Monday, May 07, 2007

More Proof of Media Bias: The Terrible Scourge of "Leftism"

It has been nearly impossible to surf the web in the wake of Sarkozy's recent victory in the French elections without coming across one of the most overlooked framing atrocities in all of politics: the use of the inherently negative word "leftist" to describe progressives and liberals here around the world and here in the United States.

This condescendingly destructive word is used with reckless abandon in the U.S. and international press with nary a peep from our side nor usage of its equivalent to describe the other side. Moreover, the word is used to conflate violent anarchists and protesters like those who rioted in the wake of the French election, with more mainstream progressives like those at Daily Kos.

Now, before you turn away and say "no big deal", consider the following: while framing is certainly not enough to win a debate on its own merits, consistent and pervasive use of negative words and constructs can take a draining toll on one's ability to fight one's ideoligical opponents. Indeed, when one is confronted with a framing issue that is transparently one-sided, it behooves the activist to take steps to correct those usages and constructs in one's own discourse, and hopefully from there in that of the traditional media.

And this issue is very one-sided. If we examine the comparative instances of the words "leftist" vs. "rightist" in a Google search we come across the following:

Leftist: 7,340,000
Rightist: 991,000

That's a ratio of 7.5:1. Now, why does this matter? It matters because almost ANY word ending in -ism or -ist connotes doctrinaire, ideologically driven extremism lacking in the virtues of pragmatism, open-mindedness or tolerance. If you doubt it, consider a handy list of -isms at Wikipedia: they include such niceties as communism, socialism, imperalism, zionism, authoritarianism, fascism, darwinism, creationism, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and many more. Regardless of your agreement with and openness to the idea in question, the mere attachment of the suffix "ism" or "ist" to the word makes it inherently uncomfortable. Indeed, anyone with serious background in framing, social linguistics and/or rhetoric understands this as a matter of course.

Let's take a few examples:
1. All it takes is a simple "ism/ist" to turn a religion like Islam into a violent extremist (get that word "extremist"?) movement like "Islamism".

2. Say the word "capitalist" out loud. Now say the words "free market". Which one gave you a happier, sunnier feeling? Now say the words "socialist" and "common good". See what I mean?

3. Try the words "progressivism" or "liberalism". Those being honest with themselves will admit that these words sound negative--even if they are progressives and liberals.

In fact, all you need do is read Dan McLaughlin at whine about the use of the word "rightist" to describe Nicolas Sarkozy to see that the other side certainly understands the importance of these kinds of usages.

Let us return now to that 7.5:1 ratio of "leftism" to "rightism". But first, it is important to note that dictionary entries for leftism and for rightism reflect the fact that "leftism" is no more extreme a reference than is "rightism", nor is "leftism" more relevant on the world stage than "rightism" in today's corporate-centric world. Nevertheless, if we examine some simple searches on traditional media news sites, we see the following astounding numbers:

Associated Press search:
Leftist: 8,720
Rightist: 2

That's right. Just TWO uses of the word "rightist", while word "leftist" is used to denote everyone from anti-nuclear activists in India to violent Colombian drug-trafficking rebels to Canadian environmentalists to Venezuelan populist dictators to mainstream French Socialists to Cuban communists to mainstream Progressives in Mexico to immigration activists in Turkey.

And that's not all. Other "traditional" media also egregiously oversample the word "leftist". Consider these:

Reuters search:
Leftist: 926
Rightist: 121

RATIO: 7.6:1

CNN search:
Leftist: 1,358
Rightist: 267

RATIO: 5.1:1

ABC News search:
Leftist: 153 pages
Rightist: 7 pages

RATIO: 21.9:1

CNN search:
Leftist: 1,358
Rightist: 267

Then, of course, there's the Fox, the gold standard of right wing propaganda:

Fox News search:
Leftist: 1,090
Rightist: 29

RATIO: 37.6:1

The most even usage of the two words comes from the New York Times, a search of whose pages still reflects a hefty slant:

New York Times:
Leftist: 9,886
Rightist: 2983

RATIO: 3.3:1

What this means is that in a huge number of news articles, we are forced to believe that there is a debate in any given area between "leftists" and "conservatives"--with the conservatives getting a head start on semantics alone. Imagine if that debate were instead between "Progressives" and "Rightists"--how many more minds might be change just on the basis of altering two words alone?

It is time to bring balance back to the traditional media in this area as well with a few simple steps:

1. Eschew the use of the word "leftist" in your vocabulary, if you haven't already.

2. Use the word "Rightist" as often as you can to refer to conservative doctrinaire positions.

3. Write emails and letters to your newspapers, cable channels, and internet news outlets in protest whenever you see the word "leftist" without equivalent use of the word "rightist" to denote their opponents.

It's about time we Progressives fought back against the Rightist Press on semantics as well as their actual biased coverage of events.

By the way, clammyc and I will be spending about 25 minutes discussing this and other issues related to leftism and rightism on our radio show at our Political Nexus radio blog 3pm PST today, Monday May 7th. The recorded show won't be on the site for a few hours, but you can listen live here.

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