When a reader responded to my column saying journalists deserved support, not scorn, he rebutted by saying too many are propagandists.
To him they participate in orchestrated campaigns using terms that mysteriously grow popular among news outlets, even across platforms. The word he referred to specifically is “gravitas,” used to imply George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign was fortified by his choice of Dick Cheney as his running mate.
Yes, sometimes media play “follow the leader.” They latch onto buzzwords, catchy phrases and fresh takes on stale topics. They can be lured by smoke and mirrors and the pursuit of bigger circulation sales, ratings and page views.
Most of the time this is frustrating but harmless. Every so often it can be era-defining, like when a fast-talking, self-promoting real estate mogul generates better soundbites than the sober-minded Republican governor trying to become the third member of his family to serve as the nation’s president.
Or when media became fixated on a curiously unpopular Democratic candidate’s use of an email server that fell outside the purview of accepted practice. An election that felt like a fait accompli gained new energy. Character and competency be damned: What about her emails?
But surely the reader didn’t mean to imply conservatives eschew talking points? Because, brother, conservatives not only have talking points, they are more faithful to them and better evangelists for them than any liberal or journalist could ever hope to be.
In 1992, Hillary Clinton was dogged for saying she chose to be a professional wife to her husband, pursuing her own career and passions instead of being a stay-at-home mom who baked cookies (the nerve!) When she added she wouldn’t be like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” partner, the lifelong feminist was tagged as anti-woman and anti-family values, an image her critics play off of to this day.
Despite verified proof – and the concessions of the big mouth who pushed the allegation – there still are people who think President Barack Obama should not have been walked to serve because he was not a citizen.
I wrote a column once that whenever readers of the Alabama newspaper I worked for submitted letters to the editor, they rarely missed on opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for the Fast and Furious, Benghazi, the IRS and NSA “scandals.”
What struck me was how often they were mentioned in that particular order as if, hmm … someone had given them talking points.
I remember being in the newsroom the day the phones started lighting up with locals wanting to know why the ACORN story wasn’t on the front page of their morning paper. We wondered why a middling sting operation with no local impact was expected to be on the front page until the publisher’s administrative assistant explained that just minutes earlier talk show host Glenn Beck had instructed his viewers to call their local papers and demand accountability.
A talking point became a plan of action. It wasn’t the first time that happened, and it wouldn’t be the last. The rise of social media has made matters worse, with Pizzagate and the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol being two worst-case examples.
Across the country, conservatives are fighting rigged elections (no claim has met the legal standard in court); “wokeness” and critical race theory (though most don’t even know what they are); supposed liberal pedophiles (while credibly accused Republican members of Congress are left unchallenged); so-called indoctrination of children by transgendered people; Antifa; and any number of other bogus campaigns propped up by the talking heads of right-wing media.
I left out “cancel culture,” “defund the police,” “all lives matter” and others, but I think you get the idea.
Even emails I get from readers regularly include attacks on Black Lives Matter (“They were burning cities across the country!”); the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (“race hustlers); high crime in Democrat-led cities (they really love to hate Chicago): the Democratic lawmakers known as the Squad; and defenses of excessive force by police (“all you have to do is comply”) and the men who killed Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery.
Like most other things political, the topic of talking points can be “both sides”-ed to death.
But when it comes to actual life and death, I’ll take using words like “gravitas” any day over talking points intended to undermine democracy and destroy our country.
Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.