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Affirm Me!

Complaints about the ill effects of media "balance" are often justified -- there's no excuse for leaving a story at "he said, she said" when the facts of the matter are easily verifiable. But in other cases, the complaints cross the line into demanding that the media editorialize in one's favor. So we get, for example, the absurdity of calling suicide bombers by the less informative but more morally loaded term "homicide bombers." Another recent example comes from Chris Bertram's displeasure at the way the Daily Telegraph obituary headline writers summarized two recent deaths:

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—Jordanian terrorist associated with bombings and beheadings of hostages in Iraq.

Raymond Davis, Jr—Physicist whose proof that the Sun’s energy came from nuclear reactions won him the Nobel.

Bertram opines: "Almost as if proving the sun’s energy came from nuclear reactions and beheading hostages were just different ways of spending one’s life."

Now, it's true that the Zarqawi headline doesn't explicitly conclude that Zarqawi used his life for evil. But need we really assume that people -- even Telegraph readers -- are that stupid, or literal-minded, or morally bankrupt, that they can't draw the inference that someone who is famous for bombings and beheadings is a bad person, and someone who won the Nobel prize for a scientific discovery is a good person?

There seems to be a strange insecurity at work here. If the media doesn't affirm your moral inferences, then perhaps others will not learn that bombings (by Zarqawi or suicide bombers) are bad things. (Or even more frightening, maybe the fact that they aren't compelled to explicitly editorialize means that the badness is not obvious, and thus we may be mistaken in our moral commitments.) But in fact it's the very social consensus on the evilness of bombings that makes it possible for Western headline writers to omit obvious editorializing.


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