This is a rough draft of an essay that shows some of the techniques used to discredit people. It focuses on the way these techniques involve disguises that allow the journalist to deny an attack is taking place or justify it with the claim that he or she is merely upholding society’s values or doing the job. Also described are techniques used to defend and enhance the image of people who appear in the news.


How Discrediting Attacks Are Disguised

Given everything that has been said so far, it is obvious that discrediting attacks, whatever their motive, generally take place under heavy disguise. First, the attacker must portray his attack as an attempt to support the order of values of society by exposing a violator who deserves to be exposed, in essence enhancing his own image as he assaults another's. If this were all there were to these disguise, we might have an easier time discerning the role of discredit, domination, assertiveness and sadism in public life. But the disguise of motives is often supplemented by a far more insidious deception, one that masks the fact that an attack is taking place at all or that the journalist or attacker is the one making the attack. Journalists and other communicators often portray themselves as merely asking questions, reporting what others say or describing events, when everyone knows a verbal mugging is actually taking place that may leave the designated victim stripped of the self-defense provided by an effective image.

Fortunately, these disguises tend to be very transparent once one begins to identify the various games and strategies that are being used. Once that has been achieved, we can begin to expose these disguised attempts to expose others; we can discredit these disguised attempts to discredit; and hold these attempts to embarrass others up to embarrassing scrutiny. If all this sounds familiar, it is because what we will be doing is applying a more sophisticated version of the techniques used by journalists, themselves, turning the tables on the great table-turners and holding them up to a kind of scrutiny that reveals the degree to which our media and public culture are steeped in both dishonesty and cruelty.

Like the journalists, our basic technique will be to contrast image, as it is presented, with an underlying reality or, at least, with what we claim is an underlying reality. We will look at what journalists claim they are doing and what they are really doing, and see that the twain meet a lot less often than one might think. Given the complex motives all people have when they communicate, there is no doubt but that the disguises we will examine, here, are merely an example of the disguises that all of us use when we communicate. For all of us, there is a disparity between the actions we engage in and those we claim we are engaging in. That doesn’t let journalists off the hook, but it does put what they do in a larger context.

Here, than, is an incomplete compendium of some of the ways journalists, and others, go about dominating and harming those they encounter, while they claim to be upholding the value order of society and just doing their jobs. Also included are some of the justifications that journalists tell themselves and have ready to offer others, to explain why what they are doing is right and proper. The techniques listed aren’t exhaustive or mutually exclusive and some can be considered variations on each other:

CONTRAST IMAGE AND REALITY. As alluded to earlier, this is a basic method for discrediting someone or something, which is part of all the other techniques described. In it, the journalist shows the claims that are being made and contrasts them with other information, to show that those claims are false. The justification is often that the journalist is just reporting – just getting at the facts or just finding the truth - despite a manipulation intended to conceal the truth.

PORTRAY WRONGDOING AND HIGHLIGHT EMBARRASSING MOMENTS AND FACTS. Simple, elegant, often unchallengeable. Journalists simply show or describe their subjects engaging in actions that are deemed by many to be violations of the value order of society, and then they wait for their subjects to be attacked by others, and to desperately try to explain themselves. They show footage of the bank robbers or describe the offending remarks, and then sit back and enjoy the reaction (and begin working on the follow-up story).

Justification -- Since the subject is working for the public (if a politician) or has enjoyed the rewards of celebrity status and is a role model (for actors, sports stars and so on) the public has a right to know. Or this is an issue the public has a right to know about because it affects large numbers of people or because a crime may have been committed.

REPEAT ATTACKS BY OTHERS AND INVITE ATTACKS. Given the divisive nature of public life, journalists almost always have available a pool of discrediting attacks by one party against another, available for any story. Either the parties to some dispute are already savaging each other or the news media can quickly inspire them to do so with a few well-placed questions. As part of this system, there are growing pools of official and professional denouncers who can be called on for a quote.

In fact, given the nature of public culture, today, journalists are now obliged to carry these attacks. To not repeat one side's attacks on the other is to fail to tell the story. To not repeat the other side’s attacks is to fail to offer a balanced story in which each side has its say.

Of course, journalists have themselves played an essential role in helping to create this culture in which virtually everyone automatically impugns their opponents, while depicting their own motives as pure of heart. The favorite game of the press, which has helped bring all this about is the time honored game "Let’s you and him fight." "So what is your response to your opponents recent claims of questionable financial dealings in your campaign," the reporter asks pseudo-innocently, and then lets the sparks fly where they will.

Justification – just reporting; just giving each side its say.

THE OUTRAGE STORY. A brilliant creation, one that uses the best devices of fiction and drama to arouse an audience to anger. Outrage stories are those in which a person or institution engages in an action which is so blatantly unfair, such a blatant violation of the moral order of society, that the story will inevitably, even if it is written straight, arouse righteous indignation on the part of the public, causing readers/viewers to identify with the victim and seek vengeance against the perpetrators. The best victims are those who are not only treated in a way that is blatantly unfair, but who are helpless or weak and/or innocent and ethical, the more so the better. These make the best outrage stories because that increases the pathos and also creates an ideal contrast, with sharply defined characters embodying good and evil. It also makes the audience more willing to identify with the victim. The more imperfect the victim, the more morally ambiguous the situation may become, and the less effective an outrage story is likely to be. After all, who wants to identify with damaged goods.

Outrage stories are a variation on a basic justification for attacks, which is based on the idea that the recipient of the attack deserves it. Evil doers, persecutors, hypocrites, give us someone and something to hate. We need them so much that we constantly invent them in fiction, just so we can enjoy the pleasure of hating them and watching them get their just deserts.

If we expand our definition, we can see that, to some degree, all stories or attacks by journalists, politicians, and others, which claim the attack is justified because the recipient deserves it, are outrage stories. Many of the falls from grace of public persons, for example, involve somewhat more complicated outrage stories – "famous role model guilty of assault", and so on. Here, the outrage is against not only the obvious victim, but also the millions of innocent fans who trusted the public figure and now feel betrayed.

As in all of the kinds of stories described here, outrage stories are often about real outrages. There really are terrible and stupid that are done every day and many perpetrators really do deserve to be discredited and exposed. But usually the misdeeds of the alleged perpetrator are used by the news media and some in the public as an excuse to visit sadism and aggression on someone who has become an acceptable target. The media instrumentally manipulate the anger of some in the audience to have a target they can hate; and to see someone brought down.

Justification – all reasonable people would agree that what was done by the perpetrators was morally wrong. We are standing up for what is right in a way every right-thinking person would agree with.

QUESTIONS: Many attacks are disguised as questions, which give various degrees of evidence of their real purpose. Questions may appear totally innocent, seeking only information or they can contain fairly obvious accusations/ innuendoes inside them. Asking about accusations and allegations is a favorite technique. The journalist gets to repeat the allegation while denying he is making it or that he is repeating it for unsavory reasons.

Of course, the question works best if it is asked in public – preferably on television. If it is asked in a one-on-one interview, then instead of using the question to discredit the subject, the journalist uses the answer to do so. For example "John Doe said yesterday that allegations that he and his adulterous lover embezzled money from the charity fund are ‘totally ridiculous.’ But, according to a police report…"

As noted earlier, questions may not only be disguised attacks. They may also be invitations for the interviewee to engage in a discrediting attack against someone. That also makes them disguised attacks, but one step removed.

Justification for discrediting questions – we are just asking questions. That’s our job. Or – we are giving so and so an opportunity to tell his side and defend himself, which is only fair.

PUTTING ON THE SPOT/ PUNCHING HOLES. The prime technique of discrediting while interviewing, whether it is in interviews that will be used to construct news stories or interviews on television or radio, is to put the interviewee/victim on the spot. Here, the interviewer conducts an interrogation-like interview; he plays the role of the swordsman-reporter, lunging at the interviewee with pointed questions while the interviewee defends himself with a shield of denials and deflections.

The basic approach is to assume the interviewee-victim is presenting a false image to cover-up an incriminating underlying reality, and then to try to pressure him into admitting this hidden truth. If he admits it, he is exposed. If he denies and portrays his actions in a different light then the way the interviewer does, he can now be subjected to another attack in which he is portrayed as a deceiver, manipulator and cover-up artist. The interviewer thus gets him on two counts simultaneously - for the misdeed and the Nixonian cover-up. To switch metaphors, the interviewer plays Perry Mason. The interviewee virtually never confesses on the stand, but still seems to be exposed to the world.

In order for this to work, the interviewer typically tries to use the image versus reality ploy, by revealing contradictions in statements or showing the disparity between what the interviewee claims and what else is known. As part of this routine, journalists, singly and collectively, will often ask the same questions over and over, knowing that they won’t get answers. The journalists ask their non-questions; the politicians and other interviewees give their nonanswers, and everyone involved knows these exercises have nothing to do with trying to get information or even to get at truth. They are little morality plays designed to illustrate the evil and hypocrisy of public life, while depicting journalists as crusading heroes for truth and right.

Justification (Same as for contrasting image and reality) -- Since the interviewee is working for the public (if a politician) or since the interviewee has enjoyed the rewards of celebrity status and is a role model (for actors, sports celebrities and so on) the public has a right to know. Or - this is an issue the public has a right to know about because it affects large numbers of people or a crime may have been committed.

JOB INTERVIEWER. During elections, journalists appoint themselves job interviewer for the candidates and conduct Perry Mason style cross-examinations, of the kind referred to above, but focused even more on the business and private life of the candidates.

Justification – mistakes made in one's personal or business life highlight character and provide information on how the candidates will act in office. Since the candidates are or want to work for the public, the public has a right to know. If it is a presidential election, the justification includes pointing out that the winner will have his "finger on the nuclear button" and "be the leader of the free world," and so on.

Justification – just reporting the news. Or – It’s a public record.

USE SARCASM, MOCKERY, CARICATURE,

TREAT SOMEONE OR SOME ACTION AS A JOKE

The question that has to be asked about much of this is the following: if journalists have to wrap their attacks in disguises, does this mean the reasons they implicitly or explicitly give for what they are doing are all merely disguises? Can’t a journalist genuinely be trying to uphold the values of society in making an attack? The answer is yes, although, as noted elsewhere, ferreting out what is what is a complicated issue, given the complex motives behind human communication. If a journalist has partially sincere motives then those will be presented as part of his image, while less sincere motives will be hidden. The problem is that journalists have abused these reasons and justifications to such a degree, it becomes difficult to see any of them as sincere. But if we take the position that attacks like these are never sincere or legitimate, then the attacks on journalistic attacks you are reading right now must also be insincere and illegitimate. And if you were to attack my attacks, that would be insincere. Clearly, a position of radical skepticism like this goes too far. So the question becomes: how can we determine if efforts to discredit are sincere and legitimate, and, beyond that, is sincerity a justification? And if not, what criteria can we use to determine if discrediting attacks are legitimate. If there are two discrediting attacks and I consider one sincere but wrong and the other insincere but right, how do I make a moral judgment?

Another set of questions we have to ask is why the public allows these attacks to continue. It most likely does so for a variety of reasons. One certainly is that it takes pleasure in discrediting attacks and believes they are necessary, because of a shared perception that politicians and other public figures are getting what they deserve. Journalists are one of a class of professionals we allow to do things on our behalf that we often don’t allow ourselves to do in everyday life. They stand up to authority, ask difficult questions, probe motives and reveal inconsistencies; they break through walls of hypocrisy and tell truths that powerful people want suppressed; they stare, often with the camera, put politicians on the defensive, ask about personal weaknesses and flaws, imply people are liars and reveal secrets.

The system designated by the categories ``journalist,'' ``fair game'' and ``scapegoat'' is an island of action where permission is granted for a somewhat reduced level of civility, as is the judicial system involving the categories ``prosecutor,'' ``defense attorney,'' ``witness'' and ``defendant".

And beyond that, many people enjoy watching attacks go on because they have reasons to dislike the targets for more partisan reasons, and because they get "drive gratification" out of seeing verbal and symbolic violence. Whatever the reasons, the justifications serve as a defense, allowing people to clothe their enjoyment of aggression in a suit of morality. So long as they can tell themselves the object of the attack deserves it or the attack has proper justifications, all is well and the mind can enjoy its pleasures.

Although the rules of these games obviously allow for a great deal of dishonesty, that dishonesty does act as a break on sadism and it gives a certain degree of restraint to public life. The press' sadism is one of the things that holds the politicians in check, and limits the degree to which criminals can walk off with the public treasury or politicians can lie about their opponents. But it also provides the players in the game of public life with a way to engage in cruelty and unfairness, to gain audience and get enemies, without taking responsibility for what they do. And it means that journalists and politicians who know how to engage in successful attacks and politicians who know the secret of Teflon can manipulate the system, without ever really improving it with their ersatz attacks or phony portrayals of their own innocence.



Ways of enhancing or defending image:



Just as journalists, and others, have a set of techniques, disguises and justifications, for discrediting image, so they have them for enhancing or defending someone’s image (and for other actions, we well). Reporters often protect credibility through the way they frame their stories and descriptions. Choice of words and the order of ideas can be everything. Criticisms can be qualified so they have less impact. They can be phrased gently or circuitously or taken back or actions can be justified immediately after they are described. Words that evoke positive emotions and associations can be used.

The reverse of all the techniques described above, to discredit, can be used. Journalists can accept the good things people say and imply about themselves and others at face value, with probing behind the image. They can portray good works and highlight flattering moments. They can repeat compliments from others and invite compliments for their subjects. They can write heartwarming stories about good deeds performed by saints and heroes, that are the opposite of outrage stories. They can flatter, themselves, idealize by presenting their subjects as all good, and very good, and treat their subjects with an aura of seriousness, respect or reverence.

Just as discrediting attacks are typically acts of aggressive domination toward the objects of the attack, so crediting stories are often acts of subordination. Stories that flatter, that depict people from their own perspective, as they would like to be depicted, are legion, especially in feature stories (such as personality profiles), small newspapers, and the broad range of television news. The reporter has only credit-enhancing things to say about the subject and is content to act as his or her publicist and mini-biographer. Potentially discrediting information isn't raised or is treated very gently.

One of the many blatant ways news organizations credit those they cover is by using pictures, stories, and information provided by publicists. Small neighborhood newspapers resort to this practice all the time, particularly on inside pages, which are dotted with photographs of people in stiff and frozen poses, holding plaques and shaking hands, smiling for the camera like they've been standing there for a thousand years. Much of the news copy for some small papers is actually press releases, printed verbatim.

Some large newspapers with active real estate markets and unwieldy real estate sections fill the sections with press releases provided by helpful publicists in the employ of builders who, in many instances, are also major advertisers. The key to writing these press releases, which some publicists have partly figured out, is to disguise them so they read like news stories.

Some feature sections also run publicity photographs of public figures, particularly celebrities, thus obtaining a ``free'' photograph, one that portrays the public figure in the idealized, flawless and often wrinkle-free state that celebrities enjoy in their own imagination and that of many of their admirers. Publicity photographs can often be spotted by telltale signs: the subject looks too perfect and there is no credit line explaining who took the photograph or what news organization provided it. Obviously, we have here a double cover-up - of the subject's normal appearance and the newspaper's willingness to use publicity shots as if they are news.

In all these instances, publicists and subjects are using these opportunities to plant items in newspapers that enhance their own credibility. They extol their own virtues or those of their eat-in kitchens and two-car garages, magically wiping away the effect of the years and gravity in photographs.

These practices are the ultimate in real acts of submission because they allow the subject to take over the business of writing and covering himself. The news organization is merely the middleman, providing the press and distribution system, or broadcast system.

From the perspective of the editor's or managers behind these practices, this is often an act of cooperation. The newspaper gets instant (and free) copy to fill pages or happy advertisers or happy readers who see the events they attended described in print or the editors get good quality photographs of celebrities that make for an attractive page layout. In addition, many readers like to see images of their favorite celebrities because of their own desire to idealize and believe there are people in this world who lead a charmed life.

One way to deal with this is for news organizations to cut it out. Another solution is truth in advertising. Newspapers usually identify advertisements to ensure readers know when they are being marketed to. Simply label these free ads and let readers decide how they feel about the practice.

Finally, there is one more technique for defending reputations that is very well disguised. It is the use of routine news, which is the bulk of what passes for news. We can define any act of journalism that plays it safe, describes only the most superficial aspect of events and avoids telling truths, as a form of routine news. Reporters tell what the City Commission did or what the president or the press release said or what police say happened on the night of October 15th, and they never dare convey to readers other information they have about these and other issues that might delve deeper into events. The reporter, along with everyone else in city hall, may know about the secret deal between the mayor and the developer, but no hint of it appears in print. Thus, routine news, by covering only the surface of events, defends the image of all kinds of people whose goose would be cooked if the full truth were known.

The professional norm that says news stories should be balanced and tell both sides is, also, often used as a cover to avoid telling more disturbing truths. The reporter simply tells one side in a controversy and then tells the other, giving each side an opportunity to have a quote, so the story slants one way and then the other, while censoring out the truth about what is really going on. The real truth may be that the reporter knows that both sides are lying or that one side is lying or that both sides are really fighting over something other than what they claim to be fighting over. But none of this is ever revealed, because the reporter need never leave the safe harbor of the routine news story, into the stormy water of reality. Telling both sides substitutes for telling the truth.


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