April 05, 2005

The rhetoric of relevance

Today's NYT has an article by Lydia Polgreen and Larry Rohter under the headline Third World Represents a New Factor in Pope's Succession. Among CBS News' pages on possible new popes, the one on Dionigi Tettamanzi introduces the factor of geography in a different way:

The cardinal - considered a moderate - became the leading Italian candidate for the papacy with his July 2002 nomination to become the cardinal of Milan, Italy's richest, most powerful archdiocese. Tettamanzi's promotion from his post as the cardinal of Genoa marks the first time in recent history the pope has moved a cardinal from one Italian diocese to another. Pope John Paul was the first non-Italian to lead the church in 455 years, a fact that could help or hinder the cardinal's chances. [emphasis added]

By using this disjunctive phrase, CBS News introduces geography into the discussion in a way that makes almost no claims about it at all. (This article in the The Australian explains at much greater length why John Paul II's non-Italianness is relevant to Tettamanzi's chances.)

An AP story uses a disjunction of relevance in a slightly different way, to weaken a topic sentence:

Being in a favoured position might or might not be an advantage. An Italian bishop, Libero Tresoldi, reminded reporters in Milan's Gothic cathedral about the oft-quoted proverb warning cardinals against overconfidence: "He who enters a conclave as pope leaves as a cardinal."

Tresoldi, from northern Italy, appeared concerned that a remark Sunday by Milan Dionigi Cardinal Tettamanzi would put the cardinal in the proverb's risk category. Tettamanzi, 61, spoke of a "very affectionate caress" that John Paul gave him three years ago when tapped to lead the high-profile diocese.

In this case, the negative version is basic: what follows elaborates on the idea that being favored in public speculation is not an advantage in the private decision-making process. But instead of just saying straightforwardly that "Being in a favoured position is not an advantage", the article uses "might or might not be an advantage" to put the question on the table as weakly as possible.

In an earlier post, I noted the use of such disjunctions as a way to put an issue out for discussion with minimal commitment to any content. We can expect an usual number of similar rhetorical devices in the current coverage of events at the Vatican. With tens of thousands of stories being filed each day based on a very limited amount of definite information about the selection of the pope's successor, journalists are forced by circumstances to present an unusual quantity of rumor and speculation.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 5, 2005 11:52 AM