Fifth column flap…

A reader left this comment on today’s post about Al Gore:

Speaking of word usage, there has been some discussion on various blogs about Gore’s use of “fifth column” in his speech about media bias. Do you think he deliberately misused this phrase to be inflammatory, do think he REALLY meant it (I trust this not the case), do you think it was just a poor choice of words or something else? What is your opinion on this?

I’ve decided to answer on the blog rather than the comments.

First, I don’t think Al Gore should ever speak about media bias for the reasons I cite here.

As for “fifth column,” I think it was a poor choice but not because some people might find it inflammatory. I think the worst problem with it is that it’s an obscure term. Being obscure isn’t good for a presidential candidate. (I have said that I believe he will run in 2004.)

Now, is it inflammatory? Yes, to a limited extent it is. I think Gore was using it as a metaphor following from its least pejorative definition: “a subversive group that supports the enemy and engages in espionage or sabotage; an enemy in your midst [syn: Trojan horse]” (WordNet, Princeton University via dictionary.com). The metaphor, then, works this way (this is an analysis, not an assertion): FOX News et. al. is a subversive group of journalists who do not adhere to certain principles of journalism, and, by promoting a particular party line and a particular process of information dissemination, subvert the standard news process. Notice the synonym is “Trojan horse.” Would anyone be getting upset if he had said that FOX News et. al. had placed a Trojan horse within the walls of ethical journalism? Well, of course they would. No one wants to be accused of unethical or unprincipled behavior (or have their ethics and principles defined for them in ways that make their political outcomes difficult to achieve).

Certain metaphors should be clearly off limits in politics. For example, I believe the name Hitler, obviously referring to the German dictator, should never come up in even the most oblique comparison to an American politician. It is offensive and pejorative in any case. Its use always deserves condemnation (I don’t use “always” lightly).

If I had been advising Gore prior to that interview, I would have suggested he avoid of the topic of media bias. If he insisted on talking about it in this way, I might have suggested the Trojan Horse metaphor as somewhat more suitable. I think Gore made a some excellent points. But those points should have been made by others.