This is not journalism I'm doing.
Nothing against journalism. On the contrary, I’m a big believer in journalism's role — despite spotty performance of late — in keeping the powers that be in check and the social fabric intact. I admire its rules and standards, even as they’re increasingly honored in the breach.
But journalism isn’t me. As a career advertising professional, I have little use for objectivity. I am under no obligation to present two sides of anything. I do not default to fair and balanced. I am trained, in short, to write with an agenda.
Looked at another way, what I am is a propagandist.
Yes, propaganda is a loaded word, almost a pejorative. But propaganda is really just advertising in a political context. The word, as it has evolved, insinuates that it only comes from black hats, but I think that’s simplistic. Every political stand — love it or hate it, white hat or black hat — has an agenda, and uses various marketing tools to move that agenda forward.
Call it advertising or call it propaganda, the process is the same. You identify a target audience. You tailor your message to that target. You find a way to deliver that message. You persuade that target to buy — or vote for — your product. The tools are ethically neutral. How they are used is not.
The messaging techniques haven’t changed. All the old stand-bys — Bandwagon, Name Calling, Glittering Generalities, Deck Stacking, Transfer, and especially Scapegoating — are as useful today, black hat or white, as they were in Machiavelli’s day. Or Goebbels’. Not a day goes by when Trump doesn’t tweet out a handful of them.
What’s new is the media. What’s new is the ability to pump out that messaging using digital media, social media, micro-segmentation, advanced analytics, and a profusion of new platforms coming online every day. What’s new is how easy it’s becoming to define your targets in ever more granular detail, and to customize your messaging accordingly.
Against tools like these, journalism is at a big disadvantage. Its standards for sourcing, verifying, and maintaining the integrity of the reporting make it hard to keep up with the nonstop flow of propaganda messaging that subscribes to no such standards. This is indeed a distressing development. But I would argue that while journalism needs to be propped up and defended wherever possible, the white hats also need to up their propaganda game. Democrats, I’m talking to you.
Republicans have always been far better at reaching their voters on an emotional level. The messaging is grotesquely dishonest, but they certainly understand their targets, and know how to move them. There’s a lot we can learn from that.
Democrats have, in my lifetime, been defined by a loose but important set of ethical values. You can argue whether those values have been clear or vague, real or naive, egalitarian or elitist, sincere or cynical, but whatever you think of them, they’ve long stood in stark contrast to Republicans, whose ethical challenges are off the charts.
Democrats need to grasp that there is nothing inherently unethical about political advertising, i.e. propaganda. There’s nothing unethical about accentuating the positive. About showing your candidate in the best light possible. About putting the best face on your candidate’s flaws. About drawing on emotion to make your sale. There’s also nothing unethical about calling out your opponent’s lies, or punching back at specious claims and tactics.
Advertising is about getting out the good news about your product. Whether that product is Jell-O, Chevrolet, or Joe Biden, your targets need to be shown how it fits into their lives. Fortunately, with Biden it’s relatively easy to be a white hat. What we used to think of as his unwanted baggage turns out to be so tame by Trumpian standards, it’s almost laughable — that’s how much Trump has obliterated our benchmarks for acceptable public behavior.
So Biden has a lot of good cards to play. For now, all his messaging can be positive, mostly because Trump — whose Twitter account has become the world’s largest megaphone — creates his own negative advertising every day of the week. Trump is selling Biden harder than Biden ever could. So Joe’s job right now is to sit back and let Trump self-incinerate.
This will change as the election approaches and Republicans start to panic. They are already working on all the dirtiest tricks of the trade, and they have a boatload of billionaire financing behind them. The clear goal is to steal the next election, whatever it takes. No ethics need apply.
Even so, they have a problem. They have no platform of truth or ethics to stand on. They have sold out both — as well as the rule of law — to accommodate Trump. All they have left is lies. Even for seasoned propagandists, all lies all the time is hard to maintain. It helps to have at least a little bit of truth to work with.
Democrats have plenty of truth, plus the aforementioned values, on their side. Republicans have money, plus a willingness to use it in nefarious ways, on theirs. Whatever you think of propaganda, the next four months will surely rewrite the textbooks.