Tag Archives: George Orwell

“The New York Times is Always Right”: A Media Literacy Lesson

Animal School - Pigs in a classroom - image

Readers of George Orwell’s Animal Farm should remember Squealer, the pig whose “journalism” manipulated the entire animal society into unquestioningly supporting the dictatorial pig Napoleon.

When a democracy is tottering, should its schools care?

If they studied Animal Farm in the classroom, the depressing odds are they learned it as a good, all-American attack on socialism. The most simple-minded of our teachers make a travesty of the novel’s allegory along these breathless lines:

Napoleon, children, equals Stalin and Karl Marx all rolled up in one. And Squealer equals their propaganda machine, the communist newspaper Pravda. Write ‘Pravda’ in your notes, children, because you have to know it for the test. It’s very important. It’s an example of journalism in communism, and how it prints government lies instead of the truth that we get in newspapers in free democracies.”

Of course, Animal Farm was more than that. Orwell was a socialist, after all — but he was also a thinker. So he could condemn what Stalin had done in the Soviet Union as a perversion of the socialist vision, while at the same time condemning the capitalism of  the United States and Western Europe with equal scorn.

That second part tends to get left out, I suspect, in discussions of capitalism and communism in most Western classrooms, whether English classes teaching Animal Farm or history classes teaching the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead, capitaliAnimal Farm Coversm is trotted out in the white hat of “freedom and democracy,” and communism in the black hat of “tyranny and totalitarianism.”

Teachers and textbooks who frame the issue this way strangle the baby of inquiry in the cradle, and slip in its place a plump little bundle of propaganda to comfort the kids and teachers by cooing that they’re on the right side of history, and the enemy was on the wrong. But “Capitalism versus Communism” and “Democracy versus Dictatorship” aren’t simple “Good versus Bad,” “Right versus Wrong” stories. Both sides, the communist and the capitalist, have their strengths and weaknesses, their angels and demons, their moments of heroism and of villainy. Both sides.

So you don’t have to be a communist to criticize capitalism, or a capitalist to criticize communism. Thinkers in both camps criticize not just the other system, but their own. (Politicians do this routinely when they craft legislation.) Any classrooms learning about these two systems should front-load their explorations with that truth — assuming, at any rate, that we want to produce thinking citizens in our classrooms instead of bleating farm animals. It sometimes seems we don’t want to.

Breaking News: War is Peace. Torture is Justice.

From the indispensable Plum Line blog’s Greg Sargent at the Washington Post:

Harvard’s school of government has released a study of how major media discusses waterboarding that really seems like it was done for Glenn Greenwald.

Click on “released a study” above and you’ll get the full report in PDF. The Greenwald link is a rich resource for the classroom too.

And they’re “rich” because they call into question America’s mainstream media — the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and all the rest of the “free” press — and the bald similarities of Squealer and Pravda to the editors of those trusted institutions and their newspapers. (Torches down, dear nationalists: you should agree we have to read newspapers on two feet, like free-thinking humans, and not four, like all the sheep in Orwell and too many sheeple in America. Remember the good old days when an “informed citizenry” was a national ideal in America, before it was replaced with “a productive consumer” — a patriotic shopper?)

Need a teaser? From the study’s abstract:

The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.

This type of study is not new, I know. But this particular one recommends itself for use in the classroom for several reasons: it’s current. It’s clear. It’s free. It’s from Harvard. Oh, and it’s about the survival of the rule of law and human rights in the United States. Almost forgot that one.

Or we could just give the lambs a handout about Pravda and follow it with a quiz. Continue reading