For another project, I found myself looking through some of the classic techniques of propaganda, curious to see how some modern media outlets may echo those well-established methods for dishonest persuasion.
High on the list: transfer (linking your cause to an already well-respected institution or idea), the bandwagon (urging people to do something because everyone else is doing it), fear (prompting swift action to avoid disaster) and historical revisionism (twisting the facts of history to serve your rhetorical arguments).
Which brought me to TV/radio host Glenn Beck's rally Saturday on the National Mall, an event expected to draw thousands starting at 10 a.m.
When Beck first announced this event last year, it was obvious to any student of propaganda what he was doing. In scheduling his rally at the site of a near-universally admired speech, on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic March on Washington and "I Have a Dream" speech, he has managed to invoke the bandwagon, fear, historical revisionism and transfer all in one, neat package.
Beck has since said that scheduling the date was a coincidence, a claim challenged by those who remember his early speeches last year announcing the rally, where he talked about the difficulty of securing the date. He's also said all net proceeds from the donations and merchandising of the events will go to Tampa charity the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, but only after the expenses of rally have been paid -- funding a high-profile event which will boost his media brand and the reputations of any conservatives who join him.
According to organizers, the rally is a non-political event aimed at honoring the nation's military. But its very title "Restoring Honor," implies that somehow an institution which gets lots of respect these days -- American soldiers fighting two wars halfway across the globe -- need their good name reclaimed by Beck. The host has also said this event will "reclaim the civil rights movement" from the nation's progressives.
In his talks on the issue, Beck says King's dream has been "massively perverted." But King's own positions are obviously at odds with Beck's conservative tenets. In 1965, the civil rights leader advocated repaying oppressed people for the advantages America has enjoyed from their labor, to the tune of $50 billion, in a massive Bill of Rights for the disadvantaged that would mirror the G.I. Bill and help poor white people as well. Does that align with Beck, who has criticized President Obama's health care plans as modern day reparations, though it also does not have racial limitations?
"He sees America as an oppressor," Beck said this morning about Obama, as a criticism. Whether or not that is true of the president -- who Beck has called a racist for expressing concern about the arrest of a prominent African American professor in his own home -- that is certainly true of King.
King also criticized the Vietnam War and military actions in South America and Latin America, arguing that the money spent on the military could be better spent on anti-poverty programs in the U.S. In 1968, he worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize the Poor People's Campaign, a demand that government rebuild its biggest cities and shore up programs aimed at helping the poor. All of this sounds like classic progressive thought; ideas Beck has dedicated himself to eradicating.
In this reclaiming effort, Beck has found an ally in conservative star Sarah Palin, who contends that criticism of talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger for using the n-word many times on her radio show violates her 1st Amendment rights. Beyond the silliness of arguing that anyone has a 1st Amendment right to a nationally syndicated radio show, I wonder: doesn't telling critics they have no right to oppose her language violate their 1st amendment rights?
It seems conservatives such as Beck, Palin and Andrew Breitbart are echoing a long-held belief by conservatives, that 1960s-era civil rights action may have been laudable, but its modern-day equivalent is used by hucksters to disadvantage white people. It's a view at odds with reality -- black people still earn 72 cents for every $1 earned by a similarly-educated white person, and are 445 percent more likely to be imprisoned, 527 percent more likely to be murdered.
But at a time of widespread economic pain and uncertainty, there is fertile ground for that message. And through their blogs, Twitter feeds, books, speaking tours, TV shows and, yes, rallies, Beck and his allies have built a mighty media megaphone to pass along this message.
As Beck's event unfolds Saturday, it would be advisable to keep the principles of propaganda in mind. The widespread admiration for King's message is a powerful tool; it makes sense to meet any attempt to invoke that legacy with a little skepticism and specific knowledge.
Check out more of my observatons on media and society at my blog, The Feed.