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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How MSM Word Choices Promote Bias

Glenn W. Smith, a Senior Fellow at George Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute, has a post up about the MSM use of the term “firm” to describe President Bush’s refusal to compromise on his Iraq policy. Smith provides examples of recent Grey Lady and WaPo headlines using the terms “firm” and “unbowed” respectively to describe Bush’s rigid Iraq policy.
As Smith explains it:

Why does the national media insist on characterizing President Bush’s refusal to alter his Iraq policy as firmness, rather than stubbornness? Because, in the strict father morality that emphasizes authority and obedience, presidents are strict fathers. They are firm. Only children can be stubborn. Reporters, probably unconscious of the worldview that limits their expressions, simply don’t want to characterize the President with a term like “stubborn,” even when it is more appropriate to the circumstance.
The New York Times headline on July 13 said, “A Firm Bush Tells Congress Not To Dictate War Policy.” The front-page online grabber at the Washington Post’s web site said, “Despite Failures in Iraq, President Holds Firm.” The story headline read, “President Unbowed as Benchmarks Aren’t Met.” Firm, unbowed. Father knows best.
This simple word, “firm,” communicates much more than reporters know. Firmness implies courage, conviction, leadership, while stubbornness means recalcitrance, childishness, refusal to face facts. We are tempted to accuse the media of political bias, and ideological bias often exists. Frequently, however, moral worldviews dominate media thinking without their knowledge. What seems like common sense to reporters is actually the unconscious employment of language that their brain produces reflexively, or without conscious intention.

In all fairness, some headline writers may chose “firm” more because it is a shorter word than some of the less biased alternatives, such as “stubborn,” “inflexible,” “obstinate” or even “rigid,” particularly when a story is formatted in a single, narrow column. Regardless of the intent, however, the effect is the same — distortion. Whether or not you buy into the framologists’ strict daddy/nurturing mommy take, Smith has nailed a serious problem here. When biased terms are used by journalists who are supposed to be even-handed, it shouldn’t be allowed to pass without a vigorous protest.
It’s not just about Bush and Iraq. No doubt federal, state and local Democratic candidates across the nation can recount similar experiences with the MSM’s choice of words that flatter their opponent’s motives, policies and actions in supposedly objective reportage.
Perhaps every Democratic campaign should have a “Truth in Language” squad assigned to raise hell with media that uses biased terminology masquerading as objective reporting. Let repeat offenders be forced to deal with an avalanche of email, faxes and phone call complaints. If that doesn’t work, ask to meet with the editors — whatever it takes to get the MSM to pick their words more carefully.

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