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February 5, 2005

Token Balance


How the NYT News Department Persuades Readers to Identify with Prowar, Pro-Bush Military Families

by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

"In all fairness, the NYT apparently allows its columnists freedom in choosing their material, including Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert, and Frank Rich. But remember, it's the front page headlines and stories that have an impact in Washington, D.C." ~Buzzflash

Most Americans sympathize with parents who've lost their children, especially when those losses are said to be in the service of one's country. So when parents start to speak out against the war that killed their child, doubts can spread rapidly throughout the community. If military families' antiwar views are granted visibility and legitimacy in the mainstream media rather than diminished and tucked away at the tail end of news stories, public opinion could easily turn against Mr. Bush's mission to install democracy around the world, whatever the cost.

As noted in a previous article, news departments help to prevent this from happening by spinning "Us vs. Them" stories to provide positive PR for pro-Bush, prowar military families, making anti-Bush, antiwar families appear weak, confused, "troubled" or misguided through the strategic use of token balance.

Using this New York Times article as a reference, let's take a closer look. In this story, it appears on the surface that both sides are being given equal billing, but the prowar parents come out on top in every way: they're allotted more space, more direct quotes, and more positive descriptors than the antiwar parents.

Positive activities listed: many for prowar, none for antiwar families

The first thing that caught my eye was the name Cindy Sheehan, which I recognized immediately. She's been writing passionately against the war in a number of publications since her son was killed in Iraq. What struck me as very odd was the complete absence of any reference to her antiwar views on which she could have spoken eloquently had she been quoted regarding them – but she was not.

Ms. Sheehan subsequently wrote a letter to the Times regarding the omission of emphasis on positive activities by antiwar parents, as was done for prowar parents. Tellingly, the Times chose not to publish her letter, which begins:

"Dear NY Times Editor, I wish the article could have mentioned some of the positive things we families of Fallen Heroes who oppose the war are doing. We do all we do to bring our brave troops home before any more are killed and before any other families have to go through what we are going through..."

Ms. Sheehan corrects the impression created by this article that only prowar parents are proud of their children (and vice versa, were the children able to say so) when she adds: "We are all so proud of our children. I know Casey is proud of the work I do to end this war and to bring his buddies home."

Readers don't learn from this "balanced" article that it's not only prowar parents who do positive things (e.g., public speaking and baking cookies). The article omits any mention of the positive things that antiwar parents are doing (e.g., trying to prevent more soldiers from being killed, and more families from suffering grief).

More direct quotes for prowar, pro-Bush family members

In the story's first comparison of parents, the antiwar parent, Ms. Walker, is never quoted directly, and is granted only 65 words. In contrast, Mr. Carman, the prowar parent, is awarded twice as much space (137 words) is quoted directly.

What about Ms. Walker? Did she have nothing to say directly? Did she really have so few words to share?

The next comparison was between an antiwar parent, Ms. Hilsendager, who was given only 234 words, and two prowar parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kesterson, who are allotted 353 words, not counting another 186 words describing a member of the Kestersons' "extended family" (the slain soldier's biological mother) who's negatively described as "troubled" by the war.

Ms. Hilsendager is granted several direct quotes, but the few statements chosen for inclusion in the story fit well with the rightwing stereotype of the "Bush-hater" who thinks with her emotions, not her reason: "And we talk about how mad we are about Bush…" Why was this quote selected for inclusion in the story? Here's a woman in mourning but readers are left with the idea that she's really just "mad," When you're "mad," you're not able to see reality, or so the popular assumption goes. You just need time to calm down. Subtle, very subtle.

Prowar quotations feature Bush administration phrases and slogans

While news stories aren't allowed to promote governmental doctrines, there's nothing that says the interviewees can't do so. In the military family article, a prowar parent repeats verbatim several phrases used repeatedly by George Bush, faith-based email campaigns urging millions of Christians to pray for (i.e., support) him and his military adventures, and by his favorite military men:

"'"Freedom isn't free" means that our country was founded on heroes like ours. We'd love to turn back the clock, but you can't have it both ways. It's why Erik put on the uniform. He was totally willing to take the risk. Our son would be disappointed if we didn't honor the decision of President Bush,' she said. 'Out of respect for Erik, we can't possibly think otherwise. It would be dishonoring him.'"

Prowar family members are described in more positive terms

It's natural to migrate away from people who are grief-stricken, angry and upset. We tend to identify more readily with calm, happy, upbeat people. Note the numerous, extremely positive descriptions used in the longer story of the prowar couple:

– "They have been to some 20 funerals. They even camped in a tent on the lawn of one family in Klamath Falls who had just lost a son."

– "'We understand and we want to let the other families know that we're in support. Every single soldier with a uniform on was doing something for his country.'"

– "The Kestersons said they had thrown their grief into efforts to raise money for a memorial…"

– "They spend nearly every weekend now speaking to veterans' groups and seeking contributions."

– "Last week, as part of an effort they dubbed Operation Cookie Drop, they carried cookies to soldiers…"

As mentioned above, the story omits mention of the many outreach activities that antiwar parents like Ms. Sheehan are busy doing. It would appear that antiwar military family members do nothing to help others or their country, perhaps just "crawling under a rock," to use one prowar parent's phrase.

Readers learn that pro-Bush, prowar family members are warm, sociable beings who "gravitate toward" one another and "don't talk about politics." Though it's startlingly illogical, the story suggests in many ways that expressing pro-Bush and prowar views isn't "talking politics," whereas expressing anti-Bush, antiwar views is.

Readers learn that pro-Bush, prowar military family members don't "bring politics into" conversations about their slain loved one (i.e., don't express antiwar or anti-Bush views), talking instead about pride, sacrifice, and loneliness:

"Relatives who believe the war in Iraq was necessary tend to gravitate toward one another, talking little of politics and more of pride, sacrifice and loneliness. And those like Ms. Sheehan, who questioned the need to invade Iraq, find one another too, wrestling with their doubts about the war and the meaning of their losses." (emphasis added)

We are given to understand that antiwar parents don't gravitate towards others or talk about patriotic or family issues. The paragraph concedes that they "find one another, too," but this doesn't sound nearly as warm or friendly as "gravitating towards others,"

While the outreach activities of the prowar parents sound appealing, charitable and supportive – which no doubt they are – what receives no comment from the writer is the level of grief and sensitivity shared by the antiwar parents:

"Dolores Kesterson said she had grown close to two other mothers who are as troubled by the war as she is. She exchanges e-mail and talks with them on the phone, she said, but she cannot bring herself to go to all the soldiers' funerals, as some people do. It would be too crushing, she said." (emphasis added)

The story doesn't describe antiwar parents as strong, perceptive, patriotic or rational in their opposition to Bush or his policies; nowhere are they noted to be firmly opposed to Bush's wars on personal, ethical or religious grounds. Instead, we learn that they're "wrestling" with "doubts," and "meaning" – clearly a confused, negative, troubled group.

Theme 1: Antiwar military families are objects of pity

Contrast this tentative, "troubled" stance with the firm convictions of prowar parents:

"And this summer, one mother, Nancy Walker of Lancaster, Calif., said she found herself awkwardly starting to describe why she believed the war was wrong at her first dinner meeting with a couple in Iowa, whose marine son had died the same day as her own and whom she had driven many miles to see. Clearly, she said, the couple did not agree with her.

"'I think what I told her was, "Let's not go there with the politics,"' said Nelson Carman, the father…who met with Ms. Walker that day. 'I do believe firmly in this war. Those terrorists are going to bring the war to us. They hate you. They hate me. They hate our life. They hate what we stand for. To bring politics into our son's sacrifice is just something that is not conceivable to me,' Mr. Carman said, adding that he felt a special sorrow for those families who felt as Ms. Walker did…."

The theme of feeling "sorrow" or "compassion" (pity) for antiwar family members is repeated by Erik Kesterson's stepmother:

"Ms. Kesterson said she felt compassion for those who did not agree with the war and said she thought their struggle must be even harder. "It is a relief that we not only understood the mission but that we understood the uniform," she said." (emphasis added)

The prowar family story, oddly enough, describes the dead soldier's biological mother as merely part of the "extended family." This error (intentional or accidental?) caused me to assume that Dolores Kesterson was the young man's aunt or some other distant relation whose opinion most people would give less weight to than that of the soldier's parents.

"But even within the Kestersons' extended family, there are divisions. Dolores Kesterson, Erik's mother and Mr. Kesterson's former wife, who lives in Santa Clara, Calif., said she was plagued by her doubts about the war and what it meant about her only child's death. 'I feel it was a waste, like Vietnam,' she said. 'All these deaths are as big a waste as Vietnam.'" (emphasis added)

This "extended family" member, the soldier's mother, is quoted with fewer direct quotes:

"In a way, she said, she wishes someone who lives in Iraq could change her mind for her. 'Can't I see the light or something and look at it differently?' she said on a recent afternoon. 'I wish I could. But then I watch and it gets worse over there.'" (emphasis added)

It's fair to wonder if this antiwar mother said anything stronger during the interview. One thing's for sure: This quote reinforces the portrayal of antiwar relatives as troubled, plagued, wishing, hoping for enlightenment, and groping for answers.

Theme 2: Antiwar military families are dishonoring and disrespectful

A second major theme emerges through the selection of quotations that echo the notion that antiwar sentiments dishonor soldiers who've died in Bush's wars. As in all honor-based tribal societies, issues of respect/honor override all other considerations: questioning or disagreeing is reframed as disrespecting/dishonoring:

"'Our son would be disappointed if we didn't honor the decision of President Bush,' she said. 'Out of respect for Erik, we can't possibly think otherwise. It would be dishonoring him.'"

Note the opposites and what they imply: not having doubts and not having to wrestle to find meaning suggest (in Bushian culture) strong character and strong religious faith. Disagreeing with George Bush's decisions – even those that kill one's child – is "dishonoring"; the slain child would be "disappointed" if his family disagreed with or resented Mr. Bush's decision.

It is "impossible to think otherwise": to disagree with the president is to disrespect and dishonor the child whose life was cut short by the former's decision. What kind of person would do such a thing? People who do things like disrespect and dishonor. The slam is subtle, and it may be unintentional. But it's there, and it works.


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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