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WHAT’S IN A WORD? A War of Words is being proposed. Let’s hope that the press takes a pass:


A BIT OF SANITY: We don’t agree with every point—never do. But Brendan Nyhan does an excellent job with the recent attacks on the NEA. At last his work can be seen for free. You know what to do. Just click here.

THE LATEST WORTHLESS WAR OF WORDS: Is Bush proposing “privatization?” It’s all what you want to call it. Even Paul Krugman seems to semi-stumble, ever so slightly, in his discussion this morning:

KRUGMAN: Is it inaccurate to say that personal accounts equal privatization? We could argue on the merits. Under the Bush plan, a worker’s personal account reflects any gains or losses on the stocks it represents. When risks and rewards accrue entirely to the individual, isn’t that privatization?
“Isn’t that privatization?” Krugman seems to imply that there’s a “yes” or “no” answer. Alas! There are no rules for what you call something. Honest brokers look for names and descriptions which will cause the least confusion. Political parties tend to look for names and descriptions which will cast their proposals in the best light. Increasingly, though, our political parties—especially the GOP—look for names and descriptions which simply poll well, even at the expense of confusion (and slander). In the current matter, some Republican operatives are up to old tricks, accusing Dems of being dishonest in using a term—“privatization”—which Republicans routinely used themselves until they learned that voters don’t like it. That is the point which Krugman makes in the part of his column which follows. Krugman describes an effort by the Republican National Campaign Committee to “bully the press” into dropping the p-word:
KRUGMAN: The R.N.C.C. doesn’t really think it can convince people that privatization isn’t privatization. But that’s not the goal. The memo doesn’t talk about how to communicate with the public; it’s a list of demands to place on journalists. As Joshua Marshall put it at, the goal is to “mau-mau reporters out of using the word ‘privatization’ in this context.”
In this latest war of words, the GOP wants journalists to stop saying “privatization” because the term polls poorly. “And the intimidation will probably succeed,” Krugman writes. “As Mr. Marshall notes, in a recent interview of the House minority leader Richard Gephardt, Judy Woodruff of CNN duly echoed the R.N.C.C.’s memo.”

Will the GOP effort succeed? The party scored in 1995 and 1996, when it wanted the press to stop using the naughty term “Medicare cuts.” At that time, both parties proposed spending less in future years than it would cost to maintain the existing Medicare program. And both parties had always described such budget proposals as “cuts.” But as David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf brilliantly reported in their book “Tell Newt to Shut Up”, GOP polling revealed a bad problem—the public was responding poorly to talk about “Medicare cuts.” So the party came up with new ways of describing its plan—and the GOP called Clinton a liar when he used the traditional term “cuts.” In that worthless, two-year war of words, the press corps was indeed stampeded into readjusting its language. For two solid years, the corps failed to inform the public about the simple facts of the two parties’ plans. Instead, it engaged in a long, pointless semantic dispute—and ended up calling Clinton a liar when he spoke in traditional language. Mau-maued aggressively—as Maraniss and Weisskopf described—the press collapsed quite neatly. In the process, the public was thoroughly misled and confused about the two parties’ plans, over the course of two years.

This semantic war was an instructive episode in recent press history. It showed how emerging GOP power could script an inept, cowering press corps. Does “liberal bias” drive the corps? Those who think so will have a hard time explaining this two-year disaster. The episode showed the corps’ lack of skill when faced with the simplest policy matters. And it showed the way the press will now bow to silly demands from the right.

Judy Woodruff is blowin’ in the wind once again? About that, there should be no great surprise. But for those who want a fuller account of the semantic wars of the 104th Congress, we suggest that you settle in with one of these essays. The public interest is badly served when the press caves in to semantic kerflubbles. For our initial presentation of these Medicare papers, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99:

The Medicare papers:

A tale of three numbers: Our shortest. The Medicare debate was a tale of three numbers. The press corps kept giving you two.

Clinton speaks: Was Clinton lying about GOP “Medicare cuts?” He described his own plan the same way.

The Speaker's new language: Our magnum opus. All the chaos of the war of words about the Medicare proposals.

BROOKS JACKSON IS BLOWIN’ (SMOKE) TOO: When Brooks Jackson discussed the semantic dispute about “privatization,” he forged a strange reversal. Here was his account on CNN’s Inside Politics:
JACKSON (8/21/02): Both sides use word games. Republicans use the term “personal retirement accounts.” Polling shows most Americans like the idea. So instead Democrats use the term “privatization.” That doesn’t sound as good.
Incredibly, Jackson makes it sound like Dems are the ones using polls to sculpt their language on this matter. But as Krugman’s column (and recent history) make clear, both parties used the term “privatization” until Republicans learned that the term doesn’t poll well. Needless to say, the GOP can call its plan whatever it likes; there’s nothing wrong with saying “personal retirement accounts.” But it’s the GOP, not the Dems, which has been casting about for new, improved language. The public interest is best served, of course, when journalists downplay these pointless kerflubbles.

What might a wiser Jackson have said? Here’s how we’d rewrite his paper:

JACKSON (rewritten): As in many recent policy matters, the two parties have different names for the GOP plan. Republicans use the term “personal retirement accounts.” Democrats use the term “privatization.”
Instead, Jackson threw GOP wordsmiths a bone. Is “liberal bias” driving the press corps? Those days have been gone for some time.