Propaganda reigns in the 'ethical wasteland' of mass media

  • Recently, I left Fox News, where I'd been at home for a decade, because I believed that its prime-time line-up had become a propaganda arm for a wanton president.
  • But my despair over Fox does not make its cable-news rivals camps of the saints: In the race for ratings, even those outlets that have not yet fallen into the propaganda abyss often drive right to the edge.
Retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters on Fox News.
Source: Fox News
Retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters on Fox News.

If the first clay tablet incised with a stylus recorded grain deliveries, the second tablet undoubtedly spun the numbers to the reigning king's advantage. Spin and its sibling, sensationalism, have always been with us, from Homer spinning barbaric Greeks as the good guys in The Iliad, to Suetonius giving the Caesars the National Enquirer treatment. But propaganda, a deadly third relative, lurks close to its brethren, ever awaiting its moment to ravage societies.

What's the difference? Spin massages the facts; sensationalism overheats the facts; and propaganda rejects the facts.

In the ethical wasteland of today's hyper-media, propaganda is back, effectively unopposed and phenomenally destructive. Recently, I left Fox News, where I'd been at home for a decade, because I believed that its prime-time line-up had become a propaganda arm for a wanton president. But my despair over Fox does not make its cable-news rivals camps of the saints: In the race for ratings, even those outlets that have not yet fallen into the propaganda abyss often drive right to the edge.

Facts matter. Contrary to religious-right misrepresentations, our most-influential Founding Fathers were not enraptured believers. Children of the Enlightenment, with its veneration for observable truths, most went through the social forms of church attendance, but weren't zealots. Others, such as Jefferson, were deists—nature-worshippers who would have done nicely in Big Sur circa 1965. The system of government they designed was based on the Enlightenment's respect for empirical reality: "Just the facts, ma'am."

Our republic survived a civil war and foreign wars, pandemics and depressions, inept presidents and natural disasters, but the burgeoning propaganda, the culture of unchallenged lies, that pervades digital media while corroding elder communications platforms, poses a pernicious--and perhaps existential--threat.

"My despair over Fox does not make its cable-news rivals camps of the saints: In the race for ratings, even those outlets that have not yet fallen into the propaganda abyss often drive right to the edge."

On the internet, propaganda's fiefdoms multiply. Blithely irresponsible tech companies react to extremist users only under legal duress and public shaming. The citizenry's ignorance of how our government is designed to function, of our history, of world affairs, of basic economics and, not least, of critical thinking makes dupes of even our those who, on paper, enjoyed impeccable educations.

Successful propagandists have always understood one basic truth: Propaganda works best when it exploits pre-existing prejudices. Anti-Semitism is the classic (and grimmest) example.

Today's American propagandists and foreign interlopers play to popular disaffection irresponsibly inflamed by all forms of our media. An ungrateful people, inured to countless privileges, we are daily instructed that "You may be entitled…," or that we're being cheated by the villains of the moment (minorities always suffice for the role), or that our self-created misfortunes are someone else's fault.

Right and left, the one thing that truly unites us is our sprawling culture of blame, the welcome reassurance that our problems are of the other guy's doing, not ours. We set the table for propagandists and serve them high-protein meals…then we wring our hands over their growth.

Neither liberals, nor moderates, nor conservatives alone can defeat the new propagandists. We all have to pledge our allegiance to proven facts. Ferocious arguments are fine—but they must be tethered to reality. There may be additional facts, but there are never alternative facts.

Cable news and talk radio also need to stop reducing everyone, from presidents to plumbers, to a single dimension. Human beings are complex, often contradictory, and they change. An oft-missed point of Goethe's Faust is that even the devil can incidentally do good.

The hyper-media's insistence that individuals are either all good or all bad, on our side or on their side, cripples our democracy (yet another lesson of 2016). President Obama, who I criticized ferociously and without regret, squandered opportunities for greatness, but conservatives could not credit him with doing anything right.

Now, Trump, whose behavior is execrable (as an Army officer, I never thought I'd be cheering on a porn star against the President of the United States), nonetheless has done a few useful things, such as facilitating our military's response to the Islamic State. But those on the left cannot accept that anything good can come from this self-drawn caricature of a devil.

CNN and MSNBC would be more effective if they occasionally gave the devil his due, instead of mirroring the intolerance of their prime-time counterparts at Fox.

On a practical level, the immediate problem with hyper-media is that the gatekeepers are gone. Cable news is now about ratings alone, not public service, and that applies to every outlet. But the cable-news channels generally do acknowledge proven facts (the Fox prime-time line-up being the cancerous exception).

"News" sources on the internet are something else. Contrary to initial claims, the internet did not empower the individual. It empowers the mob. An individual may build a hate-porn "news" site, but it's the mass that rallies to him that poses the threat.

Ink-stained fisticuffs in the press date back to the earliest days of our republic (and far beyond), but the difference with the internet is that the crucial, mediating hurdle has been removed, the editor's desk. In the news business, the most important figure, traditionally, wasn't the star reporter or the publisher. It was the editor who, presented with a tantalizing story, looked up at the enthused journalist and demanded, "Show me the proof."

That's gone. And it's not missed by the mass audience, which eagerly devoured propaganda produced by a Russian troll factory. And those Russians didn't have to start from scratch: They merely took advantage of our evident prejudices and inchoate anger. The Russians trolls were just vultures: The carcass of truth was already dead in a ditch.

And thus I'm compelled to note the most obvious factor missing from cable-news today: the news. As a news junkie, I cannot rely on cable-news for even a rudimentary understanding of an increasingly interdependent world. The maxim for all outlets seems to be "No more than one international story per day; Americans have to be directly involved; and keep it short."

No wonder Donald Trump sits in the White House.

My morning routine? I wake up and turn on France24 while making the coffee. I bring in The Washington Post, one of the few pillars of serious journalism still standing, and read it through. Then I take a second cup of coffee to my home office and turn on the computer. On-line, I scroll through the German and Italian papers--perhaps others, depending on the day's leading stories. For comic relief, I review the Russian media. Only then, with my certified-left-wing granola in hand, do I briefly turn on "Morning Joe" or CNN. Later, I'll check the financial channels, but the point is that I could not maintain an informed world-view if I relied on our cable-news networks. They're entertaining us, but they're failing us.

The hyper-media era needs many things, from responsible tech billionaires, to editors—and, God knows, copy-editors, that marvelous, dying breed. Tomorrow morning, though, I'd settle for CNN, circa 1990. Does anyone remember how exciting that was? Real news and global reporting, 24/7? As an Army officer, I loved it—we all did.

Then the promising child, cable news, grew up to be a thug.

Commentary by Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. Army officer, a former enlisted man and a prize-winning novelist. From 2008 to 2018, he was Fox News' Strategic Analyst.

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