Last week, Josh Marshall reported that Karl Rove has been trying to bully reporters out of using the word "privatization" when referring to Bush's social security plans: "At Rove's prompting, President Bush tried to pull this trick when Washington Post reporters asked him about 'privatization' during a recent sit-down interview," even though the president himself was heard recently using the word.
On Monday, NPR discusses the president’s preference to frame these issues as part of his vision of an “ownership society.” Are we all speaking the same language here? If not, Tom Toles puts it into pictures (via Evan Derkacz), as does Nick Anderson.
Later, AP reporter David Espo writes about an argument between the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)and Republican pollsters over a poll that found Americans unreceptive to a Social Security system with "private accounts." Republican John McLaughlin argues that the AARP poll used slanted wording including the phrase "private accounts" to describe the plan. McLaughlin's and the White House's choice of words: "personal accounts."
Thomas Lang writes: “This debate, as some in the blogosphere have noted, has a far greater purpose that 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.”
And the White House appears to be gaining the upper hand. According to Josh Marshall:
So which is it, "personal" or "private?" By using one or the other's choice of language is a news organization picking a side in the debate, or merely trying to get at the truth?
The Times and NBC may have adopted "personal accounts" over "private accounts" at the bidding of the Republican National Committee. But the AP's Nedra Pickler is standing firm with "private accounts." Reuters, meanwhile, tries to be half-pregnant with "personal stock and bond accounts", while Bloomberg ups the ante on the White House with "private stock accounts".
Appearing on the Al Franken show opposite Republican spinmeister Frank Luntz, Josh Marshall asks whether the use of "privatization" and "private accounts" wasn't appropriate as these were the words that Republicans and other "phase-out supporters" themselves came up with, and have used to describe the program as recently as two months ago. Luntz disagrees saying that journalists who choose these words to describe the new social security plan are picking the Democratic side in the debate.
Marshall concludes: "So whereas it was okay two months ago for reporters to use the term 'private accounts' they must now refer to them as 'personal accounts' because the president has now decided that that is the proper word."
Matthew Iglesias has a plan:
The only way to get the media to refer to private accounts as "private accounts" is if the media is convinced that "private accounts" is a neutral third-way term between the Bushian "personal accounts" and some other Democratic alternative term. This calls, basically, for someone at the DNC . . . to hire someone to do some focus groups and come up with a serviceable term [that is] worse than private accounts. Then you send around a memo getting all Democrats to start calling them "X accounts" while the White House calls them "personal accounts." Then "private accounts" will look like a decent compromise and it may well get back in the stories.Ezra Klein builds on Iglesias' suggestion: "Happy Freedom Accounts" anyone?
Better yet, why don't the Washington gaggle move beyond their timid game of false equivalence and tell Americans what the new social security plan really means -- in straightforward and concise language that gets at the truth of the story.
Instead, many are just regurgitating the spin as presented by both sides, ignoring the plurality of other perspectives. I suppose this is easier said than done, but mainstream media too often confuses bipolar journalism with "objective" reporting.
Scott Libin of the Poynter Institute comments that few issues have only two sides. We just tend to stop investigating the issue after presenting opposing views, he writes: "Sometimes the best alternative is the third or fourth or fourteenth -- if we bother to find it. That's why, as journalists and as leaders, we need to get over bipolar thinking. It leaves too many important ideas unexplored.”