TCS Daily

Trust -- But Verify

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 10, 2005 12:00 AM

On Morcheeba's Who Can You Trust? Skye Edwards sings: "Sometimes I get up feelin' good, but greed gets me down." Some people are singing that about the media world now, too, and the question of who to trust is always an important one.

We're hearing that question again, in response to stories that the federal government paid talk-show host Armstrong Williams to back its education policy by supporting the No Child Left Behind Act. Armstrong shouldn't have done that, and he's been justly condemned by many.

On the other hand, he was hardly the first to do that sort of thing. As the same story reports,

        "But public relations executives said that the government distribution 
        of prepared news segments without on-air disclosures of their origin was 
        a bipartisan practice that predated the Bush administration.

        "'The Clinton administration was probably even more active than the Bush 
        administration" in distributing news segments promoting its policies,' 
        said Laurence Moskowitz, chairman and chief executive of Medialink, 
        a major producer of promotional news segments."

And it didn't start there. Selling the expanded Income Tax back during the 1940s was a top priority with the Roosevelt Administration, and those efforts featured lots of government-funded propaganda, as this article from the Cato Institute's journal recounts:

        "Jones documented the widespread and systematic use of propaganda 
        by U.S. government officials during World War II to quell resistance t
        o the transformation of the income tax from a 'class tax' to a 'mass tax' 
        during those years. This propaganda ranged from pressuring radio broadcasters 
        to air 'plugs' promoting income tax payment to providing story lines to 
        magazines. However, in Jones's view (1989: 716) the 'crown jewel of tax 
        propaganda' was a Disney film entitled The New Spirit commissioned 
        and promoted by the U.S. Treasury Department, in which Donald Duck was 
        informed 'that it is 'your privilege, not just your duty, but your privilege to 
        help your government by paying your tax and paying it promptly'.' More than 
        32 million people saw the film in the first few months of 1942, and a Gallup 
        poll reported that '37 percent felt the film had affected their willingness 
        to pay taxes' (Jones 1989: 717). Without doubt, such government propaganda 
        manipulated political information in ways that raised the expected marginal 
        cost of income tax resistance.

        "Lest Jones's observations appear anomalous, note that the U.S. government 
        employed income tax propaganda well before World War II. During World War I, 
        the secretary of the Treasury explicitly suggested use of 'widespread 
        propaganda' to convince the public to forgo their 'needless pleasures' 
        (U.S. Treasury Department 1918: 2). The Treasury Department implemented 
        what it called a 'campaign of education' regarding the income tax. Its 'essential 
        features' included government-supplied news stories and editorials as well as 
        encouragement of special cartoons and films. Perhaps its most intriguing 
        feature, however, was its use of the clergy. The commissioner of Internal 
        Revenue reported that 'Thousands of clergymen, at the suggestion 
        of the Bureau, made taxation the subject of at least one sermon.' As a result 
        of the 'patriotic response' aroused, 'dissatisfaction and complaint over the 
        burden imposed by taxation were minimized.' Government officials commented 
        that 'the groundwork was laid for securing in ensuing years prompt and 
        regular response to revenue demands.' To perpetuate its success, the Bureau 
        of Internal Revenue advocated 'the most intensive cultivation of intelligent 
        public opinion' (U.S. Treasury Department 1919: 964-65, 974; see also Higgs 
        1987: 133-34)."

More recently, back in 1997, the U.S. government traded ad time in exchange for anti-drug motifs in network programming, in dollar amounts that make Armstrong Williams' payoff look minuscule. And, of course, it's not just the government. Corporations, interest groups, and others try to influence the media, and while outright payola isn't as rare as it ought to be, it's usually a bit more subtle than that. Nonetheless, it's astounding how often news stories read like press releases (sometimes they repeat press releases verbatim) and when one takes into account the extensive personal connections that frequently exist between journalists and those who would influence them, it's often hard to know who to trust. (And sometimes ideology is involved, too, as it apparently was when Walter Duranty, writing for the New York Times, covered up Stalin's mass murder of millions in the Ukraine.)

Bloggers, of course, call themselves more trustworthy than Big Media, and probably are, if for no other reason than that they're not usually worth influencing yet. (Nobody's offered to pay me to take their side on my blog, though I have been offered money to write op-eds in favor of particular interests without disclosing it, something I declined to do; on the other hand, some bloggers have been hired by people who want to influence politics, though they haven't been, as I understand it, paid to take particular stances on their own blogs.) But how much can you trust a blog? It depends.

The personal voice in which even most anonymous blogs are written tends to inspire trust. But is that trust deserved? Sometimes, but not always. When Iraqi blogger Zeyad reported crimes by American troops I trusted him because he'd been reliable in the past, and now there's been a conviction in the case. His report could have been bogus, of course, with his earlier truthful posts merely a ruse to gain credibility, but I didn't think so, and apparently I was right. Track records matter. (Mitch Berg thinks you should look at bloggers' day jobs in assessing their credibility, though I'm not sure how much I agree with that.) Still, as Hugh Hewitt warns, "black blog ops," aimed at disinformation, are an inevitability and there are probably some going on right now. A while back, in the context of a much less significant effort to manipulate the blogosphere, I quoted scientist Thomas Ray, who once observed that "every successful system accumulates parasites." The blogosphere is successful enough now, and enough people have noticed that success, that it can expect to attract parasitism.

So who can you trust? Mostly, yourself. This disclaimer from talk-radio host (and blogger) Neal Boortz says it best:

        "Don't believe anything you read on this web page, or, for that matter, 
        anything you hear on The Neal Boortz Show, unless it is consistent 
        with what you already know to be true, or unless you have taken the time 
        to research the matter to prove its accuracy to your satisfaction. This is 
        known as 'doing your homework.'"

Or as somebody else who knew a lot about politics and the media once said, 'trust -- but verify.' It's true no matter what medium is involved.



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