Thursday, April 09, 2009

Kathleen's Latest Cause: S.O.L. or we will soon be S.O.L.

My last post was about Barbie's birthday. Today I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. Variety, thy name is Woman!

I stand before you today waving a rag over my head. Newspaper, that is. You thought I meant something else? (For me that other rag is so yesterday.) My local newspaper has filed Chapter 11. The paper has shrunk in more ways than one, but I continue to subscribe. It's my meager effort to support the Fourth Estate. Without the press our society is doomed. Without responsible journalism, the press is doomed.

My beef du jour has to do with language. I'm so tired of the press's willingness to use euphemistic terms fed to them by the people and institutions they're supposed to be "keeping honest" that I'm screaming "S.O.L!" Save Our Language! And, no, I don't think we need to save English from other languages. English is a polyglot language that has welcomed all comers since the Roman invasion. So forget the "English Only" movement. That's much ado about much ado. But save us from the insidious euphemism. Save us from Doublespeak. Save us from lazy journalism.

We're wordsmiths here. We won the right to use the word penis instead of manhood, which does not mean penis. Okay, in the old B.P. days we made sure readers understood what we were talking about. But I'm not sure this new crop of journalists is doing even that much when they regurgitate the terms their sources supply. Terms like "collateral damage" (civilians killed), "de-populate" (kill off the animals in a given area), "extraordinary rendition" (kidnapping). Here's a good one: "biosolids" (feces). And how about "public diplomacy"? That's propaganda, pure and simple.

Back in the day, euphemisms were mostly used as a matter of courtesy, often when talking about bodily functions, including sex. Silly or not, the idea was to avoid offense. Most of us know that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Most of us know that had the North Dakota legislature succeeded in changing the state's name to Dakota back in the 1980's they would not have changed the weather. So no harm done.

But when euphemisms become the language of the press, we're in big trouble. When "talking points" full of terms conceived to confuse and desensitize the public are repeated ad nauseum by reporters, we're no longer getting the news. More and more, euphemistic terms serve to obfuscate, to keep the public in the dark. And just who is served? Not the people. Certainly not in a democracy.

Remember when we were taught that propaganda was the province of advertisers and communist or fascist governments? In the USA we had a free press, and we learned what that meant and why it was important and how a news story was set up and how to check facts and compare sources. I'm beginning to wonder what kind of training journalists are getting these days. Once upon a time they were trained to avoid euphemisms, to challenge for truth, to get the facts upon which we might base honest public discourse. Lately we're hearing riduculous terms like "toxic assets." Huh? This is no time for oxymorons. Are we talking about bad debts? Why can't you say bad debts?

I miss George Carlin. I loved his riffs on language. He could be at once funny and sobering. He talked about the evolution of a concept we seem to find increasingly difficult to be honest about. For the WWI era it was shell shock. Pretty graphic. By WWII it became battle fatigue. For Vietnam vets it was post traumatic stress disorder. And now--I don't remember whether he ended up with this--we're down to PTSD. Reduced to an initialism.

I think we went overboard on "political correctness," but maybe that's just me. I think we need newspapers. We need reporters covering stories and events that matter and practicing ethical journalism, which means tossing out the talking points filled with terminology designed to shape public thinking. How do you get your news? Who does a good job of reporting it? What's your favorite outrageous euphemism?

And now for a little Spring in my step. It's been years since I grew anything edible in my garden besides herbs, but this year I'm doing a couple of raised beds. My Indian cowboy is putting them together as we speak. Gardener's Supply has a "Grow What You Eat" challenge going on their web site. I signed up. They also have several small plot plans and a neat tool you can use to come up with your own plan. Check it out. I'll take pictures and report back. Anyone care to join in? Victory gardens all around!


lois greiman said...

Oh Kathy, I am soooo with you. We seem to be very afraid of facing the truth. And our ever-diluted language proves that. You should become a jounalist. It's time.

Betina Krahn said...

What I'm most concerned about is the loss of newspapers. I'm a big reader of newspapers, always have been. And now they're toppling like dominos.

Yes, I know more and more people are getting their news from TV and the internet, but it seems that we just keep seeing the same few stories over and over in the national media. Local interest or even vital world stories are totally ignored if they don't make sexy soundbites.

I know papers can be biased, too. But it scares me to think that so much of what we're told as News and expected to swallow as Truth is molded by a few spin-mongers with a monopoly on the microphones.

The more sources you have, the greater the chance that you'll learn the truth. Or am I naive on that?

Anonymous said...

I love our newspaper. It's a weekly, owned by a local family. Last week on April 1st, they published a nearly blank front page with, "No news to report" at the top. At the very bottom the page said, "April fool."
This week (Easter week) they have a picture of a dogwood tree and the legend of the dogwood.
I'd hate it if we lost our "rag".
As to gardening, I love it. Last year I grew tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. This year I might even add squash.

Michele Hauf said...

The Strib filed chap. 11? Waaa! I agree, the news can be almost silly to listen to lately.

as for gardens, the hubby did mention we should try tomatoes on our deck this year. Our thumbs are not so green that we will attempt a garden in the actual yard. We must start slow, and gradually build momentum if that first crop works out. ;-)

Kathleen Eagle said...

Lois, if this fiction writing gig doesn't work out for me, I could probably transition pretty easily with the help of a good plastic surgeon and a really skilled hairdresser.

Kathleen Eagle said...

What Betina said. There's so much in the paper that doesn't make TV news at all. And the news bloggers depend on what's left of the wire services and newspaper reporters.

I have to give credit to TV journalists like Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper. I look for their special reports. And there are others. But newspapers are cutting back so drastically on staff that they can't cover even the necessary bases properly, and it's sad. Scary, really. How does that song don't know what you got 'til it's gone.

We gotta save newspapers, folks!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Michele, we're putting our raised beds in the middle of our little "courtyard." It's the only place we get good sun, and it's right outside the kitchen door. Clyde ripped out a section of pavers. I saw articles in Better Homes and Fam Circle just this month, and I said, "We can do this." (And he said, "Oh, dear.")

Anonymous said...

I hate losing newspapers. Hard to line my birdcage with my computer! (Har har)

I can't wait to see the pictures of your garden

Helen Brenna said...

Been worried this was going to happen, Kathy. We do need newspapers and journalists. I've gotten so that I don't even listen to the national news much any more. Like the local news, but, no, it doesn't have as much detail as the paper.

I have a phrase that I hate, not sure I'd call it a euphemism, and I certainly wouldn't call it a favorite. Sexual assault. As if rape is too violent of a word.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Yeah, I think sexual assault is a euphemism. Does it refer only to rape? Everyone knows what rape means, so let's use the word. It's like all forms of the word die. It is what it is.

In terms of good writing one of the things we talk about is specificity. Strong verbs and concrete nouns. We strive for the most accurate words because we want the reader to understand, to visualize, to "get it." We fiction writers know that we lose readers with vagary. And we don't want to lose readers.

Debra Dixon said...

I'm very concerned about the loss of the written language.

I'm only have kidding. I hate video clips. It would only take a moment for me to read the flipping point or conversation, but nooooo I have to wade through a 30 second commercial to see a video clip of some news segment.

I want my written news!!! I want my written gossip!! I just want writing.

Debra Dixon said...

Oops. That was... "only HALF kidding."

I'm even more concerned about the written language now. (g)

amy*skf said...


I get most of my news from the newspaper, I don't watch regular tv news. I do however watch John Stewart, that's where I get most of my political news, when one segment is called "Cluster &*^% To The Poor House" you know there are no euphemisms lurking around.

Kathleen Eagle said...

You and me, Amy. What would we do without Stewart and Colbert?

Kylie said...

Kathleen, you raise a good point. I'm very concerned with the fate of newspapers. I rarely get my national news from TV, simply because I'm not around when it airs. I often search out news on the internet, which has made me drop my subscription to Newsweek.

But I like my newspapers.

I want to read it in the morning before work. The space seems to give them some freedom to report on things we don't hear about elsewhere. And increasingly with on air news channel becoming politically affiliated, we can't rely on them for an objective reporting of facts. Other than editorials, I expect the printed word to be--by and large--unbiased.

I want those journalists exposing the public offices in the state who refuse to use transparencies in the their transactions. The ones who throw up obstacles to impede a citizen's rights under the Freedom of Information act. With fewer newspapers and journalists, we have fewer holding public officials accountable, and that could be a sad sad thing.

Debra Dixon said...

I'm a big John Steward fan. Not a big fan of Colbert. Hubby loves him.

Candace said...

I'm with you on language, Kathy. Say what you mean!

As for newspapers - we still get the local paper but I've got to admit I get my news from the 'net - half a dozen news websites and blogs. I love the interaction and discussion.

As to gardens -- Yes!!! I grow veggies in a raised bed ( eggplant, yellow squash, cukes... I'm drooling. I grow herbs in a dozen different pots -- enough to dry so I have them all winter. And tomtoes from two upside-down hanging planters., which gives me enough to make many quarts of tomato sauce to freeze.

This year I'm adding a second bed to add a couple of different kinds of chards and pole beans. And I'm hunting for a trough-type planter for a strawberry patch.

Plus all my flowers. I do love gardening.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Deb, how can you resist Colbert? Utter genius!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Hi Candace!

I've wondered about the upside-down hanging tomatoes. It really works, huh? I've done green peppers and cherry tomatoes in pots and once had a "1000" cherry tomato climb up to the roof and all the way back down. I went without tomato plants for a few seasons, so I'm really excited. I love having fresh herbs in pots, too. Love the scents.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where you get your information from, but public diplomacy is most definitely NOT propaganda. Public diplomacy is building goodwill and understanding through student exchange programs, professional exchanges, etc. Propaganda is the use of media to spread partial truths or outright lies. It's a completely different concept. Some people willfully distort the difference for their own political purposes, but PD is not the same thing a PR or propaganda.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Anon, the kind of people-to-people goodwill programs you describe--worthy stuff, surely--is different from the term that goes back to the 70's or so when we had an "Office of Public Diplomacy" that, as I understand it, had some dealings in Central America.

I don't think the office exists anymore, but the term has been used in recent years with regard to some of the programs we've come up with to "change hearts and minds" in the Mid East, especially Iraq, including PR pieces "telling America's story" through Iraq-based media. It's stuff produced by our government. Can't say I've seen it myself. Apparently our media is taking the cue from the government in its use of the term "public diplomacy" to refer to stuff produced to promote our cause, not to inform or educate per se. That's what propaganda is. It may or may not be true. The purpose is to further one cause or thwart another. And the media is using the term--sort of revived from the old 70's CIA era--to refer to something that doesn't really have much to do with diplomacy, IMO.

You make a very interesting point, Anon. We can certainly use more of the kind of people-to-people exchange that you're talking about in the Mid East. That's the kind of effort that can really tell the American story.

I probably shouldn't have used that example. Didn't mean to get too political. Thanks for your comment!

Venus Vaughn said...

My "fave" euphemism is The Patriot Act.