Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reuters, God Love 'Em

I'm one of those people who don't think much of the major media. If you feel they always report things objectively and straight down the middle, then you might as well skip down to the Twigs! post right now.

Reading the news can be hard for me. As a writer, I can see how the facts and events are arranged to form a narrative rather than just to retell what happened. As an editor, I can see how which facts are left out and which facts are included, and how the choice of one word over another, can create an invisible traffic lane that guides the reader to the proper opinion and conclusion. And as a hypnotist, I can see all too well how using the reader's own emotions can create a deep, even subconscious impression that's frequently at odds with what the words are technically saying. And I know how that emotional impression can be just as strong as the rational, conscious opinion—and maybe even stronger, because you often don't even realize it's there.

Sometimes, I find an article that does all of these—or one that just plain irks me. Like this little gem of a fear-mongering editorial masquerading as a news piece:

Minorities Fear Trend from California Gay Marriage Ban
Of course, nowhere does the article mention that large minority voter turnout is what put Prop 8 over the top. I guess that would be rude.

The article continues:

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – California's gay marriage ban could open the door to legal discrimination against unpopular groups if the state Supreme Court allows the voter-approved measure to stand, blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minorities said.
Of course, nowhere does the article actually quote any "blacks, Latinos, Asian and other minorities," though a legal brief by "black, Asian and Hispanic groups challenging the ban" is quoted. So are three law professors who may or may not be black, Latino/Hispanic, Asian, or some other minority. Apparently, three law professors and a legal brief speak for all minorities—including those who voted "Yes" on Prop 8. I wonder if this will be news to those minority voters, or if they've gotten used to academics and activists speaking for them.

The whole article reads like it was whipped up over the phone and downloaded off the Internet. I can understand "hotel journalism" in a place like Rwanda during the slaughter, or in Iraq when the insurgency was in full swing. But in California? Finding an actual activist (of any persuasion) in our Golden State is about as difficult as finding a Han in China. And we have enough freeways that if the wildfires are blocking one, you can still get to any protest by another route.

Then again, if you want to whip up fear about a new, dawning era of legalized discrimination, you want to go for the law professor rather than the activist. Because with a law professor, even if your head knows that what they're saying might not be quite right, your gut will still cry Expert!

Activists rarely have that kind of effect, which is how we get money lines like this one:

Legal scholars say the measure, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, breaks new ground by limiting the courts' ability to protect minorities.
You don't even need to name the scholars who actually said this, or even say whether any scholar actually said it in these exact terms. Just phrase it as "legal scholars," and you have the impression of a universal opinion. Why, a reader might not even stop to think that perhaps legalizing gay marriage, and not Prop 8, is the part that actually "breaks new ground."

"They could take away any right from any group," said University of Southern California Law Professor David Cruz, who filed a brief in favor of gay marriage in an earlier case.
Which right from which group, you ask? Why, any right from any group. Just allow your own worst fears to fill in those blanks.

Worried that inter-racial marriage might somehow be taken away? Then Prop 8 will bring that about, at least under this kind of wording. Worried that Japanese Americans will be herded into camps once again? Then Prop 8 will apparently open that door, too. Worried that Asians will be barred by law from owning property in California, as they once were? Prop 8 again. A USC law professor and unnamed "minority groups" say so.

But why stop there? Are blacks being discriminated against in employment opportunities? Maybe Prop 8 opened that door. Low-income Hispanics can't get a mortgage? Forget the financial crisis, and let's just lay that at the feet of Prop 8 as well.

After all, Prof. Cruz did say "any right" from "any group," so be afraid. Be very afraid, because—

"The history of California demonstrates with sobering clarity the potential for disfavored minorities to be subjected to oppression by hostile majorities," the minority groups say in their brief, pointing to segregation laws and one excluding Asian-Americans from land ownership as examples.
Yes, this "sins of the father" argument shows that the government and population of the Golden State are irredeemably bad, and the not-quite-landslide victory of Prop 8 shows we're all just waiting for a chance to unleash our inner Klansmen. And just in case you're still not convinced by these unnamed "minority groups"—

"It is not hypothetical. It's a track record," said Stanford University law professor Jane Schacter, who has not filed briefs in the case.
Well then, my mistake for not accepting at face value a legal brief filed by one side of an argument. Apparently, Prop 8 is also the first chink in the armor protecting prison inmates from having their organs harvested and undocumented workers from being herded into substandard FEMA trailers before being sent back to Mexico en masse. Why, after Prop 8, we might even start thinking about building a wall on that border, or something.

I have nothing against law professors. Several are included in my Blog Roll. What I do have something against is the idea that being a Stanford law professor, say, automatically grants someone greater insight about what's actually in the hearts and minds of our friends, families, and neighbors as opposed to some other occupation. It sure does help with the emotional impact of the statement, though, doesn't it?

So, still think this article is playing it straight? Then how about this little bit of context?

The ban, California Proposition 8, amended the constitution with 52 percent support—less than is required to approve some state bond measures.
Yes, Prop 8 passed with 52% of the vote—about the same percentage of the vote that Barack Obama received to win the presidency of the United States. So let's flip that sentence around and see how it sounds:

"Barack Obama won the presidency with 52% support—less than is required to approve some state bond measures."

Kind of minimizes an historic victory, doesn't it? But I'm sure that was completely unintentional. Neither the reporter nor his editor could have foreseen that sentence being read as implying how little real support Barack Obama—I'm sorry, I mean Prop 8—actually had.

Could they?

And just to complete the topsy-turvy world of this "news" report, the sanest voice about our brave new world of impending additional discrimination brought about by Prop 8 comes from a professor at Berkeley:

"We are past that as a realistic matter. We just elected an African-American president, for Christ's sake," said University of California, Berkeley, law professor Jesse Choper, who also filed on behalf of gay advocates in the original gay marriage case.
You tell 'em, Prof. Choper. Nicely, if a bit profanely, put.

But if we really are past all this as a "realistic matter," then doesn't that make you wonder what the point of everything else in this article actually was? And what the reporter and his editor were thinking?

I'm sure they weren't trying to create an impression in the reader's mind, or maybe to mold a reader's opinion. This is Reuters, after all. They play it so straight and objective, they won't even use the word terrorist to describe the 9/11 hijackers, remember?

It's not hypothetical with Reuters, after all. It's a track record.