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The Big Deception: Part 2
How does the news falsify the motivations of powerful people?
Before I get into Part 2, I want to share some good news. Last week, we won a preliminary injunction in our landmark case challenging the cash bail system in Los Angeles. You can read the decision here. And two days ago, the Sheriff began releasing people from the horrific Los Angeles County jail pursuant to the first part of the court order prohibiting the Sheriff from detaining people charged with less serious cases solely because they cannot pay cash. It is one of the most important decisions ever in this area of law because the court found that the cash bail system in Los Angeles is unconstitutional. Los Angeles has the largest jail in the U.S., the most people separated from their families because they cannot pay cash, and the largest profits of any city for the for-profit money bail industry. There is so much more work to be done to change the political conditions necessary to make sure that what replaces the cash bail system will be a profound improvement, and we have already begun that work under the leadership of local organizers. Although every word of this newsletter will always be free, many of you are choosing to make donations, and all of that money goes to the work of Civil Rights Corps. I thought you’d be interested in seeing what you are supporting!
Now, on to Part 2 of the Big Deception…
In Part 1, I described The Big Deception, explained its implications, and gave a few examples—like the War on Drugs, police body cameras, and bail reform—of how the news media creates a mass delusion about why certain policies exist. This delusion not only masks the reasons powerful institutions in our society do things like expand police surveillance, give prosecutors more power, and build more prisons, but it also changes how ordinary people approach trying to fight for social change. Here in Part 2, I ask: how does the news media accomplish The Big Deception?
I like to think about The Big Deception on two conceptual levels. On the most obvious level, there is falsification and simplification of the reasons that people in power do things. This falsification pervades U.S. news reporting on public safety, and I will illustrate it with examples from contemporary news reporting here in Part 2. On a deeper level, in explaining important issues to the public, there is a focus among mainstream U.S. news reporters, both in what stories they tell and how they frame those stories, on short term individual motivations of people in power instead of on the structural conditions in which their decisions occur. That latter issue will be the focus of Part 3.
Part 2: Falsification of the reasons powerful institutions do things
The Big Deception is not limited to the world of copaganda, and it can help to remember that. Almost all corporate advertising engages in some form of The Big Deception,and it is virtually the only job of PR officials like the White House Press Secretary or the local Mayor’s PR team to mislead people about why the President or the Mayor did this or that. As shows like Veep satirize or shows like the West Wing mythologize, these government PR jobs regularly involve lying, and they almost always in every interaction involve decisions by people in power about emphasizing some true reasons for a government decision while omitting others. We see this, for example, when officials condemn one country’s human rights violations and ignore another’s, when officials use flowery freedom rhetoric to justify one military intervention but not another, or when officials emphasize the benefits to the community when approving a real estate development contract but don’t mention that the land sale contract went to a billionaire SuperPAC contributor instead of a community land trust. All of these are examples in which people in power directly attempt to influence why people think they are choosing one course of action over another in a way that misleads them.
The goal of public safety officials is not accurate public understanding of complex issues. This is why they “spin” information: to obtain and preserve political power. In my experience, when presented with this point, political operatives agree with it and justify this approach because they believe that their securing or remaining in power is better for society than if their opponents were in power. As I came to see the more I socialized with colleagues in these positions over my career, the actual things that politicians and bureaucrats talk about in private concerning why they do things look a lot different from their public press releases! In this article, I’m not even condemning this fact, I’m just noting it.
But here’s the thing: the news media repeats even the most blatant forms of this misinformation as objective news. A common way the news does this is by asserting casually without skepticism as a matter of diction, context omission, and sentence structure that the stated motivations of powerful people are their actual motivations. I’m going to give you a few recent examples from just one U.S. city and then explain why it matters for The Big Deception.
I. Examples from local news coverage in New York
1. Adams and Hochul expand state repression because they are trying to reduce crime, homelessness, and mental illness
Let’s start with the example that inspired this series: the New York Times recently published an article about the strangulation of Jordan Neely on the New York subway. In that article, the paper asserted that Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul were pursuing a variety of repressive new policies “to reduce crime and the number of people who are mentally ill and living on New York’s streets.”
To many legal and public health experts, this assertion of genuine motivations is laughable—it is belied by these tactics not working to do any of those things, by other tactics they are not choosing working better to achieve those ends, by politicians knowing that other tactics would work better, and also by the private things New York politicians say to us when we speak candidly about why they are doing these things.
Moreover, the NYT did not alert readers to contrary evidence or the opinion of knowledgeable experts that the real reasons Adams and Hochul are doing some of the things they are doing have to do with media strategy, real estate development interests, political demands of police unions, a desire to take attention away from their failure to address underlying inequalities or build more affordable housing, and a host of other aspects of our political economy along the causal chain that operate at a deeper level than the intentions of these two politicians. Nor did the paper provide readers any evidence that any of the policies actually "reduce crime" or help the problem of homelessness or improve anyone’s mental health. Of course, in the sentences and paragraphs surrounding this assertion of genuine intent, the paper was silent on the wealth of evidence that other policies Hochul and Adams could have chosen would help those issues more based on the evidence. It's just a cycle of ignorance, obfuscation, and predatory policies.
After I complained about this on twitter and then discussed it with the New York Times, the paper edited the article (without appending a correction) to say that these tactics are things Adams and Hochul “say are meant to reduce crime and the number of people who are mentally ill.”
This was a subtle but important correction: the paper is now reporting these motivations as a claim being made by Adams and Hochul and not as objective truth that is so obvious it cannot be questioned. That matters a great deal to the propaganda effects of news like this. The difference between writing that the Mayor did something “to reduce crime” and saying that the Mayor “claimed” to be doing something because he “asserted” that it would reduce crime is big: it is the difference between helping to build a skepticism in the public about the asserted motivations of public safety officials versus helping public officials to deceive the public about the world of potential motivations for their actions other than pursuing in good faith the best public safety policies.
2. Eric Adams resurrects an undercover police unit
Last year, the NYT wrote that Eric Adams reinstated notoriously corrupt undercover police units and embraced “broken windows” policing tactics—targeting poor people accused of minor offenses for state violence—as part of a genuine effort “to prevent more serious crimes.”
Without appending a correction, this article was apparently later amended. It now accurately reports that New York’s historic violent crime levels are low, but also does something even worse. It now asserts that Adams’s policy moves were “in response” to vague concerns in which “many found the city to be more dangerous.” Then, the NYT repeats the laughable assertion that “broken windows” policing is a strategy developed genuinely by police to “prevent more serious crimes.”
Note that the revised article introduces a new deception. Adams is reinstating corrupt, violent undercover units as a genuine “response” to the “concerns” of his constituents. In this way, the news suggests that this politician is a truly democratic leader sensitive to the real desires of his people. The strategy is not pursued, to take just a few examples of other potential reasons, because the police union who supported him demanded it, because it would lead to lots of overtime cash for cops, because Adams wanted to present himself a certain way in the media as “tough on crime” or at least as doing something new among a limited range of bureaucratic policy options, or because other political constituencies in real estate rely on such squads for gentrification.
Even more comically, Adams is the person who has probably done more than anyone else on the planet to create the propaganda-fueled fantasy world that the NYT’s amended article observes: New York had near historic lows of police reported violent crime but, nonetheless, “many found the city to be more dangerous.” The person responsible for these reality-denying “vibes” is portrayed by the paper as being genuinely “responsive” to the fake-news conditions that he himself created for political reasons. Just take a look at the fantastic Bloomberg investigation that showed it was Adams himself who drove news mentions of violent crime and not actual violent crime:
In this way, a politician can use misinformation and PR strategy to generate fear among the public about an issue, and then the news media will say that it was genuine responsiveness to this fear that motivated the politician to act rather than, say, the underlying reasons that led the politician to engage in the misinformation about the issue.
Finally, and perhaps most revealing, there is the paper’s almost quaintly naïve assertion about the goals of policymakers who developed and ruthlessly pursued “broken windows” policing, which the NYT now defines as “the stricter enforcement of low-level enforcement in an effort to prevent more serious crimes.” In making this factual claim in a single clause, the “paper of record” in the United States erases from history three decades of academic scholarship in the fields of sociology, criminology, history, political science, law, economics, anthropology, etc. about the complex true purposes and functions of “broken windows” policing.
And this is a pattern across the NYT for many years. In its main article on Eric Adams attempting to reinstate the undercover units three months earlier than the article just quoted, the NYT broadened its claims to cover undercover police policies across the United States:
In so reporting these stories, the New York Times allowed Mayor Eric Adams—and all officials responsible for the catastrophe of “broken windows” policing and undercover targeting of poor communities—to claim that intentional decisions to structure U.S. policing to ignore white collar crime, drug use by elites, pollution crimes, wage theft, tax evasion, public corruption, sexual assault, etc. but instead to invest in police tactics to surveil, brutalize, and then cage tens of millions of poor people for low-level offenses were the result of an actual good-faith effort to make people safer. In so doing, they permitted those officials to commit an even greater lie by omission: that these policies do not have their causal roots in racial animus, controlling working class people, gentrification, profit, etc…
3. More cops in the subway
Toward the end of 2022, the New York Times covered a plan by local and state officials to “flood” the subway with police and surveillance cameras. The plan was Orwellian. Adams himself described it as the “omnipresence” of armed cops and a sort of cleansing from the city’s public spaces of human beings “dealing with mental health issues.” The NYT article was generally a smorgasbord of copaganda, but looks at how it portrayed the intentions of politicians:
The expansion of police hiring and surveillance cameras is, according to the New York Times, done “to combat crime” and because politicians are “trying to address a troubling series of violent incidents in the subway.”
First, note that all other potential reasons—overtime cash demanded by politically powerful cop unions, an intentional media strategy to distract from broad failures to invest in systems of genuine care for poor people or people with mental illness, massive surveillance industry contracts, lobbying in Albany and NYC, etc...—are once again deemed objectively not even worth disclosing to the public as reasons for this policy announcement.
Second, the NYT’s framing is especially odd because there is no evidence that more cops makes the subway safer, and it certainly doesn’t help the public health issues of how to prevent and care for mental illness (which Adams and Hochul claimed, including in their quotes for this article, is one of the causes of subway violence and “disorder”). Suggesting the Governor is “trying” to improve safety and mental well-being in good faith here would be like saying Governor Cuomo started sexually harassing his staff in an effort to fight global warming.
This kind of reporting pervades the New York media’s coverage of Eric Adams. For example, in another article summarizing all of Adams’ public safety work, the NYT, in a news article and not an opinion piece or an op-ed by Adams, told readers that Adams had spent “much of” his time “seeking to reduce crime and disorder,” all of which are highly controversial and misleading claims that buy into various forms of Adams’s PR strategy and not objective news reporting:
People who have studied the history of U.S. police know that substantial motivating reasons for punitive policies (whether the drug war, long sentences, or boosting police on crumbling public transit, etc.) are almost never driven by “combating crime” on any meaningful understanding of causation. It’s like saying the U.S. invaded Iraq “to spread democracy.”
And even for those who believe that a good faith desire to improve mental health in New York or to spread democracy to the middle east were substantial drivers of those respective policy decisions, it is not a reasonable journalistic position to portray those as the only reasons the governments chose those the policies they did.
4. Local network NY1 explains why NYPD sent more cops to schools
Here, a reporter from a popular TV news station asserts that NYPD increased police presence in schools “because of persistent teen violence.” Does anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the issue believe that genuine care about which strategies are most likely to reduce “persistent teen violence” is the reason NYPD is increasing armed patrols in disproportionately Black and poor schools?
But this news tactic is troubling even if you are not yet fully convinced that other factors play a larger role in these decisions than whatever “persistent teen violence” means: Does any reasonable person think that this is not at least a point about which there is some controversy among experts? By simply asserting it as unquestioned truth, the TV news reporter erases the potential debate from the public consciousness—it is not even conceivable that NYPD could have other reasons for increasing its spending on armed officers, guns, and surveillance technology in and around schools.
One way of noticing this kind of copaganda is to look at it in reverse. One can contrast how the motivations of U.S. punishment bureaucrats are reported with how the asserted motivations of perceived ideological enemies are reported: when Vladimir Putin or Chinese officials are covered in mainstream news, reporters almost always frame their motivations as their assertions while using a number of devices to convey that they are mere assertions about which a reasonable person may be skeptical (E.g. “Putin claims that the air strike was retaliation for the Ukrainian drone attack” or “Chinese officials claim that China is increasing its investment in African infrastructure to reduce poverty.”) U.S. news reporters then often follow these qualifications with available evidence to the contrary, inviting further skepticism of the motivations of political elites in China or Russia, for example.
II. Why is this the news falsifying and simplifying motivations of politicians so consequential?
Why is falsifying the motivations of powerful people is so prevalent? In his seminal 1962 study called Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, philosopher Jacques Ellul did more than perhaps anyone else to shed light on how modern propaganda works. His study of propaganda from Lenin to Hitler to the French colonial government in Algeria to Mao in China to the military industrial complex and consumer culture of the United States yielded many insights. One of them was that the most effective propaganda will be based on true facts (or at least facts that are hard for the target audience to disprove. However, Ellul explained, deception about “intentions and interpretations” was the pervasive feature of effective propaganda. Speaking about “intentions,” Ellul said: “This is the real realm of the lie; but it is exactly here that it cannot be detected.” He wrote:
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.
To put some of this in the copaganda context, imagine a news station that starts a new policy to make more money or to pursue a particular political goal in an election year. Unlike the previous year, for this fiscal year the broadcast will begin each night of the week with a police press conference about a different murder, covering thirty-one murders in January. It would be bad for the station if it turned out that ten of the murders were not murders and that the people were still alive. People would trust them less, and the station would have less influence. It’s important for good propaganda that facts be true, or at least hard to verify for ordinary news consumers. After a month of watching this news, though, viewers become more afraid—they may perceive that there are more murders this year than last year because of how these true facts are presented. And this could happen even if there had been double the number of murders the prior year and four times as many murders ten years ago. Once a person feels this way, it is difficult to make the person feel differently by trying to correct their feelings with data, which people have difficulty retaining. And, as Ellul notes, people act based on how they feel. This is falsity of interpretation using true facts.
Similarly, after a month of this news station’s murder coverage, viewers watching police press conferences every night in which police expressed outrage, promised to make reducing murder the number one priority, and stated that they were doing everything within their power to address the situation—committing to solve the murders, adding more police if only the government would give them more money, cracking down on criminals, each week beginning various new pilot programs suggested by “experts” to figure out how to best reduce violence, etc.—news viewers may believe political leaders that they are doing everything they can about the situation consistent with the knowledge available to the human experience and that if there was anything else they could do, they would be doing it. This is the falsity of intention using true facts.
The phenomenon I discuss in this post is thus part of this long history of those in power misrepresenting their intentions. But why has this been such a focus of propaganda for over 100 years? It helps to ask two questions: 1) what benefits do people in power get from distorting their true motivations; and 2) how does the ruling class benefit generally from ordinary people misunderstanding the reasons that people in power do things?
In general, the powerful people and institutions in charge of public safety in the U.S. want us to think:
1) That the problems of our society aren’t structural
2) That they are outraged about these problems
3) That the problems can be fixed with little tweaks, and
4) That they are doing everything they can to fix them.
There are a lot of ways in which powerful institutions benefit from masking their intentions,but one is paramount: falsifying and simplifying the reasons powerful institutions do things takes attention away from the longer causal chain of reasons for why our society looks like it does.
At bottom, I think what Ellul’s observation about propaganda’s historical focus on intentions helps us see—and what we see in modern copaganda—is that, in an unequal and unsafe world that does not look much like a world consistent with our stated values and hopes, it is important to people with power that people without power never really figure out how things work or start thinking about how a world with different social, political, and economic arrangements might be possible. It’s important that ordinary people always remain in something like a confused stupor and fluttering about focusing on little tweaks that assume the system is mostly working.
This distraction of the public away from a deeper exploration of structural conditions is the most important function of The Big Deception, and it is to that I will turn in Part 3.
Most companies want consumers to believe that their products are provided for some good moral reason or to meet some need, as opposed to the manufacturing of a perceived need for profit. A couple years ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, I saw two tv commercials in a row. The first was a Chic-fil-A ad about how the company had created a rewards card because it wanted to help frontline medical workers because it cared so much about public health. Note: Chic-fil-A produces unhealthy food, has an egregious history of labor practices, and no reasonable corporate executive could believe that a customer rewards card is the best way for the company to help frontline workers. Customer reward cards are a profit-maximizing branding strategy common in corporate strategic playbooks. The very next ad was even more hilarious. It was a T-Mobile advertisement announcing to customers that it had merged with another behemoth mutli-national telecom company, and that the reason for the merger was so that it could help customers better. Here was a profit-maximizing monopoly-pursuing mega-corporation getting viewers to believe that the reason for its behavior was genuine care for them.
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.
People in power benefit from hiding their true motivations in numerous other ways. For one, part of their power lies in them knowing more about how things work than people who might organize against them. They also benefit from distracting the public so that potential opposing forces are unable to determine the most effective opposition strategy. Also, more obviously, many people might not support their true intentions and might reject proposals they see as motivated by different intentions, such as, say, generating personal wealth after office. Distortion of intentions by focusing on good faith policy debate also allows institutions to focus advocacy around informing politicians better rather than overthrowing them. Most basically, falsifying intentions also matters for some of the same reasons we care about people’s motivations in our everyday lives: they are good predictors of future behavior. Thus, if people in power can keep people thinking that they are making decisions based on the best available evidence, it helps prevent people from being able to predict their behavior.