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Contentions

The American Media, Language, and Selective Humanity

On September 11 of last year, as the attacks on the American missions in Benghazi and Cairo developed, the New York Times led with a description of the fate of the American flag at the embassy in Cairo: violent Islamists took down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag “similar to Al Qaeda’s banner.” About three months later, the Times ran another story about the fate of an American flag, this one in Illinois: a voter upset about President Obama’s re-election flew his American flag upside down.

Aside from having the American flag at the center of the stories, the two pieces had another element in common: in both, the offenders–a disgruntled Republican voter and violent Salafist Islamists–shared a descriptor. The New York Times regarded both as “ultraconservative.” The Times makes no attempt to justify this latest attack on the English language: it never explains what makes someone “ultraconservative.” The paper is simply content with vague designations that hint at opprobrium and ensure the near-impossibility of learning anything from its stories. Two stories in the news this week brought this to mind.

One was the Associated Press’s announcement that it would forbid the use of the term “illegal immigrants” to describe illegal immigrants. In fairness to the AP, it has also resisted the phenomenally stupid term “undocumented,” noting in its own explanation that such a person “may have plenty of documents,” and therefore the term means nothing in the context of an immigration story. But AP editors also explained that many people told them they don’t like the term illegal immigrants, so the AP is getting rid of the term. Though I think comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship has long been a wise goal to pursue, perhaps passing immigration reform becomes even more urgent now before the media deletes the entire relevant vocabulary and any pertinent legislation must be written in pictograph.

The other story was, unsurprisingly, from the New York Times, which offered a correction for the ages when it apologetically noted that this story “mischaracterized the Christian holiday of Easter. It is the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, not his resurrection into heaven.” Michael Walsh at NRO had some fun with the Times, wondering how, among the paper’s reporters and legion of editors, no one caught the fact that a dispatch datelined Vatican City incorrectly described Easter on Easter Sunday. He also asked how the phrase “resurrection into heaven” made it into the correction.

The manipulation of language in the American leftist press is about more than simple political correctness, of course. And in this light the AP’s change on “illegal immigrants” is pretty harmless. The language will adapt, whether or not it should have been forced to do so. But the scourge of moral relativism is a much larger aspect of the media’s assault on language. The Times’s description of everyone of every nationality and every religion who is not an East Coast secularist as “ultraconservative” is an example, but the more famous example is the media’s persistent refusal to use the word terrorist to describe terrorists. “Militant” has emerged as the go-to replacement, but a fairly pathetic one. And now “ultraconservative” may at times stand in for it, which is the same term the Times uses to identify those who voted against Obama. But since moral relativism is a feature and not a bug of Western liberalism, it’ll have to do.

There are other corrosive effects of the media’s language manipulation. Mark Steyn pointed out a perfect example a couple of weeks ago, involving both the AP and the Times. A Times story described babies born alive–which advanced civilization prefers to call “people”–as “viable fetuses” still eligible for abortion. But isn’t abortion something else? Yes, and Steyn found a helpful Associated Press story to explain that “Abortions are typically performed in utero.”

One would hope. Regardless of a person’s position on the availability of abortion, the press’s insistence on twisting itself in knots to avoid humanizing a human is not a sign of cultural health. Coincidentally, that is just the complaint that led to the eventual dismissal of the term “illegal immigrant.” In the ABC News report on the AP’s decision, we are told that “Fusion, the ABC-Univision joint venture, does not use ‘illegal immigrant’ because we believe it dehumanizes those it describes.” Fair enough, I suppose, but is it too much to ask for this concern over humanity to be applied across the board?


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