[Note: It doesn't matter what the "debate" happens to be; we could be talking about the Summer Story of Century -- the NSA Surveillance Thing -- or closing a neighborhood school or building a new WalMart; the tactics are the same.]
I've written quite a lot about propaganda and its relative success in shaping and controlling people's perceptions of the world and those around them. We are immersed in propaganda 24/7, and having been born and grown up in the Post WWII Baby Boom generation, I know that has been true my entire life.
Discussing perception management with my parents (my father born in 1901, my mother born in 1911), I realized they, too, spent their entire lives being propagandized to believe certain things and to "know" certain things that I -- in the Ultimate Wisdom of the Adolescent in the latter half of the 1960's -- knew were manifestly untrue. In hashing these things out, though, they considered me to be the victim of propaganda, specifically of Communist propaganda designed to undermine my patriotism and ultimately to conquer the USofA.
When I told them that that was propaganda, it became clear to me that we were all immersed in the same stew of lies, half-truths, misdirection, and fabrications, and finding our way out of it -- if there was one -- could be a full-time job.
It was clear to me in studying history and journalism in this country that there has never been a time when most of the media was not the propaganda wing of the government and its corporate sector patrons. Never. Not even during Watergate, that Great Gate that famously brought down a President.
Radical and alternative publications have always had a place in the American media environment, but even when they are honest and wise and true (often incompatible objectives to be sure), they cannot be separated from their political and ideological perspectives or those of their publishers, and whatever truth one may find in alternative media must still be approached with skepticism and critical thinking, just as one must approach the often more blatant propaganda of the Major Mass Media.
Not even Ramparts (c. 1962 - c. 1975, RIP) was immune from the general propaganda of its era nor was it free of the urge to propagandize on behalf of its own objectives. (/s)
The use of propaganda by government was supposedly illegal until very recently, but any sentient being should long ago have realized that the government is just as adept at using propaganda tactics on the People as any other institution in our lives, and it has never ceased doing so. A key to understanding the use of propaganda by government and the media is their institutional nature.
We all want media we can trust. We want a government we can trust. The horror is... there isn't any.
In the case of the NSA Story of the Century, the Guardian and Greenwald are political actors in the drama, though it's not entirely clear that they wrote the script as well. They have been trying mightily, however, to control the "debate" over the issue of the Surveillance State. Interestingly, they do not call for abolition of the Surveillance State at all. Instead, they seem to be suggesting that at some future date, the Surveillance State ought to be more rigorously controlled as a matter of law and policy.
Well, that's nice. It assumes of course that there is some way to enforce law and policy against entities and institutions which have become laws unto themselves, setting their own policies and future courses of action.
Snowden, himself, seems to have become almost an afterthought by this point. He sits somewhat forlorn at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, handled by WikiLeaks, and not necessarily to his benefit. The minute the case turned into a legalistic squabble (something Julian gravitates to) it seemed to me Snowden's cause (at least his cause to go into voluntary, safe exile) was lost.
Oh well. As long as media has his purloined materials, who cares about him, right? As long as those materials are in the right hands, what's to worry.
The debate is controlled at the point of origin by only allowing a smidgen of material to be released to the public at any given time, and by massaging the meaning of that material both during and after its release to further an ideological and political objective. The debate is controlled by maintaining "focus" on the object, ie. the NSA (say), while obscuring the objective: reducing the authority of government over corporate interests.
Not, as it happens, reducing the authorities of corporations over ones personal and private interests at all.
Ordinarily, under such circumstances, we never get to see what the objective is. We only see what those controlling the debate want us to see at any given moment, and even then, what we see is typically highly manipulated to foster a particular point of view. The debate is then led toward a pre-determined conclusion, ideally one that is all but unanimously agreed to.
On the other hand, those controlling the debate may have an underlying objective of reducing the authority of government over corporate interests (which clearly seems to be the case in the NSA Thing) but may also wish to foster a continued opposition or dissent, one that is, however, heavily managed to produce a further desirable result. Managed dissent is one of the most widely used and least understood contemporary propaganda tactics. Its tactic-in-arms is induced cognitive dissonance. In other words, dissent is often managed through repeated incidents of otherwise mutually incompatible, dissonant, informational releases -- or even better, "discoveries." These may be factual, they may be lies, but the point is that they are dissonant, and in trying to resolve the dissonance, the individual formulates a personal "truth" -- such as the Birther "truth" -- which is internally consistent enough for the establishment of faith or belief, regardless of fact.
This is by no means the only way debate is controlled in our society; many other tactics are employed to ensure that a pre-determined outcome is arrived at. But media and government propaganda on behalf of that outcome -- one that most of us may not have any inkling of -- are assured.