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Seven propagandistic terms used by the media that every American needs to know about
By Jon Reynolds /
Nov 28, 2014

propaganda - noun \ˌprä-pə-ˈgan-də, ˌprō-\

ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.


Americans love to point and laugh at countries like North Korea because of the amount of propaganda the population is subjected to, but what about us? Are we also subjected to propaganda by our government and media?


Historically, the answer is a big yes. The onslaught of anti-Russian disinformation spilled out across the American landscape during the Cold War is incredibly well-documented. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans were still battered by propaganda, evident by the widespread (and false) claim pushed by US news networks months prior to the 1991 US invasion of Iraq that Iraqi troops were stealing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them to die on the floor. The same propagandistic formula was then used to justify the US bombing of Yugoslavia before resurfacing once again to exaggerate and deceive Americans regarding the second invasion of Iraq in 2003.


The way in which these conflicts were marketed to the US by the government and media differs slightly from the forms of manipulation we may be used to seeing in other countries. Our propaganda isn't nearly so overt and tends to operate behind the scenes, which is perhaps why it is so effective. During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, for instance, most Americans were left in the dark about the fact that retired military generals were being called to promote war, many of whom had connections to defense companies and thus, a reason to promote the conflict. Similarly, the New York Times ran a story in 2005 regarding "Video News Releases", which were prepackaged, government-created news stories that were distributed to various outlets and played without their origin ever being disclosed to the public.


But there are other ways in which the media propagandizes the public, and the methodology seems to revolve around an Orwellian reclassification of certain words and terms. Our wars, we are told, are always "humanitarian". Everyone killed by our aerial death machines is a "militant" or a "terrorist". Whole news stories are written with anonymous "officials" as sources. And anyone who challenges the government or media narrative - whether their criticisms are true or false - is nonetheless branded as a "conspiracy theorist".


Let's examine these terms, and others, in greater detail.


1. "Officials"


Head over to Google and do a search (in quotations), of "US officials say" or "according to US officials" or "senior US official". Here are just two results I found:


"US and Japanese trade negotiators have been unable to reach a deal to open Japan's markets more widely to imports ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Japan, a senior US administration official said on Friday." (Reuters, 4/18/2014)


"The United States has concluded a missile shot down the plane, but hasn't pinpointed who was responsible, a senior US official told CNN's Barbara Starr." (CNN, 7/18/2014)


Examples are so plentiful that there's even a Tumblr account dedicated to tracking the regular anonymous claims spilled to the media by veiled government officials.


Why this kind of journalism is problematic and falls under the category of propaganda is simple: as journalist Glenn Greenwald points out, it "converts government claims into journalistic fact", even when these claims haven't been independently verified. Moreover, it shields the people making these claims - and the media outlets peddling them - from accountability, all while shaping a historical narrative that may or may not be true.


So here we have another example, taken from late 2002, when the already-decided case for invading Iraq was being marketed to the public:


"Iraq has claimed that it ended its banned programs and destroyed all its weapons. Former inspectors and US officials have accused Iraq of continuing with those programs."


"Former inspectors and US officials say Saddam has kept his nuclear weapons teams together, which they say shows Iraq still has nuclear ambitions."


These officials were never named, and it's likely they never will be. And yet their invalid assertions were printed in the media for all to see, subsequently helping to shape America's view of Iraq and the inevitable invasion - an invasion that resulted in a greater national debt, thousands of US soldiers dying, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.


2. "Experts" 


When someone on television or in the newspaper is introduced as an "expert", it's smart to be skeptical about it. Sometimes they may actually say legitimate things, however in many other cases, these "experts" are brought on and painted as such when they are anything but.


The millions of people around the world who have died - or are suffering from - cancer of the head, neck, lungs, and brain - can attest to the problem of "expert" testimony, a case made most evident by the decades-long muddling of scientific research regarding the harm from tobacco smoke inhalation. This tampering of the scientific consensus is not necessarily a thing of the past either. As recent as 2003 we can see it happening with a truly bullshit episode of Penn and Teller's now-ended show, Bullshit, where the duo "debunks" the claim that tobacco smoke is harmful by bringing in an "expert" from the Cato Institute. They would have done well to tell their viewers that the Cato Institute has taken funding from tobacco companies, but considering Penn Jillette himself is a member of Cato, it'd be safe to speculate that maybe he, too, has something of an interest in swindling his viewers.


Nonetheless, let's look at a few other examples of "expert" testimony tinged with the bias of special interest groups.


Consider this Forbes article titled "Michael Bloomberg's Attack On E-Cigarettes Will Drive Ex-Smokers Back To The Real Thing", wherein the author, Gilbert Ross - who also happens to be the Medical and Executive Director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) - attacks "e-cig haters", claiming that there's "nothing to be concerned about" regarding negative health consequences from e-cigs.


But what Ross - and Forbes - fail to tell readers is that ACSH receives donations from the makers and sellers of e-cigs.


In another example, we have a 2009 article from FOX discussing a study on the harm from phthalates (substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity). And where do they turn for "expert" advise on this study? To the late Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of ACSH, who called the research "junk science". That ACSH receives funding from a whole heaping of chemical companies is, again, not even mentioned.


In a 2014 article titled "A habit all too common in baseball", we find this:


"There is no scientifically established link between smokeless tobacco and salivary gland cancer, according to the American Council on Science and Health."


That ACSH has ties to the tobacco industry is NOT a hard fact to discover, and yet here is CNN, one of the world's biggest and most well-known "news" organizations, using ACSH as a guiding point for scientific discourse.


Propaganda is not limited to governments - the private sector can employ it just as well, which is precisely why we need to stay vigilant when presented with anyone labeled as an "expert". Having a PhD may be impressive, yet we would all do well to remember that it doesn't guarantee the holder of such a prestigious title is also in possession of something called "integrity".


3. "Conspiracy Theorist" 


Back in January 2013, I wrote an article titled "CNN: Government killing US citizens with drones a conspiracy theory", in which I quote CNN as saying:


"Conspiracies abound, Alex Jones will tell you. Bankers pull the strings on world governments to solidify their power. Companies are harming you and ducking responsibility. Antidepressants are 'suicide mass murder pills'. President Barack Obama is using drones against Americans."


Yes, Jones has claimed that companies are harming the public and getting away with it, but does that mean anyone who thinks this is now a "conspiracy theorist"? There are plenty of examples where corporations have caused harm to the public while ducking responsibility. For instance, injecting pharmaceutical products into feces-covered farm animals and then selling the end product to the public is well-documented, but I don't see the CEO of Smithfield or Tyson Foods on trial for complicity in spurring an antibiotic resistance shitstorm:


"This development of drug resistance scares the hell out of me," said Johns Hopkins University researcher Kellogg Schwab. "If we continue on and we lose the ability to fight these microorganisms, a robust, healthy individual has a chance of dying, where before we would be able to prevent that death. It's not appreciated until it's your mother, or your son, or you trying to fight off an infection that will not go away because the last mechanism to fight it has been usurped by someone putting it into a pig or a chicken."


I guess the people over at Johns Hopkins are "conspiracy theorists". Lucky for them, they are also in the company of Nasser al-Awlaki, whose son and grandson - both American citizens - were killed by US taxpayer-funded drone missiles. And yet, according to CNN, because a "conspiracy theorist" like Alex Jones talks about corporate misconduct or the US government killing citizens with drones, anyone else who does is also, by default, a "conspiracy theorist".


According to the media, if you're critical of, say, the 9/11 Commission - as many people are, including some of the Commission members - you are now in the same boat as the people claiming the Twin Towers were rigged with nano-thermite. If you take issue with the very real problem of corporate influence over the political system, you are now in the same boat as the people who think reptilian shapeshifters control the planet. If you're concerned with US imperialism, you are now in the same boat as the people who say the government is in the process of setting up concentration camps across the US for dissidents.


Conspiracies happen, and though some people think otherwise, they aren't always stopped, nor are those involved always held accountable. The US government has done, and is doing, truly horrible things. Private companies have done, and are doing, truly horrible things. But nowadays, if Alex Jones talks about an issue, that puts it into the realm of a "conspiracy theory" and makes anyone else who talks about that issue, whether the issue is true or false, a "conspiracy theorist" in the eyes of "news" networks like CNN.


Even foreign news networks have run wild with the "conspiracy theorist" label. Take, for instance, this article from the The Daily Telegraph, which attempts to dismiss notions that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was motivated by oil:


"The entire war was a gigantic plot to steal Iraq's oil, according to this conspiracy site. The maths never really added up, however. Iraq's oil industry was in a 'lamentable' condition after years of sanctions and the costs of waging war far outweighed the possible economic gain for the US."


The "conspiracy site" mentioned is, which again illustrates my earlier point: it is the epitome of lazy "journalism" to strawman an argument by consulting the worst possible sources. If Charlie Manson says the sky is blue, does that make anyone who thinks the sky is blue a lunatic? If a conspiracy theory website says the Iraq war was about oil, does that make anyone who sees evidence for such a claim a "conspiracy theorist"?


Bryan Sacks, Adjunct Professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at Drexel University, has an excellent article on conspiracy theories titled "Dispensing With The Conspiracy Theory Label", in which he writes:


"In a democratic republic, the presumption should be with the value of full disclosure at all times; the case for classification or secrecy should have to be made in each case in which its requested, with a very high threshold needing to be met. We have strayed so far from that commonsensical approach that when it is suggested on the record that the system of secret classification may be being used to cover up terrible crimes, the claim is likely to be met with rolling eyes and caustic dismissals, as if one has suggested a 'reptilian agenda' or something. But perhaps we should not be surprised at this, since the same term - 'conspiracy theory' - is used to describe both specific and often credible claims of government crime, as well as claims that the Freemasons have held secret control of world politics for centuries, or that Dick Cheney is a Lizard Person, and many other sorts of lurid nonsense. Which is why we would do best to dispense with the term 'conspiracy theory' altogether."


Scrapping the "conspiracy theorist" label would be wonderful, though I don't see that happening anytime soon. More realistically, we should just realize that the media will do what the media has done for decades - spin, distort, and manipulate the facts - and evolve around that. This means understanding that the label of "conspiracy theorist" is NOT always accurately applied, and as a result, we would all do well to examine the claims made by those who are deemed such instead of allowing the corporate media apparatus to do it for us.


4. "Militant" 


Barack Obama should hand back his Nobel Peace Prize and replace it with the George Orwell Award. To him and the folks in his administration, a number of words have been redefined to mean something entirely different. Obama, for example, claimed that his administration is the most transparent in history when quite the opposite is true, a point made clear by his administration's intense crackdown on whistleblowers, though perhaps more humorously by the fact that Obama himself received an award for transparency - and accepted it in private, banning the media.


Obama claimed that "a decade of war is now ending", but again, the opposite is true, evident by the ever-expanding nature of US aerial drone wars, the funding of al-Qaeda-linked "rebels" in Syria, the continuation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the onslaught of sanctions and cyber attacks against Iran - an act of war by the Pentagon's own definition.


But the most Orwellian claim in Obama's arsenal may be the term "militant", a phrase that has been picked up by media outlets over and over, even though the definition means something completely different than what we might be led to believe.


As reported by the New York Times, the Obama administration redefined "militant" to mean "all military-age males" killed in a strike zone unless there is "explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." 


As the Times points out, "this counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama's trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes."

5. "National Interest" 


"What I would recommend is that anytime we use US military force, we use it for those things that are in our national interest."

-- General Martin Dempsey


What exactly are America's "national interests"? Back in 1996, The Commission on America's National Interests managed to produced five examples:


"(1) to prevent, deter, and reduce the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons attacks on the United States; (2) to prevent the emergence of a hostile hegemony in Europe or Asia; (3) to prevent the emergence of a hostile major power on United States borders or in control of the seas; (4) to prevent the catastrophic collapse of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and environmental); and (5) to ensure the survival of United States allies"


While this list may have been produced in the pre-9/11 world, it is still the closest thing we have to a definition. Yet the ambiguity of the phrase is perhaps what has allowed it to be used so freely. Iraq was in our national interest. Afghanistan was in our national interest. Libya was in our national interest. Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, and on and on.


But as the Commission warned, lacking a clear definition poses a serious problem:


"After four decades of unusual single-mindedness in containing Soviet Communist expansion, we have seen five years of ad hoc fits and starts. If it continues, this drift will threaten our values, our fortunes, and indeed our lives."


Samuel P. Huntington, Chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, backs up this concern, writing:


"Without a sure sense of national identity, Americans have become unable to define their national interests, and as a result subnational commercial interests and transnational and nonnational ethnic interests have come to dominate foreign policy."


The 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrates this point, a war that was clearly NOT in the interests of the Americans who died fighting in it, nor the Americans who suffered from the resulting trashed economic climate. Oil companies benefited, defense companies benefited, but nationally, it would seem a tough sell to assert that as a whole we are better off having massacred hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, likely setting the stage for a series of retaliations that will almost inevitably be viewed as "terrorism" and justification for even more intervention.


Zbigniew Brzezinski, a National Security Adviser under President Carter from 1977 to 1981, wrote in his book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, something perhaps more closely resembling what might actually be a part of our "national interest" beyond the corporate angle:


"In brief, for the United States, Eurasian geostrategy involves the purposeful management of geostrategically dynamic states and the careful handling of geopolitically catalytic states, in keeping with the twin interests of America in the short-term: preservation of its unique global power and in the long-run transformation of it into increasingly institutionalized global cooperation. To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together."


And then we have this precious jewel originating from the National Security Study Memorandum, dated April 1974, written under the direction of National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger, and declassified in 1989:


"Whatever may be done to guard against interruptions of supply and to develop domestic alternatives, the US economy will require large and increasing amounts of minerals from abroad, especially from less developed countries. That fact gives the US enhanced interest in the political, economic, and social stability of the supplying countries. Wherever a lessening of population pressures through reduced birth rates can increase the prospects for such stability, population policy becomes relevant to resource supplies and to the economic interests of the United States."


So whether our "national interest" entails self defense and economic stability, or global domination and the protection of natural resources, one thing is certain: the term "national interest" is incredibly vague, and those who use it need to be thoroughly pressed for a specific and clear definition.


6. "Terrorist"/"Terrorism" 


Wikipedia has an entire article devoted to a wide range of scholars who have tried for decades to define the word "terrorism" - often without much luck. This is largely due to the fact that by defining "terrorism", one tends to run into the tiny problem that such a definition would also likely include state actors (governments).


Sami Zeidan, a Lebanese scholar, elaborates:


"Left to its political meaning, terrorism easily falls prey to change that suits the interests of particular states at particular times. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden were once called freedom fighters (mujahideen) and backed by the CIA when they were resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Now they are on top of the international terrorist lists. Today, the United Nations views Palestinians as freedom fighters, struggling against the unlawful occupation of their land by Israel, and engaged in a long-established legitimate resistance, yet Israel regards them as terrorists. Israel also brands the Hizbullah of Lebanon as a terrorist group, whereas most of the international community regards it as a legitimate resistance group, fighting Israel's occupation of Southern Lebanon. In fact, the successful ousting of Israeli forces from most of the South by the Hizbollah in 2000 made Lebanon the only Arab country to actually defeat the Israeli army. The repercussion of the current preponderance of the political over the legal value of terrorism is costly, leaving the war against terrorism selective, incomplete and ineffective."


The "terrorism" term may be one of the most propaganda-driven phrases used by the media in post-9/11 America because it always excludes activities conducted by US forces. Our allies also get a free pass. Israel can demolish homes and shoot Palestinian children - that, we are told, is "self defense". Yet when Palestinians respond to this aggression, it is, of course, "terrorism". When an American journalist is captured and beheaded in Iraq, that is "terrorism". When Saudi Arabia rounds up dozens of people and beheads them, it's barely worth mentioning.


The word "terrorist", too, has come to mean more than just someone who flies planes into buildings or walks into a crowded public place with bombs strapped to his body. Nowadays, "terrorist" in American political and media discourse has come to mean "anyone who fights against the US military occupation of their country", which is convenient. Not only does the "terrorist" label strip any potential sympathy one might be inclined to feel towards those living in a US-occupied country by conflating them with the same people who attacked the US on 9/11, but it also transforms those who speak openly about such feelings into "terrorist sympathizers", an incredibly toxic term that was used quite often during the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq (recall FOX News regular Michelle Malkin's comments regarding Iraq war protester Medea Benjamin, who Malkin referred to as a "terrorist sympathizer dictator-worshiping propagandist").


7. "Regime"


Another word that should be included on this list is "regime", which Oxford defines as "a government, especially an authoritarian one".


Head over to Google and do a search (in quotations) of "Saudi regime". The first results I get are from Russia Today, and some ways down, Press TV, which is Iran's state news agency. Only on the fifth page do I start to see familiar news websites (the Huffington Post, the National Post) using the phrase, "Saudi regime".


Now, try "Iranian regime": On the first page, I have results from: BBC, the Guardian, the National Review, and CBS. On the second page, I have results from the Wall Street Journal, the National Post, and the Daily News. On page three, the Daily Telegraph and The Weekly Standard. And on page four, I see an article from CNN.


To make things more interesting, I tried another search, this time with "" + "Saudi regime". The first result is a timeline on CNN's website from 2011 showing Bin Laden's activities over the years and his 1990 "treatises against the Saudi regime". The bulk of results following that are from CNN's "blog" section, with the exception of the last result, from 2003, titled, "Are the Saudis supporting terrorism?"


Flipping the coin, let's see what happens when we punch in "" + "Iranian regime":


"Has Iranian regime learned nothing from 2009 election?" (2013)

"Moussavi: Improbable challenger for Iranian regime" (2009)

"Could unrest in Egypt produce an Iranian-style regime?" (2011)


Other results on the first, second, and third page don't use "regime" in the title, instead choosing to insert the phrase into the article's content:


"The longtime critic of the Iranian regime described how last Thursday..." (2013)

"...likely to perpetuate the dysfunction within the Iranian regime..." (2014)

"...Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who the Iranian regime currently has..." (2013)

"The Iranian regime had different political calculations..." (2013)

"...atmospherics and smiles by the Iranian regime's officials..." (2013)

"While Obama initially opted for a muted response, the Iranian regime's..." (2012)

"...joins the pressure that the Iranian regime is facing..." (2012)

"The Iranian regime ranks among the most vicious and dangerous..." (2012)

"...blogs mocking the Iranian regime..." (2009)

"The Iranian regime blames the United States and Europe for influencing..." (2010)

"...what incentive does the Iranian regime have to take serious steps..." (2013)

"...imprisonment follows a pattern by the Iranian regime..." (2013)

"The Iranian regime has proved remarkably immune to getting a bad rap..." (2009)


The difference is extraordinarily telling of how frequently US news networks use the term "regime" when describing a country on America's Certified List of Evildoers while reluctantly applying it to countries like Saudi Arabia - which are just as totalitarian - merely because they are allies.

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Seven propagandistic terms used by the media that every American needs to know about