Patterico's Pontifications

8/14/2004

Liberal Bias in the Wording of a News Article

Filed under: Media Bias — Patterico @ 10:11 pm

Liberal bias takes many forms. When the alleged bias is the omission or distortion of critical facts, demonstrating the bias is a more straightforward project. But there is a more subtle and far more pervasive bias that is harder to explain to skeptics: a bias based on the wording of a piece. This sort of bias manifests itself in the tone, the word usage, and the perspective of a piece. I am going to attempt to explain this sort of bias today, by showing some of the devices used.

Today the Washington Post prints one of those articles that drive conservatives like me crazy. The article, a front-page news analysis titled Kerry Put On Defensive About Iraq, just drips with sympathy for Kerry. But I don’t find any clear misstatements of fact in the piece. The bias is in the way it’s worded, starting with the very first paragraph:

Over the past week, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have thrown Sen. John F. Kerry on the defensive with a daily assault designed to tarnish his credentials as a possible commander in chief. But the orchestrated attacks also revealed the president’s vulnerabilities on the issue that continues to shape the presidential campaign as much as any other.

I chuckled when I read the part about the “orchestrated attacks.” It reminded me of the survey that one web site did of all the times Dan Rather had used the phrase “carefully orchestrated leak.” You will not be surprised to learn that Rather always used the phrase to refer to alleged leaks by Republicans. Republicans are apparently the masters of “orchestration,” whether you’re talking leaks or attacks.

You see, whenever one candidate criticizes another, there are two ways to characterize what’s happening. If you think the criticism may be valid, you will refer to the criticism passively, and discuss the “mounting criticism” of the candidate being criticized. But if you don’t like the criticism, then you will refer to the criticism as an “attack.” You will consistently phrase the description of the criticism in the active voice, as in: “Cheney attacked Kerry over the issue of . . .” Rather than saying that the parties voicing the criticism have “pointed out” their opponent’s misstatements, you will say they “seized on” those misstatements.

This is the approach taken by this piece, beginning with its title: “Kerry Put On Defensive About Iraq” (rather than simply: “Kerry On Defensive About Iraq.”) It is replete with phrases accusing Bush and Cheney of attacking Kerry. Here are a few examples:

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have thrown Sen. John F. Kerry on the defensive with a daily assault designed to tarnish his credentials . . .

. . . .

The attacks also underscore the urgency within Bush’s campaign to deny Kerry a sustained post-convention bounce.

. . . .

Given that reality, Bush has gone on the offensive against Kerry.

. . . .

Bush and Cheney have seized on Kerry’s comment that he would vote again to give Bush authority to go to war, his claim that he would try to reduce troop strength significantly during his first six months in office and his comment about waging a more sensitive war on terrorism.

The GOP attacks followed a familiar pattern. Bush struck first . . . [t]hen Cheney moved in with tougher language designed to raise questions about Kerry’s reliability. Bush and Cheney also selectively interpreted Kerry’s words to cast them in the worst possible light.

. . . .

Cheney seized on a comment Kerry had made to the Unity convention of minority journalists about how he would differ from Bush on terrorism.

. . . .

Cheney fired back that sensitivity never won a war.

. . . .

Bush has also put Kerry on the defensive over a comment the Democrat made about troop levels in Iraq.

It’s hard to read the piece without coming to the conclusion that Bush and Cheney are just a pair of bullies. But what are they doing? Simply engaging in partisan rhetoric characteristic of any presidential campaign — rhetoric that Kerry engages in as well. Yet Kerry and his advisers are never described as “attacking” the Administration.

Another interesting thing about this news analysis is that it is told from the point of view of the Kerry campaign. In narrative fiction writing, this form of narrative viewpoint is known as a “limited omniscient” or “third person restricted” viewpoint:

To foster greater emotional involvement by the reader, the third person perspective can be limited to just one character. The narrator is still an objective observer, but one who comments on the thoughts and actions that are available only to the chosen character.

This is the way the news analysis is written. We see the thoughts of the Kerry advisers as though we can see into their minds: “Kerry advisers see the criticisms as both wrong and distorted.” But the thoughts of the Bush campaign are a matter of speculation — the writer seemingly has to guess what Bush and his advisers are thinking: “Bush’s goal appears aimed at shifting the focus of the debate from what has happened in Iraq to who can best be trusted to keep the country safe in the future. . . ”

What difference does it make to tell a story from the perspective of only one party? Roger Ebert once explained how, by making Norman Bates the protagonist of the horror film “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock was able to get the audience to see things from Bates’s point of view — to the point where, at times, we are actually rooting for the killer to get away with his crime:

The sequence ends with the masterful shot of Bates pushing Marion’s car (containing her body and the cash) into a swamp. The car sinks, then pauses. Norman watches intently. The car finally disappears under the surface.

Analyzing our feelings, we realize we wanted that car to sink, as much as Norman did.

The point: we are more likely to identify with, and sympathize with, the party whose point of view is given prominence.

It would be possible to tell the exact same story that is told in the Post news analysis, but put a completely different spin on the facts, by simply changing the tone, the facts that are highlighted, and the point of view that is emphasized. To demonstrate this, in the extended entry, I have placed the original story in the left-hand column, and have placed in the right-hand column a rewritten version of the story — one that uses the techniques I have just described, to spin the analysis to favor Bush. I think you’ll find that the rewritten version conveys a very different overall impression.
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Kristof’s Underwhelming Set of Nuclear Terrorism Suggestions

Filed under: Terrorism — Patterico @ 3:42 pm

As promised, Nick Kristof has published his (more…)

Finnegan Not on Vacation

Filed under: Dog Trainer — Patterico @ 3:37 pm

Spurred by a comment on my blog left by a Montana journalist, I wrote L.A. Times reporter Michael Finnegan an e-mail, asking him about some obvious deficiencies in his coverage of the Kerry campaign. My e-mail is available here.

When I didn’t hear from him, I wondered whether he might be ignoring me because he can’t justify his omissions. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking: maybe he went on vacation.

Well, he’s not on vacation. He contributed to an article in today’s L.A. Times on the Bush and Kerry campaigns. (Typically, the article’s theme is anti-Bush, and leads with Kerry’s spin points, relegating Bush’s points to the end of the story.)

I suppose he could have an e-mail backlog. It happens. But in my gut, I don’t think Mr. Finnegan is going to reply to my e-mail. I’m closing the book on this one.

I Don’t Believe in Coincidences

Filed under: Media Bias — Patterico @ 3:29 pm

The New York Times recently published a article about the Census Bureau’s decision to turn over information about Arabs to the Department of Homeland Security. The article described the information transfer in ominous terms:

[C]ivil liberties groups and Arab-American advocacy organizations say it is a dangerous breach of public trust and liken it to the Census Bureau’s compilation of similar information about Japanese-Americans during World War II.

. . . .

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, said the data sharing was particularly harmful at a time when the Census Bureau is struggling to build trust within Arab-American communities. “As this gets out, any effort to encourage people to full compliance with the census is down the tubes,” Mr. Zogby said. “How can you get people to comply when they believe that by complying they put at risk their personal and family security?”

In 2000, the bureau issued a formal apology for allowing its statistical data to be used to round up Japanese-Americans for internment during World War II.

However, Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy quickly reported: “All of the information disclosed has been publicly available from the Census Bureau’s own website for years.” Kerr explained: “Census Bureau employees ran the queries from its public data and put it in tabular form just for Homeland Security.”

In other words: what’s the big deal? If the information was already publicly available, why is this story worthy of mention in the New York Times? Kerr e-mailed the Times ombudsman to find out why they had omitted this little tidbit, without which there is little news value to the story.

Kerr has now heard back from the Times. It turns out that the Times already knew this fact, but a copy editor made a conscious decision to leave it out — apparently due to the need to shorten up the article a little.

In other words, the Times claims that it left out the most important detail of the article for space reasons. I kid you not.

At Oh, That Liberal Media, Spoons translates the Times‘s explanation this way:

Oh, well, gosh, we mentioned the truth in the first draft of the story, but, you know, it started running a little long, so we had to make some edits. It’s purest coincidence that we decided to take out the one piece of information that didn’t fit our Bush/Hitler paradigm.

And the one piece of information that made it a non-story.

Yup. Coincidence.

Captain Ed on a Possible Kerry/Democrat Hoax

Filed under: Media Bias — Patterico @ 2:50 pm

Captain Ed is doing killer stuff on John Kerry. The latest story he is pursuing is whether Kerry and the Democrat party perpetrated a major fraud on voters, by hyping the praise of one David Alston for Kerry’s commanding abilities. Alston spoke at the DNC about what a great commander Kerry was, and Alston’s praise for Kerry’s leadership is featured on Kerry’s web site.

If Captain Ed’s research is correct, there is a good possibility that Alston never served a single day under Kerry. Read about it here, here, and here — and keep checking back with the Captain for more.

I don’t know whether Alston actually served under Kerry or not, but Captain Ed has provided plenty of probable cause for the mainstream media to at least investigate. I swear that the mainstream media’s failure to look into these issues looks more suspicious with every passing day.

UPDATE: Byron York has run the story down here. Apparently Alston did serve under Kerry. However, his statements may well have misled people about the extent of his service with Kerry.

More from Alleged Lone Hysteric Annie Jacobsen

Filed under: Air Security,Terrorism — Patterico @ 12:46 am

Via Spoons, we have more from that allegedly hysterical woman Annie Jacobsen, who was allegedly the only passenger to “freak out” when a group of Syrians (who were allegedly non-terrorist musicians) engaged in some decidedly interesting behavior on Northwest Airlines Flight 327.

Jacobsen’s piece contains an interview with Billie Jo Rodriguez of Oxnard, California, another passenger on Flight 327 who was disturbed by the Syrians’ behavior. Ms. Rodriguez corroborates Jacobsen’s observations regarding seemingly surreptitious communications between the Arab men. She noticed the large McDonald’s bag and the man with the pronounced limp (who, you may recall, wore orthopedic shoes that wouldn’t be specially screened under FAA regulations). She says that she prayed during the flight, and exchanged looks with several other passengers, all of whom also seemed concerned.

You may recall, from a TIME article about Flight 327, that an air marshal had timed one of the Syrians’ bathroom visits at 10 minutes. The air marshal — who claimed that nothing unusual had happened on the flight — then searched the lavatory. Remember that? Well, here’s what Ms. Rodriguez says about that particular Syrian passenger:

The man was gone for a very long time. And when he came back, he reeked of chemicals — the chemicals from the toilet bowl. He absolutely reeked of it. And I thought, what was he doing in the toilet? He didn’t smell like chemicals when he got up to go to the bathroom — it was when he came back. It was so spooky. What was he doing in there? That he would smell so strong of chemicals from the toilet?

Alleged lone hysteric Jacobsen now has corroborating accounts of the flight from seven passengers besides herself and her husband. (Calling her a lone hysteric, as so many have, is starting to sound like the characterization of the Iraq war as “unilateral,” because only a few dozen other countries participated.) Here is an e-mail to Jacobsen from another passenger, who is against racial profiling, but who also noticed suspicious behavior by the Arabs.

Jacobsen reports that the Federal Air Marshals Service has not bothered to interview a single passenger from the flight.

But guess what? The FBI still considers Flight 327 to be an ongoing investigation.

But don’t worry, folks. Move along. Nothing to see here.

Allegedly Partisan Republican Swift Boat Vet Voted for Al Gore

Filed under: 2004 Election — Patterico @ 12:11 am

According to Power Line, Swift Boat Vet and alleged partisan Republican shill John O’Neill told Chris Matthews that he “voted for Perot in 1992 and 1996 and Gore in 2000, and supported a Democrat for mayor of Houston, Texas, his hometown.”


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