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Preventing a Politics of Truth

Here are the opening paragraphs of Pam Martens’s April 14 piece on “the greatest income and wealth inequality since the economic collapse in the Great Depression [which thretens] a repeat of the 2008 financial collapse” with a few paragraphs devoted to Leo Thornton’s April 11 act of protest in Washington D.C.:

At approximately 1:07 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, April 11, during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival celebrating springtime in the Nation’s Capitol, a 22-year old man took his own life with a gun on the Capitol grounds with a protest sign taped to his hand. According to the Washington Post, the sign read: “Tax the one percent.”

As Martens notes, “Those are the tragic facts of the incident itself. But there is a broader tragedy: the vacuous handling of this story by corporate media.”

In calling the media’s treatment of the event vacuous, Martens commits the error of assuming it reflects mere insensitivity on their part. A closer analysis of how the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post covered Thornton’s act of political protest reveals deliberate selectivity and a tendentious framing of facts on the part of the corporate press. Here is the full text Chicago Tribune‘s April 13 item on this.

“Police have identified the individual who fatally shot himself at the U.S. Capitol over the weekend as a man from Lincolnwood.

The Metropolitan Police Department identified the man on Monday as 22-year-old Leo Thornton of Lincolnwood. Thornton died after shooting himself on the west front of the Capitol just after 1 p.m. Saturday. No one else was hurt.

U.S. Capitol Police say Thornton had a backpack and a suitcase, which triggered a lockdown so the bags could be searched. Police say Thornton also was carrying some type of protest sign.”

There are no lies in the above. Every statement in the Chicago Tribune piece is factually accurate; yet the whole gives a seriously false picture of what had taken place in Washington D.C. that Saturday afternoon last April.

Carefully selected facts leave readers with the impression

[1] that they’re being informed of an event accurately;
[2] that the event had no relation to politics; and
[3] that the young man who shot himself at the U.S. Capitol may have been suffering from a mental illness.

All three carefully created impressions are the result of selective reporting intended to manipulate one’s perception and understanding of the event. That Thornton had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism particularly noted for the high intelligence it often accompanies, is offered as a relevant piece of information. The reader is thus tacitly led to conclude that Thornton’s act was an expression of a mental illness – which Asperger’s most certainly isn’t.

The Chicago Tribune text makes it impossible for Americans to realize that what took place on Capitol Hill on April 11 was an act of political protest they normally associate with demonstrations in Tunisia or the self-immolating protests by Buddhist monks in Tibet.

In contrast to its Chicago Tribune counterpart, which works by selective suppression of facts and by innuendo, the Washington Post article on Leo Thornton’s death does cite the text of the protest sign Thornton had carried. To neutralize the political import of Thornton’s act, it then frames the event for its readers thus:

Whatever political component may seem to have been at play, said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and a former psychiatry professor at the University of California at San Diego, suicide is primarily a mental health problem. Research shows that in more than 90 percent of the 40,000 American suicides each year, an active mental health issue is at play, Moutier said.

Thornton’s politically purposive act is expressly dismissed as having had no “political component,” as being, instead, the result of “a mental health problem.” And, to make the frame stick, Washington Post resorts to one of the oldest rhetorical tricks of all, the argument by authority. The rhetorical move itself depends, of course, on the willingness of some in the American medical establishment to play this game of neutralizing dissent by blocking the public’s awareness of it.

No wonder the American electorate remains as apathetic and politically unresponsive to the depredations of its elites as the absence of large-scale social protests following the 2008 financial crash demonstrates. With a corporate media dedicated to preventing the emergence of a politics of truth and fact, the development of a new social-justice movement in the U.S. faces enormous odds indeed.

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