November 17, 2003
Attention, cable TV channels, especially those not yet launched: It’s not enough to park a pleasant face in front of a camera and let it blab. The words matter.
I am spurred on to this statement by a recent New York Times article, which I shall now excerpt at ridiculous length.
On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Representative Charles A. Eaton, Republican of New Jersey, made his case in the House for why the nation should enter the Second World War.
“Mr. Speaker,” his speech began, “yesterday against the roar of Japanese cannon in Hawaii our American people heard a trumpet call; a call to unity; a call to courage; a call to determination once and for all to wipe off of the earth this accursed monster of tyranny and slavery which is casting its black shadow over the hearts and homes of every land.”
Last year, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, made the case for war in Iraq this way:
“And if we don’t go at Iraq, that our effort in the war on terrorism dwindles down into an intelligence operation,” he said. “We go at Iraq and it says to countries that support terrorists, there remain six in the world that are as our definition state sponsors of terrorists, you say to those countries: we are serious about terrorism, we’re serious about you not supporting terrorism on your own soil.”
The linguist and cultural critic John McWhorter cites these excerpts in his new book, “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care” (Gotham Books). They not only are typical of speeches made in Congress on both occasions, he argues, but also provide a vivid illustration of just how much the language of public discourse has deteriorated.
Now, I don’t know that I like the rhetorical bombast of that bygone era much more than the shuffling half-speech of the present. But what sounds to be McWhorter’s central thesis — that the language of our public spaces is, uh, way lame — struck a chord with me, because I just got cable TV.
Yes, I just got cable TV, and let me tell you, it’s not too literate. Watching MTV during the last couple days has definitely made me dumber. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News aren’t so cruel to grammar — but their verbiage can be just as vapid in its own way. As with the low-rent digital channels (G4, TechTV, etc.) it often seems that what’s being said doesn’t matter — as if anchors are just killing time until the next commercial.
I think that’s a corrosive attitude, conscious or not. Good TV news is more than well-spoken reporters and anchors (although you need those). It’s solid, vivid writing. That’s one of the many reasons why I think a website is so important: It will tether Gore TV to reality, and lend some weight and permanence to otherwise ephemeral words. It will give the channel’s reporters and producers a reason to write well — and therefore, to think well.