We really must keep away from politics on this site — lest, touching pitch, we be defiled: for no-one convinces anyone else, and the ensuing heat helps melt the ice-caps. But the escalating weirdness of the world compels attention. So from time to time, we’ll permit ourselves a strictly linguistic contribution to the debates. In particular, a semantic analysis of the dizzying spin which the media places upon events (or which they blandly pass on from partisan spinmeisters).
Thus, in today’s Washington Post (the print edition of which arrived unscathed on our porch, despite the morning’s downpour; kudos to the delivery-man, or to some thoughtful neighbor) the headline in the leftmost column of the front page, above the fold, reads:
NPR head outsed in wake of scandal
And that is as far as many readers will get, in our busy-busy age. Those who persevere to the smaller-print subhead learn further
Departure comes amid calls on Hill to defund public broadcasting
And now surely all but the most dedicated have been sucked up into the further frenzy of the workday. What impression will they take away?
Evidently that the NPR head was caught with her hand in the till, or in bed with a capybara. And that her scandalous behavior adds fuel to the (apparently bipartisan) calls on Capitol Hill to withdraw public subsidies from these miscreants.
The actual story — and this is not in dispute — is that a different guy, who happens to have the same surname as the ousted NPR head, and who was the chief fundraiser for NPR, did X — was outed, and promptly left the scene. So already the natural semantic implication of the headline is seen to be aslant to the facts.
Well, what was X, that it is labeled a “scandal”? No, he was not caught in bed with a capybara either (and had he been, he would doubtless be surrounded by defenders, in this “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That” age. — Actually, I hear that capybaras are really sweet between the sheets.) Rather, he got caught in the old ploy we might dub the “Camel Trap”, familiar from the days of Abscam on down. Advice to Freshmen: If you are approached by some portly, pasty-faced fellows hiding beneath a keffiyah, presenting themselves as wealthy Arabian sheikhs (or Nigerian princes, for that matter), watch what you say.
Anyhow, what he did say was … well what exactly he did say was not reported, but the way the paper put it was, he “disparaged Republicans as ‘anti-intellectual’, and tea party members as racists and xenophobes”. Given the realities on the ground, that is rather like accusing the Pope of being a Papist, or disparaging bears for going number-two in the woods; but let that lie. Assume that the opinion thus expressed is seriously at variance with the facts; it remains an opinion, expressed in what the sucker assumed was privacy. (“Um, what are those microphone-like objects dangling from your necks?” “Amulets. It’s a Muslim thing.”) Now, how — semantically, pragmatically — do we classify such an utterance?
Traditionally, there was no word for it — just something you disagreed with, or that was an outrageous thing to say, or whatever — though you would “defend to the death his right to say it”. (Remember that one? In memory still green…) Then the media invented a new term to characterize a statement made deliberately and in public, and widely known to be essentially true — but impolitic: a “gaffe”. This already was a mind-muddling assimilation of one category to another, as though we were to start calling both sheep and goats “goats”. Well, the kernel of truth to the move is that perhaps the speaker should have been more distrustful of what the spinmeisters can do with such statements, and the docility of their audience. — Next came a further extension, more dubious still, to apply the term “gaffe” to a statement made in confidence, which then is leaked. Here the only fault of the speaker was to have failed to obey what is increasingly becoming a wise piece of advice: Never say anything to anybody, ever.
And now the Washington Post has gone the media one better (or one worse), calling the leaked statement, not a gaffe, but a “scandal”. And a scandal, mind you, against the speaker, not against the operatives who falsely represented themselves and who leaked statements made in confidence.