I’ve long noticed that NPR correspondents, with or without conscious intention, water down the language they employ in their reportage. I’m not quite sure why. I might imagine they were trying to create the journalistic equivalent of “easy listening” music – or maybe “new age.” But their selection of topics (war, disease, the economy) belies this.
The “M”-word is the perfect example of this tendency. Whether from spontaneous groupthink or ironclad editorial edict, NPR reporters go out of their way to avoid the word “mother” the way an alcoholic avoids free wine tastings. Jennifer Ludden did an entire piece on the fertility of women in their 40s without once using the word. This is only possible due to her substitution of the much more popular word “mom”, which she uses four times.
One explanation would be a polite differentiation of biological motherhood from “family of choice” momhood so as not to implicitly stigmatize those who come by at least some members of their clutch in ways that are not, uhmm, “in-house” as you might say. But Ludden’s story, with its subject entirely devoted to the difficulty middle aged women encounter when trying to, ermm, “grow their own” so to speak, would be the perfect place for the biologically specific term “mother.” Its total absence in this particular story, along with the clumsily repetitive use of “mom,” indicates something else is going on.
Maybe it’s the fact that “mother” is sometimes used in a rather extreme piece of two-word profanity that, let’s just say, implies a globally frowned-upon form of over-parenting. Having it all, so to speak. Sometimes, to avoid inevitable bleeping, that epithet is shortened to “Mother-f-” or just “mother-” on television. So is it this? Is the word “mother” now anathema just because it occasionally hangs out in the wrong part of urbandictionary.com?
It turns out that theory is also faulty. The proof is that NPR reporters avoid the words “children” and “fathers” with as much awkward sidestepping and repetition as they do “mother”. They compulsively prefer “dads” and “kids” to party with all the “moms”. When a “father” shows up, things can get ugly, as in the Loudon Wainwright song “Me and All the Other Mothers”.
Maybe, as with some profanity, it’s some kind of word origin problem? Is “mother” from some poorly thought of word root and “mom” from an original language that’s a bit more presentable in polite society? Turns out that’s not the case either. Both the hated “mother” and the beloved “mom” seem to originate from the same semi-universal infant sound “ma” or “muh”, which may itself derive from the satisfied “mmm” infants sometimes utter after a bout of nipple noshing. So there’s another theory shot-down.
Let’s examine the larger context. As their Twitter feeds attest, most NPR reporters *cough* Scott Simon *cough* are child or grandchild-addled. Or do I mean “kid” or “grandkid”-addled? It’s so odd how different these exact synonyms can feel. One would never say “wicked stepmom”, “kid of the depression”, or “dad of our country”. At least not yet. “Mother’s Day” is holding on with 35 million Google results, but “Mom’s Day” is coming up fast in the rear-view with 994,000.
Anyway, to me all this linguistic pre-chewing smacks of parental and grandparental overcompensation. The same way marketers forced used-car dealers to start referring to their jalopies as “pre-owned”, and realtors to start calling houses “homes”, parents continually try to spin reality to their children as something more palatable. It’s the difference between “shit”, if you’ll pardon the expression, and “poop”. It’s exactly the relationship of Ray Liotta’s character to Jeff Daniels’ in the totally brilliant and allegorical “we’ve all got a darkside” Jonathan Demme film “Something Wild.” A word clothed uncomfortably in gym shorts and a t-shirt purchased hastily at a gas station is still naked underneath.
So is this the answer? Do NPR reporters actually know the difference between Shineola and that other nasty substance that isn’t Shineola, but they just don’t want to come out and say it in so many words? I really hope so.
The alternative is that they actually mentally inhabit this baby-proofed, rose-colored Nicey Niceland. In Nicey Niceland, Wall Street math-prodigy mountebanks aren’t prodigious monsters, they’re “number crunchers.” And in Nicey Niceland the politicians don’t “lie,” they “exaggerate” or “mis-speak.” When the lies come flying, the reporters at Nicey Niceland Today report on the public opinion reaction to the dishonesty rather than even noticing the rude fact of the moral unfitness of the liar. Nicey Niceland Public Radio (NNPR) reporters are so happy just to get a “sense” of things. Reality had them at “hello.”
In this formulation, evil is real, and the banality of evil is to perceive and describe it in child-friendly gauziness. Like Jeff Daniel’s character, Gallant is so Gallant that he becomes Goofus without realizing it. (“Gallant lets his children starve to death because stealing bread is illegal.”)
Public Radio is a format that features vocal intonations sometimes too closely resembling the cadences of a parent reading a storybook to a child at bedtime. I hope they are at least explicitly aware of these linguistic habits, and that they have a good reason. I would also love to hear the reason. Journalism is the first draft of history, and that draft should not be written with sparkle pens and hearts over the “i”s.
Maybe the first step to fixing all this is for NPR staff to ban their kids (adult or not) from listening…