Watch Your Language


I lose a lot of sleep as a journalist, and not just worrying about getting laid off. When I’m writing about issues that aren’t my home turf, I lie awake at night, paranoid that I might’ve unwittingly made poor word choices in a story going to print the next day, words that have political freight that I just didn’t think of or won’t understand until, inevitably, the angry phone calls begin.

Media folk writing about sensitive issues—the only things worth writing about, really— should lose sleep at night worrying about these things. As the late, great George Carlin said, you control information and language, you control thought to an extent.

Now, I normally don’t watch Fox News for obvious reasons. But after a recent episode of American Idol (team Bowersox), I accidentally caught some of MyFoxPhilly 29’s local news at 10.

I was shocked. Twice. First by the story of 45-year-old accused pedophile Kenneth Schneider. A local attorney, he allegedly traveled to Russia, found a 12-year-old victim and sexually assaulted or raped him for years. Unfortunately, in this day and age, that isn’t what’s shocking. It’s that Fox News reported that Schneider had been accused of traveling to Russia to have sex with a 12-year-old.

I went to the Web site to check it out and sure enough, the same language was there, along with another story so heinous it grabbed international headlines: In Trenton, N.J., a group of up to seven guys—a mix of adults and minors—paid a teenager for her 7-year-old sister. They allegedly gang-raped the girl as the rest of the partygoers looked on.

Yet, the lead in the Web site story began, “Police in New Jersey’s capital say a 15-year-old sold her 7-year-old sister to have sex with as many as seven men and boys.”

Breaking news: The 7-year-old girl from Trenton didn’t “have sex with” up to seven men. If there was sexual contact, she was gang-raped. The 12-year-old boy from Russia didn’t “have a sexual relationship with” the attorney either. If there was sexual contact, he was raped.

Since neither a 12-year-old nor 7-year-old can legally choose to have sex, there’s no room for any of the he said/she said game-playing that makes it so difficult to prosecute rapists who assault other adults. If sexual contact occurred, it was rape. Period.

“If this came to court and I were an expert witness, I think I would have a pretty good argument to say that these reporters are actually reporting the story wrong, that what they are saying is untrue,” says Dr. Muffy Siegel, associate professor of English at Temple University and forensic semanticist.

“We know that what comes in the subject position of ‘have sex with’ is someone who is actively and willingly having sex,” explains Dr. Siegel. “That’s part of the definition of the verb. Since it’s part of the definition … it’s a false statement to say that that little girl had sex with those men, because she wasn’t a willing agent.”

Siegel says that for a similar but technically distinct reason, the way Fox News described what the pedophile attorney did to the 12-year-old as having “a sexual relationship with” the boy is also incorrect.

She says the phrase belongs to a class called ‘symmetric verbs,’ which in layman’s terms means the action has to be consensual.

“It is false to use the verb if they both weren’t agents in it, and clearly they were not,” says Dr. Siegel.

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t just that Fox News is a geyser blowing steaming piles of bullshit into our brains (though of course, it does). They’re not alone. I’ve heard Oprah say “had sex with” when she meant rape, for chrissakes.

But it’s wrong. “[The listener] has in fact literally been told that the children were agents in this activity,” says Dr. Siegel.

We all know that euphemisms like adult entertainment or friendly fire or whirling, for locals who remember Philly media’s whimsical euphemism for the spate of sexual assaults at the Greek Picnic in the late ’90s—are dangerous. They’re new terms for old ideas that obscure and soften the old idea. George Carlin called it soft language.

“Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it keeps getting worse,” said Carlin, more than 20 years ago.

Carlin’s beef was with word choice for war veteran’s psychological trauma. In the First World War, it was shell shock. In the second, it was battle fatigue. Takes a little longer to sayDoesn’t seem to hurt as much. The Korean War’s operational exhaustion became the Vietnam War’s post-traumatic stress disorder.

The language used by Fox News here is even more dangerous because it’s like a new breed of euphemism hidden in plain sight. The language exists already. It’s the language of the perpetrator—and his defense team. It’s language that takes the point of view of the attacker—it was consensualwe had sex but I didn’t rape her, man.

Ensuing headlines on the Fox Web site corrected the language. Did the anchors and reporters at Fox News and other outlets consciously endorse the point of view of pedophiles and rapists? Probably not. But as the No. 1 source of slanted conservative language—I mean information—they probably didn’t lose any sleep, either. Here’s hoping they answer a wake-up call.


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