If you want to understand a newsroom’s politics, look carefully at the words it uses to characterize similar events as they occur under opposing administrations.
The differences in language may be slight, but they are there; no amount of sanitized euphemisms can keep a newsroom’s political leanings hidden entirely.
For reference: Both DOJ lawsuits deal specifically with immigration enforcement (or lack thereof) in those two states. In 2010, the Obama administration was none too pleased with Arizona’s strict immigration crackdown. In 2018, the Trump administration is none too pleased with California’s lack of immigration enforcement.
There are a good number of similarities between the two political events, but only one has been characterized by the Times as an act of “war” against a state.
In 2010, the paper employed a straightforward, “Just the facts, ma’am,” approach in its coverage of the DOJ’s Arizona suit. The Times used words like “challenge,” “contest,” and “contend.” It reported that the lawsuit was aimed at “stemming a tide of similar laws under consideration in other states,” and that the president wasn’t involved directly in the decision. The report also noted then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, “assailed” the federal lawsuit.
Contrast the paper’s 2010 coverage with its reporting this week of the DOJ’s California lawsuit. The Trump administration isn’t just “challenging” or “contesting” California laws. The DOJ is going to “war” with the Golden State.
“The Justice Department is suing California over immigration laws that oppose President Trump's agenda, its boldest attack yet on the state,” read a Times breaking news alert.
The paper reported the Trump administration had “escalated what had been a war of words over California’s immigration agenda,” and that the White House had launched a “pre-emptive strike” against California’s sanctuary laws. The same article claimed the suit is the DOJ’s “boldest attack yet against California,” a “warning to [pro-sanctuary] Democratic lawmakers and elected officials,” and a “battle” that “pits” the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions against California’s top lawmakers, including Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
The Times story mentions that California “began battling” Trump even before the suit, and that the attorney general and president have threatened California prior to the DOJ’s legal action.
Interestingly enough, the report notes this “is not the first time that the Justice Department has sued a state” and that the Obama administration “filed a civil rights lawsuit against Georgia for segregating students with disabilities from classrooms and sued North Carolina over a bill to restrict bathroom use for transgender citizens.” There are no mentions, however, of the Obama administration’s lawsuit against Arizona’s immigration policies.
To be clear, the 2010 and 2018 New York Times articles are written by different authors. As such, there are going to be differences in word choices. That said, both made it past editors, and were deemed finalized enough as to represent the best of the paper’s news reporting.
The difference in language may be slight, but it’s unmistakable.