In today’s USA Today, Al Neuharth, the founder of our national MacPaper, chimes in on the controversy that has ensued since some Obama Administration officials said what seems to me to be res ipso loquitor, which in Latin means “a thing that proves itself”: that Fox News colors its presentation of news so much that “it is not really a news station,” as David Axelrod put it.
Neuharth’s main point is that one should not pick a fight with “someone who buys ink by the barrel,” which of course ignores the fact that any large organization, be it a government or a large corporation, also either buys ink or buys the people who buy the ink through buying ads or setting the topic and tone of coverage through the large amounts of information they provide to the news media.
But what I would like to examine today is Neuharth’s ancillary point that “most of you understand the difference between news and views.” He’s just wrong, and not because people are dumb or undiscerning—they are not—but because the media can be so subtle and unrelenting in their conflation of news and opinion. Most people just want to read and listen to the news and don’t have the time to spend analyzing the fact content nor the rhetorical devices being employed to color the facts with opinion.
Here are some ways that media can color the news. It’s not an exhaustive list, just some of the more obvious tricks of the trade that come to mind at six in the morning:
- Labeling, as Neuharth himself does by calling The New York Times and The Washington Post liberal, when in fact both newspapers prove themselves to be centrist to slightly right virtually every day.
- Selection of facts, as again Neuharth does when he tosses off the names of TV personalities Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews and Lou Dobbs who are tied to certain viewpoints to make his point about news, instead of actually analyzing news reporters.
- Expert selection, which National Public Radio does every day when it interviews E. J. Dionne and David Brooks to give their views, which in a world that could encompass opinions ranging from A to Z is akin to spanning that small territory between L and M. By doing so, NPR narrows the field of discussion, and if you listen carefully you’ll realize that this narrowing takes the discussion slightly right of center.
- Conflation, which is the equating of two things that are not equal. My blog entries over the past few months examine several examples of this technique.
- “Matt Drudging,” which is the quoting of assertions that someone else has presented as facts so that the reporter can present the false information as “a fact” without having to actually look into it. The best recent example was the right-wing news media quoting other sources to substantiate the ridiculous claim that 2 million people attended the so-called “Taxpayer March” last month.
- Telling or reporting lies: Let’s not beat that old but painfully bloody and expensive horse that has crippled our economy and brought misery to millions too much, but the best recent example of telling or repeating lies were the Bush administration claims, widely reported without proper fact-checking, that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” that it is was ready to use.
- Ideological subtext, which is using details of the story to make an unstated point. Again, you can see several examples of ideological subtext in recent blogs.
- Deciding what is and is not news.
My point is that much of what we call news is in fact dripping with opinion.