Journalism Jargon is Obfuscating the Facts
Even when the facts are clear, even when one side is clearly lying, even when the science and truth are obvious, mainstream media still fails to call it like it is.
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Ben Shapiro spent nearly two decades trash-talking gay people, women, secular Jews, Black Americans, and Muslims in every corner of the internet, but when Politico handed over its Playbook newsletter for Shapiro to guest edit in January, it called the move “mischief-making.”
More than 100 of Politico’s own reporters sent a letter to top bosses protesting Shapiro’s temporary post, and the outlet’s editor responded by defending Shapiro as a “prominent writer, provocateur, and podcaster.”
Mischief-making, like an unruly toddler, is also the tone ascribed to Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, last heard encouraging Southerners to shoot people promoting COVID vaccinations. She’s only “made headlines … through advancing conspiracy theories,” apparently. Meanwhile, Congresspeople Madison Cawthorn, Tom Cotton, and Josh Hawley, who all publicly encouraged former President Donald Trump to overthrow the 2020 presidential election, have, according to news reports, a history of something called “incendiary remarks.”
Then there’s Repubulican pundit Tomi Lahren, who taunted the survivors of the Parkland High School shooting and called protestors rallying for Black lives “the new KKK”. But instead of calling her racist and cruel, mainstream journalists describe her as a “conservative firebrand.”
We are now five years into the racist, authoritarian meltdown of the Republican Party and its pet commentators in this country, and mainstream reporters still talk about these lying bigots as wacky jokesters or plain old “conservatives,” even as they post Instagram hangs with literal dictators. This need to soft-pedal descriptions of reality has been couched in the language of politeness for a while. Trump’s doomed presidency was barely a month old when an intense ethical debate began in American journalism. In a Politico article titled “The Perils of Calling Trump a Liar,” contributing editor David Greenberg pondered:
“Some want the objective press to repeatedly call out Trump for lying—using the word whenever possible. As they see it, such imprecations could inform the public about the president’s incessant mendacity or at least provide a morally clear and refreshingly blunt description of his modus operandi. Many news editors, however, fear that using the l-word will mean overreaching and speculating about Trump’s intent. Besides, it will be sure to give rise to charges of bias, name-calling and unprofessionalism.”
That Politico piece was the first of endless similar articles, later expanded to examine members of Trump’s administration and the burning question of just how direct one might be in describing his motley assortment of fascists and fools spewing violent white nationalism into the ether. Might we, perhaps, just say what they are?
Surely not. We wouldn’t want to be rude, after all.
An insurrection and a deadly unrestrained viral catastrophe weren’t enough to help journalism find its spine. Detained immigrants, deported refugees, terrified congressional staffers, and 600,000 COVID dead waited in vain for a straight news anchor to raise their voice.
From calling the killing of unarmed citizens “police-involved deaths” to using “partisan gridlock” as a stand-in for “Republican intransigence,” America’s elite journalists and pundits refuse to use plain language and explain things to their audiences clearly. Which is a problem because that’s their whole job.
When a paid marketing campaign by Republican operatives revved up screamers at a local school board meeting with false information about “critical race theory”, Reuters headlined it “partisan war” and claimed that war “stokes tensions.” Who declared the war, and why was it being fought? It’s an enduring mystery.
Climate science is still frequently covered as a confusing debate between a scientific community united in the belief that the climate crisis is real and two Republican Congressmen whose last real jobs were detailing cars at their dad’s dealerships.
When much-needed COVID vaccinations began to lag this spring, New York Times stories noted that “politics may play a role” in the refusal to get a shot, without mentioning whose politics or which politicians they favored.
There are situations where a veneer of politeness is acceptable. No one needs a scene at the second cousin’s bridal shower, so perhaps you characterize as “unfortunate” something more precisely described as “horrifically upsetting.” The front page of the New York Times is hardly the place for hedging in the name of comity.
Every profession or trade has its jargon (just Google “firestorm of controversy” or “transported to an area hospital”). But when the jargon actively undermines the understanding of the world your entire existence is meant to provide, it’s time to rewrite the stylebook. In a time of unprecedented upheaval in the face of misinformation and the ongoing destruction of local journalism, there was room for reporters and editors to do exactly that. To faithfully catalogue world-shaking events—domestic political terrorism, two impeachment trials, the intentional undermining of a global vaccine campaign—and name bad actors who were only too eager to name themselves.
Instead, reporters fell back on the same tired cliches that have so ill-served the public even when the stakes were lower. Videos posted during the breach of the Capitol “appeared to show” Trump supporters chanting slogans, is how we write it, in our “he said, she said, who really knows!” dispatches from court.
You wouldn’t tell anyone a story this way. If a phalanx of cops showed up to beat up peaceful protesters, you wouldn’t tell Grandma there was a “clash between two opposing sides.” You’d say police pepper-sprayed college students sitting on the ground. If a politician openly pined for the days of slavery, you wouldn’t call up your friends and say “good gracious, Trent Lott just uttered the most racially charged rhetoric.” You’d say Sen. Regressive Q. Confederacy wished Black people were still property.
The contrast between the bloodless language of institutional journalism and the bloody deeds of the past four years was unavoidably evident the day Capitol police officers testified to their treatment at the hands of the MAGA mob during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Trump’s patriots, often described in think pieces as good-hearted people just anxious about the economy or feeling adrift in a world undergoing cultural changes, called Black officers “fucking n******.” They said “Get his gun and kill him with his own gun.” They booed and beat police officers while waving “thin blue line” flags. They yelled “God, guns, and Trump.” They called out for the murder of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Vice President Mike Pence.
NPR, that bastion of genteel objectivity, covered the hearings live, warning its followers that they might find the language coarse and upsetting.
NPR is carrying the full, unedited hearing, including numerous vulgarities and epithets recorded on video and quoted by witnesses. Ordinarily some attempt would be made to bleep such language, but editors have judged that today's full record should be heard and known. https://t.co/hCFd6woMf4
— Steve Inskeep (@NPRinskeep) July 27, 2021
The only reason the language in those hearings was shocking to anybody at all was that for four years we’d been hearing Trump supporters’ racial slurs euphemized and their religious animus described as reasonable concern.
Anyone who’s spent even a passing second with the GOP’s true believers has heard much worse than the N-word after the second beer at halftime, but it’s too much to expect America’s foremost political explainers to accurately describe the vicious underpinnings of Republican support in this country.
After all, that might be rude.
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