More on propaganda

Via this piece at True Sailing Is Dead, I came across this post:

 The curious case of 200 nearly identical MSM headlines

The following headlines have appeared in newspapers within the last 24 hours. This is not an inclusive list.

• Third of Illinoisans went without health insurance in last 2 years: Sun-Times
• Report: 2.5M in Michigan lacked health insurance: Chicago Tribune
• Study: 29% of Ohioans have gone without health insurance: BizJournals
• Report: More NJ residents lacking health insurance: Forbes
• Study: Many Kansans are uninsured: BizJournals
• Report tallies uninsured in Hawaii: KPUA AM 670
• Study: 1 in 3 Alabamians have no insurance: BizJournals
• 1 out of 4 NH residents lacked health insurance within last two years: WBZ
• 1 out of 3 Coloradans lacked insurance in past two years: Denver Post
• Nearly 1 in 3 Idahoans lack health insurance, study says: Idaho Statesman
• One in four nonelderly Minnesotans has been without health insurance, study shows: Twin Cities
• 1 in 3 are uninsured in Georgia, study says: Augusta Chronicle
• 1.3 million Louisiana residents uninsured: Independent
• Millions in N.C. lack health plan: Winston-Salem Journal
• Uninsured are mostly working: Sun-Herald
• Nearly one-third of Wyoming residents went without health insurance in past two years: Wyoming Tribune
• Report finds health insurance lacking in W.Va.: Charleston Gazette
• Nearly 1/3 Of Kentuckians Uninsured Says Report: WFPL Radio
• REPORT: 254K Rhode Islanders Uninsured at Some Point from 2007-2008: ABC 6
(links dropped)

The post goes on to claim

Data from the Census Bureau debunks the lie continually promoted by the mainstream media of the legendary 47 million uninsured Americans:
• 9.5 million people are illegal aliens
• 8.3 million uninsured people are those who make between $50,000 and $74,999 per year and choose not to purchase insurance
• 8.7 million uninsured people are those who make over $75,000 a year and choose not to purchase insurance

Clearly the 200 headlines are propaganda in the sense I wrote about a few days back. And probably also in the sense of being misinformation specially designed to push an agenda (I do not have the energy to try to verify the figures). Putting aside the truth of the figures and my disagreement with the goal – nationalization of healthcare – this propaganda is intended to achieve, how does one judge the propaganda? Al (of True Sailing is Dead) writes

These papers did not randomly all come to the same conclusion on the same day. This “news” was obviously released into the mainstream to coincide with (surprise!) President Obama’s push for Universal Healthcare. Not saying it’s good or bad, just that it’s going on, and as a news consumer you can either accept that the “news” you read is the result of good old fashioned journalistic integrity or you can say “wait a minute” and realize that you’re being played by a national propaganda machine.

It’s propaganda, and it’s not a suitable purpose for any news publication to pursue. Yet it’s done constantly. Incessantly. Pervasively. And you don’t even know it.
Or maybe you do know it. Maybe you do.
Do you?

The proper purpose of a news organization is to publish news and perhaps to provide commentary on it. But what constitutes news? A working definition could be: an event that is seen as significant. But that raises questions like significant to whom? By  what standard? (Also read Burgess Laughlin’s post on bias) It is clear that the world view of the person(s) determining whether or not to highlight a particular event will determine what constitutes news. And since a news organization can only publish so many items at a time, it will have to prioritize, i.e, it may not publish a news item as soon as it occurs but at a time of its choosing. Getting back to the specific concrete at hand, what Al seems bothered about is the fact that a number of media organizations decided to publish findings in a concerted manner in an attempt to influence people. This could be called strategy or it could be called propaganda (negative moral judgement in the common usage of the word). Calling it stategy acknowledges the fact that people can and should form worldviews, can and should look for moral significance in events, can and should try to act in a manner that they judge to be in their best interests. Calling it propaganda (in the usual negative sense) implies a desire that the people in media should never form moral judgements or atleast that they should not allow their moral judgements to influence their decisions about whether and when to publish certain items and whether to coordinate with others in doing so. But this is an impossibility. Men necessarily act in accordance with their moral judgements and just because someone is in the media, does not mean that he can (or should) act like a robot. This desire is analogous to wanting a physical body to behave without inertia. Here it is mental inertia.

It might seem that I am making too much of a minor semantic difference. But, behind the negative connotation associated with the word propaganda is a major flawed idea that manifests itself in other ways too. It is the idea that the pursuit of truth or knowledge, the forming of judgements, objectivity etc are ends in themselves. They are not. They are means to live ones’ life. If they are seen as ends, then the pursuit of one’s life is seen as an impediment, something that might make the pursuit of truth less pure by tainting it with a purpose. It is the idea that leads to other ideas like “Media should be free from commercial influences”, “Science should be free from the bounds of practicality of its applications”, “The mystic who spends his life waiting for a revelation is on a higher plane than a person who lives a normal life.” (There might be others that I have not identified).

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