Last Thursday, Islamist website RNN leaked a top-secret 6-minute video obtained from “sources in the military.” As the New York Times reported, the video depicts “senior Egyptian Army officers debating how to influence the news media during the months preceding the military takeover” and “offers a rare glimpse of the anxiety within the institution at the prospect of civilian oversight.” While they have been achieving “better results,” Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi says in the video that they haven’t reached what they want. (Note: seriously, read this article if you’re interested in media. It’s fascinating)
But propaganda is not a recent invention, though its manipulative messages have become even more cloaked in recent decades, thanks to social psychology research into effective techniques. In addition, as the officers say in the video, the Egyptian government has a history of manipulation of the press, as do China, Russia, Japan, and Great Britain (among many others). But although these instances may affect our country’s foreign relations and our perception of global events, because we have a democracy and freedom of the press, our domestic news media is safe, right? Actually, wrong.
In 2008, the New York Times successfully sued the U.S. Department of Defense, gaining access to more than 8,000 pages of records, from transcripts to e-mail messages, describing a multi-year effort that the military called a “talking points operation.” The result: this article, detailing the process by which the Pentagon hired “surrogates” or “message force multipliers” who would appear in the media as un-biased “military analysts.” However, the cost of unparalleled access to military secrets and additional financial compensation was an agreement to spin the situation positively, in favor of the American military. Regardless of what was actually happening. As David Barstow wrote for the Times, “these members of a familiar fraternity” became a “media Trojan horse” — shaping the tone and conclusions of our supposedly fair and accurate terrorism coverage. Even more distressing, most of the news networks didn’t look into the analysts’ personal or business connections to the military when hiring them to provide opinions.
At the end of the day, since we cannot predictably rely on the objectivity or even accuracy of news media, it’s up to us as the consumers to responsibly and responsively consume that media, whether in Egypt or the US. A former analysts is quoted in the Times article as saying, “The worst conflict of interest is no interest.” He was referring to his own hire, as well as those of his colleagues, to share warped opinions at major national news networks. But the soundbite holds true for the modern news reader/watcher/listener: don’t accept things the way they are first presented. Do your research, consider your own values, and then reconsider the coverage. The news is just a report, not a dictation of how to view the world.
(Note: you can view all 8,000 pages of released documents here once the government is no longer shut down)
–Gracie McKenzie, A15