The old expression, “the devil is in the details,” certainly applies to propaganda. Writers, editors, publishers, photographers, filmmakers and illustrators often will pretend to be objective in their communication while loading up the details with images, statements and facts that support the hidden message they want to make. As frequent OpEdge readers will note, the process of putting the message in the details is what I call “creating an ideological subtext.” Sometimes, a piece is full of these details, while other times, the writer (or visual communicator) adds an ideological detail in an offhand, almost gratuitous manner.
Today, there are two examples of embedding ideological detail into written news on the front page of the business section of today’s New York Times. In both cases, the writer(s) goes so far out of the way to add the propaganda note that the detail stands out almost like a daub of red paint on a canvas that is otherwise entirely gray and white:
In “Fed Adopts Washington Tactics to Combat Critics,” Sewell Chan starts the second paragraph (and second sentence) with this tidy little list: “Caught off guard by accusations from Congressional Republicans, Sarah Palin, Tea Party activists and conservative economists, the central bank and its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, are pushing back…. It’s another easy SAT test question—which doesn’t belong? The answer, of course, is Sarah Palin, whose standing in the discussion is the same as Mitt Romney’s, Tim Pawlenty or Newt Gringrich, other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. In fact, her views, as illogical and uninformed as they are, are probably worth less on this issue than those of Mittman, Timmy and the neutered Grinch. But by throwing her name into the mix of critics, Chan continues the mainstream media’s campaign to raise Palin’s stature and make her into a national leader, whose opinions on every issue count.
In a story about the possible sale of J. Crew that many other newspapers including the St. Louis Dispatch ran unchanged from the Times article, the writing team of Michael J. de la Merced and Andrew Ross Sorkin take a weird back-handed slap at our first lady: “J. Crew, the clothier of choice for the likes of Michelle Obama, is near a deal to sell itself for about $2.8 billion to the buyout firms….” The expression, “…the likes of…” is always negative, as in, “we don’t like the likes of you around here,” which many will recognize as a line of dialogue from a large number of movies about the old West. Always unstated in this expression is the reason why the speaker does not like the type of person about whom they are talking. In the case of our first lady, it could mean “upscale” or even “fashionable;” I believe, however, that a large number of people who read this expression will think, “Uppity N-word.” But whatever association comes to mind, the expression always has a negative context. In a story about a possible acquisition, the use of “the likes of” is completely out-of-context and a snide back swipe at our President through his wife.
I’m not questioning the value to the news story of stating that the first lady likes the products, but the writers could have used any number of other expressions to communicate that “gee-whiz” fact without a subtle slam at the first family. They could have written, for example, “J. Crew, the clothier of choice for Michelle Obama…” or “J. Crew, the clothier of choice for many upscale professionals including our first lady…”
Since it’s the de facto national newspaper of record and has a liberal reputation in its editorial policy, I like to use the New York Times as exhibit A whenever I write about ideological subtext that supports a right-wing worldview. But every mainstream media outlet does it.