October 25, 2004

Wilgoren invents a trend

I've often criticized the bushisms industry, by questioning some of the specific complaints about George W. Bush's speech, and by pointing out comparable disfluencies, mispronunciations and malapropisms committed in public speaking and writing by others, including Kos, John Kerry, Charles Gibson, and Jacob Weisberg himself. This is a fruitless endeavor, of course, since once journalists get hold of a stereotypical association, they hang on to it like a superstitious athlete wearing a long-unwashed lucky jockstrap.

In an equally fruitless struggle, Geoff Nunberg has repeatedly debunked the stereotyping of John Kerry as a linguistic elitist. As Bob Summerby observed in the Daily Howler, this bit of groupthink surfaced again in a 10/22 NYT article, where Jodi Wilgoren claimed that

Mr. Kerry has been doing what he can to seem more down to earth. He uses more contractions and drops G's, T's, and N's, making "does not" sound like "dudnt," and "government" come out, as it might have in the Old West, "guvmint."

More contractions? What's the evidence? I've heard Kerry talking like this, in his informal mode, since I first listened to him campaigning in the primaries. Has Wilgoren gone over Kerry's speeches and made a count? Has someone else? I doubt it -- I'll bet that this is Wilgoren's vague impression, at best, and more likely it was just invented to plug into a rhetorical structure requiring something that can pass for a fact.

Wilgoren's curious description of the phenomena doesn't add to my confidence on this point. Talking about dropping G's is conventional though misleading, but what does it mean to drop T's and N's? This moves beyond ignorance into incoherence.

Why do journalists think that when it comes to matters of style, gesture, language use and so on, it's OK to fill straight news articles with unsupported impressions, careless exaggerations and plain old fabrications? Most NYT writers would think twice before claiming that some non-linguistic statistic has changed in a significant way -- casualties in Iraq, or jobs created in Ohio -- if they had no evidence other than a vague personal impression, and didn't even know how to describe the phenomenon coherently. Why is it OK to make a descriptively incoherent and factually unsupported assertion about Kerry's contractions, without even the usual figleaf of a quote from an anonymous source?

I think the answer is clear. Editors encourage journalists to make assertions about public figures' style -- how they walk, talk, dress, gesture, grimace and so on -- because this makes their stories more interesting and more accessible to readers. The factual content of these assertions, is rarely if ever checked, and no journalist ever gets into trouble for selecting, exaggerating or even inventing "facts" of this kind. However, out of cowardice and laziness, journalists tend to select or invent stylistic "facts" that resonate with some aspect of the conventional wisdom -- some stereotype -- about the people they're covering. Political operatives work hard to play these resonances on behalf of their candidates and against the opposition.

Bob Summerby's piece balances criticism of Wilgoren's "silly clowning" about Kerry's contractions with retrospective analysis of Frank Bruni's 1999 invention of the Bushism concept, and Katherine Seeley's 2000 put-down of Gore for using a few uhs. Summerby's larger point is that reporters at the Times and elsewhere routinely use a wide variety of novelistic tricks to manipulate public perceptions of political candidates and other public figures. It seems to me that this is true without any doubt, and I agree with Summerby that it's a major problem (though not a new one).

But I don't agree with Summerby that "discussions of candidate speech patterns are hopelessly subjective and trivial". Speech patterns can be accurately described, both in particular cases and in statistical aggregates. While many aspects of speech patterns are politically trivial, others may be relevant to voters' choices, if only to counter the effects of (negative or positive) stereotypes on communication across regions, subcultures and classes. And people are interested in such things, so they're going to notice them and talk about them in any case.

So I'm not making the argument that description and discussion of public figures' linguistic style ought to be out of bounds in principle. But shouldn't there be some standards? We don't like the idea of journalists (or politicians) lying to us about matters of content -- why should they be free to lie about style?

We're starting to see some blogospheric fact-checking about this sort of thing, as in Summerby's widely-read complaints. Not that this is likely to have much direct impact on the guilty party in this case. An American Journalism Review article quotes Wilgoren: "I've never been on InstaPundit. I don't even know what that is."

[Update: On October 24, Maureen Dowd chimed in:

The senator is desperately trying to prove his regular-guydom. He's using more contractions and dropping G's, T's and N's, as Ms. Wilgoren points out, and he drank Budweiser with his male aides while watching a Red Sox game, when you know he was dying for an imported beer.


[Update: this (satiric -- I trust) journalist's weblog captures the situation precisely. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 25, 2004 07:34 AM