Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

To rebuke or not to rebuke

Posted by metaphorical on 4 April 2007

It was a tough headline to write. The NY Times went with “Justices Say E.P.A. Has Power to Act on Harmful Gases,” which got the story right. The Baltimore Sun went with “Justices rebuke Bush on climate,” which also got it right, but quite differently.

The basic story is simple enough. To quote the always-great (and in this case aptly-named), Linda Greenhouse in the Times,

In one of its most important environmental decisions in years, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases in automobile emissions. The court further ruled that the agency could not sidestep its authority to regulate the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change unless it could provide a scientific basis for its refusal.

The complication was this:

The 5-to-4 decision was a strong rebuke to the Bush administration, which has maintained that it does not have the right to regulate carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases under the Clean Air Act, and that even if it did, it would not use the authority. The ruling does not force the environmental agency to regulate auto emissions, but it would almost certainly face further legal action if it failed to do so.

Unsurprisingly, this nuance was lost on FOX News, which went with “Split Supreme Court Orders EPA to Act on Greenhouse Gases.” The word “split” is a nice touch, reminding us that Fox, like Chief Justice Roberts doesn’t exactly have clear grasp on reality. (In an editorial yesterday, the Times noted that “The decision was unnervingly close, and some of the arguments in the dissent, written by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., were cause for concern — especially his comments about the “complexities” of the science of climate change, which is too close for comfort to the administration’s party line.”)

(Note that it didn’t take long for even Greenhouse to hit the “rebuke” button—para#2. The AP also went that way on the headline: “High court rebukes Bush on car pollution.”)

NPR highlighted conflict while avoiding “rebuke”: “Justices Thwart Bush Team on Environmental Policy”

Many simply ignored the complexity and presumed the EPA will eventually take action. For example, Nature magazine had “Car emissions are EPA’s problem.” Red Herring went with the completely neutral “US Environmental Agency Can Limit CO2.”

Finally, there were the usual plays on words, such as BusinessWeek, which wrote “Court Turns Up the Heat on Global Warming” and Washington Post, with a fairly lame “The Supreme Court Trawl on Global Warming.” (That’s just not a verb I’d use in a headline.)

Me, I’m looking forward to the stories that frame this as a victory for the sane EPA long-term staffers against the political appointee nutjobs, a conflict we’ve seen in any number of other agencies, including, of course, the recent Attorneygate. But that is, as they say in the newspaper game, a second-day story.

As a footnote, I just want to note that the estimable Greenhouse might be the last reporter at the Times to know that “none” is a singular pronoun. In a separate story, “Supreme Court Denies Guantánamo Appeal,” she wrote:

The men have all been held at Guantánamo Bay for more than five years, and none has been charged with a crime.

On the editorial page, on the other hand, on the very same day,, “Finding Doomsday Asteroids” had:

The space agency estimates that there are some 1,100 near-Earth objects whose diameters exceed six-tenths of a mile, big enough to destroy a medium-sized state and kick up enough dust to affect global climate and crop production. The survey has already identified more than 700 of them. None are on a path to collide with Earth.

Shame on the the op-ed editors, double-shame on the Times. If you’re going to be wrong, at least be consistently wrong. Oh, but wait: a quick check of the bookshelf shows their own published style manual advocates inconsistency. From The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, p.142:

Construe as a plural unless it is desired to emphasize the idea of not one or no one—and then it is often better to use not one or no one instead of none.

Bleh. Inconsistency and a passive construction. It’s like getting a bonus bleh.


One Response to “To rebuke or not to rebuke”

  1. Blue Athena said

    I saw most of those same headlines, and the “rebukers” kind of got on my nerves. I really hate having to side with FOX news. Ever. On anything. But here I have to admit I found their headline was less annoying — even if you question whether or not anyone was actually “ordered” to do anything.

    So I guess I just expect FOX to be stupid and get the facts wrong. But I don’t expect (however naively) some of these other sources to go with such blatantly manipulative and skewed headlines.

    Maybe it just helps to start with really low expectations.

    Trawl? What does this have to do with fishing? I just don’t get it. Is that really supposed to be a play on words or is my vocabulary worse than I thought?

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