War of words

When the words we are fed have an agenda behind them, we end up doing what is expected of us

This is the third of three reports on the way we are manipulated through the misrepresentation of science, rewriting of history and abuse of language.

Previous stories:
Science. Blinded by science

Politics. Political history

Las Vegas was in an uproar on July 3, 2002. Physicians at the only trauma center in town had gone out on strike to protest the cost of their malpractice insurance and, more to the point, to protest lawyers who represented malpractice victims.

“You’re looking at a dead trauma center,” trauma center director John Fildes told reporters.

The strike had come during a public hysteria created by skillful public relations people and gullible journalists, who had agreeably described the city as being in a malpractice crisis.

The news coverage was pro-doctor and anti-lawyer for weeks, so the word strike was seldom used. The search for euphemisms was on. The Fildes quote appeared in a story on which the headline was “Doctors’ protest closes Las Vegas trauma center.” The story said that the center “closed its doors,” “shut its doors,” was in a “closure,” and that the physicians “refused to return” and “took themselves off their normal rotations.”

Not until paragraph 12 did the word strike appear—and then it was not in the story’s narrative but in another quote, this one from a politician.

As the days wore on, reporters wore out their thesauri—closure, shutdown, stoppage, anything but strike.

Aided by the city’s journalists, the doctors won a major battle in a public relations war. Crisis was in, strike was out, and the governor called the legislature into special session to bail out the medical lobby. It was a triumph of manipulating people through abuse of the language.

Language is regularly wielded as a weapon, though we may not always be aware of it.

• Last week, U.S. military officials in Iraq said they were trying to cool it with overheated rhetoric about a “long war,” a “war on terror” against “Islamofascists” and “jihadists” because the sense that the United States was digging in for a long stay and was culturally insensitive was making it more difficult to work with the Iraqis.

• After the family of Pat Tillman, killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan, received a briefing on the faltering investigation of the cover-up of the killing, they issued a statement blasting the language used by the Pentagon inspector general: “This is not a misstep. It is evidence-tampering.”

• Music producer Russell Simmons and civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis called on the music industry to voluntarily end use of three words ("nigger,” “bitch,” and “ho") in lyrics.

• The city of Reno last week issued a news release on the demolition of the historic Virginia Street Bridge, but described it as a flood-reduction project.

There are always misuses of language, of course, as well as spin. What is becoming more threatening is a kind of public relations judo in which the public is manipulated into wanting to do the bidding of the publicist. Language is used to lead people to conclusions, political positions or votes based on difficult-to-detect false impressions created by that language. There are, for instance, a whole range of organizations which have warm fuzzy names like People of the West, Living Lakes, Consumer Alert, Food Watch and the Alliance to Keep Americans Working that are actually corporate fronts.

Clean Sites is a lobby group that works to make sure the public, not polluters, are socked for the cost of cleanups. The National Wetlands Coalition is an anti-wetlands group created by corporations like Texaco and Kerr-McGee.

There are now entire companies that specialize in manufacturing organizations that do not do what their names promise. The problem is serious enough that there is a Web site, Sourcewatch.org, to help people sort out what groups actually do. But the difficulty of the job is demonstrated by one entry at Sourcewatch that describes Clean Sites as an “organization devoted to toxic waste cleanup.”

Names have become tools of the trade. “The one I remember is U.S. Ecology,” says longtime Nevada reporter Ed Pearce. In the 1980s, the corporation that handled and (state officials said) mishandled operation of Nevada’s dump for chemical and low-level nuclear wastes at Beatty was getting a lot of attention for leaking containers, sloppy transport and other problems. So it changed its name from Nuclear Engineering Co. to U.S. Ecology.

Many of these manipulations require journalism collaboration. No one forces headline writers to use the term surge that is preferred by George Bush over escalation. It’s pretty clear why the casino industry wants reporters to call gambling gaming. What’s not clear is why reporters also want to use it. It obviously doesn’t serve the reader, since gambling is specific and gaming is general, so why do it?

George W. Bush and Edward Kennedy describe the No Child Left Behind Act as “school reform.” Why does that mean reporters do the same? For that matter, why call it No Child Left Behind, which loads the debate in favor of one viewpoint before the discussion even begins? It has a proper, and less loaded, name—Public Law 107–110.

Reform, in fact, is a term that probably never has any business outside quotation marks in a straight news story. Any change is technically a reform, of course, but the term suggests a positive change and loads the debate for one side. We are conditioned by the word to have a particular reaction. As soon as proponents of change in the welfare system got reporters to routinely refer to their cause as welfare reform, the campaign was in business—they had won the media primary.

Veteran Nevada reporter Brendan Riley resists the casino industry’s favored euphemism of <i>gaming</i>, preferring the more definitive <i>gambling</i>. But his good example hasn’t spread far enough.

There’s a story posted on the KRNV Web site: “The Nevada Supreme Court has rejected one effort toward reform in the state’s judicial system.” It’s pretty easy to tell who the bad guys are here.

One reporter who is careful to avoid the term gaming is Brendan Riley, state capitol bureau chief for the Associated Press. He says gambling is a specific word referring to games of chance while gaming is a broad term that takes in non-gambling activities.

“I don’t use gaming,” he says. “No, only if it’s the title of the Gaming Contol Board or the Gaming Commission. And I don’t use it because it’s a soft word.”

A Reno Gazette-Journal story by Ray Hagar and Riley at the close of the malpractice special session used a whopping word length (for journalism)—more than a thousand words, and they managed to avoid ever using the term reform. The term crisis appeared only once. They did better than most reporters.

As happens so often, it is the artists and social critics who frequently come closest to identifying the dangers—Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, George Carlin. In one brilliant routine, Carlin notes that the battlefield condition known in the first world war as shell shock (two syllables) became progressively more depersonalized and laden with jargon as wars came and went. In World War II it was battle fatigue (four syllables) and by the time of Korea it had become operational exhaustion—"Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now. And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase, it’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.” In Vietnam, it became post-traumatic stress disorder—"Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen and the pain is completely buried under jargon. … I’ll bet you if we’d have still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. But it didn’t happen, and one of the reasons is because we were using that soft language, that language that takes the life out of life.”

Abortion provides a useful demonstration of the way language is abused. Supporters and opponents of abortion have been very effective at getting reporters to use the language they want. Abortion supporters made it happen. Their posture since Roe v. Wade has been essentially a defensive one—they are unwilling even to use the word. So they fell back on saying that the issue was not abortion, it was choice. They insisted on being called pro-choice instead of abortion supporters. Journalists, for some reason, have gone along, though such subjective terms are supposed to be avoided in impartial reporting.

It backfired on abortion supporters. If one side could get reporters to characterize them not by the issue but by their own public relations needs, so could the other side. And the other side chose the term pro-life, which has been a disaster for abortion supporters because it carries a subtle implication: If one side is pro-life, then the other side must be—anti-life.

Sometimes the conventions of journalism interfere with the ability of reporters to get reliable information to the public. When someone says, as deposed CIA director George Tenet did last week, that the United States does not torture, it puts the torture by the United States into a category of information—a matter in dispute. So if a journalist reports that the United States does torture, she’s taking a side and directly challenging that spokesperson, which are things journalists are not supposed to do. So just using the word without hedging is a breach of normal reporting practice. Instead reporters who know perfectly well that the United States is torturing use a term like the Washington Post’s “interrogation methods that critics call torture.”

The Bush administration, which describes torture as coercive interrogation and its program for outsourcing torture as extraordinary rendition, need not have bothered. The press undercuts the use of the term without being asked.

When a nuclear waste contractor changed its name to U.S. Ecology, it set off reporter Ed Pearce’s bullshit detector. Too few reporters have one.

Photo By David Robert

The term war on terror presents its own issues. Last month, former Carter national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote, “Constant reference to a ‘war on terror’ did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue. The war of choice in Iraq could never have gained the congressional support it got without the psychological linkage between the shock of 9/11 and the postulated existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”

New Republic editor Peter Beinart responded a few days later with an essay: “If ‘war’ is increasingly problematic, ‘terror’ is even worse. From the beginning, critics have noted that terror is a tactic and thus not America’s real enemy. … To be fair, replacing ‘war on terror’ isn’t easy.”

The answer is simple: Don’t replace it. And don’t continue using it, either. Nowhere is it carved in stone that journalism needs sexy little catchphrases to tell stories. War on terror has become a campaign slogan that makes the journalists who use it players on one side’s team. There’s nothing difficult about coming up with different constructions that are less emotionally loaded: “The program is part of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism,” or “The bill contains anti-terrorism funding.”

It’s worth noting also that war has been systematically devalued by wars on litter, drugs, poverty, cancer, fat, drunken driving, gangs. This article is headlined “War of words.” If everything is a war, the term loses its meaning.

Not all, or even most, of these problems are the direct responsibility of the reporters who nevertheless foster them. Local television reporters in particular work under progressively more brutal workplace conditions all the time, required to produce more and more work for more newscasts with staffs that in effect shrink in comparison to the population growth around them. Crafting subtle storytelling is not high on management’s list of priorities.

Daily news reporters inevitably are given only enough space in newspapers to tell the bare bones of the story, not to explain subtleties, with the result that William F. Buckley Jr. has made known what he calls Kenner’s Law, after literary scholar Hugh Kenner:

“Newspapers, Hugh Kenner never tires of reminding me, are ‘low definitional media’ and therefore—as he puts it—it is unsafe to arrange your thoughts in such a way that the communication of them depends on the correct placement of a comma.”

And broadcasting—think of how little reporters are allowed to tell you in a half hour of news: First remove the time for commercials. Then remove the time for sports and weather. Then remove the time spent on teases and “franchises” (medical reports, etc.). Actual hard news is left with a single digit of minutes divided among 10 or 15 stories. A broad brush is all there is time for, and a broad brush does not allow for subtleties or for the real issues behind stories.

The recent dispute over Don Imus focused entirely on whether he should be fired—not on the more important issue of why we have become a society in which there is a market for what Imus supplies. (Reno’s Cory Farley was one of the few who raised the additional question of whether expressing opinions should be a firing offense, to say nothing of whether an employer should fire a man for being outrageous when he was hired to be outrageous.) As soon as the term fire entered the debate, it drove all other issues out.

Beside the difficult workplace issues, there is little pressure for a solution to the problem because it is seldom identified as a problem in the first place. The journalism journals that scrutinize ethics pay a lot of attention to language, but almost always to the mechanics of language—overuse of cliches or whether evoked is being used where invoked is proper. Rarely do they examine the manipulation of language.

Why does it matter? Because both people and policies are manipulated with language. The Nevada attorney general’s office once rendered an opinion that public bodies don’t have to comply with the agenda requirements in the open meeting law if they call their meetings something else, like a “goal-setting session.”

When language is manipulated for long enough, it takes on a life of its own and creates a reality. Journalists who should serve as fuses against hysteria melt in the heat and start believing their own stories. At least twice in the Reno market news anchors have expressed disbelief on the air that the stories they were reading off the teleprompter about declining crime statistics were true. Both happened during local “crime waves” that had existed only on television and in the emotionally loaded language employed to report routine crime.

So often, the upshot of these manipulations is public policy based on false premises, but the changes they force are real. The reporters in Las Vegas who were so free with the term crisis and so unwilling to call a strike a strike drove new curbs on protections for the public from malpractice. And a year later, two official inquiries—one state, the other federal—both suggested that there had never been a crisis in Las Vegas at all.

To put it another way, reporters had avoided using the term strike when there was one and had used the term crisis when there wasn’t one, and in so doing had created a false climate of public opinion in which public policy on the public’s health had been changed. So it goes.