Weasel Words: The Lexicon of TV Pundits (But Not Exclusively)


Arthur Solomon - Weasel Words: The Lexicon of TV Pundits (But Not Exclusively)Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

Depending upon which dictionary you use, a weasel will be defined as “sneaky or untrustworthy,” (Meriram-Webster); “achieve something by use of cunning or deceit,” (Oxford Living Dictionaries); or “a word  used “to temper the forthrightness of a statement; that makes one’s views equivocal, misleading or confusing,” (Dictionary.com).

Perhaps the most insidious use of weasel word language is by politicians who say one thing about their legislation stances during media interviews and then vote another way in committees or when legislation is brought to a vote.

Weasel words and phrases are a way of life in America, especially if you are in position of power. They are also part of the lexicon of individuals who make their living by commissions and by those in the communication business, like PR people and advertising agencies.

In our world, which includes the media, the weasel word language is most closely associated with the cable networks’ political shows, their pundits and some hosts.

Weasels have their own language, which I call “weasel speak,” used by cable pundits, who are introduced by anchors as analysts, but in reality base their opinions on the stories broken by investigative and beat reporters of major U.S. dailies and magazines.
In fact, virtually all the cable TV political shows mainly base their content on what has been reported by major print pubs, led by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. And too often, weasel words are used to convey the impression that it was the cable reporters who broke the stories.

A few examples:

  • “CNN is learning”. (From the N.Y. Times?)
  • “MSNBC can now confirm the story.” (From The Washington Post?)
  • ‘We have learned.” (From the Associated Press?)
  • On March 13, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd led off his program with, “State Department officials told NBC News that”….re Rex Tillerson’s firing, giving the impression that it was new information even though it was rehashed since early that morning.
  • And on April 10, Katy Tur, on MSNBC’s daily MTP program, led off with, “Sources are telling us,” regarding Trump’s response to the FBI investigation of the president’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, giving the impression that it was “breaking news,” even though the same information had been reported on other platforms for more than a day.
  • Both MSNBC and CNN are guilty of weasel wording throughout the day by announcing “Breaking News,” when there is none.
  • But, perhaps, the worst offender of weasel wording is Fox News Channel, which for decades used “Fair and Balanced” as its motto. (Since it dropped that mendacious motto, it now should be replaced with, “Untruthful and Untrustworthy.”)

The most current bogus weasel word statements by TV pundits are when they decry talking about the seedy allegations against Trump and moan, “Why are we talking about this when there are so many important subjects?” Answer: They’re talking about it because they want to. Easy Solution: Stop talking about it.

Weasel Words: The Lexicon of TV Pundits (But Not Exclusively)(There are also semi-weasel words and statements that are in the regular lexicon of cable TV pundits and some reporters: How many times have you heard a pundit say, “the optics are bad,” “playing to his base,” and “wave election” — words and phrases used when the pundits have to pretend they are experts, without providing actual stats and other facts to back up their mostly trite and flawed opinions. Remember their Clinton ‘wave election” statements, among others; how Trump will not act so outrageous if he is elected; and how Jared and Ivanka will bring a moderating influence to the White House? The current popular in “weasel” expression by the cable set is, “This (act) might have crossed the president’s red line,” certainly a factless, newsless statement that has no place on a newscast – unless it’s a cable TV show. Unlike print reporters who have to be precise and explain in clear language what they write about, TV pundits also use expressions like, “There’s no there there,” instead of explaining why they think “there’s no there there,” and “blue wave,” which are the pundits pre-midterm election expressions of the year – thus far.)

When I was a novice reporter on my first important assignment, a “kindly old copy editor” told me, “Write without using inside baseball terms or other jargon. I want to see copy that a person reading about this for the first time will be able to understand.” (Why don’t TV pundits speak like that, without using inside politics expressions and weasel words? Edward R. Murrow, Water Cronkite, William Buckley and Bill O’Reilly were able to make their points without resorting to inside baseball terms or weasel words.)

TV pundits also give the impression that they are Renaissance people instead of just weasel word experts. At a moments notice, they opine on subjects including economics, cooking, social matters, foreign trade, Mickey Mantle and Donald Duck. (Give them a subject and they have the answers, resembling too many people in our business who feel they have the solution to all client problems, based on their recently being a communications school graduate.) 

Of course, the world of punditry is not limited to TV political shows. Politicians and their spokespeople are gifted or tarnished (you decide) in the use of weasel words and phrases.

A few examples:

  • “Americans Want.” When a politician supports a policy without having enough data to be specific about the percentage of Americans supporting the claim.
  • “We will take that under advisement.” When responding to a question that a politician would rather not answer.
  • Politicians who squeaked to victory in their campaigns now know what “all Americans Want.” (At least in their minds.)
  • White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee (Fake News, Jr.) Sanders opened up Pandora’s Box during a press briefing by revealing that “arbitration was won in the president’s favor,” acknowledging for the first time that there was a connection between the president and porn actress Stormy Daniels. Sanders now responds to questions about the saga by using the often used weasel phrase, “We addressed this extensively and I don’t have anything else to add,” which, in this case is akin to the trite phrase, “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

For those of you who “invest in America” by gambling in the stock market, I suggest reading an important story about financial pundits in the March 10-11 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Headlined, “Be Wary Of Market Forecasters,” the article told how nobody knew that March 9, 2009, would be the beginning of one of the great bull markets in history. In fact, on that day, the Journal ran a story with the headline, “Dow 5000? There’s a Case for It.”

Then on March 26 in the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed titled “A Guide to TV’s ‘Fall’ Season,” about financial pundits, advisors and analysts on TV, detailed how little they know. It was written by Dennis Kneale, who worked at the Journal for 16 years and was managing editor of Forbes for nine years before becoming a CNBC anchor. The article advised long-term investors not to be influenced by cable news pundits and guests. (While Mr. Kneale’s column was about financial TV, my advice is not to take any cable pundits predictions or analysis opinions seriously, regardless of their so-called area of expertise. The history of punditry shows that just because a person has an open mike or is opining in a TV studio doesn’t mean what they say is correct.)

A prime example of TV stock market punditry occurred on March 22, 2018, when during a huge stock market selloff an advisor on CNBC was optimistic about the markets. When he was asked to be specific and name one or two stocks, he said, “I won’t go into names but I would say in this environment it’s important to know what you own but it’s also important to know what you don’t own and why.” (Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it better if he tried.) 

Weasel words also are used in other segments of American business:

A few examples:

  • Buying inexpensive “used cars” is no longer possible. Americans now have to buy expensive “pre-used” cars.
  • In many businesses the once lowly workers have mutated into associates or partners, but with no change in authority or, more important, pay
  • Perhaps the most long-lived and nonsensical weasel word response is that issued by corporate America when it reaches a financial settlement with the Feds for regularity wrong doing. The standard statement is, “We neither admit or deny guilt,” whatever that means. (Of course, to be objective, we must admit that our business, public relations, and its senior kin, advertising agencies, have embraced weasel wording forever.)

The theatrical and movie industries have always been users of weasel wording.

     A few examples:

  • For years, Broadway producers have taken one good line from a critics poorly reviewed show and used it in advertisements to mislead theater goers who didn’t read the entire review.
  • Also,” mezzanine” has replaced the world “balcony” in theaters, even though the locations of the seats haven’t changed. (But climbing up the stairs to the upper level seats in theaters still exists.)
  • Movie producers prove that straight forward English can be used as weasel wording. Viewers are often informed with the disclaimer that, “The following is based on a true incident,” when in reality any resemblance to facts are in the mind of the script writers and producers. (Weasel wording in entertainment advertising is nothing new. But it might have reached a low not seen since the days of P.T. Barnum or since Donald John Trump decided to run for office, when a full page add praising the 2018 revival of “Carousel” appeared in the April 15 New York Times. The show, which received mixed reviews, including a less than positive one in the Wall Street Journal, resorted to using glorious quotes from the past, including those of Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times drama critic, who died in 1984; Richard L. Coe of the Washington Post, who died in 1995; and John Chapman, critic for the New York Daily News, who died in 1972. (Writer’s Note: prior to joining the corporate world of Burson-Marsteller, I worked on several election campaigns and on dozens of Broadway and off-Broadway productions. I am still a proud member of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. Thus, I feel I’m qualified to say that I feel the current revival is disappointing, unusual for a show with such great music.)

Those of us who have played in the communications circus for more than a few years remember when actors were outfitted in white coats to give the impression that they were doctors, expounding the benefits of smoking, until the Feds prohibited this devious deception.

But the deceptions still exists:

  • Now athletes are being used to endorse products by marketers and ad agencies, as if the hawkers are experts about the wares.
  • PR firms extend this less than forthright practice by using spokespeople (including actors, athletes and hired gun talent) to promote any product that gives the pretending experts a paycheck.
  • And weasel ads using georgous eye candy models tell women how they can look like them if they buy certain products. (Missing from the messaging is that having good genes and plastic surgery might be necessary. TV stations also permit weasel wording commercials that say eat the food and lose the weight, without any scientific details being mentioned. And in commercials that require qualifying information, the details are televised or spoken so fast that it’s impossible for a person to read or understand the disclaimers.)

Pressure groups, from the left and right, also are experts in using weasel words to change the English language.

          A few examples:

  • The phrase “illegal immigrants” is now considered a slur. “Undocumented immigrants” is the politically correct terminology.
  • “Mainstream media” has been used by right wing politicians and pundits as a code word indicating slanted liberal reporting for decades. (But as a person who joined the PR business only after New York City print pubs that I worked on as a reporter and editor ceased publishing, I know there were always more conservative newspapers and columnists than liberal-leaning ones. I know this because one of my entry level jobs was to scan the dozens of out-of-town exchange newspapers every day for story ideas. Even in liberal-leaning New York City during my newspaper days there were more editorially conservative newspapers than liberal ones.)
  • “Fascist” is now the preferred word by far left groups that disagree with conservative policies.
  • “Socialists” or “radical” have long been the preferred words by right wingers to describe liberal policies.
  • Weasel words can also be bi-partisan: Conservatives use the word ‘leftist” and “Republican in name only” to describe both Democratic and Republian politicians and journalists who oppose Trump.
  • Of course, the most famous weasel expression of the last few years is “fake news,” which is used instead of providing facts to refute media stories the president and his supporters don’t like; “witch hunt” is a close second, with the phrase “false impeachment charges” creeping up.

Because I’ve been hard on TV pundits for many years, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t admit that the pundits were correct about a major prediction the great majority of them made after Roger Ailes was terminated by Fox. To paraphrase, the pundits said, “Now that Murdock’s sons will have more clout, we’ll see a more balanced, less inflammatory programming on Fox.”(Oops. On second thought, I don’t have to apologize, do I?)


About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr@juno.com 



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