Saturday, September 23, 2023

His fingertips around the cosmos curled

 A.J. Liebling is top of mind these days, what with management offering and the union demanding just down the road, so the Murdoch papers' coverage of the great man's retirement naturally recalled "The Man who Changed the Rules," Liebling's 1951 summary of how William Randolph Hearst's death was covered. This quatrain, from the Mirror's house poet, stood out:

The Chief is gone, the man we all called Boss ...
Colossus of an age that changed the world.
The galleons of his genius knew their course,
His fingertips around the cosmos curled.

It's echoed, these 70-plus years on, by Trevor Kavanagh, political editor  at the Super Soaraway Sun (his phrasing, not mine): 

I’ve enjoyed knowing the man we call The Boss both at leisure and under pressure as chief of the world’s greatest media empire. ... I have seen him prove time and again that democracy and free speech only flourish under a free, vigorous and sometimes controversial press.

Two things at least distinguish Rupert Murdoch from Citizen Hearst: One, Murdoch is around to see the paeans, and two, he's actually rather successful at the business of selling news. (As Liebling noted in 1961, Hearst "not only failed to create good newspapers but failed to make money out of bad ones -- something that conspicuous medioctities have succeeded at.") But Murdoch's employees, like Hearst's, are united in praise of the Boss's unique genius and ability -- take it away, New York Post -- to "redefine the media landscape."

Two traits stand out in the coverage, exemplified here by the Wall Street Journal's editorial: that dogged stand-up-for-the-litle-guy attitude mentioned by the Super Soaraway Sun and the insistence that staffers made up their own minds.

That's actually a well-tested observation in media sociology, dating at least to Warren Breed's "Social control in the newsroom" (1955). Breed, having worked for a Hearst paper, noted that the Chief didn't need to emerge from the box of earth from his home planet to tell you how many adjectives to deploy, or when a story should begin with "Bands playing and flags flying." If you didn't already know that by the time you signed on, a friendly senior reporter would tip you off before you covered the parade. 

Here's Kavanagh quoting Murdoch's farewell note:

“Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarified class. Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing truth.”

Which explains why The Sun stands alone as “the people’s paper”.

That seems to be the heart of the Murdoch con: convincing the Little Guy that you're standing between him and the mysterious elite, even as you're reaching into his pocket for his own good. Here's Liebling again, riffing on the cartoon image of the overburdened taxpayer as "a small, shabby man in underclothes and a barrel":

The man in the barrel is always warned that a frivolous project like medical care for his aged parents is likely to double his already crushing tax burden. The implication is that the newspaper owner is above worrying about his parents, and of course he is, because his old man* left him the paper.

* Sir Keith Murdoch, if you're scoring along at home.

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Sunday, March 12, 2023

Biden is coming

 So in what seems like big news around here, all my Fox data from 2022 -- 2,624 screenshots of the top five stories on the -- is now entered in a single spreadsheet. (Hautboys and trumpets off.) And the AEJMC deadline is still 19 days away.

What, you might ask, is the point? Well, it's not to say anything about Tucker Carlson and his guests; you don't need a spreadsheet to find the "off" button on the remote. It doesn't demonstrate that any specific, falsifiable utterance about Dominion Voting Systems' joint operating agreement with Beelzebub was made with actual malice under the Sullivan standard. Nor does it prove that Fox is a propaganda network and thus will lose its news license forthwith.* But it is a reasonable way to spend some time fleshing out the ways in which news routines, wherever they're practiced, allow all sorts of ideological skulduggery to sneak past the watchdogs.  

As that suggests, this isn't a study that loses sleep over what the opinion pages do. I'm not especially panicked by opinions showing up amid the news; if you don't like frontpage editorial cartoons (or large 1A doses of W.R. Hearst's views on life, the universe and everything), you shouldn't study security framing and the run-up to Pearl Harbor. And Fox is generally scrupulous about labeling opinions when they show up among the top five stories. It's not too surprising when two opinion pieces show up in a day, but when Joe Biden is coming for your retirement and the old homestead in consecutive screen grabs (above right, from about 10:45 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Eastern US, Feb. 17, 2023), something cool is afoot.

Some of Fox's practices -- g-droppin', for example -- look like mere tabloidism. Across time, they point to some more entertaining questions: not just why "Not lovin' it" is the headline of choice for stories about miscreants at McDonald's, but why "Hidin' Biden" is a more frequent hed choice than "Cruzin' for a bruisin' " -- or why "California" in heds is followed not just by "dreamin' " but by "fleein' " and "leavin'."

Measures of sourcing and placement help address how frequently Fox's top political stories are rewritten from Politico or the frequently dericed New York Times or CNN. You can tell how often the day's lead story is based on a single tweet from Elon Musk or start to estimate whether anything Kamala Harris does is news before Fox has a chance to write a "Twitter erupts" hed about it. You can even count how many uniqure stories about the Idaho murders can lead the page in a single day.

Then there's some sheer nerdery: figuring out the correctness conditions of slamming and blasting, for example. (Hint: You can slam and blast pretty actively if you're a Republican or a CEO, but if you're a Democrat, be prepared to submit to a lot of passive blasting.) Melting down is almost exclusively done by two groups: (a) Black athletes and entertainers and b) liberals and the media. Done properly, even the occasional garden-path faceplant can take on a partisan tone.

A 2021 take on some of this has already shown up in the Big Securitization Book, but there's plenty more to be played with.

* Oh, stop it.

Friday, January 27, 2023


I'm not sure I could even name a favorite A.J. Liebling column.* Last couple decades, I've been much more in the "what delicate filleting from seven decades ago does this bit of brain-dead yapping from Fox News remind me of the most?" Monday, it was "Antepenultimatum" (Sept. 27, 1946). 

Liebling's topic was a "conspicuously civilized note ... telling the Yugoslavs that if they didn't rurn loose the surviving occupants of two American planes shot down by them, the United States would complain to the Security Council." He likened this to threatening your obstreperous neighbor with a lawsuit, rather than threatening to break his neck: "An ultimatum, I had always understood, is a threat to break the neck. ... Serbia received an ultimatum from Austria in 1914."

Imagine my delight when Fox's No. 4 story Monday morning** (the above is from around 8 Eastern) proclaimed that Poland had announced plans to send the Leopard 2 main battle tank to Ukraine, despite Germany's interest in delaying: 

Morawiecki said Poland had been building a coalition of countries prepared to send Leopards to Ukraine even without approval from Germany.

"We will ask [Germany] for permission, but this is a secondary theme," Morawiecki said. "Even if, eventually, we do not get this permission, we — within this small coalition — even if Germany is not in this coalition, we will hand over our tanks, together with the others, to Ukraine."

Back to Liebling:

Journalists, and especially the fellows who write for the press assocations, have a habit of using the strongest word they can think of in the lead of a story, even when the word really means something else. Headline writers often base their eye-smackers on the strongest word in the lead. That's the only reason I can think of for the use of the word "ultimatum" in every New York newspaper on Thursday, August 22."

You can see why, after a dose of ULTIMATUM GIVES TITO 48 HOURS TO FREE FLYERS, YUGOS GET ULTIMATUM and the like, Liebling "felt like we had left the diving board and would hit the surface of the third World War any second." (And if you too had had enough of UKRAINE: WORLD WAR III OR COLD WAR II? by the end of February, I expect he was nodding along.)

The fun continued when the story moved into the lead around 10 a.m.:

Germany will not stop Poland from delivering Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Germany's foreign minister announced Sunday.

If Germany has mastered time travel to the point where it can cave in on Sunday to the Monday ultimatum, the rest of NATO should worry a bit that it doesn't send the damn things back to, oh, October 1941 or so. But I digress.

Liebling took himself to the references, starting with "a ninety-five-cent dictionary which I bought one time in a cigar store and which gives only one meaning for each word" and ending with the 13-volume Oxford, which gave pretty much the explanation the OED has today: 

In diplomacy, the final terms presented by one power (or group of powers) to another, the rejection of which may lead to the severing of diplomatic relations, and eventually to a declaration of war.

Because the OED is a fine place to play "that's been a verb longer than Missouri has been a journalism school," the next entry (barely two years younger) is worth noting:

A final condition or stipulation; one's last word on a matter.

Not everything in news is subject to the sort of know-it-when-I-see-it framing contagion that makes for crises or tragedies. Newsrooms are -- usually -- still careful to look up "hurricane" or "blizzard" before declaring one, even if they're consistently careless with "hurricane-force winds." And terrorism is often carefully licensed; it's always worth noting when an outlet like Fox calls "terror" on its own and when it waits for permission. sLiebling suspects a form of the latter: "a State Department public-relations official who, asked at a press conference 'if it is all right to call this thing an 'ultimatum,' may have answered, 'Sure, boys, go ahead.'"

With all that logged in, though, there's a point to Libling's prescriptivism: " I fear that I detected, in their taking the gloomiest possible view of the situation, a certain eagerness on the part of most of the newspapers" -- evidenced by what he saw as the Mirror's later regret that the pesky Yugoslavs had complied. Given the choice between Media Conspiracy and Media Stupid, my money is usually on the latter, but when Fox is out ahead of the world on the ultimatum front, I'm always inclined to give the old guy a listen.

* Granted,it's hard to go wrong with "Offers and Demands" (Jan. 26, 1963), but look at the competition
** The story at the link has been updated, though it still has the "5:49 am" time stamp.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Eyes 1, Brain 0

 The Fair 'n' Balanced Network is telling the truth here, you bet. It even has the direct quote to prove it! Let's look at the first three paragraphs of Wednesday morning's No. 2 story: 

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador challenged President Biden on his "forgetfulness" to help Latin American countries during the North American Leaders' Summit Monday. He also encouraged him to prioritize fixing the migration crisis affecting the U.S.-Mexico border.

While public comments mostly struck a positive tone, López Obrador pressed Biden over his "abandonment" and "forgetfulness" to help Central American countries.

"This is the moment for us to determine to do away with this abandonment, this disdain, and this forgetfulness for Latin America and the Caribbean," Lopez Obrador said during a press conference Monday.

You can forgive the standard-issue Fox viewer, accustomed to stories about the president's memory issues, for reaching the conclusion that Fox intended before reaching the one that AMLO intended. Eyes 1, Brain 0, top of the 5th.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

'This is the reality they stole from us!'

First thing that came to mind on reading "Twitter Files" writer Matt Taibbi's "delerious reflections" on the process was: Did anybody think about getting him an A.J. Liebling anthology for Christmas? Because he might see something in Liebling's reflections on the World's Greatest Newspaper from 1950:

The visitor to Chicago, awakening unalarmed in his hotel room and receiving the Tribune with his breakfast tray, takes a look at the headlines and finds himself at once transported into a land of somber horror. ...  As he turns the pages of the Tribune, the stranger is likely to get the feeling that some of the people and events he is reading about superficially resemble people and events he remembers having read about in the world outside, but he never can be sure.

That's been my overall response to the "Twitter Files" frenzy. If you're concerned that "the version of the world that was spat out at us from them seemed distorted," wait until you hear about television! Or radio. Or, given that Hearst papers accounted for nearly a fourth of US Sunday circulation as FDR began his first term, the humble newspaper. If you're new to framing theory, here's Robert Entman's explanation from 1993:

To frame is to  select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.

If you can shake off the moral panic over the smartphone as your overlord, you could bring in a number of other theories as well. Cultivation (people who watch a lot of TV tend to think the real world looks like its televised counterpart), agenda-setting (people tend to think issues that get a lot of coverage are important) and the "hostile media" perception (partisans of opposing football teams, or political parties, tend to think the game story is biased against their side) all explain different aspects of how the world outside -- stealing one from Walter Lippmann here -- comes to form the pictures in our heads. There's no constitutional right to a comfy world in which the other idiots out there agree with you.

How long have those pesky media been stealing reality from us? In American journalism, since before there was a United States. I won't complain if you say the Elizabethan age; here's one from the Big Securitization Book:

If you encountered the right balladeer at the right public square in London in 1588, you could learn the names of the 14 recently executed traitors, embedded in a moral lesson about the deserts of treason and conveniently sung to “Greensleeves.”

So aside from the persistent inability, First Amendment-wise, to reliably distinguish social media from the government at better than coin-toss levels, what baffles me most about the "Twitter Files" is the quaint belief that someone -- generally "our elite overlords" or some variant on that -- monkeyed with Twitter and ruined forever the level media playing field on which American politics had played out from the dawn of time through 2019 or so.

To which one could go on and on, but -- has AM radio just entirely vanished from public consciousness, or did none of you out there hear Rush Limbaugh's "Largest Radio Rally in History," featuring two hours or so worth of Donald Trump (to the point where Limbaugh was trying to nudge him off stage*) four weeks before the 2020 election?

True, the infamous Hunter Biden laptop (or the copy of its hard drive, or whatever) doesn't come up in that transcript, but it was certainly no secret to the Limbaugh audience in the weeks before the election. You can try your own site search at (replete with complaints about the rest of the media). What you can't do is say that reality was somehow stolen from you because your message wasn't front and center on every platform. That's Richard Hofstadter territory:

... The modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

The Twitter Files don't presage another Great Brown Scare (in which assorted "vermin press" figures actually did go on trial) or a crusade against the African American press like J. Edgar Hoover's earlier in World War II (cheered on by right-wing columnists like Westbrook Pegler). They don't herald a war of extermination like the one against the German-language press in the US in 1917-18 (to the satisfaction of the big conservative papers). That's not to say the files raise no concerns at all; it is a mild suggestion that we pay a bit more attention to what reality looks like before we report it stolen.

Yes, we need to stick up for the First Amendment when it's under threat. Yes, it protects your right to say what you damn please about public affairs. But it doesn't require me to go down to the basement and find an amplifier and an extension cord to help you out.

* I was listening, kids. It's my job.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

Making things up about the stylebook

You’d think a truce had been declared in the War on Christmas or something if the comrades at The Daily Signal (“multimedia news platform” of the Heritage Foundation) have time to turn their attention to this:

Journalists are being told not to use the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” when writing about abortion. 

Fond of the passive as we are around here, that’s the sort of passive that ought to get your attention, herding-cats-wise.

The Associated Press issued new guidelines for the topic of abortion Monday. The writing stylebook says to now “use the modifiers anti-abortion or abortion-rights; don’t use pro-life, pro-choice or pro-abortion unless they are in quotes or proper names. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.”

Do tell!

The Associated Press is the most common stylebook among journalists, used by news outlets on the political left and right, including The Daily Signal. However, the updated abortion guidelines are one set of writing rules The Daily Signal will not be following. 

Who’s going to break it to them? Kids, these are not "new guidelines." The same language appears in the 2018 edition. And here's the "abortion" entry from 2014:

abortion Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and pro-abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice

2002 is almost identical (both also include the caution about "abortionist"):

abortion Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice

Read more »

Monday, November 08, 2021

Peak Fox

 That's the trouble with turning your back on Fox -- the backlog piles up until you hardly know where to start digging. But this Monday evening lead story deserves a special prize of some sort, because it has nothing (no, literally) to do with the text it links to.

Fox's stylistic flailing over the past few days has brought up some entertaining signals about news practice. Friday's top headlines played with "mega-spending bills" and "costly agenda" before setting on "socialist spending bill." By Saturday, it was "Swamp Spending Spree" and "MEGA-SPENDING agenda" (the excess caps in the subheds have a certain redtop flavour to them). The shift to listing all the zeroes in "massive $1,200,000,000,000 infrastructure is a style violation," but you have to admit it looks more dramatic than "$1.2 trillion," even when Fox doesn't remember to put in all the zeroes.* So the "YOUR money" above isn't too far out of tune, even if, you know, that's sort of where public funding comes from. But back to Our Top Story:

White House correspondent April Ryan was ridiculed on Monday after asking Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the racism "built into the roadways."

During the White House press briefing, Buttigieg was taking questions about the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed through Congress last week. Ryan took the opportunity to ask Buttigieg about the Biden administration's plans to "deconstruct the racism" that’s built into America's infrastructure. 

 Hang on to the "was ridiculed" for a bit, because we have a specific bridge to talk about, right?

 "Also can you give us the construct of how you will deconstruct the racism that was built into roadways?" Ryan asked.

Ryan then referenced an earlier interview Buttigieg gave The Grio in April when he said "there is racism physically built into some of our highways."

"I’m still surprised that had some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a White and a Black neighborhood or if an underpass was constructed such that a bus carrying mostly Black and Puerto Rican kids to a beach, or that would have been, in New York was designed too low for it to pass by, that that obviously reflects racism that went into those design choices," Buttigieg responded during the press briefing.

He added "I don’t think we have anything to lose by confronting that simple reality, and I think we have everything to gain by acknowledging it and then dealing with it, which is why they are reconnecting communities that billion dollars is something we want to get to work right away putting to work."

Ahem? Bridge? MY money?

Republicans and critics piled on Ryan's question for insinuating that roads are "racist."

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted, "The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads."

Republican Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance also weighed in.

And at this point we're into the standard "blasted" or "mocked" Fox story: quote-tweeting the Usual Suspects (if you're looking for a content analysis project, go see which ones you can associate with which Fox bylines). But still no bridge:

... Ryan has been criticized for her liberal bias and for openly cheering on Democrat officials. In December, the CNN political analyst praised former President Obama in light of his new memoir.

"You cannot work in that special, unique place and not have memories, and you are one of my fondest memories, and I thank you," she wrote on Instagram.

We can't exactly call the hed a lie, since there may yet be some trillion dollar plan funded with YOUR money that singles out a racist bridge for doom. Somehow, you'd think a Fox reader would want to know that.

* Thanks, Garrett