William Safire’s language column in the New York Times is usually not a big source of controversy. But I was definitely ticked off by a line in the Jan. 11th, (2009) newspaper.
Commenting on the use of filler words, such as frequently starting sentences with, “Look” or “Well” which he attributes respectively to Joe Biden and Ronald Reagan, he mentions Caroline Kennedy’s proclivity for dropping the phrase “you know” into her sentences.
I certainly have no argument with Mr. Safire’s dislike of the phrase and agree that it has an adolescent association. My problem is with his comment, “In an Associated Press print reporter’s act of kindness, her use of the phrase was edited out…”
“Reporter’s act of kindness”? A reporter may certainly do an act of kindness. He may volunteer as a Big Brother, donate money to a worthy charity or invite an elderly neighbor over for a meal. A police officer or a teacher can do those same acts of kindness. But if the police officer apprehends two burglars and arrests one while releasing the second because he likes his bumper sticker, or if a teacher catches two students cheating and ignores one but not the other, it is not an act of kindness but a dereliction of duty.
The reporter’s job is to accurately report the news. If he is transcribing a speech, his responsibility is to accurately transcribe it. If he has a policy of making everyone sound more intelligent than they actually are, say by routinely improving vocabulary or deleting filler words, then the policy should be stated and consistently applied. Barring such a policy, choosing to make some politicians sound more mature and erudite isn’t a kindness; it is a betrayal of the public’s trust.
During those months when it seemed as if dozens of people were running in the Republican primaries, I had the opportunity to hear a few of the candidates speak. One gentleman left a truly bad impression with his use of over 100 “ums” in a ten minute speech. Talking to a friend later in the day, I found out that he had lost her support due to this language pattern. She was, quite reasonably, looking for a candidate whose ideas she agreed with and who could articulate those ideas. In many ways, Barack Obama’s victory emphasizes the importance of fluent speech.
As a mother, I have spent and continue to spend a great deal of effort trying to eradicate some of my own children’s random and frequent use of the word “like” in conversation. Caroline Kennedy has made my job easier by illustrating how sloppy speech can give an impression of immaturity and lack of intelligence whether it reflects the truth or not. On a different subject, William Safire has added another tool to my mother’s belt. He has helped me show my children how bias in the news media can take subtle and difficult to uncover forms.