Liberals Outraged by Labeling Bias, But Only If It Involves Fox

The latest meme among the legions of lefty Fox-haters is that FNC "distorted" or "skewed" the ObamaCare debate by instructing employees to call the "public option" the "government option" or some variation of that. The horror!

Of course none of the Fox-haters uttered a word of criticism when National Public Radio officially instructed employees to drop the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" labels in favor of "abortion rights opponent" and "abortion rights advocate," labels that clearly frame the debate favorably for the pro-choice position (who wants someone's rights denied them, after all?).

I addressed NPR's move at the time:

NPR has chosen stilted terminology that conveys pro-choicers and pro-lifers in positive and negative lights, respectively. The station could just as easily (though perhaps with less aesthetic appeal) have labeled the two groups "pro-rights of the unborn" and "anti-rights of the unborn."

But NPR apparently does not see it that way. The station's staff sees the issue -- and now frames it on air -- as a battle over women's rights, not the rights of the unborn.

"We call them pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights because it's the right to abortion that we're talking about," said CBS Senior VP Linda Mason, as quoted by Sweeney. "What does pro-life mean? That leaves people scratching their heads."

Well, it certainly leaves the folks at CBS and NPR scratching their heads -- which says a lot about their preconceived notions on the debate.

So NPR framed the issue in a way it thought was accurate, but in doing so incorporated the prejudices of NPR brass into the very structure of the abortion debate.

They did not extend the same rhetorical courtesy to advocates of other rights with any regularity - and certainly did not issue official guidelines concerning their advocates. As Cato's David Boaz noted:

In this NPR story Nina Totenberg gives both sides their say. But twice she refers to the people advocating Second Amendment rights as “gun advocates” (and once as “gun rights advocates”). That’s not the language NPR uses in other such cases. In 415 NPR stories on abortion, I found only one reference to “abortion advocates,” in 2005. There are far more references, hundreds more, to “abortion rights,” “reproductive rights,” and “women’s rights.” And certainly abortion-rights advocates would insist that they are not “abortion advocates,” they are advocates for the right of women to choose whether or not to have an abortion. NPR grants them the respect of characterizing them the way they prefer.

Similarly, NPR has never used the phrase “pornography advocates,” though it has run a number of stories on the First Amendment and how it applies to pornography. The lawyers who fight restrictions on pornography are First Amendment advocates, not pornography advocates.

So Fox's critics are now in the awkward position of having to admit that if Fox is nothing but a partisan shill, than (by the labeling logic) NPR is no better.

And in fact NPR is far from the only outlet to incorporate a labeling bias into its reporting on the abortion issue. The AP and UPI style books both recommend that reporters use the term "abortion rights." But the very notion that there is a "right" to have an abortion skews the issue towards the pro-choice side of the debate.

AP's recommended labels do make the issue a bit less obscure - neither side of the debate is "anti-life" or "anti-choice" (despite the claims of many, many individuals on the pro-choice side of that debate [Update: a reader points out that it's only fair to note the plethora of pro-lifers who do the same thing]). But they undoubtedly skew the issue towards the liberal position.

Likewise, while Fox's replacement of the "public option" label with "government option" made the proposal sound less appealing, it also presented the issue more accurately and in far less vague (arguably propagandistic) terminology. But don't take Fox's word for it. Even Time Magazine's health care reporter Kate Pickert defended Fox's decision:

Most Americans did not understand what the “public option” was. The term, in fact, seemed almost intentionally non-descriptive. Scores of journalists asked me during the health care debate to explain to them what the public option was – and these were folks interested in the news and paying attention to the issue…

Given all of this, was it really useful for readers and viewers for reporters to use the term “public option,” which leaves out two very important words – "insurance" and "government"? I think no. In my own reporting, I sometimes just used the term “public option.” One other occasions, I made an effort to add descriptors and qualifiers or say “public plan.”…

There's nothing wrong with saying “government-run plan.” That's what the public option would have been.

*****UPDATE: Slate's Jack Shaefer comes to Fox's defense as well, and echoes some of the same points made here regarding abortion terminology. The piece's sub-heading reads: "If using the phrase government option is spinning the news, so is using public option." Shafer concludes thusly:

That the Washington managing editor of Fox News disagrees with the journalistic pack on how to cover a story is no crime against journalism. Hell, he should be celebrated as a minor hero and given a balsa-wood and tin plaque to commemorate his independence.

There are reasons to hate Fox News. This isn't one of them.

Abortion Labeling Double Standards NPR Fox News Channel

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