When “reform” is just “change” or “re-structuring” or “privatization” but not “reform”

Not surprisingly, I can be very sensitive to language, and how language can manipulate. This is most nakedly apparently in our political advertising a.k.a. propaganda a.k.a. the way politicians speak every day. That may sound rather cynical but it’s really quite a fact that conservative think tanks issue Talking Points daily and just a superficial gander at any one day’s quotes from the Republican noise machine is just how choral that noise is, i.e. they all say the same thing. Democrats are more likely to show some surface independence but also try their damnedest to be as “effective” in communicating as the Republicans. Note that President Obama’s office recently created a kerfuffle by telling reporters that quotes would only be given to those that agree to verification of those quotes, i.e. editing of those quotes.

So, one of my biggest peeves is how Republicans, usually, take advantage of the word “reform”. Typically they use the word “reform” in conjunction with ending something by privatizing it. Ideologically, this fulfills their dictum that private companies always do things better than government (whether it matches facts or not) and secondarily results in contributions to their political war chests from the companies that would benefit / profit from such a privatization.

Privatization as a word, however, is not automatically popular with people who hold pragmatic ideas about particular government programs. That’s why, Bush – at the very height of his power – suffered his first major setback when he tried to privatize Social Security because average people suddenly became motivated to protect something they depend on. (On a tangential note: the administrative costs for Social Security are the lowest, thus the most efficient, of any investment fund including index funds… so much for government inefficiency.)

Thus, we hear the word “reform” used over and over again by Republican marketing. Social Security reform. Medicare reform. And so on.

Since they’re trying to sell something, I’m may be annoyed by the incorrect use of the word, but I accept it from a free speech point of view. BUT I become completely infuriated by the press, rather lazily accepting and repeating propagandistic language instead of challenging its premises. Obviously this is symptomatic of the modern corporate press overall failure of its adversarial, watch dog role that was actually enshrined in our Constitution but it’s exactly in these details, that one can press the Press to be more Press-like, i.e. actually adhere to the standards of true objectivity (not he said she said type of false equivalencies).

I wrote the following letter on NPR’s website after New Yorker political reporter Ryan Lizza was interviewed by Teri Gross on Fresh Air regarding his article on the power and background of Rep. Paul Ryan (and Lizza is one of the better journalists in the business yet even he gets sloppy and falls into lazy reporter verbal group-think… in the actual article, he was much more precise and accurate):

“While Mr. Lizza seems to be a careful journalist, I do have to take serious issue of language – in fact something that infuriates me – with how he began the interview regarding Rep. Ryan’s proposals on what Lizza called “Medicare reform”. The incorrect use of the word “reform”, a word commonly used as a propaganda strategy, which the press blithely goes along with either out of group think or actual ideological sympathy. (In this case, I’m guessing it’s more group think.) Reform by definition predicates that something is broken and needs fixing. And secondly, reform carries an automatic positive connotation. Reform brings benefits. Reform is good. So of course, it makes sense Rep. Ryan and other Republicans would label something as “reform” that actually ends Medicare. As to the first aspect of the word reform, it is also highly arguable that Medicare is broken. It’s expensive. But it mostly works very well at getting seniors medical care. So Lizza, so as not to be a party to propaganda and adhere to the journalistic idea of objectivity should have used the neutral word “change” or “re-structuring”. Language matters and has immense power. Mr. Lizza is a good writer; he should know that and correct himself for the future.”

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