Patterico's Pontifications

4/13/2007

L.A. Times Employs Classic Techniques of Liberal Bias in an Article About the U.S. Attorney Firing Controversy

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 12:02 am

An L.A. Times article about possibly missing e-mails about the U.S. Attorney firings employs classic strategies for nudging the reader towards a liberal view of the controversy. And the paper’s editors take the strategy another step further with a one-sided portrayal given prominence on the home page of the paper’s Web site.

The article in question begins:

WASHINGTON — The growing controversy over White House recordkeeping and disclosure swirled around presidential adviser Karl Rove on Thursday, as congressional Democrats said they were told some e-mails that Rove sent from a Republican National Committee account are missing.

I have to take my hat off to the reporters for the skill in which they portray the controversy as a ghostly entity with a spirit all its own — rather than as attacks on the Administration by partisan Democrats.

I have discussed phraseology like “growing controversy” or “mounting criticism” before, in this post about how the wording of a news article can show liberal bias. These phrases represent the terminology reporters use when they really want the controversy to grow, and the criticism to mount:

You see, whenever one [politician] 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 [politician] being criticized. But if you don’t like the criticism, then you will refer to the criticism as an “attack.”

And in this post I said:

I have warned you that such language is a signal that the paper agrees with the criticism. When the paper disagrees with criticism of a [politician], it is portrayed as an attack by political opponents. When the paper agrees with the criticism, the criticism becomes a mysterious and disembodied (but ever-growing) entity. Doubts grow. Criticism emerges.

Note how the current article portrays the accusations by Democrats as an independent, disembodied spirit with a life of its own — a “growing controversy.” I also love how the controversy is “swirling” around Karl Rove, in language evocative of waste products swirling around in a toilet bowl. You can almost see Rove being flushed down the toilet! (My liberal readers are salivating at the prospect — just as the reporters must have when they wrote that line.)

The way this story begins is therefore telling. But it’s no surprise, given the way that Richard Serrano has covered this story in recent weeks.

As we read the story further, we learn that there are two sides to the e-mail controversy. The line pushed by the Democrats is that Republicans have deliberately deleted e-mails:

Following a meeting between RNC lawyers and congressional investigators, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said he learned that Rove might have deliberately deleted them himself.

And the Administration, for its part, denies it:

A Washington lawyer retained by the Republican National Committee, Robert K. Kelner, wrote Waxman’s committee later Thursday saying the statement “mischaracterizes the briefing” because the RNC’s search for the missing e-mails is not yet complete.

As demands for documents escalated, other Democrats suggested Thursday that the White House has withheld potentially embarrassing information, a charge the administration vigorously denies.

So how does the paper’s Web site portray the controversy on its main page? That’s right: in a one-sided fashion!

one-sided.JPG

(I erased a distracting and irrelevant photo from the screenshot, and circled the relevant portion for emphasis.)

By the way, the use of the term “some” in that screenshot is another well-worn technique which I have discussed before, in this post:

So why are you reading about what “some say” in the paper? Obviously, the reporter and/or the editors think it’s important for you to hear this particular opinion. Often, words like “some” or “many” can be replaced with the phrase “Times editors” with no appreciable change in meaning. When you see such locutions, you should ask yourself: who exactly is saying this? Is the contrary view being portrayed fairly? Does the article have an obvious spin? Is that spin consistent with what “some say”?

The use of phraseologies like “many say” lends the opinions a certain weight, suggesting that they are held by a number of potentially unbiased folks out there. The opinions expressed by “some” or by “critics” tend to be reported uncritically and sympathetically. Meanwhile, when interviewees say things that support a conservative position, they tend to be labeled as representatives of a particular cause, politician, or branch of government, so their bias is always clear.

Did people in the Administration deliberately delete e-mails? I have no idea. But the L.A. Times is spinning like a top to make inattentive readers think there isn’t much question that they did.

31 Responses to “L.A. Times Employs Classic Techniques of Liberal Bias in an Article About the U.S. Attorney Firing Controversy”

  1. ‘growing controversy.’ Standard press boilerplate.
    This is getting silly.

    “Federal law requires the preservation of electronic communications sent or received by White House staff,” says the handbook that all staffers are given and expected to read and comply with.

    “As a result, personnel working on behalf of the EOP [Executive Office of the President] are expected to only use government-provided e-mail services for all official communication.”

    The handbook further explains: “The official EOP e-mail system is designed to automatically comply with records management requirements.”

    And if that wasn’t clear enough, the handbook notes — as was the case in the Clinton administration — that “commercial or free e-mail sites and chat rooms are blocked from the EOP network to help staff members ensure compliance and to prevent the circumvention of the records management requirements.”

    AF (c319c8)

  2. All so-called reporters in all cities are simply wanna be novelists and screenplay authors and view their “newspaper days” as a training ground. Hemmingway, ya know…….

    Howard Veit (4ba8d4)

  3. I think both of your main criticisms can be somewhat valid in general, and certainly in other cases, but not in this specific case.

    If you read the article, you read about a lot of specific named Democrats speaking directly to this issue, and a number of specific Administration explanations and denials. The amount of attention given to the issue has racheted up considerably in the last day or two.

    Thus, it is in fact a “growing controversy”. And unlike a case where the paper merely asserts it is a growing controversy, it explains why — the various charges made by the Democrats in letters and press conferences, and the official and unofficial Administration responses.

    And the “some say” isn’t being misused here as when the reporter relates supposed Beltway gossip, a supposed general consensus or unnamed figures, and lazily uses the “some say” construction. The article is basically a list of named, prominent Democrats making those statements. So the brief subhead outlining the jist of the charge with “some suggest” is fully backed up in the article with quotes from prominent Democrats suggesting just that.

    aplomb (11a6c2)

  4. Never knew that liberals owned “growing controversy” and “swirled.” I’m reminded of the scene in Postcards From the Edge where Shirley MacLaine insists to her daughter Meryl Streep than an embarrasing occasion at a party many years before happened because her skirt “swirled up.” Was screenwriter Carrie Fisher sending some secret liberal message to movie audiences?

    These e-mails are fast emerging as the Alexander Butterfield of this scandal.

    There, I said it — scandal.

    Is that a liberal code world too?

    David Ehrenstein (7f21f7)

  5. In reference to the general topic, I’ve been surprised by the amount of similar language even from radio stations, etc., whose editorial position is conservative. I’ve seen it frequently in the news items on “Townhall.com” even, where I think about all of the commentary is from a relatively conservative perspective, even though they would want to be “objective. I wonder if so many are just not aware of this that they use the language of press release they’re writing from without thinking.
    A few years ago I drove a few neighbor children to school, as the private school they went to was on the other side of town near my work place. I would point out such biased language on the radio all of the time. Hopefully they learned something in spite of my boring presentation. Persuasive language is great, when you’re using it in an appropriate context, not when supposedly presenting objective information.
    Perhaps the environment is so saturated now its like the person who has never left Seattle and doesn’t realize it rains more there than other places.

    MD in Philly (3d3f72)

  6. Let’s see — a controversy is growing, and a news story calls it a “growing controversy.” Yep, gotta be bias. No other possible explanation.

    maha (e66a41)

  7. Do you disagree that this spoliation of evidence looks pretty damn awful?

    Geek, Esq. (f63bcd)

  8. I love how the liberal commentators ignore that you said you did not know much about the facts, but were only commenting on the language used by the paper, and jumped in as if you were defending on the fact of the case.

    I notice this routinely. It must be the terrible public education that explains the lack of reading comprehension.

    The point is, in general, reporters (as opposed to opinion writers) should be made to not use the passive voice, or linguistic flourishes, as they tend to bias a piece. Do conservative reporters do it as well – sure.

    Another similar tactic is for news stories to cite to a partisan advocacy group, that is clearly liberal as non-partisan or “moderate”, while clearly labeling any right of center group as “conservative” or “right wing.”

    My guess is that many of these word and phrase choices by reporters and editors are not consiouscly made to make the pieces they write biased. Instead, the reporters and editors have an internal bias that leads them to use the phrases and word choices and they don’t even realize they are doing it or that it demonstrates a bias. I don’t really believe in a “conspiracy” of bias in the MSM. I believe all people have biases and those biases color the things they do.

    We, as a society, should demand that reporters don’t use formulations such as “some say” and instead state clearly who they are referring to. If it is congressional dems – say “congressional dems say” or if it is republicans, say “republicans say”, or even better, actually name the person who says whatever they are quoting. (as an aside, the use of anonymous sources should be severely curtailed – there are very few situations where anonyminity is warranted).

    Why is that such a horrible thing to ask for? it would be clearer, it was be more factual, and it would be objective.

    Ask yourself, why would I, on the left, fight such a change that made news reports that much clearer, more factual and more objective? What possible reason can I have to defend the practice of “news reporters” using passive langauge to imply certain things instead of using direct quotes and citations?

    As to the merit of this particular issue, I don’t know the answers at this point. My guess is that the requirement to use official email systems and keep the emails is not a criminal law (unless caught destroying evidence of a crime), and that nothing can really be done about it, but it definitely looks bad b/c it makes the people involved appear to be hiding something. Ergo, a political scandal rather than a criminal one. But, we’ll see.

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  9. Gee, I can’t think of any right wing media that have used “some say” to smear Democrats in the past, or any presidents, either…

    And I guess the fact that it is a controversy, and it is, well, growing, that really doesn’t justify the characterization as a “growing controversy”, does it? I mean, the way they put those two words together is just dastardly, I tell you!

    biwah (2dcf66)

  10. whoops, somehow missed maha’s comment above. don’t know how.

    biwah (2dcf66)

  11. THE BIG LIE

    Kyle Sampson the former chief of staff(AG) testified before congress that Attorney General Gonzales fired the Federal Prosecutors because they where not tough enough on immigration policy. Sampson claimed it was White House policy to get tough on illegal immigrants. Yet he showed no proof and all we have to go on is President Bush’s performance of a blind eyed approach to enforce our immigration laws. Presidential candidate Tom Tancredo called for Gonzales to resign due to his lack of any enforcement of immigration laws and over aggressive prosecution of border agents. Does anyone believe this story?

    FOX-WASHINGTON — Presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo has joined the growing chorus of lawmakers calling for U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign — only not for the usual reason.

    Unlike others criticizing Gonzales over the recent firing of eight U.S. attorneys, the Colorado Republican said the embattled attorney general should go because of “a series of leadership failures” — chiefly his handling of illegal immigration prosecutions.

    “Gonzales’ legacy at the (Justice Department) has been one of misplaced priorities, political miscalculation, and a failure to enforce the laws which he has sworn to uphold,” Tancredo said in a statement Tuesday. “I think that it is time for him to move on.”

    Tancredo faulted several Justice Department decisions dealing with border crimes, including the prosecution of two border patrol agents for shooting a Mexican drug smuggler and trying to cover it up

    John Konop (99ef7a)

  12. Meanwhile, sources say that certain people among the Democratic leadership know this is all a bunch of nonsense, but if they protest loud enough no one will notice how the newly elected Democratic majority can get away with adding more pork to a supplemental spending bill than Oscar Meyer could process in 5 years, even though they campaigned against the practice.
    Others have become worried that the topic of firing US Attorneys will cause comparisons to the actions of past presidents. Some have wanted to avoid discussion of how President Clinton fired almost all of the attorneys in an urgent manner, rather than asking for letters of resignation, which would have allowed for a smooth continuation of ongoing investigations until replacements could be found. Rumors have been circulating that, in fact, President Clinton merely wanted the Attorney based in Little Rock off of the Whitewater investigation, but on the advice of close advisors fired them all to disguise his intention. Current high ranking Democratic advisors have decided that further attacks on the Bush Presidency will prevent such thoughtful investigative reporting and reflection.
    When these concerns were raised at an informal gathering of top news journalists, they scoffed at this information. One exclaimed, “You’re crazy, to have that work we’d all have to be in on it together, a conspiracy, a “Vast Left Wing” conspiracy, if you will.” Another journalist claimed, “We don’t do things like that, we’re in competition you know.” He managed to add, “We don’t coordinate, we just meet together to discuss what we’re working on”, prior to grimacing when a waiter elbowed him in the ribs while walking by.

    In another developing story, an anonymous post on Patterico’s Pontifications by the “Great Banana”, who claimed to be “on the left”, made comments that he (or she) was actually interested in intellectual honesty in news reporting. It is claimed that several notbook computers were damaged by people sputtering their hot coffee while trying to control their laughter. But at least one source, who remains in a witness protection program, claims it is actually true. In fact, this source says, that is why the “Great Banana” posts anonymously. The “Great Banana” doesn’t want to suffer consequences of being accused of actually thinking independently.
    However, at least one other contributor to “PPs” states, after reading the post by “Great Banana”, “Maybe there is hope after all.”

    MD in Philly (3d3f72)

  13. […] details about the emails are coming out rather quickly. We can fairly accurately call it a “growing controversy,” I would say. But before we get too bogged down in details, can we take a moment to think […]

    The Mahablog » Their Own Petard (cc5963)

  14. Uhh,

    MD in philly, I never claimed to be “of the left”. Indeed, I will state clearly that I am a conservative. How that is relevent to anything I said, I’m not sure. But, unlike liberals who refuse to acknowledge that they are liberals, or who play Moby and claim to be life-long conservatives who just happen to believe ever left-wing cliche, I proudly admit I am conservative.

    So, since your reading comprehension is apparently at about a 1st grade level, I will pose a question to you, please explain to me what is wrong with anything that I said and please explain what is wrong with wanting some real objectivity in reporting?

    What is wrong with wanting reporters to actually cite who they are “quoting” rather than using passive voices and saying things like “people say”?

    Please. At least try to read and understand before you post.

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  15. MD in philly,

    I re-read your comment and I may have responded to soon. I can’t tell if your are being sarcastic or not. The sad thing is, with today’s leftists, its all the same. thus, it is impossible to satirize them.

    So, If I misread what you wrote, sorry. If I did not, then na-na-neener-na.

    GB

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  16. Amazing how liberals who were smart enough to have seen that when Oliver North said, “mistakes were made,” he was obfuscating, now expect nothing better from their favorite newspapers of record.

    DWPittelli (87ad39)

  17. Do the people on the other side of this “scandal” have an ideological preference? Don’t Karl Rove and the RNC come to the table with a conservative bias?

    The Liberal Avenger (b8c7e2)

  18. Do the people on the other side of this “scandal” have an ideological preference? Don’t Karl Rove and the RNC come to the table with a conservative bias?

    Of course. But, they don’t pretend to be completely objective w/ no bias whatsoever. Therein lies the difference.

    Great Banana (aa0c92)

  19. Epidemic of Confusion at PP!!
    Inadequate Use of “Smilies” and Lack of Appropriate Linking Cited

    MD in Philly has once again not only confused himself but the typically brilliant readers of PP. Having previously admitted to a “my bad” for not linking to http://patterico.com/2007/03/17/5972/i-am-just-kidding/ he is found to be without excuse.

    “Philly” claims an apparent misunderstanding of the following statement was the start of the fiasco:
    “Ask yourself, why would I, on the left, fight such a change that made news reports that much clearer, more factual and more objective? What possible reason can I have to defend the practice of “news reporters” using passive language to imply certain things instead of using direct quotes and citations?”

    Philly (having a reading comprehension somewhat better than his brilliant 6 year old daughter who is reading a first grade level- or beyond) did think the logical flow of the above statement was awkward, but attributed it to “Great Banana” being in a rush, as attending to a paid pursuit.
    “MD”, as friends call him, is quite thankful he read this post in time:
    “MD in philly, I re-read your comment and I may have responded to soon. I can’t tell if your are being sarcastic or not. The sad thing is, with today’s leftists, its all the same. thus, it is impossible to satirize them. So, If I misread what you wrote, sorry. If I did not, then na-na-neener-na. GB”
    He was able to contact his buddies in Delta and Sealdom prior to their going into communication blackout.

    He was found to be quite distraught over other concerns, however. Having previously started the confusion, he is now confused as to whether he should go to a dentist or ear-nose-throat specialist to remove the tongue firmly impaled in his right cheek.

    MD in Philly (3d3f72)

  20. […] another dead-on, detailed explanation how the L.A. Times is trying to ratchet up the U.S. Attorney story into a scandal. Who needs the […]

    Reverse Spin » MSM spinning a non-scandal (1332d3)

  21. biwah says:

    Gee, I can’t think of any right wing media that have used “some say” to smear Democrats in the past, or any presidents, either…

    Gee, I can’t think of any right wing media

    There, fixed it for you.

    LA, despite what some think, Karl Rove doesn’t write for the LA Times.

    carlitos (b38ae1)

  22. LA, despite what some think, Karl Rove doesn’t write for the LA Times

    No, but a very close friend of Donald Rumsfeld is an editor.

    David Ehrenstein (7f21f7)

  23. “Swirling around Rove” is as prosaic as the latimes
    neocon regeneration can manage.

    While the ever-loosening grip on the circulation amongst LA residents reflects this trend, the once proud, newsprint giant’s need for revenue matches it’s schizophrenic ideology.

    The real question is; to what lengths will the
    man-child President go in the protection of his
    only connection with the real world, the erstwhile Rove?

    For the answer, read ‘The True Believer’ by Eric Hoffer.

    For your own, Patterico, seek an emetic which purges the real gripe you have with the latimes; the soon to end conservative coup in America.

    semanticleo (2f60f4)

  24. Re: LAT
    Hey Jake, it’s just Chinatown.

    You know, the entire WH (non-civil service) staff serves “at the pleasure”. GW should just fire them all and start over. Of course, there would be serious delays in responding to Congressional enquiries, but some sacrifice needs to be made.

    A lot of this email flap would never have happened without the enlightened provisions of the Hatch Act. We sure are being protected from whatever it was Hatch was supposed to protect us from.

    Well, under Shariah we won’t have these problems.

    Another Drew (8018ee)

  25. the clinton impeachment – was that a ghostly entity with a spirit all its own or just an attack?

    assistant devil's advocate (878159)

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    Steve (06ec7b)

  27. Another Drew is right, just not in the way he thinks. It’s becoming clear that Karl Rove’s preferred model for government is Mexico, circa 1920-1990. Notionally, the country had the trappings of democracy, but one party, the PRI, won every time. Hence, the division between party and government could be, and was, dissolved. It’s hard to watch with a straight face explanations about the missing incriminatory emails based on fanciful conceptions of the Hatch Act. Hey, how about the GSA Administrator—is that a position exempted from civil service regulations so that she can call all hands on deck, on taxpayer’s dime, to help “our” candidates? I don’t think so. The absurd investigations into voter fraud, meant to provide cover for mass disenfranchisement, more of the same: what is admittedly a political appointment (US Attorney) now becomes a post to be used for the good of the Party.

    I don’t know what you guys are enjoying. Your party was repudiated in record fashion last year. Your domestic agenda is DOA. Your foreign policy is focused on the worst blunder in American history. And yet you’re terribly happy that you may be able to frustrate long-delayed investigations into incompetent and unlawful maladministration. Fiddle while Rome burns.

    Andrew J. Lazarus (53db87)

  28. The SMELL A TIMES the stink would make a vulture sick and would gag PEPI LA PEUW

    krazy kagu (10add8)

  29. I say they need to reread Machiavelli and emulate Frederick the Great, at least it would be kinder than the Genghjis Khan barbarians we’ve had running the country since the 70’s (John Kerry said so!)
    Or they could repeal the limits on presidential terms and fix elections until G.W. gets bored!)
    http://patterico.com/2007/03/17/5972/i-am-just-kidding

    MD in Philly (3d3f72)

  30. “…the growing controversy.”

    That’s like the “rising tide” of foreclosures hitting borrowers.

    S*** just happens I guess.

    Puff piece to cue the Dems

    Patricia (824fa1)

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