Last week a Washington anecdote offered a glimpse into the mental state of the Washington press corps, as White House press secretary Jay Carney faced a reportorial rebellion around an unexpected issue: metaphors.
It was a "Rashomon"-like incident, in which reporters either presumptuously chided a government official for his phraseology -- or they resolutely refused to accept evasion when the public deserved answers. But which was it?
Scott Wilson of the Washington Post reported on the insurrection over Carney’s use of language. Carney had described the GOP’s actions around the government shutdown and the debt ceiling debate with words like “matches and gasoline” and “nuclear weapon” (a weapon that Republicans were allegedly keeping in a “back pocket”).
But the term that finally provoked an outburst was “ransom,” a word the administration has deployed many times in recent days. When Carney began a comment by saying “The president will not pay ransom for …” he was interrupted by Ari Shapiro from NPR, who told Carney that the word “ransom” was “a metaphor which doesn’t serve our purposes.”
It sounds like a highhanded comment, but maybe you had to be there. Shapiro obviously was, and he said this in an email exchange with Salon: “I might have used a different phrase than ‘suit our purposes’ if I’d scripted it in advance, but I was speaking off the cuff … Carney wasn't helping us understand the White House's actual position on whether a six-month debt ceiling bill would be enough to bring the president to the table.”
Shapiro certainly wasn’t alone in his discontent. The Post reported that he “shouted back” at Carney with “broad support” from other journalists.
“You guys are just too literal then, right?” Carney replied. As the press room exploded in hubbub, Carney muttered phrases as if to himself: “… the closing of the American mind … the failure to appreciate metaphor and simile ….”
The moment brought to mind the Surrealists of the 1920s or the Situationists of the 1960s: a revolt over style, the White House press corps as vanguard for a revolution in language, thought and perception. Shapiro quickly killed that speculation with his retort: “We just want to accurately report,” he told Carney. “We’re trying to be accurate in our description of what’s going on.”
It’s easy to sympathize. The president, a self-described “Rorschach test,” can be evasive. He often does it gracefully, like one of those post-Newtonian physical phenomena that are both particle and wave at the same time. His officials, on the other hand, have proven less adept in practicing the art of evasion. Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of this practice knows it can be a maddening experience.
That’s a minor aggravation that only affects a few people. What’s more important is the question that went unanswered. As Shapiro put it in a blog post, “Carney explained that Obama will have ‘conversations’ but won't pay a ‘ransom’ … (but) one man's negotiation is another man's conversation is another man's ransom.”
So the press room’s frustration is understandable. It’s important to know whether the Republicans are or aren't gaining an opportunity to negotiate by keeping the government closed.
On the other hand, Carney’s only doing what press secretaries have always done: leaving their bosses some room to act by providing non-answers to reporters’ questions. Why did that anger these reporters so much?
This story’s most interesting angle isn’t the age-old conflict between the press and the press secretary. It’s what reporters chose to object about. Then again, a press revolt over metaphors isn’t as strange as it might first seem. American journalism runs on metaphors – seen and unseen.
But Shapiro’s words seemed unusually aggressive. It’s hard to recall any other instance in which reporters objected so strenuously to an administration’s choice of linguistic constructs. And complaining about “a metaphor which doesn’t serve our purposes” suggests that other metaphors would.
Come to think of it, that’s true: Some metaphors serve the press quite well, including a few that were crafted by lobbyists for smaller government. Some reporters continue to use “bankruptcy” to describe the projected status of the Social Security Trust Fund in the late 2030s, for example, even though the fund would continue to receive significant revenues. The lobbyists’ “generational war” metaphor is often used uncritically, despite a number of analyses by economists and actuaries demonstrating that it’s misleading.
Adjectives, like metaphors, are used with similar selectivity. Many reporters still use words like “moderate” and “centrist” to describe policies like those in the Simpson-Bowles plan, despite the fact that its priorities were only embraced by 6 percent of voters at the time. And the press continues to use the word “reform” when what is meant is “cuts” -- in everything from taxes to Social Security. (The meaning of “reform,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “the improvement of something by removing or correcting faults, problems, etc.,” or “an action, plan, rule, etc., that is meant to improve something.”)
All of which demonstrates that the press will accept some pre-crafted language, while rejecting others. The underlying disconnect in this case may involve narratives as much as it does metaphors. This administration has tended to avoid confrontation and has displayed a distaste for strong political rhetoric. It has spent years crafting a narrative in which rancorous Republicans can always be brought around, and the president possesses a preternatural skill for transcending ‘left’ and ‘right’ in pursuit of collaboration.
Some of us have welcomed the change in tone. But the White House’s sudden pivot from a collegial tone to the scorched-earth language of matches, gasoline and nuclear weaponry must have induced whiplash in the reporters who cover it.
It’s easy to understand Carney’s dilemma. The White House wants to reopen the government and avoid a debt crisis. It’s trying to draw a distinction between “conversations” and “negotiations” in order to keep its options open without reinforcing a historical precedent. But, as with so many other administrations before it, it relies too heavily on catchphrases and slogans – and metaphors.
Reporters have legitimate grievances with this White House. It has spied on them, berated them, and sometimes ignored them. It has shrouded itself in secrecy after promising unprecedented transparency. And, if some reports are to be believed, its press secretaries may not be the most cordial guys to have ever held the job.
And now the administration has committed a cardinal sin: It changed narratives in the middle of the story, after spending years reinforcing the media’s conceptions of “balance” and “bipartisanship.” It suddenly deployed new and ferocious armaments of metaphor, after allowing reporters to spend years in a demilitarized linguistic zone.
Perhaps the White House press corps knows, consciously or not, that it has been transgressed against in the unseen worlds of linguistic meaning. Perhaps this “metaphor uprising” could lead to modern journalism’s version of a shutdown strike, in which reporters will refuse to repeat any more political metaphors unless they’re accompanied by clear statements or verifiable facts.
Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.