Friday, June 10, 2016

Today in verb voice: Flak is unfairly gotten

A lot of flak is gotten by the passive voice over its alleged role in manipulating or obscuring agency. Most of that concern is misplaced; for every "mistakes were made,"  you can find dozens of cases in which the passive voice appropriately fronts the object as the center of attention. Unless you need to specify the office that did the arresting, "Suspect arrested after holdup" will always be a better headline than "Police arrest suspect after holdup." 

The passive isn't inherently suspicious. Nothing was being covered up when Macduff explained the circumstances of his birth to Macbeth. News outlets understand this, even if they (like the pundits they employ) generally can't identify verb voice* at better than coin-toss levels. News tells stories, and the passive voice has been an excellent storytelling tool for decades:

WASHINGTON, Friday, April 14 -- 12:30 A.M.
The President was shot in a theatre tonight, and is, perhaps, mortally wounded. 
As well, the active voice has always been a handy tool for hiding agency, particularly if you simply make stuff up: "We did not, repeat did not, trade weapons or anything else for hostages." Correctly used, though, the active voice can be an effective head-fake even when the speaker isn't lying. It works especially well in tandem with a passive hed, as in the example at top from The Washington Times:

An explosive report released Thursday suggests that Google manipulated its search engine to boost Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton by burying unflattering stories about her.

A video posted by SourceFed, a news and pop-culture website, accused Google of attempting to boost secretly Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy.

Got it? The passive hed puts SourceFed (form your own judgments, kids) in the general category of cops and courts: we don't have to say who has "accused" Google of doing something, because the passive tells us it's a sufficiently authoritative figure. We don't need to know much more, because -- it's the WashTimes, after all -- we already know that those Internets are out to get us. Here's the supporting evidence:

“Thanks to the help of our editor Spencer Reed, SourceFed has discovered that Google has been actively altering search recommendations in favor of Hillary Clinton’s campaign so quietly that we were unable to see it for what it was until today,” said SourceFed’s Matt Lieberman in the video.

For example, when typing “Hillary Clinton cri,” Google’s auto-complete function brings up as its top choice “Hillary Clinton crime reform,” even though competing search engines Bing and Yahoo show the most popular search topics are “Hillary Clinton criminal charges” and “Hillary Clinton crime.”

While that could reflect legitimate differences in the engines’ algorithms, Mr. Lieberman said that a search of “Hillary Clinton crime reform” on Google trends showed that “there weren’t even enough searches of term to build a graph on the site.”

How this makes up an "explosive report" is apparently for better minds to decide, especially since Google seems pretty quick in pointing the paranoid reader toward (for example) those pesky emails. But the Times knows a Big Story when it's told to see one, even if it's a little promiscuous in the sourcing department.

Just for comparison, let's have a look at Friday evening's No. 2 story over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. Does verb voice help us identify who's doing the accusing here?

Clearly, the gravitas of SourceFed is not felt. The source appears to be some pesky liberal who's (a) well enough known to be a headline name but (b) not gifted with enough stature to have his accusations accepted on their own merits. So what's his claim?

As if the 2016 cycle couldn’t get any uglier, a nasty war of words broke out Friday when Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid accused a Republican senator of “praying” for President Obama’s death.
Do tell!
“We are called to pray for our country, for our leaders, and yes, even our president,” Perdue said. “I think we should pray for Barack Obama.”

He added, “We need to be very specific about how we pray. We should pray like Psalms 109:8 says. It says, 'Let his days be few, and let another have his office.'”

Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman let Perdue have it, claiming he had just issued a call to prayer for Obama’s demise – as opposed to the end of his term.

Which, attribution or not, is pretty much exactly what Sen. Perdue did. Of course, he gets a chance to explain:

Perdue’s office rejected the allegation.

Megan Whittmore said in a statement: "Senator Perdue said we are called to pray for our country, for our leaders, and for our president. He in no way wishes harm towards our president and everyone in the room understood that. However, we should add the media to our prayer list because they are pushing a narrative to create controversy and that is exactly what the American people are tired of."

I really don't think Sen. Perdue wants to claim he was taken out of context:

6 Set a wicked man over him, 
And let an accuser[a] stand at his right hand.
7 When he is judged, let him be found guilty,
And let his prayer become sin.
8 Let his days be few,
And let another take his office.
9 Let his children be fatherless,
And his wife a widow.
10 Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg;
Let them seek their bread also from their desolate places.
11 Let the creditor seize all that he has,
And let strangers plunder his labor.
12 Let there be none to extend mercy to him,
Nor let there be any to favor his fatherless children.

This particular dog whistle has been making the rounds for seven years, If Sen. Perdue really was the only guy in the room who didn't get it, he's a good candidate for Stupidest-Ass Redneck in the Klavern, stiff as the competition might seem.

Fox, of course, wants to make sure you don't get the wrong impression:

In the remarks, he made clear he was joking. “In all seriousness, I believe that America is at a moment of crisis,” he added. 

No doubt he does, but that's a securitization question for a different day. Our point here is to reflect on the role of verb voice: not what it does, but whom we assign its powers to. Grammatical and social-political observations are welcome.

* Applying the zombie test, identify the clauses in this paragraph as passive or active: The theatre was densely crowded, and everybody seemed delighted with the scene before them. During the third act, and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggesting nothing serious, until a man rushed to the front of the President's box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, and exclaiming "Sic semper tyrannis," and immediately leaped from the box, which was in the second tier, to the stage beneath, and ran across to the opposite side, making his escape amid the bewilderment of the audience from the rear of the theatre, and, mounting a horse, fled.

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