Propaganda is an organized attempt to get large numbers of people to think or do something — or not think or do something. It’s not like classical rhetoric, which is about persuasion through argument, but rather a means of sub-rational manipulation
For the past two decades, professor Mark Crispin Miller has taught a course on propaganda at New York University, in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development
In September 2020 after urging his students to look into the scientific rationale for the mask mandates, to assess the truthfulness of the propaganda drive promoting them, he was subject to an administrative “review” for that and other alleged crimes
Miller is suing 19 of his department colleagues for libel after they signed a letter to the school dean demanding that “review” of Miller’s conduct, falsely accusing him of “explicit” hate speech, mounting “attacks on students” “advocating for an unsafe learning environment” and discouraging his class from wearing masks
Miller’s case shows that the infringement of academic freedom is inimical to independent thinking and free inquiry. Without such freedom, higher education is more than likely to teach students only to believe what they are told by state and corporate powers, which means not educating them at all — a failure damaging to them and catastrophic for democracy
In this interview, professor Mark Crispin Miller, Ph.D., provides us with a startling example of a crackdown on academic freedom, with dire implications for free speech in America today.
Ironically, it was his teaching students how to question propaganda, and to resist it, that brought on the curtailment of his academic freedom, after over 20 years of teaching that important subject at New York University.
His experience at NYU in the fall of 2020 culminated in his suing 19 of his department colleagues for libel — a case that has become a major flashpoint in the larger struggle to defend free speech and academic freedom, not just in the United States, but throughout the West today. Miller explained how he had come to teach the study of the media, and propaganda in particular:
“I had learned, as an English major, how to read literary texts closely and carefully to discover their hidden depths … and I discovered to my delight that you could do that with great movies as well. The more closely you watch them, and the more times you watch them, the more you see in them.
I then began to notice that TV commercials were also extremely subtle. As propaganda messages, they were really very carefully done so that they would appeal to you on both a conscious and an unconscious level. So, I started writing about those, and then about political rhetoric.
I started writing more and more about the media, and I was favoring magazines for [a] public readership … I wanted to reach more than just an academic audience from the beginning. And I quickly felt the urgency of alerting people to what the media was doing … By the '90s, it had become a crisis, as a handful of transnational corporations were controlling most of the content that everybody was absorbing, news and entertainment alike, and it was getting worse and worse. So, I started to become an activist for media reform. I wrote a great deal on this and lectured about it very widely.
This is through the '90s — and you can see how successful I was. The Telecom[munications] bill of 1996, signed by Bill Clinton, set the seal on the creation of a media monolith, The Media Trust, which had already started in earnest under Reagan. Now, it was really getting serious. Fast forward to 2001 … I shifted my interest from media concentration to the urgent need for voting reform, because it was becoming ever clearer that the outcome of our elections does not necessarily reflect the will of the electorate … As you can see, my interests were becoming more and more taboo.”
The Rise of State-Corrupted Corporate Media
Signs of trouble emerged in 2005, when Miller published the book “Fooled Again: The Real Case for Electoral Reform.” Miller and his publisher had hoped the book would open the door to nationwide discussion of the need for radical reform of the election system, but to their surprise, the book was instantly “blacklisted” by the corporate media. No one would review it. “I even hired my own publicist,” Miller says. “This is the woman who is the publicist for Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert. She came in full of piss and vinegar, [saying] ‘We're going to really make this [book] famous.’ And she'd never encountered such resistance. She couldn't get anywhere.”
Oddly, it was the LEFT press — for which he had often written — that now labeled Miller a “conspiracy theorist” — a stigma that’s stuck with him ever since. The slander drove him to investigate more deeply. “I asked myself, when did this become a thing?” he says. “When did ‘conspiracy theory’ come to spring from everybody's lips?”
Miller went to the archives of The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time magazine, searching for the terms “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist.” Up until 1967, “conspiracy theory” was used only from time to time in various ways, while the term “conspiracy theorist” was never used.
From 1967 onward, however, “conspiracy theory” was used with increasing frequency. Why? Because, in early 1967, the CIA sent a memo — No. 1035-96 — to all its station chiefs worldwide, instructing them to use their media assets to attack the works of Mark Lane, Edward Jay Epstein and other investigators who were questioning the Warren Report for its ludicrous assertion that “lone gunman” Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy.
The memo advised the use of certain lines of attack — what we today call “talking points” — to help discredit those dissenting voices. One was that “If there was a conspiracy that big, somebody would have talked by now” — a dismissive claim that’s still in use today, especially concerning 9/11. Another tactic the agency advised was to associate the “conspiracy theories” with communist subversion, thereby casting wholly reasonable inquiry as a threat to the “free world.”
“This raises a profoundly important issue about democracy in general,” Miller says, “as to whether it's possible when you have the media, the press, covertly manipulated by the state. And, it is part of this hidden history of America that … we all need to understand if we want to get a clear sense of what's happening now.”
As Miller started advocating for media reform, he was hired by the late Neil Postman to teach at the NYU.
“He hired me in part because he wanted another public intellectual on the faculty … who was critical of the media. He shared my view that the whole purpose of media study should be to help inform people generally about the urgent need for a properly functioning democratic media system,” Miller says.
“I used to feel that media literacy should be taught in every high school and college. I still believe that, but I now realize that a key component of that curriculum has to be propaganda study. It’s crucial.”
Over the years, NYU’s media studies department ballooned and shifted direction, becoming more diffuse, more theoretically inclined and more fixated on the pieties of “social justice” — a phrase that Miller points out has been appropriated to mean something other than what it used to mean. Indeed, the “social justice” issue has a great deal to do with the censorship — the “canceling” — of professor Miller.
While it acquaints his students with the history of modern propaganda — its birth in World War I, its use by the Bolsheviks and by the Nazis — Miller’s course on propaganda is primarily concerned with teaching students to perceive and analyze propaganda in real time, or to look back at very recent propaganda drives.
This is not an easy thing to do, he warns his students, since, while it’s easy to spot propaganda that you disagree with, it can be very difficult to recognize it as propaganda when it tells you something that you want to hear, and want to think is true.
“That's the most effective propaganda,” Miller says. “It works best when you don't see it for what it is. You think it's news. You think it's entertainment. You think it's information. You think it's expertise. So, you will agree with it. Someone else out there is spewing disinformation, but you're getting the real thing.
So, it's hard to study propaganda, because you must make an effort to pull back and be as impartial as possible. Read comprehensively, do all the research you can [on] all sides of that issue. See what the propaganda has blacked out. See what the propaganda has stigmatized as fake, as hoax, as junk science, and look at it objectively.
What's hard is that you have to move out of your comfort zone. Sometimes you discover that a thing you'd fervently believed for years was false, or half true. I've had this experience myself many, many times.”
Miller made these points at the first “meeting” (via Zoom) of his propaganda course in September 2020, noting that such a thorough and impartial propaganda study can be difficult, not just because it makes you question your own views. Such a study can also pose a social challenge, as your discoveries may come as a shock to those around you — friends, roommates, family, even other of your teachers, who’ve never looked into the matter for themselves.
Propaganda is an organized attempt to get large numbers of people to think or do something — or not think or do something. It’s not like classical rhetoric, which is about persuasion through argument. It’s a kind of sub-rational manipulation. ~ Professor Mark Crispin MillerWhat Is Propaganda?
What Is Propaganda?
“The COVID crisis has been driven by a number of propaganda themes,” Miller says. However, the word “propaganda” does not automatically mean that the information is false or malign. Propaganda can be true and used for benevolent ends. Public service ads encouraging you not to smoke, for example, are a form of propaganda.
The problem with propaganda is that it’s inherently biased and one-sided, which can become outright dangerous if the other side is censored. This is particularly so when it comes to medicine and health, and the censoring of COVID-19 treatment information and the potential hazards of the COVID vaccines is a perfect example of this.
“Propaganda is an organized attempt to get large numbers of people to think or do something — or not think or do something. That's really all it is. That's an informal definition but it's a good one,” Miller says.