Is Our Media Responsible for Millions of Deaths?

The Huffington Post picked this one up too, so please read it on their website. They changed the title from this one, and deleted the following, amazing (but very true) quote from convicted Nazi war criminal Hermann Göring, which I think is worth adding back in here: “Of course the people don’t want war. … But … it is always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it is a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. … All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.”

It looks like a number of my future posts will be on their web site, and you can look for them on my page there. They prefer to keep posts under 1,000 words, and I will sometimes post longer versions here for people wanting more depth.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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3 Responses to Is Our Media Responsible for Millions of Deaths?

  1. Zach Borich says:

    Hello Professor Hellman,

    It’s been awhile since I had posted a comment on your blog, but this latest one of yours has caught my attention. I would be foolhardy to suggest that my opinions on domestic or foreign affairs are not is some way influenced by mainstream media coverage, geopolitical affairs in particular. I think few would argue the influential nature media has on public opinion, perception, and many other variables. Being impartial is challenging, especially when I observe an increasing level of intrusive and, in some ways, unsolicited displays of information that are becoming increasingly difficult to avoid (i.e. pop-ups, redirects, commercials on youtube, commercials on social networking sites, etc.). Finding others who show interest debating the nuclear threat, or any issue for that matter, seems almost like an exercise in futility at times, not because my intent is purely persuasive, but just to get people to discuss matters that the media seems to have no interest in. Most are satisfied with what is on TV or any sources of information that have the greatest visibility to the general public.

    I contemplate at times whether this trend will continue unabated, further eroding each American’s willingness to think critically and, especially to differentiate between events that have little, if any significance on each person’s lives versus those situations that will have long term consequences resulting from irresponsible or reckless mandates. But more importantly, I cannot help but think that in some way we are all responsible for these incalculable deaths mentioned in your arguments. How much, if any, of these responsibilities are in our hands I don’t think can be quantified nor can anyone truthfully answer. However, the tendency for the general public (and I am just as guilty at times) to accept what is most convenient as the unvarnished truth and the failure of all of us to effectively challenge our policymakers, not only appears to be a factor in needless wars, but seems like a challenge that cannot be overcome in the information age at times. There just seems to be too many distractions. These challenges of course are not legitimate reasons for anyone to surrender their principles to the status quo of information extraction and scrutiny, but in the end will anything said by people like us who are aware – to varying degrees – of the nuclear threat, have a meaningful impact against the clamor of mainstream media that has had years of expertise in capturing the public’s attention?

    When I view your articles and compare them to mainstream media sources covering the situation in Ukraine, the sentiment I observe from the reader’s comments from the mainstream sources seems to confirm your arguments discussed here and highlights misconceptions of how severe the consequences would be should an armed conflict between NATO and the Russian Federation come to fruition. While I am not the least surprised by the media’s portrayal of Putin as a thug or the misconception from some people that the U.S. is omnipotent with its technological and naval superiority, what concerns me the most is that the prospect of nuclear warfare is rarely discussed whenever disputes such as the one in Ukraine occur. In the rare event that it is, most either minimize the danger by suggesting a limited exchange on a regional scale, exaggerate our capabilities, or dismiss the prospect altogether either because the nuclear threat is a relic of the past or that the damage to the global economy would mitigate any potential that this would happen. From my own perspective, this mentality isn’t exclusive towards the situation we are in now but is often expressed the most when disputes are making headlines between the U.S. and DPRK or Iran.

    I would take many of the comments I have read from public networks or other well established sources of information with a grain of salt if it weren’t for the fact that I have acquaintances, co-workers, and close friends that either have similar opinions or are indifferent altogether. I even overheard a gentlemen at the cafeteria I work at blurt out “Send in the Marines and get rid of them!” What alarmed me had less to do with his loud assertions as a response situations going on in the middle east, this was Ukraine he was responding to. He made his viewpoints well known in the cafeteria while CNN was airing a report from Ukraine. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have no recollection of anyone recognizing the potential for a nuclear war during times when the U.S. is in the throes of a dispute with another nation state, many of which have national interests for the Russian Federation. Although not stated in a direct manner, it seems that people I know believe the threat died with the cold war (as you yourself have ascertained quite often) or that our technological superiority would give us first strike capabilities sufficient enough to thwart any potential for retaliatory or counter strike.

    But, given all of the media hype over China’s lack of transparency over its modernization of their conventional forces, the apparent modernization of Russia’s nuclear forces, and budget cuts in our military (with questionable long-term consequences in my opinion), the other extreme mentality is the “we must stop em'” cliche’ similar to what I grew up with during the latter and waning days of the cold war. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that something is different this time and perhaps far more dangerous when I compare public sentiment today with what I used to see growing up. I was too young to understand politics back then, but old enough to recognize that a drumbeat mentality towards our nuclear adversary wasn’t something people joked or boasted about. Such mannerisms, if they existed back then, were not talked about in such a bumptious and open manner that I witness all the time today, not only in online discussions, but even with people I am acquainted to. Furthermore, I do not recall any of our politicians making the types of reckless remarks towards the Russian leadership like John McCain – who seems to have earned himself quite a reputation for this – has. If they did, I can only assume they kept such sentiments private or that the media didn’t dare publish them.

    Maybe I am reading between the lines too much, but this concerns me greatly if any or all of these misconceptions are truly associated with popular opinion regarding the nuclear threat. While I surmise that nothing I have said here is revealing or surprising to yourself, and many of my arguments here may have already been highlighted in your blog. I think we can all attest to the reckless behavior of the media, which seems to be becoming more and more reckless and subjective. I suppose the days of Cronkite and even investigative journalism itself, such was the case with incidents like the Watergate Scandal, will ever come to fruition again. Perhaps my opinion here is baseless and overly cynical. But then again, I do not see what incentive there would be for an aspiring journalist to be inquisitive on this level throughout the course in his/her career. I wonder if doing so would be futile and a wasted investment considering the public’s overindulgence into things that are easy to obtain, but often times inaccurate or biased in their accounts. Information obtained using the fastest and most convenient way almost always trumps anything that actually takes time to investigate. Compounding the difficulty, especially when researching the nuclear threat, are the sensationalist, subjective, fancifully goofy sources that are not only painful to look at in abstract ways, but can be frustrating by their ability to hamper one’s will to research. That being said, I don’t get the impression that people have any desire to challenge or question the information being fed to them from sources that are the easiest to access for these reasons and perhaps because modern conveniences are supplementing the need to make sacrifices that are no longer necessary.

    So this brings me to some final thoughts, of which have been the subjects of many hours of debate between myself and the handful of people who will actually listen. If people as of now are indifferent to the nuclear threat or believe it is minimal at best, and show little if any will to challenge the assumptions that are often mistaken as facts, what happens if someday a dispute actually escalates to the point where – God-willing this doesn’t happen – NATO and Russian forces are staring down the barrels of each others guns along the border between Russia and the Baltic states or perhaps Ukraine? Would people still drumbeat their hawkish politicians, unaware that their lives or standards of living hang in the balance with irreversible consequences? Would this drumbeat sentiment of the masses continue to be fueled by the mainstream media until it is too late? How do we even get people to care about what is going on, when many are already indulging in distractions that seem to satisfy their needs already, including information many would rather accept as opposed to taking the time and effort to verify the factual basis of such information? Making sacrifices seems to be a fading virtue in some ways but who can be surprised when conditions continue to evolve that mitigate the need to do so?

    As always, your blog has been a haven of learning experiences for me and a great resource of objective information that is exceptionally rare to find on the internet. That being said, I would like to know your what thoughts are about what I have mentioned here, especially ones that don’t agree with my assertions.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Zach,

    Your concerns and observations are spot on. Just this morning I was talking with a Congressional candidate and, when I mentioned that the nation seemed to be totally ignoring the nuclear dimension of the risk in Ukraine, she asked me “What nuclear dimension?”

    Her question is not surprising because the whole nation has that attitude. Just this past March, Pres. Obama reinforced that mistaken belief when he said: “Russia’s actions are a problem [but] they don’t pose the number-one national security threat to the United States.  I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

    Pilots generally agree that complacency is our worst enemy, and the same is at least as true for nations with nuclear weapons. Several years ago, I wrote a short article, “Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons,” which connects those two risks. It starts off:

    “Letʼs face it, nuclear weapons are the elephant in the room that no one likes to talk about. So letʼs approach the issue from the less threatening perspective of the awesome picture below.”

    That article may be a better way to engage your friends. Let me know if it works.

    Martin

    • Zach Borich says:

      Martin,

      Thank you for your feedback and also for providing the link in your reply. I have a vague recollection of reading this article before, but since I do not recall most, if any, of its details, I will no doubt peruse its contents again. I am a little alarmed to hear that at least some policy makers seem to have forgotten just how many nuclear weapons the Russian Federation has, maybe even the U.S. But hopefully someday this will change…soon.

      Zach

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