'Progressive' Headlines That Serve as Propaganda for the Wacko Right
If you read the liberal and progressive online media, you've probably seen headlines like this: "Fox News Bravely Exposes President Obama's Blatant Support for Murdering White People" (Jed Lewison, Daily Kos) or this: "GOP Rep: Trusting Obama on Border Security is Like Trusting Clinton With Your Daughter" (Tom Kludt, Talking Points Memo).
Part of you may have thought: well, look how stupid those Republicans and conservatives are for saying such ridiculous things. But another part of you may have felt a little uneasy, wondering why progressives were repeating such idiotic opinions and obvious falsehoods.
The uneasy feeling is the one to trust. In my opinion, as well as those of linguists and communicators, repeating false and absurd headlines can be destructive because they keep those ideas in play and it typically means progressives are responding to the wacko right wing, and not the other way around.
It is also true that some people read a headline without thinking much about it—and that is important to keep in mind. Why? Because people generally have emotional responses to the metaphors and messages in headlines, some barely conscious, or even unconscious. Headlines have often unseen impact, and when we ignore this fact, we are playing into the right's propaganda game.
On any given day, there are many cringe-worthy headlines, often in progressive publications, where you would think that editors would want to help clarify a cause, or at least be fair to those they are communicating about. But sometimes editors (and bloggers) don't think about the impact of their headlines, or they go for the traffic bait. And I'm not talking about messing with any journalistic integrity. On the contrary: Headlines often repeat absurd points of view that are obvious lies—not good journalism—with quotes from extremists, like this one from Salon: "Ben Carson: Obamacare is 'worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.'" That is a straight repetition of an idiot's message. The article may criticize Ben Carson (it does), but the headline does not; it carries Carson's message for him.
Colorado Equals Somalia
Spend some time examining headlines more closely, and you will see there are many doozies. What set me off recently was a headline of an item by Radley Balko in the Washington Post: "After Six Months of Legal Pot, Colorado Isn’t Yet Somalia."
Huh? This headline seems to come from someone who might, in fact, be very stoned. The point of Balko's item is that a recent report from the Drug Policy Alliance documented that the experiment with legalizing pot in Colorado has gone fine so far—no major problems. But this headline is trying to suggest something quite horrible might have happened in Colorado, or still might. And Somalia? Everyone knows Somalia is a country that has pirates who attack ships off the coast of Africa, but not much else. What, pray tell, does Somalia have to do with pot in Colorado?
I'm not holding Radley Balko responsible. He probably didn't write the headline. And Balko is a fierce libertarian, which means protecting people's individual rights is a top priority for him. Presumably he doesn't want to undermine the legal pot experiment in Colorado, so he's not out to scare people about pot. A headline like this harkens back to the idiotic days of reefer madness propaganda, despite the fact that every scare message about pot has been disproven many times over. California has had medical pot since 1995, with hundreds of thousands of medical marijuana card holders. But nothing bad has happened. So this headline writer either had an agenda or would fail the Miller Analogies test.
In most cases the worst headlines have to do with ludicrous statements made by attention-seekers, trying to say the most extreme things to get exposure. And very often, liberal headline writers do their work for them—an extension of their propaganda efforts. This happens any number of times every day.
Sometimes the headlines just include the absurd quote like this one from Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum: "Jimmy Carter Is History's Greatest Monster." Other times the headline includes a reference to the kind of person who might have made the quote, like Salon's piece by Jillian Rayfield: "Right-Wing Author: Jon Stewart Part of the Culture that Led to the Shootings." Not to pick on Salon (disclosure: AlterNet and Salon share content nearly every day), but this “why bother?” headline from the other day seems like it’s from the Onion: "Obama is the 'worst president since WWII,' says meaningless poll."
In their defense, esteemed editors might say, "Don't you have a sense of humor?" Or, "Don't you realize that headline is satirical?" Or, "When we repeat outlandish, inaccurate quotes, we trust our readers to know what we mean." Well, that is all bullshit for two reasons: On the Internet, often the only things people read is a headline. For many news outlets, Twitter serves as a series of headlines. Many people will never read the article, or even the teaser, so the headline is what gets spread.
Secondly, if you venture into the linguistic field, it seems pretty clear that words and headlines—often metaphors called "frames"—trigger emotions. So it's impossible to know what these headlines are leading to, how they are used for propaganda and how they affect people. Even trying to negate a frame reinforces the message, as George Lakoff argued persuasively in his book, Don't Think of an Elephant. When you hear that title phrase, it is impossible not to think of an elephant. (Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction to Don't Think of Elephant.) The most infamous example of a hapless attempt to negate a frame was Richard Nixon's declaration, "I am not a crook." Nope, no one saw through that, Tricky Dick.
Writers and editors also may think they are exposing the ridiculous things conservatives utter: "We are only reporting what they are saying." Well, that makes headline writers stenographers. By repeating right-wing frames they are actually being reactive to the propaganda being put out by conservative talking heads. This is how the wackos frame the debate, by throwing out the bait, and editors are often Pavlovian in putting it in their headlines. No matter how ridiculous the quote, once it's in the headline, the article has to rebut the statement, and then the conversation is about the absurdity and not something more constructive.
Progressives often critique corporate media for repeating conservative talking points and lies, but when we repeat them in headlines, we are doing the same thing. Of course, the editor's rejoinder would be, "But the article does challenge the statement!" Well, fine, but why give the bad guys the megaphone? The one message everyone sees is the headline.
Conservative Propaganda Talents
Dating back to the Reagan years, conservatives (with Frank Luntz as their best evil genius wordsmith) have created language and metaphors to undermine progressive and liberal values, while connecting effectively with voters. One of their most insidious lines was "partial birth abortion," which the media repeated ad naseum despite protests from women's rights advocates. "Tax relief" and the "death tax" are examples of language that became part of the anti-taxer's central narrative, just as "death panels" became a lightning rod to protect the giant healthcare industry and scare seniors about healthcare reform. These terms became such a core part of the media conversation that Democrats, and even progressives, repeated the same language with little awareness of what they were doing.
The inability to effectively use language has been a challenge for Democrats, liberals and advocacy journalists. The basic critique is that the left side of politics, despite strong evidence to the contrary, still thinks rational arguments and facts will convince people to change their minds. Sadly, the evidence tells us just the opposite. The more you present facts that contradict strongly held beliefs, the more stubbornly people cling to their opinions (this is especially true on climate change). This phenomena is true for both conservatives and liberals.
Dan Kahan has done extensive research into the resilience of perceptions, regardless of contrary information. Paul Rosenberg writes about this for Salon:
"Kahan finds strong evidence of 'identity-protective cognition' among people of all different world views. Not only has Kahan shown that people are resistent to information that challenges their identities and the worldviews that support them, he’s shown that more information tends to drive people apart in their views, rather than lead to convergence. People use more information to rationalize what they already believe, rather than to question and reformulate it."
So remember, the facts will not set us free.
There is much more to say about framing, language and how Democrats, progressives and journalists have bought into clever conservative language ploys that are really propaganda. This is perhaps even more true now among progressive sites because provocative language will attract eyeballs and can lead to financial gain via clicks and traffic.
Recently, Ann Coulter, one of the worst perpetrators of incendiary language, has had a media renaissance, in part because her rhetoric has gone from disgusting to truly appalling. Last week her picture and quotes adorned two of Salon's most-read articles, with her hugely publicized quote, "No American whose great-grandmother was born here is watching soccer," appearing in many headlines. Talking Points Memo went further in helping her publicity: "Ann Coulter Is Giddy That Critics Threw 'Hissy Fits' Over Her Soccer Column."
Progressives and the media establishment have helped make Coulter very rich, with millions of books sold, simply by repeating her rants and treating her as someone who has something to contribute to the public discourse. Hint: she doesn't.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, George Lakoff points out part of the problem: A classic liberal pitfall is the idea that by repeating one of the opposition's ridiculous lines, you make them look even more absurd.
"There was an election in Wisconsin," Lakoff says, "there was a horrible governor there, and the Democrats were so stupid that they put up billboards all over the state with a picture of him smiling. They had his name in large letters next to the picture, and it says, 'Why is this man smiling?' And then in smaller type, it has a list of his positions, all from his point of view. As if everybody will recognize that this is a horrible man? Instead, it is a billboard in his favor. It's about time progressives got out there and said what's true about themselves, as well as what's true of the other side. If you have a strong position, let's hear it."
As Lakoff said: "Conservatives don't follow the polls, they want to change them." In terms of communications, "liberals do everything wrong."
What Can Be Done About the Language Challenge
I don't want to offer criticism without trying to be constructive. And of course what I'm writing is my opinion, as well as generally what we do at AlterNet while seeking out high traffic, where we compete favorably with Mother Jones, Talking Points Memo, the Daily Kos, Raw Story, and Think Progress, the highest traffic progressive online news and information sites. (Huffington Post and Salon have larger audiences.)
At AlterNet, we feel strongly -- and we prove it with lots of high-traffic headlines -- that for articles to be popular they do not need to repeat idiotic statements or right-wing frames which we assiduously avoid. Headlines, email subject lines and teasers are powerful communication tools that connect strongly and immediately with readers, forming deep impressions about the content before they get to the article. We are working in a split-second medium, and some readers spend brief moments on sites or articles, merely glancing at headlines. We ask questions like, "What is the reader taking away from the headline? Is it recognition, warmth, hope, anger, validation, curiosity, or something else?" All of these emotions can be effectively used in headlines without using quotes from the radical right.
And we ask ourselves, what is being communicated on the metaphorical level that the reader is likely not even aware of? The fundamental point is one should use the words, emotions, concepts that you want people to take away from your article, and never the messages you are fighting against.
Some time ago a headline of a not-yet-published AlterNet article jumped out at me: "'Dykes, Whores or Bitches': One in Three Military Women Experience Sexual Abuse." At this point, I don't think I need to explain what is wrong with this headline (and it was written by feminists). It was changed to: "Misogyny Is Rampant in the Military: One in Three Military Women Experience Sexual Abuse." Maybe a little boring, but better that than to reinforce a collection of bad stereotypes.
In my humble opinion, there isn't nearly enough consciousness, energy or talent brought to headline-writing among progressive publications. The headline is the invitation to the story. Yet many headlines are written carelessly or slapped on as an afterthought. Or the lowest common denominator steps in and the question is: what will pull the most eyeballs? The challenge is to pull in those eyeballs by attacking the villain, or motivating anger or inspiration. One interesting exercise is for the writer or the editor to draft the headline and teaser before writing or assigning the article. Then you are aware of what you are trying to say to the reader.
One frame that bothered me back when Oprah still had her daily show was produced by Religion Dispatches, a progressive religious site: "Sacred & Profane: The 'Cult' of Oprah Inflames Religious Right." Now here is the rub—this headline has controversy and probably generated good traffic. But think about it. The headline give the right wing the power to frame Oprah as a cult. A cult? Scientology is a cult; the fundamentalist Mormons in Texas are a cult. Oprah is a highly successful TV entertainer who weaves a kind of spirituality-lite for her huge audiences.
When we think about headlines, we try to help the reader know what the story is about, while still creating some suspense, or at least curiosity. Headlines should get people riled up, and that is part of our job. But our job also is to give hope, offer vision, show we have values, and even communicate a sense of humor. And then there are the puns. Good puns can attract readers; bad puns are failed opportunities. One of the most famous New York tabloid headlines was, "Headless Man Found in Topless Bar." Such talented punsters are few and far between.
There are many ways of writing headlines that don't pander, overtly manipulate, or worst of all, use right-wing propaganda to get readers' attention. We can be provocative, and even shocking, without hanging in the gutter of conservative garbage.
Here are eight more examples of headlines I wish I never saw:
1) "Why Do We Hate the Poor?" (Kim Redigan, Common Dreams)
2) "Susan Rice: Just Another 'Incompetent' Black Woman" (Sophia A. Nelson, The Daily Beast)
3) "George Zimmerman's Brother Thinks Obama 'Tapped' His Phones" (David Edwards, Raw Story)
4) "Obama's War on July 4th: The Perfect Right-wing Scandal" (Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon)
5) "Herman Cain: A First Grader Could Run America Better Than Obama" (Andy Kroll, Mother Jones)
6) "What We've Lost Since 9/11: Taking Down the First Amendment in Post-Constitutional America" (Peter Van Buren, Tom Dispatch)
7) "The Real Enemies of Press Freedom Are in the Newsroom" (George Monbiot, The Guardian)
8) "Deserters, Traitors and Resisters: A Long Tradition of Those Who Walk Away From War" (Philip Giraldi, Huffington Post)
Here are 10 AlterNet headlines from the past couple of weeks. All these stories were well-read by at least 30,000 people, some more than 100,000.