The Rhetoric Beat

Language plays a powerful role in shaping political decisions, argues Brent Cunningham. As an example, he points to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, "when the choice of words -- by the press and government officials -- played a crucial role in setting America on a course that led, ultimately, to our military action in Iraq. ... The decision to describe the attacks in the language of 'war,' rather than as a criminal act, emerged swiftly and organically in the earliest press accounts, and was quickly solidified and extended by President Bush and other administration officials." If the attacks had been defined using other language, such as "mass murder," this might also have defined the "terms of the response" differently, "within the domain of police investigation, criminal justice and the safeguards of law." Cunningham thinks that "journalism needs a rhetoric beat" focused on studying the uses and abuses of language, which "has emerged as a central issue in our political culture."