May 1 1998

‘Spinning the Press’

Even after the California and Houston ballot initiatives demonstrated how language makes a difference in characterizing affirmative action, and despite ample proof in polls of the prejudicial effect that calling affirmative action “preferences” has on the American public (especially whites), the mainstream media continues to equate “preference” with affirmative action and to use the two terms interchangeably. A survey of recent headlines even after the Houston vote exemplifies the persistence of the problem.

From the New York Times (11/7/1997): “Panel Holds Up House Measure on Preferences.” Time magazine (11/10/97): “The Next Great Battle Over Affirmative Action: A Lawsuit against the University of Michigan Could End Racial Preferences in College Admissions.” Washington Post (1/3/98): “Affirmative Action Clash Looms in Washington State: Strongly Supported Petitions Against Race, Gender Preferences May Force Issue Onto Ballot.” L.A. Times (1/29/98): “Applications to UC Rise to Record Level: More Blacks, Latinos Seek Undergraduate Spots Despite Preferences Ban.” And not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal (2/12/98) announced that “As States End Racial Preferences, Pressure Rises to Drop SAT To Maintain Minority Enrollment.”

But “what’s a journalist to do?” Court TV host Fred Graham asked in USA Today (11/13/97), agonizing over the dilemma of grappling with, as he puts it, “a concept that does not have a neutral name.” “How can journalists who report and comment on the struggle over affirmative action avoid the semantic booby traps that the politicians have laid,” Graham asks as he accurately observes how the labels “preference” and “affirmative action” register “negative” and “positive” results, respectively, in measures of popular opinion. For Graham, both terms are equally “loaded” and produce a no-win situation for journalists seeking to be unbiased in their coverage.

But how can a pejorative be lifted to equal status with the name of the policy itself? Affirmative action is a policy that has been called that by both sides of the political spectrum for years. “Preference,” on the other hand, was introduced as a pejorative label by the policy’s detractors because they realized, as the L.A. Times (8/21/91) reported, that even “less popular than quotas…is any policy characterized as a special or racial ‘preference.'”

Why, one might ask, does “preference” equate with “affirmative action” in the mainstream media but not with the system of pro-white and pro-male preferences to which the policy is addressed? Why has the European Court of Justice’s example of recognizing the persistence and prevalence of institutional preference been all but lost on the mainstream media? Citing poll data showing how support for affirmative action declines markedly when it is characterized as “preferences,” pollster Lou Harris observed in 1995 that “it is not only misleading to use ‘affirmative action’ and ‘preferential treatment’ interchangeably, but it is nothing less than deceitful as well.” (See Extra!, 9-10/95.)

Immediately after the Houston ballot initiative decision last November, American Enterprise Institute analyst William Schneider noted that the majority of Americans supported affirmative action and that the “opponents of affirmative action have not convinced Americans that affirmative action means preferential treatment” (National Journal, 11/15/97). The goal of the anti-affirmative action movement must be, then, to convince people that affirmative action “doesn’t mean what they think it means,” Schneider said on CNN (11/25/97).

The opponents of affirmative action have long been aware of this, which is why conservative pollster and strategist Frank Luntz advised congressional Republicans (New York Times, 10/12/97) to “redefine” affirmative action to mean “government-sponsored quotas and preferential treatment.” The mainstream media should not be aiding and abetting this process of “redefinition.” But given the way that affirmative action is equated with “preference,” the mainstream media are helping opponents of affirmative action do just that.