Answering a Few Questions

We recently received an email query from a high school student asking some questions about one of the books that John Stauber and I have written about the war in Iraq. Rather than answer those questions individually, I thought I'd answer them publicly here:

1. What are the top techniques deployed by the government to falsely inform the public?

There are a range of techniques used by governments, corporations and other parties to misinform the public. Some of the techniques that I find most objectionable are:

  • The third party technique, in which the source of a message tries to conceal the fact that it came from them by putting it in the mouth of some seemingly independent third party. The Pentagon pundits program is an example of this technique in action, as is the U.S. sponsorship of the Iraqi National Congress, which was then cited as an independent Iraqi voice and provided some of the false information used to make the case for war.
  • Distortion of facts and selective withholding of information. As we detailed in our books, U.S. officials used this technique to create the false impression that 9/11 terrorist Mohammed Atta had visited Iraq. When asked for evidence of this, the same officials then said they couldn't discuss the details for security reasons -- even though the FBI's careful reconstruction of Atta's movements showed that he could not possibly have visited Iraq when they suggested that he did. Likewise, Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was a striking example of selective and distorted use of evidence.
  • Appeals to fear and other emotional manipulation. An example would be the administration's suggestion that if we didn't invade Iraq, the "smoking gun" proving it had a weapons program could be a "mushroom cloud."

2. In The Best War Ever, the authors seem to hint at the public being completely incompetent in deciding what it true or false, especially in the area of television. What is your opinion?

I don't think we hint at that at all. I don't really make any assumptions about the intelligence or competence of the public. All we tried to do in our books was point out ways that bad information gets spread and leads to bad decisions.

You don't have to be stupid or incompetent to fall for bad information. I think Abraham Lincoln got things about right when he said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." That doesn't mean everyone is foolish. It means no one is above error.

3. On page 164 of The Best War Ever, the authors bring up a discrepancy between print and television media, but general population belief is centered on television media. In your opinion, do you believe that Americans in general cannot “get off the couch” and find the real news instead of the custom tailored reports shown twenty-four hours a day?

I think people ought to seek more of their information from sources other than television news, which is pretty awful a lot of the time. TV news is driven by questions such as, "Can we get good video of this?" "Is it dramatic?" "Will it draw an audience?" It's not impossible to produce serious, quality journalism when those conditions are always on your mind, but it's difficult.

As for whether Americans should "get off the couch," I think most people live busy lives. They may not have time to read and weigh carefully all of the information that is out there. Most people tend to prioritize taking care of their families and doing their jobs, and that's understandable. I don't have a judgmental attitude toward it at all.

The reality, in any case, is that people in the United States get most of their information about politics and policy from television, and they get fed a lot of propaganda in the process.

4. Does major television stations have knowledge that they are providing false information or are they just as hypnotized as the American public?

I don't want to over-generalize about journalists. During the buildup to the war in Iraq, however, I think the major TV networks definitely did get caught up in "war fever."

5. Is Ahmed Chalabi and the INC responsible for the second Iraq war?

No, the Bush administration made the decision to go to war. However, Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress certainly helped pave the way for it.

6. Do perception management firms have a bigger influence than public relations firms?

I think "perception management" is just a highfalutin term for public relations. Some of the big PR firms want to be seen as performing a management function rather than being mere publicists. I guess my answer to this question, therefore, would be no.


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