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!
(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.