How Media Chooses Words Adds to Bias

by Warner Todd Huston | February 9, 2010 5:31 pm

The Politico had a story about Big Labor penned by Jeanne Cummings, the reporter famed for going after Sarah Palin’s Party purchased wardrobe during the 2008 presidential campaign, that was an object lesson in Old Media bias. Her piece headlined “Labor helps kill its own top priority[1]” is a great example of using language to subtly shade the arguments, in this case those of Big Labor, to elicit a positive view of the ideology contained in the issue. Her piece very subtly shades the goals of Big Labor in a positive light easily giving the reader a feeling that Big Labor’s goals are good and noble and is a perfect example of how the media creates emotional appeal for the left’s actions.

Because it is such masterfully crafted example of subtle bias, it deserves to be studied closely.

Cummings Begins her propping up of Big Labor by saying that Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts is “bad news for health care” and will mean that Republicans can “block the Employee Free Choice Act,” and so she immediately casts the possible actions of the GOP in a negative light at the outset. “Bad news for health care”? It is said as if the GOP was against “health care.” It isn’t. And of course “block” is certainly a negative action. In any case, she started by shrouding the GOP in negativity right away.

Cummings followed that with a quote by Tom Harkin, a Democrat Senator, saying, “I’ll never give up on it.” Immediately we get a positive emotion score awarded to Democrats in Cumming’s report.

Next Cummings paints Big Labor as a noble actor by saying it made a “bargain” in good faith with Democrats to put their EFCA plans on hold while health care is worked on. Score positive points for Big Labor.

Sadly for clarity’s sake, Cummings fails to mention that Big Labor didn’t have a choice on that noble “bargain.” This was the president’s requirement and a happenstance forced on Big Labor through the sheer politics of the matter. Big Labor wasn’t given a choice to be so noble as to put self-interest on the back burner for the good of the nation. Cummings similarly does not report that the EFCA was floated for a vote several times last summer and was found to have too many Democrat voices against it. This was long before Brown won his new Senate seat. But let’s not go worrying about facts, now. Cummings has a political side to pump up here.

From here Cummings notes that many union folks in Massachusetts voted against the Democrat Party and went for Republican Brown. She points out that sending Scott Brown to Washington makes it less likely that the EFCA will be as easy to pass as it may have been before.

Eventually Cummings gets to a short explanation of what the EFCA was supposed to do and boy does she play it fast and loose with the big picture.

As originally, drafted the bill would allow workers to sign cards to show their desire to unionize rather than going through a formal election process. That plank led to the legislation’s nickname: the card check bill.

Notice how this is written in a positive fashion in favor of unions? The EFCA would “allow” workers to sign a card, the card would “show their desire to unionize,” and the card would let them show this desire “rather than going through a formal election process,” as if that whole democratic election thing was such an annoying, unwanted bother to everyone. The whole explanation belies that there could be anything negative about the EFCA.

The truth of the matter is that the card check part of the legislation is not a positive thing for the workers. It is a positive thing for the unions, no question, but for the worker it takes away the right of a secret vote and opens that worker to systematic intimidation from union operatives because it will be made publicly aware if that employee doesn’t want to be unionized. This elimination of the secret vote will surely cause many workers to vote yes out of fear of becoming known as the anti-union worker and to avoid intimidation from union agitators. On the other hand, it could even open the worker up to intimidation by an employer too! It’s a two edged sword and draws blood from the worker with both edges. But Cummings does not report any of that.

Cummings adds another aspect of the bill to her piece:

The legislation also would beef up penalties for companies that retaliated against workers calling for a union and would force companies to negotiate with newly created unions.

Notice how she left out the worst part of the bill — the forced government arbitration. This bill forces both the union and the employer into a very short timetable to arrive at a contract. If that time limit is passed, the bill provides that the federal government will swoop in and force terms on both sides. This eliminates the power of both the employer and the union to arrive at their own terms. In essence, this part of the bill takes even more power away from the worker but Cummings didn’t mention any of this because it is just what Big Labor wants to have happen. After all, they think they control government and can get government to use their terms as the base for arbitration. But what happens when Republicans take over at some point? Will labor still be able to dictate what the government will do? Workers lose out all the way around with this provision and so do employers, with Big Labor itself putting itself in a possible loser situation. Bad all the way around…. Not that Cummings takes note of it all.

Next Cummings mentions that business and the Republicans are “unified in opposition,” but she never really takes any pains to explain why. She just paints them as opposers. Once again the GOP is clothed in negativity without given the benefit of explanation to the reader.

Cummings gives the final word to AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman.

“It’s a critical issue and we intend to keep on fighting for it,” she said. But “I think there has not yet been laid out a clear strategy of how to win on the Employee Free Choice Act.”

As you can see, Cummings ends her piece telling us all that this is a “critical issue” but people are “fighting for it.” She tells us that people are working for a “clear strategy of how to win.” All positively shaded rhetoric meant to convey that the unions are trying hard to help people.

So, to sum up we find a story that uses negatively shaded rhetoric every time Republicans or business is mentioned but positive, happy-talk to drive the discussion every time Big Labor or Democrats are mentioned. The Democrat position is termed “fighting for” things and shows them as looking for a “win,” while the Republicans are “blocking” and creating “bad news for health care.” The EFCA will “allow” workers to do things and helps get them out of that gosh darn complicated and time consuming “formal election process,” while Republicans and business are “unified in opposition.” Cummings uses all positive rhetoric for the Democrats and nothing but negativity for Republicans.

Yes, this is a perfect example of shaded rhetoric meant to shore up good feelings for the left while painting the right as mean and heartless. It is the sort of subtle writing that reveals an underlying support for the left that fills reporting of the “news.” This sort of careful rhetoric doesn’t come right out with an in-your-face support of leftism but leaves the reader with a warm feeling for the reporter’s favorite side and at the same time causes a reader to see the enemy — the right side of the argument — as the meanies, the bad actors, the negative nellies.

Apparently Jeanne Cummings is a master of it.

  1. Labor helps kill its own top priority:

Source URL: