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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.

4 thoughts on “Finding New ‘F-words’ in Trump Era News

    Ben Clark says: July 6, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    I love the quote that Peter provided, particularly this section:

    “…modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but be does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited.”

    How often today are we bombarded with stories that incite, not critical thinking, but instead ‘feelings.’ For example, TIME magazine published a picture of a crying child allegedly separated from its mother, as a part of its coverage of that week’s hot-topic: the separation of children from their parents on the Mexican border. It seems obvious that the news media wants us to think THIS is reality. However, if one moves past feelings, it can easily be discovered that this photo doesn’t even depict what they said it does: this child was never separated from her parents. But to the person caught up in today’s fast past news cycle, they never even hear about the picture again. Instead, they are only left with that image, out of context, framed by the propagandist to distort reality and influence weak minds.

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    Ed says: June 4, 2018 at 11:41 am

    I’m pleased to see that the practice of “mindfulness” is taking root in public consciousness as a corrective to stress, addiction, speed, and the bombardment of information that daily confronts us. Lately I’ve noticed how addicted I’ve become to scanning news headlines several times an hour via websites and social media under the illusion that I must “keep up” lest I miss something. Mainstream news too often captivates me with all the lurid enticements and depth of a sleazy pulp novel. I’ve been working on applying mindfulness practices toward my absorption of news. I’m finding it helpful to focus on a single news item with an attitude of prayer and attentiveness, and “going deep” on it, slowly and with contemplation. Rather than rely on the opinions of partisan pundits, I’m examining issues from multiple perspectives and trying my best to listen and focus. This isn’t easy. It requires intentional quieting of my heart and mind. I see this as vital to resisting propaganda and media overwhelm.

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    Ted Lewis says: May 24, 2018 at 9:08 pm

    Wonderful quote, Peter. Thanks for adding this. I love Ellul’s double use of the word ‘current’, applying to what is new and now, and also what pulls us along. Very fitting for the kick-off entry of “Current Drift.”

    Also like the phrase at the end, “…what makes it news is its dissemination.” The Trump administration is masterful at the art of dissemination, and most of the workers in the news media world, liberal and conservative alike, are pulled along like thread following the needle.

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    Peter Falk says: April 30, 2018 at 8:01 am

    Ellul Quote:
    “To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; be is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness — of himself, of his condition, of his society — for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events. We already have mentioned man’s inability to consider several facts or events simultaneously and to make a synthesis of them in order to face or to oppose them. One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but be does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandist, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks. Moreover, there is a spontaneous defensive reaction in the individual against an excess of information and — to the extent that he clings (unconsciously) to the unity of his own person — against inconsistencies. The best defense here is to forget the preceding event. In so doing, man denies his own continuity; to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented.

    This situation makes the “current-events man” a ready target for propaganda. Indeed, such a man is highly sensitive to the influence of present-day currents; lacking landmarks, he follows all currents. He is unstable because he runs after what happened today; he relates to the event, and therefore cannot resist any impulse coming from that event. Because he is immersed in current affairs, this man has a psychological weakness that puts him at the mercy of the propagandist. No confrontation ever occurs between the event and the truth; no relationship ever exists between the event and the person. Real information never concerns such a person. What could be more striking, more distressing, more decisive than the splitting of the atom, apart from the bomb itself? And yet this great development is kept in the background, behind the fleeting and spectacular result of some catastrophe or sports event because that is the superficial news the average man wants. Propaganda addresses itself to that man; like him, it can relate only to the most superficial aspect of a spectacular event, which alone can interest man and lead him to make a certain decision or adopt a certain attitude.

    But here we must make an important qualification. The news event may be a real fact, existing objectively, or it may be only an item of information, the dissemination of a supposed fact. What makes it news is its dissemination, not its objective reality.”
    ― Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

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