Journalese, a Base Language, Blooms Anew

By Bryan Keefer

Perhaps it’s because baseball’s spring training is starting up (or perhaps the press corps is dazed by Wonkette’s continual flogging of the “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” joke), but political reporters seem to have “bases” on the brain.

In a half-dozen different stories today, reporters fall victim to the hoary old “political base” cliché in discussing President Bush’s decision to support a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage.

What exactly does “political base” mean? The phrase is a mainstay of Journalese, a strange tongue that bears little relation to spoken English — at least to spoken English spoken anywhere but on a network or cable channel. It’s one of those words, like “hail” or “unveil,” that you will find in endless numbers of news stories about politics or government, but rarely hear on the sidewalks or in the living rooms of America.

Generally, reporters use the term to describe die-hard supporters of a politician or party (or at least those the media think should be die-hard supporters). But when describing Bush, the term is applied so loosely that it can cover religious conservatives … or fiscal conservatives … or libertarian (“small-government”) conservatives … or just plain conservative conservatives.

Undaunted by ambiguity — as is so often the case — the press corps weighs in with a deluge of “base” references today. Perhaps the worst offender is this morning’s New York Times. In a front page news analysis story, Robin Toner falls prey to the cliché in her lede, writing “It is a cardinal rule of politics … Pay attention to the party’s base.” Toner manages to use the phrase again in her second sentence: “In recent weeks, on a variety of fronts, President Bush has done just that, trying to allay the concerns and stoke the spirits of his restive conservative base.” And the headline? “By Backing a Gay Marriage Ban, Bush Keeps Faith With His Base.”

Not content to simply repeat the phrase on page one, the Times also opens its lead editorial with the claim that “With his re-election campaign barely started and his conservative base already demanding tribute, President Bush proposes to radically rewrite the Constitution.”

The Wall Street Journal’s story on Bush’s announcement manages to avoid the cliché, but their web editor evidently missed the memo, blurbing the piece as “Bush backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. The president gave his long-implied blessing in a bid to fire up his conservative base.” (Subscription required for links.)

Steve Holland of Reuters tells us that “Recent polls show the gay marriage issue could be a winner for Bush, who has long courted Christian conservatives as a key element of his political base.” Likewise, the wire service’s Alan Elsner reports in his second paragraph that “political experts” told him “Bush had little choice but to take such a stance since religious conservatives, who form an important part of his political base, had turned the issue into a litmus test.”

The Los Angeles Times also slips on the clichéd banana peel, noting in its report that “Bush’s announcement drew praise from social conservatives, who form the core of the president’s political base, and condemnation from advocates for civil rights and gay rights.”

To his credit, the LA Times’ Ron Brownstein, analyzing the decision, gives us a little more information: “With his endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, President Bush on Tuesday spotlighted one of the 2004 campaign’s key characteristics — the tendency of each party to appeal to core supporters in a nation sharply polarized along partisan lines.” Yet even he can’t stay away from the phrase, writing in his second paragraph that “Bush and his leading Democratic rivals, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, have aimed their agendas and messages more at their political base than at swing voters.”

Likewise, The Washington Post’s usually astute Dana Milbank can only resist the pull of the cliché for two paragraphs of his page one news analysis story before succumbing and writing that “Bush’s conservative base of support, despite three years of cultivation, had grown restless over the budget deficit, government spending and his plan to liberalize immigration.” Milbank might have been influenced by the experts he quotes, who (conservative and liberal alike) use the term with a relentlessness that would make Ari Fleischer proud. Nor could the Post’s headline writer hold out against temptation, titling Milbank’s piece “A Move to Satisfy Conservative Base.”

Political clichés such as this are like black holes, sucking political reporters and their prose into a lightless (and largely meaningless) alternative universe that only political junkies can understand.

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

Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.