Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Cloudy 31° Cloudy
News >  Spokane

Sue Lani Madsen: Waving the bloody shirt

Lack of skepticism spreads fake news in the ongoing civil war of words. This time it was progressives who got snookered.

Recently the Washington Post eagerly reacted to a hint of government censorship from an anonymous source. Their initial reporting claimed the Trump administration was “forbidding officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report was promptly turned into a social media meme and reposted by indignant progressives bemoaning the censorship of scientists. Sen. Patty Murray and other Congressional Democrats penned a letter accusing the Trump administration of “yet again prioritizing ideology over science.”

Less than a week later, the same Washington Post reporters found themselves backtracking and clarifying. There was no edict out of the White House banning seven dirty words you can’t use in writing a CDC budget. There was no censorship.

According to the Washington Post follow up, guidance issued by officials within the Department of Health and Human Services suggested words to avoid if possible. Staff were reportedly encouraged to find synonyms expressing the same ideas, without the baggage attached to politicized words and phrases. That’s smart Communications 101. Don’t use words that blunt the reader’s attention to your message.

The reporters forgot to be skeptical in their rush to be first. “CDC ordered to ban certain words” makes a national splash while “HHS bureaucrats issue style guide” drowns. And the Post just added another brick in the fake news wall.

It’s a wall that’s been under construction for as long as there’s been political reporting. In the presidential election of 1880, a letter was circulated by newspapers opposed to Republican candidate, James A. Garfield, claiming he supported the free admission of Chinese laborers, to be pitted against the emerging unions for the benefit of large employers. Garfield denied it. The forged Morey letter was “believed to have been the means of giving the electoral votes of California to Gen. W. S. Hancock, the candidate of the Democratic Party.” Immigration policy protecting American workers is not a new political issue. Garfield won by a narrow margin.

The story of the Morey letter comes from a 1903 hardbound predecessor of Wikipedia titled “The Educational Encyclopedia of Common Things [which] TELLS YOU ONLY OF THINGS YOU OUGHT TO KNOW, and contains no information that is not of practical value or of unusual interest.” Using all caps to bark one’s self-importance predates digital communication.

One thing the author thought “you ought to know” was the Australian ballot. Until the 1890s, each American candidate had his own ballot in a different size, color or distinctive marking. Threats and other persuasion techniques at the polls were common and “the public demanded a system of secret voting whereby they could vote for candidates without molestation.” The recently adopted Australian ballot system was the solution. We’re still arguing about voter suppression.

The Encyclopedia of Common Things draws its quotes and popular sayings from the common experiences of its audience, yet is oddly silent on the Civil War. It was too soon. Significant battle dates and proclamations are included on a general timeline of useful knowledge, but the author is carefully neutral in entries where it can’t be avoided.

Like the definition of “waving the bloody shirt,” from an old Scottish custom to stir up the clans to avenge a massacre. In 1903 it referred to any “effort to keep alive the ill feeling between the North and the South caused by the Civil War.”

One “memorable sentence so often quoted” comes from an incident the morning after Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865. In an effort to quiet a crowd “preparing to attack the office of the New York World, a newspaper which had violently opposed Lincoln,” then Congressman James A. Garfield stepped in front of the mob and said reassuringly, “God reigns and the government at Washington still lives.”

Journalism was once literally under attack. In 2017, the attacks come in tweets, but God still reigns and the government at Washington still lives.

Now if we could all be a little slower to wave the bloody shirt of partisanship in 2018.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.