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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Beware all headlines!

Posted by: Hammer / 9:50 AM

CJR Daily has a very interesting post about political language:

Look at the "war on terror." The press, for the most part, absorbed this descriptive term and used it uncritically for the last five years. But, as Jacob Levenson wondered in the pages of CJR two years ago, "It's reasonable to ask, for instance, that if the war on terror had been called the war on Islamic extremism, would the American public have supported the invasion of a country, like Iraq, with a secular government? Similarly, had it been called the war for global democracy, would the Patriot Act have become law? What if it hadn't been called a war at all? Journalists, in other words, must resist employing political jargon -- it tends to shortcut analysis in favor of mobilization."

The question comes up in the context of the coming "surge". A surge connotes progress. One surges forward. A surge connotes brevity. One surges for a modest length of time. Google reports roughly 40,000 news stories using the word "surge". Leading Dems, primarily John Edwards, have been pushing a different noun: escalation (8,000 stories per Google News). Edwards, in fact, has taken this a step further to dub the surge-calation the McCain Doctrine.

"Escalation" carries with it the connotation of Vietnam. Escalation further implies a permanent increase. In that sense, at least, "surge" is the more accurate word, in as much as I don't see any evidence that we can maintain 140,000 troops in Iraq much longer, let alone 160,000.

On to a mundane point of some import. Surge is 5 letters. Escalation is 10 letters. It's a lot easier to put a 5 letter word into a headline than a 10 letter word. If you've got a one-column story on page 1, "escalation" won't always fit. Lesson? When branding an idea, shorter words make life easier for copy editors: "War on Terror" fits just about anywhere and means just about nothing. It's perfect.

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