Our concept of reality is often determined by what someone else says reality is. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of mass-media print and broadcast news journalism. The bulk of our news comes to us secondhand, neatly packaged on the pages of our morning newspapers or from TV The news that makes it into the public consciousness often does so because somebody determined it was ''fit to print. "Only when we understand the message behind the medium can we appreciate that news and reality are often two distinctly different things.
In early 1977 a condensation of a book entitled Murder of a Gentle Land chronicled mind-numbing atrocities of Hitlerian proportions — the systematic elimination of over one million human beings by the Khmer Rouge in the nation of Cambodia. Murder of a Gentle Land was subsequently evaluated by a reviewer for the New York Times, Paul Grimes. While Grimes noted that Murder of a Gentle Land was a "book of importance," he expressed a few reservations. He objected to the title on the grounds that the extermination of masses of human beings was not the same thing as saying the Cambodian government intended to eliminate the entire country, i.e., the "land." "The authors are to be censured," Grimes wrote, "for exhorting people, as they do in their preface, 'to halt the ongoing annihilation of the Cambodian people and to spare the world a repetition of their tragedy'" (Louis Segesvary, "Spiritual Horror," Reason, August 1978, p. 28). The reviewer, in assessing one of the most monumental human rights abuses of this century, could still find an optimistic note in it all: "Yes, they [the Khmer Rouge] have been brutal," he wrote, "but in their own way the Communists clearly wanted to rebuild Cambodia. In doing this, they felt a need to destroy first, and their methods were horrible" (ibid.). Grimes might also have noted that Hitler wanted a thousand-year Reich and that Stalin and Lenin in their Russian bloodlettings did so "for the good of the proletariat." One wonders if the same book reviewer would have censured writers during the 1940s who might have exhorted people "to halt the ongoing annihilation of the Jewish people and to spare the world a repetition of their tragedy." Grimes' rather strange lack of moral outrage was symptomatic of a glaring double standard that existed among the major organs of the media. Initial reports of the Cambodian atrocities were downplayed. Two networks even reported that the Khmer troops were well disciplined. Although the three major networks had spent 4 hours and 55 minutes broadcast time on Cambodia in the 20 months following "liberation" by the Khmer Rouge, only seven percent of that total had been devoted to the bloodbath. This oversight could certainly not have been attributed to a lack of hard evidence. Thousands of eyewitnesses were available to be interviewed. In addition, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had issued two major atrocity reports in 1975. (At the time, these reports aroused only passing interest.) The treatment of Cambodia by the electronic news media typifies one of the problems inherent in a world where news is edited, managed, and packaged before it ever reaches the public. If a news item disturbs one's carefully nurtured image of reality, then the obvious answer is to suppress, deemphasize, or ignore the unsettling truth. The situation in Cambodia (as noted in an article in the September Plain Truth) has been a problem for the media because it runs counter to the popular myth that revolutionary movements are supposed to ameliorate social conditions. Obviously in some instances they have. But the recent history of China, Russia, Cuba and other Communist countries can just as readily lead to the opposite conclusion.
Preserving a Preconceived Image of the Real World
The coverage of the Cambodian massacre is an example of the fact that, while the mass media would never openly admit it, in actuality they control the manufacture and processing of much of what we call news. Once a conceptual working model of reality has been established, humans, whether in or out of the news media, are loath to part with it. Subsequent events are subjectively interpreted to fit the model. If an event shows signs of running counter to an accepted notion, the analyst or commentator will attempt to isolate it, point out that it is a minor exception to the rule, or find some aspect of it that appears to be in harmony with his preconceived image. The news media's treatment of California's recent tax revolt and the passage of the controversial Proposition 13 is a case in point. During the heat of the campaign much debate centered around whether passage of Proposition 13 would require substantial cuts in essential government services such as fire fighters, police, and paramedics. One major network, in an ostensibly objective eyewitness news report, took the TV viewer on an insider's tour of paramedics at work, answering calls and applying first aid. One scene recorded the paramedics rendering timely and vital assistance to a woman with a serious cardiopulmonary problem. In almost juvenile terms the news commentator noted the obvious: that in such cases time is of the essence and that there was a growing fear that this timely assistance — in some cases a life-and-death-matter-would no longer be available if Proposition 13 passed. While the short TV news clip did not say it in so many words, the viewer was left with the distinct impression that Proposition 13 was a looming menace to the life and health of the community. No attempts were made in the particular newscast to balance this rather depressing view by analyzing the particulars of California's monumental budgetary surplus, or the state's enormous expenditures for less-than-vital services such as highway construction, public works projects or generous retirement benefits. No criticism was made of priorities in government spending, nor was there any examination of whether it would be possible with less emphasis on nonessentials to have both the paramedics and Proposition 13 as well. Instead, the viewer's attention was riveted on only one of many areas where spending could be cut, and he was left to ponder the possible havoc Proposition 13 might wreak on emergency victims. In terms of the national press, Proposition 13 and the California tax revolt, like Cambodia, went against the grain of conventional political wisdom. For the last few decades public-opinion shapers have to one degree or another shared a philosophy that was formulated by successive ruling elites: namely, that government should cure, solve or at least minimize many of society's ills, no matter how much it costs the taxpayer. By passing Proposition 13, the California electorate challenged that notion. But sections of the media were reluctant to describe the California tax revolt for what it really was. Blame was placed on the unique and skyrocketing property tax situation, the inaction of the state legislature, and inflationary pressures. While numerous news analysts focused on the outrage of the taxpayers or voter "hedonism," few seemed willing to ask fundamental questions regarding the most "hedonistic" aspect of our society : namely, an arrogant, self-perpetuating government bureaucracy.
Confusing Hard News with Editorial Commentary
One method of news slanting which often goes unnoticed occurs when editorials are printed as front-page news stories. A recent example involved President Carter and the Marston affair. David Marston was a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a Republican and had been appointed during the Ford Administration. Traditionally, incoming presidents had made appointments to this type of office on the basis of political considerations. Candidate Jimmy Carter, when running for President, had promised to eliminate the political favoritism from this process and to make such appointments solely on the basis of merit. Unfortunately, Marston's performance became too meritorious, and certain Democratic Congressmen began to feel the heat as he closed in on some obvious sources of political corruption that were festering in Pennsylvania. After becoming President, Carter received an almost desperate call from one of the politicians involved, pleading for Marston's removal. The President obliged, and the Marston affair erupted as the press and public reacted to the firing of a federal prosecutor whose investigation was just beginning to bear fruit. Shortly after the Marston affair broke, a major west coast daily carried a "news" story concerning "the long odds facing Carter's merit selection system." The reporter's contention was that because a certain influential Southern Democratic senator would have to approve any appointments that Carter made, it would be virtually impossible to institute a merit system over the senator's powerful political veto. The reporter also noted that "by the time the Marston matter made headlines, the question of whether Carter abided fully by his pledge to name prosecutors 'without any considerations of political aspects or influence' should not have come as a surprise." Obviously, the writer, unlike the general public, was aware of the political realities surrounding appointment of federal prosecutors. So from his standpoint the Marston affair may not have been that surprising. But one could hardly expect the public to be either that familiar or sympathetic with Washington backroom politics in light of what they had been promised during the presidential campaign. In addition, the "surprising" thing about the writer's assessment is that the Marston affair did not involve an appointment that would have been influenced by the powerful Southern senator. It involved the firing of a prosecutor already in office. Thus the powerful Southern senator would not have had any influence in the removal of Marston had the Administration left things alone. Viewed from this standpoint, the news writer's assessment that the senatorial connection made the Marston firing an "unsurprising" political affair becomes mostly irrelevant. The writer also failed to note the yawning gulf between his evaluation of the Marston affair as a purely political matter and that of the President, who obstinately maintained that Marston was fired for reasons of merit! If Marston was in fact fired because of lack of merit, then the writer's idea of a political connection was inaccurate. If, on the other hand, Marston was fired for political reasons, then the President's subsequent justification for the dismissal on the basis of merit would appear to be even more ludicrous. Viewed from either standpoint, what appears to be hard news on the front page of a major daily newspaper in reality turns out to be something of a pointless apology for the Administration.
Faithfully Adhere to the "Official" Version
Another method that can be used to calm troubled waters is to rely heavily on the statements of an "official" spokesman. One prominent example of how this technique can have tragic results involves the Tonkin Gulf incident. The press gave wide coverage to the Administration's version of the incident, even though there was evidence of irregularities. An interview of 36 crewmen by the Associated Press raised serious questions concerning this official version, but most newspapers had no desire to print such a story. The few senators who spoke out against government policy on the floor of the Senate also went virtually unheralded by the press. The Administration was able to ram the infamous Tonkin Gulf resolution through the Senate, which helped pave the way for America's full-scale involvement in Vietnam. History was later to demonstrate that the Administration had been less than candid in its description of the Tonkin Gulf incident. Had the press not been so trusting in its acceptance of this "official" version, events could conceivably have taken a different turn.
When All Else Fails Blot Out Reality
When it is no longer possible to preserve a popular myth by any of the above methods, the best thing to do is to totally ignore reality. A classic case in point is the media-created image of Camelot that surrounded the Kennedy Administration. The cold reality of history eventually painted a picture that is in stark contrast to the glowing images portrayed by the press. History rather than imagery revealed an Administration that flagrantly abused its power by engaging in illegal electronic surveillance of journalists and civil rights leaders; that used the IRS and FCC to conduct political vendettas; that knowingly plotted the assassination and overthrow of foreign leaders. The ambivalence of the press in reporting the Kennedy misdeeds was never more apparent than when the subject centered around Central Intelligence Agency abuses. One leading Washington columnist supported public hearings on the CIA in 1975, but noted that "assassination can be left out for the moment." It was rather apparent that the columnist was referring to plots hatched during the Kennedy Administration, because, as she noted, "the unspoken threat in all this is that [Senator] Church [head of the Senate committee investigating the CIA], a faithful ally of John Kennedy, might find himself in the end pointing himself at the Democrats' beloved victim of assassination" (Victor Lasky, It Didn't Start With Watergate, Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1977, p. 95). Apparently it was all too much for the image to bear. Other journalists were equally circumspect when the Kennedy Administration was linked with the assassination of Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Although American involvement was duly noted, the fact that the Kennedy White House had been aware of the assassination plot was conveniently deleted in a story carried by a prominent political journal. Nor was there much outcry from the press when the Kennedy Administration was discovered to have either passively or actively conspired in the assassination attempt or overthrow of Fidel Castro, President Diem of South Vietnam, and the president of Guatemala. The role of the Kennedy Administration in Vietnam also seemed to get conveniently buried. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, one network did a 2 1/2-hour special on Vietnam: A War That Is Finished, which chronicled American involvement through five Presidents: Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. Either the producers of the program forgot to consult their almanacs and overlooked the existence of a President between Eisenhower and Johnson, or else they hoped that this small omission would help everyone forget that the Kennedy Administration also did its part to further involve the nation in the Vietnam quagmire. Clearly in such matters the media must admit to the truth, or else believe in a double standard. The press in large part chose the latter option. Wry political commentator Nicholas von Hoffman undoubtedly sensed this when he wrote the following piece of rather penetrating prose: "Tell us, all you folks who've written so many, many books about those golden one thousand days when you all swarmed out of Harvard, Madison Avenue and Stamford, Connecticut, to electrify us with your good taste. Tell us again, please, but now put in about the gangsters and whatever else was corrupt, ruthless, cruel and illegal but which really happened. No more Camelot, please" (ibid., p. 117).
A Need for More Objective Detachment
Part of the problem with the major organs of the press is that they are too well integrated into the mainstream of society. The days of the detached independence of the fourth estate envisioned by our Founding Fathers seem to be fast vanishing. As Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, remarked in 1965: "A disturbing number of newspapers today see nothing wrong in publicly stating that they conceive their highest duty to be that of fitting themselves into the life of the community. This means, of course, that if a community is governed by a corrupt and corrupting group, the paper will fit in with it" (Robert Cirino, Don't Blame the People, Random House, 1971, p. 234). The desire to establish and maintain an "objective consensus" is another reason the press tends to follow rather stereotypical and unoriginal formulas in its reporting habits. The object is to take a position that the newsman feels is "respectable." Inevitably this process filters out of the public consciousness events, trends, or changes that may be tinged or colored with shades of unorthodoxy. Coupled with this are the ever present pressures from advertisers, who become very skittish when contemplating associating themselves with topics or views which might jeopardize a healthy profit margin. Vitality is then sapped from the leading opinion shapers, the system becomes intellectually inbred and incestuous, and in the end a Frankenstein type of groupthink is unwittingly created. News analyst Howard K. Smith put his finger on this problem some time ago when he commented: "Our liberal friends have become dogmatic.... They have a set of automatic reactions. They react the way political cartoonists do — with oversimplification. They're pleasing the Washington Post, they're pleasing the editors of the New York Times, they're pleasing one another" (It Didn't Start With Watergate, p. 299). Humans as a whole seem to crave the comfort of conformity. This urge is often satisfied by the creation of pleasant-sounding myths which have just enough of a ring of truth about them to allow us to justify their existence. Once created, these myths die hard. In this respect the press is not all that different from the rest of us.
The Missing Dimension in News Analysis by Jeff Calkins
The problem with news analysis today is that it ignores the revealed truth of God's Word. The really important events of our time are often ignored or misinterpreted. Real understanding of what is going on in the world is lacking. Jesus Christ once sternly told the Pharisees: "O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?" (Matt. 16:3.) How like our news reports today which concentrate on weather forecasting, or celebrities, but provide precious little in the way of coherent, orderly understanding of world events. Real understanding of trends and events demands that we look at things from God's viewpoint. That viewpoint is revealed in the Bible, and it systematically shows how God is working out His great purpose for mankind. The record of how God intends to do that is contained in Bible prophecy. Since the plan of God means everything to your eternal future, events which bear on that plan are the most important of events. But they are woefully neglected in the secular news media. In terms of His plan for mankind, the thing uppermost in God's mind is the restoration of the government of God to the earth. That government will be restored after a series of prophesied events, which are laid out in general time order in certain key chapters of the Bible. Thus everything which we report in The Plain Truth seeks to relate current world conditions with prophesied events of the Bible. In fact, The Plain Truth is like the watchman of Ezekiel 33, whose God-given duty it was to warn the people of approaching trouble when he saw it coming. As our Editor, Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong, has directed, it is the charge of The Plain Truth to "cull out from the vast labyrinths of world news, and from the Bible, the real meaning behind these happenings — sifting out from the flood of nonessential, nonsensical and irrelevant so-called news of murders, divorces, scandals, politics, and social happenings, the significant items bearing on fulfilled prophecy." Those items are important because they signify both approaching trouble and the eventual restoration of the government of God. Furthermore, by watching world news with an eye to how events fit Bible prophecy, we get our minds off the petty, mundane, trivial everyday events which take up so much space in the modern media, and onto the things of God. Secular news analysis in newspapers and on television cannot provide understanding of the whole of world conditions — it gives only the parts. Reeling from a whipsaw ride of disjointed media events, a person's consciousness is assaulted by every new wind of media preoccupation. This can have absolutely tragic results. Unless we remain alert, the traumatic events foretold in Bible prophecy may catch us unprepared. It is foolish, indeed, to be like the five virgins of the parable in Matthew 25 who "slumbered and slept" (verse 5) and as a consequence were unprepared for the return of Christ (verse 10). We do not know the day or the hour of Christ's return (Matt. 24:42-44). Therefore we must have our minds on the coming of Christ and the prophesied events leading up to that coming. Unless we are alert to the potential for fulfilled prophecy, there is a danger of neglecting the things of God altogether. Christ put it plainly when He said, after enumerating a grisly series of events to befall the world: "And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares.... Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man" (Luke 21:34-36).