Dan Marsh Managing Editor
Thursday afternoon while flipping channels, I kept noticing the words “nuclear option” on all the cable news networks.
The talking heads on Fox, CNN, MSNBC, etc., were bloviating worse than usual, as if there were actual news to break as opposed to the usual puff pieces in between pharmaceutical company ads. So I thought there might be some reason to pay attention.
Let me tell you what provoked this thought: the phrase “nuclear option.”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear “nuclear option,” I tend to think of ICBMs air-bursting over my house. Hey, I was raised during the Cold War, when such fears were real and not unfounded.
I had forgotten, however, that we live not in the age of news reporting but in that of metaphor. We were never in any danger of nuclear war Thursday because no one was considering a “nuclear” anything.
What happened was, Senate Democrats invoked the “nuclear option” (whatever that means) by voting to change filibuster rules, making it easier for them to approve President Barack Obama’s judicial appointments.
It was a political story described in metaphorical terms.
This, to me, is not good journalism.
In one analysis of the story on CNN, two journalists went so far with the metaphorical language they got themselves confused about the topic in question. “I’m trying to think of a good metaphor to come back with,” Jeffrey Toobin said.
Speaking only for myself, let me say that I did not want either of those guys, or anyone on any cable news channel, speaking in metaphor about a fairly significant political story. Reporters deal in fact, not fiction; I don’t expect poetry when I turn on the news. Just give me the facts, straight. Otherwise, you run a real risk of trying to compare apples to oranges.
Take, for example, comparing the failure of the Obamacare website to Hurricane Katrina. Someone claimed that a meteorological event that killed 1,833 people and destroyed an American city could be compared — at least in terms of political damage — to the disastrous Obamacare rollout. Next thing you know, every news outlet on television is mentioning “Katrina” and “Obamacare” in the same sentence. (It was almost like they all got the same talking points memo at once.) I’m trying to think of which type of fallacy applies here; maybe they all do.
Hurricane Katrina and Obamacare have absolutely nothing to do with one another; comparing one to the other is like comparing apples to oranges. No one pointed this out better — or more hilariously — than Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, which mercilessly skewered the trend of using rhetoric to report news.
As a journalist, I have always resisted such trends. I believe in straight reporting — no frills, no fancy stuff, no metaphors, no similies, no flowery language — but maybe my kind of reporting is on its way out the door. As more and more viewers get more and more accustomed to hearing nonsense on TV, the less they will appreciate — or take seriously —journalism that calmly, rationally, clearly tells them what’s going on.
Because in the words of former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, “Once you let the cat out of the bag, he is out.”