There is frequently a perception that news can be objective, that facts are facts and spin is the province of politicians and, perhaps, Fox News. To a certain extent, this is true; the base facts of a story are bedrock, beyond which further fracking has no yield. How those facts are presented, though, how they are ordered and emphasized, can effectively prime our perception of a given story.
A recent Baltimore Sun story boasted an attention-grabbing headline: “Howard school board to give Foose up to $25,000 in relocation costs.”
Below, the subhead (aka dek, in newspeak): “New superintendent is moving from bordering Frederick County.”
Taken together, these phrases seem designed to provoke. A quick read, the skimming attention usually granted to headlines, tells the reader that the incoming superintendent is getting half an average American’s yearly income to move from next door.
Hidden quietly, though, genially modifying, is the unassuming prepositional function words “up to,” as in “$25,000 is the upper limit Foose could receive.” (Not as in “I wonder what this article is up to.”)
It’s not until the sixth paragraph that the reader learns that Ms. Foose will only be reimbursed for costs actually incurred in moving, and that the Board of Education has oversight, approving application of taxpayer dollars to any expense.
I suppose Foose could cobble together a chain of quasi-licit receipts totaling some absurd amount, but I would suspect if the Howard County ends up spending tens of thousands of dollars to move one woman 30 miles, our problems are going to be an order of magnitude greater when that woman takes up residence and the reins of a near $700 million budget.
The Howard County Public School System budget, in fact, rivals the market capitalization of a surging Barnes and Noble. The book seller’s CEO, by the by, earned $1.6 million in fiscal year 2011. Feigned outrage over our superintendent’s salary, and comparatively meager bennies, seems a bit misplaced, at best; if anything, compared to her private sector compatriots, Foose can only shake her head ruefully at the cost of dedicating her life to education.
We tend to think that we are who we believe ourselves to be, but this is infrequently the case. We are, instead, how others perceive us to be, how they observe us in our actions and our speech. The best we can hope for is to emphasize those parts of ourselves we prefer, and hope the rest goes unnoticed. We’re constantly looking for that verbal pair of jeans that fits us just so, accentuating the good and camouflaging the bad. We emphasize what we want to draw attention to.
Perhaps in Howard County, staid and steady as it is, the reverse quietly becomes true. In a community where a becomes front-page news, controversy can be tough to come by. The best we can hope for is a grocer to set up a shell corporation in an attempt to evade archaic blue laws and provide convenience to consumers, but what are the chances of that actually happening?
In absence of actual uproar, in a place where impeached elected officials are duly voted out by a dutiful electorate and tax raises quietly to by a willing base, nuanced shading and enhanced emphasis is the only tool left to possibly raise a political pulse.
A recent tweet from David Frum posited “successful political systems are (and should be) boring.” I couldn’t help but think of Howard County where, by most measures, we’re equally successful…and boring. Perhaps, than, an emphatic headline gives us something to discuss while we’re in line for wine at Wegman’s.