There is a substantial framing literature that the rhetoric reporter could draw on, including Todd Gitlin’s 1980 book, The Whole World Is Watching, which diagnoses the largely unspoken frames that the press applies to the world unilaterally. These media frames could be part of the purview of the rhetoric beat, as could the work of Lakoff’s critics, who suggest that in his recent role as campaign adviser he has overstated both the persuasive power of framing and its ability to cure what ails the Democrats. Steven Pinker, for instance, the Harvard psychology professor, takes on Lakoff in his new book, The Stuff of Thought, as well as in a scathing review in The New Republic last year of Lakoff’s latest book, Whose Freedom? Pinker argues that frames do not trump facts, and that frames and their implications can be tested against reality. “Even if the intelligence of a single person can be buffeted by framing and other bounds on rationality,” Pinker writes, “this does not mean that we cannot hope for something better from the fruits of many people thinking together—that is, from the collective intelligence in institutions such as history, journalism, and science, which have been specifically designed to overcome those limitations through open debate and the testing of hypotheses with data.” Sounds good, but I would add that a rhetoric beat could allow this testing to happen in an accessible and broadly public way.
Beyond framing, the Internet and digital technology generally have created opportunities to broaden and enrich public discourse. Language, Nicholas Lemann writes on page 33, is “accessible to everybody. Some users of language are more powerful than others, some are more honest than others, and some are more adept than others—but the various ways of speaking about politics can at least compete with each other in the public square, and we can at least hope that the more honest and clear ways will triumph in the end.” But the sharply partisan and uneven nature of this newly democratized public square requires an arbiter who at least strives for intellectual honesty, and I would argue that it is a job for our best news outlets. Lemann suggests that in such an environment, corrupt information is the bigger threat than corrupt language, and he may be right. But corrupt language can and often does provide cover for corrupt information. And, perhaps more important, unless this bad language is outed, so to speak, it can dominate public discourse on a given subject and preclude the serious consideration of other possibilities. Think about how the nation discussed (or failed to discuss) the prospective aftermath of invading Iraq in the months leading up to that invasion. Under the rubric of the “war on terror,” the Bush administration sold the invasion of Iraq as a “liberation,” a “cakewalk.” The Iraqi citizens, we were told, would greet U.S. soldiers with flowers. Left largely unchallenged, this liberation frame effectively undermined aggressive consideration in our national discourse of other possibilities for what could happen once we ended a brutal twenty-four-year dictatorship in a country that our leaders did not fully understand.
Finally, this problem of language is not limited to the “war on terror.” We have clashes over the language of climate change, education, religion, tax policy, social services, race, poverty, wealth, you name it. Many of these clashes are simply about competing political slogans that are transparently partisan and relatively harmless.