Reporters and their editors (and the corporations that employ them) have the power to shape readers' perceptions by, for instance, choosing what fact to put first in a story or which expert to quote in what context. But the most powerful tool is the simplest: the headline. Because many people read only that, and many others have their perception of an article shaped by the first words they see, this sentence fragment is frequently as important as everything that comes after.
Consider this, from the Associated Press:
The Treasury Department said Thursday that total foreign holdings rose 1 percent to $5.95 trillion from $5.89 trillion in February.
China, the largest foreign buyer of Treasury debt, reduced its holdings by less than 0.01 percent to $1.27 trillion. Japan, the second-largest buyer, cut its holdings 0.8 percent to $1.2 trillion.
Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, major oil exporting nations and Caribbean countries involved in banking all increased their holdings. Meanwhile, Russia shed almost 21 percent of its holdings in March following international tensions over its move to annex part of Ukraine.
Russia controls $100.4 billion worth of U.S. Treasury securities, or just 1.7 percent of all foreign holdings. The United States and Russia have imposed sanctions on each other after parts of the Crimean Peninsula with ethnic and political ties to Russia began an attempt to secede from Ukraine in late February.
Foreign demand for U.S. Treasury securities is expected to remain strong this year, aided by more borrowing certainty with a congressional agreement to suspend the debt limit until March 2015.
Now, let's tease out a few facts:
Trading powers China and Japan cut their Treasury holdings, while superpower wannabe Russia dumped fully one-fifth of its dollar-denominated debt. Meanwhile, Belgium and Luxembourg and a few others more than made up the slack, enabling the Associated Press to open with a glowingly-positive message (foreign investors love dollars!).
The truth appears to be something else entirely. How could Belgium and Luxembourg (total combined population 12 million) buy enough US debt to offset Russia dumping 21% of its Treasuries? The answer is that it's highly unlikely they would do this in a single month unless they're part of an under-the-table deal through which Western powers are hiding the fact that major holders of dollars appear to be losing faith in the currency and/or bridling at US foreign policy arrogance.
So the cover-up is the real story, and a more honest headline would feature Belgium's purchases and the reasons for this shift in dollar ownership. ";Russia sells Treasuries while Belgium buys; analysts wonder why" would be both more honest and more provocative without being sensationalistic.
But of course it would also pose a difficult question, which is apparently no longer the corporate media's job.