How to speak Republican or Democratic.

Media criticism.
Dec. 6 2006 7:02 PM

How To Speak Republican …

… or Democratic.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

In recent weeks, major U.S. news organizations have started using the phrase "civil war" to describe the unpleasantness in Iraq, prompting a brawl between liberal and conservative commentators.

Speaking on the left, Eric Boehlert derides the press for only now calling the mayhem a civil war. Boehlert accuses various organizations, which include NBC News, the New York Times, the Miami Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times, of accommodating President Bush by keeping the phrase out of their coverage for three-plus years. The administration abhors the phrase, preferring "sectarian violence."

Advertisement

On the right, James S. Robbins insists that the Iraq war is bigger than civil—it's an "international conflict with significant regional impact"—and accuses liberals and others of playing semantic games by pushing the civil-war label.

That some innocent-sounding phrases carry a political charge is hardly news, and yet who would have thought that scores and even hundreds of the little buggers exist? "What Drives Media Slant?," a working paper on media bias by University of Chicago scholars Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, locates a slew of two- and three-word phrases that they say can be uniquely identified with either Republican or Democratic members of Congress.

To capture the politically loaded terms, the authors used computers to scrape the 2005 Congressional Record. Floor speeches by members of both parties in both houses were analyzed, and based on frequency of use, key phrases were assigned to one party or the other. Next, the authors measured the "slant" or bias of hundreds of newspapers by noting the frequency with which these loaded phrases appear in news reports during 2005. Essentially, the more often a newspaper echoes Republican or Democratic phrases, the more Republican or Democratic its bias. Gentzkow and Shapiro do much, much more with the data, mashing it up against campaign donations by zip code to show how market forces help determine news content, and flinging other socio-political-economic data around to create a model to predict the level of bias they expect to find at individual papers.

I can't ride the Gentzkow and Shapiro train all the way to its terminus point, because my wallet doesn't contain the intellectual fare required for the journey: It's a complicated study. But what did grab me—and what I did comprehend—was the import of the 150 phrases of Republicanspeak and the 150 phrases of Democraticspeak that the two economists unearthed.

It's common knowledge that political consultants prescribe to their clients specific phrases to use when discussing hot topics. Republican consultant Frank Luntz, Gentzkow and Shapiro write, urged Republicans to refer to "personal accounts," not "private accounts," when talking about changes in Social Security. Similarly, Luntz suggested the phrase "tax relief" to repel the Democrats' complaint about "tax breaks." George Lakoff has written a whole book advising Democrats on what words to use to frame the debate in their favor.

While most reporters and savvy readers understand that "death tax" is Republicanspeak for what the Democrats and others call the "estate tax," who would have guessed that "hate crimes," "hate crimes law," and "hate crimes legislation" would end up in the Republican side of the ledger? That "middle class" and "bunker buster" would be more strongly identified with Democrats speaking in Congress rather than Republicans? Political reporters and editors who wish to stay above the political fray might want to study the complete list, which I've thrown into a sidebar. Using Republicanspeak and Democraticspeak could expose reporters to charges that they're carrying somebody's partisan water.

Not in all cases, of course. Consider "stem cell," "cell lines," "cell research," "embryonic stem cell," "adult stem cells," "cord blood stem," "stem cell lines," and "pluripotent stem cells," all of which are captured examples of Republicanspeak. The finding that Republicans use these phrases much more often than Democrats shouldn't automatically mean a news reporter who uses any of them is expressing a conscious or unconscious bias, a view I assume Gentzkow and Shapiro would agree with. On the other hand, phrases such as "war on terror" and "Terri Schiavo" telegraph to my ears the warblings of a pure-blooded Republican, so I suspect the scholars are onto something.

Prior to reading this paper I would have associated "reform" with Democraticspeak, but Republicans have so completely co-opted the word that it doesn't appear on the Dems' list in any form. Republicans must talk incessantly about "immigration reform," "health liability reform," "UN reform," "class action reform," and "social security reform."

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.