Political Warfare and the Mainstream Media Hatchet Job
One of the most enduring and effective weapons employed by the radical statists who comprise the mainstream media (MSM) is the political “hatchet job.” Wielded for decades with near-impunity by the MSM against conservatives, Republicans, and other political enemies, the hatchet job has been a potent force for the Left in its efforts to reduce or eliminate political debate at the national, state, and local levels. This article is a primer for conservatives and members of the New Media on what a hatchet job is and how it is employed.
Hatchet Job Defined
A hatchet job is a biased, maliciously destructive, and often cruel written or spoken critique or attack on the character or activities of a person, organization, or institution. In its most common form, a hatchet job comprises a printed attempt disparage, discredit, and ultimately destroy a targeted person’s or organization’s reputation in the eyes of the public and to deny the target public sympathy or support through the use of innuendo, inaccuracies, and misleading statements. It is also used for the inherently undemocratic purpose of intimidating and stifling political opposition or dissent.
The hatchet job is a work of pseudo-journalist art, psychological warfare, and political disinformation. Hatchet jobs are in derogation of the ethical rule that journalists should always be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.1 While some hatchet jobs are one-time efforts, many are part of a sustained political campaign. The smear campaign waged by the MSM against Sarah Palin is an example of the latter. Few are blatant, and most are quite subtle. Sometimes, for example, a direct accusation against the target is merely the carrier for darker and more ominous insinuations. In many more cases, however, factual errors, innuendo, and implications of wrongdoing are placed alongside, and draw plausibility from, scattered truths to create a grossly distorting effect on the reader or viewer.
Lies, Crime and Defamation
A lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive. Generally, lying about someone is not a crime, absent fraud, and so the executioner of a hatchet job normally is immune from criminal prosecution no matter how egregious the job. Lying about someone may subject the liar to civil suit for defamation, but to establish a cause of action for defamation in civil court, a plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant published a false statement about the plaintiff, (2) to a third party, and (3) the falsity of the statement caused injury to the plaintiff. The rule is different when the target is a public figure, as is the case with almost all hatchet jobs: To prevail in a defamation action against a newspaper or other communications media organization or employee thereof, a public figure plaintiff has to prove that the defendant published defamatory statements that were: (1) statements of fact; (2) false; and (3) made with actual malice, that is, knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. This latter standard is so high as to practically immunize the executioners against lawsuit when they set out to destroy their political enemies. This burden on the plaintiff is so high that successful lawsuits against defaming media individuals and organizations are extremely rare.
The Artful Use of Innuendo, Vagueness and Ambiguity
Executioners of hatchet jobs try to further insulate themselves from lawsuit or public condemnation through the artful use of innuendo. An innuendo is an oblique allusion, hint, insinuation, a veiled or equivocal reflection on character or reputation offered by one person that leads another person to form a disparaging conclusion about the target without offering definitive support for that conclusion. Innuendos are not strictly lies, but are the next worst thing to lies, and if employed properly they can be as effective as lies. Coupled with vagueness and ambiguity, this technique is designed to afford the executioner plausible deniability as to motive and intent by utilizing statements subject to differing interpretations with at least one of those interpretations being an “innocent” one. The lack of clarity where there should be no lack of clarity is, however, one of the indicators of a deliberate hatchet job.
Making the Target Newsworthy
The executioner of a hatchet job knows that timing is very important in maximizing the vulnerability of the intended target and the effectiveness of the hatchet job on the target. A target that is in the news regularly affords greater opportunities to strike than a target that is not. Sometimes, where the ultimate target is to be attacked through a secondary target, the secondary target is never in the news or in the news so seldomly that the executioner does not have sufficient opportunities to strike. In cases where the executioner does not have sufficient naturally-occurring opportunities to strike, the executioner must either forego waiting for such opportunity or create the opportunity.
The executioner creates the opportunity to strike by making the target “newsworthy.” This can be done either by regularly running small stories about the target in the executioner’s own media or by using a surrogate, such as an ostensibly independent blogger, to create a “controversy” by publishing an allegation or suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the target that then is incorporated into the hatchet job as “reporting,” no matter how unsubstantiated the original allegation or suggestion is. The use of a surrogate to make the target newsworthy is especially helpful in creating opportunity and plausibility when the person to be attacked is unknown, or relatively unknown, to the public.
Letting Anonymous Others Complete the Story
Another technique used by the executioner to achieve deniability and further plausibility and immunity from legal sanction is to post the hatchet job on an internet news site where anonymous individuals can post comments that state what the executioner only implies in the story in chief, and provide additional derogatory information, thereby expanding or “completing” the article’s defamatory content. Sometimes these postings are random, and sometimes they are part of the campaign against the target. To the extent that the executioner or hosting media organization does not attempt to correct or otherwise respond to misinformation contained in these postings, the executioner or hosting organization has adopted them as part of the original story. It is by this means that the executioner and his or her supporters can maximize the damage to the target.
The End Justifies the Means
The hatchet job embodies a the-ends-justify-the-means approach to politics that is the outgrowth of an elite, self-appointed ruling class mentality that feels no accountability to law, ethics, or the American people. MSM statists who employ the hatchet job are practicing Saul Alinski’s Thirteenth Rule of Power Politics: Pick the target, freeze, personalize it, and polarize it,2 and are exploiting the media’s formidable advantage that ordinary people have an almost superstitious reverence for print and will almost automatically register opinion or suggestion as fact. For the Left, which owns the MSM, no hatchet job is ever a failure because few of their targets have the wherewithal to mount an effective counter-campaign, and, even if they can, no victim of a hatchet job ever completely recovers.
Role of the New Media
The Left’s control over the MSM and the resultant lack of integrity on the part of the MSM is such that the executioner of a hatchet job normally does not fear exposure, retribution or retaliation. Absent pangs of conscience on the part of the executioner or the executioner’s host, the only viable response to a hatchet job is the generation of public condemnation of such a level as to threaten the future economic viability of the executioner or the executioner’s hosts, sponsors or supporters. For conservatives, this underscores the need for robust, effective New Media that form an alternative to the MSM at the national, state, and local levels.
The first step for the New Media in dealing with a hatchet job is deconstructing it, from headline to footnote, isolating the falsities, misleading statements, ambiguities, innuendos, missing facts, and scattered truths therein. The second step is making a determination as to whether or not the author knew, should have known, or easily could have known the truth about the facts reported incorrectly or missing altogether. The next step is demonstrating how this piece of writing fits into a pattern of similar writings produced over time by the same author or media organization. The next step is to see how this piece of writing and others like it serve the political agenda or goals of the author or media organization that produced them. The final step is to extensively publicize the results of this analysis.
In their arrogance, the MSM is always surprised when conservatives push back: It is no exception when conservative push back against a statist hatchet job. Sunlight eventually will disinfect the MSM, but that won’t occur unless the New Media can defeat, deny or degrade the Left’s use of the hatchet job in their political warfare against conservatives whenever and wherever it occurs.
2 Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, Vintage Books (New York 1971) p. 130.