Codewords are much easier to find than Waldo

Codewords are much easier to find than Waldo April 7, 2014

Before dissecting this MSNBC story, let’s pause for a round of Spot the Codewords.

Start at the top left of the screenshot above. There’s “equality,” an oft-cited banner of gay rights and same-sex marriage, as common as the familiar striped gay pride flag.

Now, the headline: “Anti-gay activists.” Who wants to be anti- anything? The subtext is: “These are people you don’t like.”

Next, we have those scare quotes, which can lend a sarcastic taint even to a neutral phrase like “religious freedom.”

Then there’s the lede, saying that Mississippi “quietly” passed its religious freedom law — “quietly” meaning, of course, sneaky, surreptitiously.

Also in the lede: “gay and lesbian rights activists.” If they’re in favor of rights, what about their opponents? Yep: They’re against rights.

We’ve just begun reading and already the sides have been graded.

Pro-gay folks embrace the time-honored American value of equality. Their opponents are against not actions or situations, but people. They’re feigning concern for religious freedom, just to hone one more weapon against their victims. And they’ve pulled it off under the public’s noses.

Now that you’re sufficiently conditioned, you may miss the many signs of slanted reporting thereafter. Like where? Like in the very first paragraphs:

Mississippi quietly passed its “religious freedom” law Tuesday, prompting alarm from gay and lesbian rights activists who say it could be used to justify discrimination in the name of religion.

The Mississippi version is narrowed from the religious freedom proposals championed by religious conservatives across the country, and now largely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“While this is an improvement upon the language that the legislature previously contemplated, it still falls short,” said Eunice Rho of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU had pushed for specific language that would prevent the bill from being used to protect discrimination in the name of religion.

“The language still exposes virtually every branch, office, and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend,” Rho said.

OK, scalpel time. Aside from the gaming of terms, the lede immediately casts the new law as cause for alarm from the good guys. The second paragraph identifies their foes, i.e. the bad guys: religious conservatives.

MSNBC acknowledges that the new Mississippi law closely resembles the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but then musters an ACLU type to throw stones at it. She even raises the specter of litigation … and … more expense to taxpayers! As if other laws, state or national, are never challenged in court.

RFRA was, in fact, passed on the federal level two decades ago to shield individual rights from excess governmental interference. And it was endorsed by both parties and signed into law by President Clinton, as well as a broad religious and civil coalition. MSNBC doesn’t mention that in this article, but it did in another recent piece — which deals with doubts by the original sponsors over how the law is applied nowadays.

The article says that the Mississippi version adds new language to allow business owners to use religious beliefs as a shield from being sued. It also notes that all such efforts have failed in other states, famously in the governor’s recent veto in Arizona. MSNBC sounds almost frustrated: How on earth did the new Mississippi law get past all the “right” people?

MSNBC dutifully (grudgingly?) gives three paragraphs to the opposition, but it sets them up as “religious right activists.” It quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who actually gives two examples of the need for legal protection: “someone like Pastor Telsa DeBerry who was hindered by the Holly Springs city government from building a new church in the downtown area, or a wedding vendor, whose orthodox Christian faith will not allow her to affirm same-sex ‘marriage.’ ”

You can guess which of those two examples MSNBC focuses on. Especially when it follows those paragraphs with two others on legal groups that oppose the new state law. An interesting twist, that: People who favor the law are opponents of gay rights, but people who oppose the law are not viewed as opponents of religious rights.

That kind of word twisting is not new, as tmatt argued extensively in February. His reading of news indicates that someone who is strong on free speech, freedom of association and religious liberty — the backbone of the First Amendment, you may recall — is now branded a “conservative.” And you already know what MSNBC thinks of conservatives.

Much of this controversy is, in fact, about gays and what they can and want to do. As we read in MSNBC, and just about every article on the topic, gays in several states have tried to obtain services like photography and wedding cakes. They’ve sued and denounced people who didn’t want to comply. And they and their allies have fought several efforts to pass religious rights laws akin to RFRA.

But that’s not the only issue here. It’s also about the individual rights of people whose beliefs don’t include homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and who expect the government not to force them to violate those beliefs.

You can make a case either way, which of course is the definition of a controversy. But there is one place where neither case should be privileged over the other: in mainstream media like MSNBC. And the Washington Post. And the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

The bottom line: When journalists try to shade and prod and redefine, they desert their stated journalistic goal of informing us and imparting understanding.

They may think of themselves as heroes and crusaders for the good. But they’re really showing something like contempt — assuming we can’t read the news and make up our own minds. When you dissect and label their methods, the picture isn’t pretty.

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4 responses to “Codewords are much easier to find than Waldo”

  1. Without getting into the specifics of this particular matter, the MSNBC story shows once again the problems that journalists create for themselves when they use scare quotes. Imagine the following headlines or story leads:
    Legal scholars comment on the 50th anniversary of the “civil rights” act.
    Supreme Court to rule on extension of “voting rights” act.
    Lawmakers debate “abortion rights” bill.

  2. This is an old tactic. It’s the NPR standard of calling the pro-life side “opponents of abortion rights” and the pro-abortion side “pro-choice.” Abortion is an ugly word, but guess which side gets stuck with it (NPR would never, ever say “pro-abortion.”) Pro-life gets the ugly word stuck to it, they get labeled “opponents of rights.” Pro-abortion gets to be called “pro-choice,” because “choice” is a positive, happy word, and “opponents of children’s right-to-life” is definitely not on the table.

  3. When did it become a goal of the ACLU to protect the government from litigation? I thought the whole reason to exist of the ACLU was to litigate the government, because civil liberties exist more as we have less government power.

  4. The ACLU was among the supporters of the RFRA, but that was before they had fully sold out, and when they thought that the people protected would be more those who want to use drugs in the name of religion, than those who want to not take pictures in ways that force them to violate their religion. Of course, we have yet to figure out when the ACLA abandoned the belief in freedom of speech, but we are waiting for any journalist who interviews them to ask them that question.