Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Propaganda, Cowboy Style

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I am working on a project that I don’t really have time to interrupt.  Except here I am doing it because I have found a quote that so exquisitely explains what is happening in Malheur county near Burns, Oregon, that I just have to share it.

As you may know, armed militants, protesters, occupiers or patriots (depending on to what degree you agree or disagree with their intentions) have taken over a Federal Wildlife Refuge.  Their trigger was the arrest of a father and son for setting fire to federal lands and being sent to prison a second time after a court ruled the time they initially spent in jail for the crime wasn’t sufficient.

And their ultimate goal may be to go out in a blaze of glory; a combination of Waco, Texas and Timothy McVeigh with the intention of starting a new Sagebrush Rebellion to sweep across the west.  But their stated reason, today, for remaining at the refuge, today, includes convincing local farmers and ranchers that the land upon which the refuge sits belongs to them, the true owners, not the federal government.

There are many tangents to that line of thinking, including how, if you want to get technical, it is the Paiute Indians; the 13,000 year prior residents who may have the ultimate, bonafide claim.  Another tangent is how, an armed group of white men can commandeer a federal facility with police, sheriffs, marshals, FBI and military within spitting distance and nobody gets shot.  But an unarmed and innocent black man in any one of a dozen U.S. cities can be shot by police because the officers feel their lives “were in danger”.

And then, there is the Constitutional interpretation, which unfortunately, like the Bible, can be interpreted to mean anything by those believing they are the chosen ones to interpret it.

But I digress.

Back in 1961, during a seminar hosted by the National Educational Association of Broadcasters, University of Illinois, Urbana faculty member Harry Skornea told a story about his work in East Germany just after the Berlin Wall went up:

“This reminds me of 1948 when I struggled a good deal with the organization of a news department for RIAS (Radio In The American Sector) in Berlin. The blockade was starting and our people were trying to set up a good news department that would cause the people to listen to RIAS instead of the much more powerful East Berlin station. And one of the things that I thought they were doing wrong and which we finally were able to put a stop to was that, good as our news department was, the communists were using us, or manipulating us. When one of the East German leaders, Grotewohl or someone else would speak, or when there would be an enormous rally in Leipzig, our newsmen would be real proud of the fact that they were able to cover it.  And I said, “Don’t you realize that in a great many cases these meetings are being staged precisely so you will cover them and report them?  And that you’re being used time after time?  You’ve got to have the courage not to cover certain things which have propaganda implications, because unless you’re extremely perceptive, you may be lending yourself to their nefarious ends.  And I think that in a great many cases, we fail to recognize the extent to which things we relay are “managed” in some way or other by people who are a little bit more skillful than we are, and I think we are going to have to begin to screen more carefully ourselves”.

The news cycle is such a circular heroin injection and any news porn that fills the seconds is considered to be serving the highest standards of the Society of Professional Journalists, or at least the drooling demands of advertisers.  But does telling the public all about it all the time make them informed such that they will solve the problem without, as Oregon Governor Kate Brown lamented regarding the Malheur situation, “tearing themselves apart”?  Can it make the perpetrators think about the philosophy of the matter at a depth deeper than their ego without making them laugh so hard that they piss themselves?

Or does it just make journalists punks?

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One Response

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  1. On ‘courage not to cover things’ and being managed … in a media reality primarily re-purposing press releases from authority: I watch coverage of Jo Ann Hardesty, our Principal Partner at Consult Hardesty spin through the news cycle. We’re trained to feed news bites. A local affiliate will want her perspective, roll a truck to our offices, set up a shot that’s slightly different than last time, and record ten or twenty minutes. She’ll maybe have two complete sentences at noon, with a super below her name by 4pm. Then the deterioration begins: at 6pm a complex point is reduced to mere syllables; often by 10pm the package will substitute someone actually making the point the news generators wanted made … and Jo Ann’s perspective disappears.

    Roger David Hardesty

    January 26, 2016 at 14:16


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