Thursday, November 10, 2005

Words Matter

In "Oregon looks to neighbors' ballot results, reads tea leaves" about the impact on future Oregon elections of California’s defeat of four ballot measures, Oregonian reporter Jeff Mapes uses a strange formula to identify political protagonists in Oregon.

Democrats and union officials exulted at the defeat of Schwarzenegger measures aimed at curbing government spending and public employee unions. They said it would make it harder for conservative activists to pursue similar measures in Oregon.

Democrats and union officials are pitted against conservative activists.

Mapes follows that with a back-handed definition of conservative as far-right extremist via a quote from the chief lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association:

"It's a huge setback for the far-right extremist agenda," said Chip Terhune, chief lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association, the state's main teachers union. "They're going to have to do a reassessment after this debacle in California."

Mapes goes on to name people in each camp.

Democrats and union officials:
Chip Terhune, chief lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association
Penny Wentz of Our Oregon (a union-backed group)
Rebecca Green, spokeswoman for Naral Pro-Choice Oregon
Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, Democrat from Portland

conservative activists:
Russ Walker, head of the Oregon chapter of Freedom Works
Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life

One would expect that Democrats and unions officials would be offset by Republicans and business leaders. Or that conservative activists would be balanced by liberal activists. Instead one gets a sort of apples and oranges designation where left political philosophy is not identified, but right political philosophy is.


At least part of the reason is the media’s longstanding refusal to distinguish liberal from far-left extremist. Thus, “liberal” (a perfectly respectable political position) has come to imply far-left extremist. Reports like the above do nothing to counter that tendency. In fact they encourage it by leaving the impression that no one wants to be designated as a “liberal”. Better to use the more philosophically value-free terms of “Democrat” or “union”. In contrast, people on the right seem to proudly wear the philosophical label of “conservative”.

Will “liberal” and “left” ever become value neutral, not to mention positive, terms again? Not with reports like the above which continue to tar them by refusing even to use them.

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