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.
Other linguistic choices, however, do come with significant consequences. Consider the phrase “achievement gap,” which some critics of the No Child Left Behind law, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education policy, say has replaced the concept of “equal educational opportunity” as the guiding frame for how the nation understands educational success. In the June 6, 2007, issue of Education Week, James Crawford, president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, a nonprofit advocacy group, traces the insinuation of “achievement gap” into the national discourse on education to the late 1990s, as then Governor Bush of Texas and his adviser Karl Rove were planning a bid for the White House in which school reform would figure prominently. Crawford suggests that Bush’s goal was to “seize an issue traditionally owned by Democrats and give it a ‘compassionate conservative’ spin. By stressing the achievement gap, candidate Bush redefined civil rights in the field of school reform.” Crawford continues:
What’s the significance of this shift in terminology? Achievement gap is all about measurable outputs—standardized-test scores—and not about equalizing resources, addressing poverty, combating segregation, or guaranteeing children an opportunity to learn. The No Child Left Behind Act is silent on such matters. Dropping equal educational opportunity, which highlights the role of inputs, has a subtle but powerful effect on how we think about accountability. It shifts the entire burden of reform from legislators and policymakers to teachers and kids and schools.
As I’ve suggested, the scope of the rhetoric beat could be defined a number of ways, but the organizing idea is to help keep political discourse as clear and intellectually honest as possible, and to make readers and viewers aware of how the seemingly benign words and phrases they encounter daily are often finely calibrated to influence how they think about ideas. That there is disagreement about to what degree language dictates thought provides the rhetoric reporter with a rich intellectual ferment in which to ground his reporting.