Constructing Our Own Realities

In the mid-1990s, as part of the publisher’s effort to promote my first book (“What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?”), I was booked onto a call-in radio show in South Carolina. Belatedly, I found that the show I was on followed Rush Limbaugh; the calls that came in reflected that audience.

I vividly remember one of those calls. The country had been going through one of those periodic arguments about whether the religion clauses of the First Amendment preclude  posting religious texts–specifically, the Christian version of the Ten Commandments– on the walls of public buildings. (It does.)

The caller argued that the Founders would have had no problem with such practices, because “James Madison said we are giving the Bill of Rights to people who live by the Ten Commandments.” This supposed quotation had been circling through rightwing organizations; as I explained to the caller, not only had it been rebutted by Madison scholars, the statement was dramatically inconsistent with everything we know Madison did say. At which point the caller yelled, “Well, I think he said it!” and hung up.

This exchange occurred before the Internet, before Facebook, Twitter and other social media facilitated our ability to fashion our own realities. I recount it because it illustrates how desperately many of us–probably most of us–look for evidence that supports our biases and beliefs.(As the Simon and Garfunkel song says, “man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”)

What brought this exchange to mind was a column in the Washington Post by Ralph Peters, a commentator who has just left Fox News.

As I wrote in an internal Fox memo, leaked and widely disseminated, I declined to renew my contract as Fox News’s strategic analyst because of the network’s propagandizing for the Trump administration. Today’s Fox prime-time lineup preaches paranoia, attacking processes and institutions vital to our republic and challenging the rule of law.

Four decades ago, as a U.S. Army second lieutenant, I took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution.” In moral and ethical terms, that oath never expires. As Fox’s assault on our constitutional order intensified, spearheaded by its after-dinner demagogues, I had no choice but to leave.

Peters, who is very politically conservative, says the network was once an outlet for responsible conservatism (an assertion with which we might take issue), but has become an intellectually-dishonest propaganda source. There is a good deal of evidence that Fox has always been more interested in delivering Republican talking points than in objective reporting; what Peters is reacting to may simply be the outlet’s increasingly blatant partisanship. The age of Trump isn’t noted for subtlety.

Fox bears a considerable amount of the blame for creating an environment in which voters prefer spin and propaganda to objective fact, science and evidence. Its influence is waning now, as television channels and internet offerings proliferate, and as its older audience dies off, but America will be dealing with the damage it has inflicted for many more years.

That said, the basic challenge we face isn’t new. Voters have always “cherry picked” information. Confirmation bias didn’t suddenly appear in response to Fox or Facebook.

Fox’s business plan was explicitly focused upon providing ideologically compatible “news” to an “underserved” Republican audience. (Less-well-known Sinclair Broadcasting is equally dishonest.) My caller, back in the mid-1990s, may have gotten his misinformation from books by “historian” David Barton, who made his money giving fundamentalist Christians a version of history more to their liking. There will always be ethically-challenged entrepreneurs willing to make a buck pandering to our fears and prejudices.

The question is: what can we do about it? How do we counter propaganda effectively, without doing violence to free speech and the First Amendment? The only answer I can come up with is better civic and news literacy education, but that will take time and a commitment to revitalize the public education that Trump and DeVos are trying to dismantle.

It’s a conundrum.

26 thoughts on “Constructing Our Own Realities

  1. Our news has always been propagandized and Noam Chomsky did an excellent job breaking down the methods used.

    Capitalists overtook the free press. You control the voice, you control the conversation. You can thank our Intelligentsia for that. What they were scared of is Americans using their own minds for decision making. It became a top-down imposition of ideas/narratives.


    The press was meant to be democratic like our voices but as many of us sensed long ago and are discovering now, the news/info was shaped by others and dumped on us. Truth-seeking wasn’t an imperative. The propaganda models of media eliminated truth-seeking because it wasn’t conducive to profits.

    This is why the media industry is in the toilet today. Nobody trusts them but the Oligarchs want to use the media to manipulate the people. The Elites have the “conundrum.”

    It all goes back to morals and ethics. Hitler was obviously a great leader, but was he ethical? Did he have a moral compass? According to his book, he knew what he was doing with propaganda, but used it anyway.

    It’s a spiritual axiom, once you know how easy it is to manipulate others, do you use it for personal gain (selfishness) or do you take a higher road and stick with the truth?

    I can tell you from my personal adventures, the truth isn’t always a welcome gift. I think every single religion addresses this very conundrum and it comes down to morals and ethics.

    It’s also why Plato warned us about ignoring the body politic because our “inferiors” will gladly exploit the positions for personal gains. Kakistocracy.

  2. Corporate responsibility MAY help. IF our large corporations develop a desire to stop the downward spiral caused by the hate broadcasters, they could choose to quit funding them with their ad dollars. The outflow of ad revenue can do what we cannot. But WE cannot really force the corporations to become better citizens. Maybe their stockholders can. I hope so.

  3. “Constructing Our Own Realities” is not only a conundrum, it is part of human nature. We all want to be right – change that to “correct” – there is a vast difference. I love the story Sheila related about the caller on the radio program; I have family members like that…the friends who continue to adhere to that level of belief have dropped away. When I still had partial hearing; what I heard wasn’t always what had been said, or even close to it. Some of my responses were hysterically funny; others resulted in looks which would fit Trump’s ugly assessment of beautiful, talented, deaf actress, Marlee Matlin, when he stated she is retarded – that all deaf people are retarded. Constructing my own “reality” in those situations was not done deliberately and I accepted correction. Sometimes we might want to overlook the “reality” others have constructed for themselves and continue trying to make change where change is needed. Such is NOT the case concerning the reality of those in the White House and Congress today; their cherry-picked “solutions” to national and international problems have left us with nothing but the “pits”.

    Gary Varvel is again guest columnist on the Indianapolis Star Viewpoints page; today he took on the new “Roseanne” TV sitcom revival. I forgot yesterday was Tuesday so missed the episode; I do want to give the program and the cast, more than Roseanne, the benefit of the doubt. The premier back-to-back episodes included some very funny references to her Trump support but the program content was closer to her “do as I say, not what I do” as it is taking on serious issues we all face today. Per Varvel; “The Conner family admits they are dysfunctional, and I realize that is where the humor comes from. And of course without conflict, there would be nothing to talk about. But the ways in which they deal with their problems just made me sad.” Varvel seems unaware of the reality of the Conner family and the way they deal with problems IS the reality of today; he “cherry-picked” the wrong program to take issue with to prove his far right-wing, conservative viewpoint as he often does with his unfunny cartoons. Love her or hate her; “Roseanne” depicts middle-America at its best and its worst in turn. Unlike “Leave It To Beaver”, “Ozzie And Harriet” and their ilk; she doesn’t depict propaganda.

    “The question is: what can we do about it? How do we counter propaganda effectively, without doing violence to free speech and the First Amendment? The only answer I can come up with is better civic and news literacy education, but that will take time and a commitment to revitalize the public education that Trump and DeVos are trying to dismantle.”

    I have always seen freedom of speech as a problem because it requires no basis in truth or fact; and the 2nd Amendment includes no limitation on arming the public, both Amendments are open to interpretation, otherwise called “Constructing Our Own Realities”.

  4. For an understanding of the beginnings of the current media problems and the Constitution I recommend the book “Murrow: His Life And Times”. On October 15, 1958 Murrow gave a major address to The Radio-Television News Directors Association dinner held in Chicago. Publicly taking on his own employer, CBS and William Paley, he strongly warned the members of his profession of the dangers they all faced as their news rooms were being overtaken by the entertainment and profit driven sections of the industry. Sixty years later propaganda as news, lies, spin, and manipulations fill the airways and cable wires.

    Until we take on the greed that drives boardroom decisions we will not see the full blossom of “freedom of the press”.

  5. “Until we take on the greed that drives boardroom decisions we will not see the full blossom of “freedom of the press”.

    As with freedom of speech, freedom of the press requires no basis in truth or fact. Open to interpretation, leaving us no protection from these “freedoms”. Trump’s repeated claims of “fake news” includes films of himself filled with lies which he is allowed to deny the truth of facts posted in the press. It is all part of the 1st Amendment protection; even if our “leader” lies his way into nuclear war. His “realities” will kill us all; we have no protection from his “fake news”.

  6. Perception is reality. I’m not sure many of us really want facts. My advice is always be skeptical.

  7. Todd,

    “Capitalists overtook the free press. You control the voice, you control the conversation. You can thank our Intelligentsia for that. What they were scared of is Americans using their own minds for decision making. It became a top-down imposition of ideas/narratives.


    Whatever you want to call it, what we have in the U.S. is not even close to being a democracy.

    As you have so well stated, it’s all about MANIPULATION. This problem was all set out back in 1966 in “The Manipulators” by Leslie Gould, the Financial Editor of the “New York World Telegram” (David McKay Company, Inc., New York, 1966). The last time I looked, you won’t find this book on Amazon. It’s important to remember in the U.S. we don’t burn books, we just buy them all up.

    How much do you think my copy Is worth?

    To All, the problem is much more than just about following the $$$$$. It’s how the DEVIANT ELITE manipulates the political, economic, and social systems with those $$$$$. See “Elite Deviance” by David R. Simon (Pearson Education Incorporated, Boston, 1982). Simon was a long time professor here in Jacksonville at the University of North Florida.

  8. Yes. Those who are led by nitwits deserve their own misery. There is no arbiter of the truth except the reality of our actions. If segments of our society choose to follow the pied-piper of B.S., like Limbaugh, Fox, Jones, et. al., they deserve the reality they get, but the rest of us are screwed too if that reality creates a creature like Donald Trump as our president.

    Yes, Trump will lie us and rage us into some sort of disaster. It is his nature to do those things. He has proven he can screw up and corrupt everything and anything he touches. The “media” that he favors, favors his B.S., thus he adheres to their line. THEY are wagging him.

    The only valid recourse to ending this loop of informational tyranny is to boycott the money providers for those outlets. We all know that Fox is strongly biased. Stop watching them. Stop buying the bullshit products they shill for. Write to the sponsors telling them what you’re doing. Remember, most “management” decisions by the money moguls are based on phone calls and complaints.

  9. Is the statement “Hitler was obviously a great leader, but…” similar to “Dr. Hannibal Lecter was obviously a great cook, but…”??? In my reality, Hitler is not great at anything.

  10. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides noted that people rarely examine the credibility of information. They just believe the first thing they hear. Not much has changed.

  11. Please; not to forget, when the court handed down the judgment on Fox News and its broadcasting ‘fake news’ – the judgment went to the effect that Fox as an ‘entertainment entity’ had no requirement to report ‘real news’. (my paraphrase from memory -such as it is…)
    They or any other broadcaster are considered ‘entertainment’ and have no (absolutely none) legal requirement to tell the ‘truth’.
    don’t just take my word for it look it up.
    from Library Grape, 28 June 2009:
    Fox News Has a First Amendment Right to Lie – Updated Public Trusts Obama More Than GOP to Handle Every Issue Fox News Has a First Amendment Right to Lie – Updated
    by Metavirus on Library Grape
    I found out that a 2003 Florida appeals court case decided that Fox News has a First Amendment right to lie:
    A Florida Appeals court ruled there is absolutely nothing illegal about lying, concealing or distorting information by a major press organization. The court reversed the $425,000 jury verdict in favor of journalist Jane Akre who charged she was pressured by Fox Television management and lawyers to air what she knew and documented to be false information. The ruling basically declares it is technically not against any law, rule, or regulation to deliberately lie or distort the news on a television broadcast.
    It’s not like i disagree with the fundamental premise involved here. Fox Noise probably does have a First Amendment right to lie to its viewers. As a lawyer, it’s just interesting to imagine the oral arguments in the case. Here’s how my imagination frames it:
    Judge: So, does Fox News lie in its coverage of the news?
    Fox News Lawyer: Well, of course, your honor, have you watched our network!? But seriously, it’s not as if there’s anything legally wrong with that

  12. It is true that capitalism is in charge of propaganda spooned out to the masses in exchange for their members’ bottom lines and robust Nielsens, but that has little to do with the issue of thought control since all isms are in charge of propaganda in their respective jurisdictions, though the means may vary (e.g., Hitler ruled the airwaves by force, not money). Thus thought control cannot be ascribed to the economy selected by a given society; it is largely a political matter to be set by politicians who have their own fish to fry in their quest for power.

    If such is the case, then in my opinion we should (as Sheila has opined) emphasize civic engagement in sorting out First Amendment incongruities where the rubber meets the road and we are called upon to evaluate the reckless and often false content of such actors as Limbaugh, Ingraham, Fox and other abusers of the rights given in such amendment.

    O.K., Gerald, nice theory, but what about the reality of a public broadcasting license to Fox and other purveyors of propaganda under the pretense that such content is news? How are regulatory agencies to make such determinations within the letter and spirit of the First Amendment? That is a legal swamp and beyond my pay grade to determine, but meanwhile, I submit that we are called upon to call propaganda propaganda and as a matter of civic engagement call out the purveyors thereof at all times and places in the hope that reason finally trumps ideology, and I’m sure Madison would agree

  13. TLentych: watch the German/Austrian produced movie, “Downfall”, about the last 10 days of Hitler and those with him at the end in the Bunker. I have seen many movies about Hitler, WWII and the Holocaust but never seen anything as realistic as this movie; and the comparisons between Hitler and Trump and their supporters is frightening in its reality.

  14. JoAnn,

    ” I have seen many movies about Hitler, WWII and the Holocaust but never seen anything as realistic as this movie; and the comparisons between Hitler and Trump and their supporters is frightening in its reality.”

    How could it be otherwise. The LEADERS of the Religious Right/Far Right in the U.S. have been manipulating the body politic through the use of a NAZI PLAYBOOK for over 50 years, without any ORGANIZED OPPOSITION. Donald Trump is just another logical step [probably a bit too early] along the path to an AUTHORITARIAN STATE.

    Does anyone believe that it “can’t happen here”? Trump’s rise in the polls the past few weeks is very real. Denying that fact won’t make it go away.

  15. “Believe what you want to believe–that’s what everybody does now anyway”, quote from the TV Show X Files.

    There is really no news from CNN, MSDNC and FOX. It is all a script with the purpose to appeal to certain audience segment. Their “News” is just all endless commentary, that perpetuates and reinforces the script.

    Large teacher strikes in KY, and Oklahoma but virtually no coverage on these strikes.

  16. I think much of our dysfunction is not an evil conspiracy but merely a confluence of make more money regardless of the impact on others and run of the mill ignorance. It’s perhaps reassuring that it’s not a plot but on the other hand systemic problems are sticky.

    If there is a way out of the swamp it requires founder level thinking and openness to new ideas and willingness to fight for what’s right long term over what’s easiest now.

    Are “we” up to it?

    I think that we’ll find out this Nov and the one after the next one.

  17. How could there be a plot? If there was a Nazi-like plot I’m sure the Anti-Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center would have sent out an alarm. Right? Nothing to worry about.

  18. Here’s some irony: what has become clear is that our fellow Americans are not as intelligent as we may have thought. So the problem, for us, is that our democracy has produced an outcome we do not like. Just like Obama was for them. Except that we are in fact smarter, and we can see how dangerous the republicans have become, and we can, through evidence and critical thinking, confirm that we are right. Which is something they (tea people) were not able to do because they largely favor faith over facts and critical thinking. So what is the solution? Is democracy unsustainable because humans are simply too stupid to rule themselves? It certainly seems so. So should we prefer a king, because these dumb people need to be ruled (as they seem to understand implicitly)? Obviously that’s precisely what our ancestors fought to abolish. Should we find a way to weed the stupidity out of our population? That’s been tried: eugenics, Hitler, etc. How do we construct a politically fair state where the mechanism of politics would not be destroyed by the participants’ stupidity? Quite a conundrum.

  19. “O.K., Gerald, nice theory, but what about the reality of a public broadcasting license to Fox and other purveyors of propaganda under the pretense that such content is news?”

    The singular dilemma posed by Fox “News” is that it is not required to have a public broadcasting license because it is cable, and thus is not subject to oversight by the FCC (the FCC manages the public airways). That’s how Fox can claim to be “news” rather than mere entertainment.

    That needs to change. The internet and mass “broadcast” communications need to be treated as a public asset or utility, subject to some very basic consumer protections. Among those protections should be an obligation to, at minimum, refrain from making patently false statements.

    If that’s too draconian per First Amendment standards, then their posture as “news” should be forbidden as false advertising. Further, the slander that Fox hosts indulge in on a daily basis should not be entitled to the same deference that is given to news media generally.

  20. Ginny – I confess my ignorance as to licensing of TV cable stations, and you are right. We should not license purveyors of the news based on the methods of communication employed by purveyors. There are far better criteria that could be used to license such purveyors, and designation as a public utility would be my choice to be blended into the underlying statues and rules and regs fleshing out licensing under such statutes. Cable stations regularly abuse their First Amendment rights and we can end or at least reduce such abuse via public control of licensing for public and cable stations alike with expanded powers to the FCC. Thanks for the correction.

  21. Bringing back the equal time rule. There was a time when Fox would have had to provide equal time free to opposing views be expressed. Regulate paid political advertising to non prime time and week nights. Paid speech is not free speech and the airways belong to everyone, not just those who have money. Regulate advertising limiting political commentary to candidates and ruling reference to spouses and family adjudicatatable speech(slander,libel,invasion of privacy).

  22. When the Democrats held a majority,why didn’t they bring forth an equal time rule wrt to the broadcast medium?

    If we’re so smart,how come we didn’t call them out for their lack of effort? Why must we continue supporting such cowards and political rubes unwilling to do anything but capitulate to the demands of the leisure class?

  23. William, progressives are calling out the rubes in the Whitehouse on down. The GOP would have their followers believe that “liberals are the problem.”

    Sometimes, they even use progressives and democrats interchangeably which is incorrect. I know many, many Democrats who are closed-minded. They represent small tent politics. They want what’s good for their members, but not necessarily what’s good for the broader group. Hillary Clinton’s famous statement during the presidential primaries captured it well, “I’m a progressive who wants to get things done.”

    She believes in incremental changes in our systems. The problem is we’ve been making all the adjustments to the right over the years. We’ve handed over the people’s government to the Plutarchs. We’ve literally said, “You’ve got the money, so feel free to call the shots. Hopefully, we’ll all benefit.”

    The only ones who benefit from trickle-down economics are the Plutarchs and the politicians they own. The people get screwed because nobody represents them.

    Sadly, as we’ve discussed here, because of propaganda within the media, the people don’t understand how we’re being screwed or what the remedy is to fix it. This is the stage we’ve been in for the past several years, but not with the help of press who was granted constitutional rights and protections to serve us. They bailed on that obligation just like the political class has done.

    When the majority of people figure it out and vote accordingly in the primaries, we’ll make progress…young people bring us hope.

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