Politics: March 2004 Archives

ScrappleFace is a wonderful news satire blog. Here's a bit from a recent entry:

"Just like Bush reversed conventional wisdom by proclaiming that Republicans actually care about people," said Mr. Kerry, "my agenda declares that it's okay to be a bleeding-heart liberal without the bleeding heart part."

Democrat National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said it's all part of the "New Aloofness," a Democrat sensibility that says "It's okay to be for big government and higher taxes without having to justify it by claiming to care about people who are many rungs below you on the economic ladder."

Please note that this is a parody, not a real news item, but like all satire, its punch is directly proportional to its proximity to the truth.

More about "scare quotes"


Oklahoma City blogger Charles G. Hill over at Dustbury linked to my item about scare quotes in the District 4 City Council race. His first paragraph links to an example of Reuters' use of scare quotes, and that article links to this Weekly Standard column by Alan Jacobs, Wheaton College Professor of English, about the use of scare quotes in coverage of the War on Terror, and how they are a ready substitute for serious analysis and debate.

(Scare quotes are also sometimes called "sneer quotes", which comes closer to conveying the attitude of the writer who uses them.)

Scare quotes have two functions, the first of which is quite straightforward: They allow their users very easily to express incredulity about, and often contempt for, the views of their political opponents. But they also allow those users to avoid the hard work of thinking up their own descriptions of events or people or ideas. And they're parasitic: They suck all their nourishment from the host words, contributing nothing of their own. Fisk's sneer quotes--he's not as scary as he'd like to be--allow him to express his revulsion at the very notion of describing what's happening in Iraq as "liberation," but relieve him of the obligation to say just what he thinks is happening in that city. Is it (as many left-wing critics have said) a new form of colonization? Ah, but that is a claim too easily refuted, unless one wishes to stretch the term beyond all historical recognition. Is it occupation? But if so, we would need to have a conversation about the purposes of occupation, some of which can be better than others. This is all too complicated; it's so much simpler to wheel out the trusty old inverted commas.

(I have a suspicion also that many journalists, even those most addicted to the scare quote, would say that it's their job merely to report, to describe--leave it to the editorialists and news analysts to offer positive explanations. But it is surely a curious understanding of reporting that allows the journalist merely, and just typographically, to cast doubt on the claims of others, without offering any reasons for that doubt or any alternatives to those claims.)

Read the whole thing, then go visit dustbury.com and get caught up on life at the other end of the Turner Turnpike.

For all that I write about Tulsa, the number one search phrase that leads to batesline.com is "howie carr", the Boston Herald columnist I saluted some time ago. And here's what I wrote about his February column about John Kerry's DYKWIA problem.


A friend who lived in Boston in '88 (and gave me a gift mail subscription to the Herald during that presidential campaign) is cleaning house and dropped off a few political newspaper clippings from yesteryear. I thought I might scan a few of the most interesting and post them here. The first one up is this Howie Carr column from Friday, October 21, 1988, "Endorsement gives Pee Wee the Willies". Here's how it starts:

How 'bout that Willie Horton guy?

Just when it looks like Pee Wee is taking the pipe, Willie gets a phone call from the Gannett News Service.

Does Willie say, "Tell them to call back in 20 to life"?

Does Willie say, "I'm too busy making license plates"?

No, Willie Horton takes the call and makes it clear where the murderer-rapist vote is going this year.

"Obviously, I am for Dukakis."

Obviously. Nice touch, Willie. Everyone reading that story in USA Today got a big kick out of that. Obviously.

Carr goes on to suggest several other Massachusetts criminals and disgraced government officials who would gladly give their endorsements to Dukakis for his kind treatment of them.

And here's a link to a recent column by Republican media consultant Jay Bryant reflecting on the Willie Horton furlough issue, its impact on the '88 campaign and lessons to be learned from it for 2004.

If the Whirled had a columnist as funny and hard-hitting as Howie Carr, the paper might actually be worth reading.

Oh, and here's a recent Howie Carr column on the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

When you see quotation marks around a single word or short phrase in a news story, what comes to mind? It's a signal that the writer of the story doesn't buy the phrase or word being used, and she doesn't want you to buy it either. It sends the reader a signal that they should think something is fishy.

(I can't think about this use of quotation marks without thinking of a Saturday Night Live character called Bennett Brauer -- played by Chris Farley -- who punctuated his remarks by making quote marks with his fingers. 'Well, maybe I'm not "the norm". I'm not "camera friendly". ')

Here's a bit from a good summary of the semantics of this use of quotation marks:

The use of quotation marks can be extended to cases which are not exactly direct quotations. Here is an example:
Linguists sometimes employ a technique they call "inverted reconstruction".

The phrase in quote marks is not a quotation from anyone in particular, but merely a term which is used by some people č in this case, linguists. What the writer is doing here is distancing himself from the term in quotes. That is, he's saying "Look, that's what they call it. I'm not responsible for this term." In this case, there is no suggestion that the writer disapproves of the phrase in quotes, but very often there is a suggestion of disapproval:

The Institute for Personal Knowledge is now offering a course in "self-awareness exercises".

Once again, the writer's quotes mean "this is their term, not mine", but this time there is definitely a hint of a sneer: the writer is implying that, although the Institute may call their course "self-awareness exercises", what they're really offering to do is to take your money in exchange for a lot of hot air.

Quotation marks used in this way are informally called scare quotes. Scare quotes are quotation marks placed around a word or phrase from which you, the writer, wish to distance yourself because you consider that word or phrase to be odd or inappropriate for some reason. Possibly you regard it as too colloquial for formal writing; possibly you think it's unfamiliar or mysterious; possibly you consider it to be inaccurate or misleading; possibly you believe it's just plain wrong. Quite often scare quotes are used to express irony or sarcasm:

The Serbs are closing in on the "safe haven" of Goražde.

The point here is that the town has been officially declared a safe haven by the UN, whereas in fact, as the quote marks make clear, it is anything but safe.

Reuters and the BBC are renowned for using scare quotes to distance themselves from Western Civilization's War against Islamist Terrorism -- this for example was a BBC web headline when Saddam Hussein's sons were killed:

U.S. celebrates 'good' Iraq news

Here in Tulsa we saw extensive use of scare quotes in coverage of the District 4 City Council. For some unexplained reason, the Whirled insisted on referring to the Republican nominee as Jason "Eric" Gomez. The man's full name is, in fact, Jason Eric Gomez. This is how he is listed in voter registration records. But like a lot of people (including my dad), he is known by his middle name. There is nothing shifty or unusual about this practice, but the scare quotes suggest that an alias is being used, or perhaps he is some sort of eccentric or "colorful character", like Virginia "Blue Jeans" Jenner or Cowboy "Pink" Williams.

When I first met him, he was introduced to me as Eric Gomez, and I only recently learned that Eric was not his first name. He uses his middle name in his business, on his website (eric4tulsa.com), on his campaign signs, and on the ballot. At one point I wondered if the Whirled was using that punctuation because that was the way Eric's name was to appear on the ballot. But the name on the ballot was Eric Gomez. (By the way, when you file for office, you get to pick how your name appears. Frequent candidate Virginia Jenner added "Blue Jeans" as her middle name on the ballot in later races, even though she is registered to vote as Dorothea Virginia Jenner. The two times I've run, I opted for my full first name, plus middle initial to differentiate myself from most of the other Michael Bateses in town, although I could have used Mike Bates.)

Note that the Whirled did not give the same treatment to Gomez's opponent, "Councilor" Thomas Lee "Tom" Baker. I do not know if this "decision" was made by City Hall reporter Pamela Jean "P.J." Lassek, or by "City Editor" Lewis "Wayne" Greene, or perhaps by Editorial Page "Editor" Kenneth W. "Ken" Neal. I just know the "newspaper" wasn't consistent in the application of whatever "style book rule" they used to justify "Jason 'Eric' Gomez."

You may think me silly to believe that this would make a difference in an election, but when a voter doesn't know much about the candidates or their stands on the issues, any minor thing may be enough to tip his decision one way or another. A voter can grasp at anything that would suggest one of the candidates is unreliable or just odd in some way. And in such a close race -- less than one vote per precinct -- it may have made the difference.

Trusting the press


Jay Rosen was the author of the article about the role of journalists in a political campaign, which I linked to in the previous entry. He posted the article on his blog, and there are many interesting comments below it. Here's one from Dan McWiggins that speaks to an experience of cognitive dissonance that will be familiar to many readers of the Tulsa Whirled:

I once received a really stunning insight into press coverage. Someone who had suffered a particularly unpleasant bout of media exposure asked me to think about the following question: How many times had I, watching the press deal with a subject I was intimately familiar with, seen them come even close to getting the story right?

My response, after some thought, was "almost never." The fellow I was talking to then asked me why I would think they would do much better on any other topic. It was a very eye-opening moment for me, especially when I considered that most reporters are seriously left-leaning political partisans and, where politics are concerned, large amounts of power and money are at stake.

I've never trusted the press since. Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Andrew Gilligan just drove the point further home.

Instapundit points to an interesting column by Jay Rosen, from the Columbia Journalism Review, outlining how the true job description for a journalist covering an election has changed.

Whenever we re-describe what journalists do new problems arise in what they should be doing -- and perhaps quit doing. New questions of accountability spring up.

Welfare for the rich


Over on Reason magazine's website, John Stossel of ABC lists a number of ways middle and lower class taxpayers are funding welfare for the comfortable.

Ronald Reagan memorably complained about "welfare queens," but he never told us that the biggest welfare queens are the already wealthy. Their lobbyists fawn over politicians, giving them little bits of money -- campaign contributions, plane trips, dinners, golf outings -- in exchange for huge chunks of taxpayersí money. Millionaires who own your favorite sports teams get subsidies, as do millionaire farmers, corporations, and well-connected plutocrats of every variety. Even successful, wealthy TV journalists.

Thatís right, I got some of your money too.

In 1980 I built a wonderful beach house. Four bedrooms -- every room with a view of the Atlantic Ocean.

It was an absurd place to build, right on the edge of the ocean. All that stood between my house and ruin was a hundred feet of sand. My father told me: "Donít do it; itís too risky. No one should build so close to an ocean."

But I built anyway.

Why? As my eager-for-the-business architect said, "Why not? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one."

What? Why would the government do that? Why would it encourage people to build in such risky places? That would be insane.

Stossel goes on to cover farm subsidies and eminent domain abuse, including the famous case in Atlantic City involving a widow trying to keep her home against Donald Trump, who was trying to use city government to take it from her. It's worth reading. (Hat tip to Clayton Cramer for the link.)

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Politics category from March 2004.

Politics: February 2004 is the previous archive.

Politics: April 2004 is the next archive.

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