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Stubborn Media Frame Bush as "Firm"

Glenn W. Smith

Why does the national media insist on characterizing President Bush's refusal to alter his Iraq policy as firmness, rather than stubbornness? Because, in the strict father morality that emphasizes authority and obedience, presidents are strict fathers. They are firm. Only children can be stubborn. Reporters, probably unconscious of the worldview that limits their expressions, simply don't want to characterize the President with a term like "stubborn," even when it is more appropriate to the circumstance.

The New York Times headline on July 13 said, "A Firm Bush Tells Congress Not To Dictate War Policy." The front-page online grabber at the Washington Post's web site said, "Despite Failures in Iraq, President Holds Firm." The story headline read, "President Unbowed as Benchmarks Aren't Met." Firm, unbowed. Father knows best.

This simple word, "firm," communicates much more than reporters know. Firmness implies courage, conviction, leadership, while stubbornness means recalcitrance, childishness, refusal to face facts. We are tempted to accuse the media of political bias, and ideological bias often exists. Frequently, however, moral worldviews dominate media thinking without their knowledge. What seems like common sense to reporters is actually the unconscious employment of language that their brain produces reflexively, or without conscious intention.

The language of family is mapped onto politics. This is clear from such expressions as "Mother Country" or "Father of Our Country." Two family models hold, a nurturant model that emphasizes social responsibility and empathy, and a strict father model that emphasizes authority and obedience. Nurturant parents are quite often "firm" and not "stubborn." And so are compassionate political leaders. Nonetheless, in this instance the media is saying, "A firm Bush tells a childish Congress to keep their hands out of the cookie jar." Such an implication is wildly inappropriate to the circumstance, a circumstance in which significant issues are at stake, issues like the Constitutional authority of Congress to determine the nation's war policies and the President's responsibility to execute (it is called the Executive Branch) within the parameters determined by Congress.

At what point could Bush become "stubborn" in the eyes of the media? Unless they begin to question their reflexive use of language on a daily basis, probably only retrospectively. Historians will not be bashful about describing Bush's stubbornness on Iraq, especially when his behavior is juxtaposed against the will of the nation, a significant majority of expert and international opinion, and a majority of Congress.

But if yesterday's presidents can be stubborn, why not today's president?

Glenn W. Smith is Senior Fellow at the The Rockridge Institute

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