On Messengers and Messages

By Cady Stanton


We’re living in a time when the messenger is more valued than the message.  Nothing symbolizes this better than the moniker “Dittoheads” that Rush Limbaugh’s fans embraced a few years back.  When we embrace the messenger, we too often uncritically embrace the message.


This isn’t true of everyone (nothing is) but it’s seen on both sides of the political aisle.  In a recent Salon post, Glenn Greenwald explains why it’s so dangerous.


In 2008, while at Harvard Law School, [Cass] Sunstein [head of Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] co-wrote a truly pernicious paper proposing that the U.S. Government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-“independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites — as well as other activist groups — which advocate views that Sunstein deems “false conspiracy theories” about the Government.  This would be designed to increase citizens’ faith in government officials and undermine the credibility of conspiracists.  


Sunstein advocates that the Government’s stealth infiltration should be accomplished by sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups.”  He also proposes that the Government make secret payments to so-called “independent” credible voices to bolster the Government’s messaging (on the ground that those who don’t believe government sources will be more inclined to listen to those who appear independent while secretly acting on behalf of the Government).   This program would target those advocating false “conspiracy theories,” which they define to mean: “an attempt to explain an event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” 


You can get the paper through this link.  But Obama’s opponents don’t get to engage in a grand “I told you so” chorus, claiming that it’s the Obama administration that presents the great threat to freedom and liberty.


Initially, note how similar Sunstein’s proposal is to multiple, controversial stealth efforts by the Bush administration to secretly influence and shape our political debates.  The Bush Pentagon employed teams of former Generals to pose as “independent analysts” in the media while secretly coordinating their talking points and messaging about wars and detention policies with the Pentagon.  Bush officials secretly paid supposedly “independent” voices, such as Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, to advocate pro-Bush policies while failing to disclose their contracts.  In Iraq, the Bush Pentagon hired a company, Lincoln Park, which paid newspapers to plant pro-U.S. articles while pretending it came from Iraqi citizens.  In response to all of this, Democrats typically accused the Bush administration of engaging in government-sponsored propaganda — and when it was done domestically, suggested this was illegal propaganda.


Here’s where the messenger versus message part kicks in.  We aren’t looking at the inherent danger to our liberties that Bush pursued and Obama may be about to pursue.  Instead we’re excusing the evil when it’s delivered by the messenger that we like:


But it’s precisely because the Government is so often not “well-motivated” that such powers are so dangerous.  Advocating them on the ground that “we will use them well” is every authoritarian’s claim.  More than anything else, this is the toxic mentality that consumes our political culture:  when our side does X, X is Good, because we’re Good and are working for Good outcomes.  That was what led hordes of Bush followers to endorse the same large-government surveillance programs they long claimed to oppose, and what leads so many Obama supporters now to justify actions that they spent the last eight years opposing.


What Bush did was wrong.  What Sunstein advocates is wrong.  If we – and by “we” I mean the 300+ million ordinary, and mostly powerless save for our vote, citizens of this great nation – continue to cast an uncritical eye on “our guy,” whether that person is a politician or pundit, the result is inevitable:  We, the people, will lose.



2 thoughts on “On Messengers and Messages

  1. Cady,

    You are absolutely correct. This situation is wrong any way you look at it. I believe it’s human nature to put the messenger before the message, whether it’s a teenager who places more weight on a friend’s advice over his parent’s, or as you point out, what we experience in politics. We may never be able to eliminate bias completely. That might be a good thing. But, as painful as it is to admit, there are times when people we admire are wrong, and people we don’t admire are right. We need to support the good ideas and reject the bad ones no matter who happened to propose them.

  2. The messenger theory seems to be right. Many times we “shoot” the messenger when he is relaying a point we don’t want to hear or is giving us a message that was told to him to convey. Generally, people will want to bypass a good idea because it comes from a camp or party that is considered ungenuine. Instead of looking at the idea or proposition from an objective standpoint, it’s shot down because of “the messenger”. I have been guilty of that, as have others, I think, but in this stage of the game, it is in our best interest to listen to all points of view.

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