Published on 9/1/22 at billschmitt.substack.com.
The prescient 1977 book Mediaworld, written by John M. Phelan, who taught my Broadcasting 101 course at Fordham, defined propaganda as “the control of behavior through the control of belief.” Phelan wrote, “The evil of propaganda is not that it is false. It is its indifference to the very question of truth. Human expression is seen merely as a means, as an instrument, to get people to do what is desired.”
Phelan rightly complained that the understanding of “issues” has changed. Politicians, along with media and marketing practitioners, have reacted to a more complex world and a widespread materialism that tends to dehumanize and manipulate audiences. They have also helped to infect public discourse with a propaganda state of mind, and we all have played a part.
In the old days, my media studies professor argued, issues emerged at clear crisis points to help shape communities into “purposeful publics” that would seek out and debate relevant information, leading to a decision on how to solve a particular problem. Issues could be phrased crisply: Shall we do this or that? Fish or cut bait!
Then dawned the era of “programming the public,”according to Phelan. Political candidates—especially at levels beyond local government—adopted stands “not on issues of policy, but on deeply divisive cultural clashes of fundamental principles” and the values with which people identified, such as anti-sexism, counterculturalism, or free enterprise. With help from advocacy groups, lobbyists, and others, it seems we started paying attention less to the issue at hand and more to the lenses through which we could see and experience the issue.
(This foreshadowed Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous statement in a 1990s Supreme Court decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”)
Phelan observed: “Issues were beginning to melt and fade into vague wraiths of attitudes toward the meaning of life in general.” Specific policy questions became “promptings for the public unveiling of personality traits—compassion, sincerity, vigor, wit, intelligence.”
This disconnection from the virtues of wisdom and participative problem-solving fostered propaganda as a higher priority. Now, the goal is not to win over hearts and minds with facts, but to “manipulate drives and needs” through mechanistic assumptions about what the “public” will respond to, what “product” they will buy to find relief, and where they will place blame.
Those marketing these products/programs/candidates/ideas to generate alliances, Phelan said, tend to see the people they influence as children to be guided, rather than unique, valued individuals who deserve to be informed, served, and empowered.
Accountability wanes. What’s more, if the propagandistic “easy answer” fails to yield the promised improvement, the next step is to point a finger toward a segment of the public so that the product and its marketers escape blame. “Whatever is said effectively” becomes the “truth,” and morality is defined as “the assigning of responsibility to others.”
Phelan foresaw today’s retreat into inauthentic, performative leadership: “Politicians perform for audiences who will mark them on their charm and, above all, on their sincerity.” Imagine him putting air-quotes around “sincerity.”
As I reread these pages in Mediaworld recently, I pondered how principles of civic duty, healthy debate, and robust democracy are in conflict with propaganda. Ironically, propaganda itself has become a hot topic; back-and-forth allegations of thought-manipulation, domestic and foreign, sometimes garner more attention than the realities being assaulted.
Can we observe the propaganda state of mind as a factor in the pandemic-management controversies which have arisen since 2020? When some government leaders took aggressive stands on masks, injections, and lockdowns, did they aim to promote hopeful obedience by projecting strong governance and infallible expertise?
Did they over-perform the trait of certitude despite the ongoing stream of scientific doubts and incomplete information about Covid developments”? Could they have tried harder to boost knowledge, solidarity, and encouragement at the grass roots by calibrating their exercises of power and controls on information to the latest discoveries, mysteries, and needs for reasoned resilience?
Perhaps in an age that has lost its ability to define issues in a constructive binary way, we are clumsy in our attempts to “meet the moment” of crisis. When are urgent mandates and stark decisions called for? When is it time to take a pause and avoid jumping to the most negative conclusions?
Governments need to trust their citizens, and vice versa, but this comes from seeing reason and prudence at work. Leaders who pander may get rewarded for treating the public as children. But, without honesty and moderation on both sides, the public will resent being treated like kids, whether it be spoiling them rotten or imposing disciplines they do not understand.
Civics courses of the future should include careful study of books about the qualities of true leadership. Those qualities usually include possessing and sharing a meaningful vision, as well as a sense of purposeful teamwork. Our media world has imparted false lessons. Keeping up appearances and forming unproductive alliances are insufficient strategies for surviving tough times.
Along with books on “how to be a leader,” I would recommend that any up-to-date civics class also study John Phelan’s Mediaworld from 1977.
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