If you’ve made the mistake of turning on your television or firing up the interwebs in the past several months, you’ve likely been subjected to a near-incessant drumbeat of “fake news.” It’s a term being bandied about by all sides of the political spectrum.
The accusation is that there are stories being reported as fact that happen to fit a political agenda, but are based on sketchy, if not outright fictional information. There is ample proof that this shoddy reporting has been used on all sides, but the meme it has become has swept up the mainstream media, bringing to the surface a long-simmering and, I daresay, well-earned distrust of the fourth estate by the American people.
But in my 15 years as a journalist, I’ve seen a more sinister and pervasive way that the media shapes public opinion, and it’s more prevalent than you think. They use subtler methods to mold the culture and, in the process, insert themselves into the story in a very self-serving and perverse way.
Framing The Argument
One way the media influences how Americans think about certain issues is by framing the conversation in such a way that reasonable, decent people can only swallow one side of the argument.
Let me give you an example. With the recent news that President Donald Trump intends to enforce federal immigration law, the so-called “mainstream” media has outdone itself to paint as racist, xenophobic, and just downright mean what has been regarded as sound executive policy under other presidents.
Last month, CNN deployed its senior correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, to Jordan, where there are hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, ostensibly just biding their time until they can move to a country that shares their Muslim culture … oh, wait. I mean, a country where they can get the government to provide them with a lifestyle at least 100 times better than they were accustomed to in Syria before the war. The Obama administration made an art form out of ignoring stories that went counter to its political position.
Amanpour interviewed scores of refugees living in tents—the more wretched the better—about how cheated they must feel because they missed the boat, so to speak, by not getting to the United States before that devil Trump seized power. The not-so-subtle message is that these people obviously deserve to come to the United States of Welfare because, “Look! They are living in tents and some of them need medical procedures.”
Never mentioned was the fact that for the cost to bring one refugee to the United States, we could support 13 refugees where they are, and make it more likely they will return to their home country to rebuild once the violence subsides.
And just in case Amanpour’s empathetic frowns didn’t motivate you to call your congressman and demand he or she throw open the gates of our country to shiploads of military-age refugees, the intrepid CNN reporter brought her young son along on this trip for some great money shots of him interacting with refugee kids his age. What could be cuter? How could we be so callous as to deprive poor children the world over of their God-given right to grow up in a free country their forefathers did nothing to build?
If you are noticing the sarcasm, that’s because I’m laying it on pretty thick. Look, the Syrian refugee crisis is a catastrophe, there’s no arguing that. But can you see that CNN is going far beyond reporting on the plight of the Syrian people and is purposely framing the story in such a way as to shape public opinion? This might not be “fake news” in the pure sense, but it is nefarious and dishonest at the very least.
A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Lies
Here’s another example of how the media endeavors to go beyond reporting to influencing public perception. In 2010 I was in Afghanistan, embedded with the 101st Airborne division. We were sitting in the chow hall having a meal, and CNN was on the big screen against the wall. The topic they were discussing was Iraq.
I’d been to Iraq not long before, and had been encouraged by the progress U.S. troops were making in the region. Casualties were way down and the number of roadside bombs that were exploding around the country had dropped precipitously. Part of the reason was that our military had gotten very effective at finding and defusing them before they went off. Things were looking up. Violence in general was down and a sense of hopefulness was evident in the people.
CNN was having a roundtable discussion on the situation in Iraq. I don’t remember having a problem with the content of the discussion—various “expert” talking heads were expressing their opinion. But it was the footage CNN was playing in the background that jumped out at me.
As the experts were talking, CNN was showing footage of a fierce gun battle. U.S. troops appeared to be pinned down, engaged in heavy combat. The sense it conveyed to the viewers is that Iraq was a mess—a quagmire every bit as lethal as Vietnam had been.
There was only one problem. The footage they were running in the background was from the battle of Fallujah, five years earlier. While gunfight footage is “sexy,” no doubt, how honest is it to run five-year-old gunfight footage, giving the impression that it is current?
Spiking The Ball
The easiest way the media keeps you from making up your own mind about what’s happening in the world is by simply ignoring stories that don’t fit the narrative. Many journalists see themselves more as evangelists than reporters, preaching when a story fits their agenda and sweeping it under the rug when it does not. When was the last time you saw a news story about the ten thousand Christians being murdered every year in Myanmar? No? Ask yourself why not. It’s human nature to fear the unknown, and so it isn’t surprising when the media preys on that fear to increase ratings.
Because I have the privilege of traveling to most of the places you see in the news, these little deceits jump out at me. But most people haven’t the context of being there to help them discern the real story from the spin they see on the nightly news.
Not Just Journalists
The media aren’t the only ones shaping the story before it gets to you. Politicians, in some ways, invented this game. The Obama administration made an art form out of ignoring stories that went counter to its political position. Even when calling for more gun control, President Obama defaulted to the Sikh temple shooting in 2012 (shooter was a white supremacist), or the 2015 Charleston church shooting. You can be sure he never mentioned the Fort Hood massacre or the San Bernardino shootings, because the perpetrators were Muslim and didn't fit his narrative that the only real threat to Americans is angry white men.
The Importance Of Context
The news exists to report things out of the ordinary. Keep that in mind. If there’s a 10-car pileup on the freeway near your house, you know that’s a rare occurrence because you live there—you have context.
But when a bomb goes off in, let’s say, Colombia—and you haven’t been to Colombia—in your mind, bombings are everyday occurrences, and if given the chance to go to Colombia, you’ll probably pass. Never mind that you are statistically more likely to be the victim of violent crime in Chicago or Camden, N.J. You don’t have context. It’s human nature to fear the unknown, and so it isn’t surprising when the media preys on that fear to increase ratings.
Ever wonder why most news is free? That’s because you are not the customer. You are the product. There is a war being waged for your mind.
It’s time to hold the “mainstream” media up to the light. Perhaps once they realize we are on to them, they’ll be more motivated to return to their true calling of, as they used to say, “Just the facts.”
Chuck Holton is a veteran Army ranger and NRATV correspondent.