Monday, January 24, 2005

Parsing Terms, Picking Sides

A dispute over language and politics has given the news industry Orwellian fits. It centers on the President's social security plan and whether the media should describe the plan's process as a "privatization" of retiree accounts. The "ownership society" White House doesn't like the framing and has declared any use of the terms "privatization" or "private accounts" to be partisan and deeply unfriendly to the Bush agenda.

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:

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".

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?

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.”


Anonymous said...

"bully" or "President tried to pull"?

Isn't that a little much?

You are quick to criticize the President, aren't you?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"Bully" and "trying to pull" are in quotes. For those of us who understand the English language, that usually means they were said by someone other than the author . . . In this case, that would be Josh Marshall not Timothy Karr. Here, Mediacitizen is just posing the question: "Are we all speaking the same language?" To which you have given us the answer: no.

Anonymous said...

You can fool some of the people etc,. especially if you have "Spindarella" on your side, used tax money for payola punditry, and leave ethics, honesty and integrity out of your calculations.

Anonymous said...

In a recent article Robert Reich, who at one time was on of the SS Fund trustees, noted:

1. Security - because that is what the program was to provide. A secure base, not a total retirement package.

2. Social - because it was to be spread over the whole country.

The Bush people are destroying that system. If they want to build an entirely different system, then let them say so - but leave SS at it is, with the minor changes needed to make it viable in 2070.

Anonymous said...

I thought all you writers / newspeople had to go to school and learn how to use words. When one of ussess starts a word it seems like all the rest of ussess cain't let go. The definition of "privatize" has nothing to do with what the President is proposing with SSA withholdings. The ordinary citizen should be able to have a say in how his withholding is invested, that is not privatization. Better yet, the elected officials should have to pay into SSA and rely on that benefit for their retirement, see how fast it gets "fixed" then.


Anonymous said...

The last portion of this commentary is most interesting. Who started using the comments re: Privatizing Social Security? Not the President. But when ownership is brought up, the writer quickly hides behind the Political Correctness tree. Do as I say, foret what I say and do!!

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how gullible the US citizens have become. All a 'leader' has to do is yell CRISIS and the average person runs for cover.

We should have learned from the Iraq situation, that Bush's tendency to yell CRISIS should be viewed with a certain amount of caution.

But now, he is doing it again with SS. And yet, too many are allowing him to get away with it.

The major one is to talk of the SS Fund as just being IOUs. They seem to forget that every obligation of the US government (all $7 trillion) is made up of IOUs.

The problem is that some of those holding those IOUs (government bonds) are foreign countries who are getting very cautious given our soaring debt and out of control foreign trade balance.