The Slant of "So-Called" Reporting

In a recent online discussion, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz acknowledged that the national media present a liberal media bias on abortion, homosexuality, and religion, but emphasized: "The idea that most reporters are Democratic activists who slant their stories to help the party was always bogus."

Perhaps. Perhaps all these left-leaning journalists are just unanimously, unconsciously prejudicing readers in an utterly uncoordinated wave of "socially responsible" spin control, absent any whiff of party politics. No matter: the end result is political.

We've seen how reporters like to label conservative groups as conservative or extremely conservative ("hard right," "far right," and the like). Meanwhile, liberal groups are assigned sugar-coated, positive, noble, universal labels ("women's groups," "civil rights groups," "environmentalists").

Then there's those deadly adjectives, like "so-called." Dan Rather can't mouth the words "Christian Coalition" on TV without preceding it with "so-called," since apparently the Christians of Rather's acquaintance would rise up as one and object to being lumped in with Pat Robertson. But there was hardly a soul in journalism that felt the need to describe the nearly beatified John McCain's campaign bus as the "so-called Straight Talk Express."

Take a little stroll through a news database like Nexis, searching just for the term "so-called" in network newscasts. Some uses of the word are appropriately negative (calling professional wrestling a "so-called sport"), or introducing a new concept (the sale of "so-called conflict diamonds" to finance wars in Africa). Some offer a back-door method of praising the less than praiseworthy (Hafez Assad, the "so-called Lion of Syria"), and some are indirect insults using the liberals' own terms (another failure of the "so-called Star Wars defense system.") But you will also discover that when the ten-foot poles of attribution are pulled out to describe legislative proposals, the "so-called" terminology in dispute is usually conservative.

The most common media resistance to conservative terms comes with "so-called" partial birth abortions. Reporters fall into all sorts of contortions trying to distance themselves from pro-life terminology, regularly preceding the term partial-birth abortion with clumsy clouds of disqualification about "a certain late-term procedure which abortion opponents call 'partial-birth abortion.'" As Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin explained online, "abortion rights groups hate the term 'partial-birth abortion' because they see it as politically damaging." Apparently, pleasing these lobbyists' whims is Objective One.

One network anchor recently asked if a Bush vice presidential nominee would need to have a "very strong so-called pro-life stance." If we ever heard a network star describe the "so-called woman's right to choose," we'd faint dead away.

This subtle distancing from traditional values can seep into less political coverage. One TV reporter recently risked offending convening Southern Baptists by describing the controversy over their "so-called Statement of Faith." If those poor, uneducated, and easy-to-command Baptists were to decide to get with these hip modern times, renounce that silly Bible, and condone adultery and homosexuality as lifestyle choices, their new Statement of Faith would lose the warning label.

A current fad is journalistic references to the "so-called marriage penalty," an odd phrase since the so-called married reporters apparently have not done their own so-called tax returns to discover they probably pay more when they're married than they would if they were so-called single.

Now let's imagine some usages of "so-called," but placed squarely on the other foot. These sentences would be scorned for their lack of objectivity:
* "Trial lawyers today urged Democrats to step up the effort to allow them to sue HMOs with their so-called 'patients' bill of rights.'"
* "Al Gore today pledged his campaign would continue to support so-called 'affirmative action' programs that favor minorities."
* "President Clinton said today he would uphold the ban on so-called 'assault weapons.'"
* "Congress again failed to pass a bill restricting political speech, or so-called 'campaign finance reform.'"
* How about Dan Rather intoning, "In honor of the National Coming Out
Project, Vice President Gore spoke last night at a gathering of the so-called 'Human Rights Campaign.'"
* Or Peter Jennings reporting: "We begin tonight with the Supreme Court's decision on partial-birth abortions, which was cheered by the so-called National Organization for Women."

If you ever heard these, you'd probably unplug your TV and take it in for repairs. But the exercise underlines just how the media favor the liberal issue agenda in ways that can seem quite subtle, whether the reporter is consciously or just subconsciously declaring his or her opinion. Reporters really ought to fix this attribution problem. It's running rampant all over the pages and video screens of the so-called news media.