Imagine paradise: The nightly news would expand its coverage beyond “This popular brand of soda could be giving YOUR dog cancer—find out which one after the break!” to offer meticulous deconstructions of politicians’ semantics. Imagine that journalists didn’t take press secretaries’ mendacious word choices for granted. Imagine that American newspaper-readers could have the tools to cut through political spin and perfidy. Imagine, if you will, the rhetoric beat.
Brent Cunningham suggests in the Columbia Journalism Review (Nov.-Dec.) that the rhetoric beat would help keep “political discourse as clear and intellectually honest as possible, and to make readers and viewers aware of how the seemingly benign words and phrases they encounter daily are often finely calibrated to influence how they think about ideas.”
Word choice holds a lot of power over the way we think. Politicians exploit this by using “linguistic framing”—consciously choosing just the right phrases to sway the public onto their side of an issue. For example, it makes a significant difference if you talk about Iraq as a sectarian conflict vs. as a civil war, or if you debate a death tax instead of an estate tax. So, if the politicians are busy fine-tuning their language, it might be appropriate for journalists to keep an eye on how they’re doing it. And thus, the rhetoric beat. “[U]nless this bad language is outed, so to speak, it can dominate public discourse on a given subject and preclude the serious consideration of other possibilities,” Cunningham writes.
The rhetoric beat would be useful, no doubt, but would it capture the public’s interest? I’d guess that the bulk of the U.S. newspaper-reading Republic cares less about politicians’ stances on the important issues than they care about last night’s episode of Scrubs. So why would they suddenly step up and get excited about the ultra-wonky field of semantics?
Perhaps I should hold my cynicism: The problem may just lie in Cunningham’s own linguistic frame. Rhetoric beat sounds a bit stolid. How about the blabber beat? That sounds easy enough to swallow.