Hello friends,

I’m going to keep this note short and sweet — because the rest of the newsletter is neither. I had a lot to say about news coverage of a certain Florida governor this week. I hope you’ll humor me and explore the varying ways news media can normalize when our politicians try on authoritarianism.

Talk soon,
Aubrey Nagle

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Headline Check ✅

Here we analyze and reframe a news headline to demonstrate how this important real estate can be optimized for user experience.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a legislative plan Tuesday that, if taken up wholesale, will have a huge impact on the state’s higher education system. DeSantis, who is expected to run for president in 2024, wants to ban state colleges from hosting programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory. (Reminder: CRT has gone from a term describing a legal theory not actually taught in U.S. grade schools to a euphemism for American history that acknowledges racism and slavery.)

This sounds very much like the desire for a memory hole where the country’s long history of racism and white supremacy is “disappeared” for the benefit of the white and powerful. The rewriting of history for political gain, banning education that would weaken white supremacy, suppression of the opposition … add to this Florida’s new censorship of school libraries and state “retraining” on book collection and it’s hard not to describe this series of moves as neo-fascist. That ideology, of course, relies heavily on tightly maintaining the education of its people in a way that serves its leaders. That education usually promotes a revisionist nationalism, often calling back to idealized “better” times and/or traditions.

The following statements came from DeSantis’s office Tuesday:

“… the legislation will ensure Florida’s public universities and colleges are grounded in the history and philosophy of Western Civilization ….”

“In Florida, we will build off of our higher education reforms by aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition …."

And yet, headlines from major outlets announcing this news barely batted an eyelash. Some, like the New York Times headline below, felt the crux of the story is actually its impact on DeSantis’s political clout.

DeSantis Takes On the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand

Not only does this wording dismiss very impactful policy as a savvy political move, but it sets up and normalizes conflict between DeSantis and the public education system. Calling it the “education establishment” — as if state government and public education don’t necessarily work in tandem — legitimizes this “culture war” and aligns itself with a populist ideology that rails against said “establishment.” The DeSantis office was probably high-fiving over this headline today.

Similarly, the headlines below support DeSantis’ point of view more than an “objective” journalist would expect. The first is a National Review headline run by Yahoo! which highlights the elimination of “bureaucracies,” language used by DeSantis and a common dog-whistle from the right as it denotes ineffective government spending. This headline fully buys into the premise that DEI initiatives are wastes of money.

DeSantis Proposes Legislation to Eliminate DEI Bureaucracies in Florida Colleges

The second, below, is from the Tampa Bay Times; a similar wording ran in Orlando’s Spectrum News 13. Both use “indoctrination” in quotes to imply the word came from DeSantis, not necessarily the newsroom. But since nothing about either headline seeks to interrogate the existence of actual indoctrination, we’re left to assume that it does actually exist. Unless, of course, the writers were attempting a bit of irony-via-scare-quotes. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it’s a cheap way of attempting to telegraph the truth without being married to it.

DeSantis proposes sweeping higher education measures aimed at ‘indoctrination’

What would have been an appropriate headline to announce DeSantis’s intervention into higher education? The Associated Press, below, simply tells it like it is.

DeSantis pushes ban on diversity programs in state colleges

One Good Tweet 🐥

It’s just what it sounds like: a good Tweet that we think everyone should see!

One of the primary features of polite transphobia is the weaponization of uncertainty. The obvious reason more kids identify as trans is that trans people have become more visible and accepted in society. Yet these articles always cast it as some kind of enduring mystery.

Michael Hobbes, host of the podcast Maintenance Phase, is referring to yet another New York Times story about the “trans debate.” Coverage that positions itself as “just asking questions” from a neutral stance is anything but neutral. If there is a “debate” happening, it’s over whether trans people should be allowed to exist — and when the Times or any other publication welcomes that debate, they are de facto agreeing that the answer may be “no.”

What I appreciate most about Hobbes’ comments, though, is the use of the phrase “weaponization of uncertainty.” This is a great term to describe the way politicians and ideological leaders take advantage of the unknown (or what is unknowable) to move a topic from the sphere of public consensus to the sphere of legitimate debate. If the “answer” to such a "debate" is not a scientific fact but instead an implicit agreement between members of a society, then it can always be pushed into the sphere of debate if dissenters’ voices are amplified enough.

A Link to Make You Think 🤔

Our must-read of the week.

This report sees journalistic “bias” less as partisanship and more as relying on too-comfortable habits

This Nieman Lab breakdown of a new 50-page report out of the U.K. will challenge your ideas about “bias” in news. They found a lack of partiality in BBC coverage of taxation, government borrowing and public spending — but not the political kind. Rather, the bias they found speaks to habits and beliefs held deep within the journalism industry, opinions we don’t even realize we’re asserting as fact. For instance, they found, “Some journalists seem to feel instinctively that debt is simply bad, full stop, and don’t appear to realize this can be contested and contestable.”

Read the Story

Resource Spotlight 🔦

Each week we’ll highlight relevant resources and guidance on language and framing.

A recent report from the Columbia Journalism Review asks whether the U.S. government should train journalists in how to cover traffic deaths like the World Health Organization does. The story makes an interesting case (you should read it) but most importantly points to key resources for improving this coverage:

And remember to use the term “crash” not “accident” when talking about vehicle collisions. For more reading on that, see an LAist story on the language evolution.