‘Surrogate’ Labor

Does the term-of-the-moment need its own stand-in?

I hadn’t heard the word “surrogate,” out of the context of motherhood, for quite some time. Until this past week, that is—during which I’ve been reading and hearing the term, almost literally, ad nauseam:

Clinton Surrogate Makes Veiled Reference to Obama’s Drug Use (ABC News)
Clinton Surrogate Makes Creepy Reference To JFK Assassination (Huffington Post)
Clinton Surrogate Veers Off Script (NYT’s The Caucus blog)
Clinton surrogate criticizes Obama (MSNBC’s First Read)
Clinton, Obama surrogates fan out over Iowa (Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet)
Clinton surrogates criss-cross Clark County (NV Politicker)
Hillary’s Surrogates Sling Smut at Obama (Huffington Post)
Obama Surrogate Questions Hillary’s Tears (Mother Jones)
Breaking News: Clinton Surrogates Show No Class (The New Republic)

You get the idea. And that’s not even taking into account all the TV coverage, in which the print press’s nauseam has been greatly, well, ad-ded to.

The use of “surrogate” to describe on-the-stump stand-ins for a candidate is nothing new; nor is it, necessarily, problematic. But it’s remarkable just how pervasive the term has become in the last week—and, in particular, in the last couple of days, when all the Clinton/Obama spinners have been out a-spinning. And what’s particularly striking, given all that, is the term’s deceptively wide range of meaning. Michelle Obama, for example, speaking on behalf of her husband at Atlanta’s Trumpet Awards on Sunday, was a “savvy surrogate” for Barack, according to the Washington Times. On the Clinton side, Bob Johnson, the BET founder whose gasoline-on-embers performance on Sunday stoked the ensuing Obama/Clinton wildfire, was also called, as above, Clinton’s “surrogate.” Same term, very different people—and very different situations.

That Michelle Obama and Johnson could, in this context, share the same designation as to their relationship to their respective campaigns—that they could both be called their candidates’ “surrogates”—speaks to the rhetorical malleability of the term. No one seems to know exactly what “surrogate” means…a blessing, on the one hand, but also a curse. For pols, of course, using a “surrogate” lets them amplify a message without taking personal responsibility for it. (It wasn’t Clinton who brought up Obama’s cocaine use; it was her surrogate, Johnson. It wasn’t Obama who suggested Clinton might bear some responsibility for Bhutto’s assassination; it was his surrogate, David Axelrod.) And for journalists, the term does something similar: surrogacy spares them the pesky necessity of precisely defining the surrogate-in-question’s relationship to the candidate he/she is stumping for. Or of precisely calibrating the words he or she utters on behalf of a candidate. The term is convenient in its vagueness: implying at once intimacy and distance, it allows journalists to convey someone’s connection to a campaign without having to clarify what, exactly, that connection entails.

But what makes the term convenient for overworked, under-rested campaign-trail reporters is precisely what makes it problematic for their audiences. As a reader/viewer/listener, I’d like to know what qualifies a speaker to speak on behalf of a candidate; I’d like to know who he or she is, and why he or she is advocating for that candidate. But reporters and pundits seem to have given in, in this case, to a semantic strain of pack journalism. If we can’t even use original terms to describe what’s happening with the campaign, how can our coverage vary in any meaningful way from those of other reporters? And when the term we’re using helps us to evade specificity in political coverage—to cheat the backhand, as it were, of investigative reporting—then we have a problem.

As a solution, a modest proposal: a clarification of terms. There are, according to Roget’s New Millennium Thesaurus, fifty-four synonyms* for the word “surrogate.” Not all fit the campaign trail, of course; but, given so many options, you have to think that, if we try, we’d be able to come up with some nice alternatives that would give an increased breadth—not to mention a spark of novelty—to campaign coverage. It shouldn’t be that hard; we’re journalists, after all. Words are what we do.

* abettor, actor, advocate, agent, alternate, ambassador, assignee, assistant, attorney, backup, broker, commissioner, delegate, deputy, doer, emissary, envoy, executor, expediency, expedient, factor, factotum, fill-in, functionary, go-between, handler, intermediary, lawyer, makeshift, mediary, middleman, minister, mover, negotiator, officer, operative, operator, pinch hitter, proctor, promoter, proxy, recourse, refuge, replacement, representative, resort, resource, salesman, servant, stand-in, steward, stopgap, substitute, worker sub

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.