September 3, 2018

The art of twisting the news

Ventriloquists and their dummies

Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch.


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So a few weeks ago ...

(An aside. It has become de rigueur to begin a flow of ideas with the word "so." I'm not exactly sure why, but all the best people in the media are doing it. It has also become the correct way to begin the answer to a question. Thus: "How do you calculate the area of a circle?" "So you take the radius, et cetera." It seems to have caught on in a way that John Kennedy's "Let me say this about that" never quite did. It is also useful to signal that you are about to change the subject in a conversation.)

A few weeks ago I heard a discussion about the media. It was conducted by members of the media. They were pondering the many effects that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have had on the reporting of the news. In conjunction with their observations on that subject, they fretted over the animosity so many people seem to have toward the media, what with accusations of "fake news" and "enemies of the people" and all that.

There has arisen a real deterioration of trust in the media, they agreed, in the past
20 years.

Twenty years?

In 1971, Edith Efron, a senior editor for TV Guide, published The News Twisters (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing). In the preface she states, "Throughout the sixties — the decade during which I have been reporting professionally on the broadcasting industry — the conviction that network news is politically biased has grown rapidly in the body politic, and tends to rise during electoral periods."

At that time, there were only three national TV networks. There was no Internet and no social media. There were no cable news stations. AM radio was still an important source for information and entertainment. Talk radio as we know it did not exist, though there were programs on radio and TV that were its precursors (most notably Alan Burke's and Joe Pyne's shows). Cable TV was alarmingly depicted in movie propaganda shorts as a monster that would voraciously gobble quarters from a slot set up on your TV, much as the payment slot on a pay phone did. Even home fax machines — which were to be so important in the downfall of communism in Poland — lay nearly two decades in the future.

Efron tells us that during the election of 1960, bias charges came mostly from the far Right. They were rejected by the FCC as "lunatic fringe" opinion.

By 1964, the "lunatic fringe" had come to include Dwight Eisenhower and most of the GOP. Protests against that categorization were ignored as "partisan."

And in 1969, when Spiro Agnew gave a speech accusing the networks of bias, he was accused of being a fascist with "repressive" intentions. (Almost as if to confirm what he was saying, no one thought to accuse him of having the same intentions as Communists, such as Stalin. Or Brezhnev, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh.) About the same time, the far Left also frequently charged newsmen with bias. But in a speech given in 1970, Louis Harris, no less, could say, "Consistently for the past nine months a majority of 57 percent of Americans are prepared to go along with the criticism leveled against television ... by the Vice President...." And a Gallup poll conducted one month later showed that college students agreed with Agnew by a ratio of 3 to 2.

Efron's book deals with network coverage of the 1968 election, which coverage lasted seven weeks. (I know. Hard to imagine an "election season" lasting only seven weeks.)

She watched every news broadcast during that period, and kept track of every word spoken, even counting them. The book begins with charts comparing coverage of the three major candidates (Nixon/Agnew for the GOP, Humphrey/Muskie for the Democracy, and George Wallace/Curtis LeMay for the American Independent Party).

It is important to remember that George Wallace was quite popular in 1968; and a number of Robert Kennedy's supporters drifted into the Wallace camp after the senator's assassination. Wallace could easily have had a decisive effect on the outcome of that election — perhaps the last time a third-party candidate would enjoy such a possibility. The possibility was so well-grounded that U.S. News & World Report won an award for the covers of its day-after issue. It had prepared three: one showing Humphrey as winner, one showing Nixon as winner, and one featuring the screaming word "Deadlocked!" In the event, Wallace won close to 14 percent of the vote, with 46 electoral votes, a number insufficient to have affected the outcome in either direction.

There is no doubt that network coverage favored Humphrey over the other two candidates, and not by a small margin at all. It would be easy to repeat Efron's numbers, but without the graphs, it would make for tiresome reading.

Let me just cite those for ABC:

The number of words spoken for Nixon: 869
The number of words spoken for Humphrey: 4,218
The number of words spoken for Wallace: 1,353

The number of words spoken against Nixon: 7,463
The number of words spoken against Humphrey: 3,569
The number of words spoken against Wallace: 3,373

She reports similar results from the other two networks.

Efron also monitored reporting during the same period on the Vietnam War, the New Left, black militants, "demonstrators," liberals, conservatives, and the white middle class.

After citing the numbers, Efron discussed the specifics, supplying the particular words used in various contexts (mentioning, in one case, that where Humphrey had referred to "Hitler Jugend," one of the networks reported that he had referred to "hecklers").

And she spelled out her conclusions in straightforward prose:

"On ABC and CBS, editorial selection strongly reinforced by editorial opinion, results in a crude comic strip: All liberals are nonracist good guys and all conservatives are racist bad guys." (Sound familiar?)

"Not one reporter on CBS or NBC is critical of black-power violence during this coverage period." (One example of black-power advocacy of violence during that period was Eldridge Cleaver's calling for businessmen to be "disposed of" and "shot." An example of actual violence was a black-power riot — called "unrest" by the media — in Boston in which 20 people were injured.)

"Political opinion by reporters is to be found in all [supposedly objective interpretations of news stories] and there is absolutely no distinction between the kind of political opinion that shows up in all of them."

Of particular interest — meriting lengthy quotation — is what she found about how the networks reported on the white middle class. What follows is her listing of words used, and the frequency they are used (hence the redundancy in some cases):

"On ABC: it is criticized as prosperous, self-pitying, mediocre; as materialistic; as unintelligent; as racist and hating the young, the poor and the blacks; as mediocre, hostile to intellectual values; as racist; as intellectually shallow; as devoid of conscience.

"On CBS: it is criticized as racist; as racist; as racist, selfish and mentally limited; as selfish, culturally limited, mentally limited.

"On NBC: it is criticized as responsible for black crime; as authoritarian-racist-militaristic advocates of law enforcement against black criminals; as wealthy advocates of law and order; as violent; as responsible for black crime; as willing to sacrifice blacks' 'freedom' for law and order; as racist advocates for law and order; as racist; as racist; as racist."

As for middle-class virtues, "Such favorable opinion was expressed only on ABC and only within one story — by Republican candidate Nixon, and by two of his supporters: All three defended the law-abiding, hard-working, taxpaying middle-class majority. And that is all. In seven weeks CBS carried no opinion favorable to 'the white middle class.' In seven weeks NBC carried no opinion favorable to 'the white middle class.'"

Efron also discusses some of the tactics the networks used to manipulate opinion. All of them remain in use today, but I was particularly gratified that she listed their use of "mind reading": telling us what a particular person thinks or feels without testimony from that person or (more preposterously) telling us what whole groups of unpolled people feel or believe. (Really ... don't you get tired of hearing, "The American people want" or "The whole nation mourns" or "offensive to all Americans" and that sort of thing? [1]) She tells us that it "invariably results in opinion supportive of Democratic or liberal or left causes. No 'mind-reading' is ever supportive of Republican or conservative or white middle-class causes."

She speaks at length on the networks' treatment of black violence and the disservice it did to blacks: "It is actually this alliance of violent black demagogues and the pathological-criminal element in the black world that network TV has elected to portray as 'the black.' It is from this alliance that the thug-'revolutionary' comes." She could not know at the time that such coverage would, not even a generation later, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even the Black Panthers of the day objected: "the Black Panthers' most impassioned cry of protest against network coverage is that they are not portrayed as thinking beings, with philosophies, plans and programs." (I myself take some issue with Efron here. If the networks did not portray them as thinking beings, it was perhaps that they did not behave or speak as thinking beings. I shall never forget the political philosophy offered by the leading Panther at Indiana University — who became the 1970 student-body president as the result of significant vote fraud carried out in broad daylight — one Keith Parker, who explained, "You gotcher people. And you gotcher pigs. If you not one of the people, you one of the pigs." He called political opposition "pigitilism.")

An interesting tactic used against George Wallace was that the networks often focused on the violence that broke out at Wallace rallies. (Theodore White, in his 1969 book The Making of the President 1968, acknowledged this tactic and said that it was designed to stop George Wallace.) The networks systematically attributed violence provoked by leftist and black militants to Wallace. Moreover, they repeatedly described people engaged in physical violence as "dissenters," thereby tacitly approving of the violence. Efron writes, "Many network reports in the 1968 campaign made it eminently clear that they were not opposed in principle to political violence if directed at certain political targets.... [What] emerges from editorial opinion is the clear-cut implication that violence from the left (never named as such) is legitimate if directed at the racist right...."

(In this connection, it useful to note the statement of CNN's Chris Cuomo that "in a clash between hate and those who oppose it, those who oppose it are on the side of right" even if they resort to "petty violence.")

But perhaps the most illuminating remark Efron makes is in a footnote near the end of the book:

The chronic indifference of the networks to the First Amendment rights of broadcasters other than themselves has been repeatedly observed by members of the Federal Communications Commission.... Commissioner Nicholas Johnson echoes the charges of his predecessors, claiming that the networks are not interested in free speech, but in profitable speech. He cites the outstanding First Amendment case of Pacifica stations, threatened with a loss of license for airing controversial opinion: "Not one word of moral support came from any network news department."
It will come as no surprise that many at the networks were not happy with Edith Efron's book, and she and it were subject to quite the campaign to discredit both. One critic went so far as to aver that the publisher (Nash Publishing) did not even exist!

But no one was more exercised by the book than Richard Salant, CBS News president, who attempted to defend his network and to discredit and defame The News Twisters and Efron. He went so far as to prepare a report containing endless criticisms and misrepresentations of the book with outright lies that were circulated, cited, and replayed by critics.

It seems to me that if a man has considered the tedium of the method Efron employed to prepare her study, he would think twice about mounting such an attack. In 1972, Nash Publishing (which really did exist) published her follow-up book, How CBS Tried to Kill a Book.

In it, she addressed every one of Salant's allegations, in detail, even acknowledging that he had correctly identified one (!) error and one possible misinterpretation, both of which she addressed in later editions of The News Twisters.

In CBS, Efron brings to light additional evidence from which she is forced to conclude, "I have a higher regard for an ordinary gangster than I do for educated men with the mentality of book burners."

She says that the serial lies of Richard Salant in his report (and in a documentary on a different subject) result from "a corrupt belief that truth is a dispensable commodity, that public relations is a substitute for thought, and that one can fool the public indefinitely if one lays on enough stockholders' money and sets a satisfactory 'father figure' in the anchorman's chair." The reference is to Walter Cronkite. She adds that "to adopt such attitudes as top corporate policy is almost incredibly irresponsible considering the corrosive political bitterness over bias that now divides this country." And: "To keep lying, idiotically, increasingly enraging those to the right and left of that position who are fully aware that they are being lied to, is to court a disastrous reaction which can totally destroy the broadcast press and ricochet on to the print media."

I repeat: 1971 ... nearly 50 years ago.

Did things change? A little bit. The Left — one of the critics of the networks — knew exactly what to do about a problem like this: they took over the culture. They now occupy the network suites and publishing offices. And, now, the Internet communication platforms. There was an old maxim of conservatives: any organization that is not explicitly conservative, will be implicitly left-wing. [2] And that has been borne out in ways that the conservatives of the 1950s could never dream.

The press — broadcast and print — seemed to enjoy a brief recovery of public confidence during the Watergate scandals, but it was hardly any time at all before bumper stickers reading, "I don't trust the Washington Post" and "I don't read the New York Times" started popping up on the streets of Washington, D.C. And public distrust of CBS, at least, can be gauged by the public's excitement, indeed, anticipation, in 1986 when Ted Turner attempted to acquire CBS and "fire Dan Rather [Cronkite's successor]."

Undaunted, media personalities could sneer at interview subjects who refused to accept as fact assertions that were based on New York Times reports. "I see. The newspaper of record," one sniffed, citing the Times's self-aggrandizing self-appellation.

In 1996 a poll revealed that 89 percent of journalists were Democrats. That in itself is no crime. But as Joe Sobran noted, "Was anyone surprised?" To ask the question is to answer it. No one was surprised, because we could all tell from what they wrote and said that they were almost certainly Democrats.

And the "book burning"? In a July 1996 column, Sobran wrote, "I don't like to brag, but a lot of people like to read my column. On the other hand, a lot of other people don't want those people to be able to read it. Every time a big paper subscribes to it, scores of letters pour in demanding that it be dropped.... [These] readers don't necessarily want me in jail for what I write; they just don't want others to be able to read me. And to show how tolerant they really are, they often helpfully name other, more 'responsible' conservative columnists the local paper could carry in my stead." (For more on Joe Sobran, I suggest Steve Sniegoski's obituary, "Joe Sobran: Martyr for truth" and my own "Purging Joe Sobran again: the Cadaver Synod.")

Which is to say, by 1996 book burning in this country was no longer the preserve of network executives or the newspaper publishers who had fired Sam Francis. Your next-door neighbor might be one. Today, the major tech companies who ban this writer's comments (Facebook, Twitter), suppress that pundit's videos (Patreon), cancel an e-mail account (Constant Contact), or just make it impossible for a struggling newsletter to collect its subscriptions (PayPal) all have the help of non-government organizations, "friends," "trusted flaggers," and social-justice warriors, who, in true French-revolutionary fashion, denounce professors, writers, speakers, and others, and demand that they be prohibited from earning a living. Book burning — can we call what happens on the Internet "electron burning"? — has become one of the many rooms of that mansion that is Polite Totalitarianism. (Probably I misnamed the phenomenon back in 1992; it has become unspeakably impolite, laden not only with violence and lies, but also with more routine obscenity than Lenny Bruce ever heard, let alone used.)

Should that surprise us? It should not. When we look at the history of the Left, it is not hard to figure out what will happen when it has control of the culture. I'm not thinking of the Communists and Lysenkoism. I'm not even thinking of the New Left's 1960s "anti-war" riots — breaking into professors' offices, smashing their file cabinets, and destroying perhaps a decade's worth of research and writing — but of the latter's precursors, whom often we mistake for right-wingers. But after all, they were National Socialists.

You think my comparison is inapt? Well, I could cite Leonard Peikoff's Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (New York: Stein and Day, 1982), but after all, he is a Randian, and therefore there is no need to take him seriously, right? No, I turn to one of my philosophy professors at Indiana University. Shortly after the invasion of Cambodia, the student body (not yet led by Parker; that came later), decided to "strike" against the university. They would not attend any classes — not that they would stay in their rooms preparing for finals, completing a term paper, reading Gibbon, or anything like that. No. There would be protests and "free university" classes instructing us in the evil of the war, blah, blah, blah. A number of professors agreed with this project and announced that on that day they would not hold classes. My philosophy professor Reinhart Grossman was not one of them. He announced that he would be teaching as usual, but that there would be no tests or anything like that. He never took attendance anyway. On the day, one of the (few) students attending his lecture asked him why he did not participate in the strike. Was he (shudder: surely not!?) in favor of the war? He looked out the window and could see throngs of protesting students. We could even hear some of their shouting and chanting. He waved his hand dismissively, and said, "Achhh. I saw all uff dis before in Berlin, vhen I vass a student dare in da nineteen-tirties." No one asked him any more questions about it.

I suppose we've all seen photographs from the 1933 book burnings in Berlin. But the one I like best comes from 1945. I will make an exception to my distrust of Getty Images to direct your attention to it.

The great book burnings of the 1930s were not the brainchild of Gauleiters or Brownshirts. They were the initiative of college students. Just as so many of the "electron burnings" are today.

So (heh, heh — change of subject here) ... we know that the news media that are so distrusted, the "enemy of the people" and its little myrmidons in the universities and on the Internet, are not old-time, dignified grandfatherly sorts who used to be trusted and now wonder what has gone wrong. They have been distrusted for at least 50 years, and they were distrusted 50 years ago for the same reasons they are distrusted today. It is not just that they all say virtually the same things — even with the destruction of the triopoly of the non-cable networks. It is not just that the cable networks — Fox included — say the same things. They cannot help that. They have all drunk deep from Mimir's well of egalitarianism, so their reporting will of course reflect it.

No. They are distrusted for the same reason over this half-century: namely, we know that, while objectivity is difficult, the major media have a bias and do not even make the effort to be objective. As Efron says in How CBS Tried to Kill a Book, "[Newsmen] all tend to have liberal biases ... if you stuff a news department full of liberal newsmen, the department, as a whole, will probably have a liberal bias." [3] We distrust them because they will not admit that they are liberal, that they are biased, and that a staggeringly high percentage of them, having graduated from journalism schools loaded with liberal professors, have the same biases. Worse, each liberal will manfully defend all other liberals from the charge that they are liberal. It is as if their bias is a "sin that will not speak its name."

They want us to believe that what they say is objective, when they will not make the smallest efforts at objectivity. And we are supposed to take what they say as indisputable fact. In short, they not only lie to us with the most transparent of lies, but they insult our intelligence and expect us not to believe what we ourselves can conclude, but only what they tell us to believe. "Newspaper of record," indeed.

Of course, what they say is not indisputable fact. NPR can casually slip from referring to Unite the Right demonstrators as "white supremacists" to talking about genocide, and any mind that is even partially awake will catch them at the sleight of hand. But if reports are recited, as by rote, by one reporter, one news reader, one anchor, one pundit after another, then those whom we are to believe do not sound like men who are imparting news or facts at all. They do not sound like thinking beings at all. They sound like ventriloquists' dummies.

The question is: Who are the ventriloquists? Ω

September 3, 2018

© 2018 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2018 by WTM Enterprises.

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1. A case in point: While I was writing this, a woman named Aretha Franklin died. A talk-show host I listen to while I drive informed me, "I know. We all have some song by Aretha Franklin in our minds today." Well, I did not. I had heard the name before, of course, but for all I knew she was an Olympic gymnast or a death-row prisoner. Now that I know who she was, I understand that my life was in no way impoverished for my ignorance.

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2. In 1989, when he was editor of National Review, conservative journalist John O'Sullivan formulated Sullivan's First Law, which addresses the phenomenon in this way: "All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing."

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3. Efron herself is not reluctant to name her own political biases; she states forthrightly that with respect to the news, its regulation or suppression, and freedom of speech, she is libertarian.

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