May 11, 2010

Perception management

The Whole Truth, by David Baldacci, 2008 (read 2010)

Nicholas Creel is a great villain. The flyleaf quotes him saying to his chief hatchet-man, "Dick, I need a war." As CEO of the world's biggest defense contractor, Creel isn't satisfied with the billions of dollars he's amassed. He sees his power slipping thanks to the collapse of the cold war, and the rise of terrorists, those pesky guys who distract superpowers from acquiring billion-dollar bombers with your basic SAMs and machine guns.

Dick, the hatchet-man, sounds like a spin doctor. But Baldacci explains that perception management guys like Dick, PMs for short, are way way beyond spin doctoring. They manufacture a version of truth, a nice way of saying utter fiction, and pump it into our culture so efficiently that practically overnight, we all accept it as real. Creepy stuff, fer shure.

Dick does his stuff, of course, and thanks to Internet viral marketing, the world meets Konstantin, a Russian who tells us by an amateurish video that if we are seeing this, he is dead. His family is dead. They were all killed by the Russians. The video spreads like wildfire, of course, and everybody buys in.

Everyone, that is, except for a couple of pesky journalists and a tough guy named Shaw. No first name, just Shaw. I like pesky, by the way, and it seems to fit nicely a character slot useful to Baldacci and a whole bunch of action writers. If it weren't for the peskies, where would these plots be?

Speaking of which, I like Baldacci just fine. No illusions as to literary merit, any more than with writers like Tom Clancy or W.E.B. Griffin, but I don't think that is the aim here. The idea is to write something readable and entertaining, and sometimes to slip in a cautionary message like Watch Out for Perception Management, and Baldacci succeeds admirably.

Anyway, Shaw and the hard-to-kill and most attractive female journalist manage somehow to save the day, and it's all good.

But learning that PM is out there did in fact get me thinking.

Mere days after I finished the book, I happened to hear the Bob Edwards Show on XMPR, where faithful readers may recall I began this renewed life of the mind a few years back. The date was May 4, 2010, the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. (If you don't know what that is because you are too young, or from another country, or for any reason, it's worth looking up.) I had what is probably a typical impression of the events of that time, but also typically without benefit of some interesting facts, facts I learned from the radio show.

How about this for a fact? The National Guard, which shot the college protesters on May 4, 1970 in Ohio, has yet to reveal what they have learned about what happened that day. The absence of a class of facts becomes a fact itself, and the typical impressions carried by people like me persist without correction, like an unchecked illness.

Or how about this, heard from the lips of a man about my age who was one of those present at the time, and interviewed on the radio show? The earliest reports, that protestors had killed a soldier, stemmed from a single story in the local paper, hurriedly phoned in by someone who simply got it wrong. That story spread like wildfire (still the operative word, none better) and even though the truth became known in just a few hours, even that was too late. Perceptions of people like me (all right, simpletons, if you insist, but careful how you sling those stones around that glass house, mister) that maybe the protestors brought some of it on themselves, although they certainly never deserved to die, what a tragedy - turn out to spring from a journalistic accident.

A spin doctor couldn't have done it better. And who knows exactly how accidental that news mistake was. It's the kind of stuff conspiracy theorists live for.

Meanwhile if Baldacci is to be believed, and I'm enough of a conspiracy nut not to think otherwise, perception managers are out there doing this sort of thing all the time, on purpose. Now that's creepy.

Bonus breadcrumb: State of Fear by Michael Crichton, 2004.

Global warming has been sort of like abortion. Once you decide where you stand, you are more likely to shape your own perceptions to fit your views than to change your views. Crichton took a lot of heat for this book, which is set smack dab in the middle of the global warming brouhaha. I just reviewed the Wikipedia page. It quotes from The Wall Street Journal review calling it a novelization of a speech Crichton gave in San Francisco in 2003 in which he condemed environmentalism as a religion. The following review from Entertainment Weekly is closer to the mark, in my opinion, quoted below.

"Part of the fun is that, for the first 400 pages or so, Crichton wants you to think of him as a right-wing nut. Don't be fooled. He's not just deflating global-warming environmentalists. When he finally gets around to explaining what he means by "state of fear," it's in another character-sputtered rant on "the way modern society works — by the constant creation of fear" by politicians, lawyers, and the media. Michael Moore, who made the same point in Bowling for Columbine, could've written the passage. State of Fear is one of Crichton's best because it's as hard to pigeonhole as greenhouse gas but certainly heats up the room."

Sounds like perception management to me. Black is White, Slavery is Freedom, it's a Brave New World of Newspeak and 1984 is way behind us.

1 comment:

  1. If you're interested in detailed eye witness accounts of the Kent State shootings, including by guardsmen who shot students and by various Kent students, check out the Emmy Award winning documentary, "Kent State, The Day the War Cam Home." It was just released on DVD for the upcoming 40th anniversary. In its review of the program, The Hollywood Reporter stated, "This extraordinary hour long doc is so good, so well constructed, that it can't help but leave viewers feeling as if they themselves were on the bloody scene of the Kent State carnage..." for more go to