In China Story, the Language Held Hostage

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Diplomatic crises are a great big fun-filled piñata for a media critic. Because we, what with our anal-retentive, horn-rimmed parsing of phrases and slicing of sentences, are really semanticists when it boils down to it. And diplomacy, when it boils down to it, is mostly semantics. The present standoff between the United States and China over the downed spy plane is all about lexical boundaries — which a-words ("apology") are taboo, which r-words ("regret") are insufficient, which s-words ("sorry") are being broached. It's no accident that former Nixon speechwriter and foreign-policy maven William Safire is now a usage columnist for the New York Times.

Above the whole crisis (is it a "standoff" or a "crisis"? You see?) looms the biggest taboo word of all, the h-word: "hostage."

Patriotic reporting

My colleague Rick Stengel has ably and correctly pointed out in his column that the showdown is a boon to the media — especially in this economic slowdown ("recession"? "bear market"?) — which need round-the-clock news marathons to spike ratings and readership. But ironically, the media are so far also showing a second, contradictory tendency that works against this interest: their tendency to parrot the language of the administration in power, especially when reporting on international affairs. Lest they appear biased or unpatriotic during wartime, for instance, reporters surrender their understanding of English and let "bombing victims" become "collateral damage"; in the Gulf War, our supposedly combative media meekly submitted their reports for the Pentagon's creative copyediting.

Likewise, so far in the Great China Whatchamacallit, the American air crew enjoying an extended island holiday are "crewmen" or "troops" or maybe "detainees." They are emphatically not "hostages." And the only discernible reason for that classification, so far, is that the Bush administration says so.

Playing along with the double standard

Does anyone out there believe that, if the same events were unfolding in, say, Iraq or Libya, the crew wouldn't have become "hostages" days ago? Had the spy ("reconnaissance"?) plane been forced down in North Korea, we as a nation would have long since gone to our closets and updated those old T-shirts of Mickey Mouse giving the Ayatollah the finger. What separates a "hostage" from a "serviceman" is, apparently his or her captor's ability to put up a fair fight, to buy a lot of Coca-Cola and to supply us with bargain-priced sneakers.

That's a perfectly reasonable, realpolitik consideration for a government. But it has nothing to do with reporting. And this crisis provides a useful reminder that, contrary to popular belief, our media are often not nearly as troublemaking as they should be.

The audience is of course accustomed to the media overinflating domestic crises to make good TV and copy. But especially when it comes to foreign affairs, and the lives of American sons and daughters, the media know they are especially vulnerable to charges of fomenting danger by doing their jobs, and thus alienating customers — not to mention important government sources they'll need access to later. Of course, it's not reporters' job to intentionally inflame bad situations. But it's emphatically not their job to try to calm them artificially. It's their job to report events as the facts indicate. Here, the facts are that a group of Americans are being held on an island off the coast of China, which they are not allowed to leave except in exchange for a concession (an apology). Is it unreasonable to assume that the only thing keeping them from being "hostages" is that (a) our government knows America can better do without Iranian pistachios than without a billion-plus Chinese consumers and (b) our media are afraid to say otherwise?

The dangers of complicity

There is a popular illusion that absolute media independence, like politics, stops at the water's edge. Advocates of media collaboration with the government like to point to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the major news media held back reports that might have affected negotiations. They conveniently omit, of course, that if the media hadn't shown the same deference when they knew the Bay of Pigs invasion was coming, they might have averted that fiasco and helped the U.S.-Cuba-USSR relationship that eventually led up to the missile crisis. Besides, as much as readers and viewers hate an aggressive media that seems to be stirring up trouble, in the long run — and more deeply — they resent and mistrust a quiet, smug understanding among media and government elites to maintain a united front above simple common sense in reporting. That willingness to straight-facedly repeat nonsense is essential to diplomacy, and it has nothing to do with journalism, which, popular opinion and our own vanity notwithstanding, is not a fourth branch of the government.

In any case, the longer the crisis drags out, the more the media will become anxious to unleash the h-word, as soon as a critical mass of politicians — or yellow-ribbon-wielding citizens — provide them cover to do so. At a face-to-face with President Bush Monday morning, one reporter asked point-blank at what point the troops become "hostages." Bush used the opportunity to hint diplomatically that China could be threatening its relationship with the U.S., but he didn't directly answer the question. Which is fine: What the media need to understand is that it's not the President's job, or prerogative, to define the term for them. So far, it seems that the "troops" will cross that line in the mainstream media once the White House, or a substantial number of congresspeople, decide to haul the "h"-bomb out of their rhetorical arsenals. Or once somebody in some newsroom finally cracks open a dictionary.