Newsspeak by Fred Russell

Journalists talk and write in platitudes. This is not surprising. They are not, after all, writers. Their command of the language is limited. Their minds are commonplace. They are also not scholars or political scientists. I occasionally watch Fox News, but what is true of Fox is true of any other news organization. The ideologies may be different but the mediocrity isn’t, except for a kind of starry-eyed machoism among Fox’s noncombatants whenever the subject is the military or national security, and hence their breezy, insiderish tone and the penchant for hardass army talk, referring now to soldiers as warriors and speaking incessantly about boots on the ground, gridlock, lockdown, Intel, recon, choppers, nukes, and all the rest. It is true that journalists lack the talent to invent anything. They are the middlemen of language, picking up on words and phrases that are in the air and wearing them out through excessive use. The Bush administration, for example, gave them troop surges and enhanced interrogation techniques, which sounds a lot better than reinforcements and torture, though it is supposedly the job of journalists to cut through the crap and call a euphemism a euphemism. Fox fields an all-star lineup of nonstop talkers. What they say doesn’t have very much value or meaning. It plays to the biases of their viewers, gives them new scandals and new arguments, but doesn’t have the slightest effect on how the country is governed. On the whole, in their superficiality, journalists contribute only to the ignorance of the public and of course to the degeneration of language.

It is sometimes hard to distinguish between an idiom and a platitude. For this reason, one of the few real services that journalists provide, aside from giving us the weather report and ball scores, is to draw the line for us, as though they were themselves lexicographers. A platitude then becomes simply a word or phrase used repeatedly by journalists, which grates so abrasively against the ear that no real writer would ever think to use it. Here are a few: slippery slope, fiscal cliff, crunching numbers, growing the economy, do the math, level playing field, cutting edge, no brainer, game changer, harm’s way, take a listen, sound byte, outside the box, under the radar, in the loop, proactive, Obamacare, outsourcing, win-win, toxic, viral, uber, czar, buzz, spin.

What kind of mind uses such language? Clearly a lazy one, and that is a fair characterization of the journalist’s mind. Because his use of language is so narrow, and his ideas are so banal, the first word or phrase that pops into his head when he tries to express a thought is naturally one that he has used before, that is, a platitude. Unfortunately, he lacks the critical sense to reject it and look for something better. He finds the familiar comforting and feels that he is using the language well when he comes up with a hackneyed phrase. For the journalist the platitude represents clear and incisive language. It would never occur to him that it is dull. This is the standard. When he reaches into the barrel, nothing is there. That is why he is a journalist and not a writer.

The news networks and journalists in general are forever assuring us that they are keeping an eye on things for us. That is their job, they tell us. They are always working for us, bringing us the news, so that we can – what? The idea, I suppose, is so that we can make the right decisions at election time, penalize the politicians who let us down and reward those who don’t. But of course the net result of the entire political process is to elect representatives with whom the public is invariably dissatisfied and holds in very low esteem, so it is hard to see what the news networks accomplish other than sensationalizing events to hold our attention until the next commercial break – now a scandal, now a decomposing body in someone’s garage, now some disaster footage from Nepal or New Orleans, and then the endless commentary, day after day with the same tedious arguments – Benghazi, ISIS, the IRS, the Ebola epidemic, whatever. They never let up. They are like dogs with a bone.

If any of this did some good, made a difference, gave us something other than drama and spectacle – that is, entertainment – then there might be some justification for the enormous price the media demand for their supposed services. The price they demand is the right to invade people’s privacy and to conceal sources of defamatory or illegally obtained information. That is quite a price, but since they do not really deliver what they promise to deliver, they are in effect engaging in a species of fraud, representing themselves as the guardians of democracy and of the public’s “right to know” when they clearly are not. Both legislators and law courts have been completely taken in by this deceit and habitually pay lip service to the notion that the press really is the watchdog of democracy and thus deserving of the widest latitude. But the cornerstone of a democracy is in fact its legal system and the traditions that sustain it. The guardians of democracy are the courts. All the investigative reporting and all the talk shows in the world have not had the remotest impact on how governments operate.

I am not suggesting that we shut down the news organizations, any more than I would suggest that we ban poorly written books. By all means, let them go on doing exactly what they have always done if that’s what people want or need, but without their special privileges. Let them be hauled into court for hounding and harassing whomever they deem newsworthy and sued, fined or prosecuted for stalking them. Let them pay a price that hurts for their gossip, innuendo and calumny.

This would obviously inhibit them. The question is whether the public would suffer, no longer know what is really going on, as if it does now, become more ignorant than it already is, as if this is possible. The answer is of course no. It wouldn’t make the slightest difference. It would not make the slightest difference if people were or were not told who smoked marijuana thirty years ago or slept with his neighbor’s wife, or for that matter were or were not told what is going to happen in a week or a month by talk show sages who don’t know what is going to happen in the next five minutes. We think we are being kept up to date when we get the news. What we are in fact getting is a kind of alternate reality, the journalistic equivalent of pulp fiction where “stories” are selected for their dramatic value and seldom coincide with real historical or social processes. This too is not surprising. Journalists are not equipped to give us anything more. If they were they would be historians or even novelists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s