much that “it is not really a news station,” as David Axelrod put it.

Neuharth’s main point is that one should not pick a fight with “someone who buys ink by the barrel,” which of course ignores the fact that any large organization, be it a government or a large corporation, also either buys ink or buys the people who buy the ink through buying ads or setting the topic and tone of coverage through the large amounts of information they provide to the news media.

But what I would like to examine today is Neuharth’s ancillary point that “most of you understand the difference between news and views.”  He’s just wrong, and not because people are dumb or undiscerning—they are not—but because the media can be so subtle and unrelenting in their conflation of news and opinion.  Most people just want to read and listen to the news and don’t have the time to spend analyzing the fact content nor the rhetorical devices being employed to color the facts with opinion.

Here are some ways that media can color the news.  It’s not an exhaustive list, just some of the more obvious tricks of the trade that come to mind at six in the morning:

  • Labeling, as Neuharth himself does by calling The New York Times and The Washington Post liberal, when in fact both newspapers prove themselves to be centrist to slightly right virtually every day.
  • Selection of facts, as again Neuharth does when he tosses off the names of TV personalities Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews and Lou Dobbs who are tied to certain viewpoints to make his point about news, instead of actually analyzing news reporters.
  • Expert selection, which National Public Radio does every day when it interviews E. J. Dionne and David Brooks to give their views, which in a world that could encompass opinions ranging from A to Z is akin to spanning that small territory between L and M.  By doing so, NPR narrows the field of discussion, and if you listen carefully you’ll realize that this narrowing takes the discussion slightly right of center.
  • Conflation, which is the equating of two things that are not equal.  My blog entries over the past few months examine several examples of this technique.
  • “Matt Drudging,” which is the quoting of assertions that someone else has presented as facts so that the reporter can present the false information as “a fact” without having to actually look into it. The best recent example was the right-wing news media quoting other sources to substantiate the ridiculous claim that 2 million people attended the so-called “Taxpayer March” last month.
  • Telling or reporting lies:  Let’s not beat that old but painfully bloody and expensive horse that has crippled our economy and brought misery to millions too much, but the best recent example of telling or repeating lies were the Bush administration claims, widely reported without proper fact-checking, that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” that it is was ready to use.
  • Ideological subtext, which is using details of the story to make an unstated point.  Again, you can see several examples of ideological subtext in recent blogs.
  • Deciding what is and is not news.

My point is that much of what we call news is in fact dripping with opinion.

How to Work With a Marketing Agency

Jampole Communications celebrated its 20th anniversary a few months back and it got me thinking about the ways that agencies and clients interact.   Being a “communications guy,” I turned it into a set of tips for organizations on how to work with marketing communications agencies.  Here they are:

1. Judge agencies by their quality of thought.

A marketing campaign is a response to a business problem.  When an agency is showing you its portfolio, make sure you find out why it made the creative decisions it did.  If an agency cannot articulate the thought process that led it to create an ad, you probably don’t want to work with it.

2. Make certain the agency knows your industry and business.

Actual experience is less important than a basic knowledge of your industry and market.  In interviewing agencies, probe to make sure the firm understands how you make your product, to whom you sell, how your industry is doing, what the key industry issues are and who your main competitors are. 

3. Define communications problems in business terms.

Make sure that you and the agency are always tying whatever you do back to the achievement of quantifiable business objectives.

4. Know what you want to spend.

Many creative decisions hinge on budgetary factors.  All marketing communications programs require a critical mass of repetition; if the money isn’t there to achieve the necessary frequency, then less expensive alternatives must be considered.  No agency can begin to develop a plan without knowing how much you are willing to spend.  

5. Don’t have the agency do what you should be doing.

Depending on the size of the company and type of business, there are tasks best done with internal resources and other tasks best done by the agency.  Some examples from our past:  For a large utility company that had a wonderful communications department, we handled special technologies, which tended to come and go, so the staff could focus on the continuing business.  In responding to crises, we have frequently served as the spokesperson for a number of industrial and retail companies, but rarely for health care institutions, which have established and articulate spokespersons in the community; for health care, we would typically work behind the scenes.

6. Expect service from your agency.

A good agency knows how to juggle its assignments for and contact with various clients so that all feel that they are the most important client.  Expect your agency to provide appropriate and timely service, no matter how small your account is.

7. Understand what an agency charges.

Agencies are compensated in two ways:  Professional service fees and commissions on certain outside costs.  In addition, they are reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs, such as printing, photography, website applications software and advertising media placements.  Many agencies (for example, Jampole Communications) will reduce commissions on advertising and drop them altogether for other outside purchases.

Trust, but Verify Who Actually Said It.

Here are some of the more than one million pages of news media, books and websites on the Internet that cite Ronald Reagan as having said, “Trust, but verify.” Many of the citers are writing about politics or foreign policy, but the sample of links below show that the citation of Reagan as having said this slogan is far-reaching, and includes articles or documents about investments, the urban lifestyle, campus facilities management, auto dealerships and even web design:

The problem is, while Reagan said “Trust, but verify,” he was not the first to say it as most of these sources state or imply.

“Trust, but verify” is an old Russian proverb, as a New York Times editorial in 1987 and the Wikipedia article both point out.

Why would we have a collective failure of memory of who said it?  In this case, I think there are two causes:

  • The desire of our society in general to glorify presidents, and of the right-wing to glorify this particular president.
  • A cultural reluctance to cite not just alien sources, but our recent enemies, the communists. 

In my view, writers of non-fiction have an ethical responsibility to check their facts and write the truth.  If you want to say that it was a favorite Russian proverb of Reagan’s, fine, but makes sure you let us know that it was originally Russian, for the sake of truth.

And Now for Something Completely Shameless and Self-Promoting

Here’s another self-serving blog entry, but at least it’s about my poetry and not my business:

You can now view my complete September 20 performance at the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.  I read some old favorites from Music from Words, plus some new poems, hot off the grill!

And while I’m at it, some of you might be interested in how to purchase my work.  By all means, buy enough copies of Music from Words for all your friends and neighbors, at or or at most brick-and-mortar or online bookstores. 

And here is a list of individual poems that have been published in the last year.  Please buy multiple copies of these issues of these journals (and tell them Marc sent you!):

  • Acapella Zoo #1 (Fall 2008): “The Walk Away”
  • Bagel Bards IV (Spring 2009): “That Night You Woke Up Laughing”
  • Journey (Spring 2009, Eden Waters Press): “A Modern Passion”
  • Jewish Currents Volume 64, #1  (Autumn 2009): “Uncle Freddy’s Home Movies”
  • Sin Fronteras #13 (Spring 2009): “Occam’s Razor”
  • Slant 22 (May 2009): “A Question Mark About the Mousterians”
  • Wilderness House Literary Review  #3 (2009): At the Cocktail Party

We return you to your regular programming…

Why Does Pop Culture Tell Us Children Hate to Learn?

Here’s another example of a reporter transmitting one of the foundation myths of our current ideology as communicated in the ideological subtext of news stories, magazine articles, ads, popular fiction and TV shows: that children are naturally uncurious, anti-intellectual and uninterested in science. 

It’s in a Baltimore Sun article by personal finance guru Eileen Ambrose that has made the round of reprints in other publications and websites this week:

“One of the big hurdles of teaching personal finance to children and young adults is how to do so without boring or confusing them with lectures about compound interest and annual percentage rates.”

Now why would compound interest and APR bore or confuse a child?  It didn’t bore or confuse me, or my brother, or my son, or virtually all of my cousins.  But then again, we all grew up believing that learning was fun and important. 

In situation comedy after situation comedy, in ad after ad, in newspaper article after newspaper article, the secret but not silent message in the subtext is that learning is not fun and that the normal child does not want to do it.  While it is a primary responsibility of the family to promote values, the great mass of media, programs and ads we call popular culture also has the ability to communicate what our values should be. 

Why would our mass media want to promulgate this value, which in the long run is harmful to people in a knowledge-based society in which those who educate themselves make much more money and report much higher levels of happiness in studies?

My view is that the dissemination of this anti-intellectual attitude reduces the possibility of social mobility because it makes those at the bottom rungs not value the very thing—knowledge—that will help them to rise.  I think that maybe a few of those who initially floated the view that “learning is not fun” decades ago did so cynically, to keep the poor down. But that was years ago and never included the great mass of thinkers and writers.  There couldn’t possibly be a conscious conspiracy today to promulgate this falsehood because there are just too many players, just too many sources of this pernicious myth.  So why does this anti-intellectual attitude remain so much a part of the subtext of our cultural documents?  I have no answer (at least not today), but it’s an area of social history worth exploring.

JetBlue Wants You to Feel Good About What You Eat, But Should You?

On my JetBlue flight to New York yesterday, I was served a small bottle of water and a little pouch of chocolate chip cookies.  Both “food products” tried to create additional value beyond the food/drink by latching on to a cause:

  • The packaging of Chocobilly’s Chocolate Chunk Cookies has the slogan, “Cookies with a cause” and claims that the company, Immaculate Baking, donates a part of the proceeds for art supplies and folk art workshops.  The text spends more time patting the company on the back than it does talking about its “good works.”There is also an uplifting biography of Jimmy Lee Sudduth, who evidently was a storyteller specializing in “colorful stories” about growing up in rural Alabama.   
  • The water, from Aquarius Springs, has a legend across the label that reads, “Hydrate, Donate, Participate.”  Aquarius Springs, which comes in a nonbiodegradable plastic bottle, provides a water-saving tip under the headline, “What else can you do?”  We can only assume that the “what else” means “what else besides drinking our water,” since there is no other reference to actions other than the three-word legend. The tip: to shut the water while soaping up in the shower.

Let’s disregard the fact that Aquarius Springs distorts the values of environmentalism by trying to turn an environmentally unsound act—drinking water from a disposable plastic bottle—into an environmentally correct activity. 

Let’s instead focus on the similarity in the marketing approach of both products.  Both companies think they can add value by making the consumer feel good about the social implications of using the product.  But it’s a cheap, unsatisfying kind of value, at best, akin to eating sawdust and calling it nutritious. 

In both cases, there seems to something fishy about the cause: For Aquarius it’s the deception by silence about the plastic bottles. For Chocobilly, it’s the self-serving nature of the text that left me a bit suspicious. 

What I find most interesting, though, is that JetBlue served both.  Does JetBlue think that people will feel better about flying in its planes if they believe that when they consume the food products available on flight that they are actually doing a good deed and helping society or others?  But of course, nobody believes that.  It’s just more hype that most won’t even read (and why should they, since most people expect hype from product packaging). 

If 35 Economists Said the Sky Was Green

The top economic story of the early week was the wonderful (sic) news of the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) that “more than 80% of top economists believe that the recession that started almost two years ago is finally over.  But most don’t expect meaningful improvement in jobs, credit or housing for months to come.”

The 35 of 43 economists giving the economy a thumbs-up made their pronouncements based on a prediction of 3% growth in the U.S. economy in the 3rd quarter.

Now if there is no improvement in jobs, credit remains tight and the housing market continues to stagnate, then who really cares if the recession is over or not.  It seems to me that Sarkozy is right: we are measuring the wrong things.  I want the economists to say a recession is over when jobs are growing, not the collective wealth as measured in GNP.  Until jobs grow and the suffering of millions of unemployed ends then the economists might as well be saying that the sky is green.

Media Miss the Peace Prize Point

I wondered the other day how the media would spin the news that our President won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The answer was what I suspected it would be, but didn’t state in my post of October 9: In its effort to even-handedly present two sides of an inconsequential question—does President Obama deserve the Peace Prize—the news media has missed the point of this year’s award: President Obama won it for not being Bush, for being the president at the moment the U.S. has begun to slough off the bloody and short-sided unilateral bullying and the lawless abandonment of international law of the Bush years.

I don’t think I really have to prove my point that the media has focused on “Does he or doesn’t he (deserve it)?” But here goes:

And over at the New York Times, besides its even-handed article about the does-he-or-doesn’t-he controversy on Saturday and a number of Op/Ed pieces, we heard on Sunday from that broken record called Maureen Dowd who once again used a news story or trend as a springboard for bashing the Clintons.  She presented her view on the does-he-or-doesn’t-he controversy within an imaginary dialogue in which President Clinton expresses enraged envy that President Obama won the award and he didn’t.   She just completely makes it up.

For those who care, here are some other recent Clinton-bashings by Ms. One-Trick-Pony:

And what side do I support in the “does he or doesn’t he” non-controversy?: The Nobel committee told us why they did it and why Obama, as the symbol of the U.S.A., deserves the award.  In this instance, not being Bush is quite a lot, and enough.

Blaming the 70s for Child Rape

Conflation is when you confuse or equate two things that are not equal or do not have similar characteristics.   In the article titled “In Polanski Case, ‘70s Culture Collides With Changed World” on the front page of today’s New York Times, Michael Cieply uses conflation to try and demonstrate that back in the 70s, sex with those under 18 was considered okay, not taboo as it is in today’s more righteous times. 

But the only piece of evidence Cieply gives us is that in the 70s there was once a fictional movie in which a 17-year-old girl has consensual sex with a man in his 40s (Manhattan, 1979).

There are two conflations at work here:

  1. The conflation of a fictional plot with an actual event: The two are not the same.  You can cite a number of fictional works to support the assertion of a trend, but you can’t use one fiction as your sole proof.
  2. The conflation of consensual sex with a 17-year-old with the rape of a 13-year-old:  In both the 1970s and today, the attitude of people towards a 17-year-old getting it on with someone older was/is lot different from their attitude towards raping a 13-year-old.  Virtually everyone in the 70s and virtually everyone today agreed/agree that rape of a 13-year-old is wrong and should be punished.  But both in the 70s and today, the range of opinion related to consensual sex with someone a few months under the age of consent has varied, with many wanting to know the specific conditions and circumstances before passing judgment. 

The premise of the article—that people in the 70s were more forgiving of child rape than people today—is wrong, wrong, wrong, which is why it remains unproven in the body of the article.

Cieply fills the article with bits of opinion by some self-proclaimed experts, none of it backed by any facts.  Here’s the most specious example:

Joelle Casteix, the southwest regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, traced the changes in attitude toward sex with minors, among other things, to a change in the movies.

“The kids of the ’70s were raised with films — ‘The Omen,’ ‘The Demon Seed’ — that put adult sensibilities into children,” said Ms. Casteix, whose group last week called for continued pursuit of Mr. Polanski at a demonstration in Los Angeles. “But a lot of changes in the ’80s, the Reagan era, made people look at their kids a little more and realize they were children.”

The expert is saying that the films of the 70s made children more adult-like, until Ronny Reagan rode in wearing a white hat to save the day.  How does that explain “An Education” (2009), “Tadpole” (2002) or “The Opposite of Sex” (1998)?  How does it explain “Wicked Little Things” (2006), “Them” (2006), “The Ring” (2002), “Whisper” (2002) or “Pet Sematary” (1989)?

A Nobel for Not Being Bush

I like Barack Obama.  I voted for him for president.  I like his domestic agenda for the most part. I like the empathy he expresses for the downtrodden.  I applaud the initiatives he has undertaken that won him the Nobel Prize for Peace, just announced a few hours ago, even as I am sorely disappointed that he has not yet taken all of our troops out of the sinkholes called Iraq and Afghanistan. 

I therefore hope that no one will now take it as an insult of our president when I write that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for not being George Bush!

Just read from the committee’s announcement: “The Norwegian Nobel Committee lauded the change in global mood wrought by Obama’s calls for peace and cooperation but recognized initiatives that have yet to bear fruit: reducing the world stock of nuclear arms, easing American conflicts with Muslim nations and strengthening the U.S. role in combating climate change.” 

Or from the Associated Press story: “The Nobel committee praised Obama’s creation of ‘a new climate in international politics’ and said he had returned multilateral diplomacy and institutions like the U.N. to the center of the world stage.”

 It’s not too hard to read between those lines.

While the Associated Press mentions that the award could be seen as a “slap” at Bush, it only did so in the ninth paragraph, after a quote from Lech Walesa (which is a sure signal that the important parts of the story have already been told!).

I’ll be interested to see if the news media and commentators spend much time on the “He’s not Bush” angle.  I’m also eager to learn the reactions of Rush, Glen and the rest of the lying right-wing crowd.