Word Tricks & Propaganda

Edward S. Herman


The mainstream media carry out their
propaganda service on behalf of the corporate and political
establishment in many ways: by choice of topics addressed
(government rather than corporate abuses, welfare rather than
Pentagon waste, Kadaffi rather than Guatemalan state
terrorism), by their framing of issues (GDP growth rather
than distribution, Fed policy effects on inflation and
security prices rather than on unemployment), by their choice
of sources of information (heavily depending on officials and
think tank flacks), and by their use of language, among other

I want to focus here on the tricks of
language that serve propaganda ends, although it should be
recognized that biased word usage is closely tied to the
other modes of bias. Heavy reliance on officials allows the
officials to frame the issues and to use words in ways that
serve their agenda. The word "terrorist" is applied
to the target enemy (Iran), or the enemy of our friend
(Hamas, the PLO, the Kurdish PKK), not the
"constructively engaged" governments of Colombia,
Israel, Turkey or, back in the 1980s, Savimbi and the
apartheid government of South Africa. The examples below will
show how story framing and word usage are essentially two
aspects of a single process.

The integration of word usage, framing,
and source selection points up the fact that language is an
arena of conflict and struggle. Word meanings, connotations,
and applications are fluid and change in the course of
struggle. For example, labor has long fought to have the word
"strike" mean a legitimate labor tactic and part of
the institution of collective bargaining, whereas management
has always tried to get the word to symbolize labor violence,
inconvenience to the community, and damage to the GDP and
balance of payments. Management has been pretty successful in
getting the word interpreted with negative connotations.
Similarly, "welfare" has taken on negative
connotations as part of the 25 year long corporate and
rightwing attack on the welfare state. This same campaign has
seen the word "government" become a word of
derogation. Politicians run against "Washington"
and "government." At the same time, interestingly,
as the right wingers like killing (except fetuses) and are
fond of the military establishment, they have succeeded in
making the word government applicable only to the government
in its civil functions; in denouncing the
"government," we are not denouncing the Pentagon.

Words are regularly transformed in the
service of the powerful. "Terrorism," originally
used to describe state violence, as in the French
Revolutionary "reign of terror," has evolved in
modern times to focus mainly on anti-government,
anti-establishment forms of political violence.
"Political correctness," originally an ironical
left term for the standards of comrades prone to
sectarianism, was seized by establishment spokespersons for a
broad-brush castigation of the academic left.
"Freedom" has been subtly transformed in the New
World Order from political to economic liberty (including
liberty for GE, GM, Exxon, and Royal Dutch Shell), just as
"democracy" has lost its substantive qualities in
favor of adherence to electoral forms.
"Entitlement" has taken on negative connotations as
the dominant class has succeeded in identifying it with
claims of the weak, as in "Social Security
entitlements" (there are no military-industrial complex
"entitlements," only "procurement,"
service contracts, and occasionally acknowledged

"Reform" is the classic of
word revisionism in the service of power, transformed from
meaning institutional and policy changes helpful to the
afflicted and weak to moves away from the welfare state and
toward free markets, thus helping the afflictors and strong.
In an Orwellian twist, "reform" that frees the poor
and weak of their "entitlements"—pushing them
into a labor market kept loose by Alan Greenspan—is
referred to as "empowerment."


Let us review some of the common word
tricks of the servants of power in the media and think
tank-academic community, taking examples from recent press

PURRING. Purr words are
those with positive and warming overtones that create an aura
of decency and virtue. Reform, responsible, accountability,
choice, jobs, growth, modernization, flexibility,
cost-benefit analysis, national security, stability and
efficiency are all prime purr words. The
"reformers" are always having their "patience
tested," while never testing the patience of others
("Labour costs test patience at US Airways," Financial
[FT], April 14, 1997). And they are
invariably moderate, centrist, courageous, daring, and proud.
The New York Times’ (NYT) Leslie Gelb
spoke of Aspin, Solarz, and Al Gore as "courageous"
for having broken ranks and supported George Bush’s
decision to bomb Iraq rather than pursue any less violent
course of action (March 10, 1991). A NYT headline of
April 11, 1997 reads "Proud but Cornered, Mobutu Can
Only Hope." Mobutu is one of the great thieves and
scoundrels of modern times, but having been installed by the
CIA and protected by the West until 1997, even now he is
accorded the purr word "proud," which the paper
would never apply to Kim Il Sung or Saddam Hussein.

We can put up a large list of purr
words from names of congressional bills, always designed to
express positive values, even if in substance they threaten
enormous pain: New Jersey’s "Family Development
Initiative Act" (stripping benefits from the poor); the
"National Security Revitalization Act" (more
boondoggle money); the August 1996 "Personal
Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act"
(which includes five purr words in a single Orwellian classic
of doublespeak). Republican pollster and deception manager
Frank Luntz carefully tested the "resonance" of
words in advising Gingrich and company on the language to be
used in the Contract With [sic] America. He was quite open
that you include purr words even if it misrepresents intent,
yielding the deception masterpiece "Job Creation and
Wage Enhancement Act," for a proposal whose core content
was sizable cuts in capital gains taxes.

The use of "flexibility" in
"Democrats Show Flexibility On Capital Gains Tax
Cut" (NYT, Feb. 23, 1997), illustrates how word
usage and framing are integrated—"flexibility"
gives a positive resonance and tacit approval within a frame
stressing political compromise. The paper could have used
words like "cave in" or "weakening" and
framed the issue as one of Democratic acceptance of a further
regression in the tax structure.

For the New York Times,
spokespersons for the military-industrial complex like Sam
Nunn, the late Henry Jackson (Senator from Boeing), and the
recently retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson are
"moderates" and automatically get words expressing
approval—an article by Claudia Dreifus on Simpson is
titled "Exit Reasonable Right" (June 2, 1996), and
in an interview she allows Simpson uncontested justifications
for his "rough" usage of Anita Hill and assailing
Peter Arnett’s Gulf War reporting as traitorous. A
column on Jeane Kirkpatrick, by Barbara Crossette was titled
"A Warrior, A Mother, A Scholar, A Mystery" (NYT,
Aug. 17, 1994). Kirkpatrick was most memorable as a
"scholar" for her view that
"totalitarian" regimes like those in the Soviet
bloc can never open up; and as a humanist she was perhaps
best known for alleging that the four American nuns raped and
murdered in El Salvador in 1980 had asked for it. 

For the Times, the Arab world is
"split into a clearly moderate, pro-Western camp led by
Egypt..and a fiercely nationalistic anti-Western coalition
gathered around Iran…"(Aug. 12, 1990). Moderate and
pro-Western are synonymous and sources of
"stability," as in "In Uneasy Time, Saudi
Prince Provides a Hope of Stability" (Jan. 19, 1996).
Pro-Western moderates like Saudi Princes, or Suharto, are
never "dictators" or "tyrants" like Fidel
Castro, and if they are not explicitly tagged moderates,
approval is expressed by references to their economic
accomplishments in "growth"—as regards
Suharto, for example, "even his critics [specifics
unmentioned] acknowledge that he has brought growth and
prosperity to this country of 190 million people" (NYT,
July 28, 1996).

A moderate program is one approved by
the western establishment, whatever its impact on the
underlying population, as in "Jose Maria Aznar was
appointed prime minister [of Spain] on a moderate platform,
promising strict austerity to put the economic house in
order" (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 1996). As
noted earlier, those implementing approved programs are
accorded other purr words—they are bold, courageous,
slay ogres, and they do things "quietly" (Thomas
Friedman, NYT, "Mexico’s quiet
revolution," Dec. 17, 1995), never noisily and
recklessly. These purr words often not only express approval
but mislead as to substance. Thus, James Sterngold says that
"Nafta is all about corporate efficiency" (NYT,
Oct. 9, 1995), which is completely untrue—it is about
corporate bargaining power, corporate rights to invest
abroad, etc. If "moderates" carrying out neoliberal
programs do this in violation of election promises, this is
itself courageous and meritorious for the dominant Western
media. Politicians must "stay the course" and avoid
"pandering to fears" (translation: do what the
electorate wants; NYT, ed., entitled "Why Poland
Can’t Flinch," Oct. 26, 1991), which displays the
triumph of media class bias over the nominal commitment to
democratic processes. 


SNARLING. Snarl words are
those that induce negative reactions and feelings of anger
and rejection, like extremist, terrorist, dictator,
dependency, welfare, reckless, outlaw, and snarling itself.
Moderates never snarl, nor can they be outlaws, terrorists,
dictators or reckless. Established institutions like the
Pentagon and large corporations don’t suffer from
"dependency" or receive "welfare
payments." There is "waste" in social budgets,
so assassins of the welfare state pretend that that is what
they seek to contain in budget cuts (along with
"dependency" and immorality). They can count on the
mainstream media not making comparisons of waste in social
and military budgets.

Fidel Castro runs an "outdated
police state" (NYT, March 8, 1990). Leslie Gelb
speaks of the "vicious dictator" of North Korea in
an article entitled "The Next Renegade State" (NYT,
April 10, 1991). There is no "outdated police
state" or "vicious dictator," let alone
renegade, among the "commercially engaged"
countries of the world. The NYT has never used
"vicious dictator" to describe Pinochet or the
Argentinian generals of 1976-83 who, in the words of an
Argentinian truth commission, brought to Argentina a
terrorism "infinitely worse" than what they were
allegedly combatting.

Environmental "extremists"
using "junk science" are now frequently encountered
in the mainstream media, especially with the numerous
industry mouthpieces like ABC reporter John Stoessel and the
editors of the Wall Street Journal. This reflects the
intensified corporate assault on environmental regulation,
which feeds into the media through corporate funded think
tanks (see "A Million For Your Thoughts: The
Industry-funded Campaign Against the FDA by Conservative
Think Tanks," Public Citizen, 1996). For the
industry-think-tank-media complex, extremism and junk science
are, simply and crudely, oppositional positions and data.
Vigorous counter-positions, however, have been advanced by
the Union of Concerned Scientists ("Is junk Science
Trashing Our Planet?," Nucleus, Winter 96-97) and
in Peter Montague’s Rachel’s Environment &
Health Weekly
as well as other publications, so that
there is a struggle over who perpetrates junk science, but
the monied interests have an edge in the mainstream media.


PUTDOWNS. These are less
aggressive words of denigration that chide rather than snarl.
Leftists are "noisy" ("Latin Leftists Make a
Noisy Comeback," WSJ, Jan. 2, 1997), whereas
those pursuing neoliberal ends like Zedillo, as noted, are
"quiet." Leftists are victims of dogmas
("German unions dump left-wing dogmas," FT,
Nov. 16-17, 1996), whereas those pursuing neoliberalism are
showing courage and realism in advancing what by implication
are true principles. And when leftists are not noisy but
recognize their setbacks and need to adapt, they are
"chastened" ("A Chastened Latin Left Puts Its
Hope in Ballot," NYT, July 29, 1996). That they
may be chastened by systematic state terror that decimates
their ranks need not be mentioned.


Economic "reforms" are "tough" and
toughening ("Tough reforms bring rewards," FT,
Dec. 16, 1996; Latins are "Toughened by
experience," FT, Feb. 10, 1997). Our own managers
of terror abroad are "tough" ("Tough Guy For
Latin Job" [Elliot Abrams], NYT, May 1, 1985),
and our client state leaders who kill and torture are not
ruthless killers and torturers but "tough"
(Argentinian General Robert Viola, NYT, Oct. 6, 1980)
or merely "forceful" (Israeli General Ariel Sharon,
NYT, Feb. 11, 1983). Their massacres are muted into
the use of "disproportionate" force ("EU
criticizes Israel’s use of disproportionate force,"
FT, Oct. 2, 1996) or "repression" ("Mr.
Clinton made the requisite complaints about Indonesia’s
repressive tactics in East Timor," NYT, 10/3/95);
their torture is "physical force" ("Israel
Allows Use of Physical Force in Arab’s
Interrogation," NYT, Nov. 16, 1996) or
"harsh interrogation" (NYT, Nov. 17, 1994).
After each Israeli invasion of Lebanon—referred to as an
"incursion"—the NYT refocuses attention
away from the killed, wounded, and dispossessed victims to
the "new opportunities" for diplomacy ("Shock
of War Could Improve Opportunities For Diplomacy," July
11, 1982; "U.S. Sees Opportunities and Risks In Mideast
After War in Lebanon," Oct. 31, 1982).

Back in 1982, U.S. officials brought to
the United States a Nicaraguan officer allegedly captured in
El Salvador who "confessed" that Nicaragua and Cuba
were aiding the Salvadoran rebels. In a press conference in
Washington, he declared that his confession had been
extracted under torture. The New York Times article
describing this was entitled "Recanter’s Tale:
Lesson in Humility for the U.S." (April 2, 1982). The
use of "humility" allowed the story to be framed
around U.S. official embarrassment at the failure to properly
assess the Nicaraguan’s shrewdness and ability to
"hoodwink" us, and away from the fact that our
clients torture. This kind of trick helps explain why torture
was so readily institutionalized in the U.S. provinces under
U.S. training. We should be "humble" in expecting
torture payoffs.


<MS>. Key phrases serving
this function include "quiet diplomacy,"
"commercial diplomacy," and "constructive
engagement," which are intended to suggest that the
appeasing administration is really bargaining hard for human
rights rather than putting a public relations face on its

We also "de-link" commerce
and human rights, which implies that we merely separate the
two rather than that we attend to the former and ignore the
latter. With commercially important client states it is
notable how often relations are "complex" and
negotiations with them "delicate" ("The
American relationship with Saudi Arabia is complex and
delicate…," NYT, ed., Jan. 29, 1997), in
contrast with our dealings with say Cuba where words and
action can be rough. This language covers over the fact that
material interest causes us to appease and even aggressively
protect regimes that grossly exploit and deny basic rights to
their populations.


Words and phrases like "linked" and "it is
reported" and "officials claim" permit
connections and actions to be presented without verifiable
evidence. The headline "Link to Iran suspected in Saudi
blast" (Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 3, 1996)
illustrates an important mode of disseminating propaganda;
and the more the allegation fits existing biases the easier
it is to pass it along without supporting evidence. Only the
powerful can play this game on a regular basis.

The way this system manifests bias can
be seen by comparing Eric Schmitt’s "Few Links in
Church Fires, Panel Is Told: Official Sees Racism but No Sign
of Conspiracy in Firebombings" (NYT, May 22,
1996), and William Broad’s "Unabomb Case Is Linked
to Antiwar Tumult on U.S. Campuses in 1960s" (NYT,
June 1, l996).

The Times has always treated the
1960s resistance with hostility, so here Broad
"links" the accused Unabomber Theodore Kaczyinski
to the antiwar movement simply because some of his teachers
and fellow students opposed the Vietnam War and urged
peaceful resistance, even though Broad admits that "by
all accounts he was cool to the antiwar unrest."

Broad could have "linked"
Kaczynski’s alleged violent acts to the actual violence
of the war itself, which was the source of the peaceful
protests that he "links" to Kaczynski. Broad also
could have said there is no evidence tying Kaczynski to any
groups advocating violence, but that would have precluded
making use of the thin and even ludicrous link that allows
trashing the 1960s antiwar movement once again. In the case
of the Church bombings, the Times chose to play down
the linking possibilities. It is evident from the subhead
given above that the paper could have "linked" the
church bombings to racism, but instead it chose to deny a
link to a "conspiracy." This makes the bombings
sound less ominous and pernicious than if they were
"linked" to something. The bombings of the black
churches didn’t offer the paper any links they were
eager to make, as in the case of the Unabomber.


. Personification of groups
and nations and the use of collective words are other devices
commonly employed to get over preferred positions not
supported by evidence. The use of "Brazil" in
"Faith in reform buoys Brazil" (FT, Feb. 24,
1997) is based entirely on attitudes expressed by Brazilian
bankers and securities market professionals, who constitute
less than a quarter of 1 percent of the Brazilian people.

A classic of this genre was David
Sanger’s "Jittery Asia Has Visions of a Nuclear
North Korea" (NYT, April 7, 1991); the
generalization to Asia was apparently based on statements of
three individuals, two of them officials, one Japanese, the
other South Korean. David Rosenbaum’s "The Tax
Break America Couldn’t Give Up" (NYT, Oct.
8, 1989), illustrates the use of a collective term to confuse
an issue. He claims a generalized feeling among Americans of
being overtaxed, but this overlooks class differences in
attitude toward specific taxes. It is possible that ordinary
Americans feel overtaxed but would be pleased to see higher
taxes on the affluent and corporations. "America"
could not give up these tax breaks because ordinary citizens
have little weight in national policy making. Rosenbaum
effectively obscures such consideration by his use of


. My current favorites are "risk"
and "gamble," as these are now being applied to the
savage welfare "reform" bill of August 1996. The Philadelphia
asserts that "Congress and Clinton are
gambling that many poor Americans won’t need a safety
net to land on their feet" (Aug. 4, 1996). The New
York Times
editorialized on the "gamble," and
their house economist, Peter Passell, quoted a think-tank
analyst that the bill was taking a "risk" that the
people thrown off welfare might not find jobs (Aug. 8, 1996).
The use of these words implies that Clay Shaw, Gingrich,
McIntosh, and Clinton are really concerned about those poor
folks being pushed out on the streets and no doubt weighed
the costs and benefits in some kind of humanistic calculus.
This is apologetic nonsense. These politicians weren’t
taking any risks or gambles; they were completely
unconcerned, if not actually pleased, about any pain the
victims would suffer.

It is of course absolutely standard
media practice to assume that their own country has good
intentions as it ravages in its backyard or other parts of
the world (e.g., in the Persian Gulf or Indochina). We always
strive for "democracy" and resist somebody
else’s aggression, but never commit aggression
ourselves. Even when we have destroyed a democracy, as in
Guatemala in 1954, the U.S. mainstream media uniformly found
this justifiable in view of "the threat of
communism," which was entirely concocted (although
conveniently internalized) and a cover for the pursuit of the
interest of United Fruit and a determination to get rid of a
seriously reformist leadership that wouldn’t take
orders. The power of media rationalization of U.S. aggression
reached its limit in the Vietnam War where, despite the
U.S.’s exclusive reliance on force, and official
recognition that our agents could not compete with the
"enemy" politically, in James Reston’s classic
of apologetics we were in Vietnam to establish the principle
"that no state shall use military force or the threat of
military force to achieve its objectives" (Feb. 26,


Where we or our allies have done terrible things, watch for
the resort to the passive voice and other modes of removing
agency. Thus the New York Times subhead for the
article on the ending of the Guatemalan civil war (Dec. 30,
1996) is "After 100,000 dead, the peace ceremony is more
solemn than celebratory." Actually, the numbers are well
above 100,000 dead, but note the failure to say who did
virtually all the killing or what government in 1954
displaced a non-killing elected regime with the regime of
terror whose violence is supposedly now ending? In its
Indonesia reporting, also, the Times has trouble
identifying an agent: "More than 500,000 Indonesians are
estimated to have died in a purge of leftists in 1965, the
year Mr. Suharto came to power" (April 8, 1997).
Actually, the "purge" went well beyond
"leftists," including several hundred thousand
peasant farmers, and there is no doubt who did the purging
and what great power supporting the purge viewed it as a
"gleam of light in Asia" (James Reston, NYT,
June 19, 1966).

These are just some of the modes by
which words are manipulated to serve bias and propaganda. In
many cases the process entails passing along the word usage
and frame of the originating source. But the media claim to
be seeking truth and serving the public (not corporate and
elite) interest. That should be the standard by which we
evaluate and criticize them as we seek to shrink the immense
gap between their own proclaimed ideal and actual