Monday, February 29, 2016

Information Manipulation

In a room where writers write somewhere in a little suburb near Rome a generally unknown educated man, let's call him Mark, sat and put to paper a story.  He wrote a biography of a guy who had died around 60 years before.  He never knew him; never saw him.  But the stories were corroborated by many and handed down more by word-of-mouth than anything else.   The book was a great success and then others followed about the same fellow.  Three more actually.  From different authors and areas.  These four books would end up being kind of a rallying cry for action and were, in essence, campaign biographies for a guy named Yeshua.  This guy, before his untimely death, had been running around talking about social justice, took a page out of Bernie's rigged economy, and told his listeners the real bad guys were banks and lenders.  These campaign manuals were distributed to religious leaders and, in turn, told to followers much like a Sunday sermon.   They were written to enhance an idea in the first 100 years after the death of a guy called Yeshua.

Yeshua, called Jesus when the book was translated from Hebrew to Greek ended up, having quite a story to tell.  While John Paul told the facts, just the facts, one of the other biographers, let's call him Matthew,  wrote his version about 30 years later, began to embellish some things.  While Mark had mentioned a "young man" at Yeshua's gravesite,  Matthew describes him a "radiant angel".  Well, clearly we have jumped the shark, have we not?  That Yeshua lived is not in question.  What he actually said and did, is conjecture.  Stories back in those days were written but since there was no mass publishing system tucked away for safekeeping read only by the religious leaders.  They would tell stories - the movies of their day.  Information Manipulation.

The word "manipulation" has a bad reputation.  Back in my MDH days we even had a set of problem areas that get you in trouble and one of them was "manipulation".   It wasn't an easy sell to the kids. How can you get in trouble by skewing the story to your favor?  Isn't that we all do?  Well, yes.  We all do.  

Going back to the old Biblical days, one of my favorite classes was the one where we dug into the miracles of the Bible and attempted to decipher the truth, or lack thereof, according to the language.  We tackled a lot of them and discovered that the writers manipulated events to make for a better story.  Yeshua's walking on water story was born of particular optics at that time of day, that the parting of the Red Sea was every bit about a kind of water reed that was prevalent at that time.  If you like the miracles, then by all means cling to them.  For others, a reasonable explanation doesn't diminish faith, but simply makes it work in a world where understanding how things work helps.  It's kind of however you like your steak, well done or raw - it's still steak, isn't it?

The point of all this is, we all have stories and we all try to manipulate the information to sell or ourselves, sell others, sell an idea, sell a candidate, sell a news story, sell a movie, sell a baseball team, you name it.     

Another week, another mass shooting.  America the beautiful.  TV news, that arm of the press that is so concerned about your ability to comprehend will filter out the violence and blood for your viewing pleasure. NBC's Lester Holt came on early in the crisis with full concern and about three ongoing questions just recycled for the next 6 hours.  This isn't about gun sales or the 2nd Amendment.  This is more about the News.  Choppers giving you full coverage. but not so full that you risk seeing something gruesome.  We don't televise Middle East beheadings and, in fact, many organizations no longer televise the planes flying into the Twin Towers anymore.  It is sanitized, filtered, hashed and re-hashed before it reaches our eyes.  Then it is put through a committee sieve then televised into our living rooms for mass consumption. 

Question by newsman to guy who survived San Bernardino attack: "How frightened were you when the shooting started?"

Gee, the guy's answer was: "Very."

That is the state of our news: vapid.  Do I want to see beheadings? Hell no.  Do I want unfiltered news? Yeah. Thus the conundrum.  The guys who send their correspondents out to see what is happening get the right to send it back to us in any fashion they choose. It's their money, it's their right. It is, in essence, information manipulation.  

Information manipulation is nothing new in media.  The brothers known as the Grimm's revised their children's tales from the 1st edition to the 2nd by removing some really gruesome stuff.  Yes, the parents went ballistic over that first edition. 

Walter Cronkite, a Democrat, ended a newscast on February 27, 1968 with these words: 

"To say that we are closer to victory today (referring to the Vietnamese War) is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.  To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism.  To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.  But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."

And while LBJ was watching the Cronkite newscast live, he then said to his aides, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." 

LBJ, no stranger to using information manipulation to his advantage, just got bitch-slapped by it.  This moment was the beginning of the end of the war, a war we would lose, and to the reputation of LBJ who had done so much legislatively such as  Medicare/Medicaid, Civil Rights, and Great Society enactments, historically deemed significantly to the good.

So what brought all this on?  When Chris Christie, failed presidential candidate,  sauntered up on the podium behind Donald Trump, successful presidential candidate so far, and endorsed him, we learned a good lesson about information manipulation.  Christie had been harping about how lousy Trump would be for the past 8 months, then does a switcheroo.  Maybe not so bad after all, especially if you are wrangling for a Vice- Presidential appointment.  

We all know about media bias; even old Walter Cronkite couldn't remain totally objective.  Each news source slants their news in just a way that suits their ideological boardroom.   

To further muddy the waters, its not just the news.  We all come with our own own press secretary, or surrogates as they are called now, to promote the "me" that needs to be promoted.  Movies with product placement, every single commercial ever made, every news organization, every conversation, every blog post, billboards - they all contain information that has been filtered, sifted, sugared, edited in such a way as to win support, favor, or maybe even to buy some time.  You can't stop them - they invade your home through the TV, junk mail,  and radio.  

  • If that TV political commercial doesn't end with the candidate saying "I approved this message..." then it was sent to you by some other organization.  Check for the fine print at the end of it and you may be surprised.  If you haven't heard of them get on the web and look them up.
  • Be aware that if you buy things online, that product may flag an  organization to buy your name off lists and begin sending you advertisements online or in the mail.  For instance there are many collectors who purchase coins through the mail.  I purchase silver dollars for Kenzie every Christmas.  I have had my name sold to fringe Montana groups who collect gold as a kind of hedge against the apocalypse.  
  • On average children watch 15 food commercials daily.  Of these 98% tend to be low in nutrition.  What do you think these kids are going to want when they go with Mom to the grocery store? (1)
  • Studies have shown that products with labels sell better than products without labels.  A taste test gave Coke the edge when they placed the product in a cup with Coke on it than a cup without. (2)  A similar study found that kids liked food placed in McDonald's packaging than when placed in unmarked containers. (3)
  • Media influences body image and forces us to buy products that will help make us look like whatever they think we should.
  • Media influences music - remember Tipper Gore's campaign to label questionable album lyrics?     

Bias is everywhere.  Even the blog you are reading right now.  Existing In BFE editor in chief has the sole power of its posts.  I've done plenty of embarrassing things that you won't read about here, regardless of how objective I try to be.  Politically I have leaned left most of my life, but have found myself to be more conservatively inclined in recent times.  This primary season notwithstanding, I tend to think that the swinging pendulum theory that ushers in the other party once in a while is a check-and-balance that keeps this American machine running.  But I also tend to see politics as a sporting event rather than an all-encompassing passion.  I am an issue agnostic:  things happen and legislation passes "when it is its time"  regardless of party.  Anyway, I've got my popcorn and a seat close to the TV in order to follow every soap opera moment.

I apologize about this 2 coffee cup post.  It's Monday and you surely have others things to do and worry about.  This started as a simple recognition of the media influences that bombard us daily and seemed to have grown into a personal tirade of watchdog advocacy.  Or maybe it is just because when I was in Northlandia in December the political commercials were endless.  Now, in Floriduh, those same commercials have invaded me here, so I haven't been able to get away from it.    

I think we need to be aware of who is behind the info we get.  As consumers of news, as purveyors of information we hear about, I think it would all behoove us to peel back the curtain to see who the wizards are that control the knobs.  Most of the time it is fine.  Information can be distributed without bias, fault or favor.  But the old adage "information is power" is true.  Just ask Matthew, the guy      who made the critical change from "young man" to "angel", he started a religion.     

1. Teen Health and the Media. Retrieved on 18 September 2014.

2.  McClure, S. M., Li, J., Tomlin, D., Cypert, K. S., Montague, L. M., & Montague, P. R. (2004). Neural correlates of behavioral preference for culturally familiar drinks, Neuron, 44, 379–387

3.  Robinson, T. N., Borzekowsi, D. L., Matheson, D. M., & Kraemer, H. C. (2007). Effects of fast food branding on young children’s taste preferences. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 161, 792–797


  1. Well done Michael! A fitting read for an additional cup of coffee. Suffering through political commercials is true suffering. It appears in this season the inmates are running the asylum.

  2. Nicely done Mr. Blythe. Bravo! Good point Jeff.....I agree.