Ten Best Documentaries About Why Americans Don't Trust The Mainstream Media
Section: Spin U
Most people feel that the media, at times, is misleading. A recent survey found that trust in the news media is at an all time low. Another recent survey found that the news media is the second least trusted profession (only 3% trust) in American only ahead of politicians at a 0% trust level. There is considerable evidence that people’s impressions about the media are accurate. For example, most of the U.S. media claimed the presidential election would be close and instead the results were not very close at all with President Obama receiving 332 electoral votes versus Mitt Romney’s 206 electoral votes. The news media was also very slow to recognize that Mitt Romney brazen changes in his positions and stories about President Obama. In fact, some segments of the news media never acknowledged the problem. The Impartial Review News has frequently exposed false news stories including stories that claimed beautiful people are more Intelligent, low life-expectancies in some US county’s are the result of obesity and Americans have become more racist. In addition, The Impartial Review News has reported on stories that most if not all of the U.S. media never acknowledged including Bain’s Sensata corporation replacing high tech high paying American jobs with Chinese slave labor, alternative debt solutions, very high numbers of preventable US deaths, Republicans are becoming more racist and unusual patterns in judicial rulings. In addition, The Impartial Review News has reported on how various special interest groups attempt to deceive U.S. consumers and voters such as compliance to with authority, relabelling freedom, playing to voters lattitudes of acceptance, personal attacks, devious methods of persuasion, slogans, confirmation bias, messaging, moving the goal posts, fear-mongering, misdirection and Romnesia. Until President Obama introduced the problem of Romnesia into the election campaign, theses ideas were rarely reported in the press.
To fully understand why the America media seems to be constantly tripping over itself requires a lengthy explanation. The following is a list of the ten best documentary films that explain or identify problems with the American media.
I Century of The Self * * * * *
The Century of The Self is an award winning 2002 BBC documentary series about propaganda by Adam Curtis. It provides an in-depth look into how American life for the past century has been influenced by propaganda or what is known in the U.S. as Public Relations (PR). The documentary focuses on how the father of PR, Edward Bernays, played a key control in developing and implementing the American PR machine and how that machine was transported across the globe. In fact, Bernay’s books Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928) are considered classics in the field of PR and his ideas are still in common use today.
In fact, there are more U.S. jobs in the field of PR that Bernay’s founded than there are journalists in the U.S. Mitt Romney on his infamous 47% tape mentioned that his PR team was doing work in many countries around the world. The Century of the Self documentary explains how U.S. wealthy power-brokers have used PR to maintain their power and explains their astonishingly arrogant rationale for doing so. As Adam Curtis puts it, the wealthy fear the potentially dangerous (or awakening) crowd in an age of mass democracy (mass-media).
One of Bernays most powerful PR techniques was his “Third Party Technique” that is in common use today. He realized early on that advertising had limited effectiveness because people don’t trust the source of advertisements – the company that profits from the advertising. The Third Party Technique circumvents this problem by planting stories in the media that appear to come from independent sources. He also found that he could create media stories by staging events and he frequently commented that he was amazed at how easily he could do this. Bernays used multiple events or press stories to create what he called the Tie-in that gave the story even more credence because the public believed that seemingly multiple independent news sources and media events confirming the seeming “truth” of the story. The Tie In led to shorter incomplete news stories that left readers feeling that something was missing yet most fail to recognize just how much was missing.
In the beginning, Bernays simply played upon the laziness and time press pressure that most journalists feel. Journalists are required to write many stories and so when Bernays wrote stories for reporters, many reporters were more than willing to publish them as their own. Bernays first began using this technique in 1915 and found it was far more cost-effective and powerful than traditional advertising. Overtime, journalists were promoted within news organizations because they were well liked by corporate advertisers who appreciated they’re wilingness to stay on message.
Bernays who lived to be 103 was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life Magazine. His PR campaigns are credited with getting women to smoke, the popularity of bacon and egg breakfasts, Dixie Cups, helping Calvin Coolidge become elected, the success of the Council on Foreign Relations, and overthrowing a Democratic government in Guatamala with the assistance for the CIA. Others have also found his books useful for their destructive political purposes. Hitler’s head of propaganda, one source claimed that Joeseph Goebells had informed him that he used Bernays’ book Crystallizing Public Opinion for his campaign against the Jews. Bernays was Jewish. If there is an appropriate epitaph for Bernays’ life, it might be “The end doesn’t justify the means.”
It should be pointed out that there is evidence that Bernays did not want to harm people. When he discovered that cigarettes were bad for people (something not generally known in the 1920’s and 30’s when he developed his cigarette public relations campaigns), he devoted his retirement to working against the cigarette companies with John Francis Banzhaf III and the non-profit Action on Smoking and Health and these anti-smoking campaigns are considered by many to be the most effective in history. An episode of the popular AMC show Mad Men mentioned this work.
Bernays also used his considerable talents to allow the first NAACP convention in the South to be held without any violence in Atlanta. Something that the NAACP didn’t believe was possible until they hired Bernay’s. His work became a model for improving relations between groups where there is animosity. Throughout his life he contributed to charitable activities including PR work for Committee on Publicity Methods in Social Work (1926-1927), the Jewish Mental Health Society (1928), the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1933), the Citywide Citizens’ Committee on Harlem (1942) and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (1954-1961).
Bernays and other PR experts frequently absolved themselves from responsibility for the disastrous results of PR campaigns by insisting that people were stupid and needed to be controlled. An idea that was advocated by Walter Lippmann whose viewed ordinary Americans as little better than cows that needed to be herded in the right direction by the elite. An attitude that many attributed to Mitt Romney due to his seeming willingness to attempt to con the American people and the sense that he felt no obligation to tell even his non-wealthy supporters the truth. Rather, he appeared at times to believe that his role was to appease them with kind words, the way one lies to a child about Christmas.
The Century of the Self focuses almost entirely on examples of liberal political propaganda perhaps because Bernays frequently supported liberal causes. However, Curtis’ more recent works focus on neo-conservatism and Libertarian views. The only persistent criticism of the film was an odd conspiracy theory based on the fact that Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s double nephew. The Century of the Self proposes that Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud beliefs about the the irrationality of man was an important determinant in the development of PR. In reality, PR more typically involves trickery and persuasion (social psychology) and not the ideas of clinical psychology that involve the treatment of the mentally ill that Sigmund and Anna Freud were known for. However, Bernays and the PR industry today have on occasion used psychoanalysts in an effort to exploit the unconscious desires of the public.
Adam Curtis has completed several important documentaries since The Century of the Self. The Trap looks at how game theory, freedom and free market neoconservatism have attempted to redefine and control the public’s conceptions of success, work, freedom, professionalism and mental illness. The Power of Nightmares (2004) looks at how fear-mongering is used in politics and compares the neoconservative movement in the U.S. to the radical Islamic movements in the Middle East in terms of their PR tactics. The great strength of Curtis’ films is he recognizes that propaganda exploits simple human weakness. Emotions can lead people to do things that are against their own self-interest and to develop radical ideologies based on obviously false assumptions. His films also show how willing the press is to simply report things as the powerful want them to be reported.
Adam Curtis’ more recent works It Felt Like a Kiss (2009) and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) have similar themes that suggest that how you feel about yourself and the world are controlled by the political elite and those views are communicated to you through the media that is under their control.
Part I of the The Century of the Self is shown above. Recently, the last parts are no longer freely unavailable due to BBC copyright restrictions.
II Psywar * * * *
Psywar (2010) is a more recent attempt of explaining the weaknesses of the American media and includes discussion of the Wobblies that has relevance to the Occupy Wall Street movement. While The Century of the Self focuses on Bernays, Psychwar focuses more on Bernays rival Ivy Lee and Walter Lippmann. Unlike, the Century of the Self Psywar doesn’t give as much attention to the psychological nature of PR work but instead focuses on the sociological and cultural aspects of PR. Thus, the two films are very complimentary. Noam Chomsky who is interviewed for this film and whose influence is seen throughout Psywar. argues that behind the veil of PR is a Polyarchy or Mitt Romney types that use their money and power to extract ordinary Americans’ wealth and set up an economic system of economic slavery where most Americans are forced to make profits for the wealthy elite.
This system leads to tremendous wealth disparities. For example, the Walmart family has more money than the combined wealth of the bottom 40% of Americans. The film ends on a hopeful note that was mirrored in the recent election. The film notes that PR spends an enormous amount of money misleading the public and the authors feel that eventually their bubble will burst. They’re prediction seems prophetic as candidates with much less sophisticated PR campaigns were able to defeat more heavily financed campaigns in the 2012 election and other strongholds came perilously close to defeat. For example, Michele Bachmann ( R ) received only 1% more of the vote than her opponent even though she outspent her opponent 11 to 1, recent redistricting made her district even more conservative and the press wrote biased stories that favored her campaign.
III Smoke and Mirrors: A History of Denial * * * * *
There is an unsettling pattern where great films about PR including Smoke and Mirrors: A History of Denial (1999; American Lung Association) become difficult or impossible to find. It’s especially unfortunate in the case of Smoke and Mirrors because this film is considered by many to be the greatest anti-propaganda film of all time. The film is about the PR aspects of cigarette advertising over the past century and it’s based on secret documents that led to a congressional investigation that found the CEOs of tobacco companies knew their products were addictive and withheld that information from the public.
This film illustrates the dual goals of PR. For example, one goal for tobacco industry PR is try to get people to try smoking cigarettes because most research suggests that most people who try smoking go on to become regular users. However, this film argues that a second goal of the tobacco industry was to convince people to tolerate the fact that cigarettes cause 400,000+ deaths per year in the U.S. when the U.S has laws against distributing dangerous, addictive and poisonousness substances to the public. When viewed in this light, the astonishing power of PR cannot be denied.
The films insights will be extremely troubling for most viewers because like most great films one quickly recognizes that the tobacco industry is not the only industry that attempts to shape the hearts and minds of the American public to a degree that is truly astonishing. The film even shows us how Edward Bernays attempted to get women to like the color green more so they would like the green Lucky Strikes packaging of cigarettes. The film’s insight here is that this was an experiment in changing the American culture. Obviously, a less expensive alternative would have been to change the color of the package.
Smoke and Mirrors: A History of Denial used many commercials from tobacco industry Ads in the film and the tobacco companies objected. A few libraries and VHR copies of this great film can still be found but this film has essentially be censored from the American public.
On a personal note, I used to show this film to my college students. Many who viewed this film told me they believe their lives were irrevocably changed by watching it. If you can find a copy, I can’t recommend the film highly enough.
IV The Wires that Control the Mind * * *
This youtube video is a one hour lecture by propaganda expert and author Sheldon Rampton who is the Director of SourceWatch. He presented this lecture at Google. His talk is about how a big part of PR concerns spying on people. If you believe NewsSpeak is just an Orwellian concept from 1984, think again! This lecture provides an excellent introduction to the PR industry.
V George Seldes **
George Seldes was the original muckracker journalist. He reported that cigarettes were dangerous in the 1940s, over twenty years before the Surgeon General’s report. Most of his work was censored by American newspapers. He is credited with exposing the National Association of Manufacturers, Charles Lindbergh’s Nazi sympathies, the American Legion’s attempts to break strikes, persecution of people with left-wing political views in America, the corporatization of U. S. newspapers, propaganda and suppression in newspapers, journalistic malpractice and false war stories. George Seldes wrote two books that included material newspapers refused to print: You Can’t Print That! (1929) and Can These Things Be! (1931).
The film is simply George Seldes talking about some of the most exiting moments in his life.
VI The War You Don’t See *
This film (2010) is about how Britain and the U.S. have sold wars to the American public. Support for the Viet Nam war dropped dramatically when news organizations began showing the bodies of war victims on TV and the media. This film documents the great lengths the American mainstream media goes to not show you the truth about the causalities of war.
VII Sicko * * * * *
Considered by critics to be Michael Moore’s best film, Sicko (2007) exposes the real death panels within the health care industry in a deeply moving film that was even positively reviewed by Fox News. Similar to the The War You Don’t See, Moore shows you the monsters that are hiding beneath the curtain of America’s health care industry and the industry’s massive PR efforts. Perhaps more importantly, he shows you the victims.
VIII Capitalism: A Love Story * * * *
MIchael Moore is back to illustrate how Americans have been sold on the idea that capitalism and democracy are equivalent. Capitalism: A Love Story also shows how politicians quickly gave into political pressure from Wall Street and bailed out Wall Street.
IX Toxic Sludge is Good For You * * * *
Toxic Sludge is Good For You – The Public Relations Industry Unspun (2002) by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton gives a number of interesting PR examples from war to pollution. As noted in the review of Rampton’s lecture above, the focus is on how the industry attempts to rebrand and relabel industries that don’t need to be rebranded or relabeled. They need to be exposed! Unfortunately, the press and even dictionaries seem more than willing to comply with even blatant attempts at thought control.
This film also includes perhaps the most famous quote from any film on this list
“The 150,000 PR practitioners in the US outnumber the country’s reporters.”
X Weapons of Mass Deception * * * *
Weapons of Mass Deception is an intense look at the PR campaign waged by the Bush administration against the American public in order to support their war efforts. It also examines the American media’s willingness to report the numerous false assertions made by his administration.
Other great films in this venue include A Film Unfinished (Nazi Propaganda), The Believing Brain by Michael Schermer (The Superstition Industry), Super Size Me (Fast Food Industry), Hot Coffee (2011; The Legal Industry), Bowling for Columbine (Violence in America) and The Man Behind Hitler (PBS Documentary).
There is ample reading material on the causes of the mainstream media misreporting events and ignoring other stories altogether. Noam Chomsky’s classic Manufacturing Consent and his other works on this topic are considered the best nonfiction. The best fictional classics are Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell and 1984 (1948) also by George Orwell. The Impartial Review News has previous recommended Deadly Spin by Wendell Potter which is an insiders look at health insurance industry PR.
Toxic Sludge is Good For Your is also in book form as is the Weapons of Mass Deception – The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. Two other well known books are War is a Racket – The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier and Media Control – The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda.
More advanced but highly informative material on the topic is also available such as Propaganda – The Formation of Men’s Attitudes by Jacques Elluls. Staging a Revolution by Hamid Dabashi (2000) is about the Islamic revolution in Iran with eerie similarity to the astro-turfed Tea Party revolution in the U.S. The English professorial version with Peter Chelkowski (2002) is also available. A similar theme is found in Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War by John R. MacArthur (2004) and War, Media and Propaganda (2004) by Ben Bagdikian.
Finally, the problem is also illustrated in many videos and advertisements that makes fun of propaganda. The video below is an example that makes fun of attempts to use positive emotions to sell ideas to the American public. FlackCheck.org was a popular website during the campaign season which exposed problems in political commercials in a humorous fashion.
by Todd Miller
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