cj#650> Decoding Media Propaganda


Richard Moore

Dear cj,

Allow me to develop further the following line of thought, from cj#643:
 > I actually find the mass media very informative, but in spite of itself.
 > If you take the trouble to inform yourself (mostly outside the main media),
 > and put two and two together, it is possible to build a fairly good model
 > of what's going on, and who's doing what to whom, via what proxies.

 > Armed with such a perspective, then an interesting use of the media is to
 > take careful note of what they choose to report and how they spin it.  By
 > noticing where the spotlight is cast, and what distortions are introduced,
 > one can learn a lot about what the establishment is up to.

I do (honest) want to steer us away from too much focus on TWA 800, but I
couldn't help noticing the cover of Time for March 31, with the title
"Flying Blind".  The article is extremely interesting for its contents, and
even more for its timing, spin, emphasis, and cunningly oblique mention of
TWA 800.

The feature article excerpts a book ("Flying Blind, Flying Safe") by a
remarkable woman whose credibility, credentials, and apparent candor are
awesome - she comes across as a well-meaning whistleblower of the first
order.  Formerly Inspector General of the U.S. Department of
Transportation, Mary Shiavo recounts an alarming story of systematic
coverup by the FAA of airline safety problems, shoddy inspections, bogus
spare parts, faulty air-traffic control systems, and disasters that could
and should have been prevented.  You may, not coincidentally, have seen
similar revelations in the media recently.

Taken at face value, this is a hard-hitting expose, the kind of journalism
that most of us would, presumably, like to see more of.  It reveals that
the FAA had a stated policy of giving more attention to industry
profitability than to passenger safety (About time someone admitted it!),
and there is even a happy ending - "In the wake of Schiavo's campaign,"
says the article's introduction, "Congress has changed the FAA's mandate to
make safety its primary mission."

But face value is hardly the appropriate perspective with which to approach
a mainstream propaganda channel such as Time.  It is necessary instead to
don ones thinking cap and raise the issues that are artfully dodged in the

The first issue I'd like to raise is that of identifying the perp: Who
deserves the blame for the abysmal safety practices?  The article
unequivocally blames the FAA, with a tall white-on-black headline that
streams across the first two pages: "With its toothless inspections and
deaf ear to safety warnings, the FAA has made air travel more perilous than
it need be."

Why does this raise my hackles?  It's not that I don't buy the premise - I
happen to agree that a central job of the government (eg. the FAA) is to
strenuously regulate profit-crazed industry and compel it to exercise
community civility and concern for human life (on behalf of us voiceless
masses) - but from Time magazine?  Why are they, of all venues, pushing a
regulationsist agenda??  I smell a rotten fish somehwere on the premises.

To say "the FAA has made air travel more perilous" is to say: industry, by
definition, is not to be trusted: without FAA intevention OF COURSE
industry will throw safety to the winds.  But why is Time giving this
obvious truth voice?  Significantly, the word "regulation" occurs nowhere
in the article.  Instead the impression is given that FAA bureaucracy and
personal face-saving on the part of FAA individuals are the culprits - the
fact that DEREGULATION (a religious tenet of the past two decades, promoted
by Time as much as anyone) is the base guideline from which lax FAA
enforcement is the obvious consequnce - is never mentioned.

Time is turning the spotlight on a very real problem, but is spinning the
story in particular, and interesting ways, from which we can perhaps learn
something about what our spin doctors have in mind for us...  First, allow
me to characterize, pardon my humility, the true story behind the problem,
the story being distorted by Time:

        The True Story:   An industry such as the airlines cannot be
trusted to act in the public interest.  Profit pressures will naturally
erode attention to safety.  This is well-known, and is a major reason
regulatory bodies such as the FAA were set up in the first place.
Unfortunately, as soon as these agencies are established, the industry then
focuses its well-funded political efforts on subverting them.
        The agency itself is infiltrated and pressurized by industry
agents; Congress is lobbied to castrate the agency - these are behaviors
oft repeated this century.  But this piecemeal subversion process was too
slow to suit industry, and so in 1980 Reagan launched, or at least acted as
PR agent for, the neoliberal revolution - whose main tenet was general
deregulation - "getting government off our [read: megacorps] backs"
        This was a wholesale effort to all-at-once rollback the responsible
supervision of industry practices in general - intentionally leaving public
safety (as well as everything else) in the hands of irresponsible,
profit-focused, industries.  Time does all it can to support and further
this neoliberal sell-out madness.
        The perps behind perilous air travel are (1) irresponsible, in some
cases criminal, industrial operators, (2) the deregulation agenda and the
politicians who support it, (3) the media (eg. Time) who sell the agenda
with their propaganda.  The FAA itself, with its ineffectiveness, is merely
the intentional product of the actions of these real perps.

What Time did with this story was to:
        a) minimize blame to the industry by focusing on a marginal
           carrier (ValuJet) and on parts suppliers
        b) totally omit the observations that the FAA was acting in a
           strong deregulatory climate and with an insufficint budget
        c) imply that FAA failures were bureucratic and personal,
           not the reflection of broad government policy
        d) make no connection with situations in other industries,
           and no connection to the general issue of regulation - hence
           limiting attention to the narrow issue of recent FAA "failures"

In other words, Time is carrying out a damage-control operation: to limit
and channel public responses to the emotional issue of air safety.  They're
not running a story on the problem, they're running a coverup story on a
pseudo-problem as a way of hiding the real story.  And with Time's "happy
ending", the reader is encouraged to sit back and relax - all will soon be

* * *

The question that nags in my mind is why the media spotlight is being
placed on air-safety at all, and why they seem to be emphasizing the
magnitude of the problems, rather than minimizing them, as you would
normally expect from corporate-controlled media.  Part of the answer may
relate to the TWA disaster, and the likelihood that the truth of the
friendly-fire story must eventually be admitted.

At the end of Time's article, almost as an afterthought, in no way the
apparent focus of the story, we find Ms. Shiavo asking herself: "Had the
TWA jet crashed because an incompetent mechanic missed something?  Because
a bogus part sold to the airline by shady dealers had failed?  Or was the
plane blown out of the sky because lax security had permitted a bomb to be
hidden on the plane..."

Coming at the end of the hard-hitting article, excerpting such a
knowledgeable and candid reporter, I could feel the propaganda hooks
pulling at me - how very credible it seemed that her suspicions must be
correct - and if it hadn't been this flight it would have been another one.
All this talk about "friendly fire" and other theories seemed, the hooks
told me, beside the point - air-safety is so bad that planes falling out of
the sky shouldn't be a surprise any longer.

What a turn-around had occurred in my thinking!  What effective propaganda
I had just ingested!  I recall that when mechanical failure had fist been
suggested as one of the major TWA scenarios being officially considered, I
rejected that as silly.  Even ignoring the missile reports, my reaction was
"planes don't just fall out of the sky - there's always a bomb or some
other intervention."  But after the Time article, even being as skeptical
as I could be, I admit that I'm now convinced mechanical failure is
something to fear whenever you fly.

But not in the case of TWA 800.  All the witnesses, the existence of the
missile-test facility, the event-reconstruction from the debris
disbursement, etc. point to a missile impact.  The proposed counter-theory,
by the way - explosion in fuel tank - would not be an example of the kind
of FAA abuses pointed out by Time.  There was no bogus part or lax
inspection - but simply a situation (partially-empty fuel tank) that all
airliners experience on every flight.  There is only a theory that such a
condition might lead to an explosion on its own - an unlikely theory since
it seems never to have happened before.

What is much more likely is that a partially-empty fuel tank would
exacerbate what might otherwise be a less-disastrous event.  For example, a
stray bullet penetrating a fuel tank might only lead to a leak if the tank
is topped-up with inert gas, while it would surely bring down the plane,
given a highly volatile fuel-air mixture.

* * *

This very point is subtly exploited in a recent Washington Post article,
reprinted in the Guardian Weekly of 23 March.  "Conspiracy Theory Dogs TWA
Crash", by Don Phillips, is mostly a predictable coverup piece, using the
FBI and other government officials as its authorative sources, and
explaining how "irresponsible theories" are slowing down the investigative
efforts of our valiant air-safety investigators.  Tempting as it is, I
won't waste your time pointing out how each piece of evidence finds mention
in the article, but always in a distorted way, sequenced so as to mislead
to party-line conclusions.

Once more, as it turns out, we get the main propaganda point of the piece
at the end, seemingly as an afterthought.  This is not normal for news
reporting - which always puts the main point at the top - but it is normal
for dramatic writing - where the critical plot twist always occurs near the
end.  Thus in both the Time and Post pieces, we see the cover-story being
carried in normal news style, while the subliminal propaganda subtext is
carried by more dramatic, story-telling techniques.

The propaganda punchline of the Post article reads like this: "...all
parties...now agree that fumes in the nearly empty center fuel tank
exploded... There is also general agreement that whatever caused the tank
to explode was not sufficiently powerful to have brought down the plane by
itself - so the additional force of the exploding fuel tank was the
ultimate event that led to the crash... If the tank had been filled with
inert gases...this wouldn't have happened."

Use of inert gases is a great idea - so would be non-flammable seat
material and many other measures.  But it's a doublespeak stretch to
downplay the actual prime cause of the event in this way.  The propaganda
effect is to draw attention away what caused this particular crash, and
turn attention to a dangerous condition that has probably contributed to
the deaths in many crashes, but has never before been given mainstream
publicity.  Would Time blame the fuel tank if a small terrorist bomb had
set it off?  Get real.

If you take the Time and Post pieces together, we can see that the public
is being prepared and conditioned to take a certain perspective to air
safety, and to the TWA incident in particular.  First, they are being made
aware, through just-in-time revelations, that air travel is dangerous due
to very shoddy practices.  Second, they're being taught to focus on the
explosive fuel tank.  Finally, they're being told that help is on the way
in terms of a renewed government priority around safety.

The strategy is to turn the TWA incident into a broader issue, and then
frame that broader issue in such a way as to maximize damage control.  When
it is finally admitted - as may be invevitable - that a stray missile hit
the plane, it will seem almost anti-climactic - a mere small thread in an
overall tangle of air travel problems.  The admission, if it comes, will, I
predict, emphasize that the missile had an "inert warhead", that an FAA
controller was responsible for the mishap, that the military personnel
involved are "deeply regretful", that the tank was the ultimate culprit,
and that all has now been made right by new, just-in-time-for-press FAA

* * *

It has taken a while to put together the propaganda campaign which will
enable them to admit to friendly-fire in this least-damaging manner.  That,
I surmise, is the reason for the stall in the investigation - not their
inability to find out what really happened.  Once the stage is set, as
seems to be nearly the case already, we might expect them to "discover" a
"previously unsuspected" classified Navy tape which "reveals" that a secret
test was going on, into whose space TWA 800 "intruded".

Alternatively, they may choose to never "discover" what happened, but just
let the various theories float there in the ether, while the public is led
to beleive the "real" problem of air safety has been identified and is
being dealt with.

My theory is that air-safety would never have been raised as a mainstream
issue if it hadn't been for TWA 800, that the issue was intentionally
raised as a strategic obfuscation measure, and that actual follow-up on
increased air safety will probably fade away as soon as public concern with
TWA 800 dwindles.  Once they determined that air-safety revelations would
need to be part of the TWA damage-control campaign, the next step was to
design the propaganda so as to minimize additional damage from the
revelations themselves.  Hence the well-crafted Time article, and free
publicty for a book that might otherwise have been downplayed by the likes
of Time.

Time will tell.


Posted by Richard K. Moore - •••@••.••• - PO Box 26 - Wexford, Ireland
  Cyberlib:  ftp://ftp.iol.ie/users/rkmoore/cyberlib        (USA Citizen)