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Deconstructing the Media Manipulation that Infects America's Core

Follow Me on Twitter     Message Gustav Wynn
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Too much to blog last night? I was struck by a comment left by a sensible sounding visitor on the site for bitterly acerbic right wing columnist Ann Coulter in which scores of insulting comments and diatribes follow her predictably flammable editorials. 
In part 'dunkel' wrote: "The playground level tauntings that fly back and forth whenever a dissenting opinion is raised (regardless of the intellectual/logical merits or fallacies of such an opinion) don't add anything to the conversation. Neither side is any more guilty or innocent than the other, and the general commentary posted by authors on these sites is designed to rally their followers into a froth. And it works. Sad commentary on the state of American politics." 
Bravo, dunkel, but that's not even the half of it. This is a commentary on the state of American society, in which we are bred from birth to be manipulated. We are taught to see things only one way, but we are also taught to want. We are fed this message from the moment we can focus on the glowing TV tube that fulfilment comes from consumer products and services. We are taught to follow fads and fashion, and customs so old we can no longer even explain their meanings. 
We are indoctrinated into our parent's religion, given an all too limited number of choices for political parties and ultimately are the pawns in a massive battle for public mind control being waged between enormous media conglomerates and their affiliated political and commercial allies. 
You point out what is obvious to any teacher who corrects simple middle school essays. We are not building discussions out of mutual inquiry, deductive or constructive reasoning, discussing and challenging one another's cases and opinions, we are merely recycling the summaries of our media heroes as casually as memory permits, while inserting smarmy quips to score juvenile jabs against strangers. 
These blogs have also lost most civility, making dunkel's comment a rare exception. But that's what Ann Coulter designs for us, that's what Townhall thrives on, and just as some for-profit sites do on the left, they have us all clacking away endlessly on keyboards without really listening or learning from one another. 
A few months back, I posted a comment on an Ann Coulter essay pointing out that her article was essentially a democrat/liberal smear which didn't even address her own stated topic. When middle school kids are taught to construct a persuasive essay, it's most basically done by stating a premise, supporting it with facts and opinion, clearly differentiating what is research-based and what is commentary, and making logical connections to sway neutral readers. 
Ann's essay not only mixed fact with opinion, but humor with actual calls for killing foreigners. Her points were random, unrelated to her opening statement and her comments grossly insulted and degraded her subjects, as is her trademark. She aims to demean those who don't share her viewpoint, roundly perceived as fomenting mob-style hatred against fellow Americans, with a level of verbal abuse few other professional commentators maintain. 
In the end, Ann's commentary distinctly fits the definition of propaganda, however her underlying motives may be more complex then seeking publicity or book sales. The media does not care if we are at eachothers throats as long as they are generating profit. They know provocative hosts make little sense, and they know well-reasoned, intelligent commentary is too challenging for the type of viewer they ideally want to sell advertising to. McNeil-Lehrer or BBC reports present two sides of an issue and highly qualified guests in quick order, cutting right to the heart of an issue and leaving it to the viewer to form their own conclusions. But that doesn't sell hemorrhoid cream, so networks hire nuts like Glenn Beck and Dan Rather. 
Suddenly you aren't listening and learning, you're talking back to your set and cheering (or swearing) - this is because responsible, informed journalism breeds discerning thinkers who don't respond to ads well - they are more likely see through marketing and sales hype. Our primary usefulness to those in power is to buy products, pay taxes, vote for specific candidates and send our young into service. For most everything else, they want us docile and complacent. In order for us to do this however, there must be motivation, otherwise why would we want to do someone else's bidding? 
The solution for this is something called Bernaysian manipulation and it works like a charm. This deliberate control of the masses is meant to achieve all of their ends, including the seemingly impossible task of convincing the middle class that laws should cater to the upper class. But it works and here's how: in order to get you to buy a product, they convince you you want it. Pretty simple really, for example, to sell clothes they show you they same items being worn by a beautiful model. 
Your subconscious does the rest, turning your desire to look good into an association with that product - it's well proven. We do respond, we buy these clothes to project the qualities of the beauteous model onto ourselves, a promise made by the ad but carried out us, acting just as expected. The average consumer is ordinary - a model is gorgeous. Like clockwork, the formula proves true - our hidden desire to be extraordinary triggers the impulse to buy the product. 
But this is small potatoes - Bernaysian manipulation actually has us projecting the prestige and power of the wealthiest elite onto ourselves though similar "associative bait and switch" means, even enlisting us to advocate their causes to our own detriment. Let's look at higher ticket items next: To sell you a car, they show you how empowering it is with nifty animated effects, basically creating a fantasy perception of an ordinary vehicle. 
Americans are complete suckers for this, while the rest of the world gets more fuel efficient every year, we still buy wasteful SUVs because it fills personality voids, addressing insecurities, such as the need to be noticed, the need to wield power or the need to impress or compete with others. We could buy a modest car, they're safe, reliable and are fine values - but the American consumer is brainwashed to feel "entitled" our whole lives long - told that we need to be above average, special, unique. Ads sell us on the idea that a really fast car, or extraordinary handling is what we "deserve", though any buyer with the same amount money can obtain the same car. 
We're trained that we will gain "status" by associating our self with a prestigious brand, even though most drivers today just sit in traffic and commute, we're sold many types of oversized guzzlers and luxury models. Once we've seen these dazzling ads, we do the rest, justifying the cost and other factors to ourselves to chase the fantasy we saw in the ad. This works too, we've been buying these models like crazy, to the point where all American car manufacturers have lost sight of the world market and gone into horrible losses and horrendous export deficits for years now. 
Our advertising is that effective, it works time and again because we haven't been trained to see through and deconstruct it. An excellent consumer product really needs no advertising - it just adds to the cost. But it's so ingrained into our lives, we may not even know it wasn't always this way. During our agrarian days, most luxury items were considered by heartland Americans to be frivolous and needlessly expensive, for those who needed to "buy" their self-worth. 
Then a man came into the picture that would profoundly change almost every facet of our culture. His name was Edward Bernays, the Austrian born nephew of Sigmund Freud. He came to America and took the country by storm, deeply versed in Freudian theories before Freud's works were widely published. His early successes included selling Europe on the idea that President Wilson was a hero and liberator in the aftermath of World War I, achieved by staged rallies and planted news stories. 
Yes, Bernays is considered the "father of public relations", opening the first P.R. firm with the U.S. government and the largest U.S. corporations all lined up as clients. Bernays also brought us the 'publicity stunt', such as the famous 1928 event in which women were enlisted to light up cigarettes in the NYC Easter parade. The papers were told they were suffragettes, openly defying the societal ban on female smoking in public, lighting "torches of freedom" a la the proud Statue of Liberty. 
This ran on front pages everywhere, but in reality the girls were hired by Bernays on behalf of his client American Tobacco, whose sales doubled, rising $28 million that year alone. Bernays smugly commented that women everywhere began to smoke because they wanted a surrogate "penis" of their own. Bernays was key to the development of "consumerism" itself as a lifestyle, convincing Americans to buy things they don't need by conning them using more of Freud's insights into the subconscious. Lehman Bros. and others bankrolled the development of huge "department" stores, using Bernaysian techniques to persuade people to purchase a host of products that they never would have thought to otherwise buy. 
Shopping became recreation rather then a chore as Bernays perfected the concepts of product placement, the celebrity endorsement, and the more insidious psuedo-scientific product endorsement. The public responded exactly as predicted -- the wasteful overspending on a mass scale directly contributing to the crash of 1929. Bernays became so powerful he actually came to control his uncle Sigmund's publishing rights, leaving the genius to struggle in war torn Vienna with just enough to get by. 
Unfortunately, Bernays published many books of his own, including "Crystallizing Public Opinion" in 1923 and "Propaganda" in 1928 (yes, the original "Propaganda") which Joseph Goebbels as the Nazi propaganda minister made abundant use of throughout the Holocaust, often crediting Bernays. Bernays also convinced your grandmother to use Betty Crocker cake mix. After sales of it's new instant cake powder slumped, Bernays suggested adding an egg to the ingredient list on the back panel. Though completely unnecessary, this made sales soar because housewives did not feel as guilty about using a shortcut if they were including their own egg, though it was purely symbolic. 
Bernays was behind the scenes on most major acts of mass manipulation in the U.S. for decades, both commercially and politically. He was hired to improve various' presidents approval ratings, but he also taught our government how to stage and sell wars
The term "banana republic" originated when United Fruit's payoffs to corrupt leaders in Central America couldn't contain rising citizen revolts. The company brutally exploited the laborer underclass in order to sell bananas super cheap to U.S. markets, but when Guatemala's new reform government tried to enforce human rights guidelines, Bernays was brought in. 
Company operatives staged attacks and fed "exclusive" misinformation to the media in order to foment public and political sentiment against these "savage commies". Suddenly a brutal coup took place, (coincidentally by forces friendly to United Fruit) and they restored "order", annihilating, torturing and displacing hundreds of thousands of impoverished workers and indigenous Mayan peoples. 
This method would repeat itself following the incredible build up of the military industrial complex, despite President Eisenhower's clear warning that for-profit commercial forces were infiltrating the political decision making processes of the government and military and that the public needed to be vigilant, aware and "stand guard" (wink, wink). We now know the report of an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin to start the escalation in Vietnam was false, but the administration ignored the subsequent retraction once they had the provocation that they wanted. 
Within days Congress granted LBJ a "blank check". In Senate hearings, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was asked if we were truly provoked, he said "Our Navy played no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any." Of course there were no South Vietnamese actions, the provocations were entirely American! 
Now in his 80s, McNamara admitted his manipulation technique in a documentary: "I learned early on ... never answer the question that is asked of you. Answer the question that you wish had been asked of you. And quite frankly, I follow that rule. It's a very good rule." Similarly, the intel leading up to the Iraq war was fudged. Cheney's office fed disgraced reporter Judith Miller lies about WMD factories and after the NY Times ran the story on the front page, the national media followed along. 
A simple, time-tested Bernaysian tactic of popular opinion "bandwagon jumping" after a "media plant". This was confirmed later when Colin Powell's longtime Chief of Staff Col. Wilkerson exposed on PBS that he and Powell had perpetrated a hoax on the American people due to pressure from Cheney, and that Powell doubted the evidence the whole way, stifling his own better judgment and pissing away his credibility forever on the gamble that WMD would eventually be found to make his lies moot. 
On the same PBS program, Chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix personally stated that Cheney warned him just outside the Oval Office to support the President's findings or he would be "discredited". Unfortunately, we couldn't withdraw from Iraq after learning the evidence had been manipulated and owe our current troubles to this duplicity. 
Though many doubted justification for an Iraqi invasion from the start, suspicious of war hawks' ties to defense industry donors and the enormous potential for profiteering, polls proved that the trusting American public, including Congress fell for the hoax and it took months and years to unravel the truth when a cornered George W. Bush famously blustered "mistakes were made". Make no mistake, manipulations were made. Even if we ignored the pre-invasion protest marches worldwide and dozens of world leaders including U.N. Security Council members doubting the strength of Bush's evidence, the fact that all-points information control tactics were in place should have been a clear tipoff to any enlightened student of history. 
Besides the usual in-country propaganda campaigns via coalition-backed newspapers and radio broadcasts, back home we saw a more modern manipulation in the ridiculous notion of the "embedded" reporter, that is a "news" correspondent traveling and bunking with one side of an armed conflict purporting to tell the full story objectively. 
But perhaps the strongest vehicle assisting Bush's war never-ending pro-war media campaign is the for-profit talk radio industry, led by nationally syndicated hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Completely one-sided and in lock step with war-pimping, capitalist and imperialist ideology, these highly successful hosts, including the improbably rich Limbaugh have garnered incredible ratings and revenues by remaining steadfastly in the neo-con corner, transforming many listeners into agents for dispensation of their talking points. 
Though neither Hannity nor Limbaugh allows equal time for well-articulated dissenting views on their air, many listeners take their long-winded soliloquies as credible and meaningful. A more discerning look shows this is due to their skillful control of their audiences, using subtle Bernaysian and Pavlovian methods, they encourage deep loyalty as they foster emotional investment and eventual attachment in their listeners by spinning the news of the day in ways that project an inclusive moral superiority and familial warmth. 
They have scores of imitators, and even left wing counterparts, these top-rated radio giants are at the peak because they radiate their innate homespun charisma in ways that masterfully cloak incomplete and often irrational arguments with a well honed delivery and natural oratory confidence. Hannity's call screeners are far more permissive then Limbaugh's, though I've heard him reply to straightforward, specific questions about how he believes the Iraq war will be won with Bush-like vagaries, such as "the winds of freedom will blow". 
Would either host allow a sampling of calls representative of the actual population however, there would be about 70-75% anti-war calls, so they are indeed a testament to a firmly-committed propaganda mission, as shills for the Republican party energizing those less likely to ask questions. 
If not for surveys and polls, we might not realize how many Americans detest Bush's policy decisions. But it was directly in response to the same type of Bernaysian tactics, Cold War-era abuse of power and affronts to civil liberties that prompted Gallup, Roper and other pollsters to refine their scientific and statistical sampling methods, yielding much greater accuracy and effectiveness in reassuring the population that despite what we are told, there is little need to reshape our entire lives out of unfounded paranoia or hysteria. 
What we need desperately today is to teach every middle schooler how to recognize and deconstruct media manipulation. Almost every ad we see today includes a false promise or exaggeration of some type. There are grievous conflicts-of-interest in a media that uses its news division to promote it's movie arm, which ties in to its music division and merchandising operation. So too are the complex webs of media, political and corporate interconnectedness which affect our every consideration. 
For example, the six o'clock network news is dominated by pharmaceutical ads in most markets today. Can we trust they'd be reporting on studies involving these drugs? Of course not. Indeed, just the opposite, many food and drug firms set up shell "advocacy" operations that publish studies in praise of their drugs. These ties are not disclosed. 
Based on the gullibility of the current adult generation, I'd say our kids need to be better equipped to find more reliable sources of information and be better taught how to process it. Product placement has progressed far beyond Michael J. Fox drinking a Pepsi in a movie - today, toy companies produce entire TV series' and lease an entire season of time from networks to publicize their characters. 
The Hallmark channel has struck deals with American Girl dolls to air programs "imbedding" their products and you can wonder what subliminal cues may lie in such programs, directed at impressionable young girls, some practically babies. Disney has your kids locked up from cradle to grave, with the biggest kids movies, TV and radio stations, magazine and book divisions, retail stores, theme parks, you name it. 
But McDonalds is particularly heinous, with campaigns such as "her first fry", encouraging careless parents to feed unhealthy fast food to small children, who quickly come to associate McDonalds with prizes and playhouses, specifically designed to lure your kids back again and again. In particular, youngsters need to become aware of motive
In the confusing amalgams of entertainment, infotainment, edutainment and advertainment it's important to understand who is behind it and why. Modern ad methods such as emotional branding can hit kids up with a free music video that turns into a cell phone ad at the very end. They should be encouraged to recognize that this is corporate co-opted "art" and take note of how the messages may be infused with materialism, sexuality and self-gratification in a new, underhanded form of salesmanship. 
They should learn that quick-cut editing is designed to invoke stress and control the viewer's heart rate, and how background music is used to manipulate emotions. Also they need to be aware that there can be subliminal messages or images beneath the surface, or that directors can introduce unfounded associations between two elements, for example superimposing a sinking ship behind an image of a political candidate. 
Then there are ads and products that exist solely to rip us off. Just like we are buried with spam online, we are inundated with TV, radio and print ads for worthless products and "legal" scams, like postal jobs, hair growth serums and real estate schemes. Though it seems improbable, these scams are successful, preying on the weak-minded, and gullible -- and that is us! Until we see those ads disappear forever, rest assured these vendors are profiting and it's a sad commentary on how little credit for intelligence we are given - and just how responsive to manipulation our society truly is. 
Several European countries have banned advertising to children on TV and in various family venues. This has come as a result of expansion of Western junk food franchises and marketing. Before you ask yourself why don't we have such laws here, forget it. Instead of being ashamed the Europeans are enacting laws to protect their kids from our American-style consumption habits, Kraft, Kellogg and General Mills have joined multiple food industry lobbies in creating an alliance that will pro-actively attempt to ward off any such regulation here. 
Many don't realize that the U.S. wasn't always like this. From the early adoption of the radio around 1916 till the early 20s, there were no ads on the air because the scientific community was determined to make radio a positive and socially uplifting medium for information and relaxation. When radio began to use advertising to produce revenue, it was suspended during prime evening and "family" times because ads were considered noise pollution, a detriment to mental health, like that annoying "tom-cat on top of the back fence". 
During the depression, however, radio stations had to give in to the demands of advertisers for their survival, and ads have been part of commercial American radio ever since. Now they are everywhere, from our TV sets to web pages, movie previews, supermarket floors, and whole new waves of highway billboards as localities lease highways to private firms. We not only need to teach our kids to spot these ploys, we need to seriously discuss whether we want to continue living lives so crowded by abrasive ads, so bent on commercial competition and moneymaking and ultimately whether parents or localities want to take steps to make their kids' lives more serene. 
My immediate suggestion for parents is to limit TV to 1 hour per day, insist on one day per week without TV at all, get your kids into books, teach them how to look at issues in balance, to deduce motives and never stop asking questions. To quote Oscar Wilde "the truth is rarely pure and never simple." You may disagree, but I hope for better for my children then for them to be average American consumers.
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(OpEdNews Contributing Editor since October 2006) Inner city schoolteacher from New York, mostly covering media manipulation. I put election/finance reform ahead of all issues but also advocate for fiscal conservatism, ethics in journalism and (more...)

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