Sunday, June 20, 2010

2 steps forward, 1.634 steps back

OK, maybe you saw this one filleted at the Log, if not on Comedy Central: an "unusually content- less" bit of pseudo-observation masquerading as political analysis. Couldn't agree more; after all, it's the million-word dude, getting some more free advertising for his bogus linguistifying. You might have missed the folo (shown below, and posted at 10:20p Thursday), which continues to kick the fundamentals around the infield but does show a promising flash or two.

Here's the original lede:

President Obama's speech on the gulf oil disaster may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday.


Tuesday night's speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. The Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.

Not to recap the Log's analysis or anything, but large buzzers should be going off in your head at this point. Paul J.J. Payack isn't a language analyst; he's a hack who runs a for-profit company specializing in Wizard of Oz jiggery-pokery that's designed to keep your attention away from the shell game. If you needed another hint, you might notice that he's talking about speech but using a measure of writing. Speech. Writing. Different. Good so far?

Why is he an expert for CNN? Well, because they've called him one before. (Nor is CNN alone; the NYT has fallen for the schtick too, though it's also been professional enough to quote experts debunking the more openly fraudulent claims.) Note how different things look a few hours later, though:

Language experts weighed in Thursday after poring over the nearly 2,700 words of President Obama's Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil disaster.

"It was straightforward and easy to understand," said Ron Yaros, assistant professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, referring to the explanations of the crisis and its possible solutions. He divided the speech into 1,200 "idea units," each of which represents a point the president was trying to make.

..."If you look at the entire speech, and you look at the amount of jargon, it came out to 1.5 percent," he said.

But Obama's speech may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday by Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor.

Real analysis comes ahead of fake analysis. Good start. But there's more!

Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence "added some difficulty for his target audience," Payack said.

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, was unimpressed with Payack's criticism of the sentence length.

"I think we can all agree that those are shockingly long professor-style sentences for a president to be using, especially in addressing the nation after a disaster," Liberman wrote on his blog.

"Why, they were almost as long as the ones that President George W. Bush, that notorious pointy-headed intellectual, used in his 9/15/2005 speech to the nation about Hurricane Katrina, where I count 3,283 words in 140 sentences, for an average of 23.45 words per sentence! And we all remember how upset the press corps got about the professorial character of that speech!"

Yaros challenged the value of Payack's analysis. "There's a tremendous amount of difference between analyzing the written word and interpreting the spoken word," said Yaros, a former science reporter who studies how to make complex topics understandable.

See why the new hed is still misleading? Language mavens are people like Bill Safire: semi-enlightened amateurs who may or may not be hiding an ideological ax behind their analysis. (I don't know who holds Payack's partisan leash, but as we've noted here before, he's no neutral observer of political language.) These aren't dueling "language mavens"; two people who have a clue about the topic at hand are dissecting the shell game of someone who manifestly doesn't. Nor are they trading words; the real experts are coming in after the fact to address the damage done by building a single-source story around a "language maven."

It's an improvement, no question. You can't read the rewrite and come away with a good impression of the original analysis. But it's not a cure. We're still stuck in the Iben Browning pattern of "dueling science": One side says the moon is made of green cheese; the other says it's a lifeless, airless rock; and our hed says "Scientists Spar About Nature of Moon." CNN needs to prune the Rolodex of all purveyors of junk empiricism, and the Global Language Monitor is a good place to start.

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Stan said...

The only good thing to come from these daft and disheartening non-stories is the critical reaction they invite or provoke from people who know what they're talking about. But every time I see this he-said-she-said lazy b.s. in a newspaper, it makes me less inclined to buy it or to visit its website.

3:55 AM, June 21, 2010  

Post a Comment

<< Home