Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Media Control by Noam Chomsky

I really did not know what I was stepping into when I decided to read Noam Chomsky’s Media Control. The history of propaganda leading to its modern day usage fascinates me, especially in how it ties in with the early days of the Public Relations discipline. This book covered several interesting theories on the use of propaganda in democratic societies to control the “bewildered herd” – Chomsky’s term for describing the uneducated and uninformed public. Beyond the theoretical aspect of propaganda early in the book, which is where my interests are, it morphed into criticisms of the United States government making hypocritical cases for war and holding ownership over all of the media outlets. It went further into how journalists should have covered the events leading to the Gulf War if they were not bought and owned by the government. In this respect, the book left me with more questions and doubts about his claims than answers to my historical interests.

Chomsky writes about manufactured consent, a method for creating scenarios that the masses could all agree to support – propaganda – in order for the democratically-elected governing body of intellectuals to achieve its goals. The concept is something I have paid attention to for quite some time in mass media – newspapers, cable news, news websites, social media, word of mouth – it’s an amazing phenomenon when one subject is discussed in all corners of mass public communication. I see it in the 2012 presidential race as the slanderous tactics used between the Republican contenders for the nomination; I recognized it in the case made to invade Iraq almost a decade ago. Though I feel propaganda has shifted wildly in the past few years, the desire to use it to win over the audience is alive and well.

Slogans seeming to contain little or no value are a primary manipulation tool to support the concept of manufacturing consent. According to Chomsky, “the point of public relations slogans like ‘Support our troops’ is that they don’t mean anything.” (Location 109) As much as I have always supported our troops, I never comprehended how that justified our country’s involvement in Iraq, yet I have heard and read the slogan more often than anything else since Operation Iraqi Freedom started in 2003. Similarly, in the social media sense, how will copying and pasting a cause-based Facebook status for an hour alleviate world hunger or eradicate cancer?
Initiatives are branded with vacuous slogans that no one can argue with, essentially putting the entire public on the same page despite their many diversities and multitude of opinions. Who in their right mind will argue the idealism of supporting our troops? Other than a few possible isolated events, it would be virtually unheard of.

Fear is a strong ingredient in manufacturing consent, according to Media Control. The masses must be whipped into shape to support a war as well as other government initiatives. They need to fear the evil despot of a foreign land who is hell-bent on taking over the world. Fear unites the public like no other, and the jingoistic slogans feed the mass hysteria making the bewildered herd that much easier to manipulate. However, “the picture of the world that’s presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality.” (Location 182) Reality does not matter in the court of public opinion as long as it pushes the agenda forward. The agenda, of course, only serves the narrow democratic governing body that decides what is right for the public, because they cannot think for themselves. An interesting concept, though I question its validity.

Starting with the early days of propaganda, another key factor that allowed mass manipulation to occur was individual isolation. Individuals who would not agree with their government felt they were alone in their thinking; that no other like-minded people were around. Without the ability of like-minded people to congregate and build strength in shared knowledge and numbers, they were powerless to combat the governing body’s propagandized agenda. Chomsky wrote of early dissidence surrounding the Vietnam War – a first step toward where we find our society now, I believe – though I sense he did not have much faith in it lasting.

Since this book was published in 2002, social media did not yet exist and much has changed in these ten years. With the advent of the social web has come strength in large like-minded numbers and amazing quantities of immediately shared knowledge, leading to the masses telling a cancer research non-profit to reverse a controversial funding decision. It led to residents unifying to recall controversial elected leaders in a few states; to the American people and businesses forcing the US Congress to drop special interest-fueled anti-piracy bills that would have hampered our First Amendment freedoms on the Internet in the name of protecting intellectual properties; and to full-blown political revolutions in the Arab world.

The social web has opened the floodgates, so to speak, giving people everywhere not only a voice, but also the ability to quickly share information and to congregate like never before in history. Perhaps what we are experiencing is a global revolution, a path to true democracy that is not run by the select intellectual few, as Chomsky claims. It is exciting to witness technology altering the course of human history on both local and global scales. And this is probably the first time since the invention of propaganda that it can no longer work, at least not in its original form.

Healthy skepticism and honest discussions held between thousands of people at any given minute of the day have broken down the old propaganda tactics, but that doesn’t mean some governing factions won’t continue to find new methods to use it. If the US government was truly practicing rule by propaganda, as Chomsky suggested, it must be looking at new methods and tactics to confront the masses’ new voice. Perhaps, there was an ulterior motive to the Internet anti-piracy bills, an attempt to take control of a free speech platform, thereby censoring it to serve the interests of the government, and to potentially create a revenue stream. Maybe I’m being too cynical.

From my perspective as a professional writer, these theories on propaganda used to persuade the masses can teach a lot about human nature and influence my approach to the craft, but I feel a responsibility to never deviate from the truth. The truth as Chomsky presents in Media Control leaves me skeptical, in fact, it makes me think this book is a piece of propaganda itself to promote his personal, albeit far-fetched, beliefs. Right or wrong, it has instilled in my creative brain some new ways to observe society and to persuade – or win over – the audience in my professional writing. That alone made Media Control a worthwhile venture.

This review was first published at:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Communicator’s Op-Ed: Overwrought with Simplicity

It seems more often than not, over-thinking with the aim to achieve dumbed-down simplicity and obscuring the obvious solutions complicate the simplest things. Is this human nature, or a product of our current social and political climate?

I want to know what the mainstream media’s current target demographic is – seven and under? I often wonder how uneducated or ignorant they think the general population is. Granted, American education is not at the top of the world as it once was – a critical issue that needs attention – but humans, by nature, aren’t stupid. Furthermore, whether they are book smart or street smart, the majority of Americans can think for themselves and form their own opinions.

I am a big advocate of eliminating jargon and million dollar words from everyday communication. Why? Because they don’t communicate to anyone but a select few, portraying an elitist scenario that only further angers the rest of the masses. You wouldn’t always know it from my style of writing, but I am a fan of the short declarative sentence. Think Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Combine that with talking to adults as adults, not as little kids, and you have a strong formula to communicate with the public. It’s not difficult. Yet it seems so hard to do in the mainstream media and political campaigns.

I realize not all publications and media outlets fall into this dumbing-down category, but at the same time, they are not the same outlets the majority of people are turning to for their news. Complicating this scenario is that the popular outlets are fueled by biased politics on the left or right of the political spectrum. When Newt Gingrich during his presidential campaign complains about the “elite mainstream media” and how it will take his words out of context to portray him negatively, is he lumping in his friends at the Republican-supporting Fox News and their affiliates? Of course not, it would be a conflict of interest, and the die-hard supporters/Fox News audience knows it. The answer is “yes,” however, as the self-identified left-wing outlets are doing just that. But guess what? Fox News does the same thing about President Obama and the Democrats, taking their words out of context to paint a bad picture and plant the seeds of doubt.

How often have the pundits on MSNBC painted Newt Gingrich as brilliant but crazy, Rick Santorum as a scary anti-woman theocrat, or Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch one percent elitist? How often has Fox News perpetuated the absurd implications that the president was a Muslim, not born in the US, or painted his efforts to save the American auto industry as a sign of totalitarianism and government corruption? This current day mainstream media phenomenon of slanderous remarks, discrediting sound bites, and accusatory video clips is ubiquitous. And it’s sad.

What does this have to do with over-simplification? Well, the news outlets are not necessarily debating complex issues the country faces and discussing in a mature and educated fashion how a candidate’s policy could best fix those issues. I hear the same talking points from ten different supporters of a campaign on ten different communication channels, repeating specific phrases and keywords, rarely every answering a direct question. And I observe the exact same concept from the opposition. It’s called propaganda, like it or not, and that’s how it works. The very same formulas Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward L. Bernays recognized and developed nearly a century ago, only applied to our modern social media connected world. And it still works when the die-hard audiences – aka the herd – are willing to soak it all in and repeat the messaging on their social networks and by word-of-mouth. An ingenious communication method can move mountains.

As for the journalism implied by the mainstream media outlets covering this stuff, what will it take to get them to take a neutral stance? I want to hear both sides of a story, not their favorite side. I want to know the nuances, the pros and cons, so I can make an educated decision when I go to the voting booth. And, I feel confident in saying this for all Americans, I want the media to talk to us as educated adults.

In my search for non-partisan clarity and neutrality, I have stumbled across new organizations with a similar mindset, like Rise of the Center and No Labels. I have begun exploring these groups and joining the conversations at Rise. So, in this world of reducing everything to dumbed down labels and demographics, does that classify me as one of the centrist herd? Do I now belong to a freethinking demographic willing to criticize and question authority and the herd mentality of biased media and politics? I would love to see how the mainstream media portrays and simplifies this new groundswell and what affect it may have on the 2012 election and beyond.

Please share your thoughts on this subject, whether you think I am right or wrong, or somewhere in between.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Writer’s Exploration: Plight of the Obsessive Revisionist

I enter my own world when I write. I know all artists can identify – some call it entering the zone or finding their own space. The sights and sounds around me become non-existent; I hear nothing but my mental voice. As a painter sees only color, form, and texture on the canvas, I see nothing outside of the words on the page or screen and the mental images I intend them to portray. Smell, taste, and touch are similar experiences, except for the sips of beer or water as I work, which I tend to forget about pretty quickly until I have exhausted my brain for the night.

I enter an entirely new world when I revise. With all senses alert, I traverse this alternative environment capturing every pertinent detail for the reader who dares to enter it. Life spent in this world far exceeds the time spent in the first round of creating it. It is an art unto itself, one that has occupied my brain at all hours of the day and night regardless of activity – cleaning the dinner dishes, driving my daughter to an ice rink, working on a project at my job, enjoying a show – revision never sleeps.

Once upon a time, when I was eighteen or so, I would fall in love with my first draft. Yes, I was one of those people. God forbid I corrupt those authentic words no matter how unnecessary, weak, or confusing the language might be. I quickly came around, though. By the time I graduated college, my creative writing mentor, Dick Allen, had instilled in me the necessity and value of revision. My power over the craft and technique were less than stellar at my nascent age, but the effort was there.

Last summer I pulled out my writing archive (read: large airtight Rubbermaid container filled with notebooks and printed manuscripts) to review what I wrote nearly twenty years earlier, in search of stories I might revitalize. Some stories were immediately cast aside; they are not the person I am today. Minimal effort on revision, I determined, unintentionally breaking rules with minimal consequences. Others showed promise. I went to work on them for the full summer, cringing and laughing at the elements I allowed to stay in the final drafts when I was just starting out.

So here I am today, revision is a permanent addition to my pantheon of obsessions. I have a touch of OCD, well, maybe more than a touch, but I have learned to manage it over the years, funneling it into my creative endeavors. Thankfully, I would never qualify for the latest wave of reality TV shows exploiting people’s strange addictions and compulsions, not that I would ever take part in those. This writing thing, whether on my blog or other channels, is my reality show with me in control. Those TV shows do serve as great source material for creating some interesting characters, however.

I spent the other night compiling line edits, comments, and other feedback from at least ten different people (I lost count) for a story I have been developing for the past several months. Hours passed without my knowledge, the occasional blurt from my daughter or whine from a cat piercing my focus, but I persisted. When I decided to finish for the night, I had learned seven hours had passed and it was nearly 1:00 AM. I finished my warm Ruthless Rye IPA and went to bed satisfied that my new story had grown up a little bit more. Of course, my story wrapped itself around my waist and followed me to bed where it continued to play out as I slowly fell asleep.

Thing is, if it wasn’t a story my brain was mulling over as I tried to sleep it would have been some other not so happy – even stressful – thoughts in a continuous loop plaguing my sleep. I will always opt for the former; call it my form of escapism in support of mental wellness.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Writer’s Exploration: Trust and Deception

As I sat down to write this week's Exploration entry I found myself lost on subject matter. Lately, my head has been filled with such items as propaganda, public opinion, and other historical public relations topics. I have been reading a lot about Edward Bernays lately, if you haven't noticed my other blog entries, along with other related subjects. To say the PR world isn't consuming me would be outlandish, so I won't. The combined topic of ethics and deception has called my attention this week, but this is a writing blog so I need to stay on focus.

Recently, in the online forum for my MFA writing workshop, a debate broke out about the ethics and creative freedom applied to nonfiction. More specifically, was a fabricated life story labeled as nonfiction that became a number one seller acceptable because it may have had a positive impact on the readers' lives? I am referring to James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and how it was revealed to be a lie by Oprah Winfrey on her former TV show. The argument came down to two basic sides: was he deceptive and therefore committed a heinous act by lying to his audience? Or was it okay because nonfiction in general cannot be truly accurate as it is based on memories and interpretations in the first place?

Now I really don't want to go down this road on a matter that is a few years old, but it does resonate with the matters I have been reading about Edward Bernays and his grandiose claims of affecting the American fabric through his Big Think schemes. Don't get me wrong, I admire his accomplishments, even if some were contrary to his own claim to strong ethics, like his push to increase women smokers during the 1920s through the 40s for the American Tobacco Company, beginning with the Torches of Freedom stunt. It was revealed in his files that he turned over the the Library of Congress – 805 boxes from his nearly eighty year career – that he was well aware of the scientific findings about the ailments and carcinomas smoking caused. Yet he used his tools of public relations to persuade the public that such findings were wrong, and that any moderate smoker who was neither a child nor elderly would be unharmed. I could not believe I was reading this about the man who made ethics a top priority in The Father of Spin by Larry Tye, a biographic history of Bernays and the birth of the public relations discipline.

You could say I felt deceived. Not that his work performed forty years before my birth would have made me a smoker today, but his ethical proclamations in his books Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda make him a hypocrite. Disappointment ensued in my perception of this new hero I recently found, but then, he was only a human behaving as humans do – imperfectly and fighting to stay ahead of the herd.

Looking back at what I just wrote it feels more like a confessional and venting outlet, not as fun as I normally aim for. I do know this – in his posthumous state he is still teaching me how to spot the lies and use truth as a tool to get the job done, even if it means keeping it under wraps for awhile. He did eventually lead a campaign to stop smoking in the 1960s and admitted his personal guilt on the matter. He has also taught me a lesson I saw portrayed on last week's episode of House of Lies – don't trust anyone until you know their angle.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Book Review: Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward Bernays

The early history of public relations fascinates me. I find that there have been minimal societal and cultural changes, since 1923 when Edward Bernays published Crystallizing Public Opinion. The principles on which the book is based, human behavior and the needs of organizations to communicate to the public, have largely remained unchanged. Bernays was cognizant of the rapid development of technology to deliver thought communication in a variety of media and methods, such as the printing press, radio, telegraph, and motion picture, to influence public opinion. I found it refreshing to read a book on the public relations discipline without encountering the usual current day business-speak and references to social media, though the striking relevance of the subject matter to the web, email, corporate intranets, 24-hour television news networks, and satellite broadcasting is clear.

Crystallizing Public Opinion reads as both an educational piece on the public relations field and a promotional piece for Bernays’s services as counsel of public relations. I smiled as I read the successful accounts of anonymous public relations counsels who were always referred to in the third-person. I wonder if he really thought he was pulling one over on the readers when he was rightfully boasting of his many historic accomplishments in the field – I doubt it. Among those mentioned I recognized were his physician-endorsed campaign to make bacon a healthy breakfast food staple and his work to promote acceptance of the controversial play Damaged Goods about venereal disease. He knew exactly what he was doing by describing these achievements.

Bernays took great pride in detailing the profession, comparing it to that of Legal Counsel, the court of public opinion equating the court of law, and ethics and integrity being strong drivers in the values of his business. “Popular misunderstanding of the work of the public relations counsel is easily comprehensible because of the short period of his development. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he has become in recent years too important a figure in American life for this ignorance to be safely or profitably continued.” (64) What better way for him to court the interest and new business of prospective employers than to write this book with this level of this seemingly authentic conviction?

The concept of the public relations professional being the news creator caught my attention; I found this topic particularly useful in my corporate communication profession. In the business environment, news is created to drive an idea to win over employees; it needs to surpass their resistance, apathy, or disdain. “The counsel of public relations not only knows what news value is, but knowing it, he is in the position to make news happen. He is a creator of events.” (189) The strength of this role is enormous when wielded correctly because not only is it about influencing public opinion, but also turning the public – or employees – into advocates of the message. This is a necessity in communicating organizational change, for instance, a task I am now taking on.

The symbiotic relationship that the public has with the content provider, or organization, was of particular interest to me. “‘Give the public what they want’ is only half sound. What they want and what they get are fused by some mysterious alchemy. The press, the lecturer, the screen and the public lead and are led by each other.” (105) Public opinion is created by the information the public receives on a particular subject, however, the provider of the information, such as a corporate communication department, focuses on and distributes news that is determined newsworthy by the internal public as well as the senior leadership to push forward a corporate goal.

From my perspective, following this symbiotic relationship in traditional news publishing in Bernays’s time, a vicious cycle is formed that limits the amount of information made available to the public. Varying points of view and diverse subject matter are left out because of a lack of interest or political bias, even though the content might otherwise be deemed newsworthy. Positive stories in today’s news are a casualty of this constrictive cycle, it’s not nearly as attention grabbing as a horrific crime or salacious celebrity scandal. The Internet, and especially social media, may have disrupted that cycle in recent years, especially in an internal business environment where employees have complete access to the outside world. Therefore, as Bernays states, “the public relations counsel must be alive to the events of the day – not only the events that are printed but the events which are forming hour by hour, as reported in the words that are spoken on the street … or expressed in any of the other forms of thought communication that make up public opinion.” (82)

Bernays’s explanations on group psychology shed light on the various nuances that must be considered in communicating organizational change. When employees are faced with change, typically half of the population is averse to the idea, according to a recent human resources led training session on change management at my job. “Intolerance is almost inevitably accompanied by a natural and true inability to comprehend or make allowance for opposite points of view.” (90)

Being the corporate communicator (aka the internal public relations person), I have a massive undertaking to manage. To take on this endeavor, Bernays recommends, “fundamental study of group and individual psychology is required before the public relations counsel can determine how readily individuals or groups will accept modifications of viewpoints or policies.” (112) Basically, I need to survey, listen, observe, anticipate reactions, and proceed with care.

As I had recently noted in my review of Bernays’s 1928 book Propaganda, he was far ahead of his time, offering insight and wisdom on a complex discipline that will likely never cease to exist. As technology continues to evolve rapidly, increasing the efficiency, speed, and quantity of communicated information, humans are still human, perceiving and comprehending no differently now than a century ago or a century from now.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Writer’s Exploration: Own Your Words

A topic that has come to bother me lately is the usage of passive language. Okay, I will admit it – it annoys me. Equally annoying is the avoidance of owning a documented statement, denying it in order to cater to a specific audience. But this isn’t just about my perception on owning language, it’s the perception by the audience of the communicator and the organization they represent.

When I read a line in a bulk corporate email such as “We encourage you to review your account to confirm there may not be any conflicting or otherwise questionable activity, if so, please contact us so we may be able to help you,” I cringe. What is so difficult about telling the audience, in a respectful manner, “Please check your account and contact us if there is an error, we will work with you to fix it.” Give reason, be forthcoming; avoid becoming an insipid spineless messenger.

It’s sad, I see this passive language everywhere – politics, business-to-customer communications, within organizations, legal and financial documents, and so on. What does it say about the direction our culture has taken? My gut instinct swears it is contributing to a downward spiral of lower educational standing along with other decreases of rank and glamour on a global scale. Now I may appear to be overreaching, in fact, I know I am – I tend to look at issues from both extremes of an argument in my own process of narrowing them into mid-ranged rational points of view. This applies just as much to a political stance as it does to grammar. And my gut tells me, because it has nothing better to do than play truth-seeker, perpetuators of passive language make the group they represent appear soft and unable to commit to an action or thought process. That alone makes the group vulnerable to submissive defeat in a competitive environment. Communicators need to be conscious of this at all times.

We live in a capitalistic democracy, here in America, and therefore an element of Darwinism sits at the foundation of how our country operates. Competition drives our economy and our politics, and communication plays a critical role in their facilitation. When I hear the current panel of presidential candidates unable to answer a question directly, I automatically lose respect for them. I am sure I can speak for the population in that we do not want to hear a candidate beating around the bush, backpedaling, or denying they said something has been well documented. Mitt Romney’s latest backpedaling about the Blunt Amendment was astounding, when first asked in an interview he said government had no business in the privacy of a couple’s home, then asked about that stance less than a day later, he claimed he misunderstood the question as he pandered to the party lines. Really?

Owning your words is a powerful stance. No one can take away their meaning or interpret them as anything but what they were intended. Great leaders do this well, whether they are individuals or whole organizations. So my advice to everyone reading this, and please share it with your friends – kill ambiguity, do not take a passive approach to deflect blame or shift responsibility, just say what you mean. And prepare yourself to stand by your words.