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Finding New ‘F-words’ in Trump Era News

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The delivery of political news in the Trump Era has certainly taken on new dimensions. Months before President Trump was elected in 2016, Americans were bamboozled with Fake News. That ‘f-word’ (Fake) has certainly been monopolized by Trump ever since; we are almost to the point where we can predict when he will pull that term out of his sleeve. No doubt, Ellul would have been all over this phenomenon with his social analysis were he alive today.

I am more interested, however, in three other ‘f-words’ that President Trump’s team will not claim as useful adjectives to publicly advance their interests. They inform a newer style of generating news that carries significant power. These are: Fuzzy News, Fast News, and Flip-Flop News.

Consider the obfuscation that comes from Fuzzy News. Trump’s first six months involved a daily diet of news about Russian involvement in swaying election results. Or was it interference? Or was it collusion? By keeping the focus on terminology, the whole field of vision remains blurry for most Americans. When threatening exposé news came into sharper focus last summer, there was a spate of Fast News. This speedy layering of new stories, such as North Korea’s nuclear threat, had a way of ‘trumping’ older news. Finally, Flip-Flop News gets a lot of attention but also creates a lot of confusion. To his voter base, Trump can sound like an NRA lobbyist, but to a diverse American audience, in the wake of school shootings, he can play his sympathy card.

Altogether, this notched-up delivery keeps everyone hopping, including the mainstream press. News professionals play an equal role in this delivery. And how can anyone keep up with it all? The danger here, writes Ellul, is that political propaganda, to be effective, has to seem natural to the masses. “The prolonged and hypnotic repetition of the same complex of ideas, the same images, and the same rumors conditions man for the assimilation of his nature to propaganda” (The Technological Society, p. 366).

Progressives see how right-leaning citizens (who define liberals as today’s real enemy) are governed by mindless group-think. Conversely, conservatives see liberals as being collectively duped by propaganda. What worried Ellul was how any form of collective conscience could repress an individual’s critical faculties to think well and take responsible action. And nobody is off the hook (p. 372, Tech. Society).

Given this broad perspective, Ellul was not only concerned about the opinion-swaying content of political news (hello, Fox), but also the mystifying format of news which erodes human thinking and responsiveness. When the word content of news is ‘humiliated’ by obfuscation, speed, and changeability, it affects our very humanity. “We are overwhelmed by a jumble of information: on the latest model of ballpoint pens, the wedding in Monaco, the Iranian revolution, increased taxes, new possibilities for credit, the conversion of the biggest polluter to the cause of non- pollution — ten thousand words of information in an instant. We would go crazy if we really had to listen to all this seriously, so the flood of words continues, and we let it flow….I must defend myself against such invasions; my mind closes up spontaneously, to keep me from being torn to pieces….I refuse to hear (without even realizing it.)” (The Humiliation of the Word, p.156).

If Ellul can include himself in this vulnerable spot of being overwhelmed, perhaps this is a good starting-point for us to take stock of our own plight and to find new ways to resist what for many may appear as a natural, acceptable, daily presentation of political news.

Posted in Current Drift.

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