Advertisements try to sell values that enhance products, but do they reflect the market’s values or shape them?

Most advertising, no matter what the medium, tries to attach a value beyond the inherent value of the product or service being shilled.  According to standard ad theory, you do research to find out what values are of importance to the target market and work on connecting one or a few important ones to the product/service.

But as is often the case, the real world often works the other way.  Often the advertiser has to create the need for the value in the target market.  And sometimes it seems as if the advertiser has the choice of values—and which one it selects says more about its own needs and belief system than it does about the target market’s.

Take, as example, a current Home Depot radio ad.  Let me preface the impending diatribe by saying that Home Depot came into East Liberty, a poor minority neighborhood in Pittsburgh, several years after Sears had abandoned the neighborhood, and has revitalized the entire area by bringing consumers in and giving a lot of jobs to the local residents.  I always go to my inner city Home Depot instead of the Lowe’s in the new suburban lifestyle center.

Now to the radio ad:  A professionally friendly male announcer tells us that we can buy LED Christmas lights, which use much less energy than traditional lights.  The announcer then makes the connection to an important value to the consumer.

And is the connection to value that the LED lights let you save money? No, Home Depot doesn’t play on the frugality of Joe and Jane Sixpack during a recession.

Or, is it the fact that buying LED lights help you make the Holiday celebration more energy efficient? No. Home Depot doesn’t talk about green values either.

What Home Depot’s friendly announcer says is now you can keep your lights on longer for the same cost.

Of course!  It’s America!  When the cost of consumption goes down, consume more!  

So Home Depot misses an opportunity to distill the values of frugality and/or green consciousness, the very two values that we all need to cultivate to address the mess in which the human race finds itself, thanks to our massive over-consumption. 

Instead the “old-fashioned hardware store in an airplane hangar“ encourages the public to consume more.

Shame on Home Depot, but it’s to be expected.  To sell more of its consumer products, Home Depot wants to influence the buying public to consume more, even if what the public will be consuming is a) not for sale at Home Depot; and b) something of which our society really should be using a lot less.  Thus it imbues the product with the ideological imperative to consume more.

Is 11% of maybes that important to drug manufacturers, or can they just lower prices and give more away?

The latest issue of AARP Bulletin has a survey on the awareness by consumers of advertising for prescription drugs.  The poll contrasts the percentage of peoples 18-49 and 50+ who experience different types of advertising for prescription drugs.   

Although supposedly focused on the concerns of those more than 50 years of age, AARP Bulletin once again shows that it may have taken over as the magazine of cultural issues and trends for Middle America now that Parade is little more than a postage stamp.  The survey touches on many hot button issues, including health care, the cost of prescription drugs and the use of media by both businesses and the public.

The survey, conducted by Social Science Research Solutions, a private research firm, shows hardly any difference in the rate at which those two age groups, younger and older, see ads for prescription drugs (sometimes squeamishly called “ethical pharmaceuticals”) on/in TV, magazines, radio, newspapers, Internet, pharmacies and email.

The most interesting finding, though, is that only 11% of younger people and 9% of older people have ever asked their physician for a prescription of a drug they saw in an ad.

How many times do we see ads on TV for prescription drugs to cure or ameliorate erectile dysfunction, obesity, diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and chronic pain?  I think you’ll find that whatever the time of day and whatever the magazine, the objective of a large percentage of all ads is to sell directly to the public those drugs that only a doctor can order.

It seems so unethical, and now we see that it doesn’t even do much good. 

Drug companies are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars a year into advertising to reach a mere 9-11% of any market.  Pfizer, maker of Lipitor for high cholesterol and Viagra for low you-know-what, spent $1.2 billion on advertising all by itself in 2007, the latest year I could find online.  

All that money is only affecting 9-11% of the total market for each of its drugs! An absolute waste of money!

Perhaps the drug companies would be better off if they did not advertise to the public at all, but limited their marketing to physicians.  I’m not saying that drug companies should not have websites and brochures that explain in lay terms the benefits and side effects of their drugs.  I’m talking about the obtrusive and sanctimoniously obnoxious outreach in TV, email, magazine and other advertising.

Better that the drug companies not spend these enormous sums on advertising and instead lower their prices to consumers and hospitals.

Call for nominations for OpEdge’s Ketchup Award, named after the condiment Reagan officials called a vegetable serving.

Many people act as if they really believe the first line to St. John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the word.”  They think by using a word or phrase they can create or deform the reality being described or make people look at it from a different perspective. 

For example, when corporations started using the term “downsizing” to describe massive layoffs of employees, the idea was to conceal the human misery that layoffs cause by shifting the focus from the people to the ephemeral entity that is a corporation.  With this newly created compound noun, they sought to replace the message, “2,000 people are losing their jobs” with the more positive message, “The company is getting smaller (and stronger).”

Of course, most people saw through the ruse, so in time another new phrase entered the lexicon of terms to describe massive firings: right-sizing.  People quickly saw through that one, too.

(A quick note: companies sometimes do have to terminate the employment of many people when changed market conditions or foolish moves by management threaten the continued operation of the business.  What I’m talking about here is the language they use, and not the actions they take.)

Examples of these euphemisms are everywhere: “pre-owned” to describe a used vehicle; “police action” to describe a war; “special methods of questioning” and “refined interrogation techniques” to describe torture.    

Sometimes, the replacement term is a piece of jargon that sounds weird until it is repeated endless times, such as the use of the word “product” to describe something intangible like insurance, software or a professional service.

So far, most of the examples I’ve given are simple euphemisms: synonyms that pretty up the situation or concept.  Sometimes, though, the new term is meant to manipulate or completely distort, usually for an ulterior motive.  My favorite example of all time is the Reagan Administration’s attempt to consider as a vegetable that goopy combination of tomato paste and corn syrup we know as ketchup.  Reagan’s folks wanted to define ketchup as a vegetable and not what it is, a condiment, so that they could cut the budget for the school lunch program and still say that the children were getting a balanced, healthy meal, ignoring the low nutritional value of ketchup compared to fresh or canned tomatoes, green beans, carrots, kale or other real vegetables (not to mention that to constitute one serving of vegetable, someone would have to choke down a half-cup of ketchup).

Other times, the new label is an out-and-out lie, as when earlier this year Tea Party elder mis-statesman and former Congressman Dick Armey said that the founders of Jamestown, all capitalists to their core, were socialists.  Armey turned these early American entrepreneurs into socialists rather than admit that a capitalist venture could ever fail and to hammer home his false message that any and every economic failure must stem from socialistic actions.  

As a writer and a student of language and society, I find these new words and phrases to be quite fascinating, especially when they spread lies or manipulate the public.  That’s why I decided to bestow an award each year on the weirdest, funniest and/or most manipulative new or newly reported label, word or phrase used by an organization or individual to distort or recreate reality.

It’s called the Ketchup Award, after the Reagan Administration’s favorite vegetable, and I’m asking my readers to send me nominations by December 31.  I’ve mentioned the awards twice on OpEdge, so consider this blog entry the final call for submissions.

If you would like to nominate a new or newly reported distortion for the first annual Ketchup Awards, just post it in a comment on one of my blog entries, send your nominations to the OpEdge FaceBook page or email  Please include the phrase and the person or organization who said it in your nomination.  No need to include any links, but keep in mind that my staff and I will have to verify the word or phrase, who said it and that it was actually said in 2010, and a link will make it much easier for us to do so.

In a special blog entry on or around January 15, 2011, I will list at least 10 finalists and make three awards:  3rd Place gets One Dollop; 2nd Place Two Dollops; and the grand prize winner will get The Full Squeeze. 

There will be no prize for the submitter of the winning entries, except for the recognition you will receive on OpEdge and the warm feeling you’ll get inside knowing that you have helped to unmask a charlatan.

Thanks in advance for your nominations.

Another example of a mainstream media outlet lying in the headline and first paragraph of a news report.

Once again, a news report tells a lie in the headline and first paragraph before giving the true story in the article.  First let’s analyze the article in question, after which we’ll take a look at why such an approach is so perniciously manipulative.

Last Friday, Associated Press released an AP-GfK study on the attitude of likely voters towards the new federal healthcare law that Congress passed earlier this year.

The results of the study divided respondents into four groups:

  • Those who think the law should be strengthened – 36%
  • Those who want to leave the new law as is – 15%
  • Those who want modifications to narrow its scope – 10%
  • Those who want the law repealed – 37%

 When we do the math, we find that 61% do not want the law repealed against 37% who do (the other 2% probably did not respond).   In an election, 61% is considered to be a mandate.

But AP’s headline and first paragraph reported the story in a way that distorted these numbers:

Headline: “AP-GfK Poll: Americans split on health care repeal”

First paragraph: “First it was President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul that divided the nation. Now it’s the Republican cry for repeal.”

Huh!?  Since when does a 61-37% landslide majority translate into a divided nation? 

While the survey also shows that 52% still oppose the legislation, the headline and first paragraph do not talk about opposition to the law.  They talk about repeal, and it’s clear that a vast majority of likely voters do not want to repeal the new law.  (Keep in mind, too, that of the 52% who say they oppose the law, many and perhaps a majority oppose it because they want it to be stronger.)

As I’ve discussed before in OpEdge, most people skim the news, only reading the headline and first paragraph of most articles.  That’s why reporters are trained to structured news stories as an “inverted pyramid,” which means that you put the most important information in the first paragraph and bury less important information lower in the story.

In other words, most people who read this article will come away thinking that the country is divided about repeal, when in fact only a minority of voters want to repeal the law.  By pretending the country is divided on one of the Democrats crowning achievements of the past Congressional session, the Associated Press story is lying to the country in a way that helps the Republicans in the upcoming elections.  

And a lot of people will see the story, since AP stories usually get carried in hundreds of newspapers across the country and appear on hundreds of websites.  Moreover, this particular piece of propaganda was the lead story on the Yahoo! homepage for much of the morning of October 25.

And thus another right-wing lie will gain credence among the American people, with the help of the mainstream news media.

After giving expanded coverage to Beck rally, media puts a same-sized rally of left-centrists on the back burner.

Many of you probably won’t know that on this past Saturday, labor unions, the NAACP and hundreds of other liberal-centrist and progressive groups rallied in Washington in support of liberal economic policies, President Obama and Democratic candidates in the November election.

The reason you may not have heard of this rally is that the news media didn’t cover it much.   Remember that when Glen Beck held his so-called “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington in August, more than 5,300 stories appeared on Google News.

But the news media showed much less in this past Saturday’s rally of liberals.  A search of Google News could only find about 930 stories about the rally.  And the stories that did appear seemed to be smaller and less prominent.  For example, the New York Times did not even put its story on the liberal rally on the first page of the national news section, but buried it at the bottom of the page deep in the paper.  The Times gave front page and front of the national section coverage to the Beck rally.

Now let’s consider the issue of attendance.  Most significantly, CBS News, which hired an independent consultant to estimate the Beck Rally at 87,000, made the decision ahead of time not to rehire the firm to do an estimate of the liberal rally.  Perhaps the CBS news executives were frustrated that much of the media preferred to ignore its honest and scientific estimate for the outrageous overestimates of Beck (500,000) and Republican Congressional Representative Michelle Bachman (2 million, but she may have been counting fingers and toes, and maybes ears, too!).  But I think not, seeing that CBS did not even file its own story about the liberal rally online, preferring to use the Associated Press’ version of events.

Most articles ignored attendance at the liberal rally, said it was around 100,000 or commented that it “appeared to be less” than the number at the Beck rally.  A few media published the organizers’ estimate of 175,000.  After looking at a few photos, my uneducated guess is that attendance at these two rallies was about the same.

With or without attendance numbers, the question remains: Why did the media give so much more coverage to Beck than it did to these 400 liberal, labor and progressive groups?  I’m thinking that it’s for the same reason that throughout the 2010 primary season, most media focused on Republican races, almost to the exclusion of the Democratic races.   I’m thinking it’s the same reason that this past week the national edition of the New York Times found room for four personality profiles of Republican candidates (Whitman, O’Donnell and Paladino twice) and none of Democratic candidates.

I’m thinking it’s because the mainstream news media wants the Republicans to win in November.

More tendencies and trends while fending off some propaganda bends of truth.

Another blog full of short takes, beginning with a political cartoon I saw a few weeks back that gratuitously communicated a “big lie” through conflation, which is when someone equates two things that aren’t comparable, like comparing Bush II’s national guard record to John Kerry’s Viet Nam combat experience.  

The cartoon, by Steve Breen, depicts the similar reactions to the news in 1945 announcing the European armistice and in 2010 announcing the end of the combat mission in Iraq.  Both hear the same news, in 1945 from the radio, in 2010 from the TV: “After thousands of troops lost their lives and billions of dollars spent, combat ops are over in….” For 1945, it ends with “…in Europe…” and in 2010 it ends with “…in Iraq…”  The pudgy middle aged guy listening to the radio in 1945 rejoices, while his 2010 alter ego sits with the expressionless expression of the shell-shocked.

Let’s forget that there is a certain duplicity about Obama “marking the end of combat” when 50,000 troops and another 80,000 mercenaries remain in a country involved in “non-combat” operations.

Let’s focus instead on the manipulative conflation of deaths between World War II and Iraq, saying both were in the “thousands.”  I can’t tell if Breen was in favor of or against the war in Iraq—you could read it both ways.  But either way, to compare the dead in these two wars shows a poor understanding of history.  The United States suffered about 416,800 military deaths in World War II, compared to 4,421 during the conflict in Iraq (or at least so far).  And remember that we currently have about 2.5 times the population than we had during World War II.  Whatever Breen was trying to say, he magnified the impact of the Iraq War on the population.  About the money, though, he did get it right on the money.  Paying for the unnecessary and ill-managed Iraq War is bleeding the country financially and will continue to do so for years. 

Now turning to one of my favorite subjects, Wal-Mart’s marketing campaigns: I’ve been following Wal-Mart’s recent series of lifestyle commercials, which follow years of the mass market retailer focusing TV ads exclusively on prices.  One thing that’s been hard to miss in these ads is the lack of men: be it celebrating Christmas or doing back-to-school shopping, men are nowhere to be seen in Wal-Mart’s portrayals of the life of families.

Now finally, Wal-Mart has put a man into a TV spot about how it helps families pursue their lifestyle.  No, he doesn’t shop, but he’s right there on the couch watching football with the kids while munching on all the goodies mom bought at Wal-Mart.  And true to the real world as Wal-Mart always is in these commercials, dad is carrying a big load around his middle.

FYI, the week before the start of the NFL season the airwaves were saturated with commercials for food products that are traditional game-time munch foods, like grilling sausages, chips, beer and both frozen and delivery pizza.

Finally, in case you had the idea that Parade was the only celebrity-obsessed general interest magazine, check out the latest issue of AARP, the slick bimonthly magazine published by the American Association of Retired People for those over 50, or contemplating being over 50 one day.  From the photo of actor Dennis Quaid on the cover to the very last page, AARP is obsessed with celebrity.  The issue does contain AARP’s usual tip-focused articles on personal finance, travel, mental and physical health and retirement living.  But as much as possible, it covers TV and movie personalities: Jane Pauley on finding hidden strengths; Quaid’s campaign to improve hospital safety; Lady Gaga, Pink and 6 other young celebrities who dye their hair gray.

The focus on cheap celebrity as opposed to the real accomplishments of politicians, writers, inventors, business people, scientists, teachers, researchers and explorers (yes, they still exist!) is always best seen in round-up columns in which a group of people are asked something or the same fact is revealed about each, e.g., where they all went to college.

In the case of AARP, it’s the regular feature on the very last page in which AARP tells us what prominent people turn 50, 60, 70 (and sometimes 80) this month.  For the most recent issue, AARP features seven people, as follows: turning 50 – Hugh Grant, Damon Wayans and Colin Firth; turning 60 – Fred Flintstone, Joan Lunden and Bill Murray; and turning 70 – Raquel Welch.

We have 5 actors, 1 news personality and a fictional cartoon character.  As the Latin used to say, “res ipso loquitor,” which means it’s a thing that speaks for itself.

Let’s tie up loose ends, examine new tendencies, look at some trends.

Instead of a long essay today, I want to provide some quick takes on recent news:

I’ll start by commending U-Mass professor Robert Pollin for his article on rising inequality in the United States since the mid-70’s in the most recent Nation magazine.

Pollin pulls statistics from Larry Bartels’ Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age to compare the income collectively earned by the top 20% of workers with that earned by the bottom 20%.  So for example, 60 years ago the top 20% earned just around three times what the bottom 20% collectively earned; today it’s more than four times.  What’s really interesting is that before the Carter administration, the ratio went up and down in a very narrow margin, but since Carter, it has gone straight up, except for the Clinton years in which the growth in income inequality temporarily stalled, but at a much higher level than during the 50’s and 60’s.  So it’s not just the parties, but the political temper of the last 40 years that has led the United States to become a nation of rich and poor, with a rapidly shrinking middle class.

Now to the Corn Refiners Association, my latest nominee for a “Ketchup” award, named after the glop that the Reagan administration wanted to declare a vegetable for the school lunch program.  At the end of the year, I am going to make a special “Ketchup” award to the most absurd bending of language of the prior year.   

The Corn Boys want to change the name “high fructose corn syrup” (HFCS) to “corn sugar.”  Cane, beets and corn all produce fast-digesting sugars, but cane/beet sugar—also known as table sugar—has managed to brand itself as being natural and therefore healthier than corn syrup.  Because consumers believe that HFCS is a health risk, food processors are abandoning it in favor of table sugar.  So the Corn Boys want to make their product seem as healthy as an easy-to-abuse processed food product.  Truly bizarre!

Finally, an anecdote that suggests to what extreme the mainstream news media has really oversold the Tea Party:  Someone I follow on Facebook described Tea Party anti-masturbation activist Christine O’Donnell as winning an election earlier this week.  In fact, O’Donnell was not elected to anything, merely nominated by the Republican Party for a U.S. Senate seat. 

But it’s no wonder my FBF got confused.  The mainstream media covered this last round of primary voting for 2010 just as they have been covering the elections all year—focus almost exclusively on the Republican races, while assuming that the country was going to experience massive memory loss of the Bush II economic debacle and throw out the Democrats as perpetrators of our economic woes.   The New York Times version of the Delaware primary voting did not even mention the well-known and popular Democratic candidate, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, until well into the last quarter of the article.

The news media is counting the Democratic candidates out because it wants to keep moving them, and public discourse, to the right.  I am confident that many centrists, when faced with the choice between Democrats looking their way and the extreme right-wing Tea-partiers, will vote for the Democrat.

I also want to remind the readers that the only way to keep the temporary tax cuts for the middle class and poor that are set to run out after this year is for Congress to pass a bill.  If the Republicans block or try to block that bill because it doesn’t include extending the temporary tax cuts to the wealthy, it doesn’t matter how many times they shout “Class warfare” or “You’ll stunt growth.”  All most voters will hear is, “I won’t let you have your money” and they won’t like that message one bit.

At the end of the day, though, this fall election all comes down to who gets more of their solid voters to the polls.  The Democrats should be dedicating significant resources for vans and car pools to get urban seniors, college students and minorities to the polls in November.

Even when discussing families recently made homeless, the emphasis is on buying things as a way of life.

Michael Luo had a poignant article in this past Sunday’s New York Times about the 40,000 leap in the number of families with children in homeless shelters across the country since the current recession began.  The article has a lot of interesting information about a group that has seen their American Dream dissolve. 

But Luo couldn’t just give us the information.  He had to use the news that more families are losing their homes as a platform for reminding us that living the American Dream revolves completely around buying things in malls in suburbs.

Like many journalists writing about the impact of the recession on people, Luo begins his story with a case history.  Now he might have selected a family new to living in a homeless shelter who can’t get used to going to the library instead of buying books.  Or a family that takes two buses to take their kids to Little League practice.  Or a family of immigrants who are learning how to make old country specialties on a hot plate.

Here is the story that Luo selected to tell:

“For a few hours at the mall here this month, Nick Griffith, his wife, Lacey Lennon, and their two young children got to feel like a regular family again.

Never mind that they were just killing time away from the homeless shelter where they are staying, or that they had to take two city buses to get to the shopping center because they pawned one car earlier this year and had another repossessed, or that the debit card Ms. Lennon inserted into the A.T.M. was courtesy of the state’s welfare program.

They ate lunch at the food court, browsed for clothes and just strolled, blending in with everyone else out on a scorching hot summer day. ‘It’s exactly why we come here,’ Ms. Lennon said. ‘It reminds us of our old life.'”

Yes, their old life when recreation meant shopping for more stuff in a suburban mall. 

Luo had his choice of 15 families at the Rhode Island shelter at which he found the Griffith-Lennon family.  He also could have chosen to feature a family at another shelter. 

Or he might have tried to highlight another aspect of the Griffith-Lennon family life, maybe what they’re telling their two young children about what has happened to them. 

But Luo selected this particular family and this particular aspect of its life because he wanted to transfer the symbolic humiliation of losing one’s home onto the broad ideological imperative upon which the mass media thinks we should build our lives: the commercial transaction, that is, buying something, is the basis of all relationships, celebrations, manifestations of love, respect and all other emotional states, and every other emotional component of life.

Palin’s “despicable” illiteracy serves as the “inception” of thousands running to the dictionary.

I subscribe to Merriam-Webster’s online unabridged dictionary, which contains the definition and spelling of more than a million words and also gives me access to a myriad of online resources that are helpful to a writer, including the Collegiate Dictionary, Collegiate Encyclopedia, Thesaurus, Atlas, medical dictionary, style guide, French-English dictionary and Spanish-English dictionary.  It’s a great bargain at under $30 a year and I recommend it to any student, teacher, communications professional or frequent reader.    

Once a quarter, Merriam-Webster sends me an online newsletter, the highlight of which is the list of the 20 words that people looked up the most over the past three months.  Some words, such as “ubiquitous,” “conundrum,” “integrity” and “love” always make the list.  So do “affect” and “effect,” which makes a lot of sense since these two words are so similar in spelling and meaning.

Then there are the words that become popular look-ups because of blips in mass culture.  For example, this quarter’s list, which I received a few days ago, includes “inception” and “despicable,” both in titles of movies this past summer, Inception and Despicable Me.

But the most looked-up word over the past quarter isn’t even a word, it’s a slip of the tongue made by Sarah Palin in early July: refudiate.  Palin spouts so much nonsense, makes so many mistakes in word usage and misstates so many facts that I didn’t follow the controversy at the time she used this neologism (for which the good dictionary gives two definitions: 1) “a new word, usage, or expression”; 2) “a usually compound word coined by a psychotic and meaningless to the hearer.”) 

After much online mocking, Palin compared her use of the word favorably to Shakespeare’s invention of words. While Shakespeare did invent or bring many words into written use for the first time, the comparison is absurd: The job of the creative writer includes stretching the boundaries of language and expression, whereas the job of the politician and civic leader is to articulate precisely his or her positions.  The essence of every good speech, be it the Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther’s King’s “I have a dream…” is clarity.  I’m not saying that politicians can’t make up words, but when they do, they should immediately define the new word for the audience and general public.  A good speech often creates new phrases, such as “the New Deal,” “The Great Society” and “The Contract with America.”  Palin merely dug herself into a deeper hole of ridicule with her defense of combining “refute” and “repudiate,” which have very different meanings, to form a nonsense word.

But lambasting Palin’s incoherence and her foolish excuses for it is akin to shooting large fish in a very narrow barrel.  I want instead to take a look at what the silly controversy about refudiate says about the current state of public discourse. 

On the one hand, the fact that so many people looked up the word in the dictionary is a sign that people do pay attention, which is a good thing.

But consider this fact:  On the first day after Merriam-Webster’s release of its online newsletter, my search on Google News found 551 articles or blog entries about refudiate achieving the number one position on the Merriam-Webster list.

I’ve used Google News results in the past to suggest how much the mainstream news media is covering a story, especially one that no one has to cover.  Let’s compare the coverage of the Merriam-Webster newsletter to some feature stories over the past few months that I think got short shrift on the news media:

  • University of Washington study shows, “opposition and frustration with government is going hand in hand with a frustration and opposition to racial and ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians” – 40 stories.
  • Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco research proves that immigrants increase both wages and productivity of all workers – 18.
  • Study by a Stanford professor shows that 74% of all Americans believe the earth is getting warmer – 37.

An analysis of Palin’s position on any number of issues would, alas, certainly be newsworthy, but how could the aftermath of yet another slip of Palin’s tongue be more important than these significant studies?  It’s absolutely incredible, except for two factors:

  • All of the studies I’m mentioning go against current trends in media coverage, i.e., the news media is giving the Tea Party a pass on the discriminatory essence of many of its followers; the news media is complicit in the great and unfortunate wave of anti-immigration feeling rolling over the country; the news media has kept alive the false and anti-scientific idea that global warming may not be occurring.
  • The news media has demonstrated time and again that they want to reduce political campaigns to personality battles, candidate miscues and scandals.

Let’s take a look now at how many hits were on Google News for some real news stories on September 11, that is, stories that the news media must cover (and keep in mind that I’m taking a moment in time and when you look up these stories, you may see more, or even fewer):

  • The natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California raises safety issues – 3,832 stories.
  • Iran cancels release of U.S. hiker – 2,058.
  • Tropical storm Igor nears hurricane strength – 1,295.
  • FAA proposes more rest for pilots – 779.

We would expect that these real news stories would achieve greater penetration than a feature story.  But compare this coverage to the announcement that Pastor Terry Jones is canceling his scheduled burning of copies of the Koran – 13,093 stories!! 

I believe that the news media should never have covered the planned hate-mongering antics of an obscure pastor in a small college town in the first place.  Once the news media made this non-story into the kind of sideshow that prevents us from considering real issues, coverage snowballed as religious and political leaders felt the need to take a stand against the planned protest.  What happened is that the news media created a news snowball that turned into an avalanche of coverage that buried alive more important stories and issues. 

The sad thing, of course, is that be it coverage of the ramblings of the incoherent Palin or the pronouncements of an intolerant ignoramus like Pastor Jones, this trivialization of news happens all the time.

AP puts a big lie about climate change in its headline about a story about the Old Farmer’s Almanac

Earlier this week the Old Farmer’s Almanac came out with its prediction that the United States will have a colder than average winter this year.  An Associated Press article by Russell Contreras is the version of the news that most people will read about this annual rite of fall, mainly because for most non-business, non-local news nowadays, virtually all small-town and many big city media republish the Associated Press version of this type of feature story.

And if all the websites and newspapers that used the AP version of this story included the headline, as Yahoo did, then they have perpetrated what amounts to a hoax.

The story itself is quite well done.  Contreras contrasts the Old Farmer’s Almanac prediction of a colder than usual winter with two other predictions: 1) the Farmer’s Almanac, which predicts a much gentler winter than last year; and 2) the National Weather Service, which predicts a warmer than normal winter in some parts of the country and a colder than normal winter in other parts of the country.  The story also discusses the rivalry between the two almanacs.

The headline: “Old Farmer’s Almanac: Global cooling to continue.”

This headline is misleading in so many ways that it turns a fine feature story into a piece of propaganda for global warming deniers.  Let’s start with the obvious:

  • The story concerns predictions of weather in the United States only, whereas global weather patterns take into account the entire Earth.
  • The story talks about predictions of a one season’s worth of weather, which as has been discussed before in OpEdge, is subject to a number of local factors.  You can’t judge global weather trends by analyzing one year, or even one decade.  You have to take a look at long-term trends over many decades, which once done, reveals that our planet has been getting consistently warmer for almost 200 years.  It’s like saying that Reggie Jackson or Babe Ruth were bad ballplayers because they suffered a week-long slump.  Or using the bad acts of one paroled criminal to condemn a highly successful parole program, as Bush I did in his infamous “Willie Horton” ads during the 1988 presidential elections.  The propaganda technique is called “argument by anecdote,” and it’s one of the most powerful tools of propagandists because people tend to latch onto stories more readily than statistics.
  • Of the three “expert” sources discussed in the article, only the one featured in the headline has predicted a colder winter than normal.
  • The words of the headline, “global cooling will continue,” assumes that there has been global cooling, a view shared by less than a handful of scientists and based on an analysis of short-term and medium-term trends related to a reoccurring cycle in the activity of the sun.  What that means is that solar activity may make things cooler or warmer for a few decades and thereby act temporarily against a long-term trend on Earth.

The pernicious impact of this headline derives mostly from the way in which people read the news.  Most people skim stories, going from headline to headline until they find something of interest, and then perusing the first few paragraphs of some stories and very infrequently reading the entire story.

In other words, for most people, the headline is all they will read.  And the headline “Global cooling to continue” is a distortion not only of the story that follows, but of what the preponderance of scientific evidence and climate experts say is actually happening.

Unless perceptive editors substitute a headline that would be both more truthful and more accurate to the story, it’s this distortion that most people will see.  We know that Yahoo!’s editors just ran with it.  Let’s hope others showed higher journalistic standards. 

By the way, I found 379 stories on Google news about the Old Farmer’s Almanac predictions for this winter in the United States, and all the ones I checked out either repeated the AP story and headline, or were based on the inaccurate headline and not the story itself.

Before I close, I want to exonerate Contreras from his role in communicating this “big lie.”  I am assuming that like most newspapers, a special headline writer and not the story writer composes headlines at AP.  The theory has always been that writing headlines is a specialized skill that many fine writers don’t have.  It’s therefore likely that Contreras submitted his interesting story and a headline writer and the editors turned it into a misleading propaganda piece.  If I were Contreras I would be completely pissed off to see my work distorted.