"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

If You Already Know English, You Can Learn Journalist In No Time! 

This post is not about how Dick "Dick" Cheney got drunk, shot an old man in the face, and then hunkered down till his blood was clean. It only looks like its about Cheney getting drunk and shooting an old man in the face. What it's really about is rhetoric.

Here's David Sanger and Anne Kornblut, neither one of them a particularly notorious Bush administration mouthpiece, in this morning's New York Times (emphasis supplied):
Until Mr. Cheney acknowledged having had a beer at lunch, members of the hunting party had been adamant that no alcohol was involved. Katharine Armstrong, whose family owns the ranch, had said in interviews that Dr Pepper was served at lunch and that no one was drinking. In interviews with The Times and other papers, Ms. Armstrong heavily implied that no alcohol was served at all.

And what, esactly, did Ms. Armstrong say that could possibly lead to such an inference?
"No, zero, zippo, and I don't drink at all," she said in an interview published on Monday in The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, the paper she initially called. "No one was drinking."

Wow. Yeah, that's a heavy implication, all right. Hell, I'd go so far as to call it a categorical implication, if such a phrase weren't logically meaningless.

When someone says "No, zero, zippo ... no one was drinking," that's not an implication. That's a bare, absolute assertion of fact. To say that Katharine Armstrong "heavily implied" that no member of the hunting party had been drinking is simply inaccurate. So why would Sanger and Kornblut have chosen that odd, distinctive characterization? Obviously, I don't know; I can only speculate. I will note as a general matter, however, that if facts come to light which directly contradict something which one has "heavily implied," it does not necessary follow that the person doing the implying actually lied - implication is a two-way street (someone is doing the implying, and someone else is doing the inferring), and the listener bears some responsibility for the inference he or she makes.

On the other hand, if someone states a fact, and said fact later turns out to be untrue, then it begins to look like the speaker is lying. Sure, there could be other explanations - an honest mistake, perhaps - but when the speaker is someone to whom the Vice President personally assigns the task of communicating with the press, in the interest of absolute accuracy, then at the very least, any presumptively honest mistake requires some explanation.

And that's messy for everyone. So instead of saying that Katharine Armstrong offered an assertion of fact which was later contradicted by the Vice President (and this is only one of several assertions of fact by Katharine Armstrong which have since been contradicted by the Vice President), so much tidier for everyone to agree that Ms. Armstrong merely "heavily implied" that the whole hunting party was as sober as churchmice. Note that there is likely no real intent on the part of the journalists to skew the story - rather, it's probably a matter of reflex, of instinct. Journalists, like politicians, are drawn to weasel words because they make life so much easier. After all, explanations are like retractions - they're embarrassing, and no one ever really reads them anyway.




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