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April 11, 2009

New York Times Front-Page Celebrates the Absolute Moral Political Authority of Our Troops in Iraq

Bumped, as it was the most interesting thing I wrote this week month.

The picture, and the headline:

In Unexpected Visit, Obama Wins Cheers of Troops

There are quite a few reasons to knock this as bias. The New York Times never seemed to think it was worthy of prominent announcement that The Demon Bush was warmly received by troops being the most obvious.

Another obvious bit of bias is the claim that Obama "won" the cheers of troops. Did he? In what manner? By what action? It seems more likely that Obama didn't "win" anything from the troops, rather that the troops had, as patriotic Americans and sworn defenders of the Constitution, given the commander in chief the reception they extended to all of their superiors.

There's a last bit of bias here that I always notice in the news, but never mention because it takes a little bit to explain, and I'm not sure how much actual impact it has.

The bias I mean is the bias of perspective. The novelistic technique of making one "character" (in this context) the active character, making decisions that advance the "plot," with whom the audience is "with" and through whose eyes the audience sees the world. And making the rest of the world, whether fictional or real, either objects of the hero's action, or opponents for him to contest against. The press has a strong tendency to frame political stories from the vantage point of the heroes of their stories, who are, almost inevitably, Democrats.

Perspective is a powerful device. Objectively loathsome characters like Humbert Humbert in Lolita become at least partially sympathetic because the reader is forced to identify with them simply by being "with" them as they handle any challenge and make any decision. (Well, forced to, at least, assuming the continue reading the book at all.) Post-modern novels like Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince deconstruct the power of perspective -- Murdoch's book, for example, keeps the audience "with" the presumed hero for almost the entirety of the book, forcing the reader to root for him in his struggles and see his enemies as their own, before revealing, in a series of post-scripts, the perspectives of all the other characters -- which demonstrate the hero is no hero at all but rather the villain, and a pathetic one at that.

Rorshach in The Watchmen immediately becomes the graphic novel's most identified-with character, despite the fact he's a psychotic semi-midget with bad personal hygiene, because we see the mystery and explore the plot largely "with" him. He's our storyteller, through his journal and through his mental narration. Nite Owl -- a good-guy everyman who would be a much more natural and intuitive character for the readership to identify with -- never makes much impact, because we're never "with" him. We know about him, sure, but we don't know the world through his eyes. He's just a guy that our narrator and guide -- Rorshach -- happens to know.

Political stories are almost exclusively written "with" the Democrats, from the point of view of the Democrats. They are the Nouns who perform Active Verbs in the MSM's sentences; they are the heroes whose travails we are invited to sympathize with.

For example, a polling story about Democrats on top will always be headlined like this:

Democrats Reverse Conventional Thinking on Defense; Win Public Approval Over Republicans on National Security

They're the active-verb heroes in that sentence. The Republicans are the objects and the opponents.

And it's not just a case of "who's winning" getting the first-person hero treatment. If the Democrats are down in the polls, the headline will still feature them as the heroes we're with, like this:

Democrats Face National-Security Obstacle in Quest to Win Back Congress

If they're up, the novelistic technique of making them the characters we're "with" invites us to share in their triumphs. If they're down, the same technique is employed to invite us to wonder if they will ever overcome the Perils of Pauline the devious Republican villains have devised for them. Either way, we're "with" them as we read, and that subconsciously -- to an extent I cannot guess, ranging anywhere from beneath trivial to profound -- makes the public "with" them politically.

(I'm making up these headlines, by the way-- but you've seen their variations enough times, I trust.)

And thus the NYT's headline about the troops in Iraq. The headline could have made the troops the active-verb heroes...

Troops Greet Obama with Military Cheer

... but the NYT does not identify with the troops. The troops are not heroes in the NYT's narrative, making their own decisions based on their own psychologies and agendas and drives and wants. No, in the NYT's narrative, the troops are objects of the hero Obama's actions, chips for him to win in a high-stakes game of geopolitical poker. And in their headline, he wins them.

He (subject) wins (active verb) them (object of the verb).

Pretty much every political story is written like this, unless it's specifically and only about Republicans, such as a story about inter-party feuding. (And in that case, the story is written so that the moderate, centrist Republicans are the subjects active-verb fighting against the object-of-the-verb hardcore conservatives.

How much impact this has I don't know -- obviously, as Republicans, we've gotten used to rewriting the stories in our heads as we read so that we don't even notice we're doing so. We intuitively re-write a story so that instead of accepting the invitation to ponder "How will the Democrats get out of this jam?" we instead wonder "How do we force them further into this jam and keep them there?"

But even though we are capable of doing that -- at this point, without even noticing we are -- the natural, intuitive lens the stories present is through the eyes of the Democrats. And I wonder how much impact that has on a swing voters who have no strong affection for either party -- but who might very well be subconsciously pushed to the Democratic side of the aisle by this novelistic technique.

I do have to stress -- it is a potent technique, at least in literature. Few stories give you a "choice" of protagonist. The protagonist is almost always dictated to you by the author -- and if you don't like the protagonist, you can put the book down, but you can hardly choose a secondary character to be your own personal protagonist for the story.

But how much impact does it have in the real world? No idea. Given that, the media ought to be very careful they avoid this sort of point-of-view bias, but of course they won't; the fact that it's a potent shaping device which is nevertheless quite subtle and hard-to-spot makes it a win-win proposition for them.

And, on top of it, of course, they are themselves liberal Democrats, so identifying with other liberal Democrats as heroes is the most natural, intuitive way for them to write. To do otherwise would be, what's the word, extra work for them, and we know they're not about to take on any additional work.

Formally... We learn in third grade that there are three perspectives in writing: first person (subject is "I"), third person subjective (subject is "he" or "she," but we see the world through their eyes), and third person "omniscient" ("he" or "she" again, but we don't see the world through any character's eyes overall; the perspective frequently changes from one character to another).

Jay MacInerny added a fourth -- second perspective ("You"), but that is really just substituting "you" for "I," and I'm guessing he just did it on a bar bet, to prove it could be done.

In reality there is only one perspective. Very few books or movies are "third person omniscient" with no clear "viewpoint character." Such books are either too awful to be published at all -- close identification with a viewpoint character is one of the most basic techniques of making a book work -- or are experimental. Some such books work (I guess Lord of the Rings frequently shifts between the perspectives of several important characters) but they're the exceptions.

By and large all books are written, and all movies made, with a single strong central perspective.

And the distinction between "I" and "he" in books is largely formal. Chandler's Marlowe is written in true first person; Fleming's Bond is technically written in the third person -- Bond does this, Bond thinks that. But it is a trivial matter to change all of the "I's" in Marlowe to "he" and all the "he's" in Bond to "I" and thus make Marlowe third-person and Bond first-person. As a practical, functional matter, it doesn't matter if you're technically writing "I" or "he." If we're always with one character, and privy to that character's thoughts, and follow him through each of his decisions, he's our viewpoint character, and there isn't much distinction between "I" and "he."

Sure, third-person allows brief departures from the viewpoint character to be "with" other characters for a chapter -- Fleming uses this for a chapter or two to put us with his villains, so we have a better idea of what Bond is up against. But then we're back with Bond for the rest of the book.

First person shackles the writer to strictly staying with the hero throughout -- but this is easily enough to escape. Whenever a writer wants to jump out of first-person, he conveniently has the hero discover another character's journal, so that for a chapter we're with another character. (We read it with the main hero, but still, for that chapter we're with the other character.)

Most books are mostly first-person. Some are just formally first-person ("I") while others are constructively first-person ("he," but could just as easily be "I.")

I tried to avoid the first-person/third-person subjective thing in the main post because it's a sideshow. The media doesn't have to formally headline an article We Democrats are Behind in the Polls for the reader to understand that we're with the Democrats. The "we" is strongly implied.

Though it is amusing on occasion when a reporter slips up and asks how we can overcome, say, Obama's growing reputation for gaffes. In that instance, the implied "we" has simply become explicit for a moment.

Tommy V mentions something that I had wanted to mention -- even though critics, say, give props to Nabokov for somehow managing to get us to identify with the narcissistic pedophile Humbert Humbert, in fact it's not that difficult a trick -- perspective itself does most of the work. Assuming that a writer can keep the book interesting enough (which is a trick, obviously) then perspective will naturally force the reader to identify with murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. It's just that potent a device. Clarification: In case anyone thinks I just demeaned Nabokov, I didn't intend to-- I just meant the difficult thing for Nabokov was writing well, which he did. The easy thing was getting people to identify with Humbert Humbert -- easy, because if he's doing the hard thing (writing well), getting the reader to identify with the viewpoint character is easy.

For example, as Tommy writes...

As a professional screenwriter I can tell you that part of the fun of writing a story is trying to figure out how to get the audience rooting for who you want them to root for. Sometimes it's easy, and sometimes you deliberately find a loathsome character to see if you CAN get the audience to root for them. And it's never very hard. It usually requires the audience to actively step back and say, "wait a minute - I don't like this guy."

If they don't ACTIVELY step back to do that, you can pretty much get them to root for anybody.

One of my favorite examples of this is in PSYCHO when Norman is trying to hide the body of Janet Leigh in the swamp and for a moment it looks like the car isn't going to sink...

Here you are, watching a man cover up his mother's mindless murder, and your heart sinks with him for a moment because he MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO COVER IT UP.

That happens all the time. Woody Allen's Match Point had the viewer actively rooting for the murderer to get away with it, and worrying that he wouldn't, when in fact we really should have been worrying that the cops would fail to catch him. But simply by being "with" the murderer -- and not with the cops -- we are forced (or, let us say, strongly encouraged) to adopt his challenges as our own, so we wind up rooting for awful things.

Again, I have no idea how effective this potent device is when it leaves the novel and enters journalism. As it's so effective in novels, I have to assume it retains some of its power when used outside a novel.

Important Update: Avoiding First-Person When You Want To. MamaAJ points out...

As bad as this is here on political matters, what was truly horrific was the "Israelis kill" headlines vs. the "Bombs kill Israelis" headlines. See, the Israelis were actively killing people (110 % of them innocents, BTW), while bombs dropped on them, mysteriously and without any actual people responsible.

Exactly. And avoided for the same reason. In the case of a villainous act one can't get the reader to accept through perspective, change the subject.

Who's the villain when Israelis kill Hezballah or Hamas? Israelis.

Who's the villain when Hamas or Hezballah bombs kill Israelis? Bombs.

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posted by Ace at 03:41 PM

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