August 29, 2006

The Simple Art of Propaganda, Revisited: Headline Horrors!

Hatched by Dafydd

One of the hardest things for us at Big Lizards is coming up with a post headline that both attracts attention -- and also fairly depicts the content of the post.

We could easily fascinate -- whether in anticipation or horror -- with a title promising explicit photographs of an unclad Nicole Kidman; but you would rebel when the first words of the post were "only Kid-ding!" Likewise, we could have accurately titled a recent post "Lively Discussion of Recent Purchases by Israel of Submarines Equipped to Fire Missiles That Could Carry Nuclear Warheads;" but the MEGO factor would overwhelm any interest in the subject for many readers. We decided that Run Silent, Run Kosher was pithier.

So we've a lot of sympathy for the headline writers at Reuters, who must come up with these things day in and night out. Still, there are times you just have to admit that they missed the other shoe.

Here is an example of the most common mistake: the unintentional ambiguity, or "gremlin":

Annan urges quick end to Israel, Hizbollah disputes

The first thing I (Dafydd) thought when I read that was, "I know that Kofi Annan wants to see a quick end to Israel, but why would Hezbollah dispute that? What, they want a lingering, painful end instead?" Of course, the reading that Reuters overtly intended was that Annan wanted a quick end to the disputes between Israel and Hezbollah. (What Reuters covertly intended is left to the reader's own good judgment.)

By definition, a gremlin can legitimately be read two or more completely different ways. I actually collect such absurdities that made it into print; some of my favorites:

  • Supreme Court Considers Homosexuality
  • Jury Gets Drunk Driving Case Here
  • Allies Push Bottle Up 10,000 Germans
  • McCartney weds with Ringo, Clinton among guests
  • Do-It-Yourself Pregnancy Kit To Go On Sale
  • Include Your Children when Baking Cookies
  • Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
  • Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
  • Clinton Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead
  • Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

(Some of my best sources are Richard Lederer's Anguished English books, of which there are four: Anguished English, More Anguished English, the Bride of Anguished English, and the Revenge of Anguished English.)

These headlines differ from simple tyops -- Israel Maintains Strangehold On West Bank Cities, Uneasy Clam Settles Over Michigan -- in that there is nothing overtly wrong with them; when the defendant in a shooting case is underaged, who should try him but a juvenile court? Rather, each can be read in more than one way: if nothing else works for an unruly teenager in juvenile court for the umpteenth time, try shooting him!

They also differ from what I call the "duh!" headlines: Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told; War Dims Hope for Peace; If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last a While.

But here is another type of headline horror from today's news, the intentional attempt at "humor." See if this one sets you rolling in the aisles (assuming, that is, that your home or office actually has "aisles"):

Long-suffering commuter blows up DC bridge

Now, that certainly gets one's attention; were there any people on the bridge when this mad bomber struck? The first paragraph continues the "joke":

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) - A long-suffering commuter fulfilled the dreams of generations of Washingtonians on Tuesday morning when he blew up a detested Potomac River bridge.

Good Lord, I thought -- Reuters is actually making a folk hero out of a terrorist. This is despicable. Then I read the next paragraph, which set my eyes rolling in exasperation:

Maryland electrician Dan Ruefly won a contest to detonate a section of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, which carries the Capital Beltway across the Potomac between Maryland and Virginia just south of the District of Columbia. Regional authorities have been building a replacement since 2000.

Oh for heaven's sake; so this is just another "non-news" filler story fluff piece eating up valuable photons that could be put to better use elsewhere. I wonder if the only reason this story ran at all was so that Reuters could have us on in the headline and the first paragraph. Yeesh!

But the headlines that bother me most are those that use undefined but loaded terms in order to create mental images in service to a tendentious agenda:

U.S. data show one in eight Americans in poverty

What image does the phrase living in poverty conjure in your mind? I picture people crouching in corrugated tin shacks in "Hoovervilles," begging on streetcorners, stealing a pint of milk for the children. In this case, there is no mistake: that is precisely the impression Reuters wants me to gather. In the course of the story, they never really tell us what they mean by "poverty," other than reciting the dry definition:

In all, some 37 million Americans lived below the poverty line, defined as having an annual income below around $10,000 for an individual or $20,000 for a family of four.

But this doesn't tell me what it's like. How should I feel about all those Americans living "in poverty?" Why do they live in poverty? What's the best way for them to get out of poverty? Reuters offers exactly none of those answers. Instead, they keep using the loaded word -- poverty -- as a stick to bash their political enemy... who is made clear very early:

In the world's biggest economy one in eight Americans and almost one in four blacks lived in poverty last year, the U.S. Census Bureau said on Tuesday, releasing a figure virtually unchanged from 2004....

It was the first year since President George W. Bush took office in 2001 that the poverty rate did not increase. As in past years, the figures showed poverty especially concentrated among blacks and Hispanics....

The last decline in poverty was in 2000, the final year of Bill Clinton's presidency...

Around a quarter of blacks and 21.8 percent of Hispanics were living in poverty...

Some 17.6 percent of children under 18 and one in five of those under 6 were in poverty...

Major cities with the highest proportions of poor people included....

The message comes through loud and clear: Republicans, especially George W. Bush, cause poverty; Democrats like Bill Clinton relieve poverty. Vote for Hillary!

What Reuters doesn't tell you is that "poverty," as defined in America, includes those living in lifestyles that would be envied by most in the world... and indeed are beyond what the average American lived just a few decades ago. The Heritage Foundation has a few facts that Reuters seems disinclined to share with you:

The following facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau are taken from various government reports:

Forty-six percent of all poor households own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as "poor" by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.

Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.

Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television. Over half own two or more color televisions.

Seventy-eight percent of America's poor own a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

Seventy-three percent of America's poor own microwave ovens; more than half have a stereo; and one-third have an automatic dishwasher.

As a group, America's poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes that are 100 percent above recommended levels. Most poor children in America today are, in fact, super-nourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier that the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.

Hm. By that definition, the Lizard Lounge, where the big lizards live, is not as nice as a lot of domiciles inhabited by people mired in "poverty"... and we're certainly nowhere near the poverty line. Using this definition is absurd, since it makes virtually the entire civilized world "poor" except for the United States!

Where does the Census Bureau get its definition of poverty? It still uses the basic formula developed four decades ago:

The poverty thresholds were originally developed in 1963 and 1964 by Mollie Orshansky, an economist working for the Social Security Administration (SSA). As indicated below, she actually developed two sets of poverty thresholds--one derived from the Agriculture Department's economy food plan and one derived from the Agriculture Department's somewhat less stringent low-cost food plan.

What Orshansky did was take the Ag Department's figures -- we have no idea what it considered an "economy" or a "low cost" food plan -- and then she tripled it, on the grounds that food was then estimated to account for a third of a typical low-income family budget. That figure became the "poverty threshold."

Since the current threshold is "around $10,000 for an individual or $20,000 for a family of four," we can assume that the current food budget (economy or low-cost, I can't establish) from the Agriculture Department is $3,333 per year for an individual, twice that for a family of four. This works out to $64 per week for individuals, $128 per week for a family of four.

While it's certainly true that you can eat reasonably well on that amount (assuming you don't eat out), it's certainly not luxury dining. However...

In order to determine whether an individual or family is "below the poverty threshold," the Census Bureau must compare the threshold to the family income; but the income it measures does not include Food Stamps, housing subsidies, or any other non-monetary assistance program (school lunch programs, transportation vouchers, heating or electricity subsidies, and so forth).

And of course, illegal or unreported income doesn't count -- either for the Census Bureau, which counts those living in poverty, or the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) poverty guidelines, which are numerically similar though calculated in a different way and which actually determine eligibility for the programs that aren't counted in measuring poverty.

So in reality, the actual income (counting everything) of most poor individuals is considerably higher than $10,000, ditto for most poor families of four and $20,000. This is why those below the poverty threshold can actually afford a considerably nicer lifestyle than the official definition indicates.

None of this discussion, however, shows up in the Reuters story, or indeed in nearly any story published by the antique media... not even in abbreviated form. Mainstream writers and editors almost never note the actual lifestyle lived by the American "poor," because it wouldn't fit The Story -- and might lead readers to the opposite political conclusion: that perhaps we're subsidizing poverty too much; maybe we're making it so attractive that many people voluntarily choose to drop out of the system and live on government handouts.

In fact, a number of economists argue exactly that: we have pain-free "poverty" in America, and we actually pay people to be poor; what you subsidize, you get more of... hence, the poverty rate keeps rising, even while affluence rises and unemployment remains very low. Perhaps the real solution is to force more accountability from people for their own decisions, at least as it affects themselves.

For example, the Reuters story does manage to mention the classic bugaboo of the scaremongering Left:

The survey also showed 15.9 percent of the population, or 46.6 million, had no health insurance, up from 15.6 percent in 2004 and the fifth increase in a row.

But a very large portion of those with "no health insurance" have voluntarily chosen not to buy it, despite being perfectly able to pay for it. This group mostly comprises young and healthy workers, self-employed or contractors, who see no particular reason to pay a lot of money each month for a service they will likely not have to use for many years. And if they do have some terrible health crisis, they reason, they can always go to the doctor and worry about paying later; if worse goes to worst, they can just declare bankruptcy and get out of paying altogether.

And in fact, a moral variant of this may well be a sound economic and health decision for people in that category: if they buy only catastrophic health care, and if they stick the amount of their premiums into a medical savings account (MSA) -- and if they have no children yet -- then they will likely pay less for the exact, same health care.

Yet they'll still probably be counted among the "uninsured," though I can't be sure unless I can find the exact definition of "health insurance" used by the Census Bureau. Again, none of this discussion is even hinted at in the brief Reuters story, which simply treats this as a terrible and growing problem -- which started the moment Bush took office ("...the fifth increase in a row," which means 2001-2005).

In this story, Reuters makes no mere mistake: they use the story (and especially the headline) to engage in propaganda, pure and simple. Starting with the headline.

(For further study, see our previous post, The Simple Art of Propaganda.)

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 29, 2006, at the time of 3:48 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Davod

The Wilson Bridge headline is interesting. The person who blew up the span was angry because he had previously been stuck on the bridge when the moveable span was up. The irony is that the new design will give him the same problem. They kept the same basic design. People could still die waiting for the moveable span to come down so they can get to hospital.

The above hissed in response by: Davod [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 6:54 PM

The following hissed in response by: aem

I think it would be best to drop the reference to "America's poor own microwave ovens". Unless you are going to complain that the poor own stoves, A microwave is a lot less expensive than a stove. I keep my microwave on top of the stove. It's a convenient location and the stove is useless, except for a few dedicated hobbyists.

The above hissed in response by: aem [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 7:24 PM

The following hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz

More than you ever really wanted to know about the development of the poverty guidelines, by the best social scientist in America:

The Mismeasure of Poverty By Nicholas Eberstadt, Policy Review, AUGUST & SEPTEMBER 2006, NO. 138

The above hissed in response by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2006 9:47 PM

The following hissed in response by: baldilocks

I liked this AP headline from a few days ago: 13 Plagues Reported in U.S. Kinda gives you that ancient Egypt vibe.

The above hissed in response by: baldilocks [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 30, 2006 9:15 AM

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