Taliban Threatens to Kill 18 Korean Hostages
Indonesian Town Begins Preparation for
Denmark Says It Secretly Flew Iraqi Employees
Out of Iraq
Hamas Replaces Gaza Courts
Italy Says Group Uses Mosque As Terror Camp
White House and Military Say Iraq Report….
China Shuts 3 Companies…
Those headlines are false. Although they were presented in the guise of straight news (in The New York Times; 7/21/07), they presented fictions. What is more, they delivered variations on a distinctive, and common, kind of fiction. Cases recur in the texts as well as in headlines of putative news stories, at home and abroad, written and spoken. Witness these opening sentences:
The Town of Catskill has opted not to fill its empty fifth seat, but will continue as a four-man body until the November elections this year.”
Greene County has begun a Hudson River Corridor Study that will bring together local officials and community leaders to plan for the growth and development of its Hudson River corridor ....
HONG KONG — China took steps Wednesday to control rising prices at the most basic consumer level. But Beijing faces a severe challenge in preventing higher global commodity prices from igniting broader inflation that could threaten China’s streak of powerful economic growth.
BEIRUT— Hezbollah and its allies threatened to withdraw from Lebanon’s government on Wednesday, a move that would force it to dissolve and deepen a crisis over a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of a former prime minister.
New Delhi: A day after Trinamool Congress said it was prepared to go it alone in the West Bengal assembly elections, ally Congress on Tuesday claimed that Mamata Banerjee's party cannot defeat the Left Front alone.
Wall Street retreated Tuesday after [some companies] issued disappointing reports and the Federal Reserve voiced concern about the slumping economy.
While all of those sentences expressed falsehoods, however, for recipients they were not equally deceiving. Some of them delivered fictions which some recipients could translate into more or less accurate accounts of actual events. Some of them, for some recipients, worked as useful compressions.
Achieving that benefit, from such locutions, depends first of all on recognizing figurative speech. That recognition may come quickly. After all, the cited headlines and sentences allude to events that contravene generally accepted notions of the laws of nature. Each offers putative information about the deeds (words; other willful behavior) of an agent who (!) does not possess a voice box, a brain, or limbs. Each endows some inorganic entity—nation-state, faction, party, department, building, corps (“the military”), direction (“the left”)--with faculties which are peculiar to human beings. Each can be processed, then, as a variant on a singular figure of speech.
Strangely, while that pattern of figurative speech is a common feature of news (and other) discourse, it has not acquired a commonly recognized brand name. Labels such as impersonation, personification, anthropomorphism and reification do come up, but none of them points directly to a rhetorical device. The best label, I suggest, drawing on old lexical usage, is Personation.
Recognizing Personation is but the first step toward decoding. Further progress can be achieved at times by way of familiarity with conventions governing the use of particular variants. Thus, “the White House said…” may be decoded by experienced respondents as the start of an account of what was said by a particular denizen of a particular white house: the American President’s press secretary, acting in his official capacity. That interpretation, based on recurring use, may be validated by a news story’s subsequent sentences, recounting what was said by a person who is identified explicitly as the President’s press secretary. The informant does not bother to stipulate that when he quotes or paraphrases “the White House” he is quoting or paraphrasing the President’s press secretary. But we get the idea, and we can then credit the informant with admirable economy of expression.
So it is too when headlines saying “UNIONS THREATEN…” and “UNIONS TO PRESS…” are followed immediately by sentences saying “Union officials threaten…” and “Leaders of two large New York City unions said Wednesday that they would push…”. A real-world translation of the headlines is implicitly offered.
A seasoned consumer of mainstream news might not feel baffled even by the verbal image of a retreating street named Wall. He might instead draw the inference that yesterday the average price of stocks composing the Dow Jones Industrial Index went down. In like manner he could make sense of reports that the subject street missed the Cisco story, is poised for a tepid start, or is less anxious this week.
Again, reportorial prose averring that “The Senate on Feb. 2 voted 81-17 to remove an unpopular paperwork requirement from the new healthcare reform law”—behold a “Senate’ who (!) votes and simultaneously votes for AND against—may deliver, with admirable brevity, a summary of how 88 Senators voted on a certain measure and of that voting’s legal effect.
By the same token, ostensible accounts of the doings of China, Britain, and Italy can be deciphered as accounts of deeds of agents of the governments of those nation-states. But here, among other places, the decoding of Personation can be perilous. For example, a headline saying 'BELARUS INTENSIFIES EFFORTS AGAINST FORMER CANDIDATE" invites respondents to infer either that a creature named Belarus is methodically abusing an individual (who somehow is and is not Belarusan) or that most Belarusians support the punitive measures that a rigorously disciplined band of governors are talking against a former candidate. Such suggestions deter the inference that some members of an insecure ruling junta are taking desperate measures amid international and domestic disapproval. And yet the text of the report that appeared below the headline (New York Times, 1/12/11) favors the latter inference:
As Belarussian diplomats scrambled on Wednesday to assuage European concerns about the sweeping crackdown on dissent in their country, the authorities in Belarus were stepping up their campaign against the family of a former presidential candidate whose 3-year-old son they have threatened to seize. The security services conducted a search of the home of the former candidate, Andrei Sannikov, as well as the apartment of his wife’s mother…
Also misleading is this version of a local event:
Greene County’s Republican Party secured, again, control of county government’s treasurer and clerk’s posts in Tuesday’s election….
While the GOP retained control of the Greene County government treasurer’s and county clerk’s posts, the tenor of county politics seems to have changed….
Readers may recognize here a metaphorical treatment of “Greene County’s Republican Party” into as a single, sentient, willful being. But they could readily infer from the author’s use of personation that the county treasurer and county clerk, and perhaps the whole county, now are effectively under the control of agents of a unitary Machine. Such things have been known to happen (in Albany, in Jersey City, in Chicago as well as in Soviet Russia). But in this case the inference would be wrong. The treasurer and the county clerk of Greene County are not puppets dancing at the end of strings manipulated by a Boss. Neither are the county legislators, coroners, district attorney, sheriff and judges who are enrolled as Republicans. They are not centrally recruited, subjected to discipline, subject to dismissal if they break lines, dependent on the local Republican treasurer for their livelihoods. But awareness of that situation depends on local knowledge. Personation in this case—GOP retains “control”—falsifies the local political scene.
Cases of that sort do not necessarily trump the utility of Personation as a condensing, economizing aid to learning about actualities. A sound evaluation of that practice, however, must take account of its other [psycho-political] effects.
One is de-personalization. When newsworthy deeds are ascribed to animated police departments rather than to police officers, to senates not senators, to houses (White) and addresses (10 Downing Street) rather than to occupants, to loquacious legislatures not legislators, to China not Chinese, to extremist groups rather than terrorists, to a town instead of to four Town Council members, to “the voters” rather than to voters, to companies and unions rather than to executives or members, then the effect cumulatively is to belittle—to erase and thereby deny--the responsibilities, the event-shaping roles, of people.
Business news is rife with examples. Deeds performed by company executives or directors are identified regularly by professional news-givers with the deeds of sapient, vocal companies: “Starbucks Replaces Chief With Chairman”; “Mozilla Names New Chief, but Reaffirms Open-Source Commitment”; “The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce fired two executives Monday”; “Conde Nast Publications announced a management shake-up on Monday”….
International news is similarly infested. And the world’s most populous country, as it happens, is the foremost recipient among nation-states of journalistic personation. “China Moves to Block Foreign News on Nobel Ceremony.” “China Resisted U.S. Pressure on Rights of Nobel Winner.” “China no longer resists becoming emotional.” “China has waged an extraordinary and unprecedented campaign…to discredit the [Nobel Peace Prize] award and to dissuade other governments from endorsing it.” China “has punished Norway….” China “took steps Wednesday to control rising prices at the most basic consumer level.” China is “trying to build an economy that relies on innovation.” China “intends to engineer a more innovative economy.” China “intends to roughly double its number of patent examiners” and its patent numbers. To that end, “China has introduced an array of incentives.” China is busy. Where are the Chinese?
Related to personation’s de-personalizing effect is intimidation. Personation promotes a brand of metaphysics that not only is goofy, but also is conducive to personal paralysis. Since so much of history is made not by people but by big, extra-human, super-human willful entities, surely it would be presumptuous for us Lilliputians to entertain thoughts about exerting influence. Personation works, cumulatively, against feelings of personal responsibility and personal efficacy.
Blended with personation’s de-personalizing and intimidating effects, in more than a few cases, is political spin. Journalists (as well as pundits and advertisers) use Personation as a tool of special advocacy. Intentionally or not, they use Personation so as to excuse, praise and damn. Witness this piece of reportorial prose:
The union representing 175 school bus drivers and monitors who work for Durham Services has voted to strike, potentially impacting student transportation for the Rhinebeck, Rondout Valley and Spackenkill school districts and Dutchess BOCES.
By imputing the strike vote to the union, the reporter divorces the actual voters, the drivers and monitors, from that action, thereby acquitting them of responsibility for ensuing disruption. That treatment fits a popular mold. In news discourse as well as in punditry, various unions are Personated in an unfavorable light: greedy, selfish, disruptive, overly powerful…. Not so the teachers, firemen, pilots, beauticians, stevedores or factory workers who make up their memberships. In like manner, profit-greedy corporations are demonized in a way that exonerates their leaders and members from responsibility for ‘their’ misdeeds.
On other occasions, personation works to bestow extra force and luster on a chosen project. Thus, by saying “Greene County has begun a Hudson River Corridor Study that will bring together local officials and community leaders…,” a reporter does not just give a metaphorical rendition of a decision by some or all of a county’s elected legislators. He magnifies the decision’s popularity and imbues it with merit, to the point of treating residents who are ignorant, indifferent or opposed as not being of Greene County.
In similar fashion, a headline proclaiming that “A Town Tries to Protect an Artist’s Inspiration” magnifies the scale and the clarity of popular commitment to a cited project, thereby conferring an extra measure of nobility. (In this case, it also contradicts the substance of the story it introduces, which dwells on local divisions over how, and whether, to protect an Edward Hopper viewscape.)
The headline “India Names Its First Female President” invites respondents to envision not only a momentous historic first, but also a first that either was deliberately and heroically taken by an enormous nation-state or was consistent with the sentiments of virtually the whole of that nation-state’s people. Its personation works against the idea that the new female president was the candidate of the parliamentary majority party, whose adherents out-polled the main opposition party’s (male) candidate.
According to the New York Times (12/11/10) the Swedish city of Kristianstad “vowed a decade ago to wean itself from fossil fuels.” Kristianstad “and the surrounding county” now “use no oil, natural gas or coal to heat homes and businesses.” Their “area” has “forsaken” traditional fuels and, instead of resorting to solar panels or wind turbines, “generates energy from a motley assortment” of wastes. After it (she?) “started looking for substitutes” for standard fuels, the area has come to the point of “looking into building satellite biogas plants for outlying areas….” Such pseudo-expository prose amounts to bandwagonizing. Rhetorically it expunges Kristianstaders who did not take the vow. Its personation serves not just to encapsulate, but rather to cheer and advocate. (Incidentally, in ascribing this puffery to The Times, I commit personation; the by-line on the story was that of Elisabeth Rosenthal. But the personation here may serve to call attention to plural responsibility, running from writer to editors to publisher).