Thursday, December 29, 2016

Our English language obscurities

Along with several previous essays on this blog, Harry saved the ones on this page in a computer file he titled “BOOK 1”. He likely collected the pieces from his speeches or articles over the years, or simply jotted stories that might fit into a book he thought about writing in the 1980s or ’90s. I continue to learn from his essays; how about you?


Some of the more obscure things in the English language involve the use of collective nouns, that is, the names used to describe a group of people or animals or things. For example, a herd, a flock, a group are all collective nouns. There are so many collective nouns that it’s sometimes confusing, not to say, on occasion, positively hilarious. A number of lions living together is called a pride of lions, for example, and we speak of a school of fish, a pod of whales, a gaggle of geese, a herd of cattle and a flock of sheep. (Why, then, is the man in charge of a flock of sheep called a shepherd?) All of which is leading up to some novel and humorous observations. 

A group of professors, walking in downtown Washington – or any big city, for that matter – saw a number of “ladies of the evening” soliciting passersby. As professors are prone to do, they began discussing the proper collective nouns to apply to the ladies. The musician among them suggested “a fanfare of strumpets.” The gourmet thought “a jam of tarts” would be more appropriate. The literary one urged “an anthology of pros,” or, as an alternative, “an essay of Trollope’s.” The lawyer among them pleaded for “a firm of solicitors.” When I told this story to some businessmen, a miner among them suggested “an outcropping of ores.” I’m sure that anyone with imagination can come up with some more suggestions.

Stories and anecdotes

To illustrate that people don’t always mean what they say, let me tell you a little story that came out of the late Joe Creason’s column in the Louisville Courier Journal. It seems that an elderly farmer in a mule-drawn wagon was involved in an accident with an automobile. He claimed that he was badly hurt and was suing the driver of the car.

“Isn’t it true,” the defendant’s lawyer asked, “that after the accident you said you never felt better in your life?”

“Well,” said the farmer, “that morning I got up, hitched up my wagon, put my dog in the wagon ...”

“Just answer the question, yes or no,” the lawyer interrupted.

“I’m coming to that,” the farmer snapped. “That morning I got up, hitched up my mule to the wagon, put my hound dog in the back of the wagon, and I just got over a rise in the road when this big car barreled into my rear end. My mule was knocked to one side of the road, my hound dog to the other, and I was pinned under the seat. Then along came the sheriff. He saw my mule had a broken leg, pulled out his gun and shot it dead. He went over to my dog, saw it was badly hurt with a broken back, and shot it in the head. Then,” the farmer continued, “he comes over to me and asks, ‘Well, and how are you feeling?’ and sure enough, I said ‘I ain’t never felt better in my life.’”


After the death of Pericles, in ancient Greece, there arose a host of “quack” professors in Athens who taught their students how to achieve success. The secret lies in how to win arguments, they taught, in politics, in business, and in the courts of law, by twisting logic around to its ultimate absurdity, with no regard for morality or integrity. Plato called these teachers “sophists”. One of the most notorious sophists was a man named Protagoras. He agreed to teach a law student who had no money, with the understanding that the student would not have to pay him until after he won his first case.

He taught his student only too well. When his studies were finished, the student came to Protagoras and said: “Suppose you sue me for non-payment. If I win, I don’t have to pay you according to the judgment of the court; if I lose, I don’t have to pay you according to our agreement.” Ever since that time, the world has called such arguments “sophistry”. It is a term of derision in all civilized societies.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A lesson in listening to the news

Harry wrote the essay on this page in 1988 and later filed it in a folder titled “BOOK 1” with others recently posted on this blog. He may have written it solely for a book he thought about writing, or for another reason, such as a magazine article or a speech to a local organization. His friends and family who read this blog are glad he did a great deal of writing through his old age, and then mastered the computer enough to save at least some of his files for posterity.


There’s an old doggerel about a boy’s relationship with a girl. I don’t know who wrote it, most likely someone named “Anonymous”, but it goes like this:  I took her to the movies, I took her to a show, I took her almost every place, A boy and girl could go. I took her out to dinner, I took her out for tea, When suddenly I realized, That she’d been taking me!

I used to wonder why the network news programs refused to take editorial positions on issues of national interest. Some local stations editorialize, usually on local issues rather than national issues. Some even provide time for listener responses to their editorials. But not the networks. At least, not formally. And then, suddenly, I realized that they’d been taking me, that they actually were editorializing.

You don’t have to label an editorial as such. There are much more subtle ways to editorialize. There are much more stealthy ways to express opinions. And the networks do that all the time, either consciously and deliberately, or subconsciously and unknowingly. They do it in their news reports and they do it in the so-called commentaries by their elder statesmen pundits. And, they do it under the guise of “objective” reporting or observations.

In that way, their support for, or their opposition to a particular policy or program slips through. Either their cheer-leading or their cursory treatment on specific issues colors the public perception and influences the public opinion. The birds do it; the bees do it; the anchormen, producers and reporters do it. How do they do it? In countless ways. They do it with a raised eyebrow, with a thin-lipped smile, with a repressed sneer, with a skeptical tone of voice, with an enthusiastic demeanor, with heightened excitement, with evident boredom, and, above all, with the selective use of prejudicial words.

Prejudicial words are especially effective in influencing the listener’s perception of events. Consider, for example, the following scenario:  An alleged criminal is on trial. The reporter notes that “today the prosecutor introduced damaging, new evidence.” The word “damaging” is itself enough to color the perception of the listener. He is immediately prejudiced against the defendant. Suppose the reporter had noted that “today the prosecutor introduced evidence that he hoped would damage the defendant’s case.” Immediately, the listener gains a different perception, that there is an element of doubt here.

The selection of words is crucial to the listener’s understanding of the reporter’s bias. The next time you listen to a network news program, pay close attention to the words the anchorman or the reporter uses, as well as to his tone of voice and his facial expressions. Then, decide for yourself if he’s trying to influence your perception of the events on which he is commenting. Decide for yourself if he’s being objective or prejudicial. Just keep an open mind about the issue at hand. Remember, the opinions you hold should be your own opinions, not someone else’s opinions foisted upon you by false pretenses or prejudicial comments.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Freedom of the press – and your private thoughts

Recent hype about fake newsand blocking the press make this essay as relevant as ever. Harry wrote it in 1991 and eventually filed it on his computer in a folder he titled “BOOK 1”. I believe he collected essays for a potential book on the media. 

Freedom of the Press

The United States is the only country in the world that grants its people freedom of the press. This freedom is specifically spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution, under which nobody – not the Congress nor the states and especially not the courts – can take that freedom away. All of them have tried from time to time with varying degrees of success, but this unique and most precious freedom of ours remains largely intact, despite the fact that it is constantly under attack. These attacks, however, do not represent the greatest threat to freedom of the press.

The greatest danger, in my view, comes from the press itself. It is the performance of the press that poses the danger. The problem is that the press is comprised of a huge variety of publications, a publishing output that is so huge, in fact, that it cannot be encompassed in one glance. The newspapers, the magazines, the newsletters, the pamphlets, the books, the studies, the circulars, etc., etc.; all the many thousands of publications that confront the reading public, are the press. And some of those publications are undoubtedly scurrilous, scandalous, abusive, vulgar, obscene, gross, insulting, malignant, libelous, and any other descriptive adjective you can think of.

In the eyes of the courts, any individual element of the press is equal to any other element. That is to say that the National Inquirer, say, and The New York Times, say, are both newspapers, subject to the same rules of conduct as can be applied to all elements of the press alike. It may be blasphemous to mention those two publications in the same breath, but they are both newspapers and every time the former gets sued, the latter also suffers. In fact, every time any newspaper loses a court case, all the other newspapers lose a piece of their freedom.

The real strength of the press lays not so much in the guarantee of freedom provided in the Constitution as it does in the credibility it enjoys in the eyes of its readers. Thus, if one newspaper prints lies and distortions which bring about lawsuits and court proceedings, the notion that all newspapers are guilty of the same kind of conduct pervades the public consciousness. There is no way to separate the performance of one newspaper from that of another in the courts or in the public mind. It doesn’t even matter if a newspaper wins or loses in court. The mere allegations of malice and lies that are aired in court impinge on the public perception of newspaper conduct. And the more that the public comes to believe that the performance of the press is not worth protecting, the less freedom the press will enjoy.

In the end, therefore, the performance of the press itself will determine the degree of freedom it has to report and comment on the news. I don’t know if there is any solution to this problem of separating the various elements of the press, but it worries me.

My dad’s musings from 1994 seem to give us permission to share his writings, however personal. What do you think? He saved this with other essays on the media.

I have mixed emotions about a journal – for myself, that is. I have, on a few occasions, kept a journal with respect to a specific event or act in which I was involved on a daily basis, or a periodic basis. I tried to record all my actions and reactions to that subject over the time that it lasted. This worked only moderately well. So long as I continued to record events as they transpired, I was okay. But then, I started to record my feelings about these events, my emotions and reactions to them, my thinking and my decision-making processes, and inevitably, I got bogged down. I found myself trying to write a book every night, and it started to overwhelm me. 

If I confined myself to what I did, what others did, and what I did in response to what they did, it worked and, in fact, became a useful resource for me. But, like I said, when I tried to record too much, it did not work.

Everybody has to work things out for himself (or herself), and a journal may very well work for you no matter how much you try to pour into it. So, consider this: Someday you’re going to be famous, and the biographers and historians will study everything you ever wrote in order to define and redefine your character. In that light, think of your journal as a public document that will disclose your most private thoughts and feelings. And act, or write, accordingly.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Harry’s scoop on newspapers, commentators

Here’s “Chapter 2” from a folder of drafts Harry filed on his computer in the 1980s and ’90s. At the time, he’d thought about writing a book on the media. We can only imagine things he would have had to say about the media today.

Chapter 2

Here’s a question I’m often asked, sometimes at cocktail parties, sometimes in serious conversations or discussions. “Harry, after reading so widely for so many years, how do you feel about the media? Are they doing a good job?”

I wish the answers could be as simple as the questions, but they’re not. My feelings about the media are somewhat ambivalent – part admiration and respect, part revulsion and contempt. I’m reminded of what Winston Churchill once said about democracy. “Democracy,” he said, “is the worst form of government imaginable – except for all the others.” Or words to that effect. He had a way of spouting nuggets like that.

Meteorologists like to say that there is no such thing as bad weather – only different kinds of weather. In a way, the same thing can be said about newspapers. None of them are all good; none of them are all bad. They are all a mixture of good and bad which, in effect, makes each one different. The National Inquirer, for example, is as different from The New York Times as the sun is from the moon. Yet, they are both newspapers, just as the sun and the moon are both heavenly bodies in our solar system. One can be described as an abomination in the media world, the other as a great purveyor of information and influence. (I leave it to you to decide which is which.) But both have their moments of greatness, and both have their moments of failure. The point is that they are very different breeds of the same cat, and the people who read them do so for different reasons. The one, perhaps, to keep up with their prejudices; the other, perhaps, to be entertained or informed. (Again, I leave it to you to decide which is which.)          

The commentator represents the top of the heap in a system that puts the ordinary reporter at the bottom. This is the “Peter Principle” at work. When a reporter displays the qualities of persistence, astuteness, acumen, etc., that make him first-rate at what he does, he is rewarded by being taken out of that field and placed in the category of pundit, or commentator. This move immediately escalates his pay schedule to astronomical proportions, and this applies both to newspapers and broadcast journalism.

But what do such pundits do to earn their high salaries? They become, in effect, parasites, feeding off the work of other journalists. They either rewrite the news that others have gathered, adding their own comments (read biases) or they have teams of writers do it for them. On a newspaper, it would be tantamount to having the rewrite man elevated to a position equal to that of the editor, with commensurate salary and prestige, and putting his own byline on all the stories.

I strongly believe that this is what has happened to many of the syndicated columnists. They have, in accordance with the Peter Principle, been elevated to the level of incompetence. Strictly as an aside, I might add, I suspect that the same sort of thing has happened in our educational system. Those who have demonstrated the highest ability as educators have been elevated to administration, the level of incompetence for them, and our educational system has suffered accordingly.

In any case, reporters must be frustrated by the so-called star system, especially in television. More often than not, a reporter – a foreign correspondent – will gather the facts of an important story from some very high-level sources overseas; but does he get to tell his story to the viewers? Usually not. Dan Rather, or Tom Brokaw, or the current reigning star (read anchorman) will tell it, on whatever network or channel you’re watching.

TV News

Television is an enormously influential medium in our country and, probably, around the world. Or so they say. Indeed, it has become somewhat of a cliché to say that the majority of the people get their news from television and, thus, television shapes the public’s perceptions of the world around them. Well, it does and it doesn’t. The problem is that there is no accurate way to measure precisely how influential it really is. In my view, its influence is a myth perpetuated by the broadcasters and the agencies that sell advertising.

To be sure, millions of people watch the news, and millions more watch major events – football games, the World Series, the Olympics, Presidential news conferences, national tragedies, etc. – and there is no better medium for conveying a sense of what is happening now, right now, live and in living color. But the day-to-day news, the nightly news programs, are watched by fewer people than watch the major event shows or the major entertainment shows. And while they get some feel for what’s going on in the world or in their local communities, anyway, the question is, do they get a real understanding of what is transpiring?

(Stay tuned for more of Harry’s media-related drafts on this blog.)

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman