Monday, December 07, 2015

The magic of names: Now with added Grammar®!

I do have some grammatical observations from the past few days, and they're actually relevant to understanding how some parts of the media spectrum want you to understand political violence. But first (we'll come back to this later), enjoy Friday's New York tabloids and consider whether the heds are saying the same thing or different things.

Anyway, grammar. If your question is "Did Fox News actually refer to the perps as 'husband and wife Muslim gunmen' at the top of the homepage Thursday?"
... the answer is: Yes, until somebody apparently decided several hours later that the (ahem) far more ambiguous "married Muslim gunmen" would be an improvement. That should make for an interesting discussion about epicene pronouns next time the Fair 'n' Balanced stylebook committee meets, don't you think?

If you're wondering whether the 1930s version of Fox would have referred to Bonnie and Clyde as "married Christian bank robbers," probably not -- "Muslim" is just something Fox needed to remind you about until those dilatory federal officials got the thumb out and said the magic word:
But there are other ways of reminding your audience that the world is falling in on them, and that's the really interesting grammatical point. Consider this hed from Thursday's Washington Times homepage:

Let's do some discourse analysis here: What does a clause of the form [proper noun] identified as [actor] mean? Here's a similar one from our time in the London bureau, noting that an actor had been chosen to play Doctor Who in the revived series:

TV Chris is new Dr Who
Which is sort of Redtop for "That guy Christopher* somebody you've seen on TV? He's the new Doctor." You could flip the clause around, because it works both ways: whether he's somebody you already know (or think you should know, to keep up with your friends), or whether you're just in it to find out who the new Doctor is. "New Dr. Who is TV Chris" would work about the same way.

Journalistically, both are a little different from the ones we saw last week. "Robber identified" would be standard turn-of-the-screw stuff: The cops have put a name on the person who held up the bank yesterday, so everybody call in if she's on your friend list. "Robber identified as bank chairman" is different. Like "Bank chairman identified as robber," it's flippable: you can be interested in what robbers do, or in what bank chairman do, and it's still more or less the same clause.

It's different, again, if we get specific:  "O'Reilly identified as gunman" or "gunman identified as O'Reilly." As with"TV Chris is new Dr Who," you're interested in both ends of the clause: What's Christopher Eccleston up to, or who's the new Doctor? O'Reilly, thus, should be somebody we've heard of -- whether we've just found out what he's been doing, or whether we;ve just found out that all those random misdeeds belong to him.

Thus the leap to "Farook and Malik identified!" is a little -- oh, should we go ahead and call it racist? In that the only reason they can go at the front of the clause is that they have scary names, so that the WashTimes audience can now wet its pants on cue?

The Times and the Post and Fox, then, are unusually thuggish, but they aren't unusually stupid -- as evidenced by the presence of the Daily News above. The Post was eager to proclaim that brown people are terrorists, and the News was eager to proclaim that everyone in its sights was a terrorist too. Each should take a deep breath and hire some adult editors. If we want to do something toward mitigating the effects of terrorism, we should start by figuring out what terrorism is, and one good way to do that is by ignoring everyting that New York tabloids say.  

* Pretty good at it, too. Lots of planets have a north

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Seems to me the News is saying something different. Something about who gets labeled what.

10:11 AM, December 07, 2015  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Seems to me the News is saying something different. Something about who gets labeled what.

10:12 AM, December 07, 2015  
Blogger fev said...

In a way, that's what they're both doing: defining a "terrorist" as "anybody the publisher says is a terrorist." The News thinks we should analyze the "husband and wife gunmen" in terms of a guy who shot up a theater; the Post implies that we should analyze them in terms of Iran. I don't think either one moves the ball much on understanding "terrorism."

11:20 AM, December 08, 2015  

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