August 9, 2006
The Simple Art of Propaganda
Sometimes we get so caught up in the minutiae of this or that battle, engagement, or encounter, that we forget to step back and take in the entire vista. I don't mean the view of the Israeli-Hezbollah war itself, though obviously that's important; in this case, the whole gestalt I want to focus on is the techniques by which the American elite news media has turned news reporting into propaganda.
Worse, not pro-Israeli or pro-Western secular democracy propaganda; that I would understand. But rather, into propaganda for the worst enemies of Western civilization... in fact, the bitterest enemies of the very "free press" that is cravenly crafting the agit-prop.
Here is the required reading for this class: Cabinet OKs Expanding Israeli Offensive, distributed by the Associated Press today, August 9th, 2006. The supposed thrust of the story is that the Israelis have finally decided to dramatically expand their offensive (as Big Lizards knew they eventually would have to do), seizing control of all Lebanese territory up to the Litani River.
But the real point is to subtly (and at times blatantly and overtly) portray the offensive as a failure and quagmire, and to enlist the aid of world opinion and the weariness and wariness of the Israeli public to force Israel to pull out immediately. (Why the antique media would want to do this is irrelevant to this discussion; this is about the actual mechanics.)
Subtext, or Reading Behind the Lines
Let's start right away with the opening pair of grafs:
Israel's Security Cabinet overwhelmingly decided Wednesday to send troops deeper into Lebanon in a major expansion of the ground war - an attempt to further damage Hezbollah before a cease-fire is imposed.
The decision could pressure the United Nations to work faster on a cease-fire deal to try to stop the offensive.
What is AP trying to do in this lead in?
- On the most obvious level, they are trying to taint the reader against 'unfair Israel,' 'Israel the cheater,' from the very start.
Americans and Westerners believe in fair play and following the rules. Thus, from the very first sentence, AP portrays Israel's expansion as an underhanded trick designed to take unfair advantage before the whistle is blown. Rather than give them the benefit of the doubt -- perhaps they're expanding the offensive to try to stop the missile attacks on Israeli cities? -- AP's Karin Laub delves deep into the psychological motivation of the Israelis: the offensive is just "an attempt to further damage Hezbollah before a cease-fire is imposed."
The bounders! She thus covertly compares them to a boxer who gets his opponent into a clinch... then before the ref can part them, he gets in a few low blows.
- But at a more subtle level, see how the macrocosmic themes are woven into the microcosm of a single sentence.
Note the phraseology. We all know that a ceasefire is something that two or more combatants agree to, temporarily suspending hostilities while they negotiate a settlement. The phrasing is that "A and B agreed to a ceasefire."
But that's not what Ms. Laub writes; rather, Israel is trying to get in a few more low blows "before a cease-fire is imposed." Imposed by whom? How can a ceasefire be imposed by anybody, apart from the combatants themselves?
This very subtle choice of passive voice in the midst of a pair of paragraphs that are otherwise in active voice is designed to arrest the reader's attention without him even realizing why: the cabinet decided; the cabinet will send troops; they are attempting to damage Hezbollah; the decision will pressure the UN (not "the UN will be pressured"), which may work faster and try to stop the offensive.
But the cease-fire will be imposed.
The shift in voice would be unnoticed on a conscious level by nearly all readers... but it has a subtle effect, putting the Israelis in the position of truculent schoolchildren pitching a tantrum, which will eventually draw the attention of the adults, who will come along and set things aright: if you Israelis can't make peace, then peace will be imposed.
Passive voice allows Ms. Laub to skip entirely over the question of who will do the imposing: there is no "actor" in that clause; the subject is an action (cease-fire), and the verb (imposed) is passive voice. The reader is left vaguely uneasy, wondering who he should envision disposing of the fighting: the United States? the Arab League? the U.N.? God? Graf one yields nothing but a question mark.
- The question mark of the first graf is answered with a resounding thunderclap of an exclamation mark in the second.
Who will impose the cease-fire? Who must we look to for an end to this terrible conflict? Why, the United Nations, of course!
The decision could pressure the United Nations to work faster on a cease-fire deal to try to stop the offensive.
So in a scant two paragraphs, we already have the image of Israel as a naughty child taking unfair advantage, which will surely provoke the magisterial power of the UN to lay down the law from Mount Sinai. Whew, that's quite an amazing load of subtext to rest on the thin foundation of two simple paragraphs!
So let's move on... and don't worry, we're not going paragraph by paragraph through the entire piece.
Now we have the obligatory nod in Israel's direction... followed immediately by what radio talk-show host Larry Elderberry calls "the Big But":
"Israel is still working for a diplomatic solution, preferably in the Security Council," Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog said, adding that the new offensive would run parallel to the negotiations. "We cannot wait forever. We have a million civilians living in bomb shelters, and we have to protect them."
The decision came as fierce fighting was reported overnight with Hezbollah militants, and Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera reported 11 Israeli soldiers had been killed in what would be the deadliest day for Israeli troops in Lebanon in four weeks of fighting.
I changed the font sizes above to indicate the propagandistic effect of "call and response." This occurs (in both print and broadcast media) when Party A makes a point, and the writer (or host) then allows Party B to have the resounding response. In this case, Israel says 'hey, we have to protect our citizens,' and al-Jazeera swiftly responds 'but you're not, are you? You're getting cut to pieces!'
The net effect here is one of utter futility. Of course, al-Jazeera is not exactly known as a creditable news source (especially since the actual source for their claim is either the compromised Lebanese government or else Hezbollah itself); but that point is buried by the call and response technique, which backloads a heavy significance upon the final comment.
You may recognize this technique from 60 Minutes, which uses it incessantly -- and clumsily -- when their whistleblower is always allowed the final response to the feeble defense offered by the target:
The corporate spokesman, Daniel Squirmer, says that Engulf&Devour has made some effort to respond to these catastrophes: "We care about the environment; Engulf&Devour spends millions cleaning emissions from our factories."
But Dr. Blabber says the efforts have had little effect: "If they're really spending so much, where is it all going? To date, not a single site we identified has been certified clean and safe... not one!"
The technique sets up an artificial closure: the target -- Israel -- is never allowed to have the last word; they're like Hamilton Burger on the old Perry Mason show: whenever Ham Burger objects to one of Perry's unorthodox courtroom antics, the judge's response is invariably a resounding "overruled!"
It'll All End In Tears
- The Futility Fantasy: AP neglects even to mention any bright side to Israel's expansion, implying there isn't one. We can also call this the Argument from Murphy: anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
When you wanted that BB-gun for Christmas, your mother never suggested you might develop good eye-hand coordination, concentration, the ability to aim patiently, an activity to keep you outside the house but also off the streets, or that you might be prompted to form a club and meet a lot of like-minded people, did she?
I suspect she suggested that you would end up shooting some helpless bird, breaking the neighbor's window -- and of course, that you'd shoot your eye out.
Well, listen to "Mother" Laub:
The Israeli Cabinet decision was risky. Israel could set itself up for new criticism that it is sabotaging diplomatic efforts, particularly after Lebanon offered to deploy its own troops in the border area.
A wider ground offensive also might sharply increase the already-high number of casualties among Israeli troops.
Since the fighting began, at least 700 people have died on the Lebanese side. The Israeli toll stood at 103 killed - including 36 civilians.
In the six-hour meeting, Cabinet officials were told a new offensive could mean 100 to 200 more military deaths, a participant said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. At least 67 Israeli soldiers have been confirmed killed.
Nice. Of course, it could also:
- Drive Hezbollah back so far that they cannot shoot missiles at Israeli cities;
- Clear the area so that the Lebanese Army could actually take control of their own southern territory;
- Give Syria and especially Iran a bloody nose;
- Cripple Iran's ability to threaten instant retaliation -- via Hezbollah, their forward-deployed SpecOps branch -- against the United States, were we to make a serious push against Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, such as Muqtada Sadr's al-Mahdi Militia or the Badr Brigades;
- And even bring some peace to the region, by finally persuading the Arabs (and Iran) that the Ehud Barak era of weakness is finally and decisively at an end.
But Ms. Laub doesn't wish to confuse matters by bringing up all these irrelevancies. Suffice to say that it's just as effective to bias reader response by omission as it is by commission.
- A drawerful of left-handed gloves; well, everything's gone wrong so far, hasn't it?
This method, which I call the "blind in one eye" technique, is actually part of the Argument from Murphy. To reinforce the case that "it'll all end in tears if you don't follow our party," the great geniuses of propaganda would always publish a falsified history that simply leaves out anything that contradicts the party line. (Paul Josef Goebbels is credited with the "big lie" technique: he realized that the more outrageous the lie, the harder it was to refute it.)
If the false, one-sided history is presented authoritatively enough and in the absence of a competing history, even people who don't trust you will still internalize the history you recount, to a greater or lesser degree.
A recent very good example of this was the way the mainstream media was able to take the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina -- which response was actually significantly faster, more proactive, and more effective at saving lives than any previous response to a natural disaster in my memory -- and turn it into a worse disaster than Katrina itself. And they were so effective at this that not only does the American public now falsely imagine that Katrina was a low point for President Bush (in fact, it was one of his greatest achievements)... even most Republicans have been brainwashed to agree!
It was the elite media's crowning achievement of anti-Bush propaganda, and they are still giddy with glee.
The Democrats and their media succeeded in turning a magnificent success into a dismal failure simply by willfully failing to mention the hundreds of rescues and recovery programs that succeeded, recounting only the small number of things that went wrong -- but recycling them endlessly, to make it appear as if Michael Brown and George W. Bush offered only failure and death. (See 13 Ghosts for the true story of Bush and "Brownie" in their response to Hurricane Katrina.)
The news media use the same technique incessantly:
- In Iraq, where all we ever hear about is the number of American and Iraqi dead;
- In the economy, where job creation is reported as a negative, since it didn't live up to some expert's unrealistic expectation;
- In gun control, where it's front-page news every time a man accidentally shoots his own son sneaking home late after a date... but when a single mom shoots a rapist in her own home, it's reported on page B-24, if at all.
In each case, by telling only one side of the history, the media subtlely imply that there is no other side, that there never has been a benefit. They must be subtle, because the blatant statement would be unsustainable and instantly challenged.
Viz., to the instant; here is Ms. Laub on the People's History of the Israeli-Hezbollah war:
The decision came as fierce fighting was reported overnight with Hezbollah militants, and Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera reported 11 Israeli soldiers had been killed in what would be the deadliest day for Israeli troops in Lebanon in four weeks of fighting....
Since the fighting began, at least 700 people have died on the Lebanese side. The Israeli toll stood at 103 killed - including 36 civilians....
The decision on the wider offensive came a day after the commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon was sidelined in an unusual midwar shake-up - another sign of the growing dissatisfaction with the military, which has been unable to stop Hezbollah's rocket barrages....
About a mile away, some 400 people marched in a funeral for 30 of the 41 killed in an Israeli airstrike earlier this week. They carried the bodies draped in Lebanon's green, red and white flag and chanted, "Death to America! Death to Israel!"....
Al-Jazeera said 11 Israeli soldiers were killed in heavy fighting with Hezbollah guerrillas near the border. The Israeli army declined to comment on the report but had said earlier that 15 soldiers were wounded in overnight clashes.
A Hezbollah statement said it killed or wounded 10 Israeli soldiers and destroyed a tank as it advanced toward the village of Qantara, north of the border....
Israel also struck Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, killing two people and wounding five....
Airstrikes also leveled a building in the Bekaa Valley town of Mashghara, trapping seven family members in the rubble. Five bodies were pulled out and the remaining two relatives were feared dead, officials said....
At least 19 Lebanese civilians were killed by airstrikes Tuesday. Rescuers also pulled 28 more bodies from the wreckage, raising the death toll to 77 Lebanese killed Monday, the highest since the war began.
Hezbollah fired more than 160 rockets at Israel on Wednesday. Since the fighting began July 12, a total of 3,333 have been fired, officials said.
In Laub's entire piece, there is not one single positive effect mentioned -- not one! It's as if the Israeli offensive has caused nothing but misery and heartbreak, death and destruction, even for Israel itself. According to the People's History, it has been an act of resounding senselessness that solved nothing and only made a bad situation worse.
Yet by not presenting that assessment openly, merely implying it by ignoring anything good (lying by omission), Karin Laub avoids the necessity of defending her thesis; if asked, she can simply look innocent and say, "but I never wrote that it was a complete fiasco; whatever do you mean?"
Drilling Down: Those Poor Dead "Civilians"
But of course, she does this deliberately. For one example, what is Laub's source for saying the 19 Lebanese killed were all "civilians?" How does she know? Who told her that? Technically, she is likely correct: the dead are all "civilians" in the sense that they were not members of the Lebanese Army. But she has completely left out the number who were members of -- or cheerleaders for -- Hezbollah.
That's a significant point, right? If 14 of the 19 were Hezbollah members, then that is very different than if all 19 were Druze Christians who have fought against Hezbollah and were thus on Israel's side in this war. But Laub simply omits any reference to Hezbollah fighters or supporters being killed and tells us that Israel's airstrikes have only killed good guys... without her actually coming out and saying so directly.
Because of course saying it overtly would be nitwittery: obviously some of the Lebanese killed were actually members of Hezbollah, since Israel is primarily attacking Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and parts of Beirut. And an additional percentage of those killed, probably larger than the fighters themselves, were not actually members of Hezbollah but were part of the "Hezbollah tribe": they support the terrorist organization, which they see as the generous relatives who give them welfare, since the government of Lebanon cannot.
But what is the breakdown? We don't know, because the elite media never really tries to find out. If pressed, they simply take the word of Lebanese government officials... or of Hezbollah.
Israeli estimates of the number of Hezbollah killed are routinely labeled "inflated" by lefties in political debate. These leftists invariably get their "real number" by simply reading news stories and adding up the numbers of Hezbollah dead that the elite media claim.
But this quoted number in the media comes either from Hezbollah itself (which has an obvious interest in undercounting its own dead)... or from the Lebanese government, which is currently in bed with Hezbollah -- and which desperately struggles to persuade Israel to withdraw immediately and the rest of the world to lean on Israel to do so. Again, it's in the interests of Lebanon to portray the Israeli offensive as doing nothing but slaughtering civilians.
And since many reporters and editors in the MSM are people of the Left, they follow the party line, completing the vicious circle: virtually no members of Hezbollah have been killed in this war; the dead are all "civilians," and all the news is bad news.
Multiply by each component of the "bad-news brigade" cited above, and you have the anatomy of a false history.
The Grand View
The essence of propaganda is never to make a logical argument. Arguments can be refuted; evidence can be countered with better evidence.
What distinguishes propaganda from debate is that you never allow "the opposition to confuse matters by participating in the discussion." As I have said many times, it's easy to win a debate if you get to script both sides.
Propaganda succeeds by subtext, subtlety, and subterfuge:
- Approach your subject obliquely;
- Never state openly what you can imply subtly (leaving no opening for rebuttal);
- Allow the opposition to speak, but only when your side gets the final say and controls the terms of debate (this gives the illusion of fairness without actually allowing full participation by your enemies);
- Omit inconvenient facts to seize control of the narrative;
- Predict dire consequences if the opposition is heeded; when calamities fail to materialize, simply act as if they actually did, referring to the (nonexistent) catastrophe as if everyone knows it so well, there is no reason to state it overtly;
- Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, admit that you have a "side;" you are the impartial observer... whose observations always seem to go one direction. Is it your fault that the entire universe is against the opposition?
If reporters like AP's Karin Laub (or the Washington Post's Tom Ricks, who went out of his skull and gave the Left's talking points in plain speech -- rather than as propaganda in the pages of the Post) were simply making these odd mistakes randomly, just by accident, then we would expect half of them to favor the Israelis, and only half to favor Hezbollah.
But in fact, each and every error, misstatement, omission, or subtextual implication supports the same position: that Israel should immediately withdraw (surrender), handing an unearned victory to Hezbollah and inflicting terrible damage on her own credibility on the world stage, signalling weakness... and rendering her ripe for the plucking by the vultures that surround her.
Never attribute to stupidity what can adequately be explained by malice; or in this case, what can only be explained by malice. Make no mistake. Know thine enemy as thou knowest thyself.
Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 9, 2006, at the time of 4:12 PM
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Tracked on August 19, 2006 3:04 PM
The following hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist
This is totally *UNFAIR*!!! You are kicking Reuters, AP, "American elite news media", etc. whilst they are down. Blogs are ripping into every news' photo that comes out now, and here you go 'a-rippen into their news' words?!?
The above hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist at August 9, 2006 5:14 PM
The following hissed in response by: hunter
I am confused as to the difference between what is being done to Israel in this regard and what ahs been done to the US by the MSM/DNC in this regard. There is literally no difference at all.
The following hissed in response by: brotio
No need to be confused, Hunter. You're exactly right. The dominant liberal media uses the exact same formula when covering Iraq and anything that might benefit Republicans.
Thankyou for a very comprehensive look at propaganda tactics. I hope all who read this will work on training an eye for these tactics. This is one of the most informative blogs I've read in a long time, by anyone.
The following hissed in response by: Bill Faith
Excerpted and linked at Old War Dogs. Excellent post.
The above hissed in response by: Bill Faith at August 10, 2006 3:56 AM
The following hissed in response by: Big D
Imagine that a reporter is walking down the road and sees a vicious dog attacking a man. He starts yelling at the man "Stop defending yourself! Stop! The dog might get injured!"
From the outside this is insane behavior, but to the reporter it makes perfect sense. He wants the attack to stop, but doesn't want to get involved (cowardice/has to protect journalistic independence), and he can't possible expect to reason with a vicious dog, so...
Of course the dog is not evil. It is just obeying its nature. Surely it has reasons for attacking someone. Why the poor fellow being attacked must have done something to provoke the dog...so....
The press wants the fighting in Lebanon to stop. But they can't possible influence or reason with Hezbo. And since evil doesn't exist, Israel must have done something to deserve being attacked. So they slant the news to try and influence the only sane and moral party to the fight.
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