A Headline Worth Study in The New York Times

The man bites dog / dog bites man conundrum applied to story-framing

Preparations for the AIPAC conference in Washington this spring (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

I'm talking about this one, above the fold on the front page of Saturday’s New York Times.

The sequence described in the story is this:

  • President Obama proposes his Iran nuclear deal;
  • Its main opponents in the U.S. are the Republican party, and AIPAC and some allied groups, all of which are urging Congress to reject it. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has already preemptively attacked the plan, in his speech this spring to a joint session of Congress, and he recently made a webcast to Jewish groups in America asking them to help defeat it;
  • AIPAC starts an ad campaign against the deal, using what Obama considers to be false claims;
  • Obama tells AIPAC officials in a meeting that he will “hit back hard” against their lobbying and the ads.

As we learn in linguistics classes, and understand even without the classes, word order matters, as does subject/object placement. Dog bites man versus man bites dog. What’s interesting in this case is that three possible subject/object placements, with very different implications, could all fit the facts the story describes.

1.   “Pro-Israel Group Battles Obama, Raising Worries ...” This one would match the story’s narrative of Obama responding to AIPAC’s anti-deal ad campaign and to the longstanding anti-deal efforts by PM Netanyahu.

2.  “Obama, Pro-Israel Group Battle, Raising Worries ...” This one, with a grammatical shortcut acceptable in headline-ese, and with Obama and AIPAC both as subjects, would emphasize the fact and consequences of the battle rather than who started it.

3.  “Obama Battles Pro-Israel Group, Raising Worries ...” The headline they actually published implies that Obama picked the fight. This is true mainly if you believe that he promoted the Iran deal because he knew that AIPAC would oppose it. And the diplomatic and reputational risks the story describes therefore mainly are Obama’s responsibility because of the battle he has intentionally taken on. E.g., from the page-one portion of the story:

… the tone of the current dispute is raising concerns among some of Mr. Obama’s allies who say it is a new low in relations between Aipac and the White House. They say they are worried that, in working to counter Aipac’s tactics and discredit its claims about the nuclear accord with Iran, the president has gone overboard in criticizing the group and like-minded opponents of the deal.

I am explicitly not suggesting that the headline was a conscious effort to present Obama as an antagonist of AIPAC and, by extension, of Israel. The main reality in journalism is that everything we do, we’re doing in a hurry rather than having time to think through all implications, triple-backflip style. Usually we do what comes first to mind, as I expect happened here and which is interesting in its own way.

My point is to use this as a thought experiment of how different the implications would be, from this very same story, if a front-page headline in the world’s most influential newspaper had said “Pro-Israel Group Battles Obama, Raising Fears of a Lasting Rift” rather than the frame it used.

If I were on the copy desk and had had enough time to think about it, I’d have gone with headline #2, emphasizing the strain the Iran-deal debate is causing. Headline #3, which the Times used, would have been my last choice. I know from experience that on an issue as delicate, contentious, history-bound, and consequential as this, any choice could and would be criticized. But this one from the NYT seemed worth pointing out.

* * *

Update: I don’t see it in today’s print paper, but the online NYT now has an eye-opening story by longtime science/defense correspondent William Broad, about a public letter by 29 of the U.S.’s most eminent scientists and nuclear-policy experts, including five Nobel winners and many other luminaries, strongly endorsing the Iran nuclear deal. If you know anything at all about nuclear-weaponry or non-proliferation issues, you will recognize most of these names, starting with the first signatory, the wonderful Richard Garwin. He is joined by Siegried Hecker, the former head of Los Alamos; the renowned physicist Freeman Dyson; Sidney Drell, a theoretical physicist and long-time arms-control authority; and others.

If you read the story, you’ll have a clearer sense why in the rest of the world outside the U.S. Congress, the merits of the deal are so evident that it provokes no controversy at all. The letter (whose text is now online here) points out, for instance, that the agreement has “more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated nonproliferation framework,” something you wouldn’t necessarily learn from the anti-deal ad campaign.