Playing (dumb) with words

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by Erin Brown, Science Correspondent

When it comes to politics, finding the meaning behind words can be a lot trickier than it seems.

It’s no big news that politicians frequently use language to influence public opinion.  Successful ones cleverly choose words that convey a message simultaneously ambiguous enough to avoid offending those who disagree and substantive enough to create the appearance of having actual ideas and convictions.

Examples of insidious or inane political language abound.  Usually reporters can be trusted to parse public statements and hold speakers accountable for their words.  Sometimes, however, those watchdogs of the political circuit miss the mark.

[caption id=”attachment_2021” align=”alignleft” width=”317” caption=”Though a respected journalist, David Gregory of Meet the Press nevertheless participated in the mindless hoopla over Obama’s statement”][/caption]

A particularly egregious instance can be seen in the press coverage of a recent statement made by President Obama, in which he spoke of the need to focus on ‘the fundamentally sound aspects of our economy’.  Obama was immediately criticised for echoing a claim that he had chastised his opponent, John Mccain, for proposing during the presidential campaign—the infamous line, ‘The fundamentals of our economy are strong’.

Now, the two statements share the concepts fundamental, economy and strong.  But the rules of the English language (which we would expect journalists, of all people, to be fairly familiar with) render the meaning of the two distinct.

McCain’s words expressed a judgment and assigned value, asserting that the foundations of the U.S. economy were strong.  Obama, instead, merely made reference to elements of the economy that are demonstrably strong.  What McCain said could be – and quite embarrassingly was – proved deeply mistaken.  Obama’s statement cannot be evaluated in the same way.  Currently successful segments of the economy, by their very existence, provide the necessary referents he intended to identify.

In fact, a number of industries remain healthy despite the dire economic situation, including those for video games, discount retail stores, niche manufacturers, cinemas, beer and condoms.  But the truth status of either man’s words is tangential to the larger problem: the media’s superficial and seemingly wilful misinterpretation of language, presumably for entertainment purposes.

I find it hard to believe that members of the press failed to recognise the subtle but crucial differences between the two men’s remarks.  It seems more likely that, assuming the American public wouldn’t bother to carefully analyse the situation for themselves, reporters seized upon the opportunity to construct a sensational ‘story’ out of an otherwise mundane event.

Equally frustrating is the media’s coverage of right-wing allegations that Obama is a ‘socialist’.  Instead of raising the point that ‘socialism’ is a term with many varying definitions or engaging in a discussion of how it relates to American society (in which education, the postal service, the police and other aspects are ‘socialist’), the mainstream press has been absorbed in a shallow, meaningless ‘Is-he-or-isn’t-he?’ debate.

A thorough and nuanced discussion of most topics is impossible to fit into a typical 90-second spot on cable news.  The structure of political reporting is built on an underestimation of peoples’ desire or capacity to understand complex issues, and linguistic intricacies are particularly susceptible to being overlooked.

Language is a powerful tool for politicians, even more so because we are rarely aware of how much words can affect our opinions and emotions.  Most Americans would benefit from and probably appreciate an honest, if complicated, analysis of political discourse.  So instead of indulging politicians’ rhetoric and equivocation, the press should apply their highly developed linguistic skills for the purposes of informing the public, not just entertaining it.

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