Socialism Disorder

What are some words that the press has trouble parsing?

On Friday, The New York Times conducted an exclusive, 35-minute interview with the president aboard Air Force One, and published the transcript on its Web site. One of the questions the Times asked was, “The first six weeks have given people a glimpse of your spending priorities. Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?”

The simplistic framing of the question drew attention from the blogosphere, with some calling it a gotcha move and others arguing that the question didn’t get very much substantive bang for its buck.

Part of the criticism seems rooted in the Times’s open-ended, minimally contextualized use of a politically loaded term that is often deliberately misused. Given the nature of the political and cultural understanding of “socialism” in this country, which is still almost exclusively grounded in the cold war, it seems naïve of the Times to think it could just ignore all that baggage and have a discussion about socialism the way it might about, say, progressive taxation.

In the past, we’ve called for a rhetoric beat to help clarify the similarly used and abused words and phrases of our national discourse—like “death tax,” “war on terror,” “working class,” “post-racial,” etc. What are some words and phrases that the press needs to do a better job of parsing and explaining the full context of their usage?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.