What’s in a name? Everything.


Edwin R. Newman says: use your words (carefully) journalists

In his 1974 book, Strictly Speaking, former NBC newscaster Edwin R. Newman warned that mass media were polluting public discourse with “banalities, cliches, pomposities, redundancies and catchphrases.” Alas his warnings fall on deaf ears. Fast forward three decades and journalists have become so accustomed to accepting mealy-mouth that they no longer seem able to discern or demand the truth.

One silly little anecdote serves to illustrate the extent to which American journalism has devolved into a pathetic sub-species of stenography. A Ohio newspaper ran a correction to alert readers that one hapless reporter had mistakenly confused a congressional aide named Hillary Wicai Viers with the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The correction said, in part:

“According to the reporter, when Viers answered the phone with, ‘This is Hillary,’ he believed he was speaking with the Democratic presidential candidate, who had made several previous visits to the Mahoning Valley (in Ohio).”

To correct any such future errors until American journalism gets its act together, let me suggest that anyone named “Hillary” or “Barak” henceforth answer the phone, “Hello, this is Hillary (or Barak), not the presidential candidate.” I would hesitate to offer a similar suggestion to prevent the mis-identification of an ordinary American with presidential candidate John McCain, as his first name is so common. So let me suggest the reverse: specifically, between now and the general election, let American reporters refrain from phoning any Johns. Had this rule been in effect only a short time ago, one prominent New Yorker would have avoided trouble.

It’s something of a joke when the boo-boo occurs in a part of Ohio which still reveres the Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest, arguably the greatest of the many fine tacticians of the Confederacy. (“Always meet a charge halfway” is an adage I recall from a book I once read of his exploits.)

But it’s not so funny when such stupidty and lack of obvious follow-up questioning afflicts the entirety of U.S. mass media on an issue of national security. This was suggested by a recent report from The Center for Public Integrity which identified, in the two years prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, “935 false statements by eight top administration officials that mentioned Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, or links to Al Qaeda, on at least 532 separate occasions.”

Wow, I wonder how the capitol press corps kept track. Did they use those clickers you see the gatekeepers use at sporting events or movie theaters to make sure the room isn’t filled past legal capacity? It almost makes you wonder why none of them asked the tough follow-up questions that might have called into doubt some of the assertions later discovered to be some flavor of not-true. Actually, there was one American journalist who put forth the question, tiny tower of moral courage Helen Thomas, who I heard speak some time ago at a Media Alliance event in San Francisco.

This dereliction of journalistic duty has all but killed the body politic which now languishes in near-diabetic shock, having been so long fed a steady diet of sugar-frosted sound bytes mixed in with actual bits of lies. When the polling firm BIGresearch recently surveyed which of five political actors – the President, the House, the Senate, the media and bloggers – Americans most trusted, 70 percent answered, “None of the above!” The President’s 14.2 percent trust rating was a tad higher than those of the other four combined. With respective ratings at bloggers (5.8%), media (4.4%), House (2.6%) and Senate (2.2%), the pontificators of the blogosphere out-polled the watchdogs of the Fourth Estate!

But that makes perfect sense to me. Bloggers may be fast and loose with facts and all too quick with opinions, but they’re volunteers who don’t profess to uphold some noble mission of which they’ve fallen so miserably short. Card-carrying journalists, who ought to know better, have forgotten that ancient wisdom which lies at the heart of their craft: to name the thing is to have power over it. It’s the words, stupid! These great tools have forever raised humans above the rest of the animal kingdom. We must keep them sharp and safe, so that the people may use them to grasp the big ideas, move the levers of power and bring tyrants to heel. Protecting words requires constant vigilance, because the 26 letters of the alphabet – the atoms of meaning – are prone to extraordinary rendition and may be made captive to lies.Journalists should protect words by writ of habeas corpus instead of aiding and abetting the waterboarding of our language. Let’s not torture the language amongst ourselves. Please, Kiyoshi Martinez, founder of the oxymoronic site that I ranted about yesterday, think about making some rule or name change so that you do not further the temptation of American journalists to dissipate their anger by pissing into your anonymous cesspool of ennui.