By tracing the history of how a given word or phrase came to be applied to a policy or action, for instance, the rhetoric reporter could make readers and viewers aware of competing ways of understanding it. Consider the anodyne-sounding “support our troops.” In the past five years, the Bush administration and its supporters have used variations of this phrase to counter critics of its policies, defining it selectively to mean that any suggestion that the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t going well is unpatriotic, an insult to the brave men and women fighting and dying for our freedom. Rhetorically, it was the domestic version of “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” On June 3, The New York Times published an editorial called WHAT ‘SUPPORT OUR TROOPS’ ENTAILS, which suggested, based on some excellent reporting by the Times and other news outlets, that “the administration has systematically shortchanged the wounded and maimed who make it back from harm’s way.” Certainly a different way to think about the phrase “support our troops,” and one that the administration had little use for.
In some cases, once a rhetoric reporter reveals significant problems with a phrase, it may be useful for the newsroom to develop a policy about its use of the phrase and explain that to readers and viewers. Reuters has long had a policy of avoiding “emotive” language, such as “terrorist,” unless in a direct quote, for example, and on page 34, Geoffrey Cowan describes how a key group of executives and journalists at NBC News worked through the decision to start referring to the fighting in Iraq as a “civil war,” at a time when virtually no other major news outlets were.
This beat is sure to be something of a lightning rod in our partisan and hair-trigger political culture, and so it would make sense to utilize a news organization’s Web operation to provide some transparency. Readers could see the sources reporters used to reach their conclusions, for instance, and it could also house a searchable database of words and phrases that had been taken apart. The leap, at this point, would not be so great. In recent months, both the St. Petersburg Times (together with its sister publication, Congressional Quarterly) and The Washington Post have begun online fact-checking operations for the presidential campaign. Building on the ad-watches and Web-watches now routinely deployed at campaign time, PolitiFact and The Fact Checker, respectively, are the next evolutionary step in the mainstream press’s slow and at times grudging embrace of the role of adjudicator of factual disputes. Both operations are about checking verifiable statements of fact by politicians and their supporters—and more important, rendering verdicts on the relative veracity of those statements. Neither is expressly taking on campaign rhetoric, but they could. Scott Montgomery, the politics and government editor in St. Pete who helped develop PolitiFact, said that although he and his colleagues did not discuss the idea of parsing campaign rhetoric, “Maybe we should. It’s all part of this fog of information that we are trying to get at.”