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The Tale Behind A Tale—Propaganda, Narratives, and Journalism

Journalism is perhaps one of the noblest yet most underrated lines of work in every part of the world. Governments often use it as a means of altering public sentiment and providing people with the most convenient version of the truth. As a consequence, the stories published might have an ulterior motive behind them and might be driven by more than just the truth. As a result of this, in a few instances,  journalism and media have been used as tools to project the most desirable version of a story.

According to The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, the purpose of Journalism is “not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ.” Instead, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.” The function of a news piece on the lives of the people is consequential, and journalism offers a way to frame and mould that by employing a narrative. Rousing the masses through a sensationalist report or providing a soothing description of an undesirable story are both powerful ways of swaying the population.

A classic example of the latter is the Pakistani media’s reportage of the Indo-Pak war of 1965 as a victory for Pakistan. India had the upper hand over Pakistan when the ceasefire was declared, and the standoff was seen as a strategic and political defeat for Pakistan. However, the Pakistani media rallied together to present a more appealing and acceptable tale to its masses, one which would motivate and encourage them at such perilous times.

News snippets from a Pakistani English daily, Dawn, during the 1965 war. (Image Credits: dawn.com)

Pakistan’s Defence Day, celebrated on 6th September, marks the day in 1965 when India’s military crossed its borders in response to Pakistan’s Operation Grand Slam. It commemorates the sacrifices of Pakistan’s military in successfully repealing an Indian attack despite being outnumbered and in possession of fewer armaments. Some Pakistani commentators have criticised this narrative for representing false history. Furthermore, on this day, according to Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, “the media wing of the army also asks national media outlets to run promotional videos that pay tribute to the armed forces. Religious and extremist groups, known to have friendly ties to the military, also come out in the streets, holding rallies glorifying Pakistan’s army”. While the morality of this narrative is debatable, the fact that certain people have the power to alter the documentation of such monumental events is concerning

“War makes for great circulation” – William Randolph Hearst

History provides for another such example—during the Second World War, the United States Government used posters and fake news to influence its soldiers, citizens, and its enemies. Rationing of food supplies, motivating the populace, and revitalising the war effort by creating a spirit of nationalism—none of this could have been achieved without the influence of such endeavours on the part of the Government.

This U.S. poster emphasises the lethal consequences of “careless talk.” (Image Credits: news.nationalgeographic.com)

The United States founded the Office of War Information (OWI) under the then-President incumbent Franklin Roosevelt, six months after entering the Second World War, in 1942. Its purpose was to disseminate political propaganda and appease the unsettled American population. At the onset of the war, America’s population was very much in the dark regarding wartime information. Further, according to Gerhard Weinberg in his book A World at Arms, “the American public confessed a lack of understanding as to why the world was at war and held great resentment against other Allied Nations.”  Thus, the OWI served to not only educate the citizens of the war effort but also motivate and change the public image towards the war. The office spread its messages through print, radio, film and most-strikingly, posters.

Around the same period, Nazi Germany under the Third Reich introduced racist and anti-semitic laws known as The Nuremberg Laws. The laws forbade non-Aryans and political opponents of the Nazis from occupying positions in the civil service. Sexual relations and marriage between people classified as ‘Aryan’ and ‘non-Aryan’ (Jews, Gypsies, blacks), was prohibited as Rassenschande or ‘race defilement’.

Julius Streicher, one of Adolf Hitler’s earliest followers, was responsible for the publication of Der Stürmer, a propaganda leaflet. Nazi Propaganda artwork was often used as the cover artwork. During the Third ReichStürmer display cases were found all over Germany. It reported to the Germans that Jews kidnapped small children before Passover because “Jews need the blood of a Christian child, maybe, to mix in with their Matzah.”

Titled ‘Away With Him,’ this caricature published in the Der Stürmer showcases “the long arm of the Ministry of Education pulling a Jewish teacher from his classroom.” (Image Credits: jewishvirtuallibrary.org )

While consuming media that only appease those with a particular stance, may keep those people content, it does leave them suspended in a bubble of delusion. Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America, in an interview with David Letterman, quoted an experiment about the impact of social media on a person’s opinions and how the technology of today is affecting the penetration of unbiased media. The cutting edge in the world of Artificial Intelligence and recommendation algorithms makes it possible for a person to access and consume media which is consistent with their prevalent browsing patterns. Thus, people are more prone to reading stories and reports which align with their existing biases and affiliations, and not only are they thus reinforced, but are magnified. Media literacy is a vital tool that everyone should possess—it helps shape a well-rounded, unbiased understanding of world events. It is imperative, now more than ever, that the masses are educated about the intricacies behind a story and what goes into the art of reporting.

The instances quoted above are a few of many such testaments to the importance of a narrative and the power of information. Time and time again have such tactics been employed to frame public perception and even alter a course of action. These efforts, though discreet during their time of execution, are now recognised as some of history’s most intriguing and effective subliminal propaganda drives ever orchestrated. Having left an indelible mark on modern history and impacted generations, theirs are the tales which deserve to be told.

Featured Image Credits: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration