Power of propaganda, from Nazi era to now

One man’s propaganda is another man’s fact,” writer Eli Attie told an audience of approximately 100 students and other guests gathered at the University of Southern California’s Doheny Memorial Library. They were gathered for the panel discussion “Mind Over Media: Politics, Propaganda and the Digital Age,” on Sept. 20. 

Organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the panel explored how propaganda can be used as a force for political gain, taking the example of Nazi-ruled Germany, but continuing through the current United States presidential elections.

Speakers included leading figures from the entertainment and information technology industries, and they exchanged ideas on how today’s consumers of political messaging can recognize and respond to information offered by the media, campaign advertisements and candidates’ rhetoric.

The Nazis exceled at manipulation through communication, said Steven Luckert, a curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and they used propaganda images that “portrayed Hitler the way movie stars were portrayed.”

Luckert was joined by Attie, a writer for TV’s “The West Wing” and a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore; Nancy Snow, professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton; and Tom Waldman, director of communications for the Los Angeles Unified School District. 

The moderators included Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, and USC student and Daily Trojan news editor Daniel Rothberg.

A slideshow, providing examples of historically significant propaganda, included images of Hitler from 1930s Germany and the famous 1964 “Daisy Girl” TV commercial used by the campaign of President Lyndon B. Johnson when he ran for re-election, aiming to highlight the hawkishness of his Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.

One USC student, who identified himself during the audience Q-and-A portion only as Eli, said that the simplicity of one image shown in the slideshow —  a campaign poster of Adolf Hitler used during Germany’s 1932 presidential elections  that featured Hitler’s face floating against a dark backdrop — reminded him of President Barack Obama’s “Hope” posters from the 2008 United States presidential election. He said he was not comparing Obama to Hitler, but rather how leaders are presented, and the panelists agreed.

Other topics included how Obama and Republican opponent Mitt Romney are using campaign ads in the current U.S. presidential election, how social media is changing the ways propaganda is disseminated and how the Arab Spring offers an example of how the new forums are being used. 

The event was co-organized by the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, with the cooperation of the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in America Life and the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education. The panel was an outgrowth of “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda,” an exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.