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The Tyranny Of Words

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Reporting on current events is a far more difficult job than is generally realized. One of the problems, to quote an old bromide, is “I heard is often not the same as I said.” Compounding the problem, events have to be compressed in a story and sometimes important items are left out, thus changing the meaning.

I recall an event at the Arizona legislature where I was giving testimony on a very complicated piece of insurance legislation. After the hearing, Don Bolles, an outstanding reporter, came over to me and said, “Can you summarize what you said in 3 sentences or less.” Don was a good friend so I tried as best I could, but when his article was in print the whole meaning of what I had to say was lost and a misimpression was left with the readers.

Brevity is easier to read and saves space in a newspaper, but it is not education and often misinforms. I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “A half truth can be a great lie.” Now, many people are starting to get their news on the Internet and brevity has been raised to new levels.

Reporting economic news is even more difficult because it is usually complicated by nuances and outside factors that impinge upon an outcome or forecast. Such news is also harder to read and borders upon boring. I guess that is why economics is called “the dismal science.” Most people would rather read the sports pages, for there is more interest in batting averages than the latest reading of the Gross Domestic Product. Complicating the issue is the fact that even learned economists do not always agree. When Harry Truman was confronted with economists who hedged their observations by pointing out that “on the other hand” something different might occur, he responded by saying that what he needed was a one-armed economist.

Then there is bias (even among those who claim to be “fair and balanced”). I remember a recent encounter between Neil Cabuto, a Fox News economist, and Bill O’Reilly, when Cabuto was trying to explain some of the current economic problems. It was a futile gesture, for O’Reilly shouted him down with his own take, which was laced with personal perspectives rather than economic facts. In a gentle way, and I am sure in frustration, Cabuto told O’Reilly, “You are part of the problem.” At the time, I agreed with Cabuto and thought O’Reilly might have learned something useful if he had shut up and listened. His audience would also have benefited–but he didn’t and the tyranny of words played out instead.

By comparison, reporting sports events is relatively easy and straightforward. Team A beat Team B and the rest is just color. Perhaps that is why the sports section of the paper is so popular.

Perhaps the most difficult reporting of all is political reporting. There the tyranny of words reigns supreme. Words and phrases have different meanings and connotations, and, as such, can be used to support or destroy legislation or a candidate. The purpose of most political discourse is to win votes or support, and sometimes the truth becomes a victim. It is far more popular to tell people what they want to hear than what they need to hear. The media loves controversy and will stir the pot to enhance their own readership or audience.

A few recent examples come to mind. To kill any proposal to solve our immigration woes, all you have to do is shout “Amnesty.” Never mind that it isn’t, or that it may be a reasonable and comprehensive approach and subject to negotiation–slap the label ‘amnesty’ on it and it is dead. I remember a recent exchange between Sean Hannity and Jack Kemp when Kemp, in exasperation, said, “What kind of fascist government is going to expel 12 million people.” It did no good, and the rantings of Hannity and others eliminated the possibility for a sensible discussion of the subject. The tyranny of a single word has left the problem unresolved.

“Bailout” is another current term that is exciting the airwaves and the public as I write this. Probably the most famous use of the term was about 20 years ago when the government made a loan to Chrysler to prevent its demise. The loan was successful, thousands of jobs were saved and a big hit on the economy was averted. Less known is the fact that in the end the U.S. Treasury made $300 million on the deal after all the funds were paid back. Today, “bailout” is a pejorative term with most people who are either unaware or ignoring the fact that most, if not all, of the funds will eventually come back to the Treasury and a profit may be made. This is particularly true in the case of AIG, which has been granted loans at a rate of 11.3%. As an aside, AIG is being referred to as an insurance giant, which of course it is. However, as the leadership of the NAIC has pointed out, AIG is a federally regulated holding company that owns some insurance companies. The state-regulated insurers are not in trouble–it is the other operations that have created the need for a loan.

There are few words more tyrannical than the word “greedy.” Its use today is being widely spread around about the business community. There are bad apples, of course, but it is an inappropriate term for business generally. Its widespread use makes business vulnerable for punitive legislation, which in the long run may punish Main Street more than Wall Street. Consumers drive our economic engine–but if they don’t have a paycheck from business, the engine runs out of gas.

And finally, there is the current buzzword “absolutely,” which has become a substitute for a variety of words that have absolutely no relevance to the definition of absolutely.


“Brevity is easier to read and saves space in a newspaper, but it is not education and often misinforms. I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said, ‘A half truth can be a great lie.’”


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