by William Du Bois, Ph.D.
Former Assistant Professor of Sociology
South Dakota State University
One year ago, after the publication of our review of CD and DVD editions of Encyclopedia Britannica 2002, Nemo received an intriguing email from a loyal reader, stating:
I ran into several articles on the Britannica site to which as an educator and Ph.D. sociologist, I was appalled.
Anything with social or political implications, I would be quite skeptical of treating as true.
Britannica didn’t used to be like this.
Nemo maintained a regular email correspondence with Bill Du Bois, encouraging him to expand on his original perspective. What follows is a long, detailed, opinionated commentary on why the non-print editions of Encyclopedia Britannica have a strong bias. Du Bois accepts responsibility for his essay, and welcomes your responses.
The function of propaganda is … exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for. Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.
Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf
One of the new ways of doing propaganda these days is to disguise it as objective knowledge. One thing I noted when the Encyclopedia Britannica used to give free access to their website was the articles had a definite right wing political bias. You may not be familiar with how right wing “think” tanks make things easier for journalists by providing free content. They flood journalists across the country with (supposed) studies, research briefs, and biased statistics.
On a slow news day, a local editor is apt to run one. Of course, it is all designed to promote the agenda of the rich patrons who fund these think tanks. Having seen the Heritage Institute and Cato Institute listed as sources on the Britannica web page from time to time, it made me wonder what kind of “services” they might be providing for Britannica.
Looking up controversial issues on their web page, it wasn’t hard to determine Britannica’s version of reality. I went to teen pregnancy, Rush Limbaugh, and pollution. [“Just Say No” to puberty would solve teen pregnancy; Limbaugh seems to be some sort of literary giant whose book had the largest advance printing in history, and pollution doesn’t appear to be that bad although there are all kinds of cantankerous rules.]
A number of articles I checked on different social problems used what could hardly be considered reliable sources (Heritage and Cato again along with other conservative policy organizations). I soon became quite skeptical of treating anything it said that had social or political implications as fact. I had Britannica growing up as a kid. It didn’t used to be like this.
Blowing Smoke? Pushing iMac?
Think tanks today have tried to set themselves up as unbiased experts when in reality they are little more than propaganda mills. Similar things are going on in industry. Most people don’t know there is even a deep seeded campaign to fill research journals with the proper perspectives.
The tobacco industry has turned this into an art form funding their own journals and conferences with respectable scientists and then planting an article or two with their own perspective which can then later be cited in other journals. It is all a high stakes propaganda campaign. Consumer Reports did a nice job several years ago detailing the tobacco folks’ efforts to create a paper trail in regards to second hand smoke. (January 1995, pp. 27-33)
In the movies, product placement has become a typical technique. When you see an actress smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer in a movie, you can be sure that the particular brand has paid money to be placed there. It’s a paid commercial — but the audience doesn’t know a company paid to have it written right into the script.
Some product placements are freebies. It is always nice to see a friendly iMac sitting smiling on your favorite sit-com. Many Hollywood folks love their so Macs much they give them cameo roles. But many promotions are like that Jim Carey movie The Truman Show a few years back in which the kid was raised on a 24-7 live soap opera where almost everything he touched was actually a paid product endorsement.
Similar techniques have entered the world of politics where they matter most. The plug may not be paid for in cash, but it is inserted to promote an agenda. Public relations firms have taken spin doctoring into whole new arenas in the battle for your mind.
There seems be a trend of trying to leave a paper trail in academia to make it look like the legitimate scholarship and research supports certain political conclusions. This made me even more curious about Britannica. I wondered if the apparent political influences were limited to their web content.
We All Know It’s a Liberal News Media
If you don’t believe it is a liberal news media, just turn it on. It’s busy telling you it is. If someone writes a book saying so, it is on all the channels. You don’t hear alternative views.
In the late 1960’s, young Nixon speechwriter named Patrick Buchannan (yea, that one) invented the myth of the liberal news media. Upset, the news media allowed opponents to present opposition views following Presidential addresses, Vice President Agnew was unleashed to deliver these speeches attacking the media as liberals. How dare they challenge the President’s version of Vietnam? As Buchannan noted, that hadn’t happened in World War II when FDR had given his fireside chats. Lack of bias should mean telling all sides. But that’s not what Buchannan had in mind. The media should be a neutral carrier — and to them that meant putting out whatever it was the President wanted — without presenting any commentary from other sides.
Later when charged with crimes, Nixon and his Vice President again tried to pass it off saying the “liberal news media” was just out to get them. However, investigating the evidence a grand jury and Congressional Committee found truth to charges and each would in turn resign. Ironically, the nation would later come to believe the myth of the liberal news media at the same time conservative right wing companies (including major defense contractors and a nuclear company) were buying up the television networks. Today we even have the Fox News Network, which is run by the director of Rush Limbaugh’s television show. Talk about information.
Bias means not presenting both sides equally. Let’s see how Britannica does. I went exploring the Britannica 2002 CD. Maybe I was just reading things into this.
I thought I’d select topics on which someone with a right wing bias might not be able to resist going off the deep end. First stop, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal: conservatives hate that. Sure enough, we learn in the first paragraph about “resistance from business and other segments of the community to ‘socialistic’ tendencies of the New Deal.”
Britannica can’t resist this characterization of Roosevelt’s successful Works Progress Administration that put millions of people to work:
While critics called the WPA an extension of the dole or a device for creating a huge patronage army loyal to the Democratic Party, the stated purpose of the program was to provide useful work for millions of victims of the Great Depression and thus to preserve their skills and self-respect.
It concludes: “increasing charges of mismanagement and of abuse of the program by workers led to a reduction in appropriations, and a strike by construction workers against wage cuts was unsuccessful.” Hardly sounds like a success story.
O.K., conservatives don’t like labor unions either. What does it say about organized labor? It was divided into two equal sections one talking about unions and a rebuttal section saying what is wrong with them. Maybe Britannica is just being balanced.
Skimming a section on “Work, history of” (not the world’s sexiest title), I learned about automation on the assembly line but nothing about how management books say paying attention to customers and workers is good business. I did find out about the advantages of the “Factory farms.” Those wanting to preserve family farms would object to this section but big corporations certainly would applaud. Who’s writing this stuff?
I was surprised to learn women only entered the work force after women’s work had been made easier and transformed by technology. Golly. I’d always thought it had to do with housework not being self-fulfilling.
Hmmm… Rush Limbaugh is always raving about feminists. I wondered what Britannica thought. There is no topic of “feminism” but there is a short entry for “the women’s liberation movement.” It includes mention of Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book; The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. There is no mention of much happening after that. I did learn that “Feminists…agitated against mass-media presentations of women …”
Gloria Steinem is one of the best known founders of the women’s movement. I wondered what it said about her. Actually most of the article is not too bad. However, it does stoop to degrading her rise to popularity by saying that she first “gained attention in 1963 with her article ‘I Was a Playboy Bunny,’ which recounted her experience as a scantily clad waitress at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club.” There is no mention that she was an undercover investigative reporter trying to reveal working conditions and exploitation.
Those of us old enough to know a bunny from a pet will recall the public once thought Playboy Clubs were glamorous. The article changed all that with tales of 15-hour shifts in the undersized shoes management thought looked more feminine. Costumes with metal wires that tore gapping sores in every waitress’ sides as they pushed all available flesh up into cleavage. But the Britannica writer misses that.
O.K., I figured if Britannica is biased, it is not going to be out there in bright lights. I wasn’t really expecting Britannica to come right out and say on an entry about someone well know, like say, Bill Clinton — “Bozo Toad, bad fellow.” If you are going to pretend to be objective, you have to at least pretend. Even Fox News pretends. I began to look up obscure topics I thought might give away political bias.
I tried a couple of historical topics conservatives are peeved about to this day. Sure enough, both got a conservative spin. Conservatives are still steaming about the Bay of Pigs attempted invasion of Cuba. Many conspiracy theorists felt President Kennedy’s refusal to give air support to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion engendered wide spread right wing hatred. Britannica gives is no indication President Kennedy did anything but approve of the Bay of Pigs invasion or that he removed Allen Dulles as director of the CIA over it. Ironically Dulles would later be the one actually conducting the Warren Commission investigation into Kennedy’s assassination. No mention of that here.
Salvador Allende was a democratically elected socialist leader of Chile who immediately kicked a bunch of rich American corporations out of the country. Most historians say he was assassinated with help of the CIA in 1973. A Congressional Committee investigating in 1976 thought so and Congress even passed a law outlawing assassinating foreign leaders. No mention. Britannica instead says it was controversial whether or not Allende committed suicide. Possible CIA involvement is not mentioned or then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger commenting at the time, “Why should Chile be allowed to fall to Marxism just because of the foolishness of its people?”
Most people weren’t alive during the Bay of Pigs invasion and have never heard anything about Salvador Allende. But that’s precisely the point. If you can’t trust the encyclopedia, whom can you trust?
If your kids are learning about all this for the first time, they are going to get a one-sided picture of history. Britannica says Dictator General Pinochet who replaced Allende suppressed liberal dissent and arrested 130,000 people but there is no mention of his brutal murder of thousands. It gives rave reviews to this dictator saying although he was criticized he lowered inflation and opened free markets having freed the nation from socialism. There is no mention he overthrew a democratically elected leader.
Closer to Home
How about concerns today? There is not a hint of controversy surrounding its treatment of the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization so hated by today’s left wing activists.
Moving along, thankfully, there’s no Monica Lewinsky entry or even a trashing of Oliver Stone. (I’m saving Terrorism for the next section…)
Conservatives believe we need to get tough on crime. The entry on Punishment should be revealing. Notice how the conservative view gets portrayed in a passive voice of historical necessity.
In the latter half of the 20th century, many people objected to [a humanitarian] view of punishment, feeling that it placed too little responsibility on the offender for his actions, that it undervalued the deterrent effect of stiff punishment, and that it ignored society’s right to retribution.
Hmmm…… No need to even go beating around the Bushes. Maybe I should approach this head-on and ask Britannica’s opinion of Conservatives and Liberals.
Through the Front Door
Looking up Conservatism, I found that conservatives “performed the nation’s spiritual arithmetic, calculating the spiritual price of material progress and of a robotizing technology.” And that “the impulse among young people in the 1970s [towards] ecology and environment” was “unconsciously conservative… even when under radical slogans.” Huh? Remember those in the ecology movement thought they were left wing.
Britannica continues, “These unconscious young conservers sublimate the old class-based elitism into a new value-based elitism, open to all….” What a bizarre reading of history. Counterculture left wing radicals were really unconsciously conservatives? And they rescued conservatism from being just for the rich elite? And when you wade through the cumbersome rhetoric, a “value-based elitism” means conservatives have better values.
In case, one thinks this isn’t what Britannica is saying, it gets worse. The whole tone of the Encyclopedia Britannica is liberals embrace an outmoded political philosophy incapable of dealing with today’s problems. The entry on conservatism continues.
The impact of the horrors allowed at Auschwitz has purged — in effect conservatized –many modern liberals out of their most unconservative axiom: … the “natural goodness” of man and the masses. For many, the real battle for the future now seems to be an alliance of such chastened liberals with conservatives….
So the liberal worldview has been thoroughly discredited and we must now repentantly join with conservatives? What? I would certainly think the horrors of Hitler’s right wing fanaticism wouldn’t lead the world to embrace more right wing solutions.
Actually, liberals believe most people want to do good and want a better world. Liberals certainly need to be streetwise. Societies can certainly go terribly wrong. But that doesn’t mean we are stuck with conservative pessimism about human possibilities.
However, like Rush Limbaugh spewing forth in the afternoon, the writer is on a roll and continues his high-brow equivalent: “In the late 20th century, however, many would say that it may be argued that the predilection of governments to extend their role in social life is so strong as to necessitate a more articulate, even aggressive, conservatism.” So that explains their nastiness?
Fight Terrorism — Conservatism Is in Our Genes?
Going to the Britannica’s “Web Navigator” to search for “liberalism” gets you to an article from the National Review on “Liberalism and Terrorism.” The subheading: “The chronic guilt that defines modern liberalism makes liberal politicians fundamentally unable to deal with terrorists.” (Certainly is a nice timely reminder)
The National Review is an ultra conservative publication. There is no disclosure of this. In fact, Britannica gives this article five stars — its highest rating. It is interesting Britannica would dig up an obscure 1996 National Review article as a way to discredit liberals when it comes to terrorism. The description of the article says it discusses “the relationship between violence and freedom using Thomas Jefferson’s ideologies as a base.” Huh? Thomas Jefferson siding with conservatives and discrediting liberalism? Jefferson was a liberal. Hmmm….
Of the seven websites, Britannica cites for liberalism, at least four are blatantly conservative including a C-SPAN presentation by nominee Robert Bork whose nomination for the Supreme Court was defeated because of his extreme radical right wing views.
In case one might think Britannica is just being overly fair by presenting most sites critical of liberalism, let’s take a look at what a “Web Navigator” search reveals for “conservatism.” Six sites come up — one of which is an article you also find in a search for liberalism comparing Edmund Burke and some obscure person named Hayek they have designate as a liberal. (Oddly, looking up Hayek in Britannica, it says “Economist noted for his conservative views and criticisms of the Keynesian welfare state.) None of the sites are critical of the conservative agenda. The National Review (which appears to be one of their favorite sources) gets an article to argue modern biology proves conservatives are right. The subtitle of this article on “The Origins of Conservatism” says “Evolutionary theories suggest that conservative politics are necessary to govern a fallen man.”
I guess being conservative is programmed into our genes. God must have wanted us to be that way. I wonder if Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and FDR were misfits or mutations? (I would agree LBJ was but then he was hooked up with Texas oil millionaires….)
When Britannica discusses anything that is liberal, they spend half the article criticizing and refuting it. When conservative causes are presented, there is usually not such a two-sided presentation. There is no critique of the conservative worldview and its inadequacies.
Selfishness Is Good — Altruism is Bad….. Huh?
Nowhere is Encyclopedia Britannica’s bias more obvious than in its treatment of altruism and egoism. Altruism is a concept that actually means being a good neighbor and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, Britannica’s discussion of altruism is 90% criticism. It emphasizes the need to pursue self-interest rather than helping others.
How strange. However, that seems to be what it is saying. People should fend for themselves. It criticizes what it calls the “obligation to further the pleasures and alleviate the pains of other people.” This is in an article on “altruism!”
Extreme conservatives are intent upon the pursuit of self-interest without regard to others as the core of capitalism. Perhaps this explains the bizarre rendition Britannica gives altruism and egoism. I got the strange sense the writer somehow equated altruism with socialism. On the other hand, I think of altruism as being the Good Samaritan.
If we look altruism up in the dictionary, we find Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) saying it is “Regard for others,…brotherly kindness; — opposed to egoism or selfishness. ” Even Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary bundled with Britannica knows this: “unselfish regard for….the welfare of others.” That’s what I thought. However, Britannica discredits altruism as an unwise strategy.
Egoism should be the supreme value and altruism is bad. This idea reminded me of something familiar from my own teen years as an ultra conservative. I decided to follow the intuition. The name Ayn Randis hardly a household word to most Americans but she was once a cult figure for ultra conservatives. Her books including Atlas Shrugged said we should shrug off the weight of the world — we are not our brother’s keeper. There is no need to feel in any way responsible for others. It is perfectly proper to just be out for only yourself. One of her books was even called The Virtue of Selfishness. I looked and sure enough, Britannica had an entry on Rand. It was instructive as to where Britannica was headed:
A deeply conservative philosophy, … elevating the pursuit of self-interest to the role of first principle and scorning such notions as altruism and sacrifice for the common good as liberal delusions and even vices. It further held laissez-faire capitalism is most congenial to the exercise of talent.
Pay dirt. That is exactly the argument Britannica had been making. The obsession is to tear down any suggestions that there are reasons to come together as a community and pool our resources for the common good. Perhaps this is why Britannica is so compelled to discredit altruism.
Whereas the entry on altruism spends 90% of its time criticizing altruism, the idea of egoism is presented in only a positive light. Britannica’s section on Egoism says:
an ethical theory holding that the good is based on the pursuit of self-interest.
… They see perfection sought through the furthering of a man’s own welfare and profit-allowing…
Ah, yes, “profit-allowing.” Is that why the writers are so afraid of any unbiased discussion of altruism? Many philosophers have held that self love and love of others are intertwined but Britannica embraces the extreme conservative view that regard for others and for self are opposites. Sounds more and more like compassionate conservatism was just an advertising slogan. Defending Egoism as the supreme value, it says:
In contrast with such views is an ethics that is governed more by man’s social aspects, which stresses the importance of the community rather than that of the individual.
Britannica doesn’t get it. It conceives of altruism as a threat to self-interest. This is all part of an extreme right wing ideology. But community and self-fulfillment are not opposites. Selfishness and greed do not led to fulfillment. I can best be myself in a community where people care about each other.
We used to talk about how when the Communists took over a country, they rewrote history. Now with the help of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the conservatives are rewriting history and knowledge to fit their own political agenda.
Encyclopedia Britannica’s own discussion of propaganda begins:
dissemination of information –facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies — to influence public opinion. As a systematic effort to persuade, propaganda is an act of advocacy in mass communication, involving the making of deliberately one-sided statements to a mass audience. The one-sided presentations common to propaganda are used to spread and nourish particular images by emphasizing only the good points of one position and the bad points of another.
This is a pretty good definition of propaganda. It is also sums up too many of the articles in Britannica. To be fair, as long as a topic isn’t in danger of rubbing conservatives the wrong way, Britannica does an okay job. But Britannica needs to be more careful of the company it keeps.
After having completed a year exploring Britannica 2002, I am in no hurry to upgrade. With all the right wing paranoia since September 11, I’d bet Britannica 2003 will be even more of a toastmaster’s dream to the conservative agenda.
William Du Bois, Ph.D.