Tuesday, January 25, 2005

More language wars
When the idea of phasing out Social Security and moving the money into the stock market was first proposed by conservative think tanks in the nineties, the term they used for this program was "privatization." George Bush used that term all through his 2000 presidential campaign. He continued to use it after the 2004 election when he revived the idea and announced that it would be a centerpiece of his second term. Some time after Christmas, he stopped using the term "privatization" and began using the term "personal accounts" to describe the same transfer of funds to the stock market. Bush even wiped all memory that he had ever used such a word from his mind.
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 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 Post: To describe it.

THE PRESIDENT: When, when was it?

The Post: Mike said it was right around the election.


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.

Apparently, they discovered that the word "privatization"--or any other term based on the root "private"--didn't poll well back during the 2002 midterm elections. However the new term wasn't enforced very well until Bush began his major offensive against Social Security after the 2004 election. Over the last few months 'private accounts" and "personal accounts have been used interchangeably with little comment until last week. At that point, some kind of decision was made within the GOP (probably based on new polling) that no form of the word private was to be allowed. Thus, Bush's exchange with the Washington Post.

Today we got a glimpse of their new push to enforce the jargon-du-jour when Josh Marshall talked with Frank Luntz on Al Franken's radio show. Most readers know Marshall, the proprietor of Talking Points Memo, who has been doing a heroic job covering the Social Security issue over the last few weeks. Luntz is a Republican pollster and marketing genius*. Luntz has been advising Republicans on how to [mis]use language to frame issues in their favor for over ten years. It was Luntz who changed the estate tax into the death tax. It was Luntz who coined the phrase Contract with America.

[This is my own transcript, so any errors belong to me and not to Media Matters.]
Marshall: Do you think it's fair for Democrats or reporters or anybody else to use the word "privatization" or "private accounts" to describe the President's policy?

Luntz: I think it's fair for Democrats to do so.

Marshall: Why not the press?

Luntz: Because it's not-the press is making a pejorative statement...

Marshall: But wait, but wait. It's the phrase the president himself uses over and over again.

Others: Why would...? Hang on a minute. What makes it pejorative?

Marshall: Yeah?

Luntz: Because I-for example, I-when I listen-when someone says the word-I know some of the people on this on this discussion are Jewish. If somebody...

Marshall: Hey, buddy...

Luntz: ...Israel, I know someone is likely to be a supporter. If someone uses the phrase State of Israel, I know that they are trying to create a distance.

Marshall: Huh?

Luntz: If someone uses the phrase "private accounts," "privatization" I have an idea of where they stand on Social Security and I'm usually not wrong on that.

Marshall and others: But the President used that.

Luntz: Used that [heavy emphasis on the past tense of "used"].

Marshall: Okay, okay, so long as he stops using that, from that point on...

Others: [Laughter and crosstalk.]

Marshall: I'm serious about this. At the point at which he no longer uses the word, reporters have start using a different-verbiage-shall we say?

Luntz: It's one of the reasons why the American People don't trust the media. If the media wants to engage in a debate, let it say so. Let them come on the shows that they do on Sundays, let them state a point of view, and people know that they're not getting the journalistic report, they're getting the opinions of the left wing or the right wing because there are journalists on both sides who speak.

By "pejorative" I'm sure Luntz means "biased" (I'm also sure he intentionally chose that word for it's stronger and more sinister connotations). As Marshall points out, the logical corollary of Luntz's reasoning is that the press must always use any new term the White House designates as soon as they designate it. Not to do so, would be to take sides on the issue against the administration.

Of course, since choosing to repeat the administration's preferred framing means taking the administration's side, a further corollary is that there is no neutral ground for reporters and no objective reporting. The press must decide whether they are with the administration or against it. Since being openly against the administration is a good way to get cut off from administration sources, professional suicide, the price of access to the White House is willingly incorporating oneself into the administration's propaganda machine.

* I'm not being sarcastic. The guy is really good at what he does. It's just that he has chosen to use his powers for evil.

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