Monday, December 10, 2012

Plain Politics

John Harwood recently penned a short article for the "Political Memo" section of the New York Times online titled "Unseen, but Looming Over the Race" in which he discusses the role former President George W. Bush plays in the current presidential election. His article appears to be accessible to anyone with a middle school education, but it does not avoid bias that its prospective readers may not be able to critically regard.

From the basic readability statistics, the article seems to fit the standards of the plain style. The Flesch-Kincaid reading ease is calculated at 61.2, meaning the text should be easily understood by thirteen to fifteen year olds, and the average grade level comes out to be 8.6. The article contains shorter sentences (about eleven words a sentence) and shorter words. These elements of the article are also attributed to the plain style. The article uses mainly active verbs, another characteristic of the plain style. The first sentences read, "[h]e does not speak on the stump or appear in television ads. Campaign audiences rarely hear his name. But... no one has shaped the 2012 election more than George W. Bush." The rest of the article follows in the same style, changing verb tense when including "said" quotes and events that have already occurred. These plain style elements insures that the article can be read by virtually anyone who has attended a junior high school, but the article still employs devices that mask its bias without 

The basic idea of the article is that Bush has been neglected in both campaigns of the Democratic and Republican candidates. But the article hints at a bias that is not quickly realized. The New York Times, a household name since its first issue in 1851, [], has been charged with “a strong liberal bias” by the University of California, Los Angeles during a study conducted in 2004. But this article tends to go against this idea in some of its elements as it appears to defend Republican efforts while reporting Democratic actions poorly.

The article once wrote: “[Karl Rove] left it to Democrats to assess his former boss’s impact, and they were more willing to take the bait.” Bait being the enticement of interview questions about Bush’s influence in the election. But less than ten days later, the article was modified to read that Democrats “were more willing to speak.” The modification was made out of concern that the article seemed too right-winged, especially as The NY Times has faced difficulty exhibiting a neutrality recently (in August, a former reporter for the Times claimed that the paper favors liberal stories to conservative ones). It appears here that Harwood, in attempting to sound less left-winged, wrote with too much disdain for the party.

The article seems simple, but its inclusion of the titles "Mr." when naming Bush, Obama, Romney, and others whose quotes were used as support, implies that the article treats the politicians with respect while readers may need reinforcement for paying this respect. It also attempts to make all aspects of it to be accessible by hyperlinking parts that may appear unfamiliar to its prospective audience. These hyperlinks included those to "President Obama," "Mitt Romney," "George W. Bush," "presidential debate," "Republican Party," and "Tea Party Movement." The links lead to biographical and referential pages (included on the New York Times website) that can educate readers of the subjects directly and quickly. And the blue print of the hyperlinks automatically express their availability as reference guides to readers.

But the general population of the paper’s readers is that of a mature audience. Its reputation as a reputable news source and high ranking as one of the most trusted and viable papers in the world expresses its popularity, but this popularity is among those whose educations and mastery are much higher than its readability suggests. Listed on the website’s "Media Kit," the demographics of the readership of the online source of the paper’s articles are as follows:

These demographics allude to a stereotypical NY Times online reader as a college graduate woman in the middle class whose comfortable employment and leisure activities allow her to read the paper online. As the paper features articles about World news, politics, travel, business, science, and arts, these headings alone exhibits that this paper is not widely read by teenagers or young people in general. The readers for such a paper are usually classed with businessmen, politicians, the wealthy, and the educated, as depicted in the table of the “audience.” Not the eighth grader to whom it is written, although a higher reading level is allocated by the education of the readers is shown. But the paper follows the tradition of non-elitist writing that may potentially bar specific social classes from being able to read it. 

Support for the theme of the article appears to be well developed, but the only "evidence" for the idea that Bush's part in the campaigns is avoided is quotes and statement of events. The quotes, often taken out of their contexts to avoid lengthening and further complicating the text, oversimplify the opinions and views of those included. The article lacks statistical and hard evidence to support its claims while it can easily include results from polls it mentions. 

For example, the article states “majorities in polls describe the nation’s economic woes as something the incumbent inherited rather than caused,” but no sources for this statement or actual statistical evidence is provided. And seven people, advisers and pollsters to the candidates, were quoted in the article, but not all of them provide insight. “‘I have no interest in participating in this silly exercise,’ Karl Rove, a former Bush strategist who now leads Republican “super-PAC” efforts to aid Mr. Romney, said in declining to be interviewed about Mr. Bush’s influence on this election. He left it to Democrats to assess his former boss’s impact, and they were more willing to take the bait”. This quote, then, has no information of quality; it plays a role in expressing the unwillingness of a Republican to extend his views in relation to a slanderous portrayal of Democrats’ vocalized opinions. 

News articles strive to be accessible by any and all readers, but as we have seen from this instance, this goal is not always attainable. In its attempt to seem unbiased and open to new readers, the New York Times has proved to be anything but the sort as its writer slandered Democrats to avoid sounding too liberal, and it’s written far from a common community.

By Melissa Holen

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