In a tough-talking election, language and politics are inextricably linked

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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we have been reporting, the tone and rhetoric of this presidential race are markedly different from previous years and have only intensified with two weeks to go to Election Day.

That’s the focus of the latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown is in charge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Had enough of debates, ads, speeches? A new book argues that — quote — “The crisis in our politics is a crisis of political language,” as it explores the arts and science of rhetoric through the ages.

It’s called “Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics?” Author Mark Thompson is viewing all this from a very influential perch, as president and CEO of The New York Times Company.

Welcome to you.

MARK THOMPSON, Author, “Enough Said”: Hi there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The problem is our language or our politics. You’re making the case that it’s one and the same.

MARK THOMPSON: We have been brought up, many of us, to think that the political language is like a superficial layer, and below that is ideology and policy.

My argument is, it’s all tangled up. Particular ideas are expressed in language. They’re argued about in language. They’re communicated from one human being to another in language. And political language is everywhere. And it’s because of changes I saw in political language that I decided to write this book.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so let me try to look at now and we will put it in some context. I’m going to do a broad brush here and say that, in Hillary Clinton, I think many people see a kind of political rhetoric that comes off as phony. Is that fair?

MARK THOMPSON: I think it is.

She is almost the epitome of a certain kind of modern, technocratic, very rational, very carefully argued political language which many people find convincing, but a growing number of people, in many Western countries, are finding that kind of political language distant, alienating and unfeeling, and maybe even not believable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not believable. And, well, it leads us to Donald Trump, right?

MARK THOMPSON: When you get a breakdown in the conventions of political rhetoric, and when you get a large number of people who are looking for something different, it opens up a vacuum into which populists can come.

And this is very fertile ground for a populist who wants to say something much simpler, which is, I speak like you. I’m an ordinary person like you.

I call it authenticism. By an authenticist, I mean a politician who very deliberately and consciously aims to appear authentic.

JEFFREY BROWN: The media is part of your book, part of this political culture, of course, part of the worsening of our political culture?


And the media has gone through great changes. And it’s come under, particularly of the digital revolution, colossal competitive pressure. And it’s reduced thinking time, because the new cycle is continuous now. The urge to go for the bolder quotes, the more — the strongest possible version of the story means that, very much like the politicians, the risk is, you get into a bias around exaggeration and of high drama.

So, instead of calm, dispassionate discussion, you tend to get these very abrupt, you know, and dramatic developments in the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The institution you represent in particular, though, is not just any player. It is a major player in all of this, becomes part of the news itself.

MARK THOMPSON: The two institutions I have been most involved with, The New York Times and the BBC, because I think they try incredibly hard not to get swept away by these trends and to try and still report things dispassionately and fairly.

JEFFREY BROWN: But to the extent that The Times is a target for those who see it as wielding its power for a particular bias, is that a dangerous place for a media institution to be, or where you want to be?

MARK THOMPSON: No, I think if you believe in the First Amendment for journalists and for newspapers and TV companies, you have got to believe in it for their critics as well.

Everyone’s got a right to raise any criticism they want about our journalism, and we should take that seriously. What you don’t have the right to do is to try and threaten people into silence.

And we very recently have been in receipt of a letter threatening a libel action from Donald Trump’s lawyers.


MARK THOMPSON: We responded firstly making the point that there was nothing about Donald Trump’s reputation which he hadn’t already, frankly, built himself before we printed the testimony of a couple of the women who said they had been abused by him, and, secondly, reminding Mr. Trump’s lawyers about the First Amendment and our right to cover matters of genuine public importance.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you, on the one hand, call for a less combative stance from the media, a more sort of analytical, explain to people, while at the same time being in combat?

MARK THOMPSON: I think politics probably has always been combat.

The issue is whether or not there are sensible rules of engagement. If I allow you to make your case and keep quiet and don’t interrupt you, and then you let me make my case, we can let the people who hear us decide who’s got the better case.

If we’re talking over each other and arguing and complaining, it begins to jumble the discourse, the rather vicious world of the anonymous Web. It’s reinfected straightforward political oratory, so that the things that politicians say about each other, the abandonment of any presumption of good faith, the calling of other politicians liars, they should be in jail and so forth, this doesn’t really help politics.

I don’t think the public like it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What would it take to change it?

MARK THOMPSON: You can read history very pessimistically or optimistically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where are you today?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, I want to be optimistic. I think the stakes for us are very high.

And I would say, right now, freedom of speech, clarity of political discourse, simply the tone and the credibility of the political process is under grave challenge, crucially not just in the U.S., but in my country in the U.K. and I would say in pretty much every country in the Western world.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Enough Said.”

Mark Thompson, thank you very much.


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