July 31, 2005

Stemless Faith


I can never tell in these instances if the press is too intimidated by the right wing to challenge their story line, or they just aren’t thinking hard enough.

Yesterday, the NYT provided a completely free launch to the Frist for President campaign.  (And who said there’s no such thing as a free launch?)  Thoroughly imbibing the story line that Frist had courageously broken ranks from Bush on the stem cell issue, the Times got completely played in the conservative’s effective use of the Friday-to-Saturday news cavity. 

As it turned out, the paper ran not one, but two almost identical images of the conclusion of a minor bill signing ceremony.  Centered perfectly in the background (his tie and Bush’s in almost exact alignment) was the solitary Frist.  (And, in an interesting counterpoint to this politically expedient rebuke of the religious right, Frist seemed to appear like a saint in a renaissance painting, as if enduring some fantastic form of martyrdom). 


The front page image (the color shot) was captioned "Majority Leader as Odd Man Out" and the first line of the caption read:  "In challenging President Bush’s stem cell policy, Senator Frist, the majority leader, angered conservatives."  The second strangely redundant black-and-white shot appeared on page A9.  Brilliantly (for the Majority Leader), the suggestion of a downcast Senator Kennedy helps frame Frist as admirably thoughtful and introspective, as well as deeply torn by his "difficult decision."

How moving.  Except, it’s mostly mind tricks and show business. 

If I’ve learned anything analyzing news photos day in and day out, it’s
that you must be extremely careful putting too much stock in any one
photo. You can use images for forming associations all you want, but you must be dead careful not to assume a particular truth from a single frame in time.  (Especially considering most of these people pose for a living.) 

So, let’s look at the visual evidence here. The color shot reinforces
the captioned message that Frist is at odds with Bush. The
black-and-white shot reinforces that message by introducing the element
of time. (If you look at the shorter legislator with the gold-and-black
tie at the far right of the color picture, you’ll notice he has passed
to the left of Frist in the other shot, giving the sense that Frist has
been standing there for a while.) In actuality, however, this is
occurring in instants.

How much of a rift did Frist really create with Bush?
Behind the cameras, I’d guess not much. (More on that below.) If you’re
depending on these images, however, I’d say there’s no way to tell. In
contrast to the fish the Times swallowed, for example, take a look at
these visuals captured from a CBS video clip of the beginning of the bill signing ceremony. 


I can’t replicate the whole clip, but Bush jumped up to greet Frist and
they joke a bit. The voice-over also directly contradicts the Times‘ take.  It begins: "You’d
never know it from the friendly banter at the White House this morning,
but the Senate Majority Leader had just delivered a stunning blow to
the President."


Lets get this straight.  Frist is not standing up to anybody.  Frist is just standing up for Frist.  Everybody else knows the score.  (Except, somehow, the NYT.)
Right wing rule #1 says: You play to the hard right to build up the
base, then you play to the middle to get elected. It’s not rocket
science (especially when John Q. Public sees the stem cell issue issue
a "no brainer").

There is another point here, however. 

The right wing has become expert at defining Democrats and
progressives, and creating artificial distinctions that we and the
press then automatically adopt. At the same time, our side seem paralyzed when it comes to seeing who they are, what they are doing, and putting a name to it. 

How about this distinction?  In politics, you can only have two types of religious animals.  You can have Christian politicians (whose faith drives their politics — as well as everything down to what they have for breakfast), and you have political Christians (who care more about spinning and speaking for God, than speaking or living through him.  (Just take Santorum, for example, who is consistently speaking ill of others, and admits he’s hardly read the bible).

As progressives, we have two jobs that leave plenty of room for
development. One is keeping the media honest about who’s making a show,
and the other is being a lot more specific about who’s keeping the faith as opposed to trading on it.

(image 1 & 2: Carol T. Powers for The
New York Times. July 30, 2005. p. A9 and p. A1. The New York Times.
image 3 & 4. "Stem Cell Politics" video clip. July 29, 2005.

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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