21st Century Media Clichés

I’m taking a break from trying to keep up with the past fortnight’s news. Instead, this is an exercise in lexicography, as in words that can make us crazy.

“Populism/populist” — People you disagree with; Trump, Bernie Sanders. 

Not long ago, bitter, angry populists included Huey Long, Father Coughlin and George Wallace. Optimistic populists were Teddy Roosevelt, “Fighting” Bob La Follette Sr. and Hubert H. Humphrey.

Before the rise of Trump and his admiring alt-right models/admirers, I thought of myself as a populist.

Last year, however, commentators’ and reporters’ careless language meant I was in bed with populists I can’t stand. That kind of sloppy thinking and writing got to me. 

Populism is my heritage in the Upper Midwest. 

My passbook account was at the Farmers and Mechanics Savings Bank. My political home was the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Both were heirs to an older populist movement and party, themselves reactions to exploiting money lenders and gouging railroads.

Today, journalists use “populism” to describe anything and everything, but it needn’t mean democracy: recall where “Ein volk” and “Great Satan” populism led. 

Journalist John Judis distinguishes populisms this way: liberal/progressive populists “punch up” at Wall Street and others who hold ordinary people down; rightwing populists punch up and down, striking at the very wealthy and the poor with equal vigor. 

Here are more words and cliches for reporters to avoid like the plague:

• “Challenges.” 

Archaic euphemism. Not a synonym for problems. 

Don’t call anything a “challenge” unless someone is slapped with a glove and is given a choice of weapons. 

• “Issues.” 

Mistakenly used for people who have problems. 

Real issues require resolution, ideally through civil argument and agreement. 

• “Swamp.” 

National capital populated by Other Party’s influence-peddling financiers, buddies, relatives and former federal officials and members of Senate and Congress

It’s called The Administration when these money-lenders and hacks belong to your party. 

• “Special interests.” 

Groups you disagree with.

As the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting … he right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” That includes lobbying to change laws, allocate money, etc. It’s the people speaking when you do it, “special interests” when they do.

• “Boots on the ground.” 

Macho military jargon used by people likelier to wear running shoes. 

Verbose for “there” or “here.” 

• “Alternative facts.” 

Evidence-free fantasies perpetuated by Tooth Fairies. 

• “Facts.”

Verifiable information. 

If alternatives are verifiable, prove it. Otherwise, they’re frauds.

• “Fraudulent.” 

Euphemism for government lies. 

Possibly “bullshit” if speaker really believes fraudulent, alternative facts. 

• “Inoperative.”

Earlier version of alternative facts or yesterday’s real facts being denied today.

For instance, in 1973, Time magazine complained how “The Nixon Administration has developed a new language — a kind of Nix-speak. Government officials are entitled to make flat statements one day, and the next day reverse field with the simple phrase, ‘I misspoke myself.’ White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler enlarged the vocabulary last week, declaring that all of Nixon’s previous statements on Watergate were ‘inoperative.’ Not incorrect, not misinformed, not untrue — simply inoperative, like batteries gone dead…”

• “Objectivity.”

Usually invoked by critics to assert news media aren’t objective. 

Journalists seeking this holy grail share all sides’ arguments and supporting evidence without revealing partiality for any side in a controversy. 

• “Bias.”

Imagined motivation of reporters writing critical or embarrassing stories. 

Bias shows a preference for one side in a controversy at the expense of fairness in reporting. Commentary invites taking sides. 

• “Backing away.” 

What Republicans do when they can’t fulfill campaign promises. See “flip flop.”

• “Flip-flop.” 

What Republicans charge when Democrats accommodate new facts.

 “Enemy.”

Formerly “the opposition.” 

• “Opposition.” 

Formerly “mainstream news media.” 

 “Enemy of the American people.” 

See “opposition.” 

• “Mainstream news media.” 

Dailies, weeklies, network TV news and a handful of websites that offer verifiable information

Formerly “the media.”

• “Post-truth.”

The belief that all information is equally valid, regardless of source and evidence

See Fox News. 

• “Fox News.”

Change channels. 

• “Thoughts and prayers.” 

Mindless mutterings of public officials and figures when faced with demand for comment on tragedy or disaster

I’m waiting for some heroic reporter, with career alternatives, to ask what the speaker is thinking and to whom the speaker is praying. 

• “Jeff Sessions.” 

Full name of this Alabaman is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions

Trump’s choice to protect civil rights, voting rights, police reform and other essentials as attorney general. I’m waiting for a local talk show host to use white AG’s full name as he unfailing used Barack Hussein Obama’s full name to deride the first black president. 

• “Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.” 

Current U.S. attorney general from Alabama who lost a chance for federal judgeship amid credible accusations of racism. As a recent dinner companion said, “No one named Jefferson (president of Confederacy) Beauregard (Confederate general) ever did anything good for black folks.” 

• “Sexual harassment.” 

What aging white men at Fox News consider mentoring. 

We’re not done hearing from past and current female employees about quid-pro-quo offers by men who can hire, end or advance their careers. 


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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