SOLOMON: "Reform" In Medialand and THE POWER OF BABBLE
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty declared, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." But Alice was not convinced. "The question is," she replied, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." For decades, the word "reform" had a clear meaning. Measures to uproot corruption, or end discrimination, or alleviate poverty, or advance the rights of working people -- such programs were known as reforms. No more. The 1990s have seen a drastic shift -- to the point that news media now routinely use "reform" as the opposite of its original meaning. "Reform" is one of the most popular words of contemporary journalism. Last year, a half-dozen big newspapers -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today and The Boston Globe -- used it a total of 16,474 times. (Seriously.) These days, a lot of media attention is devoted to "reform" efforts in foreign countries. But not much of the coverage examines the negative consequences. A recent front-page New York Times article began: "Distancing himself from the economic reforms that are the hallmark of his presidency, President Boris N. Yeltsin today accepted the resignation of Anatoly B. Chubais, a pillar of economic reform." The next paragraph described Chubais as "a beacon of free-market reform to the West." Such loaded news reports have a way of echoing the themes of editorials. A week earlier, in the same newspaper, an editorial essay lauded "the rudiments of market reform" -- and urged further steps by Russia to "decontrol prices, privatize state- owned enterprises and control its budget deficit." If only things were so simple. In Russia, those measures led to skyrocketing food prices and mass unemployment, while millions of elderly pensioners became destitute. Yet, as January ended, a spate of press commentaries in the United States were calling for the Clinton administration to exert more pressure on Yeltsin to stay the course. Too often, American journalists take their cues from U.S. officials chanting "reform" buzzwords. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was in typical form a couple of weeks ago when he commented on Russian affairs: "We're very strongly supportive of the reformers who want to continue the reform." Frequently, media accounts depict the opponents of "reform" as people trying to hold up progress by clinging to a bygone era. So, in Western Europe, according to a Los Angeles Times dispatch, reform-minded governments are facing "stiff resistance from Europeans wedded to worker perks and generous social-welfare benefits." Under a Rio de Janeiro dateline, the Chicago Tribune recently reported glad tidings from Latin America: "Economists say...the outlook for 1996 is improving. The best news, they say, is that open-market reforms, crafted over more than a decade, survived...despite sometimes intense pressure to dismantle them." Translation: Economists selected by the Chicago Tribune are in favor of policies that have been exacerbating widespread poverty among South American people, whose protests must be rebuffed. Since the 1980s, "structural adjustment programs" -- championed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- have taken hold in scores of countries. Most U.S. media outlets give short shrift to the harsh effects. North American reporters and pundits are apt to praise "market reforms" when a foreign government halts food subsidies and removes barriers to food imports -- while the affected population deals with climbing prices and a sharp rise in malnutrition. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, damage to our social safety net is frequently abetted by the rhetoric of "reform." Now, few eyebrows go up when journalists inform us of proposals for Medicare and Medicaid "reforms" -- in other words, major reductions of what the federal government would otherwise spend on health care for America's seniors. As this year got underway, a Boston Globe news article mentioned that a "sweeping reform package" had taken effect in Massachusetts, banning "additional cash payments to mothers on welfare who have more children." In that case, the term "reform" was a favorable gloss for depriving children of basic assistance. True, "reform" is just a word. But, used often and widely enough, a word can have plenty of influence. As George Orwell observed, normal language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Just ask Humpty Dumpty.Politics '96: The Power of Babble By Norman Solomon OVER THE TOP "Sorry if the liberal press doesn't like it. If you don't sing their songs, you don't get good reviews." -- Bob Dole In other words: When I give a lousy speech, I can always blame the media. ***"Everyone's anxious and frustrated as the economy transits to a new era. But, like the people, I'm still optimistic." -- Steve Forbes In other words: I deserve praise for being upbeat. With my net worth near half a billion, I'm similar to "the people." *** "What else is this fellow except a bag of money? Well, the country's not for sale." -- Bob Dole In other words: Hey, no fair! Guys like Steve Forbes aren't supposed to buy the U.S. government -- they're supposed to lease it by investing in politicians like me. *** "The flat tax is in the Old Testament, the tithe." -- Phil Gramm In other words: Give me that old time rhetoric. If it's good enough for pollsters, it's good enough for me. *** "Who are beneficiaries of the Court's protection? Members of various minorities, including criminals, atheists, homosexuals, flag burners, illegal immigrants (including terrorists), convicts and pornographers." -- Patrick Buchanan In other words: Civil liberties protect people I despise. Who needs them? *** "Free enterprise, and not government spending, is the answer to the problems of the inner city." -- Bill Clinton In other words: Government neglect may have decimated urban America, but free-enterprise oratory is a solution for my re- election campaign. *** "Senator Dole is too decent to try to fake a vision he does not have." -- Lamar Alexander In other words: At least I'm willing to try. ***"We are not going to beat Bill Clinton by matching our empty rhetoric against his." -- Phil Gramm In other words: We need rhetoric that's full-blown.