President Bush and his allies are probably going to lose his fight to privatize Social Security. But in the course of losing they have won an astonishing victory: They have established the precedent that a political party can unilaterally force the news media to change its terminology essentially. Push them hard enough, and the media will render verboten any previously agreed-upon phrase, no matter how widely accepted.
Up until very recently, the notion of allowing workers to divert their Social Security taxes into individual savings accounts was universally known as “privatization.” Its most fervent advocates called it that. (The Cato Institute, one of the earliest champions of privatization, established a “Project on Social Security Privatization” in 1995.) Bush himself used the term. So did Karl Rove.
Late last year, though, Republican polls found that the public reacted far more favorably to “personal” accounts than to “private” accounts. So, overnight, they banished talk of “privatization” and “private accounts,” accusing any journalist who dared use the phrase that they themselves had used mere weeks before of insidious bias. When a reporter asked about “privatization” earlier this year, Bush scolded: “You mean the personal savings accounts? We don’t want to be editorializing, at least in the questions.” A reporter told PR Week magazine that the White House staff informed him that if he wrote “privatization,” “you have signaled you’re against the White House.”
Under this sustained barrage, the media have slowly retreated. In the first stage, news reports began alternating the two terms. (NBC’s Tim Russert went a step further, adopting his own phrase, “private personal accounts.”) This exquisite show of evenhandedness ignored the fact that one phrase was commonly used by both sides for years on end, while the other had been cooked up weeks before by a partisan pollster.
In the weeks that have passed, “personal” seems to be overtaking “private,” like untreated weeds creeping over a garden. Politicians who dare use “oldspeak” risk censure, not just from Republicans but from the media themselves.
When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attacked what she called Bush’s “misleading privatization plan,” a Washington Post news story immediately noted that “Bush has never advocated privatizing the entire program.” This is the formulation that newspapers use when they want to alert readers that a politician is lying.
Aside from showing the degree to which reporters have internalized the GOP’s admonishments, the rebuke was remarkable for two reasons. First, Pelosi never said that Bush advocated privatizing the entire Social Security program, only that he supported “privatization.” Second, as a matter of fact, Bush has advocated privatizing the entire program. In 2000, he said, “It’s going to take a while to transition to a system where personal savings accounts are the predominant part of the investment vehicle.... This is a step toward a completely different world, and an important step.”
The problem here isn’t that the phrase “personal accounts” is any less accurate than “private accounts.” It’s that the media have abandoned a long-standing and perfectly accurate phrase for entirely partisan reasons.
There’s no reason why this would stop with Social Security. From now on, why shouldn’t both parties lobby the media to replace any inconvenient words with poll-tested equivalents? For years, Democrats have used euphemisms of their own, like “revenue enhancer” instead of “tax hike,” or “investment” instead of “spending program.” Yet it’s never occurred to them to browbeat the media into adopting their lingo. But why not? After all, those terms are accurate. Tax hikes do enhance revenues, and many spending programs are investments. Democrats have every incentive to denounce terms like “taxes” and “spending” as biased, and to demand that the media give their preferred terms equal billing.
You could see political discourse diverging into two separate paths, one conducted in Democratic English and the other in Republican English. Alternatively, the media could decide that they’re not going to change their language just because one party took a poll.