2008.05.21 The Linguistics of Deception

This was published at 911blogger.com on May 21, 2008.

When CNN announced their documentary (transcript here) on the assassination of Martin Luther King, which aired here in Germany on April 6, I predicted that they would not mention the verdict of the 1999 Jowers trial. This was of course the civil suit that the King family brought against Loyd Jowers, the owner of the restaurant below the rooming house where James Earl Ray rented a room on April 4, 1968, and from which he supposedly shot King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel opposite. The King family won the suit, and though the legal consequences were trivial (Jowers was ordered to pay $100 in damages for "wrongful death"), it brought a certain amount of closure to the King family, and for them and millions of other (not only black) Americans, established the truth in the case as definitively as could be realistically expected. As the King family statement says:

1. We initially requested that a comprehensive investigation be conducted by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, independent of the government, because we do not believe that, in such a politically-sensitive matter, the government is capable of investigating itself.

2. The type of independent investigation we sought was denied by the federal government. But in our view, it was carried out, in a Memphis courtroom, during a month-long trial by a jury of 12 American citizens who had no interest other than ascertaining the truth. (Kings v. Jowers)

3. After hearing and reviewing the extensive testimony and evidence, which had never before been tested under oath in a court of law, it took the Memphis jury only 1½ hours to find that a conspiracy to kill Dr. King did exist. Most significantly, this conspiracy involved agents of the governments of the City of Memphis, the state of Tennessee and the United States of America. The overwhelming weight of the evidence also indicated that James Earl Ray was not the triggerman and, in fact, was an unknowing patsy.

4. We stand by that verdict and have no doubt that the truth about this terrible event has finally been revealed.

5. We urge all interested Americans to read the transcript of the trial on the King Center website and consider the evidence, so they can form their own unbiased conclusions.

This statement, as well as the verdict and transcript of the trial, is easily accessible on the King Center website, and William Pepper, the lawyer who represented the King family, was interviewed at length by CNN for the program, although virtually nothing he told them was included (see Pepper's interview on Air America). The full story, in addition to what is documented in the trial transcript, is detailed in William Pepper's 2003 book An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King.

Unfortunately, my prediction was right on the money. The CNN "documentary" makes no mention whatsoever of the most important documents in the case, the Jowers trial verdict and transcript and the King family statement. The King Center is mentioned, but not the King Center website where these documents are posted. Pepper's book is not mentioned either. Instead, we are given CNN's version of "the full story," which is the exact opposite of what those documents state. We are told that the Jowers trial was a "sham," that "questions still linger and fester," and that "some of Dr. King's closest aides believe the full story has yet to be told."

One of these aides was Andrew Young, who is quoted in the CNN program as saying: "I don't think he [Ray] "had anything to do with the killing."

Does this sound like a question?

Later on Young says, reflecting accurately the opinion of the court and the King family (neither of which is mentioned): "I think that there was a determination in very high places that our movement had to be stopped" and that the conspiracy "certainly went as far as the FBI. And the Memphis police. And the U.S. military."

Does this sound like a question?

Now, where does CNN get the idea that the Jowers trial was "a sham"? From John Campbell. John Campbell was the Shelby County criminal prosecutor in Memphis, Tenn., who prevented Ray from getting a trial during the last four years of his life (1994 to 1998). Ray tried unsuccessfully for 30 years to get a trial. He had been convicted on the basis of his so-called "confession" in 1968, more properly described as a plea bargain, which he recanted three days later. Thus the only trial that was ever allowed to take place in the King case, the Jowers civil trial, is dismissed as a "sham" by the man who prevented the criminal trial from taking place.

Why does Campbell--and CNN by implicit agreement--think the trial was a "sham"? Because "his [Jowers'] own lawyer put up little resistance, and the jury never had a chance to hear the prosecution's case."

Huh? The lawyer was a jerk, and the jury didn't hear the prosecution's case? What kind of trial was that?

This can only be a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. CNN (and of course Campbell) know perfectly well that Jowers' lawyer (Lewis Garrison) attempted no elaborate defense because Jowers did not resist the suit. On the contrary, Jowers repeatedly confessed that he played a minor role in the conspiracy to kill King, as did Ray (the patsy). As for "the prosecutor's case," CNN refers throughout the program to Campbell as "the prosecutor," although they know that he was not the prosecutor in the trial. The "prosecutors," more precisely, the plaintiffs, were the King family, and their case was not against Ray but against Jowers and "Other Unknown Co-Conspirators." This case most certainly was heard by the jury. But CNN is clearly hoping that viewers will understand "the prosecution's case" to mean the case against Ray. Thus the implication is that the trial was unfair, a "sham," because the jury didn't hear the case against Ray, which is utter and juridical nonsense. No jury ever heard the case against Ray because Campbell and other state prosecutors never allowed it. If they had, he would have been acquitted. The extensive testimony in the Jowers trial makes this clear; he was, as Jowers said, just a patsy.

What CNN calls "the full story" is what I call linguistic deception. One could also call it propaganda, or just plain lying, but there is a considerable amount of craft and subtlety involved in this kind of deception which needs to be exposed because we are confronted with it incessantly in the mainstream media without being aware of it. This is of course the point, and the craft. Words can be used honestly and dishonestly, and in the latter case they convey messages that are in fact lies, that is, deliberate falsehoods, without necessarily appearing to be.

Let us take a couple of more examples. The CNN program begins with this:

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, HOST: I'm Soledad O'Brien at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Forty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot down -- murdered right here on this balcony where I'm standing. The greatest civil rights leader in our nation's history killed before his dreams could be realized. The alleged assassin a small time criminal on the run.

Yet to this day, questions still linger and fester. And even some of Dr. King's closest aides believe the full story has yet to be told.

We will try.

I have already made the most important point--that the final sentence ("We will try [to tell the full story]") is ludicrous, given the fact that there is no mention in the film to the Jowers trial verdict or the King family statement. But now look at the three words in (my) italics. "Alleged" means "asserted to be true, questionably true." This is fair enough, and consistent with "questions" that "still linger and fester" and with people believing that "the full story as yet to be told." Why, then, the word "yet"? "Yet," like "but," implies a contrast. Where is the contrast? And what does the word "even" imply? It implies that that the people closest to MLK are the people most likely to have questions. What is going on here?

What is going on is that the writers want viewers to understand that Ray did it, even though questions remain, and these questions remain even in the minds of some of King's aides, who (as implied by the word "even") should be the people most likely to believe the official story (that Ray did it). How is this sleight-of-mouth accomplished? I think this is easiest to see if we look at (hear) the text as follows:

The greatest civil rights leader in our nation's history killed before his dreams could be realized. The assassin a small time criminal on the run.

Yet to this day, questions still linger and fester. And even some of Dr. King's closest aides believe the full story has yet to be told.

Now it makes sense. It is still factually wrong, but it is coherent (understandable): "Ray did it, but even some of Dr. King's closest aides (who should know better), still have questions." This is what we are supposed to understand. All we have to do to understand it is forget the word "alleged." Remember, the original is a stream of speech, not a written text. It's much easier to forget things in the stream of speech--especially when you put the key word in a non-prominent position in the sentence. The least prominent position in the sentence is before the subject ("assassin"), which is defined in some linguistic theories as the "old information" (or "topic"). The most prominent position is at the end, where the "new information" or "comment" is introduced about the subject ("[is] on the run"). The information that Ray is (was) "on the run" is not really new, or even important, but the syntax prevents "alleged" from being the focus of attention, and it can thus be more easily ignored. The words "yet" and "even" in what follows then make sense, and we have a coherent idea. The problem is, the idea is wrong. It misrepresents the facts, which we know if we know what the Jowers verdict and the King family statement say, but not if we only hear the CNN report. The King family and the other people closest to King, such as Andrew Young, do NOT have "questions" about whether or not Ray was the assassin. It is quite simply a lie to imply that they do, and it has to be a purposeful one because the facts are clear.

For another example of linguistic subterfuge, let's cut to the end of the program:

Forty years later, it's still hard to believe that such a towering man of his time had his life ended by someone who was barely more than just a petty criminal.

We're often reluctant to recognize that great tragedy can arise from small and twisted minds. But that's what we believe happened to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., leaving all of America, black and white, with an everlasting loss.

I won't make much of "everlasting," which has a poetic ring but only means "permanent." "Tragic," "horrible," or even "big" would have been more appropriate, and more consistent with "towering." After all, the loss of J. Edgar Hoover is also permanent, though I doubt that many would consider it tragic. This could have been simply a poor choice of words. No such excuse is possible for the next point, which involves the use of the word "we" in the last two sentences. In the first one, it clearly means "all of us," that is, "people," "everybody." That's fine. CNN can muse about human nature. But what about that second "we"? Does it still mean "all of us"? Clearly, we are supposed to think so.

But again, this is factually wrong. "We" do not believe that's what happened to Dr. King. The King family do not believe it, the judge and jury in the Jowers trial do not believe it, and tens of millions of other Americans do not believe it. But instead of telling us this, and then clarifying "we" the only way it could be truthfully clarified, by saying "we at CNN," the writers choose to leave us with the totally false insinuation that "everybody" believes Ray did it

I realize that what I have been doing here, analyzing the transcript of a TV program, is quite abnormal. Who would bother, except a drudge like me? It is hard work, unraveling the language of deception, deconstructing the lies, and not particularly rewarding work. It's not as if I were a literary critic discovering the hermetic meaning of some great work of art. Sisyphus himself would throw up his hands at the prospect of chipping away at the mountains of propaganda that constitute our omnipresent media landscape. As a linguist and a language teacher, I am probably more patient than most with this kind of thing, but how many of us would it take, working 24/7, to keep up with the "mainstream" flow of lies, omissions and distortions? "Mainstream" is a misnomer, since the corporate publishers do not represent anything like a "mainstream" of the population, much as they would like us to believe they do, so I prefer the term "media mafia"; they have the resources, the money, the manpower and the organizations to control what passes for information, news, and in the case of this "documentary," for history.

Still, we are in an information war, and we have to fight. This has become clearer than ever after 9/11, but the King case is particularly instructive because the truth about it has been established in a way, namely, in a court of law, that the truth about many other so-called "mysteries," such as the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and most importantly 9/11, will probably never be established. We have the opportunity to see quite clearly, as I have tried to demonstrate, how deceptively and dishonestly even a relatively respectable news organ such as CNN will behave when called upon to toe the Inner Party line.

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