FrameLab reads: 'Normalizing' hysteria, and how the press helps fascism

Recommended readings on political language and framing

FrameLab reads: 'Normalizing' hysteria, and how the press helps fascism
Photo by Ishaq Robin on Unsplash

In this age of disinformation and propaganda, we’re lucky to have an increasing number of writers thinking about how political framing and communications strategies shape our reality. They are helping to illuminate how political actors tilt narratives to their own benefit and use journalistic processes in order to undermine democracy.

Below are some crucial, thought-provoking reads that we highly recommend to FrameLab fans.

How the press helps fascism

In a must-read interview with Prof. Jay Rosen of NYU, former Chicago newspaper editor Mark Jacob offers up a searing indictment of political news coverage. Since leaving journalism in 2016, Jacob has become a passionate critic of flawed journalistic processes that give equal weight to truth and lies.

“I used to edit Page 1 stories for the Chicago Tribune, including many from Washington,” wrote Jacob in a series of tweets that got Rosen’s attention. “In this thread, I explain why the media (including me) have been unintentionally complicit in the rise of fascism that threatens our democracy.”

Jacob elaborates on his critique in his interview with Rosen. Among other things, he describes a newsroom culture in which editors and reporters end up “thinking of a news story as a stage that allowed Republicans and Democrats to perform their talking points, rather than as a way to inform readers about the issues and the facts as much as possible.”

While this approach is problematic under any circumstance, it’s especially dangerous in an age of weaponized lies, rising fascism and attempted insurrection.

Says Jacob:

The Republican disinformation about the Jan. 6 committee, for example. If you’re obligated to run a quote by Republican leaders on that, you’re going to run a lie. And if you don’t debunk it at the same time, you’re enabling the liars.

Read the interview in its entirety: “He used to edit political stories at the Chicago Tribune. Now he says the press is failing our democracy,” by Jay Rosen at PressThink.

And how journalists can outwit authoritarianism…

How can journalists do a better job of protecting the truth (and democracy) against authoritarian tactics? Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post highlights tips from a new 28-page resource called “The Authoritarian Playbook: a media guide.”

The guide, produced by Protect Democracy, outlines the tactics authoritarians use to gain control in society. Sullivan summarizes the authoritarian tactics outlined in the guide:

They attempt to politicize independent institutions. They spread disinformation. They aggrandize executive power at the expense of checks and balances. They quash criticism and dissent. They specifically target vulnerable or marginalized communities. They work to corrupt elections. They stoke violence.

The guide also suggests ways in which reporters and editors can outwit authoritarian tactics to protect the truth (and democracy). For example:

The report urges journalists not to unwittingly help spread disinformation. Don’t magnify political lies by repeating them in headlines. Beware of the ‘illusory truth effect,’ in which disinformation can be spread inadvertently by stories that seek to debunk it.

Truth sandwich, anyone?

We’ll be poring over the guide, which Sullivan recommends as essential reading for every citizen interested in the preservation of democracy.

“While the guide is intended for journalists, every American would benefit from reading it — especially in conjunction with the House committee hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection,” writes Sullivan.

Read the entire column: “How journalists can spot the signs of autocracy — and help ward it off,” by Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post.

Are you helping Marjorie Taylor Greene?

On that note, the Blue Walls newsletter drills down on how Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene uses Trumpian outrage tactics to attract a steady stream of criticism from Democrats. Of course, this only helps her to strengthen her base.

From Blue Walls:

But here’s the thing: She’s playing us.

Maybe this isn’t intentional. Maybe she’s brilliant enough to know exactly how to titillate our liberal brains and make us join her viral marketing team, again.

Doesn’t matter.

The result is the same. Her job is to prove that we, the libs, hate her. And in a district that’s 45% more Republican than the average congressional district, that counts as constituent service.

Trump may be off of Twitter, but social media is full of other MAGA types saying outrageous things in order to provoke a response. They largely follow the strategy we laid out in “Taxonomy of Trump Tweets” in January 2018.

Unfortunately, Trump’s political apprentices continue to use these tactics successfully in 2022. And too many of us continue to take the bait.

Read the entire post: “How to get off the Marjorie Taylor Greene viral marketing team” by LOLGOP at Blue Walls.

And finally…

An age of mass hysteria?

What explains Trump’s effect on his most loyal followers? New York Times columnist Charles Blow describes Trump’s power as an ability to create “mass hysteria.”

By feeding them a steady diet of lies and outrage, Trump has whipped his supporters up in a frenzy of disreality. Disconnected from reality because of their blind obedience to Trump, they live in a world of alternate facts. On January 6, 2021, this mass hysteria led to a violent insurrection at the United States Capitol.

Blow compares the former president’s effect on his followers to other notable instances of “psychotic contagion” in history:

There were relatively limited and brief hysterias, like the dancing plague of 1518, when hundreds of people in the European city of Strasbourg (then part of the Holy Roman Empire, but now part of France) joined in a seemingly inexplicable “dancing epidemic” that lasted for weeks, as people fell dead of strokes and heart attacks.

And who can forget the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s? After multiple people were accused of practicing witchcraft, 19 were hanged, several died in jail and another was crushed to death.

Why it’s important: Trump’s ability to frame reality for his followers demonstrates the power of his authoritarian communication strategies — and why he remains a danger to democracy. The former president has tapped deeply into the conservative psyche, and he’s proven his willingness to abuse this power to further his political interests. Writes Blow:

But I would argue that we are now living in an age of political mass hysteria, one that, while led by Donald Trump’s election lies, encompasses the fanatical campaigns casting trans people as groomers, history teachers as indoctrinators and Covid precautions as politically toxic.

Read the entire column: “Normalizing Mass Hysteria” by Charles Blow of the New York Times.

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