Today we saw a duel for spin control between our two most prominent newspapers, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
The spin concerned how to interpret the response that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie received in his first town hall meeting since the Washington bridge scandal burst into national consciousness a few months ago. It was the 110th town hall meeting Christie has held since assuming the mantle of Governor of the Garden State. These town hall meetings have come to symbolize the image of Christie that the mainstream media liked to portray before Bridgegate: open, direct, frank, straight-talking, action-oriented. This town hall meeting took place somewhere in Republican-leaning Monmouth County near the Jersey coastline that Superstorm Sandy battered.
The headlines in the print versions say it all:
WSJ: “Christie Style Is on Display” (which in the Internet version became the more objective “Christie Hosts First Town Hall Since Scandal”)
NYT: “Christie Finds Hostility in Setting He Once Ruled” (which was also changed in the Internet version to “For Christie, Awkward Return to a Setting He Once Ruled”
The first sentences of the respective stories—in print and online—seem to be describing different events:
He consoled displaced Superstorm Sandy victims, joked about his undying love for Bruce Springsteen and even used salty language at times as he bantered with detractors and admirers.
It was mostly vintage Chris Christie on Thursday at the Republican governor’s first town hall meeting since last June
When Chris Christie started to talk over a complaining questioner, a signature tactic of the bellicose, pre-scandal governor, the audience here briefly turned on him.
“Answer the question,” some shouted.
When he took a microphone from a long-winded speaker, the man startled Mr. Christie by snatching it right back.
Each story builds on the basic idea established in the print version of the headline and the first paragraph. The NYT version basically shows a hostile crowd fed up with Christie. The WSJ version depicts an accomplished and popular politician using his skills to have the audience eating out of his hand.
The rival newspapers even differ in where they say the meeting took place: the dateline in the Times reads Port Monmouth, NJ, while the dateline in the Journal says the meeting occurred in Middleton, NJ. When you input the two place names into Google Maps, they show up as being about four miles away from each other, but we’re definitely talking about the same meeting. We can recognize three or four of the same people in the same position relative to the meeting room in the photos used in both papers.
Which story is true? As a progressive who abhors the crony capitalism at which Christie seems to excel, I want to side with the Times version of the facts and a careful reading of the two stories does reveal that the Times has more specific detail. But based on my decades as a news media analyst, I’m guessing that they’re both wrong—and they’re both right.
The centrist New York Times and the right-leaning Wall Street Journal are both trying to define the storyline going forward: The Journal wants Christie to recover and be the victorious GOP hero in 2016, whereas the Times—I’m not sure what the Times wants when it comes to the Christie story, but let’s assume that despite liking Christie in the past, it has turned against the big guy because of Bridgegate.
Different media and different political leaders and parties vie to control public perception of a story all the time. Centrists and left-leaners saw only the mostly good news in the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the impact of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour on various aspects of the economy, whereas right-wingers clutched to the probably wrong estimate that such an increase would lead to a three tenths of one percent increase in unemployment. The rollout of the Affordable Care Act and the investigation of the Benghazi incident are two other recent examples of different parties and media outlets trying to place a different spin on the same facts.
But just as often, the entire mass media goes with the same spin, and often it’s wrong. Let’s take two examples from four years ago:
- All the media invoked the Glenn Beck rally on Constitution Mall in Washington, D.C. as proof of the ascendancy of the Tea Party in the lead-up to the 2010 Congressional elections and as proof that the media should be covering only Tea Party campaigns. But the most reputable sources estimated that the rally attracted 85,000, the same number who attended the mostly ignored and forgotten union-oriented rally in favor of progressive policies at the same location a few weeks later. Why was one the symbol of a political sea change while the other wasn’t?
- A 2010 study by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that that more than 61% of all women live with someone else in a romantic or sexual relationship sometime in their lives without the benefit of marriage. All the news media, top to bottom, ignored or buried this finding, preferring instead to report that the study showed people who cohabit are 6% less likely to be together 10 years after marriage than people who don’t live together before getting hitched. Instead of presenting a truly dramatic change in social mores, the mainstream media preferred to depict a threat to the institution of marriage.
In both of these stories, myths and political desires superseded a concern for the facts or their real significance. These stories exemplify my belief that at the end of the day, most mainstream media really do agree on the big stuff. Before questioning this opinion, try to find the last time the Times published any story that supported or discussed lifting the cap off income that must be assessed the Social Security tax. Or go back to see how the Times initially covered the Occupy Movement or the proposal by New York Mayor (then candidate) Bill De Blasio to tax those who make a million a year or more to pay for universal pre-K. The Times’ position on Occupy and pre-K funding was similar to the Wall Street Journal’s until the people spoke and made their position clear.
What’s a poor truth-seeker to do? For one thing, we should be aware of the predilections and prejudices of all media. We should learn to suspect the reports when they seem to go against common sense or they don’t have a lot of specifics. Another sign that the spin is holding the facts hostage is a reliance on the use of the passive construction, because the passive doesn’t have to include attributions. Beyond that, it’s probably wise to read a variety of media from the left, right and center, and to make sure that the stories come from different sources. For example, you can typically read hundreds of versions of the same story using the same facts but with slightly different headlines every day, since most of the stories we see are reprints, interpretations or revisions of original sources. Quite often whether you read the story in the St. Louis Dispatch or the Los Angeles Times or see it on the local CBS affiliate in Denver, it’s the same story written by the same Associated Press, Gannett or Bloomberg News reporter. If you really want to know what the news is and what it means, you’ll have to consult several independent sources, something that’s much harder to do since the consolidation of ownership of media outlets.