Thursday, November 12, 2009

How To Write A Biased Newspaper Article

While I was writing the previous post, I had to do a web search for the report I heavily referenced, having read it once but not bookmarked it. Another result of the search is the topic of this post: an article in the online version of the San Francisco Examiner about the report in question.

Writing a biased article is a lot like writing a political advertisement or attack editorial, except that because you're technically supposed to be neutral, you should try to be more subtle about it. The writer of this article, Byron York, doesn't try very hard. After reading this, just for the heck of it I read some of his opinion pieces to confirm my feeling that he's a strong conservative; it didn't take long. At least those pieces are labeled as 'opinion.' This one isn't, but should be.

Are you, by chance, a conservative? A Republican? Did you vote for John McCain last November, as well as the GOP candidate in your local congressional race?

If your answer to these question is yes, then you are very, very strange -- and perhaps not even fully American. At the very least, you're not one of the rest of us.

I'm pretty sure that the 'not even fully American' bit doesn't appear in the report; it's the writer's characterization of the report's thrust. That's the reason for the 'perhaps': it's a weasel word that gives the writer an out ("I didn't actually say that he said that").

Also, the first two paragraphs suggest that the report said that solely on the basis of being a conservative, a Republican, voting for McCain, or the GOP congressional candidate, then you're one of the 'strange' people the report refers to (except that the report didn't use the word 'strange' either). But this is simply not true.

A few paragraphs later, the article says:

Conservative Republicans, according to the Democracy Corps research, don't trust Barack Obama; are scared by the speed with which the president and Democrats in Congress are attempting to enact new programs; don't like government takeovers of business; and believe that many of their fellow Americans don't fully appreciate the threat posed by the Democratic agenda.

You might think those are entirely reasonable reactions to the Obama presidency, or are at least within the mainstream of American political debate. But Carville and Greenberg say those beliefs "are not part of the continuum leading to the center of the electorate." If you hold them, you "truly stand apart."

This is the sneaky part: yes, the Georgia conservatives did say those things. But those are not the beliefs that the report feels set the Georgians (and in general, Fox News watchers/believers) apart from most people who lean right politically.

Along the same lines, the article says:

...the people in Atlanta were something else entirely.

Why? Because the Atlanta conservatives said things about Obama like: "He scares me because of how smart and smooth he is. I think the package he presents, combined with the media running interference for him, he could do a lot of things fast, which he's trying to do, which worries me."

And: "I think the whole basis is, let's ram it through while we have the numbers, while we have the popularity and while maybe people don't know what's going on. ... Once it's through, it's awful hard to repeal."

York is cherry-picking the most unremarkable things said by the Georgia Fox-watchers, the things least likely to be considered controversial. He repeats these, compares them to the report's conclusion that the Georgians are out of step with most Americans, then concludes that it's obvious that the report is trying to fool you:

No, what bothers them about Obama is what he's actually trying to do. If having such concerns means they stand a world apart from the rest of America, then there are millions of Americans standing with them.

If you read the article without having read the report to which it refers, and mocks, you might think it was entirely reasonable, and that the report was foolish, or at least reached foolish conclusions. That's what York counts on. But the reason that the report concludes that the Georgians/Fox-watchers 'stand a world apart' from the rest of the country are not the ones York lists above. Rather, they are (quoting from the report):

  • our groups showed that they explicitly believe he is purposely and ruthlessly executing a hidden agenda to weaken and ultimately destroy the foundations of our country.
  • Closely related to this well-established notion of a secret agenda is a hidden set of liberal elites or power brokers who have guided and directed Obama as a puppet, helping him to reach the highest office in the land.
  • They actively believe President Obama is purposely lying about his plans for the country and what his policies would do, and that he is exaggerating the threats America faces in order to create support for his policies.
  • questions they believe have not been adequately answered or investigated about Obama’s background, including his place of birth, his education, the authorship of his books, the degree of his associations with controversial figures including William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright,
  • They believe Obama is pushing his agenda at record pace because he does not want the American people to know what he is doing.
  • they believe his policies are purposely designed to fail... and to strip away so many basic constitutional rights that we are too weak to fight back and have to accept whatever solution he proposes.

There were others, such as that the Georgians/Fox-watchers love Sarah Palin and adore Glenn Beck. But you get the idea. Everything in the bullet points above is a belief attributed by the report to the Georgia focus group, and all are views that are far out of the mainstream of American political thought. These are the reasons the report concludes that the hard-right conservatives 'stand a world apart' from most Americans, not the far more mild ideas listed by the writer of the Examiner article.

So, to write a biased article, you should treat your opponent's assertions as puzzle pieces, to be taken apart and rearranged as you see fit. Mischaracterize his assertions, omit his reasons that support them, and suggest that other tangentially related things he said were intended to support the assertions that they clearly don't. Then sadly shake your head to let your audience know what a fool this man is, and how lucky they are to have you to point this out to them.

To me, this demonstrates very well the importance of being well-informed. If we are, we can see through pieces of crap like this. As with anything, not being well-informed allows us to be taken advantage of. And that allows, for example, politicians to do things they pretend are in our best interests, but definitely are not. Some people, in response to this, are blindly cynical. "All media is biased, all politicians are crooks." In fact, they're not, but this attitude just attempts to abdicate our responsibility: to learn to tell which are and which aren't. If for no other reason than to serve our own interests, we should try harder.

1 comment:

  1. I think that believing that all politicians are crooks and all media is biased is far more comfortable than the truth. The truth is that people are building their reality using a carefully prepared a la carte menu of "facts" and discarding anything which isn't integral to their preferred worldview. They believe what they think is real, and continue to accept or reject information based on the extent that it validates the worldview they personally want to embrace.

    This is far scarier than being cynical because we'd prefer to think people are pretending or acting out of some need to put across a certain agenda to benefit themselves than they strongly believe that their skewed vision is "the truth". The righteous are more dangerous than the disingenuous.