The Rhetoric Beat

Why journalism needs one
November 1, 2007

There was a series of moments, during the first twenty-four hours after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the choice of words—by the press and government officials—played a crucial role in setting America on a course that led, ultimately, to our military action in Iraq. Martin Montgomery, a journalism scholar in Scotland, traces this rhetorical trajectory in meticulous detail in his 2005 essay in Language and Literature, the journal of the Poetics and Linguistics Association. Using newspaper headlines and transcripts of broadcast interviews and White House press conferences, Montgomery shows how the decision to describe the attacks in the language of “war,” rather than as a criminal act, emerged swiftly and organically in the earliest press accounts, and was quickly solidified and extended by President Bush and other administration officials. So that by September 13 the assumption that America was “at war,” with all of that idea’s sobering implications, was irrevocably established in the national consciousness. Polls released on September 12 indicated that more than 90 percent of respondents considered the attacks an “act of war,” and although within a couple of weeks challenges to this definition of the attacks began to appear in the press—mostly on the op-ed pages and often couched in partisan arguments—it was too late. This is not to say that invading Iraq was inevitable at this point, but it was firmly situated in the range of options that were legitimized by the notion of being “at war.” As Montgomery writes:

A world of difference exists between the dominant paradigm for considering the events of September 11 as ‘an act of war’ and an alternative paradigm such as ‘mass murder.’ Quite simply, ‘mass murder’…defines the terms of the response within the domain of police investigation, criminal justice and the safeguards of law….The discourse of war offers a quite different route. Actions and reactions are understood in military terms….Once talk of war had become established, a national enemy had to be identified….

Maybe declaring a “war on terror” was the proper response to 9/11. There is a case to be made that it was, and that the problems came later, in the bungled prosecution of that effort. (The very linguistic, and legal, ambiguity surrounding this “war,” however, has allowed the Bush administration to define the term selectively—to demand unwavering patriotism from the home front while sidestepping a formal declaration from Congress, say, or strict adherence to the Geneva Conventions.) The point is that the ready and largely uncritical embrace of the war narrative—in key realms of the public sphere—precluded the possibility of a serious public debate about other options.

What if on 9/11 our major media outlets had employed reporters whose sole job it was to cover the rhetoric of politics—to parse the language of our elected leaders, challenge it, and explain the thinking behind it, the potential power it can have to legitimize certain actions and policies and render others illegitimate? As the press and public officials struggled to find the proper language to describe what was happening on their television screens (or outside their windows), these reporters would have been scrutinizing that language, and, let’s assume for sake of argument, having their analytical work displayed prominently—on the front pages of newspapers and Web sites, and in substantial TV news segments. Such a line of inquiry would not have been a stretch, as the decision to define the attacks as “acts of war” ran counter to history. The U.S. and countries everywhere have traditionally treated terrorist attacks as a breach of civil and criminal law—the idea is to deny the perpetrators legitimacy and thereby defuse the political power of their actions. Investigations, trials, and convictions were our primary response, for instance, when terrorists brought down a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and when our embassies in east Africa were bombed in 1998. (It’s worth noting that the bits of transcript from the White House press briefings and broadcast interviews that Montgomery uses suggest that reporters and administration officials did worry, often vigorously, over the language of war and what it meant, but mainly in terms of process—do we need congressional approval? Can you declare war on an individual?, etc.) Could such a journalistic effort have possibly changed something significant about the U.S. response?

It’s unlikely. There was something in the nature of those attacks—the magnitude, perhaps, or the audacity—that immediately made parallels to Pearl Harbor and the war that followed impossible to ignore. As Montgomery demonstrates, the press was writing the first lines of a war narrative based on little more than what we all were witnessing firsthand, and so it is difficult to argue that journalists were simply transcribing the White House’s response. Among the headlines of the 183 newspapers that published editions on 9/11 with front pages devoted to the attacks were various formulations of ANOTHER DAY OF INFAMY, in clear reference to Pearl Harbor. In its final edition that day, The Washington Post published an editorial entitled simply, WAR. By the time Bush himself described the attacks as “more than acts of terror. They were acts of war,” on September 12, the press was poised to amplify that message to the nation.

Still, the consequences of the decision to describe 9/11 as the beginning of a war rather than a criminal investigation drive home the importance of political language in a way that a similar semantic debate over “death tax” versus “estate tax” cannot. In the years since that decision, language—its uses and abuses—has emerged as a central issue in our political culture. This emergence has been driven largely by the Bush administration’s need to simultaneously wage its “war on terror” and define it, and the frustration among the administration’s critics with what they consider its aggressive manipulation of language to, in effect, create reality—to help Americans think, for example, that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, or that we are “winning” the “war on terror.” As a result we’ve had linguistic clashes between “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “torture,” “unlawful enemy combatant” and “prisoner of war,” “liberation” and “occupation.” We’ve been told that this “war on terror” is a new kind of conflict that requires new strategies, like “extraordinary rendition” and “preventive war.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Apologies to William Safire, but journalism needs a rhetoric beat. Yes, language has been used and misused in the service of politics since man first had both language and politics. Political rhetoric is not inherently bad, and I am not suggesting a War on Rhetoric. But there are aspects of our present political and cultural reality that underline the need for a prominent, persistent, and intellectually honest airing of our linguistic dirty laundry, and the mainstream press is our best hope for getting it.

First, we’re in the middle of a “framing war,” as Matt Bai’s 2005 cover article in The New York Times Magazine made clear. In the wake of their inability to wrest the presidency from the GOP in 2004, Bai tells us, leading Democrats in Congress embraced the concept of framing as articulated by George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist who suggests that most thought is based not on facts but on unconscious physical metaphors imbedded in our brains. Simply put, framing involves choosing the right words to activate a desired mental “frame” or perception—“private” Social Security accounts instead of “personal” accounts, or “sectarian violence” in Iraq rather than a “civil war,” or the role of “personal responsibility” when it comes to the breadth and depth of our social safety net. The right has had considerable success at framing controversial issues for years—think “liberal media,” or those “founding fathers” in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Now the left has launched a counteroffensive.

We all frame things, often unconsciously—it is how we organize and comprehend reality. When we say, “Our relationship has hit a bump in the road,” for example, or “We’ve gone our separate ways,” we invoke an unspoken metaphor—or frame—of love as a journey, as Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. This largely benign aspect makes framing distinct from spin, which implies premeditation, although there is considerable overlap between the two. The rhetoric beat could take on both conscious and unconscious framing, but I am more interested in those frames that are built with language that is deliberately made overly vague or euphemistic or difficult to define precisely.

There is a substantial framing literature that the rhetoric reporter could draw on, including Todd Gitlin’s 1980 book, The Whole World Is Watching, which diagnoses the largely unspoken frames that the press applies to the world unilaterally. These media frames could be part of the purview of the rhetoric beat, as could the work of Lakoff’s critics, who suggest that in his recent role as campaign adviser he has overstated both the persuasive power of framing and its ability to cure what ails the Democrats. Steven Pinker, for instance, the Harvard psychology professor, takes on Lakoff in his new book, The Stuff of Thought, as well as in a scathing review in The New Republic last year of Lakoff’s latest book, Whose Freedom? Pinker argues that frames do not trump facts, and that frames and their implications can be tested against reality. “Even if the intelligence of a single person can be buffeted by framing and other bounds on rationality,” Pinker writes, “this does not mean that we cannot hope for something better from the fruits of many people thinking together—that is, from the collective intelligence in institutions such as history, journalism, and science, which have been specifically designed to overcome those limitations through open debate and the testing of hypotheses with data.” Sounds good, but I would add that a rhetoric beat could allow this testing to happen in an accessible and broadly public way.

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.

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.”

It’s too late to adjust the war frame that was constructed after the attacks on 9/11. But there is another monumental framing debate looming. For the first time since Vietnam, the U.S. is stuck in an increasingly unpopular foreign conflict with no clear way out. It is undeniable that bad information, ushered into the realm of “fact” in some cases by rhetorical malfeasance, played a central role in getting us there. Now the nation’s focus is shifting to how and when to get out and, more important for our purposes, there is a corollary need to describe the getting out. Richard Engel, NBC’s Middle East correspondent who has covered the fighting in Iraq since the beginning, wasn’t too excited by my idea of a rhetoric beat when I called him in Beirut to discuss it. “I wouldn’t want it,” he said. “It sounds kind of academic. I like to think of myself as more of a hunter-gatherer.” Fair enough, but Engel clearly has thought a great deal about the language that journalists and politicians use to describe the fighting in Iraq. Last summer he took apart the word “war” as applied to Iraq from a different standpoint in a piece for Nieman Reports. Engel, one of the few U.S. reporters in Iraq who speak Arabic, wrote that there is not the one war in Iraq that has been defined by the Bush administration—and reflected in the press—between “Freedom Lovers and Freedom Haters,” but rather “many wars, some centuries old, playing out on this ancient land.” This oversimplified frame that has dominated our national discourse about what is happening in Iraq, he suggests, muddles the effort to define success and failure. As Engel writes, “U.S. politicians and military commanders often complain that the Iraqi government ‘won’t step up and do its job.’…Perhaps the question should be, ‘Which job?’…Iraqi officials, religious leaders, militia groups, Syria, Iran, and al Qaeda are struggling and dying to get a ‘job done’ in Iraq, though it does not appear to be the job the White House would like them to be doing.”

Now, Engel says, he can see the contours of the final clash of frames (my words, not his) for the U.S. involvement in Iraq taking shape. “There is going to be an effort to make sure we don’t have a similar sense of national failure after Iraq,” he said, like the one that followed Vietnam and has persisted to this day. In the White House and the U.S. military, Engel says, the nascent message he hears is: sure, we made mistakes, but we fought an honorable fight and a good fight. We gave the Iraqis the opportunity to live like civilized people, but they were too embroiled in tribal wars that are thousands of years old.

Engel says this understanding of the U.S. role in Iraq is inaccurate to the point of absurdity, yet he worries that it will be easy for the press to fall into the trap of just repeating it uncritically to the nation. “Just as in the last few years we in the press have had to resist the formulation, ‘Iraq, comma, the front line of the war on terror,’” he says, “in the coming years we will need to resist the formulation, ‘We won the war in Iraq, but the Iraqis lost it.’”

Whether or not Engel is right, the administration will certainly attempt to frame its effort in Iraq in a way that enhances President’s Bush’s legacy. It would make a good trial run for the rhetoric beat. 

Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.