US political and media culture has long cultivated the art of pleasing its public by informing them whom to hate or to suspect of unthinkable crimes. The art consists in identifying certain individuals, groupings, parties and even philosophies that politicians, media celebrities and journalists want the public to think of as incarnations of evil. Clever political and media marketers know that paranoia not only attracts eyeballs but also reinforces customer fidelity.
When in 1953 the playwright Arthur Miller set the plot of The Crucible in New England’s 17th century, most people understood that the drama was not really intended as a historical reflection on the Puritan culture that produced the notorious Salem witch trials. That was the pretext. Instead, Miller was targeting the contemporary paranoia that characterized Senator Joe McCarthy’s raging campaign to root out communists and “fellow travelers.”
That dismal form of political extremism at the apogee of the Cold War has earned the moniker, McCarthyism. In its article on the topic, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library website cites the American Heritage’s definition of McCarthyism:
- The political practice of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence; and
- The use of methods of investigation and accusation regarded as unfair, in order to suppress opposition.
Throughout the Trump presidency, The New York Times assumed its position as a pillar of the new Cold War. Over the past seven years this new psychological combat directed against American citizens supposedly colluding with one of the “Two Great Enemies” has replaced the Global War on Terror of the Bush years as the obligatory bugbear of US politics and journalism. The same paper that first encouraged McCarthyism in the 1950s before resisting and critiquing it now appears, 70 years later, to embrace its latest avatar. One glaring example is the piece the Gray Lady published last week with the title, “A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul.”
The article repeatedly claims to be an example of original investigative reporting. That is the first of its series of lies. The same content appeared in an article published in January 2022 by New Lines Magazine. Only some of the details are new.
Nor is it an example of investigative reporting. It is unvarnished propaganda. It proceeds by citing multiple isolated factoids and anecdotal details, hoping readers will connect them to construct a sinister narrative. True investigative reporting focuses on the connections rather than the multiplicity of factoids. This article does nothing of the kind.
Early on, the article makes its bold accusation: “Mr. Singham works closely with the Chinese government media machine and is financing its propaganda worldwide.” Nothing it subsequently adduces establishes any of that as fact.
The article does, however, give a taste of Singham’s thinking on geopolitical issues, but without going into any critical depth. Its aim is to brand him as a leftist Marxist extremist. In doing so, the journalists make it appear that having such ideas and at the same time handling money is a crime. We should now realize that modern cold-war democracy believes that the thinking of its own citizens should be severely restricted, especially if certain people in other parts of the world share a similar analysis of historical events.
Singham has committed no criminal acts. The article’s subtitle clearly states the nature of Signham’s crime: “The Times unraveled a financial network that stretches from Chicago to Shanghai and uses American nonprofits to push Chinese talking points worldwide.” The team of correspondents claims that they “tracked hundreds of millions of dollars to groups linked to Mr. Singham that mix progressive advocacy with Chinese government talking points.” It evokes ”a seemingly organic bloom of far-left groups that echo Chinese government talking points, echo one another, and are echoed in turn by the Chinese state media.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A term of reprobation used by people who have acquired the habit of talking without thinking and applied to other people whose very real thinking and measured speech fails to align with their own simplistic memorized script.
The latest generation of cold warriors appears to see “talking points” as the modern equivalent of yesterday’s terrorist acts. It’s a new variation on establishment wokism. There are words and terms you cannot repeat without being canceled. Now anything that can be branded “talking points” qualifies for cancellation.
It should be clear, however, that there are good and bad talking points. Lazy NYT journalists in particular have learned the value of not just echoing talking points but adding their own varnish to the ones they gratefully receive from government officials, and more particularly the intelligence community. Those are good talking points. The ones that come from beyond the nation’s borders must be deemed immediately suspect. And anything spoken in Moscow or Beijing is obviously not just a bad talking point but an evil one.
When dealing with talking points, reporters theoretically have two choices. They may seek elegant ways of conveying the authorized talking points they receive from “trusted sources.” This of course means not just that the journalist trusts the source, but that the source trusts the journalists to echo the planted talking points.
Alternatively, conscientious journalists might want to step back and explore the meaning behind those talking points. They might even try to deconstruct them. Many examples of this exist in independent media, but not at The New York Times. The Gray Lady prefers the easier method of faithfully conveying the talking points provided by its generally uncited sources. Reporters then create their articles by lining up as many random assertions as they can find that appear to support those talking points.
The term “talking points” came to the fore during the Cold War, when it was enthusiastically adopted by Madison Avenue marketers and Beltway politicians. Lining up talking points from which speakers would not deviate became an essential tool for both the promoters of the consumer society and politicians constructing a new world order based on the idea of a permanent ideological conflict. What better way to banish that annoying intruder, nuance, from our conversations?
What differentiates talking points from, for example, political platforms is that they appear to be plausible assertions that require no substantiation and can be rattled off with the appearance of being true. One of the talking points the authors of the article seek to make is that people who are opposed to war or simply to the current government’s policies are hypocrites. If they can’t prove it, they will invent the required assertion.
One glaring example in the article appears when the authors seek to impugn the antiwar group Code Pink, one of whose founders, Jodie Evans, is Singham’s wife. To make the case for the organization’s hypocrisy, they assert that “Code Pink once criticized China’s rights record but now defends its internment of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs, which human rights experts have labeled a crime against humanity.” Had they provided a simple link to Code Pink’s website, they would have revealed to their public the enormity of their accusation:
“CODEPINK defends the right of the Uyghurs in China to live free and fruitful lives. The Chinese government’s violation of their human rights is of concern to us and we join the call for justice for the Uyghurs. At the same time, we call out the US government, which is using the human rights of the Uyghurs as a tool to drive war with China, instead of a human rights issue that needs to be addressed as such.”
The authors want us to believe that Code Pink’s “call for justice for the Uyghurs” is tantamount to defending the Chinese policy of internment. This is clearly a lie. In reality, this has nothing to do with echoing China’s talking points and everything to do with failing to echo US talking points. Code Pink’s. unforgivable sin in the eyes of our modern McCarthyites consists of casting reasonable doubt on a specific element of US propaganda.
As 17th-century witch prosecutor Cotton Mather might say: these devil worshippers are betraying the common faith in the pristine and absolute truthfulness of our established authorities. Hang them all!
N.B. History tells us that 30 of the 200 accused were found guilty and 20 executed.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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