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Essex column: Propaganda versus the marketplace of ideas

On consecutive days last week, this opinion page ran columns featuring dramatically different perspectives on current events.

On Thursday, monthly columnist Roland McLean, a Navy veteran who also spent 30 years in international construction, offered his perspective on why people vote Republican.

On Friday, Caito Foster, a Colorado Mountain College photography graduate, wrote a guest opinion about why she joined the women’s rights march in Washington, D.C., and what she took away from it.



Roland’s columns always cite research and life experience from which he draws his conclusions, and I am grateful that he writes for us.

I thank Caito, too, for sharing her ideas. Traditional media doesn’t often hear from women in their 20s.



If either column made some readers uncomfortable, good. I’m there with you — parts of both columns made me squirm a little in my editor’s seat. But in the end, I always feel enriched by learning others’ reasoned perspectives.

Of course this is part of the value of free speech. The Founding Fathers, having experienced tyranny that could lead to jail for speaking one’s mind, wanted to ensure freedom for an array of voices in the marketplace of ideas.

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins,” Benjamin Franklin wrote.

George Washington weighed in: “If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter … reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.”

Last week, Steve Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, told the media to shut up.

Rather than believing in many voices, he wants us to listen to one voice.

The administration wants us to not believe our eyes, such as photos showing a smaller crowd for Trump’s inauguration than Barack Obama’s first swearing-in, but to buy “alternative facts” — what administration adviser Kellyeanne Conway said press secretary Sean Spicer was providing.

Or, as Texas Congressman Lamar Smith put it, “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”

This assault on the media is merely the visible part of a larger effort to erode truth and devalue critical thinking.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi master of propaganda, knew this.

“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play,” he said.

Constantly attacking the media leads to Rep. Smith’s world, to Bannon’s world, to Goebbels’ world, to the world of oppressed countries with state-controlled media.

Could this happen in America?

Well, Rep. Smith, saying that reporters should celebrate Trump’s “stamina” and call him “courageous and fearless” — which sounds a lot like North Korean media describing Kim Jong Un — leads the Media Fairness Caucus. This group notes in its most recent newsletter that Breitbart News, led by Bannon until he took over Trump’s campaign in August, had surpassed 3 million Facebook “likes.”

Let’s look at some headlines on Breitbart.com before Bannon left to run Trump’s campaign:

• “The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple: Women should log off.” “Time for some honesty,” the July 2016 article said. “Women are — and you won’t hear this anywhere else — screwing up the internet for men.”

• “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy” was published in December 2015.

• “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage,” published in July 2015, two weeks after Dylan Roof slaughtered nine black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The state was in the midst of a debate about flying the flag at its statehouse.

Again, this site is being promoted by Trump supporters as a good source for information. Today, with Bannon among the most powerful people in the Trump White House, the site is the next best thing to a government-controlled news service.

Visit the site. This, folks, is propaganda, which Merriam-Webster defines as “spreading of ideas, information or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause or a person.” It differs from clearly labeled opinion such as Roland or Caito’s columns, or this piece. This is my opinion. I am seeking to persuade you through argument and citations, but not to mislead you or exclude other views from our opinion page.

The purpose of propaganda is to get a critical mass of people to believe what you say, whether it’s true or not.

“That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result. It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success,” Goebbels said.

The internet, with its fire hose of contradictory information, is a wonderful vehicle for this.

So it is that the internet aids Trump’s allegation that millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. Even though many people are registered in more than one place, including Bannon, Spicer, presidential daughter Tiffany Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin — no one has ever found more than very rare instances of actual illegal voting. But thanks to the internet, misinterpretations of a Pew study bounce around, and an Old Dominion study is cited as evidence even though it has been acknowledged as flawed.

Trump, asked in an interview last week whether he was concerned that the allegation would erode confidence in our system, said, “Millions of people agree with me when I say that.”

Goebbels would call that success.

Randy Essex is publisher and editor of the Post Independent.


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