An Interview with Former Congressman Ernest Istook

by Matt B. on April 28, 2010

Ernest Istook represented Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District from 1993-2007.  Today, he is a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and a talk radio host.

You’ve titled your study group, “Propaganda in American Politics.” I’m wondering how you define “propaganda”.

The correct definition of propaganda is “information that is designed to influence and sway people’s thinking and actions.” The information that they use for this may be totally false. It may be totally true. It may be true but warped and distorted. The point is that it’s designed to sway people’s thinking in a political fashion.

So I try to make the point that just because something is labeled as propaganda, it doesn’t mean that it’s false information. But it is information that should be treated circumspectly and with an understanding of the purpose behind what is being told to people. I hope that all who participate in this study group will have a healthy skepticism of information that they receive, and will look beyond the surface to understand what agenda is driving a presentation, what are any biases, and that they look to multiple sources for their news and information.

A Pew study from September of 2009 measured Americans’ feelings toward major news outlets.   All of the major media outlets – not just the cable news channels – had strikingly different approval ratings depending on the respondent’s partisan affiliation.  Is this an accelerating trend?  If so, should we worry about it?

In the very first session, I described and used a Power Point presentation to detail the news sources that are typically relied upon by members of Congress and other decision-makers in Washington, D.C. I wanted to convey to students an idea of how politicians intake information, how they process it, manipulate it and regurgitate it in different forms. At the highest levels of government people are constantly doing this intake and analysis and sending back into the media what the politicians believe people should know and think about the events of the day. It is a constant propaganda machine that’s in daily operation, making it important to understand where they get their data and then how they send it back out.

What were those news sources that you discussed?

I printed out a copy, thinking you might like this. Let me just go get it in my office.

[Mr. Istook returned a few minutes later with a printout of his study group presentation.]

…This material relates to the classic question that was posed to Sarah Palin about what newspapers she reads. The very asking of a question like that is outdated because most people who keep up with current events turn to aggregators of news rather than to a single news source. An aggregator will give you information that may come from The New York Times; it may come from The Washington Post; it may come from newspapers or broadcast outlets from Seattle or Miami or Omaha, or other places.

I like Real Clear Politics. I think it does a good job of highlighting important material.  There are places like The Drudge Report on the right; there’s The Huffington Post on the left. There are publications such as Congress Daily, National Journal, the Daily Congressional News Briefing, The Note from ABC News, Frontrunner, Hotline – a whole series of these. Most function as aggregators rather than originators of news. It’s not healthy to depend upon one particular news outlet, but you need a way of tapping into multiple sources.

New media allows for the dissemination of information – including propaganda – in a variety of new ways. I’m wondering, though, whether propaganda tactics and techniques are changing as well.  In other words, is propaganda today the same as it’s always been, but just delivered in a new format?  Or are our public conversations facing new challenges unrelated to technology?

A few years ago, the term you heard used was “spin” and you would talk about “spin doctors,” who are trying to organize information and to channel people’s thinking into certain pathways. We’ve gotten well beyond spin. It is so strong that it needs a stronger term, which propaganda fits. Plus, with a government as complex as ours and a society as complex as ours, just giving straightforward data with no perspective and no context confuses many people more than it informs them. So some level of interpretation and analysis is necessary.

The question is whether media openly admit that they are doing this, or adopt a pretense of claiming that they are being objective when really they are not. In one of our study groups, John Fund [an online columnist for The Wall Street Journal] described it as saying, “You cannot expect media to be objective. You can only expect them to be fair.”

When you look at the political and media landscape, do you see news sources that our notably more propagandistic than others?

Typically, people will attribute conservative tendencies to Fox News and quite liberal tendencies to MSNBC. Now, in my observation, I think MSNBC has a more difficult time being fair.  They not only give their perspective but also cast aspersions on the integrity or intelligence of anyone who holds a contrary view. That’s not universally true of MSNBC or of others. But I think in their programming, they go the farthest in that direction. That’s not to say that Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, or others, never disparage people of contrary opinions.  It is a real challenge to present news and analysis in a way that both attracts an audience and achieves a fundamental level of fairness.

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, talked about this in great length in our study group: Media tend to identify an audience to which they wish to appeal; then they tailor their presentation to appeal to the tastes and biases of that audience, sometimes to the extent of treating contrary thought as having no legitimacy whatsoever.

I’m interested in your distinction between MSNBC and Fox in that respect.

They’re not alone. I thought I’d pick them as examples.

Sure. You described MSNBC as less fair than Fox.  Is that an impressionistic view, or are you aware of any systematic analysis that could back up your view?

One of our guests, Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University – and a Harvard PhD – has undertaken to provide more statistical analysis of things such as that, which is the reason that we had him here.

I think about those characters that you mentioned – you know, Hannity, Beck, Olbermann, Maddow –

Maddow, Schultz. Yeah. I was on-air a lot of times with Schultz – we had a difficult encounter the last time I was on, so I don’t know if he’d want to have me on again.

Oh, how did that go?

It’s on YouTube. Give me an email, I’ll send you a link.  [The link is]

Sure. You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned those folks.  To my mind, none of them are even trying to be fair.  They might think of themselves as serious news figures, but by no stretch of the imagination do they exhibit the sort of fairness and competence we would expect from serious journalists.  I’ve been troubled by the place that this group has come to occupy in the American media landscape.  That isn’t to say that I had full faith or confidence in the previous generation of news anchors or anything like that. But it’s a bit of a sad prospect if this group is playing a more prominent role now, isn’t it?

The failures of the old media and traditional media to provide fairness and balance have led to the situation today. The criticisms of traditional newspapers and networks for being biased are very legitimate criticisms.  Once they created the standard that says fairness is not a prerequisite of journalism, then they opened the door for people who don’t even have a pretense of fairness.

I’m not saying that the names I’ve mentioned lack a pretense of fairness, but I just name them as some who are best known for providing opinion or invective.

In the presentation handout you provided to me, I noticed that you included a picture of the cover of Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent….

In one sense, I think his…thesis…is saying that there is an inherent bias created by the corporate ownership of the media, rather than by the attitudes of those who are reporters. I attend different events here where they bring in different reporters, through Shorenstein and such. But I find that most of them tend to reflect a consistent left-leaning viewpoint. Remember that it’s not always whether you make a slanted presentation of the news; it’s also the selection of what you choose to present and what you choose to exclude that can mischaracterize how things are.

When you think about fairness in journalism, do you think about it in terms of an equal balance of journalists who lean one way or the other politically?  Do you think about it more in terms of fidelity to the truth? Or is it something else entirely?

My point is this: Fairness does not dictate that every individual who reports events must give equal weight to arguments of either side (or multiple sides) on a topic, but it means that institutions should make sure that they are presenting multiple perspectives. There’s a key difference there. It doesn’t mean every individual has to portray every viewpoint as though each had intellectual or moral parity. But when an institution presents itself as a new organization, people take note of whether their self-portrayal matches what they actually provide. Today with the multiplicity of media and resources that are available to people through the internet and other means, you cannot hide your slant from being detected. There are too many routes for providing contrary information; it comes bubbling forth.

In your view, are there particular political issues around which the media actually makes it more difficult for Americans to have a useful conversation?  Where could we be squabbling less and talking more productively?

I think energy is one such area, and it’s not just the debate over global warming and man-caused climate change.  It’s also a failure to include the costs of alternative energy as a legitimate factor in the discussion. Some people, because they are totally devoted to a belief in man-made global warming, will disregard the costs to society and to families of what they propose as alternatives.

It’s a little known fact that – let me see if I can remember this accurately…the use of wind power to generate electricity costs about two to three times more than generating electricity with fossil fuel; and solar power costs about five or six times more. If you convert to those sources, peoples’ home electric bills will reflect that enormous increase; manufacturing costs and distribution costs will also reflect that extra expense. The ability of society to make possible a fair standard of living and opportunity for all will be diminished because energy is central to everything and its costs have skyrocketed. [Mr. Istook later provided the following link via email: ]

People who try to squelch the conversation, either about cost or about the legitimacy of global warming, are doing a great disservice.  Yet a one-sided perspective is abundant in so much of so-called mainstream media.

I agree that if that perspective is squelched out of hand, there’s something amiss. My sense, though, is that what you’re saying about comparative costs doesn’t reflect the true social cost of producing energy with fossil fuels.  That social cost would include things like the externalities of pollution and global warming.

The challenge is that introducing a new measurement and labeling it “social costs” cannot be readily compared with other costs that are known through general accounting standards.  You introduce a broad subjective term by saying, “Well, you haven’t accounted for the social costs.” What is that supposed to mean? It should not be treated as though you were playing a trump card–claiming that other discourse had to be abandoned and other viewpoints must yield when someone says “social cost.”

Remember, too, that if you remove the ability of someone to live where they wish to live and work where they wish to work and move freely between those points – if you remove that capability because you make energy so expensive, that is a severe social cost imposed on us all. How do you measure that? How do you offset it?

Well, I agree that it’s a hard task. I don’t know that it’s impossible.  There are economists who try to do exactly that, to literally calculate the social costs that come with climate change.

Usually, they’re very vague and subjective variables.

It sounds like you’re skeptical about even trying to factor in these sorts of externalities.

I’m skeptical about the tendency to use that as a trump card as though it made everything else irrelevant.

I agree with you there. It needs to be considered carefully, just like every other part of the conversation.

Let’s return to Chomsky.  You summarized his view quite well – that given the structure of media ownership, the journalistic outcomes that we see are fairly predictable. I’m wondering whether you agree with this view.

I think there are flaws in his basic thesis. Basically, people who adopt his view tend to say that since people with more wealth tend to have larger megaphones, therefore the answer is for government to step in and use taxpayer resources to give more megaphones to more people.

Part of the challenge today is that government is the source of so much propaganda. Rather than reflecting what people are saying, government resources are often used to try to change public opinion to match the desires of those who hold office.  That’s part of the difficulty that we have today.

It sounds like you’re talking about public financing of elections.

Oh, that’s only one aspect. But if you look at a lot of the studies that are produced from Washington, D.C., many of them are predetermined in advance to further a particular cause or point of view.  That’s not to say all, but there’s a significant number.

I would think that there’d be at least some instances in which it’s appropriate for the government to intervene in some way, to try to change the minds of the populace if they don’t have access to the information they need.

Who decides that?

Well, we put warning labels on poison to make sure people know that there are dangers.  Do you think it’s never appropriate for the government to try to change the minds of the populace?

Warnings on poison bottles are one thing, but the extent to which warning labels have proliferated through government edict are another. We have to remember that government generates a lot of costs.  Take health care as an example.  Most people don’t realize that the costs of health care are magnified by the fact that medical providers are subjected to over 135,000 pages of government regulations.  That creates enormous administrative overhead and bureaucratic cost in the health system, which is reflected in the cost of medical services and the cost of medical insurance. Yet, we don’t see an effort to make health care more affordable by reducing the bureaucracy that has been dictated by government regulation, even though reducing this would go an extremely long way toward improving the affordability of health care.

I’m curious – what percentage of the costs of premiums are represented by the costs of complying with government regulations?

The leading study was done by PricewaterhouseCoopers on behalf of the American Hospital Association. [Istook later provided this link:] The manner in which they described it was to say that for every hour a health care provider spends with a patient, they typically must spend a half-hour to a full-hour on the government-required compliance in paperwork. Now, if you realize that red tape adds 50% or 100% atop the time of actual patient care, you begin to realize the huge cost.  Now, I’m not saying we should abolish all government regulations, but there ought to be an effort to improve this so that people are paying more for actual care and less for bureaucracy and cost-shifting.

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