The enemy of clear language

Jan. 26, 2010

Sometimes I really feel sorry for reporters who cover the Capitol. Their job is to follow around our esteemed elected officials, hauling their notebooks, laptops, cameras and recording equipment to all manner of photo ops and press conferences. And there they sit (or stand), dutifully recording the officials’ words in hopes that they can later pass some important truth onto their audience. The whole affair bears more resemblance to theater than what most people define as journalism.

I have no tolerance for political speech, so I’ve never understood how a reporter could summon the energy to trudge through these events, day after day, listening to words, sentences and whole speeches that drag on but actually say little. Examples of this abound, but a choice instance occurred yesterday, during Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s annual appearance at the Sacramento Press Club Luncheon. I wasn’t there—CalWatchdog is not a Press Club member—so the quotes reprinted below come from the official transcript posted online by the governor’s press office.

Like all of Schwarzenegger’s speeches and statements, these remarks are clogged with clichés and idioms that politicians and pundits have so overused as to render completely meaningless. Ambiguous phrases like “job creation,” “budget reform” and “live within their means” appear over and over. Exactly what he means by such terms is impossible to say.

Then there’s this tortured construction that appears very early in his prepared speech:

“Even though here in California we have seen signs of economic recovery but I think that people can’t live off signs, so I think the people are still disappointed of what’s going on and they are struggling. There are millions of Californians – bless you – there are millions of people that are struggling still.”

I have no idea what those sentences mean. I’ve read them maybe 10 times now, and they still mystify me. The problem might lie with the governor’s notoriously tortured syntax, but I suspect a more likely explanation is that Arnold is afraid to say what he actually means.

Schwarzenegger is by no means the only state official who does this. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s recent commentary on the governor’s proposed budget (published in the Jan. 17 San Jose Mercury News) is disingenuous junk, cobbled together from tired catch phrases like “economic recovery,” “put people back to work,” “hitting the streets,” “collecting dust,” “stimulate our economy” and the thoroughly hypocritical call for the governor’s office to “get its house in order.”

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, perhaps the single greatest guide to honest journalism I’ve ever found. “Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness… A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

During the question and answer portion of the luncheon, KQED Public Radio reporter John Myers actually made a determined effort to decipher some of Schwarzenegger’s remarks. He began by asking why Schwarzenegger was now calling for new oil drilling off Santa Barbara, even though he’d made past statements that he opposed new drilling. Schwarzenegger responded with a confused jumble that started off by saying the state was in a “fiscal emergency” and ended with the impossible to understand “I think that you look beyond of [sic] just your principles.”

Myers was listening carefully, and then asked what exactly Schwarzenegger meant by “look beyond your principles.” But Schwarzenegger just responded with more garbled nonsense, this time switching from the singular “I” to the royal “we.”

“Well, the principle – well, we have done the taxes and we made it very clear that we won’t go back there, because it’s very simple that we have so many other areas where we can work on in order to get the extra billions of dollars.”

It’s no surprise that reporters jumped all over Schwarzenegger’s off the cuff remarks near the end of the luncheon where he advocated paying Mexico to build a prison to house the undocumented immigrants that we arrest.

“Think about it,” he said. “California give [sic] Mexico the money. Not that, hey, you take care of them, these are your citizens. No, not at all. We pay them to build a prison down in Mexico and then we have those undocumented immigrants be down there in a prison and with their prison guards and all this. It will halve the costs to build the prisons and halve the costs to run the prisons.”

Clumsy grammar aside, here is the governor actually talking about a genuinely new idea that, right or wrong, deserves open debate. For the press corps, it must have been like someone had opened a window, allowing a fresh breeze to blow through.

-Anthony Pignataro

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