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The Big Deception: Part 3
The biggest lie of all
Today’s painting was one I made about ten years ago as part of a series based on the Leonel Rugama poem The Earth Is A Satellite of the Moon.
In Part 1 I described The Big Deception: how common features of news coverage mislead us about the reasons powerful institutions do things. While policies are usually portrayed in the news as good faith attempts by people in power to pursue shared values based on evidence, daily news stories ignore and even obscure most of the actual reasons our world looks the way that it does. The reasons our society looks like it does in its most important respects exist along a longer and more complex causal chain than is typically represented in everyday news. Deceiving people about this complexity leads them to misunderstand how to fight for the changes they want to see in our world.
In Part 2, I examined the most obvious and superficial way the news deceives people about why things happen: by uncritically reporting the stated motivations of powerful people as the actual reasons they do things.
Here in Part 3, I go deeper. I explain why the choice to focus on the intentions of powerful people by reporters is perhaps the biggest deception of all. This focus makes it harder for news consumers to understand the underlying conditions and structural features of our society that determine what choices are available to politicians, which of those options politicians will predictably select, and how entrenched bureaucracy will implement those choices.
1) How might this play out in coverage of a common “public safety” issue?
To see what I mean about the difference between news coverage of the motivations of people in power versus news coverage of a longer causal chain of reasons, let’s take a hypothetical news story and compare different ways of covering it.
a. The conventional news story
Consider how the news might report on a decision by a mayor to authorize a new undercover squad for local cops to work in a newly gentrifying area. Let’s call the mayor "Derek Badams.” At one end of the spectrum, one could believe that Badams’s decision is made transparently, based on the quality of the arguments and the evidence supporting them, by a local official acting intelligently in the best interests of the entire public. If the policy is overall good for the community, then it will happen. If the policy won’t be good for the community all things considered, then Badams won’t do it.
This is closest to how daily news usually discusses such matters, with a few quotes about the decision from whichever proponents or opponents have the access to get the news media to quote them. Usually, the quotes will be about the costs or benefits of the decision, agreeing or disagreeing with how the mayor weighed them. If opponents are quoted at all, they may say something about how the mayor’s pursuit of safety and order may hurt people of color or about how the undercover unit won’t actually result in more safety under the facts as they see them. The issue, if any debate is presented at all, is performed as only having two sides, and genuine policy goals are portrayed as why one side won out over the other.
Virtually everyone quoted in these standard news stories will accept the premise that officials are trying to make a decision consistent with overall well-being, safety, and shared community values. And only extremely rarely will there be a source in a news article voicing a more critical perspective, such as that the mayor’s intentions are corrupt, that politicians and police are not primarily concerned with public safety but social control to preserve wealth, or that whatever their private motivations, the intentions of politicians are a poor way of understanding what kinds of policy options a mayor like Badams in a society like ours will eventually adopt.
b. The messy truth
But there are other ways to understand the decision to set up an undercover police unit. One could think that there are more basic conditions that, at varying levels of complexity, determine whether any given society creates such unit of armed government bureaucrats who disguise their identity from the public and who are designed specifically to patrol the poorest areas of a society that has been deliberately segregated based on wealth and skin color.1
For example, one could report on campaign contributions made by a real estate developer who wanted more undercover police surrounding an expensive new condo/mall development might influence the mayor’s decision. (Why might it be that low-level arrests, undercover arrests, and racial disparities tend to be higher in gentrifying areas?) Or the political power of a police union, and the ability of the police to threaten political opponents through targeted enforcement of low-level laws, surveillance, extortion, planted news stories, and huge budgets for PR campaigns to target any non-compliant politician.2 One might present facts showing that these interests have influenced similar decisions by over 50 years of Mayors since well before Badams was even a young circus clown (his position prior to becoming mayor).
On a deeper level, one could try to understand the decision to create an armed undercover squad to patrol poor neighborhoods by reporting on the various economic and cultural forces that lead certain kinds of people with certain kinds of worldviews to be the key aides for the mayor making the decision. Might the content of decisions be influenced by factors that determine who is selected for particular roles and what schools and social networks those people come from? Perhaps those groups of people have preferences, prejudices, financial interests, skills, and gaps in knowledge that lead to certain patterns in the policies they promote? One might even tell news consumers that the Chief of Staff to Badams went to the same boarding school as the lawyer for the developer.
But we could go deeper. We could notice the various forces that paid for the publication of a study by local professors on the economic benefits of selling off public lands to a private developer for the new condos, subsidized stadium, and shopping mall, and the hit those economic benefits might take from visible homelessness in the area. Or report that police surveillance companies donated to a non-profit to produce a report on the short-term benefits of more drug arrests on property values in the neighborhood. A reporter might even notice that the push for the new undercover unit came at the same time as the push for similar police units in 100 other cities which, in turn, came as a group of companies was trying to secure a new multi-billion dollar replacement market for a new surveillance technology and cloud-based predictive policing databases originally developed for use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
But then, observant journalists might also see even more deeply that the push for such units and for harsher sentencing laws for the contraband those units find on poor people was more significant in areas in which unemployment and poverty had increased in the previous five years. One might observe that increases in policing and prison investments follow increases in inequality, the decline in available health care, the scarcity of public housing, the fraying of community organizations and small businesses, and real-dollar declines in early childhood education investment.3 Indeed, when searching for explanations to offer readers, is it relevant to point out that police presence tends to be far higher in non-white communities when controlling for other factors, or that incarceration generally is higher in more unequal societies?4
Finally, on perhaps the deepest level, in explaining the creation of such an undercover police unit—or the rise of several hundred such units around the same historical period in several hundred cities—a journalist familiar with media narratives might think about the various cultural mythologies that help define concepts of what safety means, whose safety matters, what forms of inequality and suffering are tolerable, who deserves what, etc… A journalist might point out how conceptions of safety differ across societies and have differed at key historical moments—or even how they differ in election years, or even how safety is reported very differently right now in places with conservative district attorneys versus places with progressive district attorneys. Only very rarely does a news story inform news consumers of the facts necessary for them to understand various zeitgeist narratives as socially constructed themes rather than self-evident conventional wisdom.
When one starts to include discussion of these facts and structural conditions in news stories, news consumers start to develop different sorts of questions. Was the impetus for the new undercover police unit the result of a genuine realization by Badams of the public health benefits of locating unhoused people with mental illness through facial recognition software, or was it the pursuit of profit and the pressure to create a market for a technology already built? Is it relevant to the news reporting on the undercover unit’s creation that the local jail is now the largest provider of mental health services in many U.S. cities? Does the very construction of certain forms of technology or certain forms of bureaucratic organization create a path dependence toward certain policies? Or could it be the broader realization among affluent people in the neighborhood that their own property values and short-term comfort are served by construction of a new Whole Foods down the block and a new undercover police unit that will arrest people who don’t look like them? Or the myriad informal ways, through professional networks, school connections, personal friendships, dinner parties, favors owed, knowledge of how to navigate political channels, and so forth that combine to make the political preferences of this class of people who own things more consequential than the political preferences of poor people?
My point here in going through this hypothetical example is that the reasons major public safety policies happen are complex, and they usually have to do with power operating at various levels. Structural conditions determine the context within which people make decisions, including the very ability of people in power to perceive what decisions are technically and politically feasible.
One of the main functions of copaganda is to make well-meaning feel like people in power are working in good faith to make people’s lives safer—to address inequalities and reduce overall harm—even though in reality the interests that control what happens in U.S. politics do not support the kinds of structural changes necessary to hold the powerful accountable, to redistribute power and economic opportunity more democratically, or to materially improve the safety and well-being of the vast majority of human beings.
By focusing on good or bad intentions of individuals in power and not on background material realities, daily news hides this truth. In my view, this is the most salient thing about public safety and crime reporting in our society.
2) But what kinds of things is the news leaving out specifically?
One effect of the (misplaced) emphasis on stated intentions is that many journalists spend a lot of time covering the individual policy positions of particular government officials and prospective political candidates.
One might contrast this perspective with the approach of military defense contractors, the pharmaceutical industry, or the medical device and insurance industries, police unions, or essentially any other powerful national or local organized lobbying interest. These groups certainly spend resources to elect their preferred candidates, but they expend far more financial capital and strategic energy on ensuring that the difference between the range of viable candidates doesn’t matter as much to them. These groups, by and large, understand that real power and influence means creating the conditions under which their interests will be significantly served no matter who among the options perceived as viable is elected and, to a certain degree, no matter what that person’s stated policy positions in their campaign. They do this in many ways, and an essay on copaganda is not the place to be comprehensive because I am just gesturing at the idea here. But here are a few examples that illustrate the broader concept:
Defense contractors intentionally spread the reliance on multi-trillion dollar, decades-long contracts across hundreds of Congressional districts. In this way, boondoggles of hundreds of billions of dollars are perpetuated for generations because everyone understands that no Congressperson can vote against them. Making parts of an aircraft carrier or fighter jet program in over 100 cities is not done for efficiency or because it is the best way to “keep Americans safe”; it is done because it ensures the political imperative of perpetuating the contracts no matter what. This, more than any policy argument presented in the news, determines whether these programs exist or not.
As the useful new book The Big Con explains in detail, the multi-national consulting industry worked for decades to hollow out government capacity and expertise so that nearly every government function in our society now requires outsourcing contracts to private companies. This arrangement not only produces trillions in private wealth—a small fraction of which is then used to purchase political influence necessary to keep this process going—but it forever alters the capacity of local, state, and national governments to solve problems through public institutions, effectively determining in a multitude of ways what kinds of public programs are even possible by dictating where expertise lies, what technological systems can be built, who ultimately owns the rights to those systems and controls them, how those systems can integrate with other bespoke systems, and who understands enough to even procure such contracts, etc…5
Police unions insert contract provisions (often with willing government accomplices or incompetent government aides who, unlike the unions, are not sophisticated repeat players) that effectively make it illegal or prohibitively costly for subsequent governments to make certain reforms. The same thing happens with prosecutor unions, prison guard unions, and probation unions. In this way, entrenched bureaucracy can prevent meaningful reductions in their budgets while obscuring from the public the mechanisms by which they make sure that certain reforms can never really come to pass. Politicians can keep discussing their fervent desire for reforms, but everyone understands that many of the things being discussed are not possible without changing something none of them are talking about changing. Although news stories usually don’t discuss this when talking about reforms, it is one of the main reasons we are stuck in endless cycles of calls for reform. (To take just one example from recent news, calls for reforming the grotesque Los Angeles County jail and the wealth-based detention practices have been taking place for over 100 years.)
Many very rich people and corporations spend a lot of money to create ideological ecosystems to influence conventional wisdom. This includes decades-long efforts to fund university chairs, institutes, think tanks, conferences, retreats, trainings, op-ed writers, fellowships, research papers, awards, non-profits, etc… Similarly, they fund sophisticated accountability efforts to discipline and expose people who deviate from certain positions—this is a very important role that, say, the Federalist Society plays in the conservative political movement. Lawyers, judges, and professors know that they will be disciplined by this movement if they take a case, issue an opinion, or write an article/speech that deviates from the group. The results are profound distortions of the ideological rigor of knowledge production and debate in our society. This affects in a core way what kinds of research academics know they should do to advance their careers, what kinds of research and public statements people who want tenure should avoid, what kinds of articles journalists feel obligated to write, and what kinds of topics they never think of, a source rarely pitches to them, or that they know consciously to avoid. There are some great books and academic writing about this phenomenon, but it is largely absent from the daily news coverage that shapes the consciousness of ordinary people.
The police and various police allies, private investigators, and corporate operatives constantly threaten progressive politicians. As I’ve gotten to know many of them, I’ve been surprised at how pervasive this is: nearly every progressive local politician I know has been threatened, targeted, investigated, and surveilled. Some of them have been physically brutalized by police and are too afraid to speak out about it because they know how easy it is for “law enforcement” to target them or a loved one with some violation of some law at some point, or just to make their lives otherwise miserable. This is why, for example, it was such an effective political strategy for the Democratic District Attorney in Houston in recent years to raid the offices and indict her political opponents and their staffs, and also why the Los Angeles Sheriff raided the homes of his own oversight commission members. These actions are not isolated—they send powerful messages to progressive public officials about the kind of courage they will need if they want to do anything that meaningfully reduces the power of the punishment bureaucracy. This is such a widespread problem that it affects at a core level what nearly every progressive politician I’ve ever spoken with feels comfortable to say in public and feels comfortable to pursue in private.
When you start to notice what sets of reasons most daily news omits when trying to explain why politicians do things, a lot changes about how you view both why things happen and how we might bring about social change. One realizes that a constellation of material conditions determines things like:
What options are available for politicians to choose from
Which options officials perceive as available to them politically
Which options political officials conclude are advantageous for retaining power
How political officials are part of an ideological community—which thinks about the world a certain way and holds itself accountable with social pressure—that disciplines their behavior
What underlying forces ensure that a particular individual will be in a particular position
What social, cultural, bureaucratic, technological, and economic forces constrain the range of policies that almost any particular individual, no matter their true heart, can pursue.
I see this every day when talking to my family, journalists, students, and especially professors (who tend to be out of touch with how politics works). We are all left unmoored by the daily focus on individual intentions and policy tweaks. We become naïve about how power works; we have no clue about exactly how bureaucracy becomes sclerotic despite the best intentions of individual leaders; overestimate the value of good arguments/evidence in changing policy and underestimate the value of organizing; we lack an understanding of how our own intuitions, attitudes, beliefs, and actions are shaped by living in a world driven by maximizing individual profit and minimizing collective approaches to solving problems; and we are generally far too focused on the qualities or flaws in specific individuals in power or their policy proposal du jour and not focused nearly enough on the structural conditions in which any and all people in power operate.
To bring us back to the example in Part 1: Did the War on Drugs happen because morally good politicians genuinely believed it to be the best way to improve public health? Did it happen because morally bad politicians saw that it could give them political advantages? While most progressive people now believe some form of the latter, especially given the Nixon revelations, we can now see that this perspective misses something important: there were complex economic, political, and racial forces that made it beneficial and profitable to key ruling class interests to embark on the War on Drugs. And there were political, bureaucratic, and technological forces that made something like a “War on Drugs” possible as a choice for politicians.
It is that context that is vital in us understanding not just why the War on Drugs was started by Nixon, but why it continues, more expansive than ever, despite the fact that Nixon and his aides left office 40 years ago. It is impossible for a progressive person to fight meaningfully against the War on Drugs, or to accurately cover it as a journalist, without acknowledging this. But it is precisely this context that daily news reporting omits and distorts.
So, what should the news do instead?
I do not pretend to offer a blueprint for effective social change, although I spend a lot of time with colleagues trying to learn with each other about how we can use whatever skills and energy we have to pursue the most promising strategies for transformative change. I only mean to highlight the extent to which existing news coverage creates delusions among well-intentioned people who would like to change certain features of our society. I’m doing this because I don’t think we can change society under these delusional conditions. This leads to the question: what is to be done?
Some deception is inherent in the brevity required for daily news. I’m not suggesting that daily news stories be graduate courses in history or sociology or econometrics or critical race theory. I’m not suggesting that every article needs to be the length of one of Elizabeth Hinton’s or Naomi Murakawa’s great books on the deeper causes for the expansion of the carceral state. But media coverage also doesn’t have to be as deceptive as it usually is. It can play a role in developing people’s critical thinking, in cultivating a better sense of how power manifests in the context of decisions, and of revealing the complexity of the causal chain for why things happen. For example, a local news story could point people to places where they could learn more context and, above all, the news story could suggest that there is more important information to learn. Even that little introduction of humility would go a long way toward instilling a sense that there is more going on and that it relates to certain bigger material features of our world.
Instead, the news too often claims that it is providing “all the news that is fit to print.” This pretense to be providing “everything you need to know,” an actual slogan used by numerous outlets, is a thematic feature of the tone and content of much reporting on these issues:
Note all of the essential background information that the “paper of record” is telling their readers that they do not need to know. In this way, simplified and carefully curated news at the New York Times narrows our world view and then convinces us that this constrained picture of the world is all we "need" to know. If there was some other important reason powerful people did something like rolled back bail reform or increased the police budget or added thousands of cops to the subway and to schools, surely it would have been listed as something we “need to know.” Convincing people that what they have been told in a simplified, misleading news report is all they “need to know” is itself an important form of propaganda.
I encourage journalists and news consumers to apply these principles to an area they know a lot about, or to an issue that you work on. Does the daily news leave out important context that makes it misleading? What are all the various links, at each level of depth, along the causal chain that we can work toward shedding more light on when the news describes the issue? What are the interests who want to obscure those links?
With this in mind, when reporting on daily news stories about crime and public safety, journalists can improve by doing the following:
Introduce readers to as much background context as they can, including pointing more toward the history behind current decisions and not focusing exclusively on what a few people say are the policy reasons are for or against something. The more of the causal chain a story can include, the better equipped the consumer, especially if the article is reporting the superficial claims of powerful people about why something is being done.
Develop standard paragraphs and templates that can be inserted with appropriate revisions into most news stories. These should provide necessary background context that is specific to the issue being covered. (For example, an evergreen paragraph comparing incarceration statistics across countries or across U.S. historical periods for context, or comparing those to rates of inequality.) Stop pretending that decisions are being made in good faith based on safety, and report basic background evidence and history of each issue that helps people develop critical thinking skills for evaluating the context of what they are being told by officials: I’ve written up a beginner’s manual here.
Make an effort to gesture to the public that there are other places the public can learn about further context, and do a better job directing readers to sources where they can learn more deeply. Stop pretending that what is reported in the article is everything that one can know about an issue. Explicitly tell people they should learn more and where.
Show through story choice and framing that decisions by leaders and bureaucrats are political and based at least significantly on power, and not based solely on what the best arguments are. Remind readers in virtually every story that our political system and political choices it makes are taking place in the context of an extremely unequal society and that a vast consensus of empirical literature shows that decisions are influenced by who has wealth and power, not who makes the best argument about overall well-being.
Journalists who care about an informed public must do a better job understanding the political implications of decisions they make in the process of trying to simplify news stories for daily publication. Journalists are ultimately responsible for the fact that people are left without sufficient context to understand how particular decisions fit within a system of power relationships and, overall, that people are left with the impression that big decisions in our society are made far more democratically, and far more on the basis of good faith merit, than they actually are.
By improving our understanding of why good or bad public safety policies happen to happen, we can make better decisions about how to spend our careers and our precious free time pushing for change in a way that actually matters. Journalists would be better able to achieve their mission of informing people about how the world works, what are matters of consequence and what are matters of relative insignificance, and the field of journalism would have more importance for and connection to a participatory and directly democratic society.
How would this change all of us?
Reducing the scope of The Big Deception would have many positive consequences, including:
We would fall for political deception a lot less because we’d be able to critically evaluate the claims of politicians better. We would also have more accurate understandings of how much faith to put in individual politicians. In short, we would be more skeptical of leaders in general, including leaders we liked and supported, and be better able to hold them accountable over time.
We would be less focused on electoral politics, and more interested in organizing to build relationships, economic arrangements,6 and institutions that change the underlying context within which electoral actors operate. We would be better able to guard against capture by powerful interests and to write laws, rules, and regulations to guard against anti-democratic forces.
We would better appreciate the dangers posed by large corporate and state bureaucracies given the inevitable and often intangibly complex ways they can distort public opinion, political incentives, technological innovation, and knowledge production.
Non-profits with social justice missions and funders of non-profits with social justice missions would be less focused on (but not entirely unfocused on this because they remain important!) discrete policy change proposals and “evidence-based research” reports to study certain problems and meaningfully more focused on building political power and effective implementation strategies.
One could do the same analysis with SWAT teams. When the LAPD created the country’s first “SWAT” team in 1969, it’s very first target was the Black Panthers headquarters, which it attacked with 350 officers and military weapons. Now there are tens of thousands of raids every year by tens of thousands of SWAT teams across the country, the vast majority of which target poor people and people of color.
Good investigative journalism gets at these complexities, which is one reason it is so vital to any notion of genuine democracy.
As Michelle Alexander famously pointed out in The New Jim Crow, during the Clinton administration, federal funding for public housing went down by $17 billion and federal funding for prisons increased by a little over the same amount.
For reading generally on the political economy of prison expansion and carceral bureaucracy, I recommend Judah Shept’s excellent new book Coal, Cages, Crisis, which discusses the construction of hundreds of new prisons built in rural Appalachia between 1980 and 2000. I also recommend Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s classic Golden Gulag about similar phenomena in California and beyond.
As I pointed out recently, this is one reason that allied forces after World War II handed lucrative contracts to IBM despite IBM’s central role in the Nazi crimes against humanity. The result? IBM made unprecedented amounts of money using the very same machines to help allied governments as it had just used to help the Nazis.
I recommend the work of Gar Alperovitz, especially his short fun book America Beyond Capitalism for a discussion of simple, feasible, creative ways of democratizing ownership in our society.