The News in a Surrealist Mode

Updated: January 11, 2018 12:10:43 AM

By John Schoneboom


Not To Be Reproduced by Rene Magritte
Not To Be Reproduced by Rene Magritte

"All warfare is based on deception."
--Sun Tzu, The Art of War (2006 [6th Century BC])

"Misleading news is worse than none at all."
-- Charles Merz and Walter Lippmann, A Test of the News (1920)

One doesn't need to be a journalist or a scientist to appreciate that the basic methods of journalism are not unlike the scientific method. Both disciplines are supposed to rely on rigorous scrutiny, scepticism, and falsifiability. Neither can persistently ignore, invent, or distort evidence, rely on faulty or untested assumptions, or fail to reproduce or corroborate results without dishonouring the discipline. Before being in a position to defend their results, in short, both journalists and scientists must devote most of their energies to attacking them.

In Lippmann's terms, good journalism is performed in "the scientific spirit" (Dean undated). This does not mean that there need be any pretence about being objective or neutral. It means that the method should be transparent and the assertions supported, not merely repeated. It also means that while funding sources and political affiliations may provide clues that help calibrate interpretations of a given piece of work, they can never by themselves provide sufficient grounds to accept or dismiss the work, which must stand or fall on its inherent strengths and weaknesses. At its essence, journalism, like science, is "a discipline of verification" (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2014). Its "first task [is] see through the 'spin' and propaganda put forth by governments and powerful interests" (McChesney 2010, p. xvi). That's Job Number One.

In science, nature gets the last word, and errors or deceptions are eventually discovered when they conflict with physical reality. Political reality is more malleable. In the big-time corporate news business, under certain conditions a substantially (or entirely) fictitious narrative can emerge to usurp reality, to stand in its place as simulacrum -- a signifier that refers to no real object. A famous example that was eventually discovered is the case of the Nayirah Testimony, which contributed powerfully to the success of the narrow vote to go to war in Iraq. The young girl Nayirah tearfully told the Congressional Human Rights Caucus a story of Iraqi soldiers ripping babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital and heaving them onto the cold floor to die. She turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwait ambassador to the US. Her testimony, later, when it was too late, turned out to be false. It was part of a propaganda campaign devised by Hill & Knowlton for its Kuwaiti client, an organization that wanted the US to invade Iraq. The testimony was even initially verified by Amnesty International, which added a number for effect: 312 infants died after being removed from incubators by Iraqi soldiers, the organisation reported (Jamieson and Waldman 2003, p. 16). The number was made up, the story was an invention from start to finish, Amnesty eventually retracted its verification, but the PR exercise had its desired effect: shortly thereafter, by five votes in the Senate, the US Congress voted to go to war in Iraq. The incubator incident had received major media play and been cited numerous times by President Bush and on the Senate floor (Mickey 1997). According to journalist Ted Rowse (1992), "[i]t was a major factor in building public backing for war."

This is the point of propaganda, a time-worn strategy of political elites to manage the masses that badly outnumber them, i.e., to shape public opinion and to "manufacture consent" from the "bewildered herd" -- phrases also coined by Lippmann (1922). From this perspective, Sun Tzu's famous observation implies in our age an information assault in which the target of deception is not a foreign army, but a domestic population (Taussig 2008). The war, in other words, is on us.

When a fictionalised narrative becomes widely accepted as reality by virtue of constant repetition by sources taken to be authoritative, we the people become something like a dream collective, taking a cloudlike miasma of biases, misperceptions, deceptions, assumptions, hopes, fears, and agendas to be the solid ground of the real. Querying the blurry liminality between the real and the imaginary is a specialty of surrealism, making it appropriate to analyse the news in a surrealist mode. (It is not an entirely random historical coincidence that surrealism, modern journalism, and the PR industry all came into their own during the 1920s, likely as divergent responses to some of the same historical forces. Edward Bernays, for example, often called the "father of public relations," was influenced by his uncle, Sigmund Freud, as were the Surrealists.)

To elaborate very briefly, some of the preoccupations of the Surrealist Movement can be seen as shared by the news insofar as it reports on things like war, terrorism, and national security: consent-manufacturers and surrealists both contest the ground between conscious and unconscious, real and imagined, rational and irrational, verified and presumed (Breton, Sieburth et al. 1994); both exhibit a flair for the manipulation of spectacular crime (Eburne 2008) and paranoia (Dali 2004 [1930]); and both have a relationship with authoritarian societies of surveillance and control (Deleuze 1992 ; LaCoss and Spiteri 2003), or what Umberto Eco has called Ur-Fascism (1995). With regard to the latter point, the Surrealists, of course, were against that sort of thing. Promoters of fear and violence, contrarily, require it. Surrealists wanted to highlight the tenuous nature of our faith in the real, whereas propagandists wish to obscure it. Deceitful pseudo-journalism with the effect of creating an imaginary reality might therefore be said to be a sort of anti-surrealism, which suggests that viewing it through a surrealist lens might be one way to annihilate it. Once the conjurer's tricks are understood, there is an opportunity to break the spell.

Am I being unfair, though? Are mainstream news outlets really weavers of dreams or facilitators of war? Although the historical record of the media's role as "government's little helper" has been well analysed (e.g., Chomsky and Herman 1988 ; Zaller and Chiu 1996), it's always a little harder somehow to recognise it as happening in the here and now. So let's have a quick look at two example news items that are still current as of very early 2018: one on the White Helmets in Syria and one on the issue of alleged Russian election meddling. Both are important questions of policy and war, that is to say life and death, and both are contested: there are competing, irreconcilable narratives, one inside and one outside the mainstream. The question of whether a given narrative is true, false, or biased is difficult to determine when we do not have direct access to the facts themselves. Therefore it is of secondary interest here. Our primary purpose is something we can do much more easily, which is to determine instead whether the journalistic methods are transparent, the assertions supported, the evidence accounted for, the challenges faced squarely and honestly. Truth, like reality, is notoriously difficult to define and determine. Falsehoods, on the other hand, can often be identified with a little attention and patience. The key is to look at the method. Do we see the essential "discipline of verification" at work, or have the core principles of journalism been abandoned?

The White Helmets

Are the White Helmets heroes or villains? The mainstream narrative has them as a neutral, unarmed, grassroots humanitarian group. They have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. A hagiographic film about their alleged heroism won an Academy Award. Independent journalists, notably Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, Patrick Henningsen, Khaled Iskef, Tim Anderson, and John Pilger, among a few others, suggest a radically different picture, in which the White Helmets are nothing more than the propaganda arm of terrorist groups like the Al Nusra Front.

The Guardian, in defence of the heroic narrative, published a piece by Olivia Solon (2017) that portrays the White Helmets as "victims" and turns the propaganda charge against their critics, referring to them as "a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government." I'm not sure that anti-imperialism works as a pejorative, but the conspiracy theorist and troll labels are clearly intended to insult, and the invocation of the "Russian government" as behind the "network" seems, ironically enough, to insinuate a conspiracy, so the article clearly begins with an attack on the messengers. I read Solon's piece with great interest, wondering whether it would forthrightly address the message as well, i.e., whether it would confront the allegations against the White Helmets head on and attempt to refute them by dismantling the evidence that has been offered, in order to justify its ad hominem opening salvo. That is what it would do if it were actual journalism. It would not merely proceed as if it were a given that the White Helmets' critics are demented, fringe-dwelling, nonsense-spewing Kremlin pawns; it would explain why their arguments are wrong. It would give a fair accounting of the full weight of the evidence against the White Helmets and show it to be false, or insufficient, or wrongly interpreted, or lacking context.

Solon didn't do anything like that. The very few specific charges she addresses are relatively unimportant ones, and she variously describes them as mistakes or dismisses them, with telling glibness, as the actions of a few bad apples. Certainly she can be excused for not being comprehensive in her choice of allegations to concentrate on, but by cherry-picking the most trivial rather than the most difficult charges to answer, she misleads. It seems most likely that this deceit is intentional, but it could theoretically be abject incompetence. Neither possibility is worthy of the name journalism. At the very least, Solon's patently specious defence of the White Helmets should raise serious concerns about both that organisation and what gets passed off as journalism in our most widely respected newspapers.

You would not know from Solon's piece, for example, that the White Helmets were founded and trained by James le Mesurier, a former British military intelligence officer and private mercenary, and not in Syria, but in Turkey and Jordan; that they receive handsome funding from the same Western interests that support the anti-Assad terrorists -- and I call them terrorists, not moderate rebels, because they include the likes of Nour al din Zinki, the group that proudly filmed themselves beheading a 12-year-old boy in the back of a truck; that the White Helmets headquarters in East Aleppo is integrated into the Nusra Front compound and is adorned with graffiti and flags affirming their support for that group; that the White Helmets operate exclusively in rebel-held territory and travel with the rebels/terrorists, sometimes on the same buses, when they are forced out of an area; or that so many White Helmet leaders and members have been documented as a) avowing support for terrorist groups like Ahrar Al Sham and Nusra Front and b) actively participating in their activities, including the Rashideen Massacre of children being evacuated from Kafarya and Foua, that the "few bad apples" defence begins to ring hollow indeed.

All of these allegations and quite a few more are supported by detailed documentary evidence (Beeley 2017) that includes names, faces, dates, places, photos, videos, social media communications, financial records, and witness testimony. If any of this material has been misinterpreted, falsified, or taken out of context, or if additional exculpatory evidence has been omitted, then The Guardian completely missed a golden opportunity to demonstrate it in an article that was written for precisely that purpose. The quality and quantity of the apparently damning evidence demands more in response than a flippant tossing around of dismissive labels and facile assertions of a vast Russian conspiracy.

Solon's failure to provide a serious answer to the relevant charges is matched by her credulous repetition of the very Western narrative that these journalists are contesting in the first place. Solon uncritically delivers Helmets-friendly talking points as if they were unassailable verities. For example, she cites White Helmet testimony as proof that Assad was responsible for sarin gas attacks within Syria as if that were entirely unproblematic, despite the fact that the Helmets-friendly militant rebels are very much considered suspects themselves by some extraordinarily well-qualified experts (Carden 2017 ; Parry 2017 ; Postol 2017). Again, good journalism, like good science, does not ignore inconvenient contrary evidence and present contentious assertions as established truths. Solon also goes so far as to describe the activities of the ragtag amalgam of Western-backed mercenaries, fanatics, and terrorists, without a hint of scepticism or irony, as an attempt to "stabilise" Syria. Again, this assertion accepts the Western narrative at face value while ignoring -- not refuting -- reports from journalists on the ground in Syria who describe the Western-backed militants terrorizing the population with a relentless series of car bombings, sniper fire, massacres, beheadings, kidnappings, rapes, thefts, and "indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas" (Bartlett 2017).

In short, Solon's piece in one of the UK's premier newspapers does nothing to investigate, corroborate, refute, or verify. It merely promotes the officially sanctioned narrative with an astonishingly shabby attempt to discredit, not the evidence against that narrative itself, which it almost entirely ignores, but rather those who have brought it to an online audience of an apparently alarming size. In so doing, The Guardian puts itself in the beyond-Orwellian position of defending a Russian conspiracy theory by calling its critics conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, Solon's article is not the only example of this phenomenon.

Russian Meddling

Everybody knows that the Russians meddled in the 2016 US election. Everybody also knows that everybody knowing something doesn't make it true. I will focus here on a single illustrative item: an interview of Luke Harding by Aaron Maté (Harding 2017b). Harding is a Guardian journalist and author of the best-selling, rave-reviewed Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win (2017a), a title that clearly indicates his basic thesis. Maté is also a journalist, one who has argued that the Russian election meddling ("Russiagate") narrative, despite often being presented as an indisputable fact, is actually entirely unverified and rather poorly supported (Maté 2017). Thus, this interview, a contentious discussion between two journalists in disagreement, provides an excellent opportunity to examine contrasting approaches to journalism (and to reality) on a critical and urgent issue. Journalist Jeremy Scahill did not put too fine a point on his description of the encounter: "This @aaronjmate interview is brutal. He makes mincemeat of Luke Harding, who can't seem to defend the thesis, much less the title, of his own book" (Scahill 2017).

Harding tries to build a circumstantial case based on a lot of loose inferences and a few unsound assertions. Maté disputes each perceived inaccuracy and stops Harding at each insinuation to invite him to clarify the evidence. Harding seems very much unprepared for a tough interview. Seemingly unable to respond substantively to challenges, he repeatedly changes the subject to a new contention instead of defending the one that has been challenged, and succeeds only in starting the cycle anew.

When Harding points to the meeting between Trump Junior and a Russian lawyer as evidence of an existing "transactional relationship" going back to the 1980s, Maté asks why, if such a relationship existed, would Trump need a "kooky" British music promoter to set up an odd and fruitless meeting, which, contrary to what was being implied, ultimately had nothing to do with leaked Clinton-related emails or Wikileaks. Harding's response? He changes the subject to Trump advisor George Papadopoulos' meeting with Joseph Mifsud, a UK professor purported to have unspecified high-level Russian contacts with email dirt on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos was indicted for lying to the FBI about the timing of the meeting. When Maté points out that the indictment does not allege that Mifsud had or even claimed to have such contacts, only that Papadopoulos claims that Mifsud said so -- which "doesn't mean it's true" and which Mifsud, for his part, denies (Olmstead 2017) -- and that the meeting was in any case as fruitless as Trump Junior's, what does Harding do? He changes the subject to the murder of a Russian dissident and makes a vague, generalised assertion that levels of Russian espionage are currently very high.

When Harding invokes the "US intelligence community" assessment, Maté notes that the January 6, 2017 report, which remains the linchpin of the Russiagate narrative, was the work of a small hand-picked team from three agencies, and that it "presented no empirical evidence." Harding responds with the blatant irrelevance that he lived in Russia and understands "the nature of Vladimir Putin's state." When Harding argues that the Russians hacked the French election, Maté counters that French intelligence said they had no evidence of Russian hacking. What does Harding do? He changes the subject, saying they hacked the German election. When Maté makes the correction that, while there was a fear of Russian hacking in the German election, it did not actually happen, Harding again changes the subject, bizarrely, to the jailing of opposition candidates in Russia.

By this time Harding's approach has clearly become what independent journalist Caitlyn Johnstone usefully notes is a classic "Gish gallop": "a fallacious debate tactic in which a bunch of individually weak arguments are strung together in rapid-fire succession in order to create the illusion of a solid argument" (Johnstone 2017).

What emerges quite oddly over the course of the conversation is the realisation that Maté and Harding do not share the same working definition of the word "evidence." Each time he is pressed, Harding provides a description of a general context in which it is imaginable that election meddling could or would or might have happened or been attempted. He seems implicitly to take evidence to mean a sort of ambient web of suggestive circumstances from which plausible conjecture can arguably be formulated, whereas Maté takes it to mean proof that something actually did happen. The difference becomes clear towards the end of the interview:

AARON MATÉ: Okay. I guess I'll just say I think we're conflating the fact that Putin is not a nice person, that yes he does not like Hillary Clinton, he loathes the U.S. for many reasons including the expansion of NATO -- I think we're conflating that with evidence and a conclusion that that meant that he cultivated Trump and intervened in the election. I think those two things are different.

LUKE HARDING: That's your view. It would be great if you could go to Moscow, go to Kiev, go to the post-Soviet world, talk to people from the Russian opposition, talk to human rights activists, talk to journalists whose colleagues have been murdered, and perhaps understand a little bit better the kind of state that Vladimir Putin's Russia is. I think you'd be doing yourself a service and you'd be doing your listeners a service.

AARON MATÉ: I don't think I've countered anything you've said about the state of Vladimir Putin's Russia. The issue under discussion today has been whether there was collusion, the topic of your book.

LUKE HARDING: Yeah, I know, but you're clearly a collusion rejectionist. I'm not kind of sure what evidence short of Trump and Putin in the sauna together would convince you. Clearly nothing would convince you.

On that peculiar accusation -- peculiar because "nothing" is exactly what Harding has offered in the way of substantiation -- Harding abruptly hangs up, ending the interview.

None of this would be terribly interesting if Harding were just an obscure crank who, out of gross incompetence, neglected to draw from some putatively available body of tangible, verifiable indications of Russian meddling in collusion with Donald Trump. But this is not at all the case. Harding is a respected journalist, the man who literally wrote the book on collusion, and his views are lavishly praised and reflected in the rest of the major media. The case he makes demonstrably fails to adhere to the journalistic principles of corroboration and verification, but deals exclusively in innuendo and inference. Harding is unfortunately not alone. He is merely a popular exemplar of the promoters of the Russiagate narrative generally. The closer one looks for the factual basis of the allegations that are so widely accepted as representing reality, as the Harding-Maté interview makes starkly clear, the more the basis disappears into smoke. What we come down to is a battle of smoke metaphors: It's "where there's smoke there's fire" vs "it's all smoke and mirrors." When the game involves heightened tensions between nuclear superpowers, it is foolhardy to bet the farm on the former, particularly when the best efforts of certain hand-picked intelligence analysts have offered only the latter.

This interplay of dissimulation and the impalpable is the gateway between realpolitik and surrealpolitik. In acknowledgement of the inherently tenuous foundations of what we take to be reality, Surrealist Louis Aragon long ago concluded, "The only way to look at Man is as the victim of his mirrors" (2010 [1924], p. 43). It could make a fitting epitaph for a complacent democracy.

The News, Freedom of Thought, and Surreality

"This is Flat Earth news. A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true -- even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda."
-- Nick Davies, journalist (2009, p. 12)

It is clear that Flat Earth news happens, and happens repeatedly. Somehow, the seemingly widespread acceptance of bad journalism's surreality -- its persistent success at making us victims of our own mirrors -- is able to coexist with a pervasive awareness of how unsatisfactory the news business has become. This contradictory simultaneity is perhaps at the heart of postmodern survival strategies, in which ironic detachment allows us to cope with, rather than reject, the system of spectacle and hyperreality in which we are mired (see for example Fisher 2009).

No conspiracy is required to explain this "widely acknowledged...stunning collapse of journalism" (McChesney 2010, p. ix). Financial pressures and the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle, or "transformations in the...political economy of journalism" (Freedman and Thussu 2012, p. 101), have meant a drastic reduction in the number of working journalists over the past decade and in the amount of time and money that can be spent on investigation and follow-up, as well as an over-reliance on official sources and press releases, with the result that mainstream journalism has largely become "churnalism" (Davies 2009). Together with the effects on editorial preferences and choice of reporters resulting from both advertising and concentration of corporate ownership, to say nothing of careerism, corruption, self-censorship, and, yes, overt and covert interference (e.g., Borjesson 2004 [2002]; Wilford 2008), it seems fair to conclude that journalism is in the midst of a perfect storm.

Walter Lippmann once expressed the hope that an improvement would come by the emergence of competition from "a great independent journalism, setting standards for commercial journalism," noting that "our sanity and, therefore, our safety depend upon this competition" (Lippmann 2010 [1920], p. 35,36). Something like this has indeed occurred with the Internet-enabled rise of independent professional and citizen journalists, who can sometimes cultivate large online followings by virtue of the demonstrable integrity and transparency of their craft. Of course, independent writers can also cultivate large online followings by reliance on shoddy sensationalism. The latter group, however, does nothing to minimise the accomplishments of the former, and the upshot remains that the standards by which journalism can be judged are standards of method -- sourcing, verification, and argumentation -- and that it is up to us, as always, to read critically. The point is, judging by these standards of practice, an important challenge to the corporate media has indeed emerged, and we can learn a lot by observing the corporate response.

What Lippman failed to anticipate (as far as I know) was that, far from raising their game in the face of superior competition, the corporate media have instead taken aim at the "heretics" who deviate from their preferred narratives. Curation and filtering of news sources by social media sites, search engines, and government directives (Greenwald 2017), the loss of net neutrality (McSherry 2017), and efforts like that of the anonymous Washington Post-promoted outfit PropOrNot to create blacklists of purported "Russian disinformation outlets" (Norton and Greenwald 2016) can be seen as attempts to protect a walled-off territory of mainstream news and to delegitimise any sources outside of it. At best this is insulting paternalism, which alone should disqualify anyone from posing as an authority. At less-than-best it is how censorship operates within an illusion of democracy.

Understand the narrative by examining the method. If a particular story persistently refuses to engage with contrary evidence, it calls the story into question. If that pattern is repeated in multiple outlets' delivery of the same narrative, it calls the motive into question. If the corporate media and its supporters begin to try to discredit dissenters without addressing the dissent, it calls the whole reality-constructing apparatus into question. This is where Sun Tzu's words on deception and the art of war make us reconsider who the enemy is, and to delve more deeply into what Michael Taussig has called "the politics of epistemic murk and the fiction of the real" (1987, p. xiii).

This is news in a surrealist mode. Baudrillard, who "tries to outdo the surrealists by locating the unreal 'in the real's hallucinatory resemblance to itself'" (San Juan Jr. 2004, p. 124), is poetically fatalistic about our prospects: "Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible. It is the whole political problem of parody, of hyper simulation or offensive simulation, that is posed here." (Baudrillard 1994 [1981], p. 19). From the perspective of surrealism's founder, Andre Breton, not only the problem but also its solution is in our powers of language: "I do not think it is too late to re-examine the deceptions that are part and parcel of the words we have so far misused" (Breton, Sieburth et al. 1994, p. 141). I take Breton's words to mean that what we need to re-examine is our own freedom of thought.

If indeed we find that journalistic integrity has been sacrificed on the altar of elite political interests, there is one other thing to keep in mind, and it may prove to be of paramount importance: that elite political interests evidently care what we think. If public opinion still matters, it is too soon to abandon hope for the prospects of our own agency as citizens.


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