That art of disinformation — propaganda vs. news

During a conversation a few months back, a friend sent me a link to a Washington Times editorial in an effort to prove me wrong with “solid facts.”

I was alarmed by this and not just because the Washington Times is a patently dishonest, ideologically-driven excuse for a publication.

No, it alarmed me that my friend could not distinguish between news and propaganda.

Sadly, this probably speaks to a larger trend in America. Depending on our own ideas and preferences, we are likely to accept or reject the information we receive with little or no critical evaluation.

The result is an ignorant, uninformed populace prone to making stupid decisions (elections being a prime example).

Fortunately, the path to knowledge is not blocked by fallen trees or impassible boulders, but only by the laziness of the individual who lacks the motivation to know.

The first step down this path is to consider where information comes from. Be on the lookout for conflicts of interest and be aware that many organizations will toot their own horns.

If Citizens for a Quail-Free America gives you some disturbing “facts” about quails, you would do best to see what others have to say on the matter.

Alas, even reliable sources do not always provide reliable content. To overcome this potential pitfall, one should always be on the lookout for certain ominous words or phrases.

A good reporter will be specific. He or she will name names, share numbers and give you everything you need to know.

A propagandist, on the other hand, will be vague.

You’ll often hear a propagandist tell you “sources say” that “many reasons” exist for such and such.

At this point, you should be asking yourself “which sources” and “what reasons.”

Often, something as simple as the choice of one word can change how we feel about a story.

A good reporter will opt for neutral terminology. When one side of a conflict sees a group as “terrorists” and another side sees the group as “freedom fighters,” it is the reporter’s responsibility not to show a preference for either side.

A propagandist, on the other hand, has no such qualms and will opt for whatever language best suits his cause.

Presumably, everyone reading this has taken some kind of rhetoric or academic writing class (but, if you are like me, you don’t remember it) and was taught a list of logical and rhetorical fallacies.

If you committed these to memory, you are ahead of the curve.

Propagandists love to make use of the slippery slope (“If we allow this to happen, it will lead to crime/death/war/the apocalypse”), the ad hominem attack (“Ed Masposito says all liberals are gay”) and the confusion of correlation with causation (“Because a lot of black people are in prison, the justice system must be racist”).

When all else fails, they will evoke Orwell, the Bible, Nazism, Communism, McCarthyism or any other potentially debilitating -ism that has stained humanity since its existence.

To be certain, propaganda is not without its usefulness (if it was, this entire section would be defunct and I would be out of a very low-paying job).

Propagandists have the ability to amuse, inspire and enrage. They give strong voices to oft-ignored issues and allow every yokel to have his day.

Propagandists, however, should not be mistaken for journalists. The purpose of journalism is to inform.

A good journalist doesn’t want to make you his friend or his enemy. He doesn’t care how you feel about what he tells you, he just wants you to know about it.

A propagandist, on the other hand, aims to persuade. “The facts” are a boon when they further the cause of persuasion and a meddlesome barrier when they undercut it.

If you have been paying attention, you’ll realize by now that this is a piece of propaganda about propaganda, as I am persuading all of you to inform yourselves.

And if you don’t, the Nazis will come for your ass.