A Look at how The New York Times Writes about Propaganda
Some of my friends and colleagues think I’m obsessed with propaganda. It’s true. But I’m not alone. Nearly the entire past five years has been all about so-called “fake news” with the explosion of interest in disinformation and misinformation that’s spread by politicians, bad actors, bots and trolls. This has led to numerous arguments about our “polluted” and “poisoned” information ecosystem. But when people refer to propaganda as a “poison,” this really makes me angry.
For too many people, the digital landscape is now conceptualized as a treacherous place that’s been damaged by Silicon Valley’s technologies as people now spread the “poison” through social media, moving it up the chain to “infect” mainstream media and make bad ideas seem believable.
The pendulum swing from empowerment to protection has been severe. The language of pollution and poison compel audience attention, that’s for certain. But the sensationalism of the poison metaphor functions as a form of propaganda that I don’t find helpful. Why? When misinformation, disinformation and propaganda are conceptualized as poison, it sets up a simple hierarchy that is rooted in the primal need for sanctity and purity over degradation. Scholars of religion point out how these moral ideas are shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination.
Theories of media literacy invite us to be alert to how such metaphors can activate strong emotions in ways that limit or degrade “strong sense” critical thinking. Even when used by well-meaning academics and activists, poison-type metaphors activate either-or thinking that may cause people to overlook the deeper complexities of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda in pluralistic, global societies.
It’s important to address the nature of propaganda in its fullest sense, not merely as a “smear word” to label things we dislike, but as strategic communication that can be effective in influencing large numbers of people. As I explain in my book, Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age, propaganda is an essential part of the democratic process: It is one important way by which people are induced to act together. Propaganda is a vital tool of civic activism and it should not be demonized.
Let’s take a closer look at three stories from Monday, December 7, 2020. In this day’s news from The New York Times, there is a solid examination of propaganda at the blurry intersections of information, entertainment and persuasion. Indeed, numerous articles in this particular issue address the topic of propaganda, which is an indication of the extent to which propaganda is a dominant theme in contemporary life. A review of three of articles from this issue leads to questions about the editorial policies at The New York Times regarding the use of the term propaganda. Could editorial policies be limiting how people think about and understand the concept of propaganda?
Propaganda Relies on Intensify-Downplay Formulas
Some readers saw the headline: Propaganda Machine Muddies Virus’s Origin. In this story about “the China virus,” the print edition of The New York Times used the word “propaganda” but the digital edition of the story featured a different headline: “China Peddles Falsehoods to Obscure Origin of Covid Pandemic.” Reporter Javier Hernandez explains how China is working hard to redirect global attention towards other countries as a way to reduce global anger about China’s initial mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak by pushing theories that the pandemic virus originated outside China. The reporter uses the term “propaganda” four times in the article to refer to China’s deflection strategies. Deflection strategies are a classic tool of persuasion, part of the “intensify-downplay” scheme as originally described by ancient Greek scholars.
What I appreciated about this article is the way in which Hernandez explains how propaganda can include falsehoods — but not always. Some propaganda results from strategic public relations-style framing. Propagandists may use truths, half-truths or lies to accomplish strategic goals. This was illustrated well in the article. After explaining how China tried to disseminate pseudoscientific evidence in the form of a research publication, Hernandez showed how a propagandist did not need to construct elaborate falsehoods. Instead, the remarks of a World Health Organization expert could simply be re-interpreted to align with a propaganda goal. For example, a public health expert spoke about the need for a rigorous investigation into how the virus spread from animals to humans, but Chinese media interpreted these comments as a statement that the virus existed around the world but happened to be discovered in Wuhan. The reporter noted that such strategies resemble similar efforts from American lawmakers, who also re-interpret the words of scientists to push a propaganda message. But these efforts were not labelled as propaganda. I wonder why the word propaganda was removed from the headline of the NYT digital edition. When the word “propaganda” is used only in relation to the Chinese government, it becomes merely “a smear word.”
Both Terrorism and Documentaries Can Function as Propaganda
A news story about the controversy surrounding a new Canadian documentary, “Les Rose” explains the work of filmmaker Felix Rose, whose father had been leader of a violent Canadian extremist group, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (F.L.Q.). Journalist Dan Bilevsky points out that critics have claimed that the new documentary “turns murderers into heroes,” whitewashing history in ways that downplay the historical crisis of the early 1970s, a period of time with so much violent conflict that armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Montreal. In their efforts to seek independence, F.L.Q. activists engaged in kidnapping and murder even as other activist groups pursued peaceful change through legal action.
In making the film, the filmmaker wanted to better understand his own father’s actions, so the film is highly sympathetic to the F.L.Q. In those times, French-speaking Quebecois faced profound discrimination. One of the most powerful quotes in the story comes from the filmmaker, who notes, “My father told me that kidnapping a man was a way to be heard because he no longer had a voice.”
The NYT journalist doesn’t use the word “propaganda” as he describes the film’s many errors of omission. But the article actually touches upon two different forms that propaganda can take. First of all, terrorism is itself a form of propaganda. In the 19th century, anarchists discovered that publicizing violent acts of retaliation turns such actions into propaganda that influences public opinion and promotes social change. They called acts of terrorism “propaganda of the deed.”
Secondly, documentary film can function as propaganda by framing social issues and events from a particular limited point of view. “Advocacy documentary” is the term generally applied to films that are produced independently, outside the orbit of commercial or public TV marketplace, that bring points of view that are often countercultural or that challenge authoritative accounts. While documentary scholars emphasize the “truth-telling” values at the heart of the genre, advocacy documentaries are highly personal in nature, using selective emphasis and omission to capture the filmmaker’s understanding of social reality. As a result, advocacy documentaries are commonly criticized by journalists for failing to tell “the whole truth.”
On the subject of film propaganda produced in the United States, it’s worth noting that The New York Times seems to avoid the use of the word “propaganda” even in the most extreme cases where the term is obviously appropriate. For example, in 2018, a NYT reporter attended a screening of Death of a Nation, a film by Dinesh D’Souza that compares Democrats to Nazis and blames illegal immigrants, minority groups, and the news media for our nation’s woes. In this somewhat lighthearted(!?) article, I find it truly shocking that no mention of the term is made. Why does The New York Times not call such films for what they are?
Public Service Messages are Beneficial Propaganda
In an NYT op-ed entitled, “It’s Time to Scare People About Covid,” Dr. Elizabeth Rosenthal reviews a variety of upbeat and positive messages about people coming together to fight the coronavirus, noting how boring and bland they are. Then she points out how it may be more effective to use fear to change people’s behavior, by “showing in a straightforward and graphic way what can happen with the virus.”
The word “propaganda” is not used in this editorial, but Rosenthal certainly describes it well. She conjures up imaginary health messages that depict people struggling to free themselves from the ventilator, tethered to an ICU bed, with tubes in the groin. Could such terrifying images of medical care be more effective in getting people to stop feeling that they are immune from the risks of infection?
Personally, I doubt that depicting medical care as frightening would produce the change in behavior that Dr. Rosenthal seeks — and it might even backfire, leading people to avoid going to the hospital. Professional propagandists know that activating fear is a strategy that must be used with extreme care. It cannot be done lightly. Perhaps the medical symptoms could be make to look scary — but the medical procedures used to heal people should not be depicted in ways that induce fear. This editorial would have benefitted from some additional reading and research on propaganda, that’s for certain. How did it ever get published? Could NYT editors themselves have some blinkered preconceptions about propaganda that limit their editorial judgment?
Journalists at elite newspapers have the power to broaden public understanding of propaganda, shifting away from the purely negative connotations of the term. I can imagine that NYT editors, acknowledging the negative connotation of the word, are cautious about its use. But when propaganda can be found in politics, news and information, marketing, activism, education, and entertainment, it seems odd to restrict the use of the term only as a metaphor for poison. It’s time to honor the deeper complexities at work in the ways in which propaganda reflects complex power dynamics at work in efforts to shape and control public opinion.
Propaganda is essential for societies because it serves as a form of social glue that binds us to others. As the American Historical Association explained back in 1944, propaganda, “In its origins ‘propaganda’ is an ancient and honorable word.” Because we are attracted to propaganda that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs and values, we might not recognize unifying propaganda that takes the form of aphorisms or truisms about our democracy. Because of the negative connotation, we have a blind spot in recognizing and respecting beneficial propaganda that builds consensus. Only with a broader, less negative conceptualization of the term can activists and change agents take epistemic responsibility for their identity as “positive propagandists.” As we do this honestly and with integrity, we can work together to de-polarize our communication behavior.
But we must stop perpetuating the myth that people are victimized by propaganda. Propaganda requires the willingness of the listener, reader, or viewer to participate in the meaning-making process. Propaganda does not work without our active participation. Because we are not wholly independent in how we evaluate propaganda, it might seem like groups of people are “brainwashed.” But all of us are situated within our particular time and place in culture. All of us have a partial and incomplete view of reality. The study of propaganda’s harms and benefits requires reflection on the significance of the interpretive frames that are constructed by individuals, culture and society. When propaganda ceases to be used as a smear word, someday, I hope, we can honor our identities as proud propagandists — as people who try to use the power of communication to make a difference in the world.