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Duping the Public
Easily Led: A History of Propaganda
Reviewed by Kirsten Cowan
"The plain truth will influence half a score of men at the most in a nation while mysteries will lead millions by the nose."
So is quoted Henry St John, Lord Bolingbroke, in Oliver Thomson's impressive overview of perhaps the third oldest profession, the propagandist. From Ancient Sumer to modern Poland, Thomson traces the use of propaganda and its influence on human events. Thomson defines the art of manipulation to include not only the newspaper coverage, polemical tracts and cartoons the modern viewer is familiar with, but also looks at architectural, rhythmic and poetic means of swaying the emotions and the intellect.
Thomson's attempt to profile the history of propaganda is not an unqualified success. Perhaps the task is more than a 300 page book is capable of. There are frequent moments when the reader feels hurried through room after room of an enormous museum with little time to study the individual exhibits. Easily Led is at its most successful when Thomson illustrates the role of propaganda in a particular historical moment. The marshalling of forces to sway public opinion during Julius Caesar's infamous affair with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra is a notable example. Here the picture is painted of the emotions surrounding a specific public spectacle, the geopolitical ramifications of it, and the methods used, or abused, by polemicists on all sides.
Bill Fox's Spinwars: Politics and New Media provides far less historical context for propaganda itself, but gives the reader a satisfyingly thorough examination of media manipulation in late 20th Century North American politics. The author is both a former journalist and "spin doctor" and is thus uniquely positioned to offer a peephole into how decisions are made (and unmade) at the highest levels of both government and the media. Although his earnest defense of Canada's Mulroney government is unpleasant reading, his indictment of the Chretien Liberals as propaganda masters makes for fascinating stuff. Above all, his closing chapters covering the unfolding of the Clinton-Lewinsky "Zippergate" scandal are gripping reading. They outline not only the whys and wherefores of the incendiary nature of the scandal from its earliest days, but also provide the Canadian reader with some incentive to ponder the remaining differences between the American and Canadian body politics. In the end, Fox draws an interesting conclusion from "Zippergate"
"[T]he American public has given the Washington press corps its biggest wakeup call of this decade. The voters have established that they can differentiate between the interesting and the important." (Spinwars, 241)
Looking at this optimistic statement through the lens of history developed in Easily Led, one wonders how long this critical differentiation can be maintained.
Published in Sources,
Number 45, Summer 2000.
Newsmongers: How the media distort political news (Review)