Frame Game

Death Warmed Over 

Last week, “Frame Game” explained how journalists were using animate metaphors and the passive voice to disguise their role in stirring up the current death penalty debate. Rather than admit their moral reasons for focusing on the issue and connecting it to George W. Bush, they pretended that the story was “dogging” Bush and that disembodied “scrutiny” had descended on him. Since that chastisement, reporters have stopped using the old metaphors. Now they’re hiding behind new ones.

1. Spotlight. “Spotlight on Death Penalty,” says a Washington Post front-page headline. “Pending Execution in Texas Spotlights a Powerful Board,” says a New York Times headline about the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. “The spotlight on the Texas justice system also has galvanized death penalty proponents,” adds the Los Angeles Times. Why a spotlight? Because a spotlight, unlike an army of flashlights, shines from the darkness above. Yes, the national media are looking at Bush’s use of capital punishment, but only because that’s where an unseen authority is casting illumination.

2. Heat. Light has to be directed, but heat doesn’t. By metaphorically converting the story’s energy from light to heat, journalists eliminate the question of who’s in control. The heat simply builds. Under the headline “A Roiling Debate on Texas Executions,” the Los Angeles Times reports that Bush “raised the heat himself some weeks ago, voicing certainty that no death row errors have occurred on his watch, even as legal research and improved DNA testing are dismantling death row convictions nationwide.” How did DNA testing elsewhere combine with Bush’s certainty about Texas to create heat? A chemical reaction, no doubt.

3. Fire. The best theory of how the heat started is usually a fire. The Post says Illinois Gov. George Ryan “ignited” the death penalty issue in January by suspending executions in his state. The New York Times tells a slightly different story: “Bush has become a lightning rod for protests against capital punishment and a focal point in the intensifying national re-examination of whether people sentenced to die have received fair trials.” The Times also quotes Bush as saying that death penalty “cases come along that spark the debate.” Some combination of these three versions accounts for the fire: Ryan started it, Bush attracted lightning, and/or each execution in Texas reignites it. One thing’s for sure: It wasn’t started by reporters striking matches.

4. The nation. When a journalist gets out in front of a story, she uses vague nouns and passive verbs to pretend her questions are objectively driven. That’s why this week’s papers, looking back at the first stages of the death penalty feeding frenzy, describe how Ryan’s moratorium “drew” attention and “placed the long-dormant issue on the national agenda,” where it “bubbled up” and “grew” to prominence so that “attention shifted to” Bush and questions “welled” about him. But now that the rest of the press corps has joined the feeding frenzy, there’s no need to be vague. The pack validates itself. “The nation” is directing the spotlight and applying the heat. “Nation Watches as Bush Prepares to Act in Man’s Scheduled Execution,” says a New York Times front-page headline about Texas death row inmate Gary Graham. Amid “the intensifying national re-examination” of capital punishment, Graham “has drawn national attention,” and “the eyes of an entire nation are upon” Bush.

Where will the story go next? Follow the metaphors. Perhaps the fire ignited by the heat that was generated by the light will explode into a blitzkrieg, leading to an exchange of friendly fire that punctures the tires of the Bush juggernaut. Or maybe the eyes of the world will elevate capital punishment in the United States to the global agenda. If so, we intrepid reporters will be there to bring you the news.