Media postsThursday October 24, 2013
It Depends on What the WSJ's Meaning of the Word 'Was' Is: Revealing propagandist tendencies in the right-wing press
James Fallows posted this on his Atlantic blog the other day. It’s a screenshot from a reader’s iPad newstream that tells the same story two different ways:
Fallows’ post was headlined “Why to Get More Than 1 Newspaper, iPad Edition,” and included the following subhed:
One paper’s headline writers choose the word “dips”; the other's choose “only.” The difference those two words can make.
To me, Fallows focuses on the wrong word. It's less “only” than “was.” Something sinister lies behind that word.
Let’s look at the headlines again. The New York Times:
U.S. Economy Adds 148,000 Jobs, as Unemployment Dips to 7.2%
This is a Sgt. Friday headline: Just the facts, ma’am. Both things are correct.
Now here’s The Wall Street Journal:
U.S. employers added only 148,000 jobs in September; unemployment rate was 7.2%
Until now I didn’t notice the difference between “U.S. Economy” and “U.S. employers” but that’s problematic as well. It’s as if the WSJ is dredging up tired GOP talking points. But onward.
Fallows focuses on WSJ’s use of “only” but that doesn’t bug me too much. It’s a value judgment but ultimately, or at least comparatively, correct. In the eight months prior, the U.S. economy added more than 148,000 jobs five times, and exactly 148,000 jobs one time, so, yes, September wasn’t one of our better months. Last year, eight of the 12 months were better in terms of job growth. So I’ll let them have “only.”
But they fuck up big time with “was.”
First, writers and journalists go out of their way to avoid passive verbs. “Is” and “was” just sit there. That’s what they do. That’s their job.
The WSJ headline writer went out of his way to embrace the passive verb. Why? Because he wanted the unemployment rate to just sit there. Apparently he didn’t want people to know that it moved.
Read it again. It’s so awkward: Jobs added and “... unemployment rate was 7.2%.” Was? You mean in the past? So what is it now? Oh. That’s what it is now? So why didn’t you just say that?
The headline writer has tied himself into knots to avoid any sense of movement, and in so doing has created a sentence fragment that doesn’t inform. He is trying to hide facts, rather than reveal facts, with his words. That’s not the work of a journalist; it’s the work of a propagandist.
Indeed, this little screenshot is indicative of exactly what’s wrong with the mainstream media. The Times strives for objectivity and gives us the facts. WSJ strives for right-wing talking points and hides the facts. Somehow, even in the mainstream press, this combination is known as “the liberal media.”
Objectivity Is Not Stupidity: The Culpability of the Mainstream Media in the Government Shutdown
From Bill Moyers:
Beltway reporters who see their professed neutrality as a higher ground bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance. With a few notable exceptions, the media have framed what Jonathan Chait called “a kind of quasi-impeachment” in typical he said-she said fashion, obscuring the fact that the basic norms that govern Congress have been thrown out the window by a small cabal of tea party-endorsed legislators from overwhelmingly Republican districts. The media treat unprecedented legislative extortion as typical partisan negotiations, and in doing so they normalize it.
But it’s not normal.
I keep seeing this, too, particularly in the national New York Times coverage and the local Seattle Times coverage. The latter has been particularly bad at the false equivalence: a kind of, “Oh can't those two get along?” exasperation. Those two being Pres. Obama and the full Congress, rather than one house of Congress, rather than one faction of one party of one house of Congress.
Is the coverage getting better? Some say so. But it's taken awhile, too long, and not just the country but the truth has been sacrificed in the meantime.
This is not rocket science, kids. The job is pretty easy:
- What is the thing?
- Describe it.
This, for example:
A long time coming.
Reading the Newspaper with George W.S. Trow - V
“Television will not allow you to follow a story. Each broadcast is self-contained; television newspeople are embarrassed if they have to remind you that the story existed yesterday as well. They value and love the episodic possibilities within the news. The only exception is Big Human Interest. If it has the quality of a soap opera--O.J. Simpson, or the plane that exploded mysteriously--then they trust it as a story that will have had the dramatic elements necessary for their formula. (That is, they know the story will not let them down. O.J. Simpson will be a celebrity the whole time of his trial; he wil be pronounced guilty, and that will be dramatic; or he will be pronounced innocent, and that will be even more dramatic. In other words, from their television news point of view, the story has already happened; it's reliable. It can be trusted not to let them down. Television hates stories that turn out to be--you know, disappointing. No cum shot.)”
-- George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,” pg. 44
Reading the Newspaper with George W.S. Trow - IV
“Do yourself a favor. Just wait to see if Al Gore is nominated. Wake up the day after the next Democratic Convention and ask a friend, 'Did Gore make it?' My guess is that he will have made it.
”Take the fifty-thousand-word investment you were prepared to make on Gore's election prospects and follow another story--Zaire, par example.“
-- George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998," pg. 44
Reading the Newspaper with George W.S. Trow - III
“If you have a personal reason to take an interest in a Baby Bell reaching out to form yet another media conglomerate, sure, read it; but be aware that the deal will ravel, unravel, happen, not happen, be consummated or not consummated, be important or not important, and you will have read ten thousand words. Also notice that the news is written in such a way that all of these 'dramatic' ravelings and unravelings are reported in detail (because they have human interest), but should the thing finally come together, the news will stop. Just when you want to know what's going to happen (the president has won the election; what's he going to do?) the news stops.”
-- George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,” pg. 43
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