Neojournalists Trade Meaning for ImageryApril 20th, 2009

Alan Bersin is being presented to the public as “Border Czar,” and the press seems to be feeding on his picturesque job title to the exclusion of all other fare. Wherever you turn—network TV, NPR, Time Magazine—you get this convenient metaphor—Czar—with no explanation of the actual bureaucrat’s actual authority or responsibility, much less his actual job title. One Public Radio reporter even referred to Mexican “Drug Czars,” who would apparently compete with the Border Czar for primacy at the frontier.

The metaphor is ridiculous, of course, and it’s journalistic bottom-feeding of the crassest kind. The term “Czar” is the Russian equivalent of “Caesar,” referring to the Emperor of ancient Rome. The Czar (pronounced “Tsar’ in Russian) was the emperor of Russia. There was only one. There weren’t various Czars for various functions. There weren’t competing Czars. The Czar had the power of life and death over every subject, and there was no limit to his authority.

It’s a gross overstatement, and very misleading, to refer to an executive official of the US government as a Czar. The press should not have accepted the use of this title uncritically. Especially, it shouldn’t have presented the title as sufficient explanation of the fellow’s responsibilities.

This indulgence in metaphorical shorthand is typical of 21st Century news reporting. Take “Homeland Security,” another bit of meaningless terminology imported into the language by the media. “Homeland” is a metaphor. We live in a nation, not a homeland. It’s a republic that covers half a continent and that encompasses homelands without number. Or consider “War on Terror. ” By definition, if it isn’t between nations, it isn’t a war. A war on anything except a nation is not a war but merely mass murder. Like “Czar” and “Homeland,” “War” is a metaphor that conveys no precise meaning but only an impression. Neojournalists maintain a ready inventory of colorful terms like “Economic Meltdown,” “Bank Bailout” and “Insurgent,” all so imprecise as to be misleading and almost always offered without further explanation.

Why reporters use metaphor is no mystery. The effort to attract an audience means striking a familiar chord. Trite metaphors are just thing, and if they don’t convey much in the way of meaning, they do get a response, and they can save a reporter considerable hard digging and careful writing. The use of metaphorical shorthand in news-reporting is a form of intellectual prostitution, and it’s easy work for those who can do it.

A responsible editor might profitably point out that the reporter is not doing the news-consumer any favors by cloaking facts in metaphor. Metaphor is meant to elicit images that convey, not fact, but ambiguity. Metaphor is a tool of the poet and dramatist, used to illustrate or illuminate a fact by reference to some other, unrelated idea. It’s a literary diversion, not a means of informing.

If the reporter’s job is to inform, metaphor gets in the way, and there’s no place for it in news-reporting. In gossip, maybe. In sports and opinion, most certainly. But not in news.