Journalism 101: a passive fact-check

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A furious Daniel Schwammenthal at The Commentator excoriates The Economist for accusing the Israeli government of being delusional and paranoid. Asking rhetorically why there continues to be conflict between Israel and the Palestinians according to The Economist’s view, Schwammenthal adds a linguistic element to his political critique:

"Violent clashes and provocations erupted whenever the peace process seemed on the verge of concrete steps forward," the Economist explains. And, as Journalism 101 courses explain, the passive voice erupts whenever the journalist is trying to obscure the truth. Violence did not spontaneously or anonymously break out, as the article suggests.

And he goes on to hammer home the point that it's the Palestinians who fire the rockets. Well, it's true that Journalism 101 courses often follow grammatically clueless critics in their prejudice against the passive, and in wrongly associating the passive voice with deviousness and mendacity. But I hope there are at least some journalism teachers who can tell passive clauses from active ones. Schwammenthal evidently can't.

"Violent clashes and provocations erupted" is not a passive clause. Nor is "Violence spontaneously and anonymously broke out." These are simple active clauses with intransitive verbs.

I dimly recall that Language Log has occasionally raised this matter before (though not more than about 65 times, according to this list of relevant posts), so I won't belabor the point. (If I was going to belabor it, I would point out that Language Log has actually noted previous false allegations of passive clauses being used to mask Palestinian violence while emphasizing Israeli aggression.) I will just ask a question: What on earth induces people who cannot tell passive clauses from active ones to pontificate about use of the passive when attacking other writers?

It's like accusing an arriving politician of luxury travel in a chauffeur-driven Lincoln Continental when he is visibly climbing out of the driving seat of a used Chevy Nova. Wouldn't you expect people to put their glasses on and actually check the make and model of the car, or look for the chauffeur? (Oh, I don't know, maybe not, in an election year.)

[Comments are open. They're not, of course, but I'm just demonstrating how weird it is when people say things that you can easily see are flatly false.]

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