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.”