Monday, June 18, 2012

Another day on Planet Fox

The short answer is "no." Nobody buried any interviews; this is the one you saw and heard ad infinitum last fall, if you follow this sort of case obsessively or were chained to a radio or TV when it came out. So have a look and see if you can figure out how this became the top story of the day, Fox-style:

Accused Penn State pedophile Jerry Sandusky came off a lot creepier in that exclusive sitdown with NBC last November than anyone knew, but the Peacock Network oddly chose not to air what sounds a lot like an admission of guilt -- and now prosecutors want the whole transcript.

All news is laden with judgments, sure. Some of it is thick with value judgments. Here, though, we're straying into the sort of territory usually reserved for people who are really, really guilty -- or foreigners or something.

"I didn't go around seeking out every young person for sexual needs that I've helped," Sandusky told Costas in footage that never made the November airing.

Dropping a first reference in the second graf of your top story -- OK, that could happen to anyone in the War on Editing. What's of interest here is what the quote is saying, and I don't think it's nearly as thrilling as Fox does. Given this question: "So it's entirely possible that you could've helped young boy A in some way that was not objectionable while horribly taking advantage of young boy B, C, D and E. Isn't that possible?”

... and a paragraph of throat-clearing before the sentence in question, I see two plausible readings* of "didn't go around seeking every X for N":

1) I didn't seek all X for N, but did seek some X for N

2) I didn't seek any X for N

Other news judgments are welcome here, but if I was confronted with (a) limited space and (b) an ambiguous sentence that might (c) inadvertently commit some deck-stacking that I wasn't able to clarify, I wouldn't have any second thoughts about throwing that sentence on the burn pile. Fox is welcome to conclude that it "sounds a lot like an admission of guilt"; I disagree, and for my part, I think Fox sounds a lot like it's gunning for a Junior G-man badge. If the Pennsylvania AG's office has indeed asked NBC to "turn over and authenticate the entire transcript from the interview that was used to tape the segment," I expect NBC will ask the AG's office to get stuffed. News agencies are not arms of the prosecution, and I hope somebody at Fox remembers that next time the cops come barging in asking for whatever photos, recordings, and notebooks they please.

Fox calls the comments "disturbing" and "unusual" and declares that they "could prove damning** ... even if they weren't deemed newsworthy by the network." The last, I think, is what makes this a story. Planet Fox is a mean, cold, scary place; you can't even trust the commie-infested media to look after Our Children. And when a whole way of life is at stake, why bother with niceties like reading the text?

* Linguistics friends are welcome to chime in here on how those two readings are described technically. I'm not a linguist, but I think it's one of those scope-like things.
** This really doesn't seem very likely, does it?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

In princple, you could get an ambiguity in the relative scope of the negation not and the quantifier every:

It is not the case that, for every x, I sought out x.
(= there is at least one x I didn't seek out)

For every x, it is not the case that I sought out x.
(= there is no x I did seek out)

But in the actual quotation ("I didn't go around seeking out every young person"), I don't think the EVERY > NOT reading is available. (I have enough difficulty getting it even in a simpler case like "I didn't seek out every x," and piling another verb on top of it only makes it harder.)

So I think the real ambiguity is a pragmatic one. Note that the NOT > EVERY reading doesn't actually exclude the EVERY > NOT scenario: if it's not the case that he sought everyone, then it could be the case that he didn't seek anyone. Under lots of circumstances, there would be a scalar implicature that this narrower possibility is not true, on the grounds that if it were possible to make a stronger statement, he would have made it. But in this context, I don't get that scalar implicature very strongly; it sounds to me as if he's denying that he made a systematic practice of seeking out kids to abuse, and saying nothing (in this sentence) about whether he did in fact abuse anyone.

11:02 AM, June 19, 2012  

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