When propaganda is presented as “news”

The phrase “right wing media” is increasingly used to label talk radio and television that provides a conservative political spin on the news. Its entire premise, however, is based on the false assumption that the mainstream press is “left wing media”. This raises their act to hero status in taking on those who would drag Western culture into the chaotic abyss of socialism.

And certainly America doesn’t want THAT!

This is the exact justification we used in the early and mid 1980s at CBN when Pat Robertson declared that God had told him to run for President and that he would win. We needed to craft a way for us to justify a chair at the big media table, one that placed us to the right of everybody else. Naming the press as an existential threat to the culture, we not only reported “the news” but we often became the news, and this was no accident. It was one of the 20th Century’s most significant examples of propaganda-based marketing.

Propaganda doesn’t require balance, so our complaints about the right wing bias of Fox News are not only foolish but irrelevant. However, by labeling itself “news” and using the word “balance” in its slogan (“Fair and Balanced”), Fox permits itself to make the subliminal justification that they’re an alternative to the mainstream press, who are not balanced either. This seems to make all sorts of logical sense, unless you have eyes to recognize that such a claim cannot be true.

Fox relies on the 20th Century concept of objectivity, which, to them, “should” translate to a 50–50, “he said she said” paradigm. In practice, however, Fox only presents a conservative narrative, so it is decidedly neither fair nor balanced. Besides, objectivity in news has been largely discounted for journalism, which recognizes the idea only in that it creates a sterile environment in which to place advertising. Companies, the thinking goes, don’t want their political bias to be known, for it carries the threat of product rejection by about half of all consumers. It was their demand for a sterile platform that ultimately led us to the mess we have today. Such is the curse of mass marketing, which is, to say the least, a broken and inept concept for selling (remember John Wanamaker’s dilemma).

The cultural need for advertising is changing dramatically since the dawn of the network, because corporations can now make themselves function as media companies and speak directly to consumers instead of going through the filters of advertising.

Transparency is the new objectivity, wrote David Weinberger many years ago. We are currently experiencing an entirely new operating paradigm for news, one that permits a degree of subjectivity, as long as that subjectivity is made known up front. With Donald Trump, Fox News has dropped entirely its claims of balance and has become the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. That’s fine, but it cannot ever again make the claim of balanced. Balance no longer means considering all sides in reporting; today, it’s a given that Fox presents itself as the balance, so there’s no need for including other opinions.

I know this, because it’s precisely what we did in the early 80s with the rise of “CBN News” via The 700 Club television program. The first order of business was that we needed to make the case that the mainstream media was, in fact, biased towards liberalism. One of the ways we did this was to cite cultural ruin (a.k.a. rampant sin and iniquity) as being caused ultimately by the devil, who was working in league with an ignorant and compliant press. If we could make it so, then we — as an alternative — could make the claim that we were an alternative to a steady stream of liberalism as news. Like the plausible impossibility of Superman, we wore the hero’s cape in our pioneering efforts.

The logical problem, of course, is that this makes for an unknowable assumption, one that doesn’t require evidence, for no one can know for certain the motivations of others.

I was there at the beginning and worked my tail off in concert with talented others to write the rules for doing television news with a conservative (a.k.a. Bible-based) point-of-view. You can say what you want about Pat Robertson and The 700 Club, but the truth is that we were the innovators that Fox emulated ten years later. The time was the early 80s under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and the first rule was to present — as fact — a self-justification based on the certainty that all the rest of the press presented a liberal political perspective and not objectivity. We pressed that we were providing the balance left out of mainstream reporting. It was a very strong and sellable point-of-view, for Richard Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew wasn’t speaking in a vacuum when he labeled the press “nattering nabobs of negativism” in 1969.

This history is important, because Fox News will never admit to “borrowing” the tactics we pioneered. They simply copied the finished product, so foundational motives and representations are hard to pin down. This gives them ample wiggle room to deny certain allegations of bias while marching forward as the mouthpiece for conservatism. As earlier pioneers, we took the arrows that could’ve been destined for Fox, but I digress.

Pat Robertson supports the business side of culture, largely because it has the money for his vision — a world governed not only by laws but also by the internal governor of Christianity. Business executives argue that freedom is not possible in a world where it’s every man for himself. This would be fine, except the right more often espouses the ideals of license rather than those of liberty, which assumes the rights of others.

Fundamental to our premise at CBN was the position that the entirety of the press presents a product that supports Democratic (a.k.a. “socialist” or “liberal”) political positions. Moreover, we posited, the journalistic hegemony of objectivity required that media companies provide political “balance” in presenting the issues of the day. Since the press “wouldn’t” do that, according to us, we gave ourselves permission to present the balance ourselves. Fox News is not original, not in any sense.

Fox News doesn’t have the basic straw man of “sin” to define the enemy left, but it certainly makes the press out to be evil, especially in social matters like crime and especially abortion. At least we were honest in the religion-based spiritual claims we made.

Of necessity, it meant operating to the right of the press politically but on the same level of all who claimed to provide “news and information.” The problem with this position, of course, is that the assumption of mainstream press bias — on the same scale as what we practiced from a conservative perspective — is entirely false. Nearly every attempt to create a “left-wing radio” response to conservative talk radio has failed, because there’s no similar artificial cultural necessity. News isn’t propaganda, just because it reflects the progressive (new) in society. America wants to grow in every way and is generally approving of a more progressive life in these United States, so naturally the news would reflect that.

Growing pains don’t have to be political.

The culture — which we presented as corrupt — had long ago decided issues we’re again debating today due in part to our efforts to keep those issues alive. The only “new” in the thinking of the right is ways for the rich to get richer, while increasing the burdens on the poor and the afflicted. And it is quite sad in America that a great many poor and rural actually side with the business interests of Republicans, because they’ve been convinced of the moral righteousness of those who “provide jobs”. Big corporate interests don’t hire people, because they’re concerned about the culture; they only do so to the extent that such an action will produce greater profits for themselves.

However, the rural poor are largely Christian evangelicals who are driven by issues other than what will pad the pockets of the rich.

The role of abortion, sexual preference, and school prayer — issues the Supreme Court long ago declared resolved for the culture — play a huge role in the folly that we have for political debate today, because the claim can be made that they are important to God. These issues brought some pro-life Catholics into the fold by convincing them that capitalists have their best interests at heart. Pro-Life became the clarion call, even though it did not extend to those who’d already been born.

Once again, the core argument for conservative news in 2019 is that the media as a whole better represents a liberal point of view more than one of political balance, which is required, they say, by the hegemonistic concept of objectivity. We need to fully unpack this before we’ll ever find the antidote to attacks on journalism and acts of journalism, such as the press being labeled “the enemy of the people” by our current President. Today, in simply doing their jobs, the press appears biased when it reacts normally to Donald Trump’s antics and misrepresentations, reporting that the right wing propagandists use to support their case to the public.

A good way to look at it is to understand that to qualify as “news,” there must be an element of something “new” in order to be recognized as a practitioner of the profession. There must be something “new” to qualify as “news”. Conservative “news,” however, can only present “old” as its core, as in “Make America Great Again.” It attempts to reach back into history and claim that the culture got it wrong back then, that things have changed so much that we have to go back and revisit cultural decisions that they opposed back then and still do today. This would be fine if the discussion took place on a level playing field, which it can’t, because propaganda doesn’t work that way.

So powerfully driven are the Republicans by big business that Trump is turning our military into a protection racket involving other countries. He’s extorting other countries in the name of profit, for our military won’t protect you now unless you pay for it. The Kurds obviously couldn’t pay, and now we have that on the record as our response to those who don’t or won’t pay. The Republicans see only a bottom line when examining every issue, whether foreign or domestic, although government is supposed to represent everyone, not just the one percent who form a shadow government under the GOP.

Today — and to further confuse things — Republicans are calling Democrats “socialists” so they can make references to capitalism as being the proven better way. Again, this would be fine, if it were true. It’s not, however, and we’re entering a season now where the reference will sooner or later become communism. The word “socialism” strikes fear in the hearts of those its designed to ping, but true fear mongering always reaches for the worst possible alternative to the status quo.

There are two important arguments that need to be on the table:

One, the idea that objectivity is the goal of professional journalism is only about 100 years old and stems from the efforts of Walter Lippmann and his cronies to accommodate two factions of American culture: to create a sterile environment in which to sell advertising, and to bring about the social engineering of American elites through Edward Bernays’ “public relations,” better known as the deliberate manipulation of citizens according to the values and beliefs of those who could pay for it. More than any other two people in history, Lippmann and Bernays created what Lippmann called “The Manufacture of Consent” and Bernays’ “Propaganda”. This knowledge is critical in sorting things out today, for when Bernays put cigarettes in the mouths of Suffragette marchers in New York knowing they would be photographed and presented in newspapers everywhere, he did so on behalf of his client, the American Tobacco Company.

Cigarette sales to women skyrocketed, having been elevated to political protest status by Bernays’ clever manipulation. Bernays was keenly aware of what he was doing, as he wrote in his seminal book Propaganda:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

Two, the press represents the people, and news coverage follows the ebbs and flows of the culture. Those publishers who consider first the best interests of the business community, are more inclined to both espouse and represent a conservative position. The Wall Street Journal comes to mind. The same is true for publishers, such as the New York Times, who don’t believe that capitalism should be the default determiner in all matters involving what’s best for our citizens. Both are considered “first writers” of history, which means they follow the ups and downs of the culture.

America is uniquely governed in such a way that there is necessary tension built into the relationships between branches of government, but that is also the case with journalism, because it covers current events as the people’s representatives, and human beings don’t always come with built-in bullshit detectors. The discovery that they are being manipulated may be the determining factor in how long this sham will continue to dominate the grand narrative of life in these United States.

Donald Trump is not under attack in the press because he’s different. He’s not under attack for taking on the system. He’s not under attack, because foreign countries don’t pay us protection money. And he’s most certainly not under attack for pressing a white evangelical Christian agenda. He’s under attack because he’s a liar, a business cheat, and a manipulator of people. He is a salesman and ought never to be in charge of product development, because he actually believes his own hyperbole. He’s simply not fit for public service, because the only public that he serves is himself and his mob-like underlings.

And, you simply do not withhold security aid to a foreign government until they provide you with dirt on political opponents. This is against our law, as stated in the Constitution of the United States of America.

Birds of a Feather

Only Bernie Sanders can win Trump supporters

Until yesterday, I believed there was zero chance that Donald Trump would be re-elected. Today, I’m not so sure. That’s because none of the serious mischief that’s going on in the White House today matters with his street level support. None of it. As in, it’s all irrelevant, and it does zero good to argue with them using facts alone. This is the same attitude that existed during the 2016 campaign and fills arenas wherever Trump is speaking. It’s also what the professional observers (the press) continue to miss today.

I had what can best be described as a moment of clarity yesterday while arguing with my focus group of two neighbors (Don’t go there. I don’t need more in order to listen.). Their demographics don’t matter. It’s their psychographics that set them apart, and I don’t think the press really understands this. So, it’s not what Trump is or isn’t “doing;” it’s what he represents as the leader of this group. That’s the key to understanding.

These are Americans in the truest sense. Many are ex-military. They understand and accept duty and pecking order. They call “bullshit” on anybody in Washington who claims to have their backs. They’re seriously mad as hell and demand change. They KNOW what they’ll get from the status quo, and they see in Trump a man who at least tries to be a political outsider.

“He’s smart. He’s not going to do things the old way. No matter how painful, we need somebody like him in office.”

“I’m tired of the United States paying for everything throughout the world. We can’t keep doing that, and I don’t care what other countries think of us. We’ve GOT to take care of ourselves first. Let other countries send their people to these wars everywhere.”

“He’s not a politician. He’s a businessman, and he’s running things like a smart businessman would.”

But the real giveaway is when we discuss Democratic candidates. The only one they’ll seriously consider is Bernie Sanders. What this says very clearly to me is that what these people want is change, and that’s the message that everybody seems to be missing. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders couldn’t be further apart in terms of policy, character, or platform, but they are joined at the hip in criticizing the status quo.

Anger drives supporters of both. Everything is not just fine.

On Being Human

Courtesy, the brilliant Nick Galifanakis.

Long ago, I made peace with the idea that ALL humans really want and need the same thing: to do the best we can with what we know. It’s the same in the physical, in the psychological, and in the spiritual. There’s nothing whatsoever “wrong” with this; it’s a healthy part of human nature.

And, in terms of judging the behavior of others, this is a wise position to take, because it strikes at the heart of what motivates people. We want to help ourselves, our families, our communities, and beyond. That only some are able to do this well is the thing that’s really wrong with our world under the sun. Sadly, these few are the ones with the dragons capable of raining down terror on the rest of us. Dracarys!

Those who associate with a God of their understanding — as a part of their teaching, training, and faith — fully grasp the significance of helping the poor and the afflicted among us. Chaos ensues, however, when even a few of these get the idea that helping others means personal loss to themselves, or even more deceptively, that the poor are somehow “out to take what’s ours.” This stance puts us at odds with God, no matter which religion we pick. It ought to concern those who do so, but it doesn’t.

For, no matter how we play it, those who are stuck in the rut of competing for what they believe to be “theirs” are at odds with others who are more giving. As a friend recently said, “It’s not a piece of pie.” Helping others is a natural behavior for humans, one that runs into conflict only when we put our spiritual selves on hold while we pursue getting what we can to better our physical lives. This produces the takers in a world of givers, and they are an abomination before God.

Luke 6:24 “But woe to you, rich ones, for you have your comfort!”

It’s a lot easier on all of us to view the realities of life through the veil of wanting to do the best we can for ourselves and our families. This knowledge (or is it a belief?) has a way of injecting compassion into those who are aware. Everybody seems to agree with the principle but not with how to bring it about throughout the planet. Resources to accomplish the task appear to the uninitiated as a zero-sum game and one that requires that I take from somebody else in order to satisfy my own wants and needs. Once I’ve accumulated “mine,” I might be able to turn my attention to somebody else. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The fear that somebody else “might” take away my piece of pie is a powerful motivator to maintain the status quo, no matter who gets stomped on in the process. This, again, is human nature gone to seed, revealing the hidden motives of selfishness and self-centeredness. And, if this is to be our stance, we are sad and to be pitied.

Those who know God, however, understand that His approach is for us to give of ourselves first in order to be filled fully via the spirit with what’s best for us afterwards (See: The parable of the garden hose). This is foolishness to the world under the sun, but those of us who also fully inhabit the spiritual see the wisdom of such an approach. God is fully committed to the poor, and that includes Jesus. You can’t go very far in reading the Bible until you encounter this truth.

And, this is why the Republican approach to religion is so off-putting to me. To them, social justice is a major weakness in governance, and why Trump puppet master Steve Bannon said in 2017:

“The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the democrats.”

This is a crude albeit correct description of Republican Party Politics, because it seeks to benefit the status quo and by extension, the wealthy and the haves. The sole strategic thrust of the Democrats ought to be how their opponents only speak for the wealthy and the filthy rich, and the bones they toss to white evangelicals — like abortion and religious freedom — are only offered to ensure a larger support base. Republicans, quite honestly, could give a crap about fetuses being aborted. The litmus test for conservative judges is not abortion; it’s how business-friendly they are. The price conservatives demand is support for the wealthy, and since a lot of these preachers consider themselves in that category, the match is perfect. Moreover, the wealthy give money to big churches and ministries (it’s called a tax write-off).

And, no preacher worth his salt wants to turn that down, right?

This business of being human can give us all fits, not just the poor and the afflicted, so how are we supposed to judge others? the Bible says we should “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”

They’ve taken the human idea of doing the best for ourselves, our families, and our communities and turned it into selfishness.

And, it’s not pretty.

The Twelve Absolute Beliefs of Trump Christians

Evangelicals pray for President Trump through the laying on of hands

The postmodern exercise of deconstruction is a useful tool when trying to understand any of the various complexities of contemporary life. It’s especially useful today in the determination of why a large and polarized group of Americans — white evangelical Christians — could have put Donald Trump in office. As is often the case, the complex is merely the simple turned on its head by the self-serving justifications of those who benefit from the complexities. By deconstructing these characteristics, the deconstructor looking for answers can ask better questions in their quest.

The relationship between President Trump and these Christians is something I understand particularly well, for I once served the cause as Executive Producer of The 700 Club with Pat Robertson. The core discovery in my book The Gospel of Self is that Trump’s election was no accident but a carefully conceived and executed long-term strategy of the Christian Right. This knowledge is essential as we face another election involving this same man and his flock. Try as they may, the press is simply incapable of seeing what’s really taking place, because it involves the belief that these Christians get their marching orders directly from God. Arguing against their beliefs, therefore, places one in an argument against God, which is then laughingly dismissed by the faithful.

So, let’s deconstruct the grand narrative that places white evangelical Christians in a most powerful position in our politics. In order to pull this off, these twelve specific and absolute beliefs must ALL be in place:

  1. Salvation means that one’s final destination is eternity in Heaven, and demonstrative belief in Jesus as savior is the ONLY path to salvation. Period. Behavior in the here and now, therefore, must line up with what’s required to maintain that promise. However, occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean loss of salvation, because it’s all based on faith alone. This opens the door for basically any kind of behavior, for there’s always God’s promised forgiveness.
  2. The human condition defaults to corruption and requires a spiritual conversion in order to rise above it, to prosper, to live in peace with ones’ neighbors, and especially to enable a comfortable place in the afterlife. This is the why of Christ, and no one can escape it.
  3. The saving power of Jesus via the born again experience is the how of Christ, a manifestation of faith. These are “the elect,” Heaven-bound believers who are in fellowship with one another and with God. Again, this leaves room for behavioral lapses, because this same Jesus is good for forgiveness in the end. This is often the justification for oppression and evil in the name of God.
  4. These beliefs, according to white evangelical Christian thinking, must be held between individuals and God, for Jesus functions directly in the role of high priest for our confessions. Therefore, one’s penchant for mischief doesn’t require redemption from anyone within the church, which puts the onus for participation between the believer and God Himself (yes, God is a He). This also puts into play the significance of the “personal relationship” with Jesus and, by default, the importance of the individual in God’s mind. That’s not to diminish the role of the pastor in pressing these beliefs, but church members are constantly reminded that God speaks directly to individuals. Our job is to have “ears to hear.” White evangelicals believe it’s the responsibility of the individual to “work out his own salvation,” and therefore the correct response to poverty is to teach others how to feed themselves rather than feeding them through any human institution. “If I can do it without complaining, so can they.”
  5. We must, as Martin Luther did, acknowledge that the Epistle of James is impossible to blend with evangelicalism and therefore think of it as “the Epistle of Straw.” This means we can dismiss James’ main concern that “faith without works is dead.” Either the “just shall live by faith” or not, evangelical thinking goes.
  6. The Bible is the actual Word of God (well, except for maybe James) and to argue with it, as a whole or in part, can and often does lead to eternal damnation. And, again, this is a responsibility of the individual, for no one but God has any real authority over the believer.
  7. Following Jesus is the real determinator of happiness and contentment in this life, no matter what. This allows the believer to feel justified in looking down his nose at others from even the gutter. It feeds the pride that he is actually better off than those at the top of culture’s ladders, those who don’t need God for success and happiness. After all, the Bible says “the last shall be first.” It’s another promise directly from God to believers and the source for manipulation by those higher up the pyramid of human life. The believer is supposed to be perfectly content in this life, because life in heaven afterwards is worth the suffering of the elect.
  8. We are currently living in “the end times” — Jesus return is imminent, as in the next few minutes kind of imminent — wherein Christians must use extremely good judgment to guard against false teachers who would lead the elect to destruction. In order to recognize these false teachers (having “eyes to see”), the believer must have God’s help through men who have “knowledge of the times” as determined by God’s Holy Book. These are then equipped to truly interpret God’s will in analyzing current events through the true eyes of the Word.
  9. This is evidenced largely by the return of so-called promised lands to the Jews (which happened with the 1948 Nakba, forcibly removing the current residents, a.k.a. the Palestinians). Moreover, the real prize for Israel is Jerusalem, which is both the why and the how of looking the other way as Israel does whatever it wants to the human beings standing in the way of their promised place of privilege on the earth. Jesus, you see, is coming back via Jerusalem. Hence, nothing else matters, not really.
  10. Liberal theology is a manifestation of end times living and, therefore, should be dismissed as heresy, the devil, or the “broad road” that leads to destruction.
  11. Donald Trump is another special gift from God to the elect, much as the Biblical King Cyrus was to ancient Israel, and he was elected to restore the (evangelical) church to its rightful place atop the patriarchy of all human institutions. In this way, the (evangelical) church represents the rightful leaders of the earth and must, therefore, assume positions of power at all levels under the sun.
  12. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, one faces the likelihood of eternity in the fires of Hell, if they don’t vote and vote for the conservative candidate (who is therefore bound to act against the murdering of babies through abortion). This is a risk the white evangelical Christians aren’t prone to take.

In her brilliant October 2018 essay for Sojourners — “Getting Over The Threat Of Hell” — Author Nancy Hightower writes that Donald Trump exploited this fear in his run to the White House.

If you have never believed in hell, it’s easy to mock the idea as ludicrous, or at least very archaic. Many who may have grown up in a faith household and left might remember the fear it instilled in them…I think it’s time to suggest that the Christian focus on hell is helping to drive evangelicals into Trump’s camp, and keeps them there.

And so, we’re now beginning to see mainstream news articles that tout the rise of angry liberal Christians. CNN published an article with the headline “Buttigieg is a symbol for a rising Christian left,” which uses the mayor’s candidacy as one example of evidence that not all of Christianity is under the spell of the white evangelicals.

“©onservative provocateur Erick Erickson started attacking Buttigieg, implying that because Buttigieg is Episcopalian — a denomination known for its more progressive positions on social issues — “he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.”

This is a common trope among some evangelical Christians on the right, impugning other more liberal Christians as somehow less “real” or authentic in their faith.”

I must admit to a certain joy upon reading all this, because the 2020 election will put the faith of Americans to the test. It’s not nearly as exciting a story as the horserace coverage (in the minds of the press), but it’s a highly-relevant discussion we’ve needed for a very long time. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are labels long used by theologians to assert theological differences of opinion, and it needs to form the basis for our understanding of politics as well.

Historically, culture wars in the United States have all had a foundation in religion, and we now have a chance to move it to the front burner in terms of issues facing democracy itself. Nobody understands this better than Professor Stephen Prothero, author of Why Liberals Win The Culture Wars (Even Though They Lose Elections). Whether it was the election of 1800, the mid-ninetieth century assault on Catholics by Protestants, the anti-Mormon campaign, the debates during the Scopes Monkey Trial, the battle against Supreme Court decisions of the 70s and 80s, or the current battle against Muslims, Prothero argues the outcome of culture wars historically favors the progressive perspective even though they were started by conservatives.

Donald Trump is an evil man with evil intentions, for his only true “accomplishment” as President is widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. He placates these right wing Christians, because he knows their support will be lasting if he does, and just because he does, it does not follow that he is a “Godly President,” as some believe. The culture cannot stand this for much longer, and the discussion of faith as the dominating factor in this election badly needs to be center stage. Perhaps debates involving Buttigieg will help, for he seems not only willing but capable of speaking on behalf of his faith.

It’s true that traditionally we’ve considered a person’s religion to be a private matter and, therefore, untouchable in terms of debate. This was a part of the election of a Catholic in 1960, putting John F. Kennedy into office. Today, that position has overstayed its welcome, as Trump Christians publicly flaunt their man as God’s answer to prayer for America.

It will take directly challenging these twelve beliefs, so the discussion must involve those who think theologically but speak in plain English, and that will rule out a press that believes such discussions are not a part of its sphere of legitimate debate.

And that is to its great shame.