Yesterday, Associated Press reporter David Espo filed an article covering the spat that has broken out between the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and certain Republicans over an AARP poll that found Americans unreceptive to a Social Security system with “private accounts” after they were told about the “consequences associated with implementation.”
John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster, argued that the AARP’s use of the phrase “private accounts” to describe the plan was one of the reasons for the muted support. To McLaughlin, those are loaded words. Jeff Love, AARP’s research director, dismissed the argument, telling AP’s Espo that “private accounts” is “the phrase we’ve always used. It’s a descriptive phrase. I don’t think it has any derogatory or pejorative meaning to it.”
This debate, as some in the blogosphere have noted, has a far greater purpose than the exchange of hot air between a pollster and a lobbyist. Rather, this a debate directed at the press, as each side works to frame the debate around its preferred jargon.
While most of the haggling over language goes on behind closed doors, the Washington Post’s interview with President Bush last week put on display the tug-of-war that is being fought.
The Post: Will you talk to Senate Democrats about your privatization plan?
The president: You mean, the personal savings accounts?
The Post: Yes, exactly. Scott has been —
The president: We don’t want to be editorializing, at least in the questions.
The Post: You used partial privatization yourself last year, sir.
The president: Yes?
The Post: Yes, three times in one sentence. We had to figure this out, because we’re in an argument with the RNC [Republican National Committee] about how we should actually word this. [Post staff writer] Mike Allen, the industrious Mike Allen, found it.
The president: Allen did what now?
The Post: You used partial privatization.
The president: I did, personally?
The Post: Right.
The president: When?
The Post: To describe it.
The president: When, when was it?
The Post: Mike said it was right around the election.
The president: Seriously?
The Post: It was right around the election. We’ll send it over.
The president: I’m surprised. Maybe I did. It’s amazing what happens when you’re tired. Anyway, your question was? I’m sorry for interrupting.
What is this all about? It’s about public perception; both Republicans and Democrats are aware that the phrase “personal accounts” polls better than the phrase “private accounts.”
So where does this war of words leave reporters?
It leaves some of them in the middle of a tug-of-war, and oftentimes not even aware that they’ve been pulled from one side to the other. In his AARP article, for example, aside from quotes from the organization itself, Espo referred to the savings accounts three times as “personal accounts.” Yet last October 17 and December 6 (the latter co-authored with Deb Reichmann), Espo used the phrase “private accounts” eight times, without ever resorting to the warmer and fuzzier usage, “personal accounts.” “Personal Accounts” didn’t appear in Espo’s writing until early December, when the Bush administration was ramping up its publicity campaign to push its agenda for Social Security. On December 7, Espo used “private accounts” — the phrase frowned upon by the president — seven times, opting for “personal accounts” just once. By January, the tables had turned and “private” had disappeared from Espo’s reporting — reappearing only yesterday in his story about the spat between the AARP and the Republican pollster.
When asked about the change, Espo told CJR Daily he was unaware of the adjustment in his own choice of terminology, and said that “on balance” he identifies the savings accounts as “personal accounts.” He said if there is an AP directive mandating a particular usage, he is unaware of it.
It’s mildly alarming whenever the press so easily and, in this particular case, unknowingly adopts the rhetoric of the powerful. Words matter. See Orwell, George. Shrewd politicians throughout history routinely have manipulated language to put a gloss on their policies and proposals.
Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.
In truth, both “private accounts” and “personal accounts” are an accurate description of what the president appears ready to propose. But in making a choice between the two, journalists — unlike politicians — shouldn’t pay attention to which phrase polls best with the public.