Manipulating the Narrative

Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

We’re all learning these days that we have to be critical thinkers when it comes to consuming the news. While it is completely ironic to hear someone like Bill O’Reilly talk about his “no spin zone,” he’s tapped into the reality that “spin” is part of how the news is reported. Sometimes that is a conscious effort to influence public opinion and sometimes the media’s own bias simply seeps through.

Recently James Fallows found an excellent example. He noticed a NYT headline that read: Obama Battles Pro-Israel Group, Raising Worries of a Lasting Rift. It’s a story about the disagreement between President Obama and AIPAC over the Iran nuclear agreement. Fallows notes:

As we learn in linguistics classes, and understand even without the classes, word order matters, as does subject/object placement. Dog bites man versus man bites dog. What’s interesting in this case is that three possible subject/object placements, with very different implications, could all fit the facts the story describes.

Here are the three possibilities he points to:

1. “Pro-Israel Group Battles Obama, Raising Worries …”
2. “Obama, Pro-Israel Group Battle, Raising Worries …”
3. “Obama Battles Pro-Israel Group, Raising Worries …”

Of course, the NYT chose the third headline. As Fallows points out, it implies that Obama picked the fight. Which raises a fascinating assumption:

This is true mainly if you believe that he [Obama] promoted the Iran deal because he knew that AIPAC would oppose it. And the diplomatic and reputational risks the story describes therefore mainly are Obama’s responsibility because of the battle he has intentionally taken on.

You may think that both Fallows and I are getting too far into the weeds over a simple headline. But it’s important to note that these kinds of things work on a very subtle level to influence how we understand a story.

Last week, following President Obama’s speech on the Iran agreement, NBC’s First Read did something similar. Here’s how they summarized it:

Finally, our takeaway from President Obama’s big speech yesterday on the Iran deal is that he tried to turn the debate into a Democrat-vs-Republican issue.

The idea that it is Obama who is trying to turn the debate about the Iran deal into a partisan issue is ludicrous given the fact that:

* 47 Republicans signed a letter to Iranian leaders suggesting they ignore our President’s attempt to negotiate an agreement,
* Republican opposition to the deal (including the letter noted above) started BEFORE it had even been finalized,
* Republican candidates for president have said that if this agreement is approved, President Obama will become “the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism” and that he will “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”

And yet, according NBC’s First Read authors, it is President Obama who is trying to turn this debate into a partisan issue with a speech he made last week.

Neither the NYT nor NBC are conservative news outlets who purposefully set out to distort the record. But I would submit that these are two good examples of how the media has embraced an implicit assumption that “both sides do it” in order to blame both Republicans and Democrats for our current political polarization. In order to reach that conclusion, they manipulate the narrative by the choices they make about what to include/exclude from the story. But as any good journalist knows, the old axiom is still true…context matters.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.