Enough with the Semantic Gymnastics

February 12th, 2015

Today’s media centered world operates principally on the belief that in order to deliver a successful message words must be chosen very carefully. For the most part, this works out well for the messenger or at least better than the occasional off the cuff remark that gets blown out of proportion and requires several days of retraction and explanation.

Occasionally, however, this method is a disaster.  An example of this was on full display when President Obama in his never ending quest not to call something by its correct name made himself appear insensitive and obtuse.  In attempting to explain his odd statement, his “team” as he likes to call them actually succeeded in sounding even worse.

Specifically, in an interview with the left leaning online publication, Vox.com, Obama said, “It is entirely appropriate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot abunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest attempted to explain Obama’s comment later by saying that the incident was “random” because, “[t]hese individuals were not targeted by name.”

Earnest’s tortured explanation certainly didn’t help matters.  It’s doubtful anyone in the attacks of September 11, 2001, was actually named individually during the attacks.  By contrast, the cartoonists at the French magazine were called upon by name before their execution.  So what was Earnest’s explanation supposed to mean?

Obviously, not much because Earnest himself returned to his office and figured out a way to explain himself in 140 characters or less on Twitter with exactly what he should have said in the first place.

If it was even possible, State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki gave an explanation that seemed even more clueless and out of touch than what Earnest offered.

If you asked them, each of these people likely would proudly state that their professional expertise is communication.  In fact, Earnest and Psaki have no excuse for sounding silly.  They are paid to communicate on the government’s behalf.  The problem is that in this day and age everyone on television (with the exception of reality TV and even that’s questionable) is programmed on what to say.  They are also trained to believe that saying anything off script can be fatal to their future careers.

I learned this myself years ago when I was National Chairwoman of the Young Republicans.  Part of my position involved occasional television appearances and so to be certain that I didn’t embarrass the GOP, I was taken through RNC media training. 

Honestly, I was grateful they took the time since the worst thing I could imagine was becoming a story myself somehow.  Unlike a few of my peers, I have little desire for the spotlight good or bad.

Still, it was an enlightening experience.  I was taken into a room where a mock interview was recorded on camera.  Afterwards, an escort took me to a separate room to go over the tape.  Three people watched it while I silently listened.  After every few words, one of the three individuals would stop the tape and comment on what I’d just said.  They’d suggest alternative words I could use .  At the same time, they warned me about words I should never use because they didn’t test well in focus groups.

So what did this training accomplish?

Let’s just say there wasn’t a day that went by from that day until the end of my term that I didn’t hope I wouldn’t be called for an interview because quite frankly I feared unwittingly using the wrong words.  In the end, however, it was fine.  I didn’t embarrass myself or the Republican Party, and I actually managed to sound pretty good.  Still, I didn’t sound like me.  People who know me thought I sounded a bit stilted because I was carefully using other people’s words.

For whatever reason, the entire Obama administration appears to be taking this approach to a whole new level.  Clearly, there are words they will never use under any circumstances no matter how many knots they all have to twist themselves into to avoid them.

I suppose history will ultimately judge what proves to be worse—saying things that are misconstrued or somehow deemed inappropriate or saying things that make you sound daft and silly.