Headlines Control the Narrative. Guess Who Controls the Headlines?
Last Thursday, Rush Limbaugh, addressing one of the Associated Press's latest offenses against journalism, suggested that we "regard every AP story, particularly this year, as nothing more than a propaganda piece for the reelection of Barack Obama."
Good idea -- and of course, that goes for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and virtually the entire establishment and entertainment press. Many if not most of their reports betray an ever more obvious preference for four more years of Obama.
There's a new and largely overlooked problem in this election cycle: Story headlines have become more powerful than ever. That's because far more people than in 2008 are getting their "news" from headline feeds sent to computers, smart phones (46% of all wireless phones), and tablets (34 million users). Even avid news consumers with busy lives won't go to what's behind most of the headlines they see on these devices -- and when they do, especially given the limited real estate on their screens, they will rarely read past the opening paragraph or two.
This is a serious concern because the aforementioned propagandists, with special assistance from certain leftist outlets, have a virtual lock on these feeds. As I see it, their privileged access has given them extraordinary power this time around to influence the political and cultural narrative -- and they have learned how to abuse it.
I will support my take on things first by discussing several headlines I observed in two hours of reviewing a Google-driven news feed on March 20. I will then cite examples from last Thursday and Friday where the headlines and opening teases worked with stunning effectiveness to portray Obama favorably or to denigrate his potential electoral opponents.
The Google News feed review was a truly discouraging experience, especially when imagining how a politically disengaged user might process what I saw. Here is some of it:
- Via the Washington Post -- "Ryan introduces GOP budget plan, slashing social programs and tax rates." You could hardly make up a more obvious "heartless conservatives steal from the poor to give to the rich" headline. Those who click through will see the following opening sentence: "House Republicans renewed their commitment Tuesday to the politically risky strategy of targeting Medicare and other popular social programs to tame the national debt, unveiling a $3.5 trillion spending plan that would also slash the top tax rate paid by corporations and the wealthy." Apparently anything that isn't based on letting out-of-control programs stay on autopilot indefinitely constitutes "slashing," because the actual Ryan Plan shows Medicare, the one program specifically mentioned, going up by no less than 4.7% in any year between 2013 and 2021, and by 70% during the nine-year time period.
- "Killings Could Stall Election's Nationalist Turn" -- Since it's from the New York Times, a story like this will get carried in a news feed, even though the "don't bother reading this" headline tells readers nothing about where the killings occurred or who was involved. Tellingly, the story's browser window title is "Killings Could Taint French Presidential Campaign," indicating that the Times deliberately watered down its transmitted title. The story is about what PJ Media's David Gerstman calls the "No Islamists Here" murders of seven, including three soldiers, a teacher, and three Jewish children in France -- by (surprise ... not) a Muslim. We don't want to let anybody know that in the age of the alleged "Arab spring" there are still jihadists in Western countries killing innocents, do we? Don't you know that Barack Obama solved all of this?
- At the Wall Street Journal -- "2012 GOP Wives More Popular Than Husbands." Really, people? This is feedworthy news (or even true?), when the vast majority of even engaged GOP voters barely know who these women are? The goal, of course, is to get the disengaged to start thinking: "Boy, these guys must really be schmucks."
- At AFP -- "Obama disowns De Niro white First Lady joke." Readers who don't get past the headline will think that the president himself responded (what a guy!) in reaction to De Niro's "joke," wherein the actor asked an audience: "Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white First Lady? Too soon, right?" No, the reaction came from Obama's campaign; and instead of "disowning" it, a spokesperson would only say: "We believe the joke was inappropriate."
Certain organizations deemed eligible for newsfeed treatment were more than a little questionable, unless you think you can get a reliable diet of straight facts from the likes of the Huffington Post.
Last Thursday's hands-down champ for misleading headline of the day was at the AP, also known to yours truly as the Administration's Press. In covering Obama's visit to Cushing, Oklahoma, to glom onto the opening of a section of the Keystone pipeline which had been the works for some time and was completed without the need to obtain his permission, the AP's headline read: "Obama defends handling of Keystone as he puts another key oil pipeline on the fast track."
"Another"? When has Obama ever "fast-tracked" anything not involving "green energy"? And even if he did so sometime in the past three years, why is it relevant? Until Keystone is the international pipeline its sponsors envision, it may be more appropriate, as Mark Steyn suggested on Limbaugh's show on Friday, to call what Obama visited the Pipeline to Nowhere. Maybe an even better name for AP would be the Administration's Pravda.
My final example, linked at Matt Drudge's place early last Friday morning, shows that even people on the center-right who should (and maybe do) know better are allowing misleading headlines to dictate the discussion. Drudge's headline ("SANTORUM SNAPS: OBAMA PREFERABLE TO ROMNEY!") screamed a flat-out falsehood which made an already deceptive AP report ("Santorum: Might As Well Have Obama Over Romney") even worse. Rick Santorum's conditional statement -- "If they’re going to be a little different (Mitt Romney compared to Obama), we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk of what may be the Etch A Sketch candidate for the future" -- became a manufactured controversy when the AP's Will Weissert eliminated its conditionality and piled on in his first sentence with something Santorum absolutely did not say: "Presidential candidate Rick Santorum on Thursday said Republicans should give President Barack Obama another term if Santorum isn’t the GOP nominee...." Drudge's compounding of what was already a set of serious errors was irresponsible.
In terms of this election cycle, center-right activists seem far too confident that New Media's vetting of Obama's past and exposure of the myriad flaws in his performance as president will reach vast hordes of attention-limited and largely disengaged voters. Barring a pretty prompt sea change, most of them won't ever see it.
Major center-right outlets and their architects need to develop and aggressively promote their own apps and feeds, consider consolidating their efforts in that regard, and above all get creative. Michelle Malkin's Twitter-monitoring Twitchy.com enterprise looks to be a significant step in the "right" direction.
The time to react to the proliferation of election-influencing device-driven deception, dreck, and drivel from the propagandist press is growing short.
(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified image from Shutterstock.com.)