By Dennis Myers
In a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a dissent in which he observed, “It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have frequently been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.”
He was referring to a forger, whose side he was forced to take in the case at issue. Today my sympathies must flow to an accused cannibal. Readers may guess I am referring to the New York police officer accused of plotting to abduct and cannibalize women.
The officer has been charged even though he has not DONE anything except imagine and plan fairly vile stuff. I don’t get that – people in the United States are not supposed to be prosecuted for their thoughts – but that’s not my concern here. It’s that the officer has been the victim of slanted news coverage.
Here’s an example: “The officer has CLAIMED his online discussions of cannibalism were harmless fetish fantasies. But in opening statements Monday, a prosecutor SAID ‘very real women’ were put in jeopardy.”
That’s from an Associated Press report by Larry Neumeister and Tom Hays. The prosecutor “said” but the officer “claimed.” It’s pretty easy to tell who the villain is here. And the Associated Press is about as balanced, to the point of bloodlessness, as any journalism entity today. Imagine what some of the less even-handed entities are doing with this story.
As Mark Twain said, even Satan is entitled to a hearing: “All religions issue bibles against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side. We have none but the evidence for the prosecution, and yet we have rendered the verdict.”
I’m not knocking entities like Time magazine that are not objective Time has said plainly that it has a point of view , but those that pretend to impartiality are another matter. Weaving loaded terms into stories so that readers are barely aware they are being manipulated is particularly insidious. How many readers identified the claimed/said terms in the story as they read?
Consider the term “reform.” It carries an implication of improvement and even of the suppression of corruption or evil. It is a wholly subjective term. Here is an excerpt from a Las Vegas Sun article published last month: “Senate Republicans have said that construction defect REFORM, which passed the Democratically controlled Senate in 2009 but died in the Assembly, is a top priority this session. It could be a condition for REFORM of the state’s tax structure.”
What is being described here as reform is limiting the ability of consumers to seek relief for construction defects – that is, a permissive and tolerant legal attitude toward the construction industry. But it was not too many legislatures ago when a crackdown on construction defects, and on the construction industry – that is, more consumer protection against the construction industry – was also being described as reform. The term starts to lose its meaning if it is used to describe opposite scenarios.
Once the term “reform” is applied by journalists to an idea, the supporters of the idea have the fight half won. It is a classic case of bias. The word seldom has any legitimate place in a news narrative. The term “change” works just as well without conferring a positive association. How many readers know they are being steered to a conclusion?
Just as some words can mislead, the LACK of some words can do the same. In July 2002, Las Vegas physicians at the only trauma center in town went out on strike to protest the cost of their malpractice insurance, but members of the public would have had difficulty knowing it from the news coverage. The word “strike” was rarely used. In one front page story it did not appear until the 12th paragraph.
At the same time, the term “crisis” kept appearing to describe the doctors’ strike, based on the claim that physicians were fleeing the state because of the malpractice cost problem. By using the doctors’ term, reporters were vouching for the accuracy of the doctors’ claim. But subsequent inquiries by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners, and Beth Fisher of KVBC News found the exodus of doctors exaggerated or nonexistent.
Then there was the ubiquitous term “reform,” which appeared after the word “malpractice” all through the doctor’s dispute. Using two subjective terms “reform” and “crisis” and avoiding a third term “strike” , journalists eliminated any level playing field, slanting the debate in favor of one side and putting policymakers in the position of having to respond to a crisis that may never have existed.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.