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How to smuggle ideology into the news
The news disciplines our thinking one word at a time
I have been wanting to write about how journalists use seemingly innocuous but subjective descriptions to smuggle political, ideological, and moral judgments into supposedly objective news reporting. Because this practice is so subtle and often operating subconsciously for both the reporter and the news consumer, I view it as an especially insidious practice that has to be explicitly identified and dissected with examples.
And then, this weekend, the New York Times published an outrageous article that casually asserted that there is a “shortage” of police officers in the United States. The article is otherwise a terrible stenography of police union talking points, and I’ll do a future post about it, but for now I want to focus on this crucial issue:
The idea that there are not enough police officers in the United States is a highly controversial political claim. But in this article, it is treated as a fact to be reported in the objective voice of the reporter. The signal sent to low-information, uncritical readers is that this is somehow objective, and that it is so obvious that no skeptical person questions it.
Smuggling normative opinion couched in the voice of objective reporting is among the most dangerous kinds of copaganda because it does not include indicia that the view is controversial and can thus be far more effective at manufacturing consent than when the news media explicitly informs readers that it is offering someone’s opinion. In the context of reporting about the punishment bureaucracy, the casual smuggling of dominant ideologies sets the table for people accepting superficial tweaks to a monstrous system rather than appreciating the need for and insisting on a complete transformation.
This post is a companion piece to another I wrote called Powerful People Tell Us Things. In that article, I examined the related practice of journalists portraying the asserted motivations of politicians as their actual motivations. Next week, to complete the series, I will write a final piece in the trilogy that discusses the news media’s related practice of using unnecessarily hyperbolic language that distorts perceptions of relative urgency.
Example 1: How the news chooses which reforms to call “major”
To illustrate the problem, let’s look at a very standard example: a New York Times article touted “major” culture changes in the Queens District Attorney’s office. The article tells readers that a newly elected DA in Queens is making “major” positive improvements to the notoriously violent and corrupt Queens prosecutor’s office. Unlike some of the other NYT copaganda that I’ve dissected, this propaganda is more subtle. It doesn’t involve provably false statements. Instead, it makes a normative claim, reported as a fact in the reporter’s voice, that helps police the boundaries of the reader's imagination of what kinds of changes are possible.
First, note that the NYT makes the editorial choice to call Melinda Katz a "major" reformer, even though the paper knows that the Queens DA office is still a mass incarceration machine of historic proportions that has barely changed. Very little has changed in under any measurable analysis of that office. As it has for decades, the office is still almost exclusively prosecuting poor people—disproportionately people of color and immigrants—for all of the same offenses in similar rates using the same laws, the same discretionary prosecution priorities, the same theories of criminal liability, seeking very similar sentences, engaging in the same widespread practices in terms of coercing guilty pleas, and exploiting the same police investigative tactics. Leaving aside other contemporary U.S. prosecutor offices, this office is still a world-historical outlier in terms of sheer human caging, harshness, misconduct, and discrimination. An alien or an objective person from virtually any other legal system on earth observing the Queens DA office before and after her tenure would have trouble telling the difference.
One of the article’s examples is a new “conviction integrity unit.” Knowledgeable experts know that many DA offices are setting up such units now, often as a PR move to look like they care about the injustices they have perpetrated. With a few exceptions, these units rarely do anything that could be considered objectively significant relative to the sheer volume of convictions they inflict. But by calling the nominal creation of a unit to review past convictions “major” even though it will end up reviewing and remedying less than a fraction of a tenth of a percent of the egregious injustices of that office in recent years, the article sets the goalposts for what readers might consider possible, let alone desirable changes. If that is “major,” how could we even conceive larger efforts like, for example: firing and criminally prosecuting the dozens of prosecutors who violated people’s rights; ceasing the prosecution of drug cases altogether; paying reparations to all the office’s past victims; reviewing and reducing all prior sentences so that they are in line with sentences in the rest of the western world; prosecuting wealthy landlords and corporations at the same rates as poor people; refusing to support illegal pretrial detention in thousands of cases, etc… or any number of other more serious reforms that neither the Queens DA nor the New York Times even mentions. Instead, the list of supposed changes the NYT highlights are laughable. They include: charging a single cop out of the thousands police-committed crimes in Queens, hiring more women and people of color to enforce largely the same prosecution policies, and ceasing prosecution of some low-level misdemeanor marijuana offenses.
The idea that this Queens DA is somehow some sort of “major” reformer on the issue of prosecutor misconduct is especially jarring for me personally. In the spirit both of disclosure and providing an example, we recently had to sue the Queens DA after she violated the First Amendment and threatened prominent law professors, wrongly telling them that the simple act of posting ethics complaints against Queens prosecutors on a website Civil Rights Corps created (for misconduct already found by judges in open court) was illegal. She and New York City’s top lawyer then threatened that even telling the public about their threats to us was illegal. (A federal judge has ruled in our favor that the Queens DA violated the First Amendment, and she is appealing.) The New York Times Editorial Board, writing a scathing editorial supportive of our lawsuit, called it a “prosecutor protection racket” and said this about the Queens DA’s behavior of threatening people who are trying to tell the public about rampant prosecutor misconduct at her office: “This isn’t just shooting the messenger; it’s tossing the gun into the East River and threatening anyone who tries to fish it out.”
It’s obvious why the Queens DA—who beat a progressive challenger in her initial election largely by mimicking the rhetoric of “reform” while quietly signaling to rank and file cops and prosecutors that little would change—would want low-information New York readers to think that “major” reforms that promote equality, fairness, and justice were happening. But why would the New York Times itself characterize supposed policy changes this way?
As I’ve written in a number of places, one of the main conscious and subconscious functions of the supposedly “liberal” corporate media is to make low-information but well-meaning liberals and moderates feel like people in power are working in good faith to make people’s lives better—to address inequalities and improve society even though in reality the powerful interests that control what happens in U.S. politics do not support the kinds of material changes necessary to hold the powerful accountable or to materially improve the lives of the vast majority of people.
It’s tempting to cast blame here because some reporters I’ve interviewed have admitted to doing this on purpose out of an ideological opposition to anti-capitalist activism, but I don't think most editors and reporters even realize that they are doing this. They often fail to see their biases and the political choices they make in the most basic ways they frame their reporting. Also, relevant to this Queens example, there are incentives to frame stories as “major” and “important” in order to get people to click on them and to keep reading once they have clicked. Finally, they also have a relentless stream of sophisticated and highly paid government officials and hired PR consultants telling them that these political efforts are “significant” and “historic” and “major overhauls.” As non-experts many of whom don’t have grounding in how the punishment bureaucracy has used the concept of “reform” for decades to smuggle in changes that further consolidate power and profit, it can be difficult for reporters to know what to do.
Example 2: Using the word “lenient”
A similar phenomenon pervaded the corporate media’s coverage of the Manhattan DA’s race. In another New York Times article, the paper asserted that the new DA “campaigned on lenient policies aimed at making the justice system fairer.” Note something subtle but important: the New York Times is calling the Manhattan DA’s policies objectively “lenient.” This is, of course, an ideological and normative claim, not a factual one that belongs in a news story in the objective voice of the reporter. It’s also a bizarre claim. By any objective measurement—including by measuring Bragg’s policies against the rest of the comparable countries in the world or by the standards in the United States even four decades ago—Bragg’s policies would be seen as barbarically harsh, not “lenient.” It’s true that they might be slightly less harsh than his predecessor, but that’s not what the New York Times was conveying. It was also a bizarre description of Bragg’s policies, which public defenders in New York quickly pointed out would have almost no effect on any of the cases they handled.
But portraying Bragg’s proposals as “lenient” or “fairer” has important implications: it makes proposals that actually do significantly reduce the harshness and discriminatory nature of the punishment bureaucracy seem radical and beyond acceptable boundaries. Again, characterizing the most minor tweaks as objectively lenient decreases public ability to even conceive of more significant changes, let alone appetite to support them.
Example 3: Using words like “sweeping” and “overhaul.”
Another New York Times article stated that the U.S. House of Representatives “passed a sweeping police bill designed to address racial discrimination and excessive use of force, but it lacks the Republican support needed in the Senate.”
In this article, the word “sweeping” is used three times and the word “overhaul” twice to describe three different laws, none of which I would characterize as remotely significant. When I say “remotely significant,” I use that term in the sense that it is my expert opinion, after 15 years of of studying and working on this issue, that none of these laws have any chance of causing measurable change in police behavior, and I don’t think any of them were even designed in good faith to do that.
Now, I suppose that someone could disagree with me and offer reasons why these laws could have a huge impact, but that’s the point about words like “sweeping” and “overhaul”: they are subjective assessments. And words like “major” or “overhaul” or “sweeping” or “historic” or “landmark” are almost never necessary in news articles with an objective voice. In almost every instance in which they are used, the reporter could simply describe the event and let the readers draw conclusions about its significance. Or, if absolutely necessary, the reporter can offer assessments from experts or quote sources who are making a claim about the significance of the event, along with clear background context that would allow the reader to evaluate the interests of the person claiming that the event is significant.
Note also a basic point: this is an improper use of the word “overhaul” under any reasonable understanding of that term. The word means to “take apart [something]… in order to examine it and repair it if necessary.” None of these initiatives “takes apart” any arguably substantial aspect of U.S. policing, It is also an improper use of the word “sweeping,” which means “wide in range or effect.” As the article itself concedes, the vast majority of the U.S. didn’t see any changes at all, and years of data have confirmed my point: not only have these tweaks not meaningfully changed anything about what police do or who they target, but police have even become more violent since they killed George Floyd in that they kill slightly more people now.
One of the major illustrations used in the article, for example, are a small number of laws in a few places mandating or funding police body cameras. But far from changing policing in a “sweeping overhaul,” body cameras were long coveted by police and large corporate police profiteers themselves. But police and their corporate allies couldn’t get elected officials to spend the billions necessary to outfit every cop in the U.S. with a surveillance camera that the cops control until police devised the strategy of using their own violence as an excuse to demand access to this technology under the guise of a “major” reform to curb police violence. As I’ll write in an upcoming newsletter, the Obama administration gladly joined in the ruse, making body cameras a central response to the killing of Michael Brown with hundreds of millions of federal dollars on top of unprecedented local and state funds, suddenly giving police access to expensive cloud computing databases, an ability to expand their surveillance capabilities with military industrial complex corporations, and to secure lucrative corporate contracts to merge these databases with facial recognition software. The only conceivable “major overhaul” here was an expansion of authoritarian police surveillance powers, not reforms that would make police less violent and more accountable.
I think you may have noticed above that this NYT article also quotes a different NYT article that describes a previous police reform bill as an “overhaul” that is “aimed at combating racial discrimination and excessive use of force in law enforcement.” That article is an equally good example.
Behind the scenes, lawmakers and staff I spoke at the time shared the assessment of civil rights and public safety experts that the bill would leave U.S. policing virtually unchanged. It was an open secret on Capitol Hill that the bill would change almost nothing. Indeed, for many lawmakers, that was the point. There is not significant political support in either party to significantly change U.S. policing, hold cops accountable, or reduce their power.
In this article, I leave aside the incentives of a small group of centrist non-profits to portray things they work on as a bigger deal than what they are. I’m also going to leave to one side the incentives of politicians to portray legislation like this as well-intentioned or meaningful. Instead, I continue to focus on why the news media plays along with this self-interested ruse.
In both articles on police reform legislation, we see a major theme of corporate news. It entirely ignores structural critiques that talk about the role that police play as agents of the ruling class who function to preserve structural inequality. Instead, they portray the issue largely as a partisan dispute, with Democrats trying to “overhaul” the system and being frustrated by Republican opposition. In this way, consumers of corporate news media leave articles like this thinking, however subtly, that the entire range of possible or reasonable political positions lies between these two poles of minor tweaks by Democrats that are opposed by Republicans. It becomes harder and harder to conceive, because they are rarely discussed, that the Democratic proposals do very little and that many people are highly critical of those as either not doing nearly enough or, more often, actively reinforcing the problems of our society. After all, giving something a “sweeping overhaul” sounds like they are really changing it.
This all reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s famous quote about how to control a population:
"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate."