Memo to The National Post: Yes, you do have to rudely question "credible" authorities so you don't appeal to them: Understanding how war propaganda hijacks critical thinking

Journalism has always had a horrendous time during war and civil unrest. I have always said that The Hague should be filled with countless pseudo "journalists" whose irresponsible ways directly caused the senseless and unnecessary murders of hundred of thousands of civilians as it whipped people up into an irrational frenzy. Bad journalism has lured, primed, groomed, and incited otherwise normal people to kill other innocent people all in the name of a good story. If left unchecked, reporters can be the worst bottom feeders you can imagine. Public relation firms and lobby groups have gotten away with bloodshed because the press aids and abets them. It is not some sort of vast "conspiracy": it is simply the oblivious nature of journalists who are self-obsessed, unschooled in information verification, and desperate for the next headline that make them prime pigeons for any propagandist who wishes to lie to a public, and get normally rational and peaceful people to advocate killing complete strangers in the name of morality.

Before getting to the offending article in question, let me discuss the problems journalists have when covering wars and why they are so problematic:

  1. Journalists, by default, operate on a binary level. If there is a "good guy", there must, by default be a "bad guy." The good guy must be presented as faultless and pure as driven snow, according to the journalistic narrative, and the bad guy has to be demonized to be some sort of psycho-sicko without a single redeeming quality. This dynamic is often on the money on one-on-one circumstances (such as looking at child molesters and their victims), but once we start making those assumptions to collectives, all bets are off. But journalists cannot help themselves, especially during times of war -- or politics: they sucker people in by generating stories with familiar narratives, even if the truth of a chaotic and prolonged situation is more complex than that.
  2. Reporters also conveniently ignore outside "help" warring factions employ (often with stolen blood money) to bolster their case. They act as if public relations firms and lobby groups do not exist. Oh, they do. And journalists very well know which ones are paid to enhance the optics, considering these firms send them press releases and video news releases. Remember Nayirah? Most likely not -- or you weren't even born yet. But suffice to say this so-called testimony justified a war that killed scores of innocent Iraqi civilians, even though what she said was not the truth -- and journalists ran with it despite it being released by a firm known to take up such cases. Reporters are not babes in the woods when it comes to the ways of PR, and war-mongers often use multiple firms at a single time to push their agenda, and you can bet they are not going to give any unflattering information about their clients to the press, or allow a narrative where an opponent may have valid points. No, no, no.
  3. Then there is their blind adherence to "authorities." It is pathological, and a topic I have written on here. Journalists love groups, experts, and groups of experts, and treat their word as divine, when nothing could be further from the truth. Authorities told reporters that Richard Jewell was likely a bomber, that Private Jessica Lynch escaped a war zone like Rambo, and that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction ready to blow up blonde, blue eyed babies with gummy smiles. They also sang the praises of Bernie Ebbers and Kenneth Lay. I have written extensively on these hoaxes in my first book...but don't think those were the only cases. For decades, "credible" authorities also told reporters that women were inferior to men, that homosexuality was a mental illness, that Aboriginal Canadians should be kidnapped from their homes, converted to a more "acceptable religion" and be held captive in residential schools, and that various ethnic groups were people in need of Eurocentric meddling.
  4. War time and civil unrest is rife with propaganda on all sides. People lie and lie frequently because (a) they are in survival mode, and whatever gets the job done fast looks like a good idea, and (b) people are competitive and want to win at any cost. The problem is reporters are historically illiterate, do not know the language or its nuances, and are not familiar with the culture of the other sides. And now they are parachuted in expected to find truth in an anarchy of lies. They don't think about all the foreign mercenaries who parachute in to grab power. They don't consider the prisons where that area's most dangerous predators are now abandoned and those thugs are running loose on the street. They also don't disclose  that professional propagandists have literally (yes, literally) set up tents in the war zones to give overwhelmed news producers processed news for their stories.
  5. In times of war, it is too easy to get into mama bear-protective mode and get offended by people asking rude questions, such as wondering if there might be some lies coming out of a chaotic and violent situation. All of a sudden, skeptics are cast into stupid, evil, and crazy troublemakers who dare question unverified information and rumours. Well, no one said polite people have an inkling of what it means to find the truth. As someone who worked as a journalist, people who suffered a tragedy (a real one) still lied to my face and covered up even minor lapses in judgement -- and often, that lie and/or cover-up buried a very important truth essential to understand what really happened. Something bad may have happened -- and genuinely happened to a person, but even genuine victims may be conniving, and as a truth-gatherer, you have to find that truth to see reality, even if you have to be rude about it. Otherwise, you are contaminating information that can lead to unforeseen and terrible consequences later on. If we had more nuanced understanding of conflict, then we will not give one side a free pass and then come up with a solution that cannot work because it was made to fix a different reality other than the one presented. Humanity has to learn how to assess without being judgemental or trying to milk a narrative, and we can't do that if journalists keep shaming people who are skeptical and demand more facts. Once upon a time, questioning a Catholic priest's morality could ruin your life, but eventually, the truth came out about children whose lives were forever ruined by those in power molesting and terrorizing them. That bygone era's massive journalistic failure must always be in the forefront of every reporter's mind (and heart) whenever covering any story. There are no sacred cows.

So what does this all mean?

Well, if it isn't obvious, the short answer is that every story must be weighed individually, without assumptions or passively looking at authorities to do all of our thinking for us as we take their word as God. A good news report (let's get away from the concept of "story") tells us what has happened -- not who to blame, who to pity, and how to feel about it. It hunts for specifics -- and then tries to corroborate every single fact, letting news consumers know what they can take to the bank -- and what still needs verifying. So while it is well and good that a reporter has three experts and organizations to tell him that X happened, he still hunts down as much as he can to make certain X really did happen, and happened the way those authorities said it did, because very often, you have several experts singing the same song, only for people to discover later on that they all relied on the same primary source for their information.

Which brings us to the shoddy reportage of The National Post. 

According to this article, there is a clueless professor who has the gall to question the reports of rape coming out of troubled Myanmar -- as if propaganda of this variety never happened. Worse, this lone wolf is challenging the narrative of several "credible" organizations.

Well, how politically incorrect.

War propaganda has been something I have been studying and researching since I was a psych undergrad in the early 1990s. I was taken by how many hoaxes and propaganda revolved around rape. In a time of anarchy, that kind of abuse would be used, as well as every other kind, but as a piece of propaganda, it served a very real purpose: get the women to be so terrified of a faceless enemy, that she would willingly agree to sacrifice her son to go get himself killed in war. Every war had false stories of this ilk. Do not tell me that this kind of lie never happens. I am a radical feminist who thinks women's shelters are concentration camps for abused women that enable abusive men; so to suggest I am being archaic and anti-woman is absurd. If you are offended by the notion that women's primal nightmares are exploited in war propaganda, then you have serious reality issues you need to work through, and if you think women never fib about sexual assault, does Rolling Stone have an answer for you.

Were women raped there in unrest? Of course, just as there were women raped there when there wasn't unrest. Hollywood does not have the monopoly on raping women for kicks, but it is important to know that there will be those who lie about getting raped, just as there are women who will lie and say it didn't happen -- and PR firms who invent nonexistent figments to inflate their narratives. War is not just ugly with body counts, but with the truth in general. That is the reason we have to be ferocious truth-finders in any chaotic situation. Underreporting and exaggerations alike can lead to the same pile of dead bodies.

So, on the one hand, we have a knowledgable professor asking hard questions, which is absolutely fair and justified. It does not matter what two groups of people are in conflict, we have to ask questions -- not to dismiss them, but to understand the truth and reality of any given situation.

It does not even have to be about war or violence. In the 1980s, there had been a slew of reports of people finding all sorts of objects in their cans of Pepsi. It was national news and there was a real panic. The victims were consumers. The aggressor was a corporation. In the end, most of the consumers who reported tainted cans lied. They saw an opportunity to sue a company with deep pockets and took advantage of it.

Now, let's take another consumer nightmare story from the same era: the Tylenol tampering terrorism. Here, people died, and we could confirm those people died from the same root cause. In this case, while it was tampering, the company had been lackadaisical with how they packaged their product, and made people vulnerable to a sicko's whim. It forced companies to repackage their wares in such a way where there would not be a repeat.

Two cases with two very different causes: the former where a lot of strangers all lied for a common goal and were not victims, and the latter where these strangers were real victims. We do not go in with some mindless default assumption that people are always lying or always telling the truth. Sometimes it is in-between. Sometimes people lie. Sometimes people tell the truth. You don't know unless you are rude enough to ask the questions to find out. Political correctness and insincere empathy are tools people use to hide truths, not find them.

But the scribe in the Post article appealed to authority after authority, deeming them all "credible" without actually proving that any were credible. That is not journalism, but stenography. I don't care about an organization: I care about the facts. I do not want a journalist to commit a logical fallacy because he cannot be bothered to dig. Find the victims. Interview them. Verify their accounts.

The professor in the story asked perfectly legitimate questions. If you do not like what those questions imply, find the hard data to answer her questions. The story has some uncalled for manipulations in it -- at one point the professor in question uses the number "70,000", and the reporter sniffed that none of the organizations used the number in their reports...

Well, okay, you interviewed the skeptical professor, didn't you ask her where that number came from? Did she mean the number literally -- or figuratively? And just because no organization has a particular fact on file, does not mean the fact does not exist. They are not gods whose purpose in life is to do all of the reporter's legwork for them.

Not once in this article does the journalist bother to inform readers which PR firms and lobbyists are working for which side. We need to know as news consumers who is managing the optics of this conflict -- one way or another.

This is not to say violence isn't happening or that the violence isn't lop-sided or even one-way: but no journalist can take any narrative as the default. You dig. You find facts. You verify facts. You find more facts. You verify those facts. You compare and contrast your facts. They will not fit neatly into a perfect little jigsaw puzzle. You do not gloss over facts that prove a heart wrenching yarn to be a lie. You do not appeal to authority. You do not appeal to sympathy. You do not commit a confirmation bias in some de haut en bas manner. You are mindful of Ockham's Razor, meaning you do not explain away or justify facts that go against your working hypothesis of a situation that magically proves that you are holier than the skeptic. You agonize as you keep digging, unconcerned about the toil and filth you have to wade through, unconcerned about whether you are going to get a cookie for being "sensitive" enough. You worry about every word you write, wondering what are the long-term consequences if you didn't dig deep enough or misinterpreted reality.

You do not look down your nose on someone who dares challenge an accepted narrative. You listen with an open mind. You look at multiple alternate theories and you keep digging to open the truth, not burying it with some sort of manipulative narrative no one will have the courage to question.

So shame on the National Post for using feints and ruses to attack a skeptic instead of rationally looking for primary sources (and sorry, organizations and experts are not primary sources) to answer the questions without arrogance or judgement. We should not be threatened by questions. When we have truth, we can deal with reality. When we have lies, we have narratives that hide the solutions reality has in plain sight.

Journalists are supposed to be the jerks who snatch the paper crown off your head and examine it as they then tear it up. They are not supposed to be impressed with your awards and titles. They have the mandate of finding the truths that paint the most accurate picture of reality. That means their atom of existence is facts. Not narrative.

Not narrative.

How many people were harmed in a conflict? Journalists have to push through PR and lobby groups, let alone image consultants. No one gets a pass because they have a title or are a politician or tycoon. Truth is the equalizer. They must resist the temptation of narratives that establish a convenient pecking order and filter of how to see the world.

If we had journalists like that, we wouldn't have toxic tripe in the Post. We wouldn't have skeptic-shaming. We'd have facts.

And with facts, we'd have real answers, and far less bloodshed in the world.