Several readers have contacted me in an attempt to defend the Associate Press’s description of Sen. Bill Frist yesterday. The main point of their contention is that the description of Frist as “wealthy” is not based on his earnings from his career in medicine, rather it’s based on his family’s involvement in the founding and operation of HCA (Health Corporation of America), which has resulted in total assets (for his entire extended family) worth several hundred million.
A fair point, though one that the average reader wouldn’t have been able to infer from the context the term “wealthy” was presented in the AP article. However, the broader point is that the casual use of this term in what was a perfunctory, introductory, descriptive blurb about the Majority Leader-to-be was unnecessary and an example of using a value laden term (at least it’s “value laden” to those of us who aren’t wealthy) in order to smear by association. Worse still is their using of a term for a Republican which isn’t used to describe Democratic politicians who exist in the same rarefied socioeconomic strata.
When was the last time you’ve seen any casual references to Tom Daschle as “the wealthy Majority Leader”? Although he refuses to divulge the precise worth of his and his wife’s assets, according to Human Events Online it's between about $200,000 and several million dollars. Perhaps not wealthy relative to the standards of the US Senate, but to those of us ensconced in the middle class, that’s wealthy.
Furthermore, Roll Call Magazine reported in June 2002 that Bill Frist had a net worth of “at least $17 million.” But did you know that Democratic Senator John Kerry has reported assets of $675 million? In his recent media blitz to announce his exploratory efforts in running for president, do you recall any casual descriptions of him in the media as “the wealthy John Kerry”? If they were following their own standards, as evidenced by their description of Frist, the AP would have been entirely consistent to describe Kerry as “the obscenely wealthy John Kerry.” How about the Democratic Senator from North Carolina (and potential Presidential candidate) John Edwards who rings up at $13.6 million - seen any general descriptions of his general prospects that included the adjective “wealthy”? California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein cashes in at $38 million. Are her legislative accomplishments ever framed by the mention of how much money she has? Or even media darling, maverick Republican John McCain, who married into $14 million in assets. Recall any mention of “the wealthy Senator from Arizona’s attempt to reform campaign finance laws?”
There are many ways for bias to rear it’s head in the purportedly objective mainstream media. Selective application of value laden terms is one of them.