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Media as Politics: What’s A Voter to Do?

Nicholas Johnson

Earlham College

Richmond, Indiana

September 15, 2004

Note regarding links: (a) The links included here were working during the first week of September 2004. Those going to daily newspapers' stories may no longer work; perhaps the item (or something comparable) can be found in the site's "archives" or with a search of Google or some other search engine. (b) There is no representation, express or implied, that the sources are accurate, or that the research (or citation style) is of Ph.D. dissertation quality. The links are simply provided "as is" for whatever use they may be to a reader who would like to begin the process of exploring these issues further. (c) As of September 21 a handful of additional links have been added.

N.J., Iowa City, Iowa, and Richmond, Indiana, September 15, 2004.

Earlham Voters

The Problem With the Media

The Struggle for Democracy

Computerized Voting Machines

Efforts to Discourage Voting

Commission on Presidential Debates

Ignorance as a Political Tool

Manipulation Through Advertising

Manipulation Through Political Propaganda

What a Voter Can Do

What Voters Can Do With the Internet

Media Reform

Appendix: Opposition to Third Parties and Electoral Reforms

    The Third Party "Threat"

    Oppositioln to Electoral Reforms

Earlham Voters

You have asked that I speak on the subject, “Media as Politics: What’s a Voter To Do?” And I am happy to try to come up with some answers to that question.

But what you will discover by the time we finish our discussion is that I think what you voters ought to do is not very different from what you already have done and are doing.

What we ought to encourage the rest of our nation’s eligible voters to do is another matter altogether.

Roughly half of our fellow citizens, as you know, choose not to vote at all. For them, just registering to vote, and then voting, might be the best thing they could do.

We’ll return to them in a moment. But why do I think you are already doing pretty much what you should? Permit me to answer with a couple stories.

My first presidential appointment came to me when I was 29 years old. President Lyndon Johnson [] asked me to be his Maritime Administrator, a position that involved responsibility for a four-year educational institution, thousands of employees and ships, and multi-billion-dollar subsidy programs, among other things. []

I was flattered, but somewhat overwhelmed, since I had never administered anything other than a single secretary, and not that very successfully. So I wrote some friends at the Harvard Business School, “Help! What do I do?”

Back by return mail came a large box of books with a handwritten note: “Read these books and do what they say.” I did. My friends were right. It worked.

There are lots of books in the Earlham library; books about politics, books about the media, and books with suggestions as to what you can do about both. After all, Tom Kirk, your Library Director and Coordinator of Information Services at Earlham is 2004 Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Academic/Research Librarian of the Year. [] No wonder you have a good library.

So my first answer to the question, “what’s a voter to do?” would be to "read those books and do what they say."

In fact, later this week, after I get back to the University of Iowa, I will be posting to my Web site,, an Internet link to some version of this talk, complete with additional links to many of my sources, and links to the sites of a number of organizations that offer additional answers to that question. Those links will be other places you can look.

The second story involves Michael Feldman, the host of a nationally-distributed radio program from Wisconsin Public Radio called “Whad’ya know?” []

If you’ve ever listened to it you know that during the course of this two-hour program he has a quiz in which one of the question categories is "Things You Should Have Learned in School (Had You Been Paying Attention)."

So that’s the other thing a voter can do. Pay attention. Pay attention in class, yes.

But pay attention to the media and candidates, too. Give them a critical eye and ear. Don’t use them as a source of accurate information or rational analysis. You’ll have to get that elsewhere.

When my wife and I watch the evening news it’s not to find out what happened that day. It’s to find out what major stories of great importance to the American people – stories we found out about from the BBC or other global sources – the American television networks are not reporting. It’s to see what they are merely repeating (not reporting) of the spin from the major candidates, and which third parties they are ignoring entirely.

[If you would find it useful, I have a link from my main Web site to what I call “The Global Press” [], links to newspapers around the world. Sample any half-dozen of them sometime; you’ll be amazed how much is going on in the world that the American media didn’t tell you.]

My sense is that most of you are already doing this sort of thing.

So if even half of what your Director of Admissions, Nancy Sinex, had to say about you in her welcoming address this fall [] is true – and I have no reason to believe it’s not all true – I think you should just keep doing what you’ve been doing.

• You’ve conducted yourselves as high school students in a fashion such that you have now met the high standards for admission to Earlham.

• That means that along the way at least most of you have experienced what we mean by “civic education.” Not only can you define it if asked on a quiz, you have lived it in your community – and will do so even more while at Earlham and after graduation.

[If you’re not so sure what “civic education” refers to, check out the home page of the Center for Civic Education,, and its page with links to “Internet Resources.” See also, National Council for the Social Studies, “Curriculum Standards for Social Studies II: Thematic Strands,” Strand X: “Civic Ideals and Practices” (“Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.” (emphasis supplied)),, and “The Haefner Award,]

• You are already well on your way to becoming what Ralph Nader calls a “public citizen,” that is, someone who takes their citizenship seriously, and actually participates in the civic life of his or her community. Along with everything else you are doing, you are taking these steps along the path to full citizenship. In doing so, you’ve already discovered this is not rocket science.

So how do you become an active, informed and effective member of the communities in which you will live? How do you manipulate the media to get the information you need, rather than letting the media manipulate you?

Yes, you pay attention, and you read the books and do what they say. But that means more than just knowing what you learn here. It means you must behave as if you’d had an Earlham education.

Doing that also means you will be providing the leadership and example that will encourage and empower those who have not been blessed with your backgrounds and education.

So let’s focus on them for a few minutes. If you can pick up anything from my remarks you think you can apply to yourself as well, so much the better.

The Problem With the Media

It is the rankest of understatement to say that there are problems with today’s mass media.

This observation is no longer limited to media critics like myself.

1. The Pew Research Center released a study earlier this year that surveyed hundreds of the nation’s journalists. Over half of those they call national journalists think their profession is headed down the wrong path. Two-thirds think the financial pressures for ever-increasing profits is “seriously hurting” news coverage.

Understandably, perception is affected by past experience. Of those journalists who have known a better day (those over 55), one-third think loss of credibility is the profession’s biggest problem. Only 10% of those under 35 share that view.

[See Jennifer Saba, “More Journalists Dismayed with Profession,” available from Free Press,; obviously the media's credibility has not been enhanced by the revelation that CBS failed to investigate sufficiently the documents on which it relied for stories about President Bush's National Guard service, documents that have now been shown to be forged.]

2. Mergers of media firms have resulted in the gradual reduction in the number of dominant companies from the 50 we used to have to about six firms that today control roughly 90% of the information, opinion and entertainment we consume.

[See generally, Ben H. Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly (Beacon, 2004), available at online and brick and mortar bookstores.]

3. Advertiser pressure has increased. And owners are permitting it to enter the newsroom. Commercially produced video material – such as new model Harley-Davidson motorcycles, or a new color for M&M candy – is inserted into local news programs as if it was news. Product placement is rampant throughout feature films and entertainment television. News stories in anyway critical of any business, let alone advertisers, are more likely to be censored than even proposed.

[See generally, Cranberg, Bezanson and Soloski, Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company (Iowa State, 2001), available at online and brick and mortar bookstores]

4. As firms extend their reach by combining all media under one corporate roof – from books, to movies, to television, to video rentals, to newspapers and magazines – they often yield to the financial pressure to ignore the conflicts of interest this creates. They begin to hype their subsidiaries’ products. They call it “synergy.”

5. In recent years we have had an increase in both the amateurs on the Internet, and the ideologues with little or no journalistic training on the numerous cable channels. It’s obviously cheaper to produce shouting matches than reports from foreign correspondents, so that’s what they do. But it’s not what we used to call journalism.

It’s as if facts are no longer relevant.

Los Angeles Times editor, John S. Carroll, tells the following story. [“Pseudo-Journalists Betray the Public Trust,” available from Free Press at,]

Prior to the California recall election, the L.A. Times investigated the stories that now-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was a womanizer. In an effort to support Schwarzenegger by discrediting the Times, Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox TV

“embarked on a campaign to convince its audience that . . . [the Times] attacked only Republicans and gave Democrats a free ride. . . . Where, he asked, was the L.A. Times on the so-called [Clinton] Troopergate story? Why hadn’t it sent reporters to Arkansas? How could it justify an investigation of Schwarzenegger’s misbehavior with women and not Clinton’s?”
In fact, Carroll writes, the Times had
“sent its best reporters there, and it sent them in force. At one point, it had nine reporters in Little Rock. And when two of them wrote the first Troopergate story to appear in any newspaper, they made the Times the leader on that subject. Not a leader, but the leader. Their story would be cited frequently as other newspapers tried to catch up.”
As Carroll acknowledges, the problem with Fox, and many of the others, is not that they occasionally make a factual error. That happens at the Times as well. The problem is the number that are made, the seeming willingness to accept and repeat factual errors that support an ideological or partisan position, and the almost total unwillingness to publish corrections.

We will return to Fox in a moment. But since we’re addressing “the media as politics” perhaps we should leave the media for a moment and turn to politics.

The Struggle for Democracy

True democracy has almost always been resisted by those in power. Most of those said to be the fathers of our democratic system, those who drafted the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, agreed with John Jay that, “Those who own the country, should run it.” [quoted at, e.g.,]

It is a view still widely held today by those in power.

Recall that at the beginning of our nation women could not vote. African-Americans could not vote. White males who did not own land could not vote. And no one aged 18, 19 or 20 could vote.

When I was going to college in the South in the 1950s voters were taxed. We had to pay to go to the polls. It was called a “poll tax.” Many community and business leaders profited politically and economically by discouraging the poor and working poor from voting.

None of the expansions of the franchise was freely given. Each had to be fought for with grassroots people’s movements – from marching in the streets to, in one case, a civil war. [For one description of the price paid by some of the women requesting women's right to vote, see Connie, Schultz, "A Short History Lesson on the Privilege of Voting; And You Think It's a Pain to Vote," Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 19, 2004, reproduced at]

But ultimately these expansions of our democracy were won. We’ve yet to go so far as Australia and other countries to encourage voting by taxing those who don’t vote [For a reference and discussion to the Australian system, see], but at least we no longer tax those who do.

As a result of this expanding electorate, today’s establishment has to be much more inventive in devising ways of holding on to power, including coming up with ways of discouraging the poor from voting.

Computerized Voting Machines

Many public interest advocates are concerned about the plans to use computerized voting machines in this next November’s presidential election. These machines have malfunctioned in actual elections as well as tests. There is concern that the software that runs them – the contents of which the manufacturers refuse to reveal on grounds it’s a “trade secret” – could be hacked into. The owners refuse to design the machines so that they will create a hard copy paper trail in case a post-election audit or recount is required.

Some critics are quoting something the former USSR’s Joseph Stalin is alleged to have said years ago: “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” [For a discussion of the authenticity of this quote, see; .] Regardless of its authenticity, that it is quoted at all reveals something of the concerns of many Americans.

Given these concerns, it makes it even more difficult to reassure voters of the integrity of the machines once they discover that the owners of the three major suppliers are prominent Republican donors. Indeed, Walden O’Dell, CEO of Diebold, sent a fundraising letter to Ohio Republicans in which he said that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president” at the same time his company was bidding for the contract to provide Ohio Diebold’s voting machines. [See, e.g., Akron [Ohio] Beacon Journal story at]

Nor does it help that the President’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, while insisting that the machines are reliable, has sent out fliers advising Republicans to vote absentee because, without a paper trail, the machines cannot “verify your vote.” [See, Paul Krugman, “Triumph of the Trivial,” available from Free Press at]

Concerns over the integrity of the computerized voting machines may very well be politically motivated and unwarranted. "What's a voter to do?" Well, at least one thing a voter can do is to follow Governor Bush’s advice and vote absentee, thereby insuring that a paper ballot will at least exist somewhere.

Efforts to Discourage Voting

There isn’t much one can say in favor of the poll tax except for its almost total absence of hypocrisy. It made clear upon its face that its purpose was to significantly discourage, if not prevent, voting by those for whom the expenditure of a dollar or two was a matter calling for some considerable deliberation. Since poverty was disproportionately the lot of southern African-Americans the racist motives of poll tax enthusiasts was also not hidden from view.

Since the repeal of the poll tax, “those who own the country,” to quote John Jay once again, have become somewhat less honest in their efforts to limit the franchise to themselves. They simply oppose any and all proposals that might make it easier for the poor and working class to register and vote: leaving the polls open for 24 hours, in fact any effort to extend the hours for voting; a guaranteed right of leave with pay for purposes of voting, or declaring election day a national holiday; making it possible for any citizen to register new voters and help them to vote absentee; more clerks for shorter voter registration lines; early voting at satellite polls in supermarkets and malls; and registration where drivers licenses are issued (“motor voting”).

Commission on Presidential Debates

One of the most invidious schemes is the one thing about which virtually all major contributors, all Republican and Democratic Party officials, agree. There should never, ever, be a crack through which a third party might worm its way into the political arena.

The fact that the two parties control the Commission on Presidential Debates [] results in its setting the threshold for participation just slightly above whatever is the percentage support of the leading third party.

What does it tell you about the big money control of both of our major political parties that each of them seems equally concerned that they will lose support if voters are permitted to hear anything other than the vacuous platitudes and negative campaign ads they offer us?

What are they afraid of?

They are afraid that if a third party candidate was permitted to discuss the issues that really affect the lives of the poor, working poor, working class and lower middle class, if he or she would describe the corporate welfare payments that make ours a system of socialism for the rich and free private enterprise for the poor, the power of the two major parties and their special interest financiers might begin to errode.

It’s a circular, classic Catch 22. To have the popular support of those considered by the media and public to be “serious candidates” a candidate must participate in the presidential debates. But to participate the debates a candidate must meet the Commission on Presidential Debates’ standard for how much popular support you must have before you can participate in their debates. [For further critique of the Commission, see, e.g., and]

So there’s just one example of what you’ve called, “Media as Politics.”

But the debates are only the most obvious of the war on third parties and an informed electorate.

[Two sections of the original text for the presentation have been removed to the Appendix to this paper. “Appendix: Opposition to Third Parties and Electoral Reforms.”]

Ignorance as a Political Tool

Notwithstanding all that has been done to make it difficult for the people to vote, and to remove from their view the candidates of the third parties who would speak to their interests, “those who run the country” are still threatened by the existence of elections and the always present possibility that people will actually show up to vote.

Have you heard of Noam Chomsky? The British Guardian has said "Chomsky ranks with Marx, Shakespeare, and the Bible as one of the ten most quoted sources in the humanities." The New York Times says he is “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” []

And yet even if you had been paying attention to American mass media the odds of your ever having heard of Noam Chomsky would be somewhere between slim and none at all. He’s not exactly a favorite of the radio and television talk show producers and hosts.

Why might that be? As Noam Chomsky [, with links to the book] has pointed out in the book, and film, Manufacturing Consent, in any country in which the government does not have adequate police, military and security forces to completely control what the people do, it is necessary to control what the people think.

[The film is described at] ; if you care to read some Chomsky, I make excerpts from the book Understanding Power available to my students at]

Controlling what the people think, it turns out, is not as difficult as you might imagine.

One tactic is to leave the people uninformed. No less a student of the media than former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite thinks the American people are “dangerously uninformed.” []

And why might that be? There are those in our country who gain – politically and economically – from widespread public ignorance.

An African-American friend of mine, a disk jockey, told me a story of his first job in a radio station in the south. He was handed a stack of records and told to play them. He asked about the news department and was told by the white male owner there was none. He asked about what was then called a “teletype,” a device for bringing AP or other wire service news to radio stations. The station didn’t have one of those, either. He tried again, telling the owner that he would just buy the local paper and repeat something of what was in it.

Finally the owner, exasperated, turned to him and said, “Look, boy, I don’t seem to have made myself clear to you. You’re not going to educate your people in this community at my expense.”

As with the advocates of the poll tax, you can give this station owner credit for his lack of hypocrisy. If only we could get comparably straight talk from today’s cable and broadcast network executives.

Because clearly one of the consequences of their cutting back on serious news coverage, and their substitution of sports, reality shows and other diversions – whatever may be their intentions – creates a national level of ignorance comparable to that small southern town.

You may know the story of the pollster who stopped a fellow on the street and asked him, “What’s the worst problem in this community, ignorance or apathy?” The fellow stared at the pollster for a moment, and just before he walked on said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

Is television programming the sole cause of ignorance and apathy in our country? Is it the sole reason why half of the potentially eligible voters don’t even bother to go to the polls? Of course not. But it seems equally clear that it is one of the more significant forces at work.

Is there an “establishment” made up of a handful of wealthy individuals who have breakfast every morning and decide what they are going to try to make the American people believe that day? Not in any restaurant I go to.

But they don’t have to. They already have what they need. So I will ask you to imagine the reverse. Imagine:

• What if there was some evidence that, as a result of the mindless televised distractions offered us by the television networks and cable companies, there was an ever-increasing number of progressive political activists?

• What if the percentage of non-voters was decreasing rather than increasing?

• What if the ratio between the corporate CEO’s total income and his average workers’ wage – once 40-to-one and now over 400-to-one – started to decline, rather than continue to increase?

• What if trade union membership began the climb back to the numbers it once enjoyed?

• What if there were more and more street demonstrations, with ever-increasing numbers, protesting corporate environmental practices and government encouragement of off-shore corporations and outsourcing jobs?

Don’t you think there might be some pressure to change that televised programming? You bet there would be.

Reflect on the fact that in 2002 you were four times more likely to see a political commercial during a TV news program than an election-related news story. Do you know that the predictions are that $1.6 billion dollars will be spent on political ads this year? [See the Free Press’ “Fact Finder” at, click on “Politics and Media”]

So, you see, there’s no need even to charge, let alone prove, the existence of a conspiracy. We don’t need to go there. The point is that the results are the same as if there was a deliberate effort to keep the American people uninformed. The results are the same as if a network president was telling his programmers, “Look, folks, I don’t seem to have made myself clear to you. You’re not going to educate the people of this country at our advertisers’ expense.” [See, William Rivers Pitt, "Your Media is Killing You,", September 21, 2004;]

Manipulation Through Advertising

But as effective a political tool as ignorance may be, manipulation and misinformation are even more so.

To understand the ways in which we can be manipulated by the media’s presentation of politics it is useful to remind ourselves of the manipulation to which we are subjected when the same advertising and public relations techniques are used to sell us products. [See and]

No one wants to think that they are capable of being manipulated by advertising. And yet we all are.

Take an inventory of your bathroom shelves, the brand names on your clothes, the cars you covet, the music CDs you buy (or share), even the pharmaceuticals your parents’ doctors prescribe. The odds are that a goodly number of them are among the most heavily advertised in their product line.

When I was your age or younger the question wasn’t which soft drinks someone consumed, it was whether they drank that sugared syrup and water at all. Soft drinks weren’t part of our daily diet. They didn’t come in two-liter bottles. And they certainly didn’t offer a way for school districts and universities to enrich themselves with kickbacks from monopoly suppliers of vending machines dispensing soft drinks at inflated prices. [See "Money is the Sweetener," Washington Post, September 26, 2004,]

And what has made possible this substantial contribution to obesity and dental caries? Advertising.

The tobacco industry kills over 400,000 customers a year. That’s more than all the deaths from alcohol, auto accidents, heroin, cocaine, fires, homicides, suicides – and the war in Iraq – combined.

Now any industry that profits from killing off its customer base soon discovers that, if it intends to stay in business, those customers need to be replaced. Since few individual over 21 are silly enough to take up smoking, what the industry actually calls “replacement smokers” must be captured and addicted during their teen and pre-teen years – at the rate of about 3000 every day. Although these young smokers swear they can always give up smoking, if they ever try they quickly discover that nicotine is more addictive than heroin, and few succeed.

Although most of these young smokers will tell you that they are not influenced by advertising, why do you suppose that 90 percent of them smoke just three brands, the most popular being Marlboro? Would it surprise you to know that they are the three most heavily advertised brands?

In the early 20th Century cigarette smoking was something that a self-respecting young woman just wouldn’t do. Since young women constituted a full half of the industry’s potential market an advertising campaign was launched to reverse this thinking. Not an easy task. But today, thanks to advertising, lung cancer has become a greater threat to women’s lives than breast cancer. How’s that for equal rights?

[Among the many potential sources for the data in the preceding four paragraphs is the Web site, writing and videos of Jean Kilbourne,, and the sites listed on her “Resources” page. See also my book, "Test Pattern for Living," available (free) at For a post-speech, but recent review and confirmation of the tobacco industry behavior referred to above, see, e.g., Carol D. Leonig, "U.S. Trial Against Tobacco Industry Opens;
Justice Department Alleges Companies Conspired for Decades," Washington Post, Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page A03, online at ]

Meanwhile, the power of advertising was able to convince the other half of the population – many of whom were insecure homophobic men, seeking to demonstrate their macho qualities at every opportunity – that women’s cosmetics would make them sexier. By reversing these males’ thinking – if anything an even more difficult undertaking than getting women to smoke – the cosmetics industry thereby widened its market by a few billion dollars. (The increase continues; as the advertising spreads around the world, so do the sales. From Korea we find that “At, an Internet shopping mall, sales of men’s cosmetics have surged 870 percent in the first half compared to the same period last year . . ..”) []

Consumer Reports magazine [] has done a number of studies over the years demonstrating that it is virtually impossible for a drinker to tell the difference between brands of vodka, an alcohol known for its almost tasteless quality. [“vodka’s taste profile is less distinctive than other liquors [and] was originally marketed in the U.S. as tasteless and odorless,”]

Yet consider the results of the Absolut vodka advertising campaign. When it began Absolut was selling a mere 10,000 of the 40 million cases of vodka sold that year. By campaign’s end, although total industry sales had dropped to 36 million cases, Absolut’s share of that market had gone from 10,000 cases to 4.5 million cases!

Think about that for a moment. Here is a product that produces $47-a-case profits, and yet is indistinguishable in taste tests from domestic brands that provide a mere $2 profit. And yet advertising is able to produce for this product a 450-fold increase in sales during a falling market.

Would you still like to argue that advertising has no impact? [See]

Manipulation Through Political Propaganda

Let’s not flatter and kid ourselves. The facts are that we can be manipulated that and we are being manipulated in order to sell us products.

So it should not be surprising that when political candidates are sold to us like toothpaste we select our favorites among them the same way we select our favorite toothpaste – on the basis of ads reflecting research with focus groups and in-depth psychological probing.

What I am about to say is not intended as criticism of our President, George W. Bush. If anything, it is praise of the extraordinary ability that he and his staff have demonstrated in maintaining his approval ratings and popular support – an essential ability, not incidentally, if any president is to be effective in serving the American people.

What I want to do is to contrast what Bush has done with what the polls show about his approval ratings. We may differ about some of the details, but grant me that what follows is ballpark correct.

• During his term he turned one of the largest federal surpluses in history to the largest deficit in history; a debt that may take decades to rectify; a debt we are leaving to your grandchildren and my great grandchildren; a debt that increases the power of the foreign nations (that are making our economy possible by buying our government’s bonds) over our economic future; a debt at least in part the result of tax breaks primarily benefiting the wealthiest Americans, whom Bush described as “my base" [], while running up the additional costs of a major war.

• There has been less positive creation of jobs during President Bush's term than any since that of President Herbert Hoover.

• Social programs have been cut; over 40 million Americans are without health insurance; and the Administration’s plan for seniors’ pharmaceuticals is of primary benefit only to the big drug companies.

• Environmental protections have been cut back.

• No one argues that 9/11 was "Bush's fault." But his Administration did have intelligence that such a disaster was possible, and 9/11 did occur on his watch.

• He took a 90 percent, or more, support for America after 9/11, and turned it into a near universal opposition to our government around the world.

• Rather than continue the hunt for Osama bin Laden, originally our goal, we’ve turned our back on Afghanistan (where al Qaeda and the Taliban are regrouping, opium is once again the main crop, and terrorist attacks, even in Kabul, are increasing).

• We reversed decades of American foreign policy, and settled principles of international law, with the declaration that we can initiate a war in any country we choose if we think a preemptive strike is needed.

• The rationale for the Iraq war – the possession of weapons of mass destruction, a nuclear weapons program, Iraq’s involvement in 9/11, the imminence of its attack on us – all proved to be, if not “lies,” at least false.

• The numbers – over 1000 dead and 7000 injured Americans, not to mention 20,000 dead Iraqis, from what many see as an unnecessary war – show no signs of abating; nor does anyone (Kerry, Bush, or others) seem to have a rational plan or analysis for getting us out.

As I began, the point of this enumeration is not to criticize Bush. It is to illustrate some of what he has to overcome in winning re-election. My point is that, notwithstanding these facts (or interpretations of facts), as of September 15 it looks like Bush is well on track to be re-elected. [If interested in my writing about terrorism, Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq, see*%20Terrorism%20and%20the%20War%20in%20Iraq.]

Some of this is, of course, a result of Kerry’s mistakes. The fact remains that it represents an awesome accomplishment on Bush’s part.

Look at the latest polls reported by the Washington Post, [“Bush Support Strong After Convention,” September 10, 2004,; for the data see,  “Charting the Campaign,” and “Bush Approval Ratings,”]

Bush leads, among those most likely to vote, by 52 to 43 percent over Kerry. The same percentage, 52 percent, “approve” of the great job he has been doing. (Kerry’s “favorable” rating, meanwhile, has fallen from 51 to 36 percent.) Voters asked about the candidates’ personal attributes give Bush the nod on honesty, leadership, vision, values and personality. The two candidates are tied for their understanding of the problems of "people like you."

Are voters for their candidate, or merely opposed to the alternative? Eighty percent of Bush’s supporters are voting for Bush; only 40 percent of Kerry’s supporters are for Kerry; 55 percent are simply against Bush.

These numbers are, it seems to me, the result of a stunning and remarkable accomplishment on the part of a very professionally skilled Bush team – especially given the record I have just outlined which they had to overcome.

Most significantly, the number of voters who selected “terrorism” as their top voting issue has gone from 19 percent to 25. Those who select the “economy” and “jobs” dropped from 31 percent to 25.

Why is that “most significant”? Because, as someone has observed, “even if the media does not tell us what to think, it does tell us what to think about.” And when American voters are thinking about terrorism, war, national security, defense and foreign affairs, they think the Republicans are better able to deal with those issues. When they are thinking about jobs, income security, health care, and social welfare they think the Democrats' candidate is the better choice.

That’s not to say these perceptions of voters are accurate. But, then, it doesn’t matter if they’re accurate or not. As long as they are what voters believe, campaigns need to take them into account.

In other words, it matters not so much what you communicate about your candidate as it does what subjects you get the media, and the electorate, to talk and think about.

[For more on this subject, see Shanto Iyengar, “Wedge Issues in Campaigns: A Voter Guide,” a click off of the main page of the Stanford University Political Communications Lab,; see also the Lab’s “Voter Attention Share” (another link from the main page) for an analysis of what issues the media is, in fact, bringing to voters’ attention.]

From this perspective, Kerry’s focus on what have historically been “Republican issues” may turn out to be a fundamental strategic error of monumental proportions and the cause of his losing the election.

For it should have come as no surprise to the Kerry camp that, as the polls report, “Bush holds significant advantages over Kerry on who would be best equipped to deal with terrorism, Iraq and . . . relations with other countries.” Notwithstanding the results in Iraq, and the increase in numbers of anti-American terrorists and terrorist attacks, only 45 percent think the war was not worth fighting, and 52 percent think the U.S. government can prevent terrorist attacks on our country.

It is difficult for a writer or speaker to draw lessons from Nazi Germany. [See, e.g.,]

When one does, the response is so often the outrage of a reader or listener who jumps to the conclusion that the author or speaker is charging some American with being, in every particular, “just like Hitler.”

This is so silly. No one thinks that because Hitler built the autobahns ("interstate highway system") in Germany, and President Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate highway system in the U.S., that Eisenhower (who defeated Hitler) is “just like Hitler.”

So chill. Let’s see what we can learn from Nazi propaganda without going crazy thinking that I am charging Kerry, Bush, Clinton, Gore or some other politician with being a Hitler. The fact is that many of the techniques of advertising and public relations that were developed in the early 20th Century knew then, and know now, no national boundaries.

Unlike “Fahrenheit 911,” one of the advantages of using the movie “Wag the Dog” for examples is that it is essentially bi-partisan. You’ve probably seen the film. If not, the president in the film is confronting a scandal over a sexual encounter with a young girl in the oval office (sound familiar?). The public relations response, to divert the media’s attention from the bad news weeks before an election, is to start a war (also familiar).

Many nations’ leaders have looked for diversionary news when things aren’t going well, and wars are one of the more popular options. Can you identify the source of these comments on the subject?

"Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
The author? Nazi Germany’s Hermann Goering in 1946. [Accuracy confirmed, and source identified at:]

Only last week, the online Washington Post carried a report of Vice President Cheney’s comments during campaign appearances on September 7th.

You tell me, is Cheney charging that Kerry is, to use Goering’s words, “exposing the country to danger”? Here’s what he said:

“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again . . . in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States . . ..” (emphasis supplied)
[Dana Milbank and Spencer S. Hsu, “Cheney: Kerry Victory is Risky,” Washington Post, September 8, 2004, p. A01,]

Ironically, in the online version the story was positioned under a Burger King ad with the line, “Enjoy an original Whopper today.”

Whopper or not, subsequent apologies about how that’s not really what he meant or not, statements like Cheney’s – as Goering noted – do have their political effect.

Moreover, they have a lasting effect.

Let me tell you of an interesting experiment along that line told me years ago by Dr. Delcato of the Institutes for Human Potential in Philadelphia. His science is sometimes controversial, and I can’t swear that the story is true, although he told it as such.

When I was a boy, if you asked adults about the moon, long before Neil Armstrong landed there, they would tell you that the moon was made of green cheese. []

Dr. Delcato believed that the human brain would always retain, in some form, whatever was implanted in its memory. You can later add corrective information on top of the false, but you can never totally remove it. To test his point, when meeting with a number of astronauts, he asked them to tell him the first thing that came to their minds in response to his question. They agreed.

“What’s the moon made of?” he quickly asked. Just as quickly came back the almost unanimous answer: “Green cheese.”

He pointed out that these astronauts, many of whom had Ph.D.s, could probably lecture for an hour about the composition of the moon. “Green cheese” was not all they knew about it. But it was the first thing they’d learned. And all the subsequent learning had not displaced that first lesson.

So it is with Cheney’s suggestion about the threat that Kerry’s election would create for us all. He can apologize. He can say he didn’t really mean it that way. We can learn other things about the terrorist threat in general, and Kerry in particular, that override the suggestion. But it remains with us, at least unconsciously, and will accompany us into the voting booth next November.

As I began, Cheney’s use of this Goering line doesn’t transform “Wag the Dog” from entertaining fiction to enlightening fact. It does not challenge the wisdom (or not) of our going to war with Iraq. It doesn’t mean that the Kerry camp’s tactics and rhetoric are any better than those of the Bush folks. And it certainly does not suggest that Cheney is Goering or that President Bush has anything in common with Hitler.

But when we ask, “What’s a voter to do?” one answer is that voters might want to become much more skeptical and questioning about what their government is telling them – regardless of what country they live in and which party happens to be in power at the moment.

Consider the observation of Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. He said: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." [accuracy and source unconfirmed, but available, with additional text, at, e.g.,]

Could that still be true? In this country, today, with our superior educational system and our access to a wide range of media outlets?

Consider the results reported last year by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes  [] entitled “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War,” October 2, 2003. []

In the course of three polls last year, over 3300 persons, all of whom follow the news fairly closely, were asked which broadcast or print sources provide most of their news. They were then asked questions regarding three propositions:

1. There was “clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al Qaeda terrorist organization.”

2. “The U.S. has found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”

3. “The majority of people [in the world] favor the U.S. having gone to war.”

Each of these propositions is false. Some of you may want to quibble with me about the details. But most of you would not, and even those who do would concede, I hope, that they are mostly false.

What the polling revealed, however, is that – even after correcting for demographic differences – 80 percent of those who primarily rely on Fox as the source of their news had a misperception about one or more of these propositions. By contrast, only 47 percent of those who primarily rely on print sources had such misperceptions, and a mere 23 percent of those whose primary source is NPR got any wrong answers.

The Fox-NPR split on false perceptions about Hussein’s ties to al Qaeda was 67 percent to 16 percent. For WMD it was 33 percent to 11 percent, and for world opinion 35 percent to 5 percent.

For most television and news outlets it didn't make much difference – in terms of the viewers’ misperceptions – how closely they were paying attention. The only exception was Fox. The most responsible Fox viewers, those who paid really close attention, ended up with more misperceptions than those who were more casual about following Fox’s take on the news.

Moreover, these misperceptions translate into support for the president.  Those who indicated they would vote for the president held misperceptions 45 percent of the time; those who would not vote for the president only held misperceptions 17 percent of the time.

Clearly, what we watch, what we are told by the media, does influence our political positions on the issues and choices from among candidates.

We needn’t, like Joseph Goebbels, speak of “lies.” Let’s just say “if you can get the media to televise a misperception big enough, and get them to repeat it often enough, people will eventually come to believe it."

What a Voter Can Do

So “what’s a voter to do?”

Many of the things you can do don’t necessarily involve the media. And you know them already.

You can make sure you’re registered to vote – and register others. You can help get absentee ballots to those who want them – and use one yourself. You can make it a habit to vote in all elections – party primaries, school board and city council elections – not just the presidential and other general elections every four years. And take family members and friends with you.

When the time comes that you have children of your own, take them with you to the polls. That will do as much to insure their active political participation in later years as anything you could do.

You can select a party and become active. Maybe two; a party for your heart, like the Greens or Libertarians, and one of the two major parties for your head.

Recall what the 19th Century New York City political Boss William Tweed is credited with having said, “I don’t care who does the electing just so long as I do the nominating.” []

Don’t let Boss Tweed’s descendents continue to do all the nominating, leaving you with nothing but the electing.

After you’ve had some experience working in others’ campaigns, consider running for office yourself.

What Voters Can Do With the Internet

We’ve touched on some of the problems with television, radio and the newspapers.

Fortunately for all of us, there’s a whole new medium of individual and mass communication out there: the Internet.

If you are not already aware of them, there are two outstanding sites to help you get accurate information about the candidates.

One is Project Vote Smart at At its site you can look up any race, in any state, and find out virtually anything you’d want to know about a candidate, including his or her positions on the issues. It provides you links to biographical information, candidates’ campaign finances, how they’ve been rated by interest groups, their public statements and, if they are already in office, their voting records.

Candidates don’t like to discuss the real issues, or reveal their positions. So how does Project Vote Smart find out? It administers the “National Political Awareness Test” to each of them – or, more accurately, each candidate who responds.

For example, in Indiana (as of September 8) six of your nine U.S. Representatives, and one of your U.S. Senators, refuse to take the test.

• You might want to call their offices in Washington, and their campaign headquarters in Indiana, and ask what they’re afraid of.

• You might want to talk to your newspapers’ publishers and editors, and broadcast news directors, and tell them you’d like their help in getting these candidates’ cooperation.

• Or write letters to the editor, and call in to talk shows, to ask why your officials haven’t responded.

(You might also want to see how, or whether, Bush and Kerry responded – and then give them the same treatment if necessary.) In my congressional district, both the incumbent, and his challenger, have participated in Project Vote Smart.

Because of the major role of money in campaigns, the resulting corruption of our legislative process, and the major parties’ belief that public disclosure is the only protection we need, we have an obligation to find out which special interests have purchased our representatives.

[Common Cause,, is one of the organizations that does not believe that public disclosure of contributions is enough. It has led the way in efforts at campaign finance reform (from its main Web site click on “Agenda” and then “Campaign Finance Reform”). The site also has useful information about media reform and many other issues. For full disclosure: some years ago I served two terms on the national board of Common Cause.]

One of the places you can do this online is the Center for Responsive Politics’ Web site, Open Secrets, It offers you about as many ways to slice this information as you could ever want or even imagine. Present records and past records. Contributions and financial disclosure forms. Contributors by name and by industry group. Searches on names or zip codes. Who has given, who has received. and how much.

If you want to do a little more research on your own you can try to figure out the relationships between what the contributors pay and what they get.

For example, did you ever wonder why, with all the popular pressure for control of escalating pharmaceutical prices, the Congress did nothing effective to control them? No price controls. No direct government purchasing. Congress forbids our importing medicines from Canada at a fraction of the U.S. price. Congress won't even discuss the way the government uses our tax money to develop new pharmaceutical products that are then handed over to pharmaceutical companies, rather than being made available to all as generics.

Seems odd, doesn’t it? Does it help you to understand to know that during the 2002 election cycle the pharmaceutical industry gave members of Congress $30 million dollars in what they persist in calling “campaign contributions” rather than “bribes”?

[; for a New England Journal of Medicine  editorial discussing pharmaceutical industry abuses, see; for dated information on sales and the impact of TV advertising, see, and]

What did they get? Between 1995 and 2001 the money spent on prescription drugs went from $64 to $154 billion.  []

The federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services projects total health care costs of $3.1 trillion a year by 2012  [], and you can bet, with the help of their friends in Congress, the pharmaceutical industry will continue to get more than their fair share of that increase as well.

There are a lot of governmental decisions that become much more understandable once you “follow the money.” I did a study some years ago to see if there was some direct relationship between campaign contributions and corporate profits. It turns out there is. I won’t walk you through all the examples and analysis today; if you want to see it, there will be a link to it from the text of this talk that will be on my Web site. It provides the sources. [“Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000,”]

But the bottom line is that the usual return on these “investments” is 1000-to-2000 to one. A $10,000 contribution produces $10 million; $1 million in soft money contributions will produce between $1 and $2 billion in benefits from a grateful government.

Media Reform

During the 1970s I was chair of a media reform organization called the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting. I soon found it was much easier to accomplish our mission as a part of a coalition, rather than going it alone.

In the course of building those coalitions, I would say to whatever group I was speaking to, “Whatever is your first priority, whether it is women’s rights or saving wildlife, your second priority has to be media reform. With it you have a prayer of accomplishing your first priority. Without it, you don’t.”

I would certainly say the same thing to you today, in the context of our discussion of what you have called “the media as politics.”

Once you have studied the issues you will come up with your own list of media reform priorities. But I suspect it would include a focus on greater diversity in media ownership, permitting more participation in the presidential debates, some amount of free radio and TV time for all candidates, public financing of campaigns, a re-enactment of the Fairness Doctrine and the personal attack rules, an FCC requirement of public service announcements, and a gradual working toward a goal of separating content from conduit.

If this is something that interests you, there are a number of organizations you can contact that have already done much of the groundwork for you. The online version of the text of today’s remarks will contain links to a number of them. You may just want to read what they’ve put up on the Web. Or you may actually want to contribute money, become a member, apply for an internship, or go to work for them after you graduate.

[If you’d like more discussion of the reasons why we need be concerned about media ownership, you might want to read a 45-year-old article of mine that is, if anything, even more relevant today than when it was written. The title is “The Media Barons and the Public Interest: An FCC Commissioner’s Warning,” and it is still maintained to this day on the Atlantic Magazine‘s Web site, at (although recently limited to Atlantic subscribers), as well as (for free) in the form of Chapter Two of my book, How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, at]

There are many more resources on the Internet, and in your Earlham library, but these should be more than enough to get you started.

So “what’s a voter to do”?

Learn the things you will learn if you are paying attention to your professors, and to the ways in which the politicians and media are trying to manipulate you.

And then read the books, and the Web sites, and do what they say.

Good luck, thank you for the invitation to be here and for your attention, and I now welcome whatever questions you may have.

Appendix: Opposition to Third Parties and Electoral Reforms

The Third Party “Threat”

Discouraging voters from participating in the affairs of the two major parties is one thing. But it is the prevention of the rise of third parties that is an even more serious matter.

As the 19th Century New York City political Boss William Tweed is credited with having said, “I don’t care who does the electing just so long as I do the nominating.” [] So long as there are only two political parties those who control those parties’ purse strings can maintain their control of the nation by continuing to do the nominating.

The opposition to third parties by “those who own the country” is understandable. For it is third parties that have brought the American people most of the political and social progress we enjoy today – much of which has come at the expense of the wealthy. That kind of progress was fought at every turn by those controlling the two major parties, often with the aid of local police and national guard in ways that left demonstrators dead, injured and bleeding.

Ultimately one or the other of the two parties would adopt the proposal of a third party as its own, but only at the eleventh hour when its failure to do so would have seriously harmed the party’s political power and influence.

Yes, it is third parties we must thank for the women’s right to vote, antitrust controls over the worst of corporate abuses, child labor laws, the minimum wage, the fact that we’re not all working weekends, safety in the workplace, workers’ right to organize and bargain with employers, safe foods and medicines, social security, civil rights – the list goes on. [See, e.g., the outline notes of Professor Donald R. Shaffer, University of Northern Colorado, at]

So you can see why “those who own the country,” and control both major political parties, would want to do all they can to prevent this kind of agitation and progress.

Opposition to Electoral Reforms

Both parties, and those who fund them, oppose at every turn any and all reforms that would permit more third party participation – even proposals that would eliminate the threat to them of what they persist in calling “spoilers.”

(Both parties, with their sense of entitlement to exclude all others from the political process, have the chutzpah to characterize anyone with the nerve to think they can also run for public office, without the major parties’ permission, as a “spoiler.”)

“Fusion,” “proportional representation,” and “instant runoff” are just some of those proposals for electoral reform.

Fusion is a system that permits a third party to endorse, as its candidate, the nominee of another party, usually one of the two major parties. New York has this system. Without it President Reagan would not have beaten Jimmy Carter in New York. Carter, as a Democrat, had more votes than Reagan got as a Republican. So how did Reagan carry the state? The Conservative Party in New York had also nominated Reagan. And the votes of the Conservative Party members, when added to the votes of the Republicans, gave Reagan New York.

(Why would a third party want to do this? Because in some states in order to retain legal status as a “party,” with a right to appear on election ballots, it is necessary to receive a certain number, or percentage, of votes in the last election. By nominating the major party candidate that comes closest to the positions of the third party’s members it can attract more votes for “its” candidate than by nominating a (often unknown) member of their party.)

Proportional representation can take many forms in this country and around the world. But, as the name suggests, it gets rid of the “winner takes all” system. It insures that some proportion of, say, the members of a legislative body will represent minority parties.

With instant runoff the Democrats would have carried Florida in 2000 and Al Gore would be running for re-election this year.

Assume it is true, as diehard Democrats contend, that all of Ralph Nader’s voters would have, but for his candidacy, voted for Al Gore. Under the present system they had to choose. Given one choice, their choice was Nader. With instant runoff they could have voted for both; Ralph Nader as their first choice, and Al Gore as their second choice. With instant runoff, when their first choice didn’t win the votes would have been recalculated, using their second choice votes. Al Gore would have won.

[For more on democratic, innovative, alternative voting systems see, e.g., Center for Voting and Democracy,]

(In fact, Florida exit polls indicated that 25% of Nader’s supporters were Republicans, and 37% said that, but for his being on the ballot they wouldn’t have voted at all. Over 250,000 Florida Democrats voted for Bush, multiples more than the 37,000 Democrats (38% of 97,000 total Nader votes) who voted for Nader. Had the corporate-oriented Democratic Leadership Council and its candidate appealed to, and been able to hold, its own party members Gore would have won in a walk. See; see also; these numbers square with CNN’s exit polling that Nader’s voters included 2% of those registered as Democrats, 1% of those registered as Republicans, and 6% of those designating themselves as independents.

So “What’s a voter to do?” One of the things you voters can do is to work for innovative, more democratic, voting systems that increase the choices of voters, enable third parties, and often as not help the major parties as well.