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Listen up: Propaganda in the age of talk radio

Here’s a story: There are these three contract salesmen who will, when in the same city at the same time, share a hotel room to cut down on expenses.

This particular night, they go into a hotel that they regularly use, and the clerk says, “That will be $30 for the room.” Each man pulls out $10, and gives it to the clerk, totaling the $30, then they go up to their room. The manager comes on duty recognizes their names and tells the clerk that they should get a special business rate of $25. The manager then sends the bellhop up with a $5 refund. The bellhop knows that three does not go into $5 evenly, so he keeps $2 for himself and gives each of the men $1 back. Each of the men originally paid $10, and got $1 back, so now they each have paid $9. Nine dollars times three equals $27, plus the $2 the bellhop kept equals: $29. Where did the other dollar go?

Every so often I head toward Boston, and usually try to listen to talk radio along the way. Usually, it is right-wing talk hosts — Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh or Michael Graham (a local Boston personality). They all claimed to be the only source of reliable information, and that all of the network news organizations are biased toward the left. They all claim that they are giving you the straight information. Funny, I do not hear good, solid, fact-based reporting. I hear innuendo, and constant degrading of anyone connected with the left, even when the facts indicate that person is correct. I often hear “sound bites” that are only part of a sentence. I also hear information that is simply wrong. By the way, all of that is called “propaganda.” Please don’t take my word on this. Next time, really listen to what they are doing to mislead you.

To help with this, let me give you a few examples so that you can know what to look for.

Sound bites are their favorite propaganda tool. Every one of the talk shows that I was able to listen to played the quote of John Kerry saying “and I will raise taxes” during the 2004 presidential campaign. Please understand that the whole sentence that John Kerry said was “and I will raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.” Did these hosts lie? Well, technically not, but the two messages are very different.

Another tool used by all of the right-wing talk show hosts is to misuse a string of facts to lead the listeners to a wrong conclusion. The perfect example of that is from O’Reilly. During the primary season leading up to the 2008 presidential election, I was listening to “the O’Reilly Factor,” which he claims has “no spin.” That day, O’Reilly told his audience that Hillary Clinton’s office reported sales of 1.7 million copies of her latest book, and that her book was on the best seller list for 10 weeks and No. 1 for five. He then told his audience that his book was also on the best seller list for 10 weeks and number 1 for five. He then said something very close to: “I know I sold 900,000 books and her office CLAIMS they sold 1.7 million books,” with an emphasis on “claims” that insinuated Clinton was lying.

The problem is that you cannot determine the number of books sold by the number of weeks on a list. What bothers me most about this is that O’Reilly should know that the two don’t correlate. He either intentionally misled his audience or does not know how to use statistics.

Finally, these shows are “call-in” shows where listeners can call in and give their views. When a caller is agreeing with the host, the call ends with a “thank you” and is done. When someone calls in and disagrees with the host, the host will quickly disconnect the caller, and then will continue to rant about that topic, without the caller being able to object when something is incorrect. Funny, there is no “thank you,” either.

I am not suggesting you to stop listening to whatever shows you want to, and I am not attempting to censor or remove any shows from the radio or TV. I am just suggesting that you think for yourself, and don’t simply believe everything you hear. There is that magic word: Think. More importantly, think for yourself. Remember that Hitler got lots of folks to hate using propaganda, and every time I listen to Rush Limbaugh (or any of that crowd) that is what comes to my mind. They are playing on your emotions big time.

By the way, there is no missing dollar. The men paid $30 originally, got $3 back, so they paid $27. Of that $27, the hotel got $25 and the bellhop got the other $2. It sounded logical when you first read it above, didn’t it? It is a great example of false logic.

So now you know the answer to the three salesmen problem.

Doug Wilkins is a Professor of Computer Information Systems and Computer Science at Greenfield Community College and lives in Heath with his wife and family.

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