Getting around euphemisms

Chinese saying, sometimes attributed to Confucius: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.”

The Washoe County School District last month put on a public relations offensive to regain some lost ground with the public. As part of it, Superintendent Traci Davis did a round of interviews with various media entities. Though the Reno Gazette Journal did not make anything of it, one section of Davis’s interview with the RGJ jumped out at us. She said this about the district’s “digital days”:

“When people use words like illegal, the state never said that. That was the media using those terms.”

Public officials often talk in code. They must navigate various interest groups and try not to be confrontational or adversarial. As a result, unfortunately, the public often has no idea when something serious is coming to a head because official verbiage has soft-pedaled it.

It is one of the duties of journalists to put the right name on things when public figures talk in code.

At times, that duty has been of great moment. In 1962, President Kennedy said he was throwing a quarantine around Cuba. He used the euphemism because a blockade was an act of war and illegal under international law. Journalists called it what it was—a blockade.

Unfortunately, sometimes journalists fail in that function.

In 2002, when trauma center doctors went on strike in Las Vegas, local journalists failed to use the term strike. As best we could tell, only one Las Vegas article used it, and that was buried deep in the story on the jump page. Even when an angry Clark County commissioner used the term, only an out-of-region newspaper—the Los Angeles Times—quoted her. There may have been usages we missed, but most coverage definitely followed the leaders.

In 1990, former billionaire Donald Trump’s profligate spending ($160 a minute!), growing debts and inability to pay his bills had New Jersey gambling regulators considering revoking his casino licensing and forcing the sale of his casinos. Then as now, his public statements could not be trusted, but an independent appraisal of his supposed empire presented at a hearing of the Casino Control Commission made clear to the financial analysts present and to financially savvy reporters that Trump was facing bankruptcy. One such reporter, David Cay Johnston, later wrote that the commission took a break after the report to rehearse “the answer to the next question … to convey the idea of bankruptcy without saying the word, which Trump had prohibited. … Subtle wording would pass over the heads of most journalists.” According to Johnston’s The Making of Donald Trump, only two reporters used the term bankruptcy in their coverage of the hearing. The rest withheld essential information from dozen of vendors in Trump’s hotels and from investors in dozens of banks on three continents and from the banks themselves who were lined up like planes on a runway waiting for information from the hearing to decide whether to step in and save Trump with loans.

In the case Traci Davis discussed, the state superintendent did say that digital days are illegal. He just didn’t use that term. So journalists did, and it informed the public.