]]]]]]]]]]    FOLK TRUTHS: HOW THE MEDIA USE THEM TO LIE    [[[[[[[[[[ 
           by H. Peter Metzger, Ph.D. (Freeman 80303METZ)     (9/8/88)  

     By "Folk Truths" I mean claims that are held to be facts by the 
media, but which can be seen, after serious reflection by almost 
anyone, to be obvious lies. They are nothing more than propaganda, 
stories made up to support a political conclusion, but with one major 
difference: They are all dolled up in scientific mumbo-jumbo, which 
makes them acceptable to people who wanted to believe them in the 
first place but who needed a better reason than merely their own 
political passion.
     Examples of folk truths range from the basis for the reasons why 
Americans of Japanese descent were forced into relocation camps in 
America during World War II, to how giant public works projects, like 
dams and pipelines, were cancelled over fears that they would disturb 
a rare fish or a plant, which turned out later wasn't so rare after 
     In looking back on some of these fiascos, it's easy ridicule the 
folk truths of another time. But it's always been more amusing to me 
to investigate the folk truths of today, at a time when most people 
still believe in them. And what I find most interesting is not so much 
the debunking of them (which Petr does so well in AtE) but the 
mechanism by which these folk truths got started in the first place.
     And so I thought you FREEMEN might be interested in some I've 
tracked over the years. I'll start with this currently fashionable 
     "America is such a cruel country that its old people have to eat 
cat food in order to survive".
     Naturally, since we're talking about lies here, the people that 
start these folk truths have very personal reasons for doing so. 
Sometimes it's just for the ego-pumping notoriety of it all, but 
usually it's a political activist that makes an attention-getting 
claim for some special political advantage. That's how this one got 
     In 1985 a woman from a small Vermont town testified before the 
governor's task force on hunger that her neighbor had resorted to 
eating pet food because she couldn't afford to buy regular meat on her 
fixed-income. Many similar claims have been made before and since, but 
this one led directly to justification by scientific mumbo-jumbo.
     The media find it difficult to make a big issue by quoting the 
claims of a single person. So the original claim must be strengthened 
by having a group of authorities jump on the bandwagon. One authority 
is seldom enough but when a single authority can be made to seem to be 
a much larger group (as in "The New York Times says ...", when it's 
really only one reporter doing the writing), then a single authority 
will do. That's what happened in this case:
     In 1986, a second-year medical student wrote to The New England 
Journal of Medicine concerning the above claim. In a letter-to-the-
editor (not in a scientific article,) she compared the nutritional 
values of cat food (as supplied by the companies) with published 
recommended daily allowances and found that they presented a "benign 
nutritional profile", not a surprising conclusion since cats live off 
the stuff.
     While the tone of her letter clearly revealed that she would 
rather have found something more damaging, that's all there was to it.
     However, it didn't end there. Like many publications, journals 
that produce technical and scientific news, like the New England 
Journal of Medicine, send out press releases to hundreds of media 
outlets, calling attention to articles in their latest issues, hoping 
for publicity.
     Thus, a newspaper or a television station, quoting from the press 
release, no longer has to quote the medical student. Instead, they can 
now base the story on a much higher authority, such as "The New 
England Journal of Medicine said today that old people have to eat cat 
food to survive", for example. With the story thus transformed, any 
local news writer who is politically inclined, can have a field day. 
He is now provided with the moral authority to write the story as a 
"scandal", with righteous indignation. And so the report was carried 
all across the country, making it a folk truth: a lie which everyone 
     It appeared in words like these, from my local newspaper: "It is 
a national disgrace of gross proportions that the senior citizens of 
the most prosperous nation on earth feel forced to consume animal feed 
to survive." (note how in this version, cat food became transformed 
into "animal feed", creating even more brutal images). Similar stories 
turned up all over the country.
     Now as  I mentioned above, people believe in a folk truth only 
until they reflect a bit, whereupon it suddenly becomes obvious that 
it must have been a lie. In this case, my scan of my local supermarket 
shelves at the time (July, 1986) revealed that the cat food in 
question cost 35 cents per can. That figures out to be 93 cents per 
pound (some cat food costs twice that). It didn't take long to 
determine that chicken liver costs less per pound (90 cents), fresh 
chicken fryers even less (89 cents), frozen pork shoulder still less 
(69 cents) and they practically give eggs away at 50 cents per pound.
     Now why would an old person with normal intelligence, who wants 
to economize, eat cat food when she could get human food instead, and 
for far less money?  Thus, the problem is either one of simple 
consumer-education, or the whole story was made up in the first place 
for some political purpose. News writers, who claim to be professional 
skeptics, couldn't have given the consumer-education angle a thought 
but seized upon this story as an opportunity for Amerika-bashing 
     My local newspaper reporter didn't want to talk about it and 
neither did the New England Journal of Medicine. I wrote a long 
rebuttal letter to the editor which wasn't printed, of course.
     To summarize, what we have here is the creation of a politically-
based myth, a "folk truth", in the form of a dire warning from an 
authoritative medical journal, supporting the perpetuation of a 
currently fashionable libel against our nation's care for our poor. I 
didn't catch it on Radio Moscow (which I listen to), but I'm sure it 
covered the story. It is the habit of that service to include such 
libels against America in all of its broadcasts, every chance it can. 
Today two years later after this letter appeared, you can hardly find 
an American who hasn't heard the story and who believes it too (in a 
passive way). Ask your friends about it!
     So what's the motive...and who benefitted? The old woman (if 
there ever really was one) got attention and sympathy. The political 
activist got notoriety and the feeling that she was doing good. But 
the reporters got glee two-fold, once from the joy that one gets from 
sticking it to the bad guys (in this case: "Reaganomics"), and again 
from the feeling that they had no justification to do what they did 
but they did it anyway and no one can touch them for it.

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