Here are some lines from a recent New York Times story: “For a few days, it seemed as if Don Imus would somehow pull out of the death spiral. After all, once he came under fire, Mr. Imus said he was sorry.” Soon, though, the story adds, “the media began to lock and load.” The story says Imus was “fighting for survival,” and it concludes, “Mr. Imus never caught a breath because he was in the middle of a 24-hour news cycle that kept him in the cross hairs. It is the kind of media ceremony that generally ends in a human sacrifice.”
There are at least six violent metaphors in that story. Several of them, including “death spiral,” “under fire” and “in the cross hairs” would have been familiar to earlier generations of Americans as symbolizing the impending end of a human life. Today, they mean nothing more than the temporary end of a radio shock jock’s career. Imus may have lost his job, but he’s hardly a “human sacrifice.”
Or consider this gem from The Washington Post online. Writer Dan Froomkin speculates the Bush administration may be, “letting [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales’s limp corpse take fire that might otherwise be aimed at the White House directly.”
It’s an image that would be disgusting if we took it literally. Luckily, readers are so immune to the incorrect use of violent imagery that we recognize Froomkin really means “the White House is keeping Gonzalez around to take the pressure off Bush.”
Ironically, even as war-like talk heats up, actual war is cooling down. As Gregg Easterbrook reported in The New Republic two years ago, actual war is in decline around the globe. “All told, there were less than half as many wars in 2004 as there were in 1991,” he writes.
But even as incidents of actual warfare have gone down, the media’s use of violent metaphors has gone up. And when there’s an actual act of war, such as Iran’s attack on British personnel or the long war against international terrorists, the media isn’t sure how to respond. We need more journalists embedded with American troops, to report all the good things they’re doing in Iraq and elsewhere. And we need to ease up on the violent rhetoric unless it’s used to describe actual violent events.
After all, there’s a war on. And it’s not a “war of words.”