Tactics & Techniques: “Powerful People Tell Us Things”

Today’s tactics and techniques assessment examines the article “Powerful People Tell Us Things” by Alec Karakatsanis on 22 Aug 2022.

By allowing politicians to lie about their true motivations and printing the lies as fact, the news media continues its long tradition of allowing powerful people to manipulate the public into not understanding the true drivers of political actions and policies.

Decide to Act: Convince targets that problems are being adequately addressed
Decide to Act: Convince targets that societal issues they face do not arise from structural issues

In general, powerful people want us to think that the problems of our society aren’t structural, that they are outraged about these problems, that the problems can be fixed with little tweaks, and that they are doing everything they can to fix them.

I feel like there are two actors discussed in this article; the politician in power who provided an inauthentic, politically advantageous explanation for her actions, and the mainstream media who uncritically repeated it. The above tags apply to the politician, while the following tags apply to the mainstream media.

Produce: Misleading Context (T0023.001)

Misleading Context refers to “misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual”. In this article the author argues that AP’s reporting does not provide full context needed to properly understand the issue, and alternative solutions available. Without this context readers unfamiliar with the topic are not provided with the information needed to understand the inauthenticity in the reported statement.

To see how damaging the AP article is, you have to understand the structural context in Oregon that the article omits. Like the rest of the U.S., Oregon is trying to cage so many poor people that its bureaucratic machinery for providing them lawyers is a catastrophic failure. People are languishing in cages without lawyers and separated from their kids solely because they can’t pay cash bail.1

Make no mistake. The Oregon judiciary could stop this problem in a heartbeat by doing any number of things, including by enforcing the Constitution and dismissing low level cases and releasing people from jail where the State doesn’t give people what the 6th Amendment requires: an effective lawyer.

This has been going on for a long time, and Oregon courts have made the problem worse with rampant jailing of people who can’t pay cash. It pre-dates and has little to do with the current indigent defense leadership. In fact, the Oregon judiciary is the single entity most capable of eliminating this crisis almost immediately. Alarmingly, Oregon Supreme Court has instead repeatedly refused valid habeas petitions by people languishing in cages with high rates of sexual and physical assault and deprivation of medical care. They are *illegally jailed* on cash bail in violation of State and federal Constitutions.*

The article doesn’t tell you that the Oregon Supreme Court has declined to hear these cases. I know this because we at Civil Rights Corps were lawyers in those cases, desperately trying to get the court to even hear the cases applying the most basic constitutional law to poor people illegally in jail. On this issue, the Oregon Supreme Court has exhibited no urgency or “frustration” at all about addressing systemic, illegal state violence against the poorest people in Oregon that it has the power to stop.

Amplify: Uncritically Repeat False Narrative

This article is a good illustration of a pervasive media practice of reporting the asserted motivations of powerful people as their actual motivations. In this way, the news can mislead people about what’s really happening and why, and give cover to officials to spread misinformation about what is really driving the things that affect our lives.

I know the following is a super long quote but it’s all really useful for understanding why AP’s uncritical repetition of the narrative provided to them was bad. As always, I hope you click the link to the original article and read it in a non-butchered format.

The thesis of the article was that the Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court fired all of the state’s public defense commission and replaced them out of “frustration” with the plight of poor people charged with crimes […] So, what’s actually going on?

The Chief Justice doesn’t like the head of the agency who started on the job a few months ago and has been pretty impolite to the legal establishment. The Chief Justice tried unsuccessfully to get the Commission to fire him this week. When the Commission did not vote to fire him, the Chief Justice disbanded the whole Commission and replaced it with people who would fire him. (The new Commission met again two days later and fired him last week.)

Some of the people fired from Commission are among the best and most highly regarded lawyers in Oregon. No one questions their careers, integrity, expertise. They appear to have been fired solely because they declined to fire the agency head when the Chief Justice wanted them to.2

There may be reasons to fire the head of the agency. I’m not weighing in on the debate in Oregon about whether he has been too rude and inappropriate in his communications to people in an effort to shake up a corrupt system. What’s vital here is how this dispute is portrayed **as news.**

By allowing the Chief Justice to portray this authoritarian action as genuinely motivated by concern for the very poor people she and other judges have refused to enforce the law to protect, the news media helped a powerful person shield a powerful institution from accountability

The AP didn’t tell readers that Chief Justice “says” or “alleges” that this is her reason. It reported what she claims as fact. It told readers that she was genuinely “frustrated” with the plight of the vulnerable and was taking action as a result. It hid from readers that this is a controversial view, that advocates for the poor actually believe that her inaction is a major cause of the crisis, and omitted all of the context necessary for readers to learn about that controversy.

Narrative Theme: Crime
Platform: Mainstream Media

The intention of this series is to make it easier to understand why the article has been tagged with particular tactics or techniques. Associating reporting of real-world attacks with DISARM tactics and techniques helps us get a better understanding of how they have practically been used, who’s used them, and who they’ve been used against. To do this a relevant quote from the article will be provided under the title of the associated technique. If the technique exists in DISARM, then its identifier will be included too.