Whores of Babble On
Help! Our media has been hijacked by a punditocracy! They’re everywhere, on the national news, the cable shows, radio too. Apparently journalism schools no longer teach the art of elocution, but they’re very big on rhetoric. Our national dialogue has been replaced by an endless series of clichés strung together like beads on a chain. See, I just did it myself. We’ve come to expect this kind of thing in sports. Athletes and sportscasters (who are mostly former athletes) speak in the same tired jargon. We made the good plays (or didn’t), we took advantage of their mistakes, it was a team effort. We just have to take it one game at a time. It’s a game of inches. Which sport am I talking about? All of them.
We expect more, or used to, from the news media. Instead, they have their own argot, a special slang pundits use to express ideas. See if any of these are familiar: a tipping point, slippery slope, perfect storm, a bridge too far, going forward, having a dog in this fight, when push comes to shove, under the radar, the smoking gun, water under the bridge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. If we get out our Pundit-to-English dictionary, we see that low-hanging fruit means taking the easy path. The third rail is something you only touch at your peril. For decades, Social Security was the third rail of politics; sadly, that’s no longer true. And the elephant in the room, well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? Anything bigger than normal is on steroids, if it’s scary it always has a chilling effect. Any controversy ignites a firestorm. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, there was a great many people thrown under the bus. Obama threw the Rev. Jeremiah Wright under the bus. Either before or after that, I can’t remember, he had thrown his grandmother under a different bus. You would think he’d have been charged with assault for such anti-social behavior.
It’s becoming rare to get real news from the networks. Since their news and entertainment divisions merged in the 1970s, now all we get is infotainment. I don’t give a damn that Lindsay Lohan just got out of rehab again, or just entered rehab again. I’m tired of the media’s ghoulishness of interviewing victims of a natural disaster and asking them how they feel. How the hell do you think they feel? CNN’s Wolf Blitzer lowered the bar for television journalism to the ground this last spring, when he kept asking a survivor of an Oklahoma tornado, “Did you thank the Lord?” She finally laughed and answered, “Actually, I’m an atheist.” Tell me your reaction when you saw your beloved poodle, Fluffy, fall into the wood chipper. Well, Wolf (sniffle), I guess the tipping point was when she lost her balance. It was just (sniffle) a bridge too far.
Cable news is saturated with one political commentary after another. And there are always plenty of guest pundits to opine and bloviate. From the Left we might hear from Move On, the Daily Kos, or the Huffington Post. On the Right there’s a bevy of think tanks well represented; The Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, Freedom Works, or Americans For Prosperity. I would swear that Politico has someone on every show, every hour, and on every news channel. But apparently they all use the same phrase book. Trying to ferret out the truth is like Stanley hacking through the jungles with a machete, searching for Livingstone. So-called news shows are no better. Every trial reported on is a highly-charged courtroom drama. If you want lower-charged courtroom drams, there are a plague of judges on afternoon television.
There are inaccurate usages, too, that don’t make sense. When two planes get too close to each other, it’s referred to as a near miss. It should be called a near collision, shouldn’t it? Someone’s overnight fame is called a meteoric rise. But meteors don’t rise, they fall towards Earth because of its gravitational pull.
One phrase that’s undergone transformation is “having said that.” Someone will say something, then add, “Having said that,” and go on to something else that may or may not be related. Those who wish to sound erudite will say “That having been said.” Ooh, he must have gone to Princeton! Then, as if a switch was flipped, they all simultaneously abbreviated it to “That being said,” and finally to “That said.” I doubt it can get any shorter than that. It seems as if no one had even considered alternatives like but, however, even so, even though, on the other hand, be that as it may, or at any rate. What are these people, Pavlovian dogs under electronic control by some evil genius?
Another badly overused phrase is the fact of the matter. Someone will state “The fact of the matter is” and then go on to give their own opinion, which may have nothing to do with the facts or the matter. That’s a matter of fact. The one that really drives me insane, and easily the most over-used, is “At the end of the day.” If I have to hear that one more time, I don’t know what I’ll do. For God’s sake, can’t we have at least one eventually, ultimately, or an over time?
Cliché has always been the refuge of the intellectually lazy, or the unimaginative. I suppose the question should be, are all these much overpaid people really lazy? Or is the public so dumbed down they can only understand bumper stickers and talking points? Perhaps I’m being too harsh. It could be simply that we’re all familiar with these expressions (because they’ve been done to death). Quick — would you describe the situation in Syria as a powder keg or a tinderbox? These are your only choices, I guess. Hornet’s nest seems to have fallen out of favor.
All this is one reason I gave up television a year ago, and the only thing I really miss is sports, which as you know, is a game of inches. Maybe this essay has made you aware of how many of these expressions you use in your communications. If so, you may be on the slippery slope to argle-bargle. That having been said, it’s still not a bridge too far (across that water under the same bridge). The fact of the matter is that going forward, at the end of the day, you may decide to improve your communications skills. Understand though, you’ll be taking the risk of not being understood.
A journalist is someone who can’t distinguish between a bicycle accident and the end of civilization. — H. L. Mencken