June 13, 2007

The Insidious Nature of Subtle Media Bias

Hatched by Dafydd

Sometimes, the leftward bias of the elite media is so blatant, it's positively brazen. But this is actually not very dangerous to society, simply because it is so obvious: If someone nakedly calls President Bush a "fascist imperialist murderer," it's easy to dismiss anything else he says.

Far more destructive is the subtle bias that slides past unnoticed, but can influence our thinking even more than obvious bias... it slips under our defensive shields, and we don't even realize how we're being brainwashed.

Here is a simple example. What is wrong with this picture?

Two former White House officials were subpoenaed today as Congressional Democrats intensified pressure on the Bush administration over the dismissals of eight United States attorneys.

Seems pretty innocuous, right? Just straight news reporting? Look again: The "straight news" is that Congress issued subpoenas. But the New York Times tells us something else; they inform us that these subpoenas "intensified pressure on the Bush administration."

Here is where it gets a bit subtle. Why would subpoenaing Harriet Miers and Sara Taylor increase the pressure on President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales?

Democrats have been investigating the attorney general's decision not to renew contracts for a handful of United States Attorneys; the Democrats hope to prove there was something illegal about those "dismissals," some way to use it to force the resignation of Gonzales, which would indeed strike a blow at George W. Bush. But so far, even the Times would agree that the Democrats have been unsuccessful: They cannot find any evidence of illegality whatsoever, despite many weeks of investigation.

So let's make a wild leap here and assume, just for sake of argument, that the attorney general in fact committed no crime, that there was a completely legitimate reason not to renew the contracts. If so -- then why would coerced testimony under oath by Miers and Taylor intensify the pressure on Gonzales or Bush? The gals would simply say the same thing the administration says, which would actually benefit Bush.

Thus, by flatly stating that the subpoenas "intensified pressure," the Times subtlely but surely conveys the point that Bush and Gonazles have something to hide -- something that Harriet Miers and Sara Taylor know and are desperately trying to conceal, but which now might come out if they are interrogated under oath by Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT, 95%).

Whew, that's quite a lot to convey in just two words! But if you read news stories with a critical eye, you will see the same pattern over and over. Patterico and I have both been pounding this beat for some time. In his post Liberal Bias in the Wording of a News Article, Patterico quotes a perfect example of subtle bias by word choice from the Washington Post:

Today the Washington Post prints one of those articles that drive conservatives like me crazy. The article, a front-page news analysis titled Kerry Put On Defensive About Iraq, just drips with sympathy for Kerry. But I don’t find any clear misstatements of fact in the piece. The bias is in the way it’s worded, starting with the very first paragraph:

Over the past week, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have thrown Sen. John F. Kerry on the defensive with a daily assault designed to tarnish his credentials as a possible commander in chief. But the orchestrated attacks also revealed the president’s vulnerabilities on the issue that continues to shape the presidential campaign as much as any other.

I chuckled when I read the part about the “orchestrated attacks.” It reminded me of the survey that one web site did of all the times Dan Rather had used the phrase “carefully orchestrated leak.” You will not be surprised to learn that Rather always used the phrase to refer to alleged leaks by Republicans. Republicans are apparently the masters of “orchestration,” whether you’re talking leaks or attacks.

You see, whenever one candidate 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 candidate being criticized. But if you don’t like the criticism, then you will refer to the criticism as an “attack.” You will consistently phrase the description of the criticism in the active voice, as in: “Cheney attacked Kerry over the issue of...” Rather than saying that the parties voicing the criticism have “pointed out” their opponent’s misstatements, you will say they “seized on” those misstatements.

Again, the very subtlety itself is what allows it to insinuate itself unnoticed into our brains. For example, the next time Republicans are at loggerheads with each other (which seems to occur with great regularity), notice how both sides of the internicine GOP dispute begin unconsciously to mimic Democratic anti-Republican arguments and even smears. In the last example, immigration-bill opponents routinely called Bush and Republican supporters "grave threats to America" and "dictators," while immigration-bill supporters just as often called opponents "racists" and "nativists."

After years and years of hearing those vicious attacks from Democrats, often couched in very subtle terms that flew below our radar, disputants could not help forming their "arguments" around those very same attacks. Thus are we manipulated into selling Democrats the rope that they will use to hang us all (heh, how's that for a subtle but extremely nasty smear?)

Another media technique is to use quotations from biased parties to level charges that are unsustainable by any actual evidence the media possess... while allowing only the sketchiest and most unconvincing response from the accused. To wit:

So far, the White House has said it will not make any current or former officials available to testify under oath before the panels but would not object to private interviews, with no sworn testimony and no transcripts kept. The lawmakers have disdained that arrangement as unacceptable.

“By refusing to cooperate with Congressional committees, the White House continues its pattern of confrontation over cooperation, and those who suffer most in this case are the public and the hard-working people at the Department of Justice,” Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate committee, said in a statement today.

Representative John D. Conyers of Michigan, the chairman of the House committee, said the subpoenas were “a demand on behalf of the American people.”

“The breadcrumbs in this investigation have always led to 1600 Pennsylvania,” Mr. Conyers said, referring to the White House by its street address. “This investigation will not end until the White House complies with the demands of this subpoena in a timely and reasonable manner, so that we may get to the bottom of this.”

The White House reacted quickly today to the subpoenas, arguing that the committees could easily obtain all the facts they need through interviews and relevant documents, but that the Democratic chairmen “are more interested in drama than facts,” as Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, put it in an exchange with reporters.

All right, quick quiz: Based entirely on this passage (or any other in the story), why is the president fighting against subpoenas of his top aides? What is the legal principle involved, if any? I'm not asking whether you agree with it... I just what to know what it is, according to "America's newspaper of record" which prints "all the news that's fit to print."

Yes, it's a trick question.

By omitting any quotion of the administration's argument, we are subtlely left with the impression that Bush has no legitimate reason... thus, the only explanantion for reluctance to testify under oath is having something to hide from Congress, reinforcing the implication of the earlier phrase "intensified pressure." Pat Leahy and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI, 100%) make a charge which the administration never answers. Their "silence" speaks volumes!

Of course, their "silence" is an artifact of the New York Times' writers and editors, who choose not to print the administration's argument: The Executive is a coequal branch of the government with the Legislature; and just as the president cannot order the Justice Department to haul members of Congress in and force them to testify, under penalty of perjury, about their innermost discussions of politics, strategy, or policy, Congress should not be allowed to haul in the president's closest advisors for the same purpose. The president -- argues this president -- has the right under the Constitution to receive confidential advice; and absent an actual criminal proceeding, neither of the other two branches has the authority to force those advisors to reveal what they have told him.

In this case, without any evidence of criminality, Democrats in Congress want to force Miers, Taylor, Karl Rove, and others to testify under oath before a congressional committee -- where Democrats can demand private information they will use to try to defeat the Republicans in 2008. (We don't know whether the attorneys were let go for "political" reasons, but we for darn sure know that's why Miers and Taylor were subpoenaed!)

On its face, Bush's side of the dispute appears to have at least some merit. But you would never know it, due to the "sin of omission" commited by the grim Grey Lady.

I know I've pounded on this before; but I will continue doing so for as long as I still have readers. It's one of the most important battles to fight, and it must be fought every day, with each one of us as foot soldiers in the propaganda war. Whenever you read any article or watch any video in the mainstream news -- and that includes the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Fox News -- keep asking yourself, "If I were on the other side of the writer on this issue, how would I have phrased this differently?"

When you begin to substitute your own biased wording for that of the original, the original bias will leap out at you like a startled rattlesnake. Thus commences enlightenment.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, June 13, 2007, at the time of 2:37 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Navyvet

The days of simple reporting of facts without bias or "scare quotes" are long gone (indeed, if they ever existed at all).

As with truth-in-lending laws, and FDA regulations, it would be nice if the headline of each article appearing in print would bear a "bias disclaimer". For example:

"Bush Attacks Immigration Bill Opponents (Liberal Bias: 87%)"


"Senate Democrats Stonewall Tort Reform (Conservative Bias: 57%)"

In a fair world, perhaps a computer program could be developed that would analyze the use of certain bias-oriented keywords and assign a liberal/conservative weighting, with the ideal balance being 50/50 (i.e.: no bias).

Or maybe just train journalists to report the facts, and leave the opinion to the pundits.

Naaaaaahhh! Never happen.

The above hissed in response by: Navyvet [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 5:01 PM

The following hissed in response by: F. N. Owl

"The days of simple reporting of facts without bias" never existed.

For example, I lived in DC and subscribed to the Washington Post in 1985-87. I still remember the article on how inflation the previous year had turned out to be low, where the economists had predicted high. The headline on the story: "COST-OF-LIVING RAISES TO BE LOWER THAN EXPECTED".

The above hissed in response by: F. N. Owl [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 7:53 PM

The following hissed in response by: Fritz

Many in the news media have forgotten what they are supposed to be doing, at least in the eyes of consumers. Instead, they continue to put out propaganda in place of news, and the worst part is that I think many of them are so biased they don't realize what they are doing. They appear to have a mindset that does not allow them to realize how biased much of their reporting is.
When I was much younger the news was more factual. It was also much dryer to read. Then the news media drifted towards sensationalism, and in doing so lost their objectivity. They become emotionally involved with the story and don't recognize that their emotions color their judgments. Todays reporters say they want to make a difference, and that should immediately disqualify them as only by taking sides can you make a difference. To be honest, I think the worst thing that has happened to journalism is teaching it in college. They have tried to raise it to some noble kind of career and noble it isn't, just as auto mechanics isn't a noble career, or truck driving, or most careers. The end result is that journalists have an inflated idea of what they are and how important they are. Deep down too many of them feel that if only they could run the country they could do a much better job of it. So far there haven't been many journalists who managed to get elected, yet most of them don't realize that fact and continue on in their fantasy world of believing they know best. Most have truly monumental egos and minuscule intellects to believe that, but believe it they must in order to continue to churn out what passes for todays journalism.

The above hissed in response by: Fritz [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 13, 2007 11:45 PM

The following hissed in response by: brutepcm

More tricks, often used on television news. The President is shown, and his remarks are paraphrased (Or one line is taken from a two hour speech). His critics are allowed to speak at length, directly to the camera. Also, negative information is given last, and that is the message most likely to stick in our mind.
When there is a panel discussion, lefties outnumber righties, and will join in a loud chorus of "LALALA I can't hear you!" whenever the righty starts to make a valid point.
Interviews are always filled with questions of the "So- are you still beating your wife?" variety. Ignoring these questions seems evasive, answering them wastes valuable airtime.

The above hissed in response by: brutepcm [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 5:47 AM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

You are correct, but there is so much more. How about unequal quotation ratio? The Democrats make charges in paragraphs, while the administration defends itself in single words, or short paraphrased snippets.

How about the use of the word "attack"? Ever notice how Democrats always "charge" but Republicans always "attack"? I love the Kerry stuff - it makes it sound like Bush saying something bad about Kerry is just so out of left field. He attacked him, right out of the blue. An orchestrated attack. Almost Pearl Harborish.

I would suggest limiting the use of attack to, oh, I dunno, maybe an actual physical assault? Sticks and stones after all...

Or how about the screwy quotes. Instead of:

Bush says: "New Iraq policy will bring peace.""

We get:

Bush says the new Iraq policy will bring "peace."

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 9:11 AM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

Journalistic bias is neither new nor currently particularly egregious by historical standards. What is new is the idea that unbiased news reporting is possible. The novel idea of journalistic objectivity was popularized in the US when one political faction managed to gain a near-monopoly on the major media outlets and the journalism departments in universities after WWII. One can see their championship of "objectivity" as an attempt to cut off debate by declaring their viewpoint as the only legitimate, "objective" take on world events.

To disabuse yourself of the notion that journalistic activism is new in American politics you need only consider this snippet from the Library of Congress' page on Thomas Jefferson:

Partisan politics spurred newspaper growth in the United States from 92 in 1790 to 329 at the end of Thomas Jefferson's presidency. All but 56 were identified with a political party. Philip Freneau's National Gazette was the first official Republican newspaper. Jefferson and James Madison provided encouragement, money and a position in Jefferson's Department of State to Freneau to establish a Republican newspaper. The National Gazette was the leading critic of Federalist political programs durings its two year existence.
or study the career of James T. Callender a "journalist" who Jefferson encouraged to attack John Adams but who turned on Jefferson later in his career, becoming the major source for the Sally Hemmings scandal which asserted that Jefferson had fathered children on one of his slaves.

If anything, and this is Dafydd's point here, what is new about modern journalistic bias is its subtlety.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 9:40 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


Yes, I'm aware of the nature of journalism in the 18th century; and you are correct that one of my points is the dangerous subtlety of media bias today.

But another is this: If you graph "partisan bias in journalism" from then until now, it's true that there is less partisan bias than in the 1700s... but it's also true that we're nowhere near the graph's minimum.

Partisan bias used to be much lower; I think it hit its nadir in the 1950s and early 1960s. But with the rise of leftist ideologies and agendas in journalism in the late 60s and early 70s, we were set on an upward path of bias that has not abated to this day.

In fact, I suspect it's rising raster than it was falling during the early 20th century; so "if this goes on," we will surpass the turn of the (last) century level of media bias in less than a hundred years.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 12:41 PM

The following hissed in response by: JenLArt

I believe the magic date you're looking for when the Media changed over to heavily biased "news" is Watergate.
However, if you consider that the Grey Lady was praising Stalin's agrarian revolution as a triumph when it actually resulted in the deaths of millions by starvation in the 1930s, maybe the Leftist bias started a lot earlier than the '70's.
Never forget that Whittaker Chambers, the Communist spy turned informant, worked for Time Magazine.
Some of our journalists may not be aware of their bias, while others may be doing it purposefully.
It seems clear that be they naive and well-meaning or actual fellow-travellers, there's no mistaking that their "reporting" is agenda-driven.

The above hissed in response by: JenLArt [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 12:54 PM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

Yes, Dafydd, I agree that partisan bias in the news is on the increase but that leads to another question: is this a bad thing or a good thing?

I happen to think that "objective" news reporting, as most people understand it, is neither possible nor particularly desirable. The wonderful thing about the mainstream media's drift to the left is that it provided an opening on the right that has been filled by Fox News and talk radio. Your suggested method for detecting the subtle bias in news stories is to ask yourself "If I were on the other side of the writer on this issue, how would I have phrased this differently?" With Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to provide the necessary second point of reference a lot more people can do the necessary triangulation for themselves. The more CNN works to label Fox News as having a right-wing Conservative bias, the more people tend to ask CNN, "If Fox News is right-wing, that makes you guys... what, exactly? Hmmmm."

Also, the most subtle form of bias of all is story selection bias (see "Negative Space" on my humble blog) and having a variety of various news sources, each with its own known biases, provides a wider range of information than would the same number of sources selecting stories "objectively," whatever that means. I, for one, am glad that if I really want to know what Cindy Sheehan had for lunch I can read the Daily Kos, and if not so much, Big Lizards.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 3:49 PM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

I wrote "variety of various news sources" didn't I? Argggh! Curse you, MovableType, for setting commenter's errors in stone!

Please read that as "a variety of various different, differing and diverse news sources that provide news." If I am going to write flabby prose it might as well sprawl a bit more...

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 3:58 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


What bothers me most is not partisanship, but stupid partisanship. The elites give no impression whatsoever that they even understand that another side exists, let alone that it could be something worth listening to.

I want our points noted, and I want to see responses. Just as I get impatient when, say, Michael Medved or Hugh Hewitt has a lefty on -- but the host doesn't really respond to the guest's points: Medved often just dismisses them as nonsense, while Huge shifts into his frustrated lawyer cross examination mode, where he listens to what the other person says only enough to try to trip him up with the next question.

In their respective modes, neither really listens to counterargument; and that same lack of interest in those outside the "vision" is precisely what infuriates me about the MSM. Not only do they not "get it," they don't even seem to realize there is an "it" to get.

And that really is something fairly new; back in the 18th century, newspapers were strongly partisan... but they accepted the duty to respond to the arguments from the hated opposition. (Consider the Federalist and "Anti-Federalist" papers.)


I believe the magic date you're looking for when the Media changed over to heavily biased "news" is Watergate.

Good heavens, no... we mustn't forget "Uncle" Walter Cronkite's breath-taking, multi-week lie about the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam!

Credit where it's due: "America's most trusted voice" took advantage of that sobriquet to bamboozle American viewers into believing that the Viet Cong and NVA had whupped our heinies... when in fact, we handed them one of the most thorough and obvious trouncings in the history of modern warfare.

I don't know if that marks the moment journalism ran off the rails on the crazy train, but it's a good candidate.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2007 10:08 PM

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