Refusing debased words and alternative facts
Like many citizens, I’m finding it impossible to ignore reports about the new U.S. administration and its “disruptions.” I try to stay nonpartisan here (and in my books), since I prefer to poke fun at all ridiculous political speech, and to applaud any brilliant syntax. But it’s hard to resist commenting on the rhetorical shift from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump. A Carnegie Mellon study of 2016 stump speeches recently got my dander up. As reported in the Washington Post—and as one might expect from our first Twitter president—Trump’s language falls below that of his predecessors, even the plainspoken George Washington and the syntactically challenged Bushes 41 and 43. The study notes that George W. Bush had the lowest “readability” level of all presidents, and Abraham Lincoln the highest. Among the 2016 candidates, levels were right at sixth and seventh grade—except for Donald Trump, whose trash talk puts him at a grade level of 5.7. (Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which never fails to give me emotional goose bumps, is written at a tenth-grade level.) The study also noted a rhetorical Trump Effect: Over the past year, it said, The Donald has caused the overall level of political discourse to deteriorate. But that debased discourse may be just among candidates, whose job it is to simplify on the stump and appeal to the lowest common denominator. At the other end of the spectrum, the smart, sharp responses to Trump team blunders have been heartening. These range from Twitter hashtags, such as #grabyourwallet, #dresslikeawoman, and #neverthelessshepersisted, to protest signs,and SNL sketches. Among the vox populi, it turns out, verbal cleverness counts. Dictionaries are taking note, or at least the redoubtable Merriam-Webster’s is. Throughout the presidential campaign, @MerriamWebster delicately trolled Trump on social media. “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the lexicographers tweeted after Kellyanne Conway tried to defend Sean Spicer on “Meet the Press.” And when the question “Did Trump say ‘bigly’ or ‘big league’?” was trending, @Merriam-Webster cluck-clucked: "Both are real words, though “big league” is rarely used as an adverb. It may be fun to laugh at Trump’s lowest-common-denominator lingo, but it’s a little harder to stomach his attacks on the value of factual accuracy. As a professional journalist, I work hard to get facts right—whether the size of a crowd or events in Bowling Green, Kentucky. (Where there was never a “massacre.”) I also distinguish between accurate reports and “fake news” and discourage conflating the two. If you care about real journalism, maybe it’s time to resubscribe to an old-fashioned newspaper with proud standards. Does that seem too retro? OK, then go to the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, which has compiled a list of 10 journalism brands that uphold journalistic integrity and stick to real facts. Go ahead, call me elitist—I will always favor those who use wit (and scalpels) instead of scorn (and cudgels).