Op-Ed

How to avoid propaganda in search of truth

Doesn't it bother you sometimes that people you disagree with politically listen to that awful propaganda put out by their side? So how can those people, and you and those who agree with you, avoid being propagandized?

Seek the truth; be well-informed, not misled. To be well-informed, we need access to information that is accurate (factual), fair (unbiased) and balanced (presents all views supported by the evidence).

Major newspapers and the television and radio networks generally provide accurate news reporting. But commentary — the source's opinion as to what the news means — can be problematic. Some commentary is fair and balanced. Much is partisan.

It becomes propaganda when it is manipulative, close-minded and intemperate. Propagandists don't play fair. Their news items are merely tools selected for their usefulness in promoting the perspective. They exaggerate favorable evidence and ignore evidence to the contrary. If you think a propagandist consistently "tells it like it is," you have been propagandized.

Name-calling is a common tactic. That the name-calling is effective can be more important than that it is true. In reality, though, George W. Bush is not a moron or a fascist. In reality, Barack Obama is not a foreigner or a Muslim.

Being propagandized can be comforting: fulfilling wishful thinking, assuming you know for sure who the good guys and bad guys are and being in sync with family, friends, church, etc.

The downside includes the risk of becoming close-minded and less in touch with reality. Also, in your community, you are more likely to be a supporter of uncompromising partisanship and an obstacle to pursuing the common good.

A few examples of sources who sometimes function as propagandists include the liberal Keith Olberman, Rachel Maddow, Moveon.org, Daily Kos, The Huffington Post and AlterNet and the conservative Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, RedState, WorldNetDaily and BigGovernment (and other Breitbart websites). Harder to categorize, but often a propagandist, is Glenn Beck.

Even more troublesome are "pied pipers" — charismatic propagandists who commandeer the thinking of their followers by making questionable enticements along the lines of: "We are right and good and they are wrong and dangerous" and "We are the real Americans." Pied pipers like to be seen as beacons of truth and decency. They make politics a matter of good versus evil.

Insecure people — those who feel powerless, who are worried about the future — are more in need of the comfort provided by a pied piper or other propagandist and are more likely to think "if it comforts me, it is true; and I don't care about evidence to the contrary." Their minds are there for the taking.

Conservative Limbaugh and conservative-libertarian Beck are very successful commentators who sometimes function as pied pipers.

In their defense, each may say he is an entertainer, not a journalist, so he shouldn't be held to the standards of accuracy, fairness and balance.

Regardless, many people take their commentary as authoritative, as gospel even. I am not aware of any big-time liberal pied pipers.

To avoid being propagandized:

■ Be open-minded. Much can be learned from those who disagree with you.

■ Be realistic. Those comforting voices may be misleading you.

■ Be careful which commentary sources you use. Non-partisan sources are the most helpful. If you use partisan sources, try to balance them — conservative and liberal, for example. The Sunday morning current-events panels on broadcast television tend to be balanced; try This Week (ABC), Face the Nation (CBS), Fox News Sunday (Fox) and Meet the Press (NBC).

Unfortunately, more and more people are getting their news commentary from cable television, talk radio and the Internet.

The prime-time commentary of MSNBC tends to be liberal and that of Fox News to be conservative, with CNN somewhere in between. Interestingly, the prime-time viewership of Fox News is way up and that of CNN is way down. Commentary on talk radio is mostly to be avoided. And many of the political Web sites, liberal and conservative, are propaganda mills. Sensible political Web sites include Yahoo.com, USAToday.com and the sites of the Sunday morning television panels.

Last, and certainly not least, are Web sites that check the truth of statements made by and about politicians, such as PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org. These truth-checkers can help ground your political beliefs in reality.

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