A Nation of Illiterates
Identify the historic figure below. When you can’t, you’ll begin to see the trouble we’re in.
I’m sitting here thinking of a talented songwriter and charming singer, whose voice splits the difference between Willie Nelson and Phil Ochs. His tracks have been covered by artists as disparate as Marilyn Manson, Guns N’ Roses and The Beach Boys. His tender jazz ballad, “Close to Me,” is an elegant, heartwarming masterpiece.
He’s known as a historic leader, whose small, passionately devoted team captured the attention of the entire world and lives on today as synonymous with selflessness and loyalty.
And those eyes! We live in a superficial world, which privileges looks over what lies beneath, but it is no exaggeration that this man’s eyes are more dependably remarked upon — indeed, obsessed over — than George Clooney’s, Idris Elba’s, Paul Newman’s, Zac Effron’s, David Bowie’s and this one …
… all put together.
I speak, of course, of Charles Manson.
Oh, this disquisition will eventually be about media literacy, beginning with the above puff piece on a lunatic Svengali. Because everything in it is true (if you’ll permit my subjective take on “Close to Me” — I highly recommend giving it a listen, just … because). Yet the description of one of history’s most notorious psychopaths is a classic example of the Fallacy of Favorable Enumeration — aka, “cherry picking.” The facts I’ve chosen to include create one impression; the many I chose to exclude would obviously change your perception of a subject so benignly and incompletely described. In short, ultimately, it is false — but a nifty and common way to mislead the audience. That form of lying has another name: “paltering.”
Its reciprocal within the paltering universe might be dubbed the Fallacy of Unfavorable Enumeration, which is also cherry picking, but in that case the cherries are all rotten. This has always been the alchemy of so-called “opposition research,” which was once the province mainly of negative political advertising — in those nearly forgotten days when there was also positive political advertising. Now paltering is literally a multibillion-dollar industry, led by Fox News Channel, the right-wing political-media complex and the entire Republican Party. Democrats, to a somewhat lesser extent, do it, too. And so do corporations, notably Big Energy and Big Tobacco, which after killing more than 100 million people in the 20th century while lying about the lethal hazards of smoking is now promoting its so-called “smoke free” products to address what they suddenly have the temerity to call “the problem of smoking.” Look at us! We’re saving the world! The paltering part is when Philip Morris International, for instance, neglects to mention the 8 million people who still die prematurely worldwide every year from non-smoke-free cigarettes, which accounted for at least ⅔ of the company’s $20,360,000,000 in 2022 profits. Yes, 8 million deaths. That’s 1.33 holocausts every year. I also strongly advise clicking on those links, because such an exercise is fundamental to the media-literacy lesson I shall presently discuss.
But returning to politics and media, a couple of classic examples — among innumerable others — would be the campaign waged last year by Ted Budd. Then a Congressman, Budd was running for the U.S. Senate against North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasely. So knowing what strikes terror in the hearts of voters, he accused his Democratic opponent of freeing and abetting sexual deviants. His claims:
“Cheri Beasley Struck Down A Bipartisan Law Requiring GPS Tracking For Child Predators”
Her ruling led to “A Serial Child Rapist Set Free”
A sexual predator, having served his sentence, was set free with no further consequences. “Where’s He Going? No One Knows.”
These scare allegations, as you will see upon clicking on the above PolitiFact debunking, took tiny threads of fact to embroider a despicable smear. In so doing, of course, the self-described “committed Christian,” made a mockery of the Ninth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” In return, I shall now make a mockery of the Third Commandment: Jesus Christ, what an evil piece of shit Budd is.
And, oh. He won.
That was last fall. For a classic media example of unfavorable enumeration, as the Boston Globe reported in 2017, after a Guantanamo detainee who had been released by the Obama Administration died in an American drone strike, the propagandists and coffee-klatch demagogues over at Fox & Friends helpfully added, “122 prisoners released from Gitmo have returned to the battlefield.”
The paltering, naturally, resided in the salient detail the Fucks & Frauds somehow left out: 113 of those 122 former detainees had been released by George W. Bush.
The point here is that the most common and most dangerous kinds of political lies are not about Jewish Space Lasers or Alien Lizard People or even the supposed worldwide cabal of pedophiles controlling our government. Anybody who believes that shit is too fanatical, or too credulous or too fucking stupid, to educate about how to spot mischief. And I’m not speaking only of the MAGA-gear-clad mouthbreathers who Jordan Klepper interviews at Trump rallies. For instance, in a hearing this week, Rep. Matt Gaetz (Florida Man) was trying to accuse a State Department official of arming the far-right militias who fight alongside Ukrainian regulars against the Russian invaders. (They are the paramilitaries Putin claims he is de-Nazifying for the sake of Ukrainian democracy.) Gaetz entered into the Congressional Record an “investigative” article on the subject by the Global Times. The Global Times, as the witness was obliged to inform the blithering idiot on the dais, is the flagship tabloid of the Chinese Communist Party.
And then there’s Trump, who will lie on any subject to anyone at any time, no matter how many mics are arrayed before him to document the lies eternally. Never mind the “rigged” election or the “perfect” phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky; his very first lie as president, as God is my witness, was about the weather.
Now you’d think, with just a little bit of skepticism and critical thinking, and the barest modicum of due diligence, anyone could see or hear all these categories of lies online or in the press and quickly get a fix on their reliability.
Hahahahaha. Wrong! It’s not only easy to hoodwink QAnon crackpots and the semi-literate, this toxic cloud of untruth is poisoning nearly everybody, and, as such, American democracy hangs by a single whisker of Abe Lincoln’s really shitty beard. With apologies (and for the second time in 3 weeks, purely by coincidence, I swear) I’m going to quote some passages from my 2020 book American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves. As a sign of good faith, I won’t even link to Amazon or whatever. But here goes:
A Stanford University study published in 2016 found that more than 80 percent of middle-schoolers could not distinguish between genuine news and so-called “native advertising” — advertiser content dressed up to look like actual editorial — even when it bore the standard (tiny) label “Sponsored Content.”
In the same study, a group of university students (including those at Stanford, which, the researchers ruefully observed, accepts only 6 percent of applicants) were shown Twitter messages from progressive organizations. Asked to evaluate them, fully a third of the subjects failed to consider how the organizations’ political ideology might influence the assertions within the tweets. “Overall,” the authors concluded, “young people’s ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”
Stanford! Fucking Stanford!
There are many reasons for this deplorable condition of media illiteracy. There is the 5-decade-long propaganda from the political right about supposed “liberal bias” in the press. There is the opposition-research-ization of the Vast Right-Wing Media Conspiracy, which churns out fake news while constantly screeching that embarrassing real news is fake. There is the slow but steady destruction of the media economy, not only reducing the journalistic head count by ⅔, but creating godforsaken news deserts where no journalism is conducted at all. And there is the ease, with simple digital tools, of creating sheer propaganda that in both graphic and human presentation is nearly indistinguishable from the real McCoy. What people see and hear, therefore, is both paltry and paltery.
Complicating matters, the schools have so bowed at the altar of STEM, and so flung the humanities on the pyre, that students are well taught how to calculate and never taught how to reason — or question, or wonder, or doubt, or explore — that which cannot be reduced to a mathematical equation on a digital display. Civics, and to a large degree history and literature, have gone the way of the Walkman. But …
THERE IS A PATH OUT OF THE DARKNESS.
If, only a few times a year — or even once — every student in every grade above 5 spent a day in every class learning, or refreshing, the tricks of media literacy, we could solve this problem in less than a generation. In the aforementioned book, I suggested three lists of questions in three tiers of rigor. I’m republishing them here.
Where did this content come from?
Who is that person or organization?
Is it professional and credible?
Is it allied with a political or ideological viewpoint?
Have you ever heard of it? And, if not, have you Googled it? It’s easy to make a website or a video look like a bona fide journalistic destination. Does this URL pass the smell test?
Is this news or content an outlier, or is it reported elsewhere by reputable sources? (Matt Gaetz, I’m looking at you.)
Is this headline and content designed just to provoke a click and the ad revenue that goes with it? Or does the information have intrinsic worth?
Does it seem designed to feed, pander to, exploit, or expand your worst suspicion about _______? Is it too good to be true, or too bad to be true?
Do I know how credible information is gathered and the process behind credible publishing?
Are subjects dictated by fat-cat publishers? (Answer: Seldom, and never ethically.)
Are they dictated by omnipotent editors flogging an agenda? (Answer: In the mainstream media, no. In so-called “conservative media: often. See the case of Dominion Voting Systems vs. Fox News. The enamel will peel off your teeth.)
Do publications follow the marching orders of some outside third party, like advertisers, George Soros, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the Freemasons, the United Nations, Big Pharma, the military-industrial complex, the Carlyle Group or the Jews. (Answer: No — although, once again, many right-wing media organizations are deeply connected with right-wing institutions, including the Republican Party itself.)
Are those shadowy anonymous sources invented by reporters to support a preferred narrative? (Answer: No, although the gross over-dependence on anonymous sources, especially those in government, is an ongoing stain on journalistic credibility. Here the Lamestream Media all but caricature themselves in the image of their accusers.)
Is there a set of standard journalistic practices for confirming facts, qualifying sources, providing evidence and immediately correcting errors? (Answer: Yes.)
Do politically and ideologically funded and motivated players wrapping themselves in the audiovisual trappings of genuine news organizations adhere to those standards? (Answer: Often not.)
When politicians respond to criticism not by furnishing factors, evidence, or reasoned counter-argument but by declaring “fake news,” are they lying? (Answer: Almost certainly.)
Are assertions backed up — or challenged — by data, official records, history or other documented evidence in complete context?
Is the audience given the sense of the sources’ motives in saying what they say?
Is the reporter following the herd of other reporting offering conventional wisdom provided with little scrutiny?
Are there signs that the elements of the story are the fruit of impartial inquiry, or do the elements seem cherry-picked to support a beginning hypothesis or narrative?
Is there evidence of bias toward controversy, versus less provocative but more substantive information?
Does the reporting fully contextualize statements and events to permit the audience to evaluate significance, history and meaning?
Is the reporting pointlessly speculative? Red flags are the words “may,” “could, “should,” “will.”
On the subject of paltering, journalism can be grotesquely distorted not just by what it includes, but by what it doesn’t include. (See Charles Manson bio above.) Are there holes in the reporting that suggest a conflicting narrative has been suppressed?
This is the most salient question, whose answer seems to elude at least a third of the electorate, including the 45 President of the United States: Is the press permitted to criticize the government or its officials?
Answer: Yes, for fuck’s sake, that’s the entire point of the free press. It’s in the First Amendment. To the Constitution. Ours.
Manson completely stole the tune in close to me from the Alvaro Carillo composition “Sabor a mi”