April 08, 2009

The Bias of Perspective

In response to the New York Times front page headline "In Unexpected Visit, Obama Wins Cheers of Troops" Ace, of the award winning conservative blog Ace of Spades HQ, notes the bias in the headline but with a new take.  

There's a last bit of bias here that I always notice in the news, but never mention because it takes a little bit to explain, and I'm not sure how much actual impact it has.

The bias I mean is the bias of perspective. The novelistic technique of making one "character" (in this context) the active character, making decisions that advance the "plot," with whom the audience is "with" and through whose eyes the audience sees the world. And making the rest of the world, whether fictional or real, either objects of the hero's action, or opponents for him to contest against. The press has a strong tendency to frame political stories from the vantage point of the heroes of their stories, who are, almost inevitably, Democrats.

Perspective is a powerful device. Objectively loathsome characters like Humbert Humbert in Lolita become at least partially sympathetic because the reader is forced to identify with them simply by being "with" them as they handle any challenge and make any decision. (Well, forced to, at least, assuming the continue reading the book at all.) Post-modern novels like Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince deconstruct the power of perspective -- Murdoch's book, for example, keeps the audience "with" the presumed hero for almost the entirety of the book, forcing the reader to root for him in his struggles and see his enemies as their own, before revealing, in a series of post-scripts, the perspectives of all the other characters -- which demonstrate the hero is no hero at all but rather the villain, and a pathetic one at that.

Rorshach in The Watchmen immediately becomes the graphic novel's most identified-with character, despite the fact he's a psychotic semi-midget with bad personal hygiene, because we see the mystery and explore the plot largely "with" him. He's our storyteller, through his journal and through his mental narration. Nite Owl -- a good-guy everyman who would be a much more natural and intuitive character for the readership to identify with -- never makes much impact, because we're never "with" him. We know about him, sure, but we don't know the world through his eyes. He's just a guy that our narrator and guide -- Rorshach -- happens to know.

Political stories are almost exclusively written "with" the Democrats, from the point of view of the Democrats. They are the Nouns who perform Active Verbs in the MSM's sentences; they are the heroes whose travails we are invited to sympathize with.

His post is a refreshing take on a subtle albeit powerful expression of bias.  The battle on judicial nominees is particularly susceptive to this type of bias because the issue is hardly focused on outside the Beltway or the Legal community.  We saw this bias expressed from the Times in relation to Obama's first judicial nominee.  They ran the headline "Moderate is Said to Be Pick for Court."  As Ace points out, this frames the story from the Democrat perspective.  He is established as a moderate before  a person even begins the article.  This clouds the decidedly left-wing rulings that he has issued making them seem outliers or worse, moderate positions.  At least the Washington Post points out who thinks Hamilton is so moderate with their headline that read, "Obama Names Judge to Appeals Court: President Praises David Hamilton of Indiana as a Moderate."  While better than the Times, this headline still touts the party line and frames the issue from the Democrat perspective.  

Ace further explains the problem with this subtle bias especially as it relates to swing voters.

Pretty much every political story is written like this, unless it's specifically and only about Republicans, such as a story about inter-party feuding. (And in that case, the story is written so that the moderate, centrist Republicans are the subjects active-verb fighting against the object-of-the-verb hardcore conservatives.

How much impact this has I don't know -- obviously, as Republicans, we've gotten used to rewriting the stories in our heads as we read so that we don't even notice we're doing so. We intuitively re-write a story so that instead of accepting the invitation to ponder "How will the Democrats get out of this jam?" we instead wonder "How do we force them further into this jam and keep them there?"

But even though we are capable of doing that -- at this point, without even noticing we are -- the natural, intuitive lens the stories present is through the eyes of the Democrats. And I wonder how much impact that has on a swing voters who have no strong affection for either party -- but who might very well be subconsciously pushed to the Democratic side of the aisle by this novelistic technique.

This problem gets magnified in the judicial realm, where the issues, outside of abortion and same-sex marriage, are on the back burner if on a burner at all.  A quick glance at a headline and the talking point is planted.  Who knows how much impact this has?

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