October 22nd, 2009

The Manipulative Media Narrative

In August, President Obama made an appearance in Arizona to headline a rally for supporters of his Obamacare plan. Unsurprisingly, protesters swarmed the area with homemade signs to make known their outrage. Among the group was an individual carrying an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder, and a pistol holstered at his hip. MSNBC ran footage of this man later in the day, with one commentator expressing concern about the racial overtones evidenced by a white man bringing a gun to an appearance by the first black president.

However, this story was completely inaccurate. Not only was it factually incorrect, but the implications of MSNBC’s error sparked a conversation on a subject that otherwise would not have been a concern at all, and could have easily served as the basis for much more heated controversy regarding this element of armed racists parading around in close proximity to Obama, had the truth not come out soon afterward. The error?

The armed man was black.

(MSNBC had deceitfully edited the video so as to exclude any portions that showed the man’s bare skin.)

In a masterful video commentary produced shortly after this event, Pajamas Media writer Bill Whittle exposed the deceptive background behind MSNBC’s careful editing. His main point: an armed black man protesting against a black president did not fit a pre-conceived narrative the media outlet desired to convey.

Several books, such as Bias, have been written by insiders documenting instance after instance of this manipulation Whittle describes. The charge of engineering facts to fit an agenda is not a new accusation being made against this industry—far from it. But this instance serves as one of the latest of countless examples where an intentionally misleading story is put forward to attempt to have the public buy into the pre-approved narrative.

Another recent example has sparked a firestorm of articles and blog posts from local news reporters and commentators. Last week, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave a powerful discourse on the subject of freedom of religion, counseling students at BYU-Idaho (and the world at large) that the battle rages on and that their participation is needed to preserve our freedoms.

Just about every media outlet, except those owned by the Church itself, chose to regurgitate the Associated Press article written in preparation for the very minute at which the agreed-upon news embargo was lifted (when Elder Oaks’ devotional concluded), when they could pounce with their coverage of the talk. (It should be noted that this article contains an inaccurate statement; it claims that blacks were denied “full church membership” until 1978, when that was not the case at all. Access to the priesthood and the temple do not constitute full church membership. To claim otherwise is to suggest that women and children are not “full members”. But I digress…)

In succeeding days, most of these media outlets inflated the already-artificial reaction to a statement by Elder Oaks who, when referring to the tactics of intimidation used by proponents of proposition 8 and gay marriage to silence their Mormon political opponents, said:

These incidents were expressions of outrage against those who disagreed with the gay-rights position and had prevailed in a public contest. As such, these incidents of “violence and intimidation” are not so much anti-religious as anti-democratic. In their effect they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation. (emphasis added)

Comments were sought—and all too readily obtained—from gay rights groups, disaffected members of the Church, black civil rights leaders, and other interested parties, regarding the comparison Elder Oaks made between persecuted Mormons and persecuted Southern blacks several decades ago.

The only problem is that, like MSNBC’s manipulation of the facts to support their narrative, these news agencies have published reports of and encouraged conversation regarding a comparison that was never made (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), with the widely-circulated Associated Press article leading the way with its misleading opening paragraph.

Reading the above quote again, you’ll see the words “in their effect” prominently highlighted to help indicate what Elder Oaks really said—not what his opponents are saying that he said. Taken in its true context, Elder Oaks was making a simple comparison between the end results of the persecution of both parties, namely, that both parties felt less safe and had less desire to exercise their political and civil freedoms. There was no comparison made anywhere regarding the extent of the persecution, nor the similarities of each group’s persecution, nor anything other than the fact that the effects on both parties were similar—not the same. Yet, the AP article and other content produced by the various news outlets (yes, it seems that some of them still actually write their own content—shocking, I know!) ignores this and perpetuates the myth regarding a comparison that was never used.

To be fair, the Church’s press release may have influenced some of the wording used by news agencies. It says that “…Elder Oaks likened the incidents of outrage against those who prevailed in establishing marriage between a man and a woman to the ‘widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South.'”. However, it is not naive or unrealistic to assume that good (and honest) journalists would seek context to this explanation and deeper analysis before simply fanning the flames of controversy without any substance to support the furor.

But the reality of Elder Oaks’s statement does not fit one of the prominent Utah media narratives, since that narrative is implemented by a fairly numerous group of individuals who are either former/inactive members of the LDS Church, (vehemently) ideologically opposed to its teachings and practices, or disaffected in some other way. These individuals clearly have a vested personal interest (though they may parrot their “journalistic objectivity” in protest) in seeing the image of the Church damaged in some fashion. The narrative allows them to continue to develop and distribute stories that are in reality based on misunderstandings and misleading information.

As Whittle concludes in his video, “You can’t stop the signal. The truth will get out.” It is increasingly becoming clear that there exist people who are hostile to the truth and a sincere presentation of events and facts, wrapped though they may be in the sacrosanct shroud of journalistic integrity. Those who want the undistorted truth must—and easily can, thanks to the internet—reject the media distortions and go to the source (in this case, here) themselves.

9 Responses to “The Manipulative Media Narrative”

  1. Clumpy
    October 22, 2009 at 1:16 pm #

    It’s weird to see a grown man who doesn’t look like a huge fan of irony quoting “Serenity” :).

    MSNBC was unlucky in this particular case – the other networks showed in-context footage of the man and I think I recall CNN even interviewing him. Another lie in this case was the implication that the man was AT an Obama rally, when in fact he was some distance away and left long before the President even showed up. Combining these two things together created the impression the studio wanted, something that probably correlated with their actual opinions when reality just didn’t match up in this case.

    The media sometimes thrives on depriving its viewers of context, and while I’d blame the same bad tendencies that cause them to trumpet cancer cures far too early or turn celebrity scandals into more than they are, it’s pretty clear that the racial undertones simply made a better story in their eyes.

    Nevertheless statistics show that our President is receiving an unprecedented number of death threats, and gun sales spiked immediately after his election, primarily among caucasians (not to imply that they personally advocate or are planning to attempt violence against him, but I think it would be foolhardy to argue that some of the often-ridiculous, disproportionate backlash against our President, even among individuals who don’t subscribe to supremacist ideologies, isn’t factored at least partially on race).

    Oh, and the Church thing is just ridiculous. While comparisons must be made appropriately, Elder Oaks’ were more than appropriate. To say what he did does not equate civil rights struggles with the comparatively minor harassment sometimes given to church members (and the LDS church in general) on this issue, but to underscore a similar ideological opposition that sometimes results in anger and backlash rather than reasoned discussion through appropriate methods.

    Some members assert a sort of immunity to criticism due to the fact that our church participated through legal, populist methods, something I don’t agree with. Nevertheless angry or ad hominem attacks cannot accomplish anything.

  2. rmwarnick
    October 22, 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    (1) The issue with gun-toting protesters at presidential events, is that former President Bush had people arrested several times for wearing the wrong T-shirt at his events. What gives?

    (2) I think it’s fair to say the LDS Church discriminated against black people until 1978.

    (3) The First Amendment guards against the establishment of religion (i.e. theocracy) in America– which means the LDS Church’s support for Proposition 8 is at odds with the Constitution.

    (4) People have every right to protest when persecuted and deprived of their civil rights by theocrats. The persecutors cannot claim victim status, that’s ridiculous.

    • Connor
      October 22, 2009 at 1:42 pm #

      (1) The issue with gun-toting protesters at presidential events, is that former President Bush had people arrested several times for wearing the wrong T-shirt at his events. What gives?

      Ah yes, here we go. If something bad happens because of a Democrat, then talk about something bad that a Republican did! I’ve said something similar to this in several replies to you already, but here goes again: I did not agree with Bush, his heavy-handed and pseudo-fascist tactics, or, well, pretty much anything he did. I agree that the free speech zones enacted at the RNC and all other forms of controlling the message were repressive and flagrantly unconstitutional. That George Bush did something along these lines does not mean that we cannot focus only on this singular event with President Obama as part of this discussion. Leave it alone, already!

      (2) I think it’s fair to say the LDS Church discriminated against black people until 1978.

      I am not against discrimination. That said, the conventional understanding of discrimination is far too emotionally charged to have a reasonable discussion with most people. A private organization (such as the Church) is entirely within its rights to exclude or regulate membership and access to certain organization-provided privileges. That doesn’t mean I agree with how it happened or what it entailed, but the Church had every right to do it. Carrying your argument forward, the Church is discriminating against women today for denying them the ability to hold the Priesthood. So?

      (3) The First Amendment guards against the establishment of religion (i.e. theocracy) in America– which means the LDS Church’s support for Proposition 8 is at odds with the Constitution.

      Read it again. It prevents the Congress from passing any law to that effect. Thus, your accusation in entirely inapplicable; it also inaccurate. The Church’s support for the proposition had nothing to do with any single religious entity dominating, regulating, or controlling anything related to it. There was a broad coalition of churches and people of faith involved in maintaining the definition of marriage; this is hardly an establishment of religion. Nice try, though.

      (4) People have every right to protest when persecuted and deprived of their civil rights by theocrats. The persecutors cannot claim victim status, that’s ridiculous.

      You have altogether missed the point of this post and are instead using it to further your own arguments that have little to nothing to do with the subject at hand. Thus, I will not respond here; I have rebutted such fallacies on other posts already.

  3. rmwarnick
    October 22, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    Oh, I forgot, this is supposed to be a “blame the media” post. Well, the media in general do have a tendency to follow their own well-worn narratives. The Utah narrative is that it’s a boondocks run by Mormons, does not invest enough in education, and is one of the few remaining red states.

    Well, what do the media know? Our Mormon majority has fallen below 61 percent, an all-time low. Utahns decisively rejected private school vouchers in favor of funding our public schools. Salt Lake County voted for Obama.

    OK the media are right about Utah, but they’re less right than they think they are.

  4. JBTalcott
    October 22, 2009 at 10:37 pm #

    Ok “Black men were denied full church membership until 1978″. Is that better? Women, on the other hand are still waiting.

    I’ll give you your point about MSNBC. That station has tried to play the role of Fox News but on the left instead of the right. Fox certainly has been just as guilty of slanting the news to fit an agenda.

    Perhaps if we all got our news from PBS we would have a better chance at hearing the truth.

  5. Connor
    October 22, 2009 at 11:27 pm #

    Talcott, I’m assuming that you’re not a member of the Church. If that assumption is correct, who are you to define what constitutes full membership in the church? My wife is a “full” member in good standing and is not waiting for anything. Leave it up to the peanut gallery to make demands of other organizations as if their voice carries any weight…

  6. Neil
    October 23, 2009 at 11:06 pm #

    I was personally introduced to the man who carried the AR-15 in the Obama protest at a John Birch Society meeting. I told him to keep up the good work and thanked him for the risk taking. Very nice guy. Good article Connor. Oh yea if you want the truth in news don’t get it on T.V.

  7. Clumpy
    October 24, 2009 at 5:40 pm #

    I definitely don’t think that it’s mutually exclusive to believe that the media behaved irresponsibly AND that it’s moronic and unnecessary to carry an assault rifle around in public.

  8. Neil
    October 26, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

    I guess the Minutemen of the Revolutionary War shouldn’t have carried flintlock muskets in public either. That was the rifle of their day. The Ar-15 is ours.

    “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good” — George Washington

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