Lies, Spin and Video Tape: How PR Changes Political Reality

covington-native-elderIn “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye notes that you should “believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.” Skepticism can be healthy, especially when it comes to critically thinking about those ideas or values held as “common sense” or “received wisdom.” Other times, however, skepticism can be dangerous, especially when it comes to things that contradict our own biases. The United States has already witnessed in recent memory President Donald Trump dismissing reality when it contradicts his interests, attacking “fake news” and promoting “alternative facts.” This brand of “post-truth politics” has intensified to the point that even clearly obvious conclusions drawn from empirical evidence—such as the crowd size at Trump’s 2017 inauguration—may be “interpreted” differently, although what interpretation you draw from that event largely coincides with your own political beliefs and personal prejudices.

Just this year alone, two videos have made shockwaves in U.S. politics. The first came in January, when footage was posted online showing white teenagers from Covington Catholic high school in Kentucky wearing pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” mocking Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder and activist, outside the Lincoln Memorial. The image of one particular teenager, Nick Sandmann, sneering with utmost confidence in the face of Phillips, was poised to become as iconic as others in U.S. history. There was outage on social media, as this incident seemed to embody everything dangerous and immoral about the state-sanctioned racism promoted by Trump and his Republican allies. Here was evidence that white children in this country were feeling emboldened to illustrate their bigotry and hated by chanting at and herding around a solitary old man. That Phillips is Native American also invoked the decades of cruelty and deceit employed by the U.S. government in the forced relocation and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples stretching back to the earliest days of our history.

sandmann-guthrie_810_500_75_s_c1A counter-narrative soon formed. Right-wingers began claiming that the video was “edited” to make the teenagers look bad, that “context” was needed to understand what happened. The argument was that the teenagers were abused by Black Israelites, a religious group known for being provocative, and so the teenagers were simply standing up for themselves. This does not justify, however, why Sandmann and others leering at and harassing Phillips, who is independent of the Black Israelites. Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm and went on a media tour, claiming that he was “praying” while smirking at Phillips in a confrontational matter. Of course, Sandmann made himself out to be the victim when, just days before, he was widely acknowledged as an aggressor.

The mainstream media subsequently fell over itself rushing to claim Sandmann was indeed the real victim and to throw Phillips under the bus. This, they claimed, was an error of rushing to judgment, of not knowing all the facts before conclusions were made. Unlike Trump’s 2017 inauguration, where the crowd sizes were obviously small, the case of Phillips and the MAGA hat-wearing teenagers boiled down to something that had to be interpreted: the motivations of Sandmann and the other teenagers. Since some people were arguing that the motivation of the teenagers was not to target Phillips but to “defend” themselves from the words of the Black Israelites, the media backed down. It did not matter that the teenagers did Tomahawk chops at Phillips, that they yelled at him, or treated him with contempt and condescension, despite him being completely separate from the Black Israelites. It is pretty obvious that the kids from Covington Catholic saw and treated Phillips with the same disdain they had for the Black Israelites, the sort of arrogant disdain that only those in power can illustrate to the powerless.

feinsten_green_new_dealMore recently, a video has surface of Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California showing some disdain of her own, in this instance to a group of grade-school students who came to her office to ask she support the Green New Deal. Organized by the Sunrise Movement, the students noted how their generation stands to deal with the worst effects of global warming, and that the Green New Deal represented bold and dramatic action to address the issue. With smugness to rival Sandmann, Feinstein lectured the students on the length of her service, her legislative achievements, dismissing their activism. Again, the initial social media reaction was anger: Here was a group of children choosing to be civically engaged, to act on an issue important to them, and instead their engagement was treated as a nuisance by a careerist politician uninterested in anyone unable to donate to her campaigns or influence her vote. Just as the video of Sandmann and Phillips was emblematic of contemporary racism in the U.S., Feinstein talking down to a group of activist students manifested the irresponsiveness and ego prevalent among Democratic establishment elites to grassroot calls to adopt more left-wing policies.

CaptureThis time, it was centrists and moderates who claimed that the video was “edited,” that additional “context” was needed. Sure enough, it was revealed that the Sunrise Movement had indeed edited down the video—because they had to conform to Twitter requirements on video length. They uploaded and shared the full video on Facebook, but this fact was ignored. The “alternative fact” was that Sunrise Movement was a dangerous group trying to make Democrats look bad in pursuit of their own personal agenda, which would have the end result of helping Trump and the Republicans win in upcoming elections. (It does not seem to matter to these people that the Green New Deal is itself a Democratic proposal, and so far, the only credible one that actually offers solutions to climate change and the disastrous consequences it will have on the world.)

The full unedited video does not all change Feinstein’s demeanor toward the children; it is undeniable that rather than employing tact or admitting her role in failing to address climate change, she became defensive and angry at being questioned on the issue. Some have pointed to her offering an internship to the kids as a point in her favor; of course, to those of us who are not naïve, she was briefly dangling a carrot in addition to the verbal stick she was using in blithely waving them off. It is also rather telling that Feinstein (or her communications team) went to Twitter to do damage control by saying the students were heard “loud and clear,” although this was obviously not Feinstein’s language (bodily and in words) when she actually met and talked with the students.

In both cases, the appeal to “more context” and making it an issue of interpretation forced the media to retreat, to go from presenting something as obviously one way to a more neutral “it’s complicated,” or in some cases to another full-throated “we were wrong to rush to judgment.” For the media, the need to appear fair and balanced as well as not to alienate political insiders who give them access drives them to call their own news “fake” and then patiently wait for it to disappear from the news cycle. For them, the surge in clicks and viewers when the story first broke and the goodwill they earn in protecting the powerful more than makes up for the damage done to their credibility.

In each incident the footage came not from journalists themselves, but from activists or regular people on the ground. Cell phone cameras mean that elites cannot control where and when cameras are pointed, so when video gets out that is damaging, a common PR ploy is to doubt the veracity of the footage and the people responsible for it. Then comes the appeal to “facts” that aren’t clear or to ulterior motives and hidden agendas. The more powerful the people under attack, the more concentrated the counter-narrative becomes, until at last the masses are doubting what they saw with their own eyes.

More videos like these will emerge in the extremely near future. This is certain because the contempt in the two videos—whether it be racist hatred from smug white people, or careerist conceit toward “non-experts”—is indeed widespread in our society. Just because PR tactics have down watered these videos and their powerful messages does not mean that the underlying sickness is not there; it just means that the symptoms are being covered up. An increasing number of U.S. citizens are waking up to the rot within our culture and the corruption within the establishment, and the suave maneuverings of spin doctors and communications directors cannot hold the masquerade forever.



Controlling the Message, Controlling the World: From Vietnam to Venezuela

320px-protestas_en_venezuela_-_2_feb_2019_280429In 1973, the Chilean Armed Forces—with support from the U.S. government—overthrew the democratically elected left-wing Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) administration of President Salvador Allende. Now, in 2019, another U.S.-backed coup is taking place in Latin America, this time against President Nicolas Maduro and the Chavismo movement. We now know from declassified documents that U.S. involvement in the 1973 Chilean coup runs very deep indeed, not just regarding CIA covert operations but instructions from then-President Richard Nixon to “make the [Chilean] economy scream” and to isolate Allende’s government diplomatically. With the U.S. imposing new sanctions on Venezuela (essentially banning it from profiting from its one major export, oil) as well as recognizing National Assembly President Juan Guaido as “interim president” (Guaido swore himself in and has no constitutional claim to the office), it is plain to see history repeating itself, with the U.S. using the same dirty tactics as before.

299px-the_president27s_news_conference2c_23_march_1961Despite the parallels to Chile in 1973, it is also useful to look farther back to another episode of U.S. intervention, the Vietnam War. In 1949, the “loss of China” to the Chinese Communist Party created a great deal of concern in the core capitalist countries, especially the U.S. In the 19th century, China had gone from the largest economy in the world to being exploited by the major empires of the time (primarily by the British Empire, but later an Eight-Nation Alliance including the U.S.). In the Western mentality, then, China “belonged” to the West, and its declaration of independence from Western domination represented a significant, preventable “loss.” This was all the more poignant because the U.S. and its allies had just fought a war to defeat Japanese imperialism in East Asia so as to restore Western hegemony in the region. There emerged a fear that if several countries shook free from Western control that this would lead the entire region to do so: the so-called “domino theory.” Hence, the U.S. became increasingly more involved in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, fearful that the Vietnamese national independence movement, the Viet Minh, would take “French Indochina” out of the Western sphere of control and inspire similar efforts in other countries. (This contradicted the 1941 Atlantic Charter, drafted in part by the U.S., which had claimed self-determination and self-government were U.S. objectives.)

320px-27ranch_hand27_runThe Vietnamese War is often described as a North Vietnamese victory because it achieved Vietnamese reunification under a socialist government. In terms of viewing Vietnam as an alternative model for development outside U.S.-approved policy prescriptions, however, no one would describe Vietnam as a good one. Quite deliberately, the U.S. destroyed not just Vietnam but the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, leaving somewhere between 1 million and 4 million dead civilians. Over 40 years after the war, Agent Orange still permeates the local ecosystem, causing cancer, birth defects, and extreme neurological disorders among the region’s population (the U.S. sprayed more than 75 million liters of various herbicides over the three countries between 1961 and 1971). The countries of Indochina have yet to fully recover, but they were not economic powerhouses to begin with; again, the fear was that development outside U.S. hegemony would spread to more resource-rich countries like Burma, Malaysia, and especially Indonesia. In 1967, when the military dictator Suharto seized power in Indonesia and started massacring communists (described in the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing), the true “threat” to U.S. empire was largely removed.

320px-mpoty_2012_flag-draped_coffin_joint_base_pearl_harbor-hickamThe Vietnam War was only a failure for the U.S. government because of the substantial number of U.S. military personnel killed there, as well as its inability to regulate the mass media in its coverage of the war. Simultaneously, there was a great deal of unrest in Western societies over civil rights, economic justice, equality for women, and more. By 1968, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the senior military leaders who advise the U.S. government) were concerned about whether there were sufficient forces to address widespread “civil disorder” in the country. Therefore, the “Wise Men” who counseled President Lyndon Johnson urged him to start pulling out. (Notably, however, the 1968 My Lai massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese by soldiers of the 23rd Infantry Division was covered not by the mainstream media, but by freelancer Seymour Hersh). Since the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. has generally avoided “putting boots on the ground” in its interventions; the image of flag-draped coffins or dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through streets has become a regular public relations nightmare for almost every U.S. president since. This has led to an increasing use of assassinations with drones combined with age-old tactics like sending “military advisers” to our proxies and allies. notable, however, is the uniformity with which the modern mass media covers U.S. foreign policy (or in other words, our wars). Starting with the first Gulf War, the Department of Defense began “embedding” journalists with U.S. forces so the military could better control what reporters saw, heard, and learned. As in politics, the media surrendered their impartiality and traded favorable coverage for access. Shots of bombs falling on Baghdad make for great ratings, but you can only get them if the Pentagon tells you when and where to point the camera. Finally, being shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary soldiers persuaded journalists to cover the military in good faith; if they did anything wrong, it must have been a few “bad apples,” not a product of official policy. Thus, the U.S. military personnel are represented as the protagonists, whereas the people of Iraq are either shadowy antagonists or, more often, bit players in a war for control of their own country. In John Pilger’s 2010 documentary film, The War You Don’t See, former CBS news anchor Dan Rather stated that the U.S. government made “stenographers out of [the media]” and that journalists dampened criticism to appear patriotic, especially in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

320px-100_0074r_281741170481229The 9/11 attacks did create a spike in U.S. nationalism, but let us also remember the degree to which the U.S. entertainment industry has collaborated with the Pentagon to redeem militarism and national chauvinism after the Vietnam War. Such a relationship, of course, goes back to Frank Capra’s Why We Fight film series, commissioned by the U.S. government as World War II propaganda, and ha continued through the Vietnam War, with John Wayne’s 1968 movie, The Green Berets, the classic example of anti-communist pro-interventionist media evangelism. The Pentagon supplied everything from authentic uniforms to attack helicopters. Some recent examples of these are obvious, such as 2013’s Lone Survivor or 2014’s American Sniper (glorifying a U.S. Navy SEAL marksman). In 2017, however, it was learned over 1,1000 TV shows had some form of assistance from the U.S. armed forces in their production, from Ice Road Truckers to Army Wives (the CIA had collaborated in 60 film and TV shows since 1947, at least officially). Ironically, the popularity of the 2019 Russian WWII action movie T-34 has been described in the U.S. media as “propaganda” full of “big, dumb, computer-generated jingoism” that is differentiated from similar Hollywood films because, it is argued, the state-sponsorship is larger and more apparent. Another significant difference, omitted in U.S. reviews, is that T-34 dramatizes the existential struggle of the Soviet people for their own existence against Nazi Germany, whereas a film like American Sniper centers on the inner conflict reaped by Chris Kyle in his reaping of souls. We are meant to feel sympathetic for the invader and the aggressor, as is true even of ostensibly anti-war films like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. While it may be propaganda, T-34 at least celebrates the Soviet triumph after the brutal, genocidal war of annihilation launched on them by Hitler. Lone Survivor and American Sniper, however, seek to depoliticize U.S. invasions and focus on the courage and sacrifice of the U.S. soldier. In the same way that the German armed forces of WWII became disassociated from Hitler and the Nazi Party by Western military historians, the U.S. entertainment industry fuels militarism and jingoism outside the political sphere.

In this way the U.S. public (journalists included) are conditioned to depoliticize their coverage of conflicts and to especially gravitate to “human interest” stories from the armed forces. The stories of Afghani and Iraqi civilians, however, are not told, just as they were not told during the Vietnam War. Even more importantly, the conditions and conflicts in these regions of the world are never explained; it is simply taken for granted that the “ignorant masses” could not find these countries in an atlas, much less be interested in their history. The reality, however, is the public cannot know; the amount of information already freely available online is a hazard to elites. To disseminate the very information that could lead the people to develop nuanced views and opinions on foreign policy is simply not in elites’ interest. Thus, we are presented with a tight and simple narrative with “good guys,” “bad guys,” and then the U.S., always on the side of the “good guys.” Given the complexity and confusion of life in our own country, it is little wonder that our view of the world has all the intricacy of a Saturday morning cartoon.

In the case of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, Nicolas Maduro, and their movement are characterized as socialist demagogic authoritarians who have brought the country to economic disaster. There is no mention of the “Lost Decade” of the 1980s or the extensive corruption scandals of the 1990s, creating the very breakdown of the status quo that made the rise of Chavez possible. Pre-Chavez Venezuela is presented as stable and prosperous, and while it certainly was before the 19980s, like most capitalist countries in the underdeveloped world, the majority of its population lived in poverty, while only a privileged few enjoyed the benefits of the country’s oil riches. Chavez’s cardinal crime was to direct those riches toward helping the poor, which even his critics admit he did. Complaints about authoritarianism and the quashing of dissent ring hollow when the U.S. just conducted a major sales deal with Saudi Arabia, a repressive monarchy that only just months ago had one of its most prominent critics, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Turkey. It is also risible to expect either Chavez or Maduro to have diversified the economy, fulfilled their promises to help the poor, and heal the country’s social divisions while the Venezuelan opposition was simultaneously attempting to overthrow their democratically-elected governments (with not-so-clandestine U.S. support). Yet this is implied in U.S. media coverage as the path they should have taken, and no alternative view is investigated or offered. The question is never whether the U.S. intervention is just or unjust, but is only debated in pragmatic terms: Is it affordable? What is the exit strategy? How does it poll with the electorate?

In 2008, Democratic candidate Barack Obama proudly touted his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War. His opposition, however, was not against military aggression per se but that the war was “rash” and “based not on reason but on passion.” He made a point of saying he was not opposed to wars, only “dumb wars.” In 1968, the idea of a “smart war” would have been contentious in the U.S. The most intelligent option, obviously, would be to avoid war altogether, especially given the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. Such a view threatened the very military-industrial complex that characterizes the U.S. economy; it would hardly make sense to construct and sell so many military jets if doing so was not seen as a national priority. In the 1980s, even as it entered terminal decline, the Soviet Union once more became the international bogeyman, rationalizing ever-increasing Pentagon budget increases. Nothing changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union; the supposed sophistication of underdeveloped countries and non-state actors meant that NATO, SETO, and the dozens of aircraft carriers had to stay. In fact, more were needed, as were military commands in Sub-Saharan Africa, etc., ad nauseum.

While having inexplicably giving intervention in Syria a pass, Trump has embraced playing “world police” in Venezuela. There is the obvious explanation that Venezuela is a major oil exporter while Syria is not, but it is also probable that Trump takes some delight in the ideological anti-communist nature of the coup attempt, given the most strident opposition to his far-right politics and the alt-right have come from the radical left. It is likely, however, that positioning himself as the alternative to socialism will do little other than validate the stark dichotomy of “socialism or barbarism” Rosa Luxemburg once put to her readers. Unfortunately, whatever the developments in U.S. politics, the real victims here are the ordinary people of Venezuela. Whether Maduro goes or stays, the classes at war within the country will not be pacified, especially with the U.S. stoking the fires until it gets the outcome it wants: a return to the plunder of Venezuelan resources to fuel U.S. industries while most Venezuelans wallow in misery.