Ever since 2018, when he became governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam has appeared on the radio program “Ask the Governor.” Northam, a Democrat, used the show to connect with voters, explain his policies, and elevate his media profile. Never did his utterances generate national headlines. Until, that is, January 30. That’s the day Northam terminated his political future.
Northam was defending state delegate Kathy Tran, whose bill lifting restrictions on late-term abortions had failed in subcommittee. Video of Tran admitting that her legislation permitted abortions up to the moment of delivery had gone viral. The pro-choice extremism of the Democrats was clear. Northam didn’t understand what the fuss was about.
“If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen,” he said. “The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
That the governor could speak so blithely and coldly about the circumstances under which a born-alive infant would be killed rightly outraged plenty of listeners. Northam became an Internet sensation, too, by offering new evidence that the Democrats have gone completely bananas on abortion. Northam, in turn, said his remarks were being taken out of context. But that argument was moronic. His critics were doing nothing but repeating his words—words that Northam had to distance himself from.
Luckily, the media were there to help him.
For the Washington Post and the New York Times, the story wasn’t Northam’s clinical description of infanticide. It was the subsequent Republican criticism of his position. Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella set the tone with their January 30 story in the Post, “Abortion bill draws GOP outrage against Va. Gov. Northam, Democratic legislators.” Readers of the piece learned that “Northam, a pediatric neurologist, was asked about the issue in a radio interview and gave an answer that was later used by Republicans to suggest he favored killing live babies.” Those darned Republicans. Always quoting Democrats verbatim.
Note the use of the passive voice in the Post article. Republicans didn’t criticize or attack or rebut Northam’s comment. They “used” it to “suggest” Northam is in favor of denying born-alive infants life-saving medical care. The passive construction allows the Post to separate itself from the plain meaning of Northam’s quotation and to insinuate that Republicans and conservatives are doing something underhanded when they object. It’s one of the most tired and annoying tropes in the mainstream-media style guide: Democrats don’t make gaffes. No, it’s Republicans who “seize” and “pounce” on progressive victims.
When you come across the phrases “pounce on” and “seize on” in news copy, you know Democrats and liberals are in trouble. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a January 31 Post story headlined “Republicans seize on liberal positions to paint Democrats as radical”:
“Democrats, after two years largely spent simply opposing everything President Trump advocated, are defining themselves lately in ways Republicans are seizing on to portray them as far outside the mainstream. Casting Democrats as a scary and radical force is giving a fractured Republican Party a common thrust at a time when Trump’s standing even within his own party has started to dip.”
Leave aside the questionable analysis and mixed metaphors. Focus instead on the postmodernist description of political debate as a competition of narratives and framing devices. Why not just report the substance: Wealth taxes, 70 to 90 percent marginal tax rates, eliminating private insurance, defending infanticide, praising the anti-Semitic Jeremy Corbyn. Do the Democrats really need Republican help in coming across as a “scary and radical force”?
“Republicans pounced on the governor as favoring infanticide,” the Post reported. But, the paper went on, “Northam on Thursday said he stood by his statement, which he characterized as having been taken out of context.” Remember, Ralph’s the real victim here.
These pat locutions are journalistic shorthand for “don’t take this too seriously.” Sometimes the formulations lead to confusion. Take, for instance, this headline from the January 31 Times: “Trump, Pence Lead GOP Seizure of Late-Term Abortion as a Potent 2020 Issue.” The reader can’t tell if the president and vice president have involved their party in a grand-larceny scheme, or if they all suffer from a bizarre medical condition. The headline could just as easily have read “Trump, Pence Turn Democratic Stance on Late-Term Abortion into 2020 Issue.” Or would that have made the Democrats’ position too clear?
The problem isn’t the use of “pounce” as a verb. It’s the headlines and thesis paragraphs that assign agency not to Democrats and liberals with bad messages and clumsy policies, but only to the Republicans and conservatives who disagree with them.
The way in which elite media institutions covered Northam and abortion was not unique. The following headlines—take a deep breath—have appeared in the Washington Post and the New York Times over the previous decade: “Republicans Seize on Nominees’ Tax Problems” (February 5, 2009); “Republicans Pounce on Obama’s Mideast Speech” (May 19, 2011); “The Obama Campaign Tweets, and Republicans Pounce” (February 15, 2012); “Obama Trumpets Killing of Bin Laden, and Critics Pounce” (April 27, 2012); “Republicans pounce on Obama’s private sector remark, small lenders subjected to complex new standards” (June 8, 2012); “Republicans Seize on Biden’s ‘Middle Class’ Remark” (October 2, 2012); “New Front in Campaign as GOP Seizes on Libya Attack” (October 12, 2012); “Foes of immigration reform pounce on Boston bombing” (April 19, 2013); “IRS Focus on Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On” (May 12, 2013); “With critics ready to pounce, there’s no way out” (August 28, 2013); “Critics Seize on Obama’s ISIS Remarks at Prayer Breakfast” (February 5, 2015); “As Hillary Clinton Stays Quiet About Private Emails, Republicans Seize Moment to Criticize Her” (March 8, 2015); “While Clinton tries to change the subject, Republicans pounce on email criticism” (July 6, 2016); “While Some Republicans Seize Chance to Attack Hillary Clinton, Others Refrain” (July 26, 2015); “House Republicans, Seizing on Health Law, Challenge Executive Branch” (August 11, 2015); “Huma Abedin, a Clinton Aide, Is Back In Spotlight as Republicans Seize on Emails” (August 25, 2015); “Republicans Seize on Guantánamo Fears in Reelection Chances” (April 7, 2016); “Hillary Clinton Calls Many Trump Backers ‘Deplorables,’ and GOP Pounces” (September 10, 2016); “Trump allies seize on DOJ report as they seek to undercut Mueller probe” (June 14, 2018); “Republicans seize on Booker comment that Kavanaugh supporters are ‘complicit’ in ‘evil’” (July 26, 2018); “Vatican Power Struggle Bursts into Open as Conservatives Pounce” (August 27, 2018); “After Trump and Scott cry ‘fraud,’ critics pounce on Broward County’s troubled election history” (November 9, 2018); “A viral story spread. The mainstream media rushed to keep up. The Trump Internet pounced” (January 22, 2019).
All of this pouncing and seizing must leave Republicans exhausted.
Of course, the Northam saga became even more farcical and revolting by the end of the week, when the website Big League Politics revealed that Northam’s page in his medical-school yearbook contained an image of a man in blackface and another man wearing a KKK hood. First Northam seemed to confirm he was one of the two individuals in the photo, then he denied it while admitting he had once donned blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume. Within days, a woman accused Virginia’s Democratic lieutenant governor of sexual assault, and Virginia’s Democratic attorney general admitted that he, too, had worn blackface.
Then a funny thing happened. When Democrats began calling for Northam’s resignation and raising questions about the other Democratic officials, the verbs “pounced” and “seized” disappeared from the headlines of the Post and the Times.
No mystery why. The papers use those words only to describe charges from conservatives—charges our most established media institutions don’t consider important.