Banksy, my quiet hero

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised Source: independent.co.uk

I already knew Banksy’s arrest was a hoax by the time The Independent published the story, but I’m happy to see an artist receive on-going international attention, even if it was due to the publication of a completely false news report.

The Independent: Banksy arrest hoax: Internet duped by fake report claiming that the street artist’s identity has been revealed

Banksy has struck a nerve in the global collective consciousness and I love it. I almost as equally enjoy laughing at the poorly misinformed National Report, which seems to dig for dirt on anyone who doesn’t coalesce with their political agenda while not vetting the source material. They reported on the arrest hoax as if it was a true event, detailing his alleged crimes of counterfeiting and vandalism. The undertones of the author’s excitement exuded from each account of how bad a guy Banksy is.

This isn’t nearly a one-time thing with National Report, for those of you not familiar with the agenda-driven publication, wrap your head around this headline from October 8, 2014: “Potential Ebola Outbreak Prompts Martial Law.” The president did not declare martial law. It never happened. There is no ebola outbreak in the US. In fact, it was announced yesterday that several dozen people were just removed from the ebola watch list in Dallas. Read this USA Today article for more about the good news.

It’s saddening to think our culture has produced the need for fake journalism that has only one purpose: propaganda. Rile up the base, persuade new readers to hop on the ideological bus ride into the abyss! When authentic information can’t sell an audience, the subject must not be worth selling. The intermingling of fake news with the real news is exhausting. We’ve reached a point in our culture that the audience wants only the correct news and and agreeable news, not necessarily the factual authentic news. It’s tough to determine what’s even real anymore in our jaded and skeptical society, nor do we have the time to sort out fact versus fabrication and hyperbole. You can thank 24-hour cable infotainment news networks where negative news and politically-biased news means higher ratings, increased advertising revenue, and higher stock yields.

I crave authenticity now more than ever and I always find myself turning to the creative world. There is an honesty that cannot be disputed in creative works; whether you agree with its message is your individual right. For me, Banksy’s work is the epitome of art in that it is authentic, it challenges popular opinion, questions the news media, provokes thought, evokes visceral responses, rises above expectations, and continuously catches the audience off guard.

Does a news source exist out there that meets some of my definitions of art? I have some ideas on who might, but I don’t know anymore. I don’t usually know who or what to trust. Absorbing information from one source is a risk; from several sources a comprehensive story develops filled with self-conflicting statements. I don’t have the time or resources to fact check every item of news I read, so I question everything and challenge popular opinion every day. Facts and authenticity are king and queen, and they are Banksy’s work.

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Book Review: Media Control by Noam Chomsky

I really did not know what I was stepping into when I decided to read Noam Chomsky’s Media Control. The history of propaganda leading to its modern day usage fascinates me, especially in how it ties in with the early days of the Public Relations discipline. This book covered several interesting theories on the use of propaganda in democratic societies to control the “bewildered herd” – Chomsky’s term for describing the uneducated and uninformed public. Beyond the theoretical aspect of propaganda early in the book, which is where my interests are, it morphed into criticisms of the United States government making hypocritical cases for war and holding ownership over all of the media outlets. It went further into how journalists should have covered the events leading to the Gulf War if they were not bought and owned by the government. In this respect, the book left me with more questions and doubts about his claims than answers to my historical interests.

Chomsky writes about manufactured consent, a method for creating scenarios that the masses could all agree to support – propaganda – in order for the democratically-elected governing body of intellectuals to achieve its goals. The concept is something I have paid attention to for quite some time in mass media – newspapers, cable news, news websites, social media, word of mouth – it’s an amazing phenomenon when one subject is discussed in all corners of mass public communication. I see it in the 2012 presidential race as the slanderous tactics used between the Republican contenders for the nomination; I recognized it in the case made to invade Iraq almost a decade ago. Though I feel propaganda has shifted wildly in the past few years, the desire to use it to win over the audience is alive and well.

Slogans seeming to contain little or no value are a primary manipulation tool to support the concept of manufacturing consent. According to Chomsky, “the point of public relations slogans like ‘Support our troops’ is that they don’t mean anything.” (Location 109) As much as I have always supported our troops, I never comprehended how that justified our country’s involvement in Iraq, yet I have heard and read the slogan more often than anything else since Operation Iraqi Freedom started in 2003. Similarly, in the social media sense, how will copying and pasting a cause-based Facebook status for an hour alleviate world hunger or eradicate cancer?
Initiatives are branded with vacuous slogans that no one can argue with, essentially putting the entire public on the same page despite their many diversities and multitude of opinions. Who in their right mind will argue the idealism of supporting our troops? Other than a few possible isolated events, it would be virtually unheard of.

Fear is a strong ingredient in manufacturing consent, according to Media Control. The masses must be whipped into shape to support a war as well as other government initiatives. They need to fear the evil despot of a foreign land who is hell-bent on taking over the world. Fear unites the public like no other, and the jingoistic slogans feed the mass hysteria making the bewildered herd that much easier to manipulate. However, “the picture of the world that’s presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality.” (Location 182) Reality does not matter in the court of public opinion as long as it pushes the agenda forward. The agenda, of course, only serves the narrow democratic governing body that decides what is right for the public, because they cannot think for themselves. An interesting concept, though I question its validity.

Starting with the early days of propaganda, another key factor that allowed mass manipulation to occur was individual isolation. Individuals who would not agree with their government felt they were alone in their thinking; that no other like-minded people were around. Without the ability of like-minded people to congregate and build strength in shared knowledge and numbers, they were powerless to combat the governing body’s propagandized agenda. Chomsky wrote of early dissidence surrounding the Vietnam War – a first step toward where we find our society now, I believe – though I sense he did not have much faith in it lasting.

Since this book was published in 2002, social media did not yet exist and much has changed in these ten years. With the advent of the social web has come strength in large like-minded numbers and amazing quantities of immediately shared knowledge, leading to the masses telling a cancer research non-profit to reverse a controversial funding decision. It led to residents unifying to recall controversial elected leaders in a few states; to the American people and businesses forcing the US Congress to drop special interest-fueled anti-piracy bills that would have hampered our First Amendment freedoms on the Internet in the name of protecting intellectual properties; and to full-blown political revolutions in the Arab world.

The social web has opened the floodgates, so to speak, giving people everywhere not only a voice, but also the ability to quickly share information and to congregate like never before in history. Perhaps what we are experiencing is a global revolution, a path to true democracy that is not run by the select intellectual few, as Chomsky claims. It is exciting to witness technology altering the course of human history on both local and global scales. And this is probably the first time since the invention of propaganda that it can no longer work, at least not in its original form.

Healthy skepticism and honest discussions held between thousands of people at any given minute of the day have broken down the old propaganda tactics, but that doesn’t mean some governing factions won’t continue to find new methods to use it. If the US government was truly practicing rule by propaganda, as Chomsky suggested, it must be looking at new methods and tactics to confront the masses’ new voice. Perhaps, there was an ulterior motive to the Internet anti-piracy bills, an attempt to take control of a free speech platform, thereby censoring it to serve the interests of the government, and to potentially create a revenue stream. Maybe I’m being too cynical.

From my perspective as a professional writer, these theories on propaganda used to persuade the masses can teach a lot about human nature and influence my approach to the craft, but I feel a responsibility to never deviate from the truth. The truth as Chomsky presents in Media Control leaves me skeptical, in fact, it makes me think this book is a piece of propaganda itself to promote his personal, albeit far-fetched, beliefs. Right or wrong, it has instilled in my creative brain some new ways to observe society and to persuade – or win over – the audience in my professional writing. That alone made Media Control a worthwhile venture.

This review was first published at: http://riseofthecenter.com/2012/03/30/chomskys-book-on-propaganda-is-a-bit-of-propaganda-itself-but-still-thought-provoking/10183

A Communicator’s Op-Ed: Overwrought with Simplicity

It seems more often than not, over-thinking with the aim to achieve dumbed-down simplicity and obscuring the obvious solutions complicate the simplest things. Is this human nature, or a product of our current social and political climate?

I want to know what the mainstream media’s current target demographic is – seven and under? I often wonder how uneducated or ignorant they think the general population is. Granted, American education is not at the top of the world as it once was – a critical issue that needs attention – but humans, by nature, aren’t stupid. Furthermore, whether they are book smart or street smart, the majority of Americans can think for themselves and form their own opinions.

I am a big advocate of eliminating jargon and million dollar words from everyday communication. Why? Because they don’t communicate to anyone but a select few, portraying an elitist scenario that only further angers the rest of the masses. You wouldn’t always know it from my style of writing, but I am a fan of the short declarative sentence. Think Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Combine that with talking to adults as adults, not as little kids, and you have a strong formula to communicate with the public. It’s not difficult. Yet it seems so hard to do in the mainstream media and political campaigns.

I realize not all publications and media outlets fall into this dumbing-down category, but at the same time, they are not the same outlets the majority of people are turning to for their news. Complicating this scenario is that the popular outlets are fueled by biased politics on the left or right of the political spectrum. When Newt Gingrich during his presidential campaign complains about the “elite mainstream media” and how it will take his words out of context to portray him negatively, is he lumping in his friends at the Republican-supporting Fox News and their affiliates? Of course not, it would be a conflict of interest, and the die-hard supporters/Fox News audience knows it. The answer is “yes,” however, as the self-identified left-wing outlets are doing just that. But guess what? Fox News does the same thing about President Obama and the Democrats, taking their words out of context to paint a bad picture and plant the seeds of doubt.

How often have the pundits on MSNBC painted Newt Gingrich as brilliant but crazy, Rick Santorum as a scary anti-woman theocrat, or Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch one percent elitist? How often has Fox News perpetuated the absurd implications that the president was a Muslim, not born in the US, or painted his efforts to save the American auto industry as a sign of totalitarianism and government corruption? This current day mainstream media phenomenon of slanderous remarks, discrediting sound bites, and accusatory video clips is ubiquitous. And it’s sad.

What does this have to do with over-simplification? Well, the news outlets are not necessarily debating complex issues the country faces and discussing in a mature and educated fashion how a candidate’s policy could best fix those issues. I hear the same talking points from ten different supporters of a campaign on ten different communication channels, repeating specific phrases and keywords, rarely ever answering a direct question. And I observe the exact same concept from the opposition. It’s called propaganda, like it or not, and that’s how it works. The very same formulas Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward L. Bernays recognized and developed nearly a century ago, only applied to our modern social media connected world. And it still works when the die-hard audiences – aka the herd – are willing to soak it all in and repeat the messaging on their social networks and by word-of-mouth. An ingenious communication method can move mountains.

As for the journalism implied by the mainstream media outlets covering this stuff, what will it take to get them to take a neutral stance? I want to hear both sides of a story, not their favorite side. I want to know the nuances, the pros and cons, so I can make an educated decision when I go to the voting booth. And, I feel confident in saying this for all Americans, I want the media to talk to us as educated adults.

In my search for non-partisan clarity and neutrality, I have stumbled across new organizations with a similar mindset, like Rise of the Center and No Labels. I have begun exploring these groups and joining the conversations at Rise. So, in this world of reducing everything to dumbed down labels and demographics, does that classify me as one of the centrist herd? Do I now belong to a freethinking demographic willing to criticize and question authority and the herd mentality of biased media and politics? I would love to see how the mainstream media portrays and simplifies this new groundswell and what affect it may have on the 2012 election and beyond.

Please share your thoughts on this subject, whether you think I am right or wrong, or somewhere in between.