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."
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."
As you might suspect, the Democrats own the word "cuts" in all its variations: "budget cuts," "Medicaid cuts," "bill cuts," "spending cuts," "cut food stamps," "cut student loans," "cut Social Security," "cut health care," and so on. They even own "tax cuts," which I assume is because Republicans avoid the phrase and use "tax relief" instead. Democrats have so locked up the word, I'd find an alternative if I were a headline writer, and I'd think twice about using it outside of quotations if I wrote straight news.
Which returns us to our original topic, the civil war—or as others prefer to call it, the sectarian violence in Iraq. Neither phrase earns space on the Gentzkow and Shapiro 2005 list. In 2005, the semantic battle pitted "global war," "war on terror," and "global war on terror" from the Republicans against the "Iraq war," "war in Iraq," and "cost of the war" of the Democrats.
Don't call me a liberal for saying so, but I reckon history will show that the Democrats came closer to correctly naming the thing than their colleagues across the aisle.
Call me anything but late to dinner. Did Gentzkow and Shapiro's data-scrape neglect important partisan phrases? Send your nominations to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)