Discover more from Alec’s Copaganda Newsletter
How to tell a lie with the truth
“What makes it news is its dissemination, not its objective reality.”
- Jacques Ellul
Imagine two scenarios. A given city had 10,000 shoplifting incidents in 2023 and 15,000 shoplifting incidents in 2022. In 2023, a local tv news outlet ran a story every day about a different shoplifting incident. In 2022, the news ran only 15 stories all year on shoplifting incidents. In which city do you think the public is more likely to believe shoplifting is a greater problem, in the city with more shoplifting, or the city with 25 times more stories about shoplifting?
This exercise could apply for any type of crime. And it could apply for a wide variety of other things: A report each night on a train derailment spewing toxic chemicals might get people to think the train system had safety problems. Same with illegal evictions or tax evasion, and so on.
This is how the curation of true anecdotes can lead to false impressions. The biased dissemination of real facts is the essence of the best propaganda.
The Biased Curation of Anecdote
I want to point out a few examples to illustrate how this is a main way that copaganda distorts what threats to our safety we believe are urgent in our society.
First, after many months of hysterical crime coverage based on short term increases in murder while downplaying decreases in other police-reported crime as less important, when murders started to go down, the New York Times pulled the old switcheroo:
Now, according to the “paper of record,” it was time to start worrying about “property crimes”:
By switching from emphasizing one type of crime to another whenever any of them are up for any period of time, the news can create the impression that crime is always rising.
This kind of emphasis happens a lot in local journalism. For example, here’s an Oklahoma newspaper reporting the following headline: “Oklahoma’s violent crime rate higher than average” with a prominent image showing Oklahoma’s reported “violent crime” increasing 1.9%. But murder was also down 6.2% over the same time period, and the paper chose not to lead with that. Or how about this headline from WBTV in Charlotte: “Police in Charlotte investigating 13 homicides so far this month, making October deadliest month this year.” What true fact is left out of this headline? Murders in Charlotte were down 14% so far that year.
But how the news chooses true anecdotes to distort the interpretation of the world is a deeper problem than which kinds of crimes get emphasized at which times. It is often used to distort our understanding of what other people—particularly people who we don’t interact with—think about the world.
Many news stories attempt to persuade news consumers by quoting seemingly random ordinary people to get their views. But because you can find essentially anyone to say anything in our society, this provides a lot of discretion for reporters to select which views are shared and which are ignored.
For example, right as the Governor of California was vetoing a popular bill to dramatically limit the use of solitary confinement in California prisons, a news outlet influential with state officials published a weird story in which the reporter found one “former inmate” who “did a decade straight in solitary” who was opposed to the bill. The reporter granted the person anonymity to tell the public why “eliminating solitary confinement is a bad idea.”
The anonymous person spewed police and prison guard union talking points and questioned the scientific consensus that being in solitary confinement was bad for people’s mental health. He suggested solitary confinement was a necessary evil because “they have to have bad places for bad people.”
This person’s view was used to distort public's perception of how incarcerated people feel about solitary confinement. None of the incarcerated people who feel differently were quoted. None of their families who have been organizing for this outcome—and who convinced the legislature of the largest state in the country to pass such a law, no small feat—were quoted. Such voices matter, but only if they support status quo violence. The anonymous person chosen was put there to give people a reason to feel okay with an outcome that would otherwise be shocking: a Democratic Governor vetoing a bill that would limit a practice in a liberal state that the United Nations has defined as “torture.”
Unfortunately, the one-sided cherry picking of a marginalized person who supposedly supports the form of oppression to which their group is subjected has been a staple of U.S. news reporting for more than a century. There is no more effective voice to validate the interests of powerful people.
One of my favorite all-time examples comes from copaganda Hall of Famer Martin Kaste, who for some reason NPR still permits to cover the police. In 2022, Kaste published an article and widely disseminated radio piece about a rise in shootings/murders during the pandemic (murders were actually down in 2022 when he published the pieces, but they had increased in 2021). As with all of Kaste’s police reporting, the entire thing is like a celebratory buffet for the copaganda gourmand.
But one thing is most relevant here: Under a bold heading called “Less risk of getting caught,” Kaste devotes an entire section of the article to making an assertion that there is “less risk of getting caught” for shooting someone now.
The only support for that assertion in the reporting was a random person in one city who says this:
This is incredible. A random cherry-picked person blames “defund the police” for more shootings, and a national outlet just reports it, with no context, fact checking or skepticism. First, note that, as with the CalMatters article, Anthony Branch is a formerly incarcerated person being used here in a particular way. He is standing in for the views of people who’ve been prosecuted and incarcerated and people who live in poor neighborhoods. The assertion of his views, without a contrary one even expressed, is also, implicitly, a statement about the views of many other people supposedly like him.
Second, as I’ve noted repeatedly, police budgets are at an all-time high nationally. So, literally, they were not defunded. They increased overall each year since George Floyd was murdered. Reduced police budgets could not have led to it being easier to get away with shooting someone. NPR editors did not require Kaste to point this out.
Third, there is no evidence to support this person’s causal claim blaming “defund.” What does NPR do? Knowing the claim is unsupported, it nonetheless boosts the fact-denying claim by immediately noting that Seattle has “lost hundreds of officers after the protests that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd.” Kaste ignores that the Seattle police only reduced their budget by about 10%, and that the police executives themselves identified areas for cuts that would not affect enforcement of violent crime. Indeed, even if we ignore that the NPR piece was attempting to draw national lessons and if we focus only on Seattle, there is not a single police officer or scholar in the world who possesses meaningful evidence that the kind of small reduction in the Seattle police budget in 2021 could have led to widespread changes in criminal behavior—either the increase in 2021 murders or the decrease in 2022 murders with a similar budget (the police budget was actually slightly less in 2022 than in 2021). Indeed, would the small funding decrease be the cause of lower murders in 2022? The claim makes no sense even on its own terms.
NPR has repeatedly platformed flat-earthers who subscribe to the James Comey theory of the “Ferguson Effect,” in which protests for racial justice cause MURDER. Even there, NPR will usually quote a pro-police “expert” to assert such a claim. But here, NPR gives no data, no analysis, and not even a pro-police expert asserting that there is less risk of getting caught or that defund caused it.That's it. The entirety of the support for a huge claim about the relative historical risk of criminal capture in the United States: a random person in Seattle who NPR uses to falsely suggest that police departments nationally were “defunded” and that this is to blame for a rise in murder—which went down during the year he gave the quote.
In both of these examples—the anonymous proponent of solitary confinement and the person who blames defunding the police for more murders the prior year but not the decrease during the year he was quoted—I do not doubt that the sources said these quotes to the reporter. They are true in that sense, and likely a true reflection of the beliefs of those people and some group of other people. But by selectively choosing which people’s views truthfully to represent and which people’s views to exclude, the news can distort our perception of the world. And it can especially distort our perceptions of what marginalized groups believe. Indeed, this is one of the subtle goals of Kaste here: to give liberal listeners and readers permission to support more funding for more police: “even the marginalized people closest to the problem want that!”
This kind of propaganda has been around for a long time:
I’ll close out with three quotes from Jacques Ellul, in his seminal study Propaganda first published 60 years ago. They are still relevant to understanding these issues:
For a long time, propagandists have recognized that lying must be avoided…. It seems that in propaganda we must make a radical distinction between a fact on the one hand and intentions or interpretations on the other…. The truth that pays off is in the realm of facts. The necessary falsehoods, which also pay off, are in the realm of intentions and interpretations. This is a fundamental rule for propaganda analysis.
The most generally held concept of propaganda is that it is a series of tall stories, a tissue of lies, and that lies are necessary for effective propaganda…. This concept leads to two attitudes among the public. The first is: “Of course we shall not be victims of propaganda because we are capable of distinguishing truth from falsehood.” Anyone holding that conviction is extremely susceptible to propaganda, because when propaganda does tell the “truth,” he is then convinced that it is no longer propaganda; moreover, his self-confidence makes him all the more vulnerable to attacks of which he is unaware.
Finally there is the use of accurate facts by propaganda…. Facts are treated in such a fashion that they draw their listener into an irresistible sociological current. The public is left to draw obvious conclusions from a cleverly presented truth, and the great majority comes to the same conclusions.
If one falsifies a fact, one may be confronted with unquestionable proof to the contrary. (To deny that torture was used in Algeria became increasingly difficult.) But no proof can be furnished where motivations or intentions are concerned or interpretation of a fact is involved. A fact has different significance, depending on whether it is analyzed by a bourgeois economist or a Soviet economist, a liberal historian, a Christian historian, or a Marxist historian. The difference is even greater when a phenomenon created deliberately by propaganda is involved. How can one suspect a man who talks peace of having the opposite intent….? And if the same man starts a war, he can always say that the others force it on him, that events proved stronger than his intentions. We forget that between 1936 and 1939 Hitler made many speeches about his desire for peace, for the peaceful settlement of all problems, for conferences. He never expressed an explicit desire for war. Naturally, he was arming because of “encirclement.” And, in fact, he did manage to get a declaration of war from France and England; so he was not the one who started the war.
Propaganda by its very nature is an enterprise for perverting the significance of events and of insinuating false intentions.
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I originally thought Martin Kaste had perhaps unwittingly stumbled on an actual story given that police homicide clearance rates are at near historic lows. The police are solving far fewer murders than the did fifty years ago. Even this would not explain the causal claim made here about supposed recent changes, but it is at least a phenomenon relating to police incompetence and general ineffectiveness potentially worth exploring. It was ignored