If past elections are any indication, the X factor in the US House and Senate races this year may simply be the English language–the biased words that seep unchallenged into mainstream media coverage of politics.
So says Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, who has also counseled the Democratic Senate Caucus on the convergence of language and politics.
Nunberg is the author of the forthcoming book Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. He takes issue with the way mainstream media consciously or unconsciously skew political coverage by choosing words that favor Republicans.
Right-leaning talk show hosts, pundits and columnists, the drivers of the conservative “noise machine,” have exploited real economic class divisions, and they describe political differences in terms of consumer or lifestyle preferences–watching NASCAR or shopping at Wal-Mart–rather than principles. Nunberg argues that even though certain bedrock buzzwords–“values” or “elites,” “red state” or “blue state”–are imprecise and loaded with political baggage, journalists continue to use them.
“Since the Nixon era, the word [‘values’] has been shorthand for a particular collection of narratives about the decline of cultural standards concerning sexuality, religion, hard work, and patriotism–anything…that’s likely to make their ‘middle Americans’ angry about the drift of the culture,” he writes.
“Take the way the right has narrowed the meaning of elite,” Nunberg writes. “On ‘liberal’ CNN and in the daily press, media elite outnumbers business elite by two or three to one. Yet when you look at British papers…those proportions are reversed.”
Searching stories published in 2005, Nunberg discovered that “conservative values” appeared seven times more than the term “liberal values” in the Washington Times, and by a four-to-one ratio in the Washington Post.
The chorus of media critics is growing louder, condemning mainstream media for failing to live up to core principles. Eric Boehlert, a former senior editor at Salon and author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, has written a scathing critique of the the MSM. And veteran reporter Helen Thomas’s Watchdogs of Democracy? blasts the DC press corps for not challenging Bush as he pushed for the Iraq War.