Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Decay of Language, Decay of Society

Reading my usual late morning Greenwald today, I came across this, from a column by NPR ombudsman Alicia C. Shepherd:

How should NPR describe the tactics used to coerce information out of terrorism suspects?
Ted Koppel, the former ABC Nightline host and commentator on Talk of the Nation, said in May that the U.S. should "define it [torture] as being any technique or practice which, when applied to an American prisoner in some other country or captured by some other entity, that we would object to. If we object to it being done to an American, then I think it's torture."
That seems clear enough, but the problem is that the word torture is loaded with political and social implications for several reasons, including the fact that torture is illegal under U.S. law and international treaties the United States has signed.

NPR is part of the "liberal" media, mind you.

Greenwald does a better job of dismantling this representative idiot (representative of our toothless and banal American journalism) than I ever could, but once again we must note the utter disregard for clear, precise, concrete language meant to illuminate and describe reality, not bury it in a cloud of abstractions and contemporary newsroom jargon. Which is exactly what Shepherd does here.

OF COURSE the word "torture" is "loaded with political and social implications." How could it be otherwise when TORTURE ITSELF is loaded with awful moral implications that by their nature become political and social implications? People like Shepherd have forgotten--or perhaps they never learned, given the robotic courses in American journalism schools that teach future writers to be nothing more than courtiers and stenographers--that writers of any kind, journalist or otherwise, should strive to make their words correspond to the things they describe.

The word "torture" comes from the Latin "torquere," which means twisting, turning, wringing, writhing, bending something out of its natural shape. The implication is plain. In torture the human body is coerced into unnatural, painful shapes and conditions. Originally most torture was literally a forced contortion--twisting and wringing--of the body. But human ingenuity has invented countless other ways to break the human body, to force it into misery, always for some Great Cause or another.

The United States military has been using plenty of those techniques for a while now, and it's unclear how far the Obama administration is going to go towards enforcing the prohibitions on them that the U.S. agreed to in the Geneva Conventions and in its own Constitution, not to mention the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Using the word "torture," with its vivid historical associations, to describe what the United States military did in this past decade is a simple recognition of reality. The recognition of this reality very well SHOULD set off a torrent of political and social reactions, because the act of torture--the act of one person forcing the body of another into agonized conditions, sometimes resulting in the destruction of said body--is an act fraught with meaning.

This is but one symptom of the current disease of American journalism. The Washington Post's firing of Dan Froomkin (damn liberal media again) is another. It's worth noting, I think, that Froomkin was a clear, passionate, and talented writer as well as a crusader for accountability and for making truth public. Froomkin's columns and blog posts were clear and precise--his words were intended to describe and illumine, not to obscure or sanitize--and he had a distinctive, characterful voice all his own.

It's precisely these two qualities that current American journalism fears and punishes: the use of language to describe and not sanitize or hide reality AND a certain panache and individuality in the journalist's voice and tone. Froomkin himself has been excellent on this subject:

If we were to start an online newspaper from scratch today, we’d recognize that toneless, small-bore news stories are not the way to build a large audience — not even with “interactive” bells and whistles cobbled on top. One option might be to imitate cable TV, and engage in a furious volume of he-said/she-said reporting, voyeurism, contrarianism, gossip, triviality and gotcha journalism. But that would come at the cost of our souls. The right way to reinvent ourselves online would be to do precisely what journalists were put on this green earth to do: Seek the truth, hold the powerful accountable, expose the B.S., explain how things really work, introduce people to each other, and tell compelling stories. And we should do all those things passionately and courageously — not hiding who we are, but rather engaging in a very public expression of our journalistic values.

Obviously, we do some of that already. But I would argue that even then, we do so in a much too understated way. We stifle some of our best stories with a wet blanket of pseudo-neutrality. We edit out tone. We banish anything smacking of activism. We don’t telegraph our own enthusiasm for what it is we’re doing. We vaguely assume the readers will understand how valuable a service we’re providing for them — but evidently, many of them don’t.

There has always been hack journalism, power-worshipping journalism, and timid and conformist journalism. But there is a wide and rich tradition of journalists who meet Froomkin's requirements, who DON'T write in a banal, colorless, watered-tone style meant to hide reality from the reader. In the days of William Cobbett and William Hazlitt, and in the days of James Huneker and H.L. Mencken, then in the days of I.F. Stone and Murray Kempton (feel free to think of your own examples; they are endless) the journalist conceived of himself as a kind of modern-day knight. A drink-sodden knight, possibly, or one who lived an unconventional life in times when the culture of newspapers wasn't the sterile corporate Disneyland it is today, but a crusader for uncovering hidden truths and exploring the real, then setting it down in idiosyncratic but plain and forthright language.

Can we imagine such journalists today? Do we, the citizens of a decadent society whose mind grows softer and more complacent by the day, even deserve them?

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