I think it's turning into a trend — journalists are becoming linguists. Really bad linguists, but any sort of interest in the analysis of language and communication ought to be a good thing for the field, right? Unfortunately, in this case, it's a bad thing for the nation.
A couple of days ago ("Does CBS News mean it?", 8/27/2008), the CBS News Morning Show enlisted an ex-FBI gesture analyst to support the now-standard narrative about Clinton ego and Democratic disunity. There was one small problem: his analysis was based on vague but checkable assertions, which 20 minutes of investigation sufficed to call into question.
This morning, I'll subject another journo-linguistic analysis — of the same speech by Hillary Clinton — to a few minutes of empirical and logical scrutiny.
According to Ron Fournier, "A perfect night for Clinton, Obama?", Associated Press, 8/27/2008:
Standing before thousands of delegates, almost half of them her backers, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton declared it time "to unite as a single party with a single purpose" and urged her followers to help elect once-bitter rival Barack Obama. [...]
Barack Obama is my candidate," she said. "And he must be our president."
But did she mean it?
Well, Mr. Fournier explains to us, not really. Part of his evidence — and the only piece of evidence that is a matter of concrete, like, fact — is a bit of lexical statistics:
Behind the scenes Tuesday, the Obama and Clinton camps struck a tentative deal [...]
But she did extract her price.
The bill came due Tuesday. The crowd. The applause. The promise of a vote Wednesday, and a speech laced 17 times by some variation of the pronoun "I."
As Media Matters pointed out, Mr. Fournier counted wrong: there were actually 21 instances of "I", not 17. (And neither Fournier nor Media Matters seems to have counted "me", "my", "mine" — but never mind). Media Matters argues that "contrary to Fournier's suggestion, Clinton's focus in most of those instances was not on herself, but on Obama and the election".
I only have a few minutes for blogging this morning, which is not enough time to evaluate their arguments. Instead, I'll offer the simplest Breakfast Experiment™ ever.
Hillary Clinton's DNC speech used "I" 21 times in 2269 words, for a rate of 9.26 nominative ego-references per thousand words.
Joe Biden's DNC speech used "I" 42 times in 2404 words, for a rate of 17.5 nominative ego-references per thousand words.
And Mr. Fournier's point was … Sorry, I forget. Was it something about how delivering a speech with an unusually large number of self-references was Senator Clinton's "price" for endorsing Senator Obama?
Whatever Fournier's point, I believe that we can confidently conclude that the logical relationship between his evidence and his conclusions belongs, like so much current journalistic commentary, to the category for which the philosopher Harry Frankfurt has proposed the technical term bullshit.
[Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been arguing for some time that Ron Fournier, who is the AP's Washington bureau chief, has poorly-hidden political motivations. Marshall's take on this particular article:"In CIA-speak, they'd call him a NOC". I wasn't familiar with this acronym, but a bit of web search reveals that it stands for "non-official cover", the idea being that Fournier is a covert operative for the McCain campaign. That's supposed to be a joke, I think, rather than an accusation; but on the evidence of the story that's the subject of this post, it would be hard to tell the difference. ]