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The Briefing: Trump and the new age of propaganda

Thursday is World Press Freedom Day, and if you've read this far, perhaps you care about such things.

And you should, because your democracy depends on it. And your democracy finds itself coping with a new age of propaganda.

Propaganda sounds like a quaint, Cold War term. Twentieth century communists and fascists used a reams of fake "facts" to manipulate public opinion. And historian Norman Davies spelled out how in his book "Europe: A History," where he laid out the five rules of propaganda that European tyrants perfected decades ago.

Now, though, some new masters are at it. Modern-age demagogues like the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan use propaganda all the time.

And in the United States, President Trump is using propaganda to try to discredit the free press in a land where press freedom is enshrined in the Constitution.

That may seem like an overstatement, but it won't after we take a close look at Davies' rules of propaganda.

First there's "the rule of simplification: reducing all data to a simple confrontation between 'Good and Bad', 'Friend and Foe.'"

Which, in practice, looks like this:

Then there's "the rule of disfiguration: discrediting the opposition by crude smears and parodies."

Which, in practice, looks like this:

Then there's "the rule of transfusion: manipulating the consensus values of the target audience for one's own ends." In other words, it's an attempt to get the public on the side of the propagandist by discrediting the opposition – which, in President Trump's view, is the free press.

Here's an example of Trump using this technique, telling people at a rally in Michigan on Saturday that members of the media "hate your guts."

Then there's "the rule of unanimity: presenting one's viewpoint as if it were the unanimous opinion of all right-thinking people: draining the doubting individual into agreement by the appeal of star-performers, by social pressure, and by 'psychological contagion.' "

In other words, it's the practice of saying: "Everybody knows this. Of course you do, too." And it works something like this:

And finally, Davies wrote, there's "the rule of orchestration: endlessly repeating the same messages in different variations and combinations."

And in practice, this rule of redundancy looks like this:

And this:

And this:

Not surprisingly, these attacks have taken their toll in two ways.

First, Trump's media-bashing campaign has won converts in the general public. Proof comes in the form of a recent poll in which 31 percent of those surveyed said major news outlets report fake news as if it were true all the time.

And second, Trump's attacks have a real-world impact on journalists. That's why Reporters Without Borders this year dropped the United States two notches in its World Press Freedom Index. We're 45th now, sandwiched between Romania and Italy, down two notches in one year.

"The violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the U.S. government has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions," the worldwide advocacy group for press freedom said. "Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job."

The proof is in the numbers. Thirty-six journalists have been arrested just for doing their jobs in the U.S. since the start of 2017. Fifteen have been subpoenaed and brought into court for one reason or another. And 47 have been physically attacked on the job.

Of course, things are far worse in other parts of the world. Some 68 journalists have been killed on the job across the globe since the start of 2017. Some 262 journalists were imprisoned last year alone.

In light of the grim statistics, it seems somewhat odd that the United Nations, which established World Press Freedom Day in 1993, says the event is "celebrated."

This year, World Press Freedom seems more like a commemoration than a celebration.

But it is also a call for action.

"Promoting a free press is standing up for our right to truth," said António Guterres, the UN secretary-general.

So in that spirit, perhaps it's best not to end our look at World Press Freedom Day with yet another example of propaganda, but with something more substantive: The Washington Post's list of the 3,001 false or misleading statements President Trump has made since entering office.

Happening today

President Trump takes part in a National Day of Prayer event … Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein delivers the keynote address at the Lawyers for Civil Justice 2018 membership meeting … The Open Society holds a film screening and of "RBG: A Documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg" … The National Press Club (NPC) and the NPC Journalism Institute host a discussion on "2018 World Press Freedom Day – Dangerous Times" … The Committee to Protect Journalists holds a discussion on "Journalism Under Threat"... And yours truly, Buffalo News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski, will speak at 6:30 p.m. at the City of Tonawanda public library, 333 Main St., on what it's like to cover Washington for readers in Buffalo.

Good reads

At The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin asks: Will President Trump be subpoenaed or take the Fifth Amendment? ... The New York Times uncovers another questionable travel deal on the part of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt ... The Atlantic tells us that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg doesn't understand journalism – or doesn't care ... At Reason magazine, Eugene Volokh argues for a broad reading of freedom of the press ... And Time magazine shows us what it's like to live near the existing border wall between the United States and Mexico.

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