Friday, February 12, 2010


Readers of GreeneLand’s principal newspaper were given a heavy dose the other day (2/5/10)of slanted journalism. The editor of the low-budget Daily Mail chose to publish, verbatim, without attribution or by-line, in the guise of straight news, a lengthy handout from a political party’s publicist. In committing that unprofessional deed he served the salutary purpose of facilitating a case study of news media spin-mongering. Here is the text of the putative news story (about an event not covered anywhere else), interspersed with comments.

Local GOP leaders meet potential state candidates

ALBANY — Republican county chairs from the Greater Capital Region came away from a recent dinner meeting with several potential statewide candidates optimistic that their party is poised to end the Democrat stranglehold on New York State government.

*Presumptuousness. The author pretends to be a mind-reader. (S)he ostensibly records the feelings (“optimistic”), as distinct from the words, of these “Republican county chairs.” And she happens to depict a common feeling that is peculiarly convenient for the Republican side. He indulges in a variety of Bandwagonizing, insinuating that the “optimistic” feeling is warranted.

*Loaded label. Instead of speaking conventionally of “the DemocratIC stranglehold…” or “the Democratic Party’s stranglehold…”, the anonymous author resorts to a device that goes back to the days of the notorious Sen. Joe McCarthy. (In resorting to that pejorative, incidentally, (s)he gives early evidence—to knowledgeable readers, at any rate--that the putative news story does not come from regular reportorial ranks. For more evidence, see the discussion below of When-lessness).

*Loaded diagnosis. By means of this opening sentence, the author argues (with the help of the newspaper’s editor and publishers) that New York State’s government is afflicted with a “Democrat stranglehold”—a potentially fatal condition for an imaginary victim.

*Anthropomorphism. That contentious way of characterizing the present plight of New York government depends for its credibility on the device of equating a loose aggregation of people who share a common party label with a single, single-minded (and two-handed?) organism. Readers are deterred from remembering the abundant daily news about quarrels among Democratic law-makers, disputes between Democratic law-makers and Democratic executives, and varieties among incumbent Democrats of sources of nomination and support. The author’s image of a single New York Strangler could be suitable for a by-lined essay in situational appreciation, published under a label such as “Analysis.” It is delivered here in the guise of reportage.

The meeting took place at the Desmond Hotel in Colonie. In attendance were: Brent Bogardus of Greene County; John A. Graziano Sr. of Albany County; John “Jasper” Nolan of Saratoga County; Jack Casey of Rensselaer County; Ron Jackson of Essex County; Susan McNeil of Fulton County; Lewis Wilson of Schoharie County; and Joe Emanuele of Montgomery County.

The chairs heard from Daniel Donovan, the District Attorney of Richmond County (Staten Island), who is considering a run for State Attorney General, Bruce Blakeman, who has announced his challenge to U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Johnstown native Harry Wilson, who is preparing to run for State Comptroller.

*Whitewash? Those two paragraphs qualify as straight reportage, and they may function contextually to give an aura of objectivity to the whole article. (To well informed readers they also may serve to raise politically sensitive questions. The questions would be about how the named candidates were present and other prospective Republican candidates—Rick Lazio, for example—were not present.

*When-lessness. Noteworthy about the foregoing paragraphs, as well as the subsequent ones, is a matter of information not supplied. Something is missing. The author has broken with standard journalistic practice. While addressing the what, the who, and the where of an event, she omits the when. Readers are told only that the event took place “recently.” This evasion seems worth mentioning, although it does not exemplify politically slanted journalism, because it exemplifies a kind of omission that can be informative. To experienced readers as well as to trained journalists, the resort to “recently” signals that (i) in all probability, the cited event took place earlier than “yesterday” (earlier than 24 hours prior to the time of publication) and (ii) the article was not staff-written, but instead came from an interested party’s “news release.”

“The voters have seen what happens when the Democrats control our entire government – more spending, higher taxes, bigger deficits and complete dysfunction,” Bogardus said. “The Republican Party is more committed than ever to supporting bright, talented and experienced individuals who will return our government to the people.”

Donovan has served as Richmond County District Attorney since 2003. He was reelected to a second term in 2007, garnering nearly 68 percent of the vote in a county where Democrats hold a 5-3 ratio advantage in voter registration.

As District Attorney, Donovan has implemented innovative policies targeting crime and enhancing public safety. Known as a tough and fair prosecutor, the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office has lead [sic] the City of New York in felony conviction rate each quarter since Donovan took office.

Donovan has aggressively targeted drunk driving, illegal guns, sex offenders and domestic violence and he has advocated for stronger laws to protect our most vulnerable citizens.

*Editorializing. This sketch of Donovan is shot through with tendentious, presumptuous, interpretive claims: “innovative policies,” “enhancing public safety,” “aggressively targeted,” “advocated for stronger laws to protect our most vulnerable citizens.” Such words again illustrate presumptuousness, wherein a putative reporter pretends to know far more than (s)he is in a position to learn. Words of that sort would be eminently suitable for a candidly evaluative essay, such as an editorial endorsement.

*Ghosting. The sentence starting with “Known as,” in addition to being sub-literate, exemplifies a frequent form of dishonest journalism. The device consists of pretending to report what is believed, what is understood, what is known—by no identified believer. The informant pretends to identify a sentiment that somehow is harbored by nobody in particular, perhaps by everybody that is In The Know. And in giving the cited sentiment an independent, rootless, pervasive existence, the informant argues implicitly that it (the Known) is correct. Thus, the default meaning of “known as a tough and fair prosecutor” is is a tough and fair prosecutor and therefore You should believe he’s a tough and fair prosecutor.

Bruce A. Blakeman, a 54-year-old attorney from Manhattan, is a dedicated public servant with extensive experience in legal, financial and budgetary matters in both the public and private sectors.

A lifelong New Yorker, Blakeman served as the presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature from 1996 to 1999. In the Nassau Legislature, Blakeman chaired the Budget Review Committee and was vice chair of the finance committee, overseeing a county budget of more than $2 Billion. In 1998, Blakeman was the Republican candidate for New York State Comptroller.

Blakeman also has strong credentials in the area of homeland security. He holds a certificate in Homeland Security Management from Long Island University and as a former commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey served as vice chair of the agency’s security committee. He currently serves on the faculty of Long Island University as a senior fellow in the Department of Homeland Security Studies. In addition, Blakeman is associate director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Foundation and is its deputy counsel.

Blakeman also was an adjunct assistant professor of business law at Hofstra University and is a frequent commentator and panelist for a variety of media, including Fox News Network, WCBS, CNBC, CW11 (WPIX), WLIW (PBS), News12 Long Island and Court TV.

*More spin. The author blends objective, topical information with presumptuous evaluation (“dedicated public servant,” “strong credentials”). Thanks to the collusion of the newspaper’s editor in publishing this prose, the difference between descriptive and evaluative verbiage (and the rules of evidence that govern…) is obscured. Verbiage suitable for an endorsing editorial is delivered in the guise of straight news.

Harry Wilson, 37, was raised in Johnstown, Fulton County, the son of Greek immigrants. His father served in World War II and worked as a bartender; his mother was a stay-at-home mom and later a sewing machine operator when the family needed a second income. He was the first in his immediate family to go to college and worked his way through Harvard and Harvard Business School.

After college, Wilson built a successful career in the investment and finance industry, developing a reputation as a strong money manager and expert in restructuring and fixing troubled companies. Last year, Wilson agreed to serve on the President’s Auto Task Force – the group responsible for the overhaul of General Motors and Chrysler. As a staunch fiscal conservative who believes in free markets, Wilson felt it important to have a say in how the auto bailout plan was administered. Wilson was the only Republican in the leadership team of the Task Force.

*More Presumptuousness. While those two paragraphs paint a flattering picture of Harry Wilson, most of the words qualify as objective, fair (and interesting) reportage. The exceptions are “successful career,” “felt it important,” and “staunch fiscal conservative who believes in free markets.” Those words represent a pretence of knowing far more than what an ordinary mortal journalist could learn from covering a brief presentation at a meeting. (Also noteworthy here, though not directly related to the subject of slanted journalism, is a kind of tease: while saying that Wilson served on the President’s Auto Task Force, the putative reporter does not say what part Wilson played. As “the only Republican in the leadership team,” did he support the Task Force’s recommendations?

The Republican Chairs were in complete agreement that these outstanding individuals will help lead the Republican Party to victory this fall and usher in a new era of fiscal conservatism and common sense in our government. Bogardus concluded by stating, “Just as Scott Brown showed with his stunning upset in Massachusetts, the political registration of a voter doesn’t matter. People are more interested in which candidate will fight to make sure the government stops taking so much of our hard earned money in taxes; which candidate is committed to ending the dysfunction in our government and which candidate is going to move government out of the way so small businesses can create good paying jobs.”

*Presumptuous mind-reading: “The Republican Chairs were in complete agreement.”

*Editorializing: “outstanding individuals.”

*Presumptuous prognosticating: “individuals will help lead the Republican Party to victory [and to] a new era of fiscal conservatism and common sense….” The use of will here imputes inevitability to a future event whose arrival actually is far from certain. The author prods (bullies?) the reader toward believing not only that the Republican Chairs believe that these outstanding individuals will contribute to a victory, but also that the belief is sound.

1 comment:

Lissa Harris said...

How many outlets around here do this? A couple of weeks ago, the Delaware County Times ran a very inflammatory press release from the County Board of Supervisors without a byline. I only knew it wasn't a staff editorial because I'd just read the press release elsewhere.

Mid-Hudson News (which doesn't have bylines at all) reprints press releases all the time without flagging them as PR. Hey, it's free content, right?

I know we're not talking about the New York Times here, but still. It's not hard to put in teeny-tiny type somewhere: "Press Release From ____."