Jeff Goldstein writes about clarity of expression and modern journalism, discussing the controversy over Rush Limbaugh’s “I hope he fails” remark. He provides the context. Rush said:
I got a request here from a major American print publication. “Dear Rush: For the Obama [Immaculate] Inauguration we are asking a handful of very prominent politicians, statesmen, scholars, businessmen, commentators, and economists to write 400 words on their hope for the Obama presidency. We would love to include you. If you could send us 400 words on your hope for the Obama presidency, we need it by Monday night, that would be ideal.” …I’ve been listening to Barack Obama for a year-and-a-half. I know what his politics are. I know what his plans are, as he has stated them. I don’t want them to succeed.
If I wanted Obama to succeed, I’d be happy the Republicans have laid down. And I would be encouraging Republicans to lay down and support him. Look, what he’s talking about is the absorption of as much of the private sector by the US government as possible, from the banking business, to the mortgage industry, the automobile business, to health care. I do not want the government in charge of all of these things. I don’t want this to work. So I’m thinking of replying to the guy, “Okay, I’ll send you a response, but I don’t need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails.” (interruption) What are you laughing at? See, here’s the point. Everybody thinks it’s outrageous to say. Look, even my staff, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Why not? Why is it any different, what’s new, what is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what’s gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here. Why do I want more of it?
Dittos! Of course, liberals have taken this out of context to suggest that Rush wants Obama to fail no matter what he does. Some conservatives have wanted Rush to speak more carefully, so that his words can’t be pulled out of context so easily. Goldstein notes, correctly, that this is foolish:
All of which brings us back to those conservative political realists and pragmatists now criticizing Rush over his impolitic (or unclear) remarks: their desire for Limbaugh to be more careful with his phrasings as a way to avoid being misrepresented in a soundbite culture is, frankly, a fool’s game — and, even more frankly, it is indicative of a political strategy that amounts to conceding loss, with the concomitant hope that perhaps we’ll lose more slowly.
– Which is not to say this is a conscious part of the strategy of the realists, just that it is the inevitable effect of backing such a strategy. Because even were Republicans to begin winning elections based on their newly found ability to negotiate a hostile media bent on misrepresenting them, they’d be compelled to maintain the practice of carefully parsing their words, which means they’d always be at the mercy of those looking to attack and discredit. And such has the effect both of chilling speech and of determining in what way a message must necessarily be delivered.
And when your opponents are making the rules, you are necessarily playing their game.
To put it more forcefully, it is a fact of language that once you surrender the grounds for meaning to those who would presume to determine your meaning for you, you are at their mercy.
Absolutely right. I have dealt with the media, and have learned some lessons. First, never talk to “advocacy journalists.” It doesn’t matter what you say. You’re the bogeyman; they’ll twist what you say however they need to in order to paint you as a monster. Second, even relatively fair-minded journalists will go with what makes a story, and will ignore any qualifications or subtleties to get their story. So, there’s nothing for careful phrasing to achieve. Say nothing at all, or say it boldly.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have decided on the winner of the Rush billboard contest, which sounds pro-Limbaugh to me.