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Shaping the Narrative

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An Associated Press report this afternoon,* on the House of Representatives’ successful passage of the tax reform legislation reflecting the House-Senate conference, offers a stellar example of how and why conservatives and Republicans generally have been so irritated over the years by the news media and how and why that got us Donald Trump. The article begins:

“Gleeful Republicans on Tuesday muscled the most sweeping rewrite of the nation’s tax laws through the House . . .”

Well “gleeful” suggests a kind of juvenile self-satisfaction, gloating in fact, while “muscled” reminds us of what bullies do. Both words are accurate in one sense since Republicans were certainly happy to have finally gotten something done against such heavy odds, and they did have to use the power of majority control and, in some cases, pressure on recalcitrant members of their own caucus to do it.

But is that any different from the way Obamacare was done back in 2009? Did the media describe Democrats in the same way? Not that I recall. The words used by the AP carry a negative connotation in this context when other, more neutral terms could have been used:

“Relieved Republicans succeeded on Tuesday in passing the most sweeping rewrite of the nation’s tax laws . . .” Or “Happy Republicans” . . . and so forth.

Similarly the next sentence reports that House Speaker Paul Ryan “dismissed” criticism. Dismissing implies arrogance. The writers could have said “replied to criticism” or “pointed out” instead which would have said the same thing but in a more neutral way but they didn’t. Had it been Democrats my experience tells me the more neutral words or even terms with positive connotations would have been used. Thus we shape the narrative and guide our readers’ thinking (See George Lakoff who is on record as urging liberals to choose words carrying a subliminal message when selling their views to voters: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lakoff)

This AP article goes on to refer to the president’s eventual signing of the bill by reference to “Trump.” Now I don’t care for the guy, myself, and often refer to him that way, too. But American journalists have generally followed the custom of showing deference to the nation’s chief executive by referring to him with his title. I’m not a journalist and don’t do that. But journalists do, or they used to, before Donald Trump was president. I don’t recall journalists referring to Obama as Obama after all. He was always “President Obama” or “the president” and so forth.

In the very next paragraph of the article, the writers go on to describe the bill as “a $1.5 Trillion package” that cuts taxes for “businesses and the rich” but only gives more modest cuts to the middle class. This, of course, is the Democratic meme which the AP is echoing and so giving it credence it would not otherwise have without the presumption of journalistic objectivity the AP provides.

Now I know my leftwing friends will agree with this negative characterization and so won’t even notice the negative spin on that description. It will be transparent to them just because they already take it to be gospel and not just someone’s opinion. In fact those larger cuts for very well-off individuals, referred to by the article, are not bigger percentagewise but in absolute terms, reflecting the obvious fact that those who pay more taxes will benefit more from cuts to rates than those who pay less.

But by absorbing and reporting as fact this Democratic take on the bill, the AP article’s narrative confirms the account given by opponents, painting the picture the legislation’s opponents want the rest of us to believe: That Trump and those Republicans have done it to us again and are gleeful about it while being dismissive of legitimate concerns.

This will then be echoed by online “commentators” across the Internet taking on a life of its own, filtering into the thinking of those who read it and pass it along. Thus are narratives shaped without regard to mere facts.

Is it any wonder that the right has come to hate a media whose members so clearly subscribe to views that reflect a left leaning agenda? Or that many on the right decided to back a crude bully like Trump for the presidency?

When journalism lets us down, fair and honest debate is foreclosed and only anger and partisanship follow in its wake. Nor is this some odd new development. We have seen it all before, commencing as far back as 1993 when the media tilted the narrative against then President George H. W. Bush in favor of his challenger in that election year, Bill Clinton. It has been pretty much the same since.

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*https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/house-passes-massive-tax-package-senate-to-vote-next/ar-BBH0UCm?ocid=sf

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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