The subtext of the entirety of the “Week in Review” section in yesterday’s Sunday New York Times was decidedly right-wing, especially when it comes to social/value issues. The section was, in fact, a textbook in advanced propaganda techniques, to whit:
Ideological subtext through photographs: On page 2 of every “Week in Review” is a montage of five photos with short, snappy headlines across the top of the page, each with extended captions; the captions always take the same structure – a short paragraph beginning with “The News” in bold followed by another short paragraph beginning with “Behind the News.” Here are the five headlines with photos yesterday; in each case the text below the photo is triumphant in tone, except the last one:
- Mulling a Run: Lou Dobbs may be running for Senate
- Selling Books: Sarah Palin signing
- Testing Fealty: Conservative Republicans proposing a 10-point “purity” pledge for candidates
- Marshalling Forces: Glenn Beck announcing he’s sponsoring voter drives
- Backing Away: New Jersey Dems fail to schedule a vote for same-sex marriage, even though they have the votes to pass. The tone of the text below this photo is defeatist.
In the world of film, this succession of photos is called a “Cause-Effect” montage: the juxtaposition of images creates a greater meaning beyond each image and that greater meaning, the ideological subtext, is that the first four images caused the fifth. In this case, the Times is creating a meta-statement that right-wing/conservative activity has left/liberals on the run. But is it really true?
Argument by anecdote: The page 1 lead story in the section uses a series of anecdotes and conjectures to assert that the younger generations of feminists don’t care as much about the abortion issue as their mothers did because they have lived all their lives under Roe v. Wade and take it for granted. For this reason, writer Sheryl Gay Stolberg wonders if the coalition building against the Stupak amendment will succeed. Of course the only studies she shares show that there is no difference (nor has there been for 20 years) in attitudes about abortion between those over and under 30 years of age. Her argument is based on conjecture and a handful of anecdotal quotes.
Labeling: In Louis Uchitelle’s story of why there are a lack of big projects like the Erie Canal or the Big Dig in the U.S. right now, he writes, “Mr. Obama’s Great Recession, by contrast, has been a milder affair… (than Roosevelt’s Depression).” Since when did it become Obama’s recession, except in the empty rhetoric of his political enemies? Uchitelle suddenly forgets eight Bush years of easy credit, little regulation of the financial markets and massive wartime spending, plus the Bush failure to heed the many warning signs that the economy was overextended and markets were overheated.
Wedging: Wedging is when you focus on the one area of common ground that you have with a group of people to make theme recognize the views of someone whose other views would be much more controversial. Ignoring a myriad of other Op/Ed submissions on a variety of important topics, the Times chose to run a piece by Kenneth J. Wolfe, described as someone who “writes frequently for traditionalist Roman Catholic publications.” But Wolfe is not writing on same-sex marriage, stem cell research, abortion, birth control or any of those issues that fiercely divide Catholics (and others). No, “Kenny Choirboy” is advocating a return to the Catholic Mass. The fact that “Kenny Choirboy” uses the relatively innocuous language issue as a wedge is clear in his last paragraph, in which he subtly ties a return to Latin mass to Pope Benedict’s broader ideological program.
“At the beginning of this decade, Benedict (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) wrote: ‘The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself.’ He was right: 40 years of the new Mass have brought chaos and banality into the most visible and outward sign of the church. Benedict XVI wants a return to order and meaning. So, it seems, does the next generation of Catholics.”
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The narrative is another tool in the propagandist’s kit-pack. Thomas Friedman’s op ed piece “America vs. The Narrative” in the NY Times on 11/28/2009 raises some points about the “cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies” that allows governments “to deflect…all of their people’s grievances over why their countries are falling behind.” Friedman’s narrative, however, referred to extremist Muslim explanations, which he dubs “The Narrative,” of the cause of Arab/Muslim-West conflict. The piece generated 688 comments. I read only 75, but the great majority of those (also endorsed by the most readers’ recommendations) ripped Friedman for his apparent inability to recognize counterpart narratives prevalent right here in America. And several comments suggested that Friedman himself was pushing a counterpart narrative.
It was encouraging to see the strong awareness of and resistance to the home-grown narrative of the right, but other tools of the propagandists/marketers are more insidious, because they can’t be fact-checked and because they rely on basic human characteristics. We don’t form our opinions entirely on facts (whose facts, anyway?), but rather filter everything through our experience, which is anecdotal. Labeling is key to language and communication. We let down our guard when we’re on common ground. The propagandists/marketers take advantage of these characteristics and carefully craft messages, a few of which may even become memes, taking on a life of their own and spreading virally. I suspect that’s what we’re seeing here: the NY Times has been “memed.”