By definition, the media is failing

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If we learned anything from the Maine State Spelling Bee, it’s that words can be persnickety and perplexing.

We praise all the contestants’ alphabetical expertise, honed during hours and hours of dictionary study. Naomi Zarin of Gray, who attends the Friends School of Portland, won by spelling the word “copal,” a type of resin used as ceremonial incense and printing ink in Central America. That’s a tough word for anyone to spell, let alone an eighth-grader.

While it’s admirable to spell a word correctly, it can be even more admirable to define it properly. A bee champion doesn’t have to worry about providing definitions, but daily discourse does require commonly accepted definitions of words. And that’s especially true with today’s political vocabulary.

Double meanings lurk behind many of the words and terms used by the mainstream media and scribes on social media – words like “fake news,” “populism,” “nationalism,” “conservative” and “liberal.” The media fails to define some of these loaded words, many of which have multiple definitions.

For example, some news consumers define “fake news” as inflated hearsay that doesn’t merit mention on the nightly news or front page. Others define it as outright lies or propaganda. Whose definition is correct? Are they both right?

The word “populism” is also an example of this phenomenon of squishy speak. Most media are using the word as a negative. President Trump is to be feared because he won in a populist wave, they say. I rarely hear the pundits define the word, however. They use it as if the audience knows exactly what they mean.

Here are its two possible meanings, according to Webster’s Dictionary:

1. “A member of a political party claiming to represent the common people; especially, often capitalized, a member of a U.S. political party formed in 1891 primarily to represent agrarian interests and to advocate the free coinage of silver and government control of monopolies.”

2. “A believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.”

Media, I suspect, are using Webster’s first definition, not the second. They are saying Trump is a reincarnation of the 1891 Populists, and he won middle America (the new agrarians?) in a wave of fear and xenophobia.

When I hear the word populism used, I’m thinking of Webster’s second definition, which sounds admirable. What’s wrong with wanting a president who believes in the rights, wisdom and virtues of the common people?

The same confusion applies to “nationalism.” Media love to decry Trump’s so-called nationalist policy proposals. We’re told he’s a budding nationalist when he doesn’t want to admit potential terrorists from the countries mentioned in his now-famous travel ban. When he tries to enforce present-day immigration law or build a border wall, we’re told to think these actions are un-American because Trump supposedly believes all Mexicans are “bad hombres” and all Muslims are terrorists. The media has interpreted Trump’s America First doctrine as nationalist fervor akin to 1930s Germany.

Most Americans, however, wouldn’t object to Webster’s first definition of “nationalism,” which closely resembles patriotism: “Loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness.”

But they might object to Webster’s second definition: “Exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”

So, when we’re listening to the media or talking to someone about politics, how do we know which definition they’re using? “Nationalism” can have two totally different meanings, complicating communication.

Finally, consider “conservative” and “liberal.” A positive connotation to describe a “conservative” is one who wants to abide by a plain reading of the founding documents and believes less is more when it comes to government programs and spending. A negative connotation would be the following definition from the World Book Dictionary: “A person who from prejudice or lack of foresight is opposed to true progress.”

Likewise, a positive connotation of “liberal,” from Webster’s, is “a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class).” A negative connotation would be that liberals believe government intervention is the only answer to social ills.

In a political debate, such foundational terms – and the arguments that build atop them – can be easily misunderstood if not defined similarly by both sides. I wonder how many disagreements arise simply because people are defining their terms differently.

Words matter. The Finnish have 58 words for the many forms of snow and ice they experience. The American public deserves more precise terminology from its media, whose sole purpose should be to inform us, not inflame or confuse us, about current political activity.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.