What's All This Then?

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Sunday, December 09, 2012

I am not someone who necessarily agrees with those who have declared the English language to be dead and I am certainly not ready to conduct a funeral for it as one English clergyman did earlier this year. But I do get disturbed when I hear people assign meanings to English words that cannot be found in any English language dictionary. One that I have been hearing of late is the use of the word "mistake" as a substitute for something that’s almost the opposite of what the word means. If you were to look up mistake in the dictionary of your choice, I can guarantee that you will not find the word "murder" as one of its meanings. Or "grand theft" or "lie" - or any number of meanings that have nothing to do with the generally accepted understanding of what is meant by mistake. Adding six and five and two and writing down 27 as the answer is a mistake. Murder and grand theft are not.

Politicians often make mistakes. Some people believe everything certain politicians do is a mistake. They are usually extreme partisans who consider that the very philosophy of political parties other than their own is a mistake or even criminal. Then there are politicians who break the law. The last two governors of Illinois are serving jail time for their "mistakes" which law enforcement officials and two juries decided were crimes. The mistakes, if they existed, were getting caught.

Now we have two more politicians - or actually ex-politicians - who are in a peculiar way connected, citing "mistakes" as a substitute word for, in one case, two crimes for which convictions were obtained and in another, for what appears to be a crime or crimes for which the ex-politician is negotiating a plea agreement. The latter, as you might guess, is former Congressman Jesse Jackson Junior, who resigned from Congress citing poor health and "mistakes." The former, one of many seeking to replace Jackson as the representative from Illinois’ second congressional district is one Mel Reynolds, who was the Congressman from that district but resigned after being convicted for having sex with an under age campaign volunteer and later for fraud and served time for both crimes. He was succeeded by Jackson and now he wants the seat back, admitting that he "made mistakes" but pleading that it shouldn’t be a life sentence.

To a certain extent, you can understand the use of the word by politicians who get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. I don’t know of any politician accused of a crime who freely admits his or her transgression when they know they’re caught dead to rights. What I think they do by referring to their crime or crimes as mistakes, is find a way to concede their guilt in as face saving a way as possible - perhaps with thought, as in the case of Mel Reynolds, of making some kind of a comeback. But there are some cases where the use of the word is deceitful and immoral and insults the intelligence. Such is the case with NBC News.

George Zimmerman, who has been indicted on a charge of second degree murder for shooting Trayvon Martin and is out on bond awaiting trial, is suing NBC, claiming defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. As just about everyone blessed with hearing and vision knows, the killing of Martin took on racial overtones when authorities in Sanford, Florida initially declined to bring charges against Zimmerman, with Civil Rights advocates and cable news stations accusing them and Zimmerman of being racists. To this neutral observer, the hue and cry was exacerbated in no small measure by the reporting of NBC News. The Zimmerman lawsuit alleges, accurately, that NBC edited the recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call describing what he believed to be the actions of a suspicious character to a police dispatcher. The complete recording - just as it happened, was available to all news organizations. All or part could be played by radio and television stations or a transcript of the recording printed. NBC decided to doctor it for reasons as yet unknown, giving aid and comfort to those accusing Zimmerman of being a racist.

During the Today Show on March22, 2012, several clips taken from the 911 recording were played, the first of them as follows: ZIMMERMAN: This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black. 911 DISPATCHER: Did you see what he was wearing? ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, a dark hoodie. A quick reading of the actual recording shows that NBC took bits from different parts of the recorded conversation to portray Zimmerman as a racist. The "he looks black" comment was in answer to the dispatcher’s question "O.K. and this guy is white, black or Hispanic?" Caught with its corporate pants down, NBC apologized to its viewers, calling the doctored tape "an error made in the production process" and has now responded to the lawsuit saying that the edited tape was a "mistake" and that they intend to "vigorously defend" their position in court

From what I’ve been able to gather, researching this issue on the Internet, there were several airings of doctored versions of the original recording, not all of them the same and a couple of NBC reporters lost their jobs - presumably for "making errors inn the production process." What utter garbage. The reason this story grabbed my attention is because I have considerable expertise in the matter of the kind of "production process" that NBC says was where a "mistake" was made. I produced, recorded, edited and distributed a variety of audio products over a period of forty some years. I could take conversations or speeches or any kind of voice recordings and make people say almost anything I wanted them to say, and indeed I often did, but with their knowledge and approval. One can make errors when editing audio tape, but making people say something that differs from what they originally said in a way that changes their meaning is a deliberate act.

I’m in no position to judge Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence in the death of Trayvon Martin, but he has every right to sue NBC for making him sound like he was a racist and I hope he wins - if for no other reason than to expose the hypocrisy of calling the deliberate creation of a lie a "mistake" - as it is for politicians to use the word to describe their breaking the laws that they are sworn to uphold and may have even voted to enact. Maybe their colleagues will one day pass a law to make people or corporations criminally liable for such fallacious language usage. Misdemeanor Mistake, Felony Mistake, Aggravated Felony Mistake, even First Degree Mistake. It probably won’t stop them though. They’ll just go the Thesaurus and start working their way through what they find there. It’s a long list so don’t hold your breath waiting for a raft of truth in politics and advertising.