A veteran British journalist tracks the disintegration of public discourse along the trajectory of his long career covering politics in England and the United States.
The proliferation of Donald Trump’s crassness of speech, ad hominem attacks, and outright lies is hardly surprising, since they stem from the introduction of the vernacular and the technological into public rhetoric. While there was never any “golden age” of public language, writes longtime journalist, producer, and current New York Times Company president and CEO Thompson, there have been in recent decades “specific accelerants that make our circumstance exceptional. These include the revolution in media and communications that the author witnessed firsthand from his first job as a research assistant trainee at BBC Television just as Margaret Thatcher swept into power as prime minister in 1979. Using classical rhetorical terms as touchstones, Thompson notes that Thatcher’s radicalism extended into her language as well; it was “hard-edged, insistent, utterly sure of itself.” Eventually, she could not convince the voters of her essential ethos and became the rather unfeeling “thing her enemies said she was.” By the time of Ronald Reagan’s election, Thompson asserts, the traditional vocabulary of “grandiloquence,” used so famously by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, had given way to distilled, ideological one-liners that were perfect for TV news but carried little serious policy content. Hiring cutting-edge, cynical marketing teams to spin their messages, these conservative leaders honed “the stylized hyperbole of reality TV, the knowing comic beats of the late-night talk shows.” Thompson examines how Tony Blair and his tabloid political editor Alastair Campbell adopted a fierce “combination of professionalism and paranoia” and, along with Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin, a kind of stringent, populist, adversarial tone the author calls masochistic. The author also thankfully takes on those leaders who promote war and unscience—the outright denial of scientific experts on climate change—as egregious examples of eroding the public trust in language.
A pointed, dense exposé á la George Orwell.