Monday, July 23, 2018

Dr. Word Asks: "Meddling?"

Posted By on Mon, Jul 23, 2018 at 4:55 PM

Dr. Word makes one of his rare appearances on The Range to express his mystification at the tenacity with which certain words stick to certain subjects in the journalistic world, often words inadequate to the task of reporting a story accurately. Such is true of the use of the word "meddling" when referring to Russian actions during the 2016 election.

The Russian government made a sustained, systematic attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election using a multi-pronged approach to swaying voters. A significant majority of the populace, including a sizable number of Republicans, acknowledge Russia's actions, though whether the foreign power's attempts were successful at changing the outcome of the election is a matter of some debate. (The Doctor is of the opinion that the Russians' success is no more debatable than the existence of climate change, or gravity.) What we witnessed in 2016 was a clear example of cyber warfare mounted with hostile intent by a state whose interests, more often or not, are antithetical to those of the United States. To say using the term "meddling" to describe these intrusions is an understatement is, at the risk of sounding redundant, an understatement.

"Meddling" most often refers to a minor offense, such as when a busybody interferes in matters which are not said busybody's concern. A "meddle" often begins with a phrase such as, "If you ask me . . ." in situations where, in point of fact, no one asked. When someone offers advice or performs actions which are neither requested nor appreciated, that qualifies as meddling.

"Interference" is a better term than meddling to describe the level of disruption the Russians created in our 2016 elections, but it is still too neutral. "Attack" is a significantly better term. "Warfare," "Information warfare" or "Cyber warfare," are more accurate still. They capture the nature of the attack.

And yet, when journalists and analysts refer to the Russian attacks in print and audiovisual media, the phrase most often employed is "Russian meddling." One has to wonder two things. First, who initiated the use of "meddling," and why? Second, why have Democrats acquiesced to employing such a weak term when "attack" or "warfare" are more potent and therefore more potentially damaging to Republicans who benefitted from the attack?

Who initiated the use of "meddling"? A reasonable hypothesis is that the media settled on that term because its use implies evenhandedness, which journalists often aspire to. Words like "attack" and "warfare" are clearly accurate and therefore unbiased when applied to a missile attack by a hostile power. The distinction here is, Republicans, being the beneficiaries of the cyber attack, do not consider themselves victims of the intrusion, while Democrats do. Therefore, a journalist who is attempting to create a balanced news report might shy away from using the more accurate phrases, thinking critics would accuse said journalist of bias. Another reasonable hypothesis is, Republicans, who understand the importance of language far better than Democrats, decided to encourage the use of "meddling" and were successful in making its use nearly universal.

Why have Democrats acquiesced to the use of the term "meddling" and even employ it themselves? The most likely reasons are: Democrats are far less adept at messaging than Republicans, both in the adoption of the best words and phrases to further their agenda and in the constant repetition of the words and phrases they adopt; and, Democrats tend to be cowardly, almost to the extent that they act like the wronged party in an abusive relationship, terrified to say anything which might subject them to further abuse. Either or both reasons help explain the Democrats' passive acceptance of a word which downplays the importance or severity of the Russian government's actions.

An interesting discussion of the origins of the word "collusion" to describe any cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russians presented on the Lawfare blog a few weeks ago sheds some light on the way terms originate in the world of journalism. (Note: The Doctor does not frequent the Lawfare blog, but it appears local journalist Dylan Smith does, to whom the doctor tips his hat for the link.) According to the author of the piece, the use of "collusion" began during the Democratic National Convention. Hillary Clinton's campaign manager told CNN that DNC emails were stolen by parties working for the Russian government for the purpose of assisting the Trump campaign. Though the word "collusion" was not used by the Clinton campaign, it was employed in the subsequent press report. When other journalists picked up the story, they adopted "collusion" as the term of art to describe the theft. Henceforth, "collusion" became the standard word used to reference the connections between Russian attacks on the election and the Trump campaign.

The word doctor believes word choice is a critical part of effective communication. When journalists choose to use a word like "meddling," which is little more than a euphemism for the direct attack the Russian government mounted against our democracy, they are not framing the story accurately, and thus are lessening the accuracy of their reporting. It is an example of poor journalism, analogous to leaving critical facts out of a story for fear the facts might offend some readers.

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