Powerful People Tell Us Things
One of the most pervasive forms of copaganda is when the media portrays the asserted motivations of powerful people as their actual motivations. This sometimes-subtle media practice is one important reason that the political class in the United States is full of such incompetence and dishonesty, and a major reason that it lacks meaningful accountability.
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I want to start with a current example. Last week, the Associated Press published an article that should be taught in journalism schools. The thesis of the article was that the Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court fired all of the state's public defense commission and replaced them out of "frustration" with the plight of poor people charged with crimes. Here’s how the AP presented the story, both in the body of the article and on Twitter:
If you are a casual news consumer, you would be left with three major impressions: 1) There is a crisis in providing lawyers for poor people in Oregon; 2) This crisis has some meaningful connection to the current leadership of the state Commission ; 3) The Chief Justice cares a lot and is taking the actions within her power to fix it. The latter two of these are blatantly false propaganda.
This article is a good illustration of a pervasive media practice of reporting the asserted motivations of powerful people as their actual motivations. In this way, the news can mislead people about what's really happening and why, and give cover to officials to spread misinformation about what is really driving the things that affect our lives. In general, powerful people want us to think that the problems of our society aren’t structural, that they are outraged about these problems, that the problems can be fixed with little tweaks, and that they are doing everything they can to fix them.
To see how damaging the AP article is, you have to understand the structural context in Oregon that the article omits. Like the rest of the U.S., Oregon is trying to cage so many poor people that its bureaucratic machinery for providing them lawyers is a catastrophic failure. People are languishing in cages without lawyers and separated from their kids solely because they can't pay cash bail.
Make no mistake. The Oregon judiciary could stop this problem in a heartbeat by doing any number of things, including by enforcing the Constitution and dismissing low level cases and releasing people from jail where the State doesn't give people what the 6th Amendment requires: an effective lawyer.
This has been going on for a long time, and Oregon courts have made the problem worse with rampant jailing of people who can't pay cash. It pre-dates and has little to do with the current indigent defense leadership. In fact, the Oregon judiciary is the single entity most capable of eliminating this crisis almost immediately. Alarmingly, Oregon Supreme Court has instead repeatedly refused valid habeas petitions by people languishing in cages with high rates of sexual and physical assault and deprivation of medical care. They are *illegally jailed* on cash bail in violation of State and federal Constitutions.*
The article doesn’t tell you that the Oregon Supreme Court has declined to hear these cases. I know this because we at Civil Rights Corps were lawyers in those cases, desperately trying to get the court to even hear the cases applying the most basic constitutional law to poor people illegally in jail. On this issue, the Oregon Supreme Court has exhibited no urgency or “frustration” at all about addressing systemic, illegal state violence against the poorest people in Oregon that it has the power to stop.
So, imagine the surprise of lawyers for the poor across the state when they read the AP headline that the Chief Justice cares so much about these problems and is so "frustrated" that it led her to fire the entire state Commission regulating indigent defense. So, what's actually going on?
The Chief Justice doesn't like the head of the agency who started on the job a few months ago and has been pretty impolite to the legal establishment. The Chief Justice tried unsuccessfully to get the Commission to fire him this week. When the Commission did not vote to fire him, the Chief Justice disbanded the whole Commission and replaced it with people who would fire him. (The new Commission met again two days later and fired him last week.)
Some of the people fired from Commission are among the best and most highly regarded lawyers in Oregon. No one questions their careers, integrity, expertise. They appear to have been fired solely because they declined to fire the agency head when the Chief Justice wanted them to.
There may be reasons to fire the head of the agency. I'm not weighing in on the debate in Oregon about whether he has been too rude and inappropriate in his communications to people in an effort to shake up a corrupt system. What's vital here is how this dispute is portrayed **as news.**
By allowing the Chief Justice to portray this authoritarian action as genuinely motivated by concern for the very poor people she and other judges have refused to enforce the law to protect, the news media helped a powerful person shield a powerful institution from accountability
The AP didn’t tell readers that Chief Justice "says" or "alleges" that this is her reason. It reported what she claims as fact. It told readers that she was genuinely “frustrated” with the plight of the vulnerable and was taking action as a result. It hid from readers that this is a controversial view, that advocates for the poor actually believe that her inaction is a major cause of the crisis, and omitted all of the context necessary for readers to learn about that controversy.
More deeply, by letting the Chief Justice portray a longstanding structural crisis as one of recent leadership in indigent defense and not of historically and globally unprecedented levels of prosecution of the poor and massive judicial cowardice, the Associated Press helped spread a false and dangerous myth about what the problem is at its most basic level.
In this instance, the public is left ignorant about the actual deep causes of the crisis and left ignorant that the Oregon courts have the power, today, to dismiss as many cases as is required so that no one is jailed or prosecuted if the State doesn’t give them a lawyer. The public is therefore not equipped to ask uncomfortable questions like: why would the Oregon courts not want to fix this terrible problem? What does that say about its true functions?
By allowing politicians to lie about their true motivations and printing the lies as fact, the news media continues its long tradition of allowing powerful people to manipulate the public into not understanding the true drivers of political actions and policies.
But it’s worse. This is exactly how powerful people plan their public relations campaigns. Using the compliant media to express selective outrage about injustices that they could easily fix is how many powerful politicians maintain a faux veneer of caring about the great evils of our world but escape accountability for actually solving them.
I explain this example at length, but this is ubiquitous. I see the news report powerful people’s claims about their own concerns, goals, and motivations as fact every day. Let’s take a look at a few other examples:
An NBC reporter recently claimed that corporate Democrats were pushing for more police because they are genuinely “concerned about rising crime” despite overwhelming evidence that people who own things have other motivations to expand police, that these specific politicians have other motivations right now before midterm elections, and that overwhelming evidence shows this policy wouldn’t address those supposed concerns.
The New York Times wrote an entire puff piece about how pro-police policies of some establishment Democrats are based on genuine concern for and accountability to “communities of color.”
The New York Times San Francisco Bureau Chief asserted that the people pushing the recall of the San Francisco DA were “worried about a spike in property crimes and hate crimes” despite overwhelming evidence that there was no increase, that these right-wing police union-led interests began the recall campaign immediately after the election, that they had other financial and policy interests, etc.
The New York Times allowed Mayor Eric Adams to claim that caging more poor people for low-level offenses had its roots not in racial animus, controlling poor people, gentrification, and profit, etc… but in an actual good-faith “effort to prevent more serious crimes.”
The Los Angeles Times allowed a news reporter to assert that a failed attempt by right-wing police unions to recall the progressive DA in Los Angeles was “spurred” by an “increase in violence” and not political and financial interests.
All of these are at the very least controversial, disputed claims about their good-faith motives that powerful people want us to believe but that there is strong evidence to disbelieve.The news asserting these as good faith motivations for right-wing policies that increase state violence and control is like declaring that Exxon’s pivot to clean energy marketing on its website is spurred by genuine concern for climate change.
It's important to note that national experts have warned about the strange system in Oregon that lets the courts (and a single Justice) control the indigent defense system. It's a conflict of interest and contrary to "national standards."
This is part of a far broader, systemic problem in much of mainstream journalism that accepts as given what are actually pervasive myths. For example, the New York Times asserting as fact that military veterans in the U.S. engaged in recent military occupations were “trying to spread democracy” or Reuters and the Associated Press asserting that Biden’s call for 100,000 more cops was “for fighting and preventing crime” and for “crime prevention.” These are controversial claims about which University seminars are taught and that books are written to disprove. But entire fields of investigative journalism and critical academic study (and sometimes global consensus in the entire non-Western world) are casually erased in a few words.