New York Times President and CEO Mark Thompson discusses his new book “Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics” with News Media Alliance. He explains the evolution from the speeches of FDR to the rhetoric of Donald Trump. The book goes on sale Sept. 6.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve spent more than thirty years watching – and helping to shape – the relationship between politicians, the media and the public and am convinced that something has gone badly wrong. I wrote the book to call attention to the crisis in public language, to explore its root causes and to propose some steps we could take to begin to put things right.
2. Working in media, how have you seen political speech change?
The appetite and space available for complexity and detail has shrunk, so both politicians and editors usually favor highly compressed headlines and sound bites which maximize impact at the expense of explanation. News management by political leaders and parties, and the increasingly sophisticated use of marketing insights to shape political messages means that spontaneity and surprise are generally lacking. This has created an opportunity for the “authenticity” of anti-politicians like Beppe Grillo and Donald Trump. Media distrust of politicians has become endemic. Social media has theoretically provided voters with more information than they have ever enjoyed before. Unfortunately, it has also coarsened political debate and normalized everything from paranoid conspiracy theories to ugly personal abuse.
3. What do you hope your readers learn from this book?
First, and most important, I hope they will agree with me that rhetoric is intrinsically important. Second, that the problems that beset our public language are not just local and the fault of any one politician or party, but are being experiencing across the western world. Third, that some of the very first people to think hard about rhetoric – I’m thinking of Plato and Aristotle in particular – can help us make sense of those problems.
4. How does this election cycle stand out from the rest?
It’s the logical consequence of political and social forces that have been building for the years, but the result is an unprecedented spectacle – an elemental struggle between America’s superego, the cerebral and utterly controlled Hillary Clinton, and its id, in the shape of Donald Trump. None of the elements – the public anger, the over-simplification, the victory of heat over light – are new, but the contrast between the candidates and the sheer extremity of some of the language do make it feel qualitatively different.
5. You say today’s language has been robbed of its explanatory power, what can journalists do to combat this?
Our job is faithfully to report the political battle, but also to fill in the policy gaps for our readers, listeners and viewers. I believe that the hunger to understand the world is greater than ever, and that we have more tools than ever before – in particular the incredible capabilities of the smartphone to deliver rich visual journalism – to make analysis and explanation compelling.