Unmediated

The media language game

Print edition : October 16, 2015

What Ludwig Wittgenstein calls the language game informs the news media as we know and experience and practise them in their general and everyday aspects. There is, of course, the universally defining nature of language in that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. There is at play too the representational, or a picture theory of language. Language optimally suited to the media, we are often told, evokes mental pictures. Wittgenstein could, further, be specifically speaking to the world of the media when he says in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus that “world is the totality of facts, not of things”, much as the American poet Muriel Rukeyser talks about the universe being “made of stories, not atoms”.

There is also, especially on television news debates, the context of a game, resembling, as Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out, a wrestling match with its own set of rules (and subset of unruly behaviour for effect) and gestural and body language. Bourdieu’s profile (in his On Television and Journalism) of the “interventionist” moderator will strike an instant chord with anyone who has had to suffer him on the show, whether as a guest on it, or just viewing it, with rising blood pressure, at home. The moderator decides, says Bourdieu, “who speaks, and he hands out little tokens of prestige”. The manner and tone of the intervention varies and includes what would normally be a little civility like a “Thank you”. Bourdieu is spot on on the ways this term of courtesy is deployed: “‘Thank you’ can mean ‘Thank you ever so much, I am really in your debt, I am awfully happy to have your thoughts on this issue’; and there’s the ‘thank you’ that amounts to a dismissal, an effective ‘OK, that’s enough of that’.”

Again, “a peremptory ‘yeah yeah, yeah’ alerts the discussant to the moderator’s impatience or lack of interest”. Bourdieu is unsparing, but spot on, when he describes how the moderator uses the viewers as a front for his own ignorance. “All moderators,” he says, “turn themselves into representatives of the public at large: ‘I have to interrupt you here, I don’t understand what you mean’. What comes across is not that the moderator is dumb—no moderator will let that happen—but that the average viewer (dumb by definition) won’t understand. The moderator appears to be interrupting an intelligent speech to speak for the ‘dummies’. In fact, as I have been able to see for myself, it’s the people in whose name the moderator is supposedly acting who are the most exasperated by such interference.”

Such television vulgate and language gaming, rather than or more than news that is representative of what is happening out there, seem to drive, and in turn be driven by, TRPs (television rating points), making it difficult for another model to replace this, at least until the viewers tire of this nightly showbiz cast as a high intensity mock trial by the media on various fronts and themes. If we are able to wrest our minds from this aberration and look at how language adapts to, and is in turn honed by, the forms and requirements of a specific news medium or platform, we arrive at a more wholesome sense of the evolving, variegated and innovative forms of expression best suited to each type.

There is, of course, a formulaic language of news mockingly referred to as “journalese” in the world of creative writing. Creative writing, conversely, could be a suspect category for the committed journalist because of its reliance on imagination not evidence, because it deals with the fictional rather than the factual. But beyond this simplistic divide, language can be put through the wringer, pared down, restructured, renovated, even reinvented, to best suit the technology and cultural characteristics of the medium or platform it is on. There may have been a readjustment of language to adapt to the mass printed newspapers facilitated by the Gutenberg press as against the handwritten or calligraphed folios or newsletters that were circulated among the country gentry in England at the inception of journalism in the early 17th century. But the big shift in terms of the demand to rework the language to suit the medium came with telegraphy in the 19th century, which enabled the wire service delivering a daily dosage of news that was neutral and divested of the subjectivities of the editorial lines of the newspapers subscribing to it.

In his study Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph, James W. Carey elaborates on how the telegraph also “eliminated the correspondent who provided the letters that announced an event, described it in detail and analysed its substance, and replaced him with the stringer who supplied the bare facts. As words were expensive on the telegraph, it separated the observer from the writer. Not only did writing for the telegraph have to be condensed to save money—telegraphic, in other words—but also from the marginal notes and anecdotes of the stringer the story had to be reconstituted at the end of the telegraphic line, a process that reaches high art with the news magazines, the story divorced from the storyteller.”

The telegraph and literary forms

Carey also alludes to how telegraphy impacted on literary forms and cites the famous example of Ernest Hemingway developing his pared down style because he was used to “cablese”, an acute form of journalese, in which economy of words was of paramount importance. He quotes Hemingway telling the reporter Lincoln Steffens: “I had to quit being a correspondent. I was getting too fascinated by the lingo of the cable.”

The spoken language of live—of the here and now—electronic broadcasting was similarly uniquely cast in contrast to the written word and the writerly text. It simulated the oral conversational style. The style here implied use of the active voice, words with less syllables, short declarative sentences and a penetrating quality to the language to hold and retain the viewer or listener. The speed of delivery was better gauged in terms of syllables per minute than words per minute, which would be the conventional readerly, as against spoken, pace.

The essential difference in the tenor, tone, immediacy and temporality of the written versus the spoken language of communication is grasped in Roland Barthes’ succinct formulation that writing implies absence, while speech implies presence. The spoken language must get across to the targeted viewers or listeners in one go. They only get one shot at it, unlike the printed word which is available to be reread and revisited. There lies the challenge in the language for the electronic media. Digital media has unleashed a host of neologisms, acronyms, code words and emotive icons into its evolving language that caters to the varying requirements of the combination of text, picture, sound and video. This admixture of language types seems pitched at once at a new digital idiom of expression and the new and constantly updated and renewed digital devices in use. It is work in hectic progress.

What generally goes unnoticed is the counterfeit parlance that is systematically fed into this language churning and becomes part of the new lexicon of neoimperialism. New terms are invented or old ones turned over, substituted, euphemised, to make them look or sound deceptively benign. Soft power is the new pet name for Gramscian hegemony. Subsidy is a downright dirty word, and television anchors look aghast when anyone is humane enough to mention it. Extraordinary rendition makes third degree torture sound like a special paid holiday abroad. Embedded journalism is what hacks do to cover both their backsides and the stories the invading army feeds them. Collateral damage is giving the victims of a military expedition a grudging excuse for being dead. And so it goes on, this absurd language game.

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R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

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