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Making Words Matter

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In just about everything, language matters.

“We need to put the gun metaphors away and permanently,” intoned (then) MSNBC personality Keith Olbermann on Jan. 8, the night Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona had been shot.


For his part, the anchor seemed mostly concerned with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. If she “does not repudiate her own part in amplifying violence and violent imagery in politics, she must be dismissed from politics -- she must be repudiated by the members of her own party, and if they fail to do so, each one of them must be judged to have silently defended this tactic that today proved so awfully foretelling, and they must in turn be dismissed by the responsible members of their own party,” Olbermann warned in one long, run on sentence.

Palin’s “foretelling” “tactic” had been to put a bull’s eye on Giffords and encourage her supporters to vote against the congresswoman. In other words: politics as practiced down through the decades.

Echoing Olbermann, some journalists tried their best to avoid martial metaphors. A CNN reporter started to ask a leader of Arizona’s Tea Party of he believed he been “targeted,” but she managed to stop halfway through the word and replace it with “singled out.”

But within weeks, it was back to business as usual. In National Journal magazine, Ron Brownstein wrote, “As President Obama confronts a resurgent Republican Party, he finds himself fighting a two-front war.” War, you say?

Elsewhere, on Feb. 27 columnist Dana Milbank of the Washington Post opined that “Under [Gov. Scott] Walker’s tribal political theory, governing is a never-ending cycle of revenge killings.”

The point here isn’t to compile a list of journalists who’ve used violent imagery. We’d run out of space before we ran out of examples. The point is that we should insist that reporters and politicians alike use words accurately, so voters can be sure they’ll get what they’re promised. Consider one example: “affordable housing.”


The Obama administration recently unveiled tentative plans to eventually shut down housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and allow private lenders to control the housing market once again. This swiftly raised complaints from the Left.

“My underlying concern is that they may radically increase the cost of homeownership, and housing in general, over the coming years,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told reporters. Well, if it’s affordable housing Waters wants, she need only look around.

Fannie and Freddie spent the first 10 years of this century doing what Rep. Waters says she wants the government to do: promoting affordable housing. Meanwhile, prices were soaring almost everywhere. The government’s actions triggered a bubble -- the exact opposite effect than its words called for.

Today, with the government finally talking about getting out of the mortgage market, “home prices in some sections of the country are now comparable to prices of luxury cars,” reported housing Web site recently.

We won’t know what homes are really worth until there’s a market that’s reasonably free from government interference. What we do know is that federal attempts to promote “affordable” housing had the exact opposite effect.

Or consider President Obama’s proposed federal budget. “Obama Budget Makes Deep Cuts, Cautious Trades,” reported the front page of the Washington Post. Obama himself promises “some significant spending cuts so that by the middle of this decade our annual spending will match our annual revenues. We will not be adding more to the national debt.”


Well, the president aims to spend some $3.7 trillion, of which $1.1 trillion would be borrowed money. As puts it, “with deficits every year for the next 10 -- and no surpluses -- the nation’s accumulated debt will rise every year for the next decade.”

Proposed “cuts” never seem to develop. When times are good and tax money is rolling in, politicians are eager to boost spending. When times are bad, politicians insist they need to boost spending to “save” the economy. That only leads to failed “stimulus” packages and unsustainable budgets.

President Bush’s final budget proposal promised a balanced budget by 2012. Missed by a mere trillion dollars. Expect Obama’s rosy scenarios to fall short, too. It’s time for our language to reflect reality, not promote fantasies. That way people can know what they’re voting for.

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