Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Saying what you mean

In a Leonard Pitts, Jr. op-ed piece in my morning paper, he asks why people who say things that damage themselves don't just confess that they meant what they said. The NFL player, Clinton Portis, defended Michael Vick's involvement in dog fighting saying that he didn't know whether Vick actually engaged in this practice but said that it is his property, his dogs, and if that's what he wants to do, that's fine with Clinton. A few hours later he issued a statement saying he wished to make it clear that he didn't condone dog fighting.

Clearly we have a contradiction here. Former President Carter after correctly saying that George W. Bush was the worst President in history insofar as our impact around the world was concerned was forced to provide a semi-retraction. He later said that his remarks were "maybe careless or misinterpreted." This amendment to what he said employs the weasel word "maybe" which makes his "correction" inoperable for it could mean not just "maybe careless or misinterpreted," but also "maybe not careless or misinterpreted." Careless speaking can arise when one is not being as precise as one could be and perhaps should be, but this is not such a case. However, journalists and talking heads who neglected to use his qualification, "as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world," preferring instead the dramatic claim that George was our worst present ever President, were clearly acting in an irresponsible manner in that it counts as a willful misunderstandings of what Carter said. I give you Aljazzera.net, which had a story titled "Carter: Bush 'worst president ever'." The first paragraph says, "Jimmy Carter, the former US president, has called George Bush's presidency "the worst in history"," which repeats the deliberate misrepresentation but then in the third paragraph finally gets around to providing the qualification. I suspect it was this sort of misrepresentation that led to Carter's semi-retraction, for it represented him as making a vastly stronger claim than he actually made.

A "Media with Conscience" web site, ironically, has "Carter: Bush 'worst president ever' ," and has as its initial sentence, "Jimmy Carter, the former US president, has called George Bush's presidency as "the worst in history while also condemning Tony Blair, the out-going British prime minister, for his close support for Bush's policies.." This particular statement appears at a number of sites " and illustrates one of the greatest failings of journalism, namely the mindless repetition of claims others have made. They offer the mysterious statement, "By Agencies," to indicate the source of their story whereas Al Jazerra indicates that it got the photo it displayed from the AP but also used "Agencies" to indicate where it got its story from. I suspect we have some cheaters here who copy AP material without directly attributing the stories to it since that would involve paying the AP a fee and they protect their butts in a minimal fashion by using a totally oblique reference to "agencies" to indicate the source.

What Carter should have said is that his remarks were being misrepresented by journalists in order to provide readers with more dramatic claims than were actually made. It should not come as a surprise to any of you that journalists do this sort of thing, even so-called "responsible journalists." We live in a world of "sound bites" -- juicy clips taken from the mouths of those journalists wish to cover which may or may not accurately represent what the speaker said. Indeed, the first rule of journalism is "Grab the attention of the reader/listener," the second is "write/talk in language that represents events as immediate in the sense provided by Webster's on line dictionary of "occurring, acting, or accomplished without loss or interval of time." Thus, TV reporters often say things like, "The top US commander in Iraq says the US effort there may become even harder before it gets easier," as KWTX (a TV web site) put it on their web page. Way down on the list of journalistic rules is something like "Tell the truth."

The use of the present tense in journalism where the past tense is normally required for accuracy is a time honored practice. In doing research for my book on the language of politics, I ran into a text book that advocated use of the present tense to give immediacy to stories. In what seems to be a Kansas University web site [clip off "-edit/heads.html" from this url], we find "Effective headlines usually involve logical sentence structure, active voice and strong present-tense verbs" on a page that is headlined, "Making an impact — accurately."

So, Clinton Portis said what he meant and then contradicted it in a retraction doubtless inspired by his agent leaving us with a certain knowledge that he meant what he said the first time. But President Carter was misrepresented. His real offense was to violate the time honored practice of former Presidents not to criticize past ones, especially ones still in office. This is a very unfortunate principle since former Presidents may be able to provide us with much more substantive criticisms than others can. I suspect they do this so that the current guy won't trash them when he is out of office.

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Blogger Der Sankt said...

Hi there,

I think it's the ligitious state that this country's in that causes these statements. Nobody wants to get into what Rosie and Donald did...

If they knew there were no ramifications to what they said would they retract it? that's my curious question..

Der Sankt

11:52 AM


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