Last month, Mark Thompson, the new chief executive of the New York Times Co. and former director-general of the BBC, gave a short series of lectures in Oxford. In between jobs, he warned that words were losing their democratic heft. The lectures were little noticed because they largely did not touch on the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, which had just been revealed. Thompson denied all knowledge of the scandal, so no articles ‑ as far as I have seen ‑ were written.
Yet Thompson’s remarks are crucial to our understanding of modern politics everywhere, and the journalism that reports on it. They were wholly concerned with the use of language, the bedrock of all media. They expressed a deep worry ‑ at times, a real pessimism ‑ about the health of the democratic debate because of the abuse of words.
Part of Thompson’s theme was that much of the news put out by the media is, to many who watch or listen or read, unintelligible ‑ “might as well be in Sanskrit.” That is especially the case of news that attempts to describe what is happening in the economy, a subject replete with acronyms, concepts and mysterious institutions.
Deeper than that, though, is another concern: that the rhetoric employed by politicians, commentators and other public figures is destructive of trust and of real engagement.“The public language that most people actually hear and are influenced by,” Thompson said, “is changing in ways that make it more effective as an instrument of political persuasion but less effective as a medium of explanation and deliberation” (his emphasis).
The main example he gave was the phrase “death panel,” used by the former governor of Alaska and Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, to describe the ‑ wholly voluntary ‑ medical interview that, under Obamacare, would have been offered to senior citizens about their present and likely future health. Her Facebook post, a model of its kind, read in part: