The two institutions have become so ensnared in a symbiotic web of lies that the news media are unable to tell the public what is true and the government is unable to govern effectively.
That is the thesis advanced by Paul H. Weaver, a former political scientist at Harvard University , journalist at Fortune magazine , and corporate communications executive at Ford Motor Company , in his provocative analysis entitled News and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Works. Journalists and politicians have become ensnared in a symbiotic web of lies that misleads the public.
Take, for example, the long effort in the s to eliminate the federal deficit, centered on the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Amendment. For several years, newspapers, magazines, and television newscasts ran hundreds of stories on the debates over Gramm-Rudman, the views of all sorts of experts on the urgent need for deficit reduction, and the eventual enactment of the legislation. Politicians postured—and were described—as working diligently to get a grip on the deficit.
Anyone who read a newspaper or watched television news received the message that Congress and the Reagan administration were heroically and painfully struggling to contain government spending and reduce the deficit. Behind the smoke screen, however, congressional committees and federal officials were increasing spending and adding new programs in the routine annual budgeting and appropriations processes.
When journalists reported on a new program, they usually characterized it as good news—the government tackling another problem—rather than as an addition to the budget and the deficit. Journalists conspired with politicians to create an image of a government fighting to end the deficit crisis, but they ignored the routine procedures that increased the deficit. The news media and the government have created a charade that serves their own interests but misleads the public.
Journalists dutifully report those fabrications. Both parties know the articles are self-aggrandizing manipulations and fail to inform the public about the more complex but boring issues of government policy and activity. What has emerged, Weaver argues, is a culture of lying. It is the medium through which we Americans conduct most of our public business and a lot of our private business these days. Pulitzer accomplished that by bringing drama to news—by turning news articles into stories with a plot, actors in conflict, and colorful details.
In the late nineteenth century, most newspaper accounts of government actions were couched in institutional formats, much like the minutes of a board meeting and about as interesting. Pulitzer turned them into stories with a sharp dramatic focus that both implied and aroused intense public interest. Most newspapers of the time looked like the front page of the Wall Street Journal still does. Pulitzer made stories dramatic by adding blaring headlines, big pictures, and eye-catching graphics.
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His journalism took events out of their dry, institutional contexts and made them emotional rather than rational, immediate rather than considered, and sensational rather than informative. The press became a stage on which the actions of government were a series of dramas. The rise of television has increased the demand for drama in news, and the explosion in lobbyists and special-interest groups has expanded the number of actors and the range of conflicts.
Business had to learn to play the game as well. Indeed, in recent decades, roughly since the founding of the Business Roundtable in the late s, many companies have become adept at promoting the version of reality they want the public and government officials to believe. Weaver himself was hired at Ford as, in effect, a corporate propagandist. As a result, business has become a prominent player in the manipulation of perception and in the corruption of the public policy process.
When President Jimmy Carter asked the largest corporations to limit wage and price increases to contain inflation in , most Ford Motor executives were cynical and thought the move would make inflation worse. The two stories, or realities, were often wildly at odds with each other. In the real world, the role of the press was to promote public illusions and private privilege.
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The press prints the news but not the truth. It reports in detail the competing propaganda of the conflicting interests but largely neglects the substance of the issue in conflict. A recent example is the coverage of the health care debate. Of the 68 reports on health care reform, 56 focused on political aspects, and only 12 dealt with the economic or individual impacts of various proposals, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. Personalities are more compelling than institutions, facts are often uncertain, attention spans and television sound bites are brief, and simplification—often oversimplification—is the norm.
One is that news can change perceptions, and perceptions often become reality. Adverse leaks or innuendos about a government official often lead to his or her loss of influence, resignation, or dismissal. The stock market is also fertile ground for planted stories. The subjects of such reports, which are usually fabrications created by opponents, must be prepared to defend themselves instantly. The mere appearance of a disparaging report in the press changes perceptions and, unless effectively rebutted, will change reality and the truth.
That is why government officials and politicians—and, increasingly, companies and other institutions—pay as much attention to communications as to policy. Indeed, much of what appears in the newspapers as business news is nothing more than corporate propaganda. When I was an executive at a large public-relations agency, I was often amused to observe how many of the stories in the Wall Street Journal and the business section of the New York Times were essentially news releases the agency had issued the previous day.
On some days, most of the stories were clearly identifiable as coming—some nearly word for word—from announcements by corporations or government agencies.
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In an environment in which perceptions can quickly affect policy, companies need to be as alert and aggressive as politicians, government officials, and other interest groups are in ensuring that their positions are favorably represented in the media. New technology can often help them respond quickly to challenges, accusations, or misstatements. An incident that happened when I managed communications for a large global bank illustrates the ability of organizations to influence the presentation of news and hence the perceptions of the public and of government officials.
A Wall Street Journal reporter finished interviewing bank officials on a complex and sensitive matter at about 5 p. Three hours later, at 8 a. As people begin to realize that they are being misled, manipulated, and lied to, they resent it. From to , only Congress fell further in public esteem than the press, according to surveys of public confidence by the University of Michigan.
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The decline in confidence reflects a widening feeling that the news media are contentious, unfair, inaccurate, and under the thumb of powerful institutions, a survey by Gallup for the Times-Mirror Center for the People and the Press concluded. The focus on the politics of Gramm-Rudman obscured the fact that, for complex institutional reasons, government spending and deficits were continuing to rise.
The savings-and-loan debacle of the s became so large and costly because the press was unable to focus on it until it became a crisis. The legislative mistakes and policy failures that had caused it were too complex, too hard to explain, and too boring. Until there was a rash of savings-and-loan failures, enabling the press to show front-page pictures of angry depositors trying to withdraw their money, there was no news and no crisis, and government was unable to respond. In his amusing and anecdotal book Who Stole the News?
Coups and earthquakes, he says, are what editors want to report. Yet few U. What we learn about foreign news is as dependent on crises and dramatic pictures as our domestic news is. Weaver makes a similar point. Contents pp. Acknowledgments pp. Beirut pp.
Part I: Overseas pp.
Chapter One: No Building Collapsed pp. Chapter Two: Christmas Presents pp. Chapter Four: Line of Death pp. Chapter Five: Welcome to Tripoli pp. Chapter Six: Call the Palace pp. Chapter Eight: Two Endings pp. Part II: Washington pp.
Chapter Nine: Face Down in the Mud pp.