Jan 11 1995

Downpour Of Media Cliches Threatens To Flood Nation

We interrupt this newspaper for a special bulletin! A media flood warning is now in effect for the entire United States.

A torrential January storm continues to dump large quantities of media cliches on the American public. And the floodwaters are still rising.

But there’s nothing natural about the current downpour of political cliches. In recent years a lot of work has gone into seeding the clouds. The new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, has described his goal as "reshaping the entire nation through the news media."

You can assume that the media climate is backing up the sewers when the same cliche appears on the covers of the country’s two biggest news weeklies. That’s what happened with the Jan. 9 editions of Time magazine ("Exclusive: How Gingrich plans to pull off his revolution") and Newsweek ("Gingrich’s Revolution").

Which brings us to the most popular — and possibly weirdest — media cliche of the year so far:

"Revolution" The news media can’t seem to stop using the word "revolution" to describe the activities of Gingrich and fellow Republicans. Our Nexis computer search found that — during the first 10 days of this year — U.S. newspapers used "revolution" in over 270 articles while reporting on Gingrich.

No longer able to utilize the worn-out description of Gingrich as a "bomb-throwing backbencher," the news media now insist that he is leading a "revolution."

If the Republicans are igniting a "revolution," it must be the first one in world history aimed at giving the entrenched interests that run the country still more entrenched power.

Since when is it a "revolution" to make things even more cushy for the wealthy and powerful, while making the rest of us even more vulnerable to their prerogatives?

"Big government" We keep being told that the Republicans are sworn foes of "big government," determined to downsize and eliminate federal bureaucracies. Our computerized search found references to Gingrich and "big government" in 61 newspaper articles during the first 10 days of January.

But news reports on "big government" virtually ignore the most costly and wasteful federal bureaucracy — the Defense Department — spending $270 billion this year on the military (almost as much as the amount spent by the rest of the world combined). President Clinton has urged a hefty increase, and the new GOP majority in Congress wants to hike the department’s budget even more.

A rarely mentioned fact is that the Pentagon purchases two-thirds of the U.S. government’s goods and services. And it issues 70 percent of all federal paychecks.

But when was the last time you heard a media outlet mention the Pentagon in a discussion of deplorable "big government"?

And when was the last time you saw a tough national news report on the F-22 fighter jet, which moves forward even though the General Accounting Office concluded that it is now unneeded and should be put off? The jets are to be assembled by Lockheed, adjacent to Gingrich’s congressional district in Georgia.

"Middle class" This one is an old standby, but it has gained renewed currency in recent weeks as the Republican and Democratic parties battle to don the mantle of champion for the "middle class." But who, precisely, is part of the "middle class"?

To hear many politicians — and journalists — tell it, the "middle class" is just about anyone who isn’t below the official poverty line and doesn’t qualify as a millionaire.

Reporting from Southern California in 1993, under the headline "GOP Blitz Against Budget Puts Democrats on Defensive", the New York Times explained on its front page that President Clinton was not offering much to "people earning more than $115,000, which is middle class in this high-cost region." Six figures a year, and part of the beleaguered middle class.

"Reform" Of all the cosmetic buzzwords applied by American journalists and pundits, none is more opaque than "reform." It means, simply, a favorable gloss for any change of government policy in any direction — even if it involves the undoing of genuine reforms.

Our forecast for this political season calls for continued rhetorical downpours, heavy at times, with only occasional periods of clarity.

But don’t despair — and don’t worry about carrying a rhetoric-proof umbrella. Once you decode the main cliches, the torrents of media blather will roll off you like water off a duck’s back.