July 02, 2006

Productivity at the Bushism mine

On June 20, Jacob Weisberg posted this item in his "Bushism of the Day" department at Slate:

"I tell people, let's don't fear the future, let's shape it."—Omaha, Neb., June 7, 2006

This choice was criticized by Eugene Volokh, Ann Althouse and me, as a specific example of the general feebleness of the Bushisms feature.

Since Weisberg is a smart and insightful person, all of us felt that this feature's frequent stupidity and obtuseness require some explanation. Prof. Althouse suggested that "maybe [it's] just to keep Slate critics from noticing other problems". Prof. Volokh implied that it's elitism, since the cited usage "[is] a flub only in the sense that departure from the standard Northeastern/West Coast elite spoken English is a flub". I speculated that the motivation is mainly money, pointing to the many Bushisms products, which include not only 12 books (including e-books and so on) but also calendars, wall posters, refrigerator magnets and a DVD.

While it's perfectly proper for supply to meet demand in the marketplace for political ridicule, I wondered whether there's an ethical problem

when a magazine editor, whose job is making judgments about what is and is not worthy of publication, makes much of his income from re-publication of collections of a feature whose instances are so often so spectacularly superfluous. Does anyone think that Jacob Weisberg would consider very many of these "Bushisms" worth the space in his (excellent) magazine and the attention of his readers (which include me) ... if he didn't have a personal financial motivation for keeping the Bushisms brand and the Bushisms product line in the public eye?

As journalistic conflicts of interest go, I guess this is a venial one. It's not like the DNC is slipping envelopes of cash to Weisberg to reward him for making fun of the president. (Instead, Simon & Schuster is sending him quarterly royalty checks to reward him for making fun of the president.)

Several other bloggers picked up on these questions. Ron Hogan at Galleycat posted the question "Should Slate Lay Off Bush Already?" (Jun3 20, 2006), and

tried emailing Weisberg to solicit a defense of the column and clarify some of the financial issues (like Liberman's guess that the royalties from all that Bush-mocking are "in the same range as what he makes at his day job"), but a week's gone by with no answer.

Not surprisingly, prominent journalists are just as reluctant to answer such questions as politicians and other public figures are. But after reading Hogan's post, I wondered whether there might be a sort of indirect response, in terms of a change in editorial behavior. So I took a look on Slate's site, and found that 12 days after the June 20 item, there has not been another "Bushism of the Week" posted.

However, a bit more investigation suggests that this gap probably doesn't mean anything. Here's a calendar showing the publication dates of the "Bushism of the Day " items so far in 2006 (according to the search function at Slate's site):

There were 26 weeks (less one day) in the first six months of 2006, and 25 "Bushism of the Day " items published at Slate during that same period, according to Slate's index (though the items for 3/24/2006 and 3/26/2006 are duplicates, reducing the count to 24). Though this is roughly one per week, the publication dates (which of course are not the same as the dates of the quotes) are far from being exactly weekly. There was a 21-day gap at the beginning of March, and 20-day gap at the beginning of May. So my guess is that we'll see another flurry of "Bushism of the Day" items in a week or so, as Weisberg (or some intern assigned to the task) keeps the machinery grinding away down at the Bushism mine.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 2, 2006 09:36 AM