Yesterday morning, I listened to episode 5 of a 6 part series on CBC radio called Spin Cycles. It’s a documentary about spin, or “how those in power can manipulate facts in order to make their case for the rest of us.” I’ve been listening to it for a few weeks now, but episode 5 suddenly really hit me: it’s about citations. It struck me that a discussion about political spin is a perfect example of why it’s important to be critical about your sources.
In episode 5 (click here to hear the mp3 file), the documentary described how PR firms designed American reactions to WW1, the Gulf war, and the Iraq war. In WW1, the PR firms painted the Germans as baby-killers in order to rouse American sentiment against them; in the Gulf war, a PR firm created a fake witness to testify that Iraqi soldiers were taking babies out of incubators in Kuwait and leaving them “on the cold floor to die”. (The witness was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, and lived in Washington; she hadn’t been present during the invasion of Kuwait in the first place. But boy did she give a tearful testimony!) And it was a PR company, tasked by the CIA with the responsibility of creating the circumstances to unseat Saddam Hussein, who created the Iraqi National Congress. And it was the Iraqi National Congress’s president, Ahmed Chalabi, a de facto paid employee of the CIA, who testified to the American government and press that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. At the end of WW1, someone asked a journalist what caused the war, and he responded that the politicians lied to the journalists, and then believed the lies when they saw them in print. That seems to be exactly what happened with the current war (if you can accept that high level policy makers didn’t know who this guy was, and who was paying him).
I was thinking about how obvious this example is; we didn’t check to see who these people were, we heard what they were saying, it sounded good, it seemed to fit into our understanding of the world, so we just bought it. But we should have asked the same questions we ask students to ask when they are looking at a source; who produced this? Who paid for it? What are this person’s motivations? Who benefits from this perspective? Who am I hurting if I buy this perspective without carefully examining it first?