Conventional Wisdom and Language

Listening to Morning Edition onWVXU, I was struck by a black Baptist pastor’s word choice when asked about theSupreme Court 5-4 ruling on same-sex marriage. He helped crystalize somethingthat has been bothering me about the whole debate: “Holy mat

Listening to Morning Edition on WVXU, I was struck by a black Baptist pastor’s word choice when asked about the Supreme Court 5-4 ruling on same-sex marriage. He helped crystalize something that has been bothering me about the whole debate:

“Holy matrimony.”

That phrase reminds me of how easily the news media echo the conventional wisdom and language at any time.

It’s more sloth than bias, but that doesn’t lessen its deleterious effect on our understanding of events and the integrity of their retelling.

The problem is obvious when cultural issues, interracial crime and religiously inspired mayhem are the subject. 

Was it “gay” marriage, “same-sex” marriage or “marriage equality” that the Supreme Court addressed? Depends on who’s writing or speaking. 

Equality is harder to oppose. That’s why so many advocates prefer it. Americans tend to say that they favor equality so long as it doesn’t push them down or away. “Gay” or “same-sex” marriage is tougher; those terms invoke cultural issues. 

What too many journalists forget when embracing the phrase “holy matrimony” is that it doesn’t matter whether a marriage is sacramental or civil; marriage is a contract. 

And issuing a marriage license is a neutral government function that does not involve civil authorities in the licensed activity. 

Maybe you believe marriage is divinely created/sanctioned, but it’s still a contract and no one needs clergy — ordained or mail-order — to get married. 

As an example, Steve Hoffman, a Northern Kentucky justice of the peace, has officiated at more marriages than any member of the clergy. He draws his authority from the state. They’re civil marriages. 

No god is a player.

What Hoffman does is a civil government function, utterly and totally divorced from religion. Just like the marriage license. It’s not “holy” matrimony. 

My guess is that lazy or unthinking journalists conflate civil and religious rites into some universal act called “holy matrimony.” Sort of like “service revolver” or “lost control and crashed.” Part of our language, regardless of the facts. 

In part, I’d guess, it’s because too many reporters have heard clergy declare a marriage to be valid by repeating the rubric that goes something like this, “by the authority vested in me by the state..."

So why do reporters indulge foes of the Supreme Court ruling? Critics’ gnashing of teeth and anticipation of End Times aside, the Supreme Court decision should have no impact on the freedom of clergy to decide whose weddings they will do. Rather, reporters should appreciate the fact this was our top civil court telling civil government what civil function it cannot refuse to do: It cannot refuse to issue a civil marriage license to a same-sex couple old enough to wed.  

However, no one thinks the decision ends the culture war. Roe v. Wade recognized a woman’s right to abortion but it didn’t end the battles. 

Lost in much of the Supreme Court coverage was reference to earlier decisions affecting long and dearly held policies in many religious institutions. Note that I’ve said “institutions,” not “religions.”

No American may command religious belief or affiliation.

In the same way, no civil authority can command what religious rites must be performed by clergy in a sanctuary. 

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and decades of court decisions — including the recent 5-4 marriage equality ruling — assure that. NPR’s Baptist preacher can’t be ordered to marry anyone who does not embrace his faith.

Further clouding journalists’ choice of words are are conservative legislators calling for legislation assuring clergy that they won’t have to perform marriages for anyone to whom they object. It’s all ugly partisan showmanship and creates the worst show Off-Broadway.

Coverage of murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., also drew attention to word choices.

Roof’s online embrace of the former white supremacist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia and the statement and online manifesto attributed to him identify him as a hater, inspired by the American radical right, whether racists, anti-semites or anti-tax, anti-government paranoids. 

But are reporters right to call him a terrorist? It’s too early to say. Not every interracial attack or black church burning is  terrorism. Before reporters embrace “terrorist,” they should ask, “Who’s terrorized?” So far, I’ve seen no evidence in the news media that anyone in Charleston was terrorized. It’s not an all-purpose journalistic cliche any more than police use of force is police “brutality.”

Even if the radical right embraces Roof as a “lone wolf” role model and martyr, that doesn’t make him a terrorist. Timothy McVeigh was a mass killer, but he didn’t terrorize the nation when he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. 

You want terror? ISIS/ISIL killings and sickening images on social media and the Internet affect governments and civilian populations. That’s terror. 

The 9/11 killers did that to us.  

Which brings me to the debate over the BBC’s word choice when reporting and commenting on ISIS/ISIL and related Islamists. 

BBC does not call these jihadi/Islamist mass murderers “terrorists,” although it will quote others using that term. Instead, BBC describes them as “killers” or “bombers” or whatever, choosing to refer to  the acts rather than something less tangible.

BBC says this is a matter of accuracy and fairness, although it’s refrained from resurrecting the discredited justification, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” 

Prime Minister David Cameron, 120 Members of Parliament and others have challenged BBC’s use of “Islamic State” rather than the common Arabic acronym “Daesh.” BBC critics complain that “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)” confers legitimacy on the governing of conquered territory. 

Yes and no, said Lord Hall, BBC’s director general, and his response recalled BBC’s reluctance to call anyone a “terrorist.”

According to London’s Independent, Hall said using anything other than ISIS would be unfair and “pejorative.” However, he said, “Islamic State” on its own could be misleading and  BBC would “redouble our efforts to use caveats such as ‘so-called Islamic State group.' ”

In a fuller response reported by The Times of London, Hall said, "The BBC takes a common sense view when deciding how to describe organisations, we take our cue from the organisation's description of itself. We have recognised that used on its own the name ‘Islamic State’ could suggest that such a state exists and such an interpretation is misleading. So we have caveated the name Islamic State with words which qualify it e.g., ‘so called Islamic State.' "

France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was less diplomatic when he complained about journalists using Islamic State. “The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cuthroats,” he said. 

France 24 website says Daesh is a loose acronym for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” or al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham. added that Daesh is “commonly used by enemies of ISIS, and it also has many negative undertones, as Daesh sounds similar to the Arabic words Daes (one who crushes something underfoot) and Dahes (one who sows discord).”

Curmudgeon notes:

• Obviously, the editor who wrote the headline on Wednesday’s Food cover page for the Enquirer didn’t read Polly Campbell’s story about the Woman’s City Club. Campbell got it right: Woman’s. Headline on the cover page about the club’s cookbook said Women’s. Yes, Women’s. Maybe the editor thought it was the A&E section. So much for newsroom discipline. 

In the Good Old Days, a copy desk chief made sure the headline and story matched. Copy desks, copy editors and copy desk chiefs have been eliminated to speed and cheapen production. It’s obvious. 

• Oh, those copy editor blues.

On one of the most important news stories of the generation, people who edit the Enquirer — here or wherever that work is outsourced — blew a major headline: “Some Cincinnati officials plan to wait before starting to issue marriage licenses.” 

Bad enough that Cincinnati was infamous for its since-repealed modern anti-gay city law, but no current Cincinnati official was mentioned in the story. If a correction followed, I missed it. 

Another lapse recalled the days when clergy were “Catholic, Protestant, Jew and Black.” Or even now, people sometimes are divided into “Black, White and Jews.” This came to mind when an Enquirer business cover focused on a program “aimed at getting young people and minorities” to call Cincinnati home. That’s probably what the reporter was told, but wasn’t there some editor who could suggest a more inclusive way of saying it? 

• Even more copy editor blues:

A recent Sunday Enquirer said the Hamilton County Justice Center provides Tylenol (brand name for acetaminophen) to heroin addicts ... under a photo of a Justice Center inmate taking ibuprofen, a very different drug.

A faithful reader found this online:

Columbus Dispatch said Ohio’s 12th District Court of Appeals defended grammar from sloppy editing and reversed a parking ticket.

West Jefferson said it was illegal to park “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or nonmotorized vehicle” on a local street for more than 24 hours. 

Andrea Cammelleri argued that her pickup truck was not a “motor vehicle camper” and it was tagged illegally.

Writing for the court, Judge Robert A. Hendrickson said if the town meant it to read “any motor vehicle, camper..." it should have included the comma after vehicle, but it didn’t and her truck wasn’t a “motor vehicle camper.”

• Within hours of defender Laura Bassett’s catastrophic error in World Cup soccer, commentators shifted from commiserating with the weeping Brit whose “own goal” eliminated her England team from the semi-finals. 

Now, it’s an attack on news media that wept with Bassett, asking whether reporters and editors would have shown the same sympathy for a male footballer who made the same own-goal mistake. 

The consensus among comments I’ve read and heard is that Bassett was treated as a weepy woman and sexism remains acceptable in sports journalism. 

• Then we have the female contributor to Ariana Huffington’s who writes about a young and heroic Ukrainian activist/politician, Yulia Marushevska. 

The profile begins, saying Marushevska “might easily win a beauty contest among the world’s politicians.” And the headline says, “She’s a Beautiful, Passionate Voice for Ukraine, But That’s Not Enough.” 

Savvy male journalists know such openings no longer are acceptable, but it appears the memo never reached HuffPost’s female contributor or Huffington’s editors. 

• Should we pity politics reporters who have to pretend to take the likes of Donald Trump, George Pataki, John Kasich and Ted Cruz seriously as GOP presidential aspirants? I can’t imagine trying to write months of serious copy about these non-entities. 

Or will the GOP carnival be more fun than politics reporters have had in decades and readers/listeners will understand that the deadly serious stories are more Saturday Night Live than Pulitzer entrants? 

If Trump’s a bad joke, Latino reaction to The Donald’s slur on Mexican migrants is news. So are the tepid or Sgt. Schultz reactions of other Republicans. Reporters can thank Trump for enlivening the battle between Republicans who loathe Latino immigrants and Republicans who tout their party as the natural home to culturally conservative and economically striving Hispanics.

Among Democrats, Bernie Sanders of Vermont hasn’t a chance of getting the nomination but he’s forcing Clinton to the left of where she’s naturally comfortable. He’s news. 

And combat veteran Jim Webb, who might be better known as an author and Reagan secretary of the navy than as a senator, might be the alternative for Democrats who find her untrustworthy. 

What’s more interesting is that Webb’s best book is worth reading in the context of his candidacy: “Born Fighting,” the history of his own people, the Scots-Irish settlers of this country. 

Remember WTF, the mockery of W’s candidacy? Maybe Anybody But Clinton (ABC) will be the new bumper sticker. 

Now that’s something to write about. 

• CNN’s London reporter said one banner in the gay pride parade was “very distinctively the ISIS flag.” ISIS is another term from the lethally anti-gay Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. She was wrong and inadvertently self-revealing.

She knew the “writing” on the black banner wasn’t Arabic but she didn’t recognize the “gobbledegook” as an assortment of butt plugs, dildos and other sex toys arranged to resemble the Arabic script on the black ISIS flag. 

CNN removed her segment from its website once more worldly viewers caught the error and the irony: ISIS murders gay men by tossing them from buildings.

• NPR reports that Google successfully appealed a federal court verdict for an actress who said she was suckered into playing a role in the anti-Muslim film blamed for deadly rioting overseas. Here’s part of what NPR said: 

“In a complicated legal battle that touches on questions of free speech, copyright law and personal safety, a federal appeals court has overturned an order that had forced the Google-owned YouTube to remove an anti-Muslim video from its website last year.

“... (T)he recent decisions about the controversial ‘Innocence Of Muslims’ video originated with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last year, a three-judge panel agreed with actress Cindy Lee Garcia's request to have the film taken down from YouTube on the basis of a copyright claim. 

“But Monday, the full ... court rejected Garcia's claim.

"The appeal teaches a simple lesson — a weak copyright claim cannot justify censorship in the guise of authorship,’ Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote in the court’s opinion.

McKeown summarizes:

‘By all accounts, Cindy Lee Garcia was bamboozled when a movie producer transformed her five-second acting performance into part of a blasphemous video proclamation against the Prophet Mohammed. The producer ... uploaded a trailer of the film, ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ to YouTube. Millions of viewers soon watched it online, according to Garcia. News outlets credited the film as a source of violence in the Middle East. Garcia received death threats.’ ”

NPR continued: “The case's origins lie in 2011, when Garcia answered a casting call for a period action-adventure movie called Desert Warrior ... Garcia was paid $500 for playing a role in which she said two sentences, "Is George crazy? Our daughter is but a child?"

Judge McKeown wrote that “Film producers dubbed over Garcia's lines and replaced them with a voice asking 'Is your Mohammed a child molester?' Garcia appears on screen for only five seconds."

Garcia sued both Google and filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (aka Sam Bacile) in state court, saying the video amounted to hate speech, made her look like a "religious bigot" and violated both her right to privacy and her ability to control her own likeness.

NPR said Garcia then sued Google and Nakoula in federal court, alleging copyright infringement. Monday, the court acknowledged that Garcia "may have a contract claim." But it rejected her copyright argument.

"We are sympathetic to her plight," McKeown wrote in Monday's opinion. "Nonetheless, the claim against Google is grounded in copyright law, not privacy, emotional distress, or tort law, and Garcia seeks to impose speech restrictions under copyright laws meant to foster rather than repress free expression.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]