Mara Liason: naive, or just bored?

The following exchange took place yesterday in one of the infinite “two-way” reports spending one last night in bed with the still-warm body of Rick Santorum’s stillborn campaign:

SIEGEL: Speaking of his future, of course much depends on whether the Republicans win or lose the White House, but what is his future?

LIASSON: Well, he could be in a Romney Cabinet. He certainly will be a conservative social issue leader in the Republican Party. 2016, he could run again. He’ll have a heck of a lot of competition if [he] does that, though.

It’s really not hard to know what Santorum’s future is.  It’s going to look a lot like his immediate pre-primary past.  As Joshua Green put it in Bloomberg:

He did some lobbying, hooked up with a think tank, and sat on a few boards

Sound familiar?  Basically being handed a bunch of money for his extraordinary ability to be Rick Santorum.

So what’s up, Mara?  Do you not know this?  Either you are extremely naive about what out of work politicians do or you think it isn’t interesting enough to just say it.  Too true to be good.

But I find it extremely interesting that out of work politicians make a bunch of money simply for being out of work politicians.  It’s a sickness at the heart of our politics, and I find it very, very worth discussing.

In fact I find it much more worth discussing than the questionable poll results you and your kind perseverate over daily.

But you, Mara, seem to be wed to the old school reportage.  Make it exciting!  Gin up a real fight!  Make it about the contest.  2016!!  You actually said it!  I think you might be the first!  Yay!

And today on Morning Edition you even fired the starter pistol on the race between Romney and Obama, characterizing it as completely evenly matched.  How conveniently exciting for you and all your horse-race monger compatriots.

War is Peace!  Ignorance is Strength!  Everything is Equivalent!

Wall Street Journal Standards Falling Already

Language evolves. I understand that.

In fact, I predict that more and more dictionaries will come to include one or all of our our commander in chief’s pronunciations of “nuclear” (noo-kyoo-ler, or sometimes nuclar, or even new-kee-ler) until they are fully accepted as correct.

But I and other right-thinking people can certainly try our damnedest to fight it every step of the way.

I don’t really mind so much when some benighted southern yokel pronounces it incorrectly. After all, they may never have actually heard anyone pronounce it properly.

But I start to twitch when the people who can’t say the word have some intimate or expert connection to it. I’ve heard nuclear weapons experts screw it up. And Bush himself really should try harder given that he (A) attended Yale and (B) has his finger on the trigger of the largest nookyewwlur weapons arsenal in the known universe.

Imagine how annoyed you would be if his petulant voice suddenly drawled over the Emergency Broadcast System saying “I regret to inform you folks that I have, uhh, authorized a full scale newwkyoulair attack on the former Soviet Union”? The only thing worse than anthropogenic apocalypse would be having Bush cause it while not being able to pronounce it.

Which brings me to Jay Solomon, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal who did a two-way today with Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. He was discussing last year’s refreshingly non-apocalypse-causing attack by Israeli jets on a mysterious Syrian target.

Mr. Solomon’s position at the Journal implies an impressive pedigree, though a hasty google was unable to turn it up. Additionally, in the way that reporters must become quick experts on the subjects they cover, he can be considered something of an expert on nuclear politics.

Yet there he was, nucucumberylering it every time he said the word during the report. Shouldn’t we expect the system that selects from the cream of the ivy league cream to work at papers like the NY Times and the WS Journal to produce people who can pronounce nuclear?

And why didn’t Siegel correct him? Too shy? If Siegel and Solomon’s mother haven’t done it by now then I guess it’s up to me. After all, proper pronunciation of the word is quite simple.

Feel free to anonymously email a link to this post to anyone who needs to know:

How to Pronounce “Nuclear” Almost Like an Educated English Speaker

( Soon to be a popular YouTube video, I feel sure )

Step 1. Say “New”, as in “New York Times”.

Step 2. Say “Clear” , as in “the journal strives for clear writing!”

Step 3. Now say them quickly as in “After my dermabrasion I’m enjoying my new clear skin!”

Step 4. Now every time you have to say “nuclear” say “new clear” instead. It really works!!

There, isn’t that so much easier than getting a job at the Wall Street Journal was? Since you could do that I just knew you could say “new clear”.

Bush, however, I’m not sure about. One school of thought posits that his folksy spoonerisms, malaprops, and anencephalies are intentional. But I don’t believe that theory. I don’t think the unholy stem-cell love clone made from combined mouth swabs of Tom Hanks and Billy-Bob Thornton would be that good at playing brain-injured.

So, Jay, fight the lobotomy Rupert Murdoch is in the process of performing on your famous paper!

Help us hold the line on the proper pronunciation of what is probably the scariest word in the entire English language!

Or else stick to typing it and stay off the radio.

All too common sense (Episode I)

The most constant irritant that assaults my delicate sensibilities is, by many light years, the minute-to-minute over employment of the word “sense” by virtually all Public Radio hosts when they ask questions.

Next time you turn on the radio keep your ear out for it. It will astonish you just how often hosts undermine their questions by starting them with some variation of “sense.”

Some all-too-common examples of this rotten preamble:

  • Give us a sense of…
  • Is there a sense there that…
  • What’s the sense of …

It’s even more unintentionally bizarre when they couch it in one of the many variations of “Can you give us a sense of…” the correct answer to which can only be “yes” or “no”.

The host of “Here and Now” once asked a guest “Give us a sense of your mother’s sense of…”

A couple of weeks ago on “Day to Day” a host asked an interviewee if she could “see a sense” of something.

Those last two aren’t even really parseable, but I guess they sound like they have some meaning since people actually answer them. What’s the proper response to the question “do you see a sense?” And by the time you are asking for a mere sense of a sense what do you really have? Something so vague that it seems hardly worth the electricity required to broadcast it across this great country of ours.

Which brings me to the sort of 7th grade English teacher point: almost any question is weakened by asking it using the “sense” form. Using “sense” implies that you expect a nonspecific answer. I’ve never heard a host ask “Can you give a blurry, poorly thought out, partly inaccurate report about…” But that is, in essence, what they are asking. It insults both the interviewee and the listener. If the interviewee is only capable of giving a sense then maybe the show needs to find someone with better information.

The sense questions have a helpless, groping quality to them. Can’t you just hear the proverbial blind men trying to figure out the elephant asking each other what their senses of it are?

Fixing it

Just stop using it. Almost any question you can ask weakly with sense you can ask more clearly by just dropping it. “Give us a sense of the anxiety there about the housing slump?” can easily be converted to “Describe the anxiety about the housing slump there.” Plus, with just a little more work, they could choose to select from the host of more specific words available to the journeyman interrogator. A modest list: hypothesis, feeling, assessment, reaction, impression, appraisal, estimation, evaluation, judgment.

Where does this come from?

This meme infests every show on Public Radio with the possible exception of “On the Media”, but I’m not totally sure why.

I do have a few theories.

1. Perhaps it’s only a virally transmitted bad habit. Teenagers sprinkle their speech with enough “you know”s and “like”s to drive the average grandparent to drink. They clearly get it from each other. Probably some prominent NPR host started the habit and the rest just unconsciously adopted it. Maybe they need to have a “sense” jar where they must deposit a quarter every time they use the word. A penny would make more “cents” but I don’t think it’s enough punishment. (OMG, I really apologize for what I just wrote – but not enough to delete it. Yet.)

2. Maybe all these sense questions are post-modern capitulation to the elusiveness of fact. The problem is that a basic mistrust of certainty, a very good trait in anyone, especially a journalist, when taken too far leads to susceptibility to spin, which is fatal to good reporting. If someone expresses an idea with enough confidence a reporter might just believe the tone rather than the substance, due to their own bare cupboard of trusted knowledge. That’s how we ended up at war with Iraq. The neocons seemed so all-fired confident with their “we make reality” stuff that the reporters and a lot of Americans just went with it.

3. Maybe it’s simply too much time in the studio. Recently I got to thinking about radio recording studios. They are a bit like sensory deprivation tanks – usually no windows to the outside world, dark, silent except for what comes in through the earphones. Maybe the isolation someone in such a room feels inspires them to reach out for more senses from those outside somewhere.

That last thought makes me a little sad for them.

I’d really love it if a genuine Public Radio broadcaster would give me an answer about whether or not this use of sense is automatic or volitional. Maybe they could even give me a sense of why they think they do it.

I will make note of especially clumsy or compulsively repetitious uses of sense on various shows as this blog progresses.

Fun Update: I asked Tanzina Vega, host of The Takeaway and a frequent sense-requester, whether this style of query was intentional or just a habit and her response was to retweet my question with the addition of an upside-down face emoji. So that happened.

Welcome – Mission Statement

Don’t get me wrong, I love Public Radio, NPR especially. My life would be far less enjoyable without it.But nobody’s perfect.

Public broadcasting in general and public radio in particular are the last bastions of content inoculated from the ever-lower lowest common denominator free market. As a result it shall be held to higher standards than the mass-media money honeys, squawking heads, and priests of celebrity worship.

Public radio has the most easily annoyed, persnickety, proudly upper-middlebrow listeners in the world, and I think I’m 99th percentile in all of those categories. So who better to start a blog solely for the purpose of bringing to light public radio’s broadcasting practices which range from great to silly to tone deaf to unprofessional/irresponsible?

For the purpose of selling recycled reports on CD, NPR touts its “Driveway Moments“, which they refer to as times when “rather than turn the radio off, you stay in your car to hear the piece to the end.”

For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to expand the in-car listening imagery by introducing the concept of “Airbag moments“. Those are the times when someone on Public Radio says something so ridiculous that your airbag is suddenly deployed when you slam your head on the steering wheel as you rant at the radio.

So I invite all you NPRs (Nerdy Peevish Radicals) to join me in ranting about a few of your least favorite things.