By Adam Johnson
After a cop was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife, CBS Miami’s headline was “Miami-Dade Police Officer Arrested After Wife Ends Up in Hospital”—suggesting that the arrest and the hospital visit might be entirely unrelated. An officer was arrested and, on a totally separate note, his wife “ended up” in a hospital.
The article’s text was somehow worse, with one passage in particular tied up in knots:
Once back in the car with Bradley, his wife confronted him about the video which led to a violent argument.
The argument turned physical, according to the report, and Officer Bradley’s wife received serious injuries to her face area.
These two sentences are almost a parody of how to bend words in the service of power. Note how Bradley’s wife (the victim) is to blame for “confront[ing] him,” which “led to a violent argument,” apparently by no one’s volition. Indeed, it was “the argument” that “turned physical”—not Bradley, who, despite having been arrested, is never described doing anything, much less anything violent.
Instead, Bradley’s wife “received serious injuries,” as one receives guests while hosting a party. Who inflicted those injuries on her “face area” is never stated.
Contrast this with a headline from the same outlet a few weeks earlier, over a story by the same reporter, that clearly assigned blame and causality: “Men Posing as Police Bust Into NW Miami-Dade Home & Rob Family at Gunpoint” (2/17/17). That makes a lot more sense than “Men Wanted After Family Ends Up With Items Stolen.”
The use of vague or passive voice framing to muddy the waters on police guilt is used most commonly, as FAIR (7/11/16) has pointed out before, in the bizarre phrase “officer-involved shooting,” employed by beat reporters everywhere.
“Scene of the #Flagstaff officer involved shooting — no officers hurt and suspect is dead,” CBS Flagstaff’s Charly Edsitty tweeted. A terribly inefficient way of saying “police shot and killed someone,” a statement that is value-agnostic as to whether or not the shooting was justified, while still clearly stating who did what to whom.
Houston CBS affiliate KHOU (7/9/16) would do one better with the confounding headline, “Man Killed After Officer-Involved Shooting in SE Houston.” The man in question was not killed “after” the shooting, he was killed by the shooting. Nor was the shooting simply “officer-involved”; it was done by an officer. A simple edit job reveals how much work goes into these sentences to obscure who the active party is:
The habit is common in reporting on the US military as well. The New York Times, as FAIR (10/5/15) noted at the time, headlined a story about the Pentagon bombing a hospital in Afghanistan with “US Is Blamed After Bombs Hit Afghan Hospital.” The passive voice separates the United States from the act of bombing, with bombs simply hitting in rhetorical proximity to blame being leveled. Imagine, if you will, the headline “Al-Qaeda Is Blamed After Planes Hit Twin Towers”
“US-Led Coalition Confirms Strikes Hit Mosul Site Where Civilians Died” read another New York Times headline. The United States didn’t kill civilians; it led a coalition that confirmed that strikes hit a site where civilians happened to have died, possibly in an unrelated manner.
Listing two events in succession while glossing over how they are connected is a frequent rhetorical sleight-of hand, insulating wrongdoers from the consequences of their actions. An account in the Washington Post (3/17/17) of Sally Hemings, who was held as a slave by Thomas Jefferson, contained this curious passage:
When Hemings was 14, she was assigned to accompany Thomas Jefferson’s youngest daughter, Maria, to France, where Jefferson was serving as American envoy. According to Hemings’ son Madison Hemings, at 16, Sally was pregnant with Jefferson’s child, a son who didn’t live long.
Hemings, a 14-year-old child, was “accompanying Jefferson,” then magically got “pregnant with Jefferson’s child.” How we got from A to B is never spelled out, probably because acknowledging that a famous president had raped a child would make a large number of Post readers uncomfortable.
Muddied or needlessly complex writing is often a red flag that a writer wants to describe an event without assigning guilt or provoking a negative response. Its frequent use in describing the misdeeds of police, the US military and revered national figures provides just one more example of how writers–even if subconsciously–internalize the public relations concerns of those in power.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.Click here for reuse options!
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