Chicago Tribune: Propagandists for the State of Illinois

There is a fascinating BBC produced documentary by Adam Curtis entitled ‘Century of the Self’ in which he details the rise of ‘public relations’ in the 20c.   Founded by Edward Bernays, ‘public relations’ was the term he coined for propaganda.  The essential discovery was that you could control the public by appealing to their emotions rather than their rationality.  The impact of this cannot be underestimated.

The Tribune ‘reporting’ illustrates this so well one might imagine Bernays sitting behind Marx and Jackson saying ‘no, no, scratch that, put this in instead.’  I will illustrate this point with their most recent article.

Clearly, the issue at hand, one would think, is the disposition of the residents to new homes.  Are they going to better facilities? How are they being treated in the process? Where are they going? Most importantly, where are the identified offenders—those dangerous felons the Tribune has reported on endlessly—where are they being placed?

Instead, the article is comprised of two key elements:

  1. a discussion of the profit and financial transactions of the owner, implying that he is a schmuck and,
  2. bland assertions that the state is handling everything just fine.

Here is why this constitutes propaganda rather than reporting:

The effect of the article is to make readers angry at Mr. Rothner, implying that he has raked in millions and engages in disreputable financial dealings while running a one-flew-over-the-cuckoos-nest style facility.  This is followed up by unsupported, vague and bland assertions that the state is in there making everything right.  So the public works up a righteous ire against the owner and rallies to the state.

What’s wrong with this?  Set emotion aside for a moment and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. The state has been inspecting Somerset, under the current owner, for 10 years.  Why now do they decide to close the ‘hell hole?’ How did the place pass inspections for the last 10 years?  Did the state stand idly by for 10 years? Was the facility operating fine for 10 years; if so, how did it plummet so fast?  By asking these questions, the Tribune would introduce rationality and put the spotlight on the real problem: (a) the state has been complicit with the poor care in (all) these facilities all along (b) Somerset is not really the hell-hole the state is conveniently deciding it is now.    This would lead to a critical question: what’s the state up to? (or for that matter, what is Ald. Smith really up to?)
  2. The Tribune reports that Somerset earned a profit of 21 million over 8 years, which means 2.6 million per year.   The implication is that this profit is shameful.  Why is that? How much profit do other nursing homes make? How much profit does a hospital make? How much profit does your bank make when it lets you take your own money from an ATM?  Is the Tribune implying that the state is overpaying for these services? If so, they should say that. Or is the problem that the owners have made any profit and not provided the services expected. If so, then profit is irrelevant: the issue is the quality of care provided, which takes us back to question #1.  If Rothner has been milking an unethical cash cow for years, the state has been feeding and fattening the cow the whole time.  But the Tribune includes this information to get you mad and make you stop thinking rationally.  In the process, like any good propaganda, diverting your attention from the state’s role in all this, past, present and future.
  3. The entire Tribune series focuses on dangerous felons being inappropriately housed in nursing homes, citing specifically 67 in Somerset.  Again, the Tribune fails to inform us what, exactly, the state has done with these 67 individuals that, according to the Tribune, are highly dangerous.  That is because they do not want you to know the answer: they have simply moved them to other facilities very similar to Somerset or, I believe in at least one instance, placed them in community living arrangements.  These dangerous offenders are, according to the Tribune reports, the heart of the story.  Where are they now? Funny, no one asks.
  4. This article reports that 43 residents have been screened for community living (though some of these opted to remain in an institutional setting).  That leaves nearly 300 residents unaccounted for? Where did they go? To other similar facilities? What is the track record of those other facilities? How many were able to go where they wanted? How far were they displaced?

The real story here is that the State of Illinois has for decades neglected their responsibility to provide care for the chronically mentally ill and have simply dumped these people into nursing homes, which they paid more poorly than most other states, and for which they provided extremely poor oversight eventually creating the mess the Tribune is, in its own sophomoric way, reporting on.  And now the state wants to avoid court interference in its autonomy as a result of two pending lawsuits and, during this budget crunch, wants to rake in matching federal dollars provided for community based care.  So suddenly, they want residents out of these facilities.  But instead of first developing the services—both the intensive treatment programs for high risk patients as well as the community based services—and then rationally transitioning current nursing home residents into these new services, the state is, in a remarkable show of stupidity, putting the cart before the horse and starting to clear out the nursing homes first.  If Marx and Jackson were responsible reporters, they might ask questions about this instead of accepting as fact every bland assurance fed to them by the state.  Instead, like good propagandists, they whip the public into a sense of outrage against the bad guy owners.  In this way, the state gets cheered as it goes about making an even bigger mess of things and no one stops to ask any rational questions which might, just might, make the state slightly uncomfortable.  The state couldn’t hire better propagan. . .uh, I mean, public relations services.

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