11/05/2005 01:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Not-So-Hidden Persuaders: Or, Howard Kurtz Does an "RJ Eskow" On Me

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz quotes at length from my recent HuffPo piece on the Times' coverage of Alito and concludes that I represent a certain "kind of criticism": "This (Times puff piece) was a feature on the person," complains Kurtz. "To go through a litany of what it didn't mention, when those issues are dealt with in other stories, seems really loaded." The implication? That the Times gave a full picture of Alito, and I was selective in my use of material to make the paper look bad.

We'll assume that Kurtz never read the piece in which I suggested that 18-year-old Lindsey Lohan is already a better media critic than he is. Nevertheless, the biases, distortions, and flaws in his arguments are manifold. In the grand scheme of things, what Kurtz says about somebody like me is pretty trival. As an illustration of how our media and its defenders work, however, his comments are fairly telling. And, appealing to the irony buff in me, he employs what he considers my "kind of criticism" to make his point.

Let's get the irony out of the way first. My piece - "Win a Dream Date with Alito!" - criticizes one article for its selective use of facts. It doesn't claim to be a comprehensive review of the Times' Alito coverage. Did the Times conduct hard-hitting journalism on Alito's history elsewhere? Did it, for example, dig in and investigate the issues of his conflict of interest on the Vanguard cases he handled after agreeing to recuse himself? Did it address why his fellow judges have repeatedly criticized his decisions as "radical," "unwise," and "without precedent"? If it did, I missed it. But then, as I say, I wasn't addressing the Times coverage overall - just this piece.

And what did I say about it? First, that it only interviewed friends and admirers, and secondly that it interpreted facts in a way that was broadly generous to Alito. To illustrate my argument I reviewed the way the article addressed Alito's decision to personally try the case of a man accused of shooting an FBI agent. The Times said this was a "suprising choice" that " revealed what many say were the hallmarks of his stewardship of the office: modesty, a straightforward style, common sense and, in baseball jargon, good pitch selection."

My argument? That it could more easily be interpreted as a cynical and self-serving choice meant to advance his own career interests, and that the writer chose the interpretation that puffed Alito rather than look hard at the facts - both in this instance and elsewhere. And what Kurtz say about this? Nothing. In fact, his readers have no way of knowing that this - my central point - was ever made. He quoted the colorful "dream date" language and ignored the substance - but then, you know how it is what "that kind of criticism."

Here's how the Times piece worked as a successful piece of propaganda, and why it serves as an illustration of how the media can serve the interests of those in power:

Story selection can display bias before the first word is written.

"What do you expect from a human interest profile on Alito?" complain the Kurtzes of the world. The right question is, "Why this kind of human interest profile on Alito right now?" At the moment when Democrats - and many other Americans - are disturbed by his extremist views, nothing serves the Bush Administration's interest better than a piece that shows what a nice, humble, low-key guy he is - even if it takes some heavy spin to draw that conclusion. The timing of the piece, and its tone, couldn't be better from their point of view.

Some will say that a profile of Alito is inevitable and appropriate after his nomination, and that's true. But there was no similar piece on either Roberts or Miers - one that talked about what a moderate, easygoing, and likeable human being they were - after their nominations. Why? Could it be because there was no perceived need to reassure the public about their potential extremism in order to advance their nominations?

Here's a thought-experiment: Ask yourself what the public response would be if the Times ran a piece today on, say, Hugo Chavez - one that only quoted past employees talking about him as a wonderul leader and human being. You would probably ask yourself, "True or not, why are they running this now?" And, "How did they come to get these interview results?" That's a question that should always be asked, regardless of subject. Story selection is everything.

When writing a "human interest" story, which "humans" are of "interest"?

Story selection is all. Yes, I'd like to know more about Sam Alito's personal life. I'd also be interested in knowing about that 10-year-old girl's who was strip-searched: How old is she now? How is she recovering from the trauma? And how's that wife doing - the one who Alito thought should ask her husband's permission for an abortion?

Choice of interview subjects determines outcome.

Alito seems to have a lot of ex-employees who like him. Good for him - he seems to have been a nice boss, at least from what I read. Unfortunately he hasn't been nominated for a management position. What matters to the country is his strongly held right-wing views and his perceived tendency to legislate from the bench. The Times piece is reassuring on both counts, but chose not to interview anyone with a less-than-reassuring perspective on those issues. Nor did they interview anybody that might shed some light on how Alito (as a "personality") might have come to hold views that are so far out of the judicial mainstream, according to the written opinions of his peers.

The Times also couldn't seem to find anyone able to discuss why Alito agreed to recuse himself from any cases that involved Vanguard, with whom he had invested a considerable sum of money, then reversed himself and voted in Vanguard's favor. What did that "surprising choice" tell us about Alito the Person? What did we learn about his "modesty," his "self-effacing" ways, and his "common sense"?

Style equals substance.

Successful media persuasion involves the science of communication in all its dimensions. An effervescent, adjective-heavy tone like the one I made fun of in the "dream date" piece sends non-verbal signals of reassurance. "Alito's not so bad," it whispers in your ear. "Feel comfortable. Relax. You'll be fine, just like these employees." Afraid to have an extremist in the "swing seat" on the Supreme Court? The New York Times is here to reassure you.

Other stylistic factors can be used to communicate these subliminal messages - page placement, photos, the grouping together of articles on "disturbing" or "reassuring" subjects to evoke a common response. It's a fascinating topic, one that requires sophisticated study.

Am I saying that Karl Rove dictates editorial decisions to Sulzberger and the Times? No. To use a line from Gore Vidal's play "The Best Man," it's "a conspiracy of shared values." Watching it, analyzing it, and decoding it, helps free the public from manipulation. People who do that, instead of writing simplistic pieces like Howard Kurtz's, have earned the title "media critic." I wish we had a few more.

A Night Light