Words and power…

Cynthia Cotts reviews Beating the Press by former journalists Al Guyant and Shirley Fulton. It was published last October but has received little attention. If Cotts’ review is accurate, it’s not difficult to understand why. These two are tough on their old profession and the people who practice it. (Addendum: And, as commenter Tim Porter suggests, they are unreliable.)

Although there seems to be a lot of harsh talk and over generalizing, I found this part particularly interesting:

At times, the book paints an extreme picture of an industry run amok. “Some reporters simply don’t understand the impact of the immense power of the tools…they wield daily…When used carelessly, these become more like weapons than tools, causing severe and irreparable damage to people and institutions.” Indeed, reporters “have the power to trash people on a universal scale at the speed of an electronic signal.”

What tools? Words. It is my experience that, as well-meaning as I think most journalists are, far too many of them seem to have very little understanding of the social-epistemic function of rhetoric. They have very little understanding of how language works, why language works, or the relationship between language and reality (sign-signifier relationship). Some of their language assumptions (scroll down to “News media assumptions about language and discourse”), considering the power of the press to set the public agenda, are downright scary.

This is one of the reasons I’m all for Lee C. Bollinger’s attempts to bring a more academic approach to graduate study in journalism at Columbia. Too many journalists think they are language experts because they are paid to write.