Let me tell you a story...
Where are we today? China’s stock market is unstable. Greece is close to default. The negotiating has stopped. Russia and the US are having a stare down over Ukraine. Kerry has a mysterious “bike accident” for daring to try to make peace. I bet someone cut his brake cables! Wait, maybe he was shot. We’ll never know for sure in this life. France and Belgium have frozen Russian Assets, managing to piss off Putin, and metals are trading flat after a two day short squeeze. I trust there is more squeezing to come after we get past options expiration in GLD and SLV. Yesterday’s pullback in silver made perfect sense after looking at the “sweet spot” in options—causing the most SLV contracts to close worthless as possible. The futures options have a bit more time before we see them gravitate to the sweet spot. Perhaps our squeeze will be completed by then.
Well enough about markets. Trade wisely (if you are trading) and keep stacking. Now, about that story.
Some years ago, when my kids were young and bouncy, we took a drive with another family in a big van to another town, with their three kids and ours. The five kids (8, 9, 11, 12 & 13) were restless. So I tried an experiment. I began telling them a story. They all tuned in immediately. I opened the story in a standard fashion and then my ornery side appeared. I described how I got our of bed, put on my socks, felt a burr in one and took it off. Removed the burr and put the sock on. The story was utterly boring. I raised the stakes and began adding detail about how I tied my shoes. After 5 minutes, I was still sitting on the bed tying my shoes, but all kids were still tuned in. The mother of three of the boys, an English teacher, began chuckling. She had been listening and quickly saw through my ruse. I was just seeing how long I could hold the kid’s attention with a totally pointless story. We were both amazed. The kids begged me to continue.
People love stories. Kids build their world around stories. Humans are hard-wired to connect with stories. Want to recapture an audience’s attention during a speech, lecture or sermon? Just launch into a story and watch those drowsy eyes come to life and the heads turn your way. But stories serve a more important cultural function than simply entertainment. They bear the culture to the next generation and continually remind members of how to live their lives. But stories have evolved. In older times, stories were embedded in music, with meter and rhyme to help the mind remember. Bards travelled the countryside singing ballads about heroes and villains of the past and the results of their actions. Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish patriot in 1704 said it first: "If I were permitted to write all the ballads I need not care who makes the laws of the nation." (Aha! Not only was he a banker, Rothchild was a plagiarist!)
A modern media theorist, George Gerbner, founder of the Annenberg school of Communication, has spent the latter half of his career trying to remind us of Fletcher’s thesis, putting a modern twist on it. Gerbner teaches that “whoever tells most of the stories to most of the people most of the time has effectively assumed the cultural role of parent and school.” But it is no longer ballads that do the teaching, it is Television. Most of Gerbner’s groundbreaking research was performed in the 70-80s. Clearly the internet is displacing television, although the internet is beginning to look a lot more like TV these days than the virtual books and magazines of its early days. Calling this new teacher the mainstream media seems fair enough.
Gerbner explains that, "We live in a world that is erected by the stories we tell . . . These stories say this is how life works. These are the people who win; these are the people who lose; these are the kinds of people who are villains.” He goes on: "The stories are told not by parents, not by the school, not by the church, not by the community or tribe and in some cases not even by the native country but by a relatively small and shrinking group of global conglomerates with something to sell.” Gerbner should have gone further. These corporate interests, as we are learning are controlled by an even smaller population of major stockholders who set policies and agendas. Some call them the Bilderbergers, others call them the illuminati, the elites, the billionaire’s club—take your pick. Perhaps there are multiple factions in competition? But the fact is Western media are controlled by five corporations now. Their news coverage and agendas are strongly congruent.
Gerbner coined the term “cultivation theory” to describe this cultural shaping mechanism that is our media. The metaphor is apt. Just as a farmer cultivates a crop by preparing the soil, then tending the young plants until they bear fruit, our mainstream media cultivates the soil in which our children are planted, then prunes and shapes their beliefs as they mature into adults. As the bible teaches us, “train a child in the way he should go and in the end he will not depart from it.” The media gradually and steadily cultivates our beliefs and values in the direction of what we read and watch. Yes, there is some reciprocal influence in that producers serve up what the public wants to see, but the media decision makers are the agent. The viewers are largely passive, choosing from a small selection that is set before them each day.
Media research has consistently drifted toward studying the news media. That is where the central action is. Media entertainment products seem to be subordinated to the news in their power to cultivate us. They often work hand in hand. The news tell us real stories about violence. The movies and weekly programs show graphically how such typical murders occur.
Two other theories of how the media shape us have come to prominence. First is what we call gatekeeping theory, where media editors make editorial decisions about what content goes public and what gets rejected. A couple of years ago, a CNN journalist quit and went public, complaining that her editors would not run the stories she worked very hard on because it made the US military and state department look foolish with their middle East policies. Earlier this year, I tried to look up the stories about her with no luck. They had been scrubbed—an even darker facet of gatekeeping. It used to be that a despot would send out minions to gather all the banned books and burn them—quite an undertaking. Today, just a few clicks by the tech crew and stories are gone forever.
Edit: Nick Elway found and linked an article below about Amber Lyon, the scrubbed journalist. Many thanks Nick. God I love this place.
It’s not just what is in or out of the news that is important, we have to consider the frequency of stories told. When the news media highlights a story with frequent and prominent coverage, the audience will consider it more important. What power. But surely those in control are benevolent and would never exploit this power for their own ends. Surely the news media serves the public, no? Researchers have found a 90% correlation with what the news says was important and what viewers identified was important. McCombs and Shaw articulate the idea of agenda setting theory to describe the process. They teach that “The media doesn’t tell you what to think, it tells you what to think about.” So when the news runs a steady string of stories about one cultural group as always being the perps in crimes, people‘s attitudes towards that group turn negative. Gerbner described a similar process regarding the reporting of crime. The news media creates the “mean world syndrome” as we come to think of the world as a violent place when in reality, crime rates may be lower than a decade ago.
These views of media power over the culture are not new. They began to be explored as television, and now the internet, moved to the fore. But the world is changing. What we see in the news media today, on TV, the internet, cable, newspapers, cannot be neatly classified as gatekeeping or agenda setting, though elements of these theoretical mechanisms are at play. While attitudes, beliefs and values are being cultivated, the means by which we are being cultivated has transformed. The news has taken a distinct turn to the dark side, reframing events in a way that supports their agendas, and reporting false or fabricated stories to the public. So I propose an additional angle on the means by which the media shape our thinking: strategic fabrication theory.
Now, I’ll be fair here and state that many of the journalists may not be aware that they are not telling the truth. They simply cover stories and quote “important people” who actually verbalize the lies. Corporations that wish to have the public believe a certain “story” about how the world is, or a so-called “fact” about an event simply fabricate the story and pass it to the journalists, who work for their companies. They have highly trained PR teams that write stories and provide them as press releases for overworked, underpaid journalists to copy verbatim. Their primary tactics are by “re-framing” and telling small consistent lies. When caught in a lie, they can always say “Oops, I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” or “My source was wrong.” The lies are usually small, but they are ubiquitous, their effect is cumulative. Call it “death by a thousand cuts.” The effect is worse than simple ignorance. People think they know how the world is. But they are deceived. And as they say, the worst thing about being deceived is that you are deceived. You believe you are right and when challenged, self defense mechanisms kick in and you vigorously defend that lie. Worse yet, after some time has passed, the deceived person cannot even remember why they believe what they believe. It becomes a hardened bias. But instead of having the ability to defend it intellectually, they simply shut out any contrary facts or ideas. The blind are not just leading the blind, they are making the world darker.
(I feel like I am preaching to the choir)
An example of reframing appeared in the NYT on June 17, same day as the FED minutes:
As we recall, in 2007 the housing bubble burst, prices plunged as a wave of foreclosures flooded the markets, now, after the bounce off the lows, this journalist says everything is just right. Too hot—then too cold—now just right! Goldilocks must be hiding around here someplace.
In addition the “mean world syndrome” in the news, now we have the “all is well” syndrome on the economy and business pages. Housing has recovered. People are back to work. Retirement accounts are growing. Is it true? The problem is that the jobs are part time, and people are not retiring. The monetary system is still broken as evidenced by emergency policies still in effect. Housing prices are not just right. But that news will never get past the gatekeeper.
Another example of re-framing is embedded in Yellen’s story that we should focus on the direction of movement, not the speed. While this may be arguable in a static environment, the proposition is absurd in a changing environment.
You see, only the fed’s thinking has shifted. Their actions have stayed the same. “A slower increase” sounds like they are stalling. And then the rhetorical question “Does it really matter?” The implied answer is “no, of course not” It is “intent” that matters. Well, actually it matters, Mr Irwin. Because in three months the whole playing field may be different. The press here is downplaying that the Fed broke their promise to raise rates soon. They’ll do it later. Doing it later is as good as getting it done now. Raising rates now will likely cause a correction in stocks and perhaps a meltdown of the bond markets. Later could do the same, if the economy is not improved. But why would anyone expect the economy improve with more monetary policy that has not worked.
Hey Honey, I’ll be cleaning the garage a bit more slowly than you asked. Hey Honey, I’ll be putting my underwear in the dirty clothes hamper more slowly than you requested. I’ll do it later! See! All good right?
Reframing is nothing new—“making the worse appear the better reason,” as John Milton so famously described the rhetorical work of Beelzebub in Paradise Lost. The tactics haven’t changed. And as Milton concluded so long ago, “all was false and hollow.”
Journalists typically report lies of others who are the experts (except for Brian Williams). We have discussed repeatedly here the stats put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics—an office that counts a part-timer, like my son who earned $3400 last year, as “employed” just like his father who worked all year and earned enough to support the family. This summer he works two days per week and no doubt is still considered employed by the BLS. Obama reports how many jobs have been created in every speech he gives. But the breakdown of job quality (pay-rate and hours per week) is conspicuously missing. These are not the union auto-worker jobs of the 80s. They are the new world order jobs where people get to have more than one—often three or more to make ends meet. How fortunate you are my children. Back in my day, we only got to have one job, and we were lucky to get it. And the news media dutifully reports every word.
These lies are often ambiguous and small. Too big and someone might take note.
It is difficult to challenge the liars. Yellen sees signs of a “pickup.”
Jerome: No you don't
Janet: Yes I do!
Only the Fed can read the tea leaves. If any sensible person looks at that complicated data, I suspect they will have a different conclusion. Need I mention the details of their exit plan? We here know they do not have a credible plan. So the details must be left shrouded in mystery. It’s not the journalists that are lying, its Yellen. But the public receives a lie nonetheless. And that keeps the “all is well” narrative going strong.
The result of these unending fabrications is a grand story about our world that is ubiquitously and tirelessly promoted to the public. “The shadow of crisis has past!” Obama’s administration and the FED have led us to a full recovery. Other versions of the grand story are excluded from the mainstream, other versions are ridiculed, other versions are ignored.
The preferred story, as we have come to know it, is rather convoluted, but some distinct themes are emerging. America is good. Our central bankers have saved the world economies and led us to a bright future. The vision began by the United Nations will bring peace and harmony through our virtuous western “democratic” system. But as Enigo Montoya famously said, “Democracy—you keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
Recovery—you keep using that word …
Employment—you keep using that word …
And then I read this on ZH this morning: “Greek journalists were “trained” in Washington D.C. in order to support the positions of the IMF and the European Commission in Greek media.” Talk about ethics!
The media theorists get it. They have been describing these mind-shaping tactics for decades now. This is mainstream media research, not the rantings of fringe professors. But the students hardly take notice on their way to their journalism degrees. Alas!
Keep telling us those sweet little lies. We don’t want to know the truth. We can’t handle the truth.
- Gerbner, G. (1998) Cultivation analysis: An Overview. Mass Communication & Society 175-194.
- Stossel, S. (May 1997) “The man who counts the killings.” The Atlantic Monthly.
- Shoemaker, P. & Vos, T. (2009). Gatekeeping Theory. New York: Routledge.
- McCombs, M & Shaw, D (1972). "The agenda-setting function of mass media". Public Opinion Quarterly 36 (2).