Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Working like a madman these days, but one of the things I've had in the back of my mind to do is tentatively titled ED'S BOOK OF MEDIA TELLS, basically a catalogue of rhetorical devices that are red flags for bias. I've mentioned some of them before in essays here and there, but I've never put them together before. These are a bit fragmentary, and I'll be adding more.

"Critics charged" This is one of those devices that tells us whether the writer of the piece disagrees with the beliefs reported in the piece. You'll frequently see this device in reports of announcements from the Bush administration. "Critics charged that Rumsfeld was lying yet again." You'll never, ever, see a "critics charged" paragraph in a story about, say, "the scientific consensus" on global warming or the "great promise" of embryonic stem-cell research.

"Experts Say" This is the media telling us that the conclusions reached in the article cannot be disputed. The Experts have spoken! No debate is possible! We are expected to take on faith the credentials of said "experts" even if none are supplied. It's not enough to state someone's title or position, we must instead be told that we are in the presence of an Expert, so that we dare not disagree with the writer of the piece.

The Passive Voice. This is a subtle but important one. The problem is the same as with the infamous weasel-worded formulation "Mistakes were made": The passive voice ducks responsibility. In a news story, the passive voice enables the writer to make basically any allegation without sourcing it. "Rumsfeld's claims were disputed Thursday, as more voices rose in opposition" sounds a bit more dire than "an aging hippie with a gray ponytail and some of his friends disputed Rumsfeld's claims."

"Surfaced" As in "New documents contradicting the Bush administration have surfaced." This is one of my favorites. When the media tell us that a particular report or document has "surfaced," they are removing the element of external human volition: One conjures up images of artifacts from the Lusitania floating up from the bottom of the sea, or even more literally, images of plucky little documents swimming up on their own toward the light of day. This is, needless to say, a particularly dishonest formulation, intended to avoid telling the truth: That these are politically-motivated leaks, and that they didn't "surface."

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