Speeches, especially political speeches, are useful roadmaps to examine media distortion. There can be stark contrasts in how news outlets report on a given speech, especially by what’s emphasized, dramatized or omitted.
Three of the four outlets analyzed by The Knife emphasized a particular part of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech to high schoolers, while the fourth omitted it altogether. Here are the particulars: A video of the speech shows the crowd chanting “Lock her up!” in an apparent reference to Hillary Clinton. Sessions repeated the phrase once, then laughed and said, “I heard that a long time over the last campaign.” That’s pretty straightforward, but the media largely didn’t report it that way. Consider these headlines:
Sessions laughs at Lock Her Up chant at DC speech (The Associated Press)
Jeff Sessions Laughs and Echoes ‘Lock Her Up’ Chant With Conservative High Schoolers (The New York Times)
Attorney General Sessions joins ‘Lock her up!’ chant in front of high school students (Politico)
AP’s article was the most factual, earning a Knife integrity rating of 77 percent. Its headline still emphasized that part of the speech, but presented it in an objective way. The Times’ headline starts to bring subjectivity with “echoes,” which implies a type of agreement with what’s being said (it’s possible he did agree with it, but he didn’t state it). Finally, Politico’s interprets the comments as “joining” the chant. A more data-based headline might be, “AG Jeff Sessions repeats audience’s ‘lock her up’ phrase.”
By contrast, Fox News’ article didn’t mention that part of the speech at all. (The outlet later published an article about the media’s distortion of it, as did Breitbart, which called the distortion “fake news.”) While a more objective outlet might not prioritize the chant in its headline or lead paragraphs, it also wouldn’t omit it either. Here’s why.
The elephant in the room
It’s important to acknowledge that we don’t know (and neither does the media) what Sessions meant when he repeated the phrase and laughed at it. He didn’t explain his reasoning afterwards, and the Department of Justice didn’t respond to questions about it. That said, there is the question of whether Sessions, through his comments, politicized the office of the attorney general. The New York Times was the only outlet that explicitly made the following point:
Law enforcement officials are expected to maintain political objectivity with regard to issues that could be investigated by agencies under their purview.
Part of the Department of Justice’s stated mission is “to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” As head of that department, the U.S. Attorney General is charged with that responsibility. Speculation aside, Sessions has made statements regarding impartiality. During his nomination hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said:
You know that I revere the Constitution, that I’m committed to the rule of law. And you know that I believe in fairness, impartiality and equal justice under law … The Justice Department must remain ever faithful to the Constitution’s promise that our government is one of laws and not of men. It will be my unyielding commitment to you, if confirmed, to see that the laws are enforced faithfully, effectively and impartially.
Again, even without knowing Sessions’ intent with that particular part of his speech, it’s still useful to inform readers of his conduct while he holds the role of attorney general, so they may evaluate it for themselves.
What else did he say?
The four outlets reported on Sessions’ criticism of certain practices in universities, which he claims “coddle” students and create a “generation of sanctimonious, sensitive supercilious snowflakes.” Criticism may be better received if they’re delivered with neutral, objective language. Readers can ask that of their public servants, especially if they’ve committed to remaining impartial, and they can also ask it of the media. Consider how these articles described Sessions and his criticisms.
Fox wrote that Sessions “rip[ped]” campus culture, “delivered a blistering attack” and “rail[ed]” against the suppression of free speech. The Times said Sessions “tore into” American universities and “mocked” certain college events. Politico described Sessions’ comment as “remarkable” and an “aggressive gesture” against “political foes.” And AP described Sessions’ criticisms as a “lament.”
The spin noted above interprets what Sessions said, or frames it in subjective, emotional ways. A simpler, more objective approach would have been to just report what he said, without embellishment or interpretation.
Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media