Saturday, January 20, 2007

The power of quotation marks

Today's Billings Gazette gives yet another example of the editors at work subtly slanting opinion toward the Democrat side.

A pair of guest editorials from Republican and Democrat legislative leaders appears, but the headlines give things a Democrat twist. Montana Headlines is making the quite safe assumption that the editorial writers did not choose their own headlines.

The glowing headline for the editorial by Senate president Mike Cooney, D-Helena and House minority leader John Parker, D-Great Falls reads: Democrats promise strong family agenda

By contrast, the editors use that old tool of quotation marks to cast doubt on the sincerity of the editorial by Senate minority leader Corey Stapleton R-Billings and House majority leader Michael Lange, R-Billings: GOP supports 'strong, reasonable' education funding

There is plenty of fodder in the headlines and editorials alike. For instance, there is the remarkably bold misstatement by Cooney and Parker that their $400 tax rebate will provide tax relief to small businesses, when under the Democrat plan no businesses will receive even $400, let alone real tax relief commensurate with their current tax burden.

The following observations on the headlines will have to suffice:

1. Although "strong" and "reasonable" are indeed words from the Stapleton/Lange essay, thus making them legitimate quotations, a common usage of quotations marks in journalism is to imply the qualification: "or so they claim."

Consider this: the Cooney/Parker editorial twice contains the word "families." So, what if their headline had read as follows?: Democrats promise strong "family" agenda

The implication would be that the Democrats claim to have a family agenda, but that this assertion is doubtful.

In summary, the headline for the Democrats makes a positive statement of fact -- the headline for the Republican editorial implies: "the GOP claims that their education funding proposals are strong and reasonable, but we're not buying it."

2. The word "promise" connotes an active and intentional plan -- the word "supports" is a weaker word and connotes that strong education is someone else's idea (i.e. the Democrats) but that the GOP is willing to go along with it.

When it comes to equating high spending with strong education, the GOP will never hold a candle to Democrats, since the latter are highly motivated to feed as much money as possible to one of their key voting blocs.

Republicans, on the other hand, are generally thinking about the economy of the state as a whole (and such thinking has produced this $1 billion surplus.) So there is a certain amount of truth to that connotation -- but the construct is a false one to begin with. And the Gazette editors know it.

Of course, in the unlikely event that the writers penned their own headlines, Montana Headlines retracts all of the above -- and offers headline consulting services to Democrats and Republicans alike for future guest editorials.