Olivia Pope and Associates (OPA), the smartest, bravest, best-dressed crisis communications company in the nation’s capital, recently took on the sensitive topic of dog-whistle politics.
Dog-whistle politics refers to inflammatory language so coded that when the media repeats it, the insult or the perceived threat cannot be heard by the general public. Hence the term dog-whistle.
While OPA is a fictitious company in ABC’s hit television show, Scandal, the concept of dog-whistle politics is real.
In this episode when Olivia, (or Liv as her friends call her), finds herself in a salacious, high-profile sex scandal of her own, she clams up. A journalist reporting on Liv’s silence describes her as usually “so well spoken.” Sounds like a compliment, right? Not really. As one of Liv’s gladiators explains, that is a dog-whistle to professional women of color who hear it as “well-spoken … for a black woman.”
Does the media blow dog-whistles intentionally? I hope not. Yet, it often uses polarizing language unaware of the impact it has on those who hear or read it differently than the general public.
The phrase “gun control” is a dog-whistle.
For the general public who repeat it because they hear it in the media, it is just a catch-phrase meant to encompass laws and measures to keep guns out of the hands of children, the criminally insane, convicted domestic abusers, and felons.
For the paranoid Nancy Lanzas of America, it triggers an irrational fear of government control. When they hear that whistle blown, they arm up for imaginary Armageddons.
Gavin de Becker, a world-renowned security expert, ripped that dog-whistle right out of my mouth 15 years ago when he heard me blow it on-air while promoting the Million Mom March. Apparently a focus group conducted long ago shed light on how this seemingly innocent phrase impacts a particularly fragile segment of our society—gun hoarders.
Many in the media have been warned about this. For years.
Yet, they continue to use it. Why?
I am reluctant to criticize the media because most of my professional career, my job has been to promote it and the journalists who work in it. I protect them too. In real life-and-death situations. (And not the “my wife will kill me if she finds out” kind). Real ones. When Iraqi soldiers kidnapped Bob Simon and his CBS News crew during Desert Storm, I was their spokeswoman during those 40 harrowing days, publicly urging the State Department to use its diplomatic ties to find them. And, they did.
So, I respect journalists, many of whom face dangerous situations everyday. However, covering the Chamber of Commerce should not be one of them, as it was for two of the profession’s brightest and up-and-coming last August in Roanoke, Virginia.
Alison Parker and Adam Ward. Shot dead on live TV. That should be enough of a wake-up call to the profession that it inadvertently contributes to the problem.
While the dog-whistle of “gun control” makes for lively talk radio over at the EIB network, it is also deadly for America’s children who get caught in the crosshairs of congressional inaction.
The death of Aavielle Nevaeh Wakefield—the cherubic, 5-month-old Cleveland baby shot the same day as Oregon’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College—had grown men weeping on live TV.
Cleveland’s police chief cried. The Daily Beast’s Michael Daly cried. I cried too. At so many deaths and at the news tickers that crawled across America’s TVs with “cries for gun control.”
Media, wake up. Those dog-whistle words prompt speed-dialers to call their lawmakers from their basements where they are holed up with their fears, fueled by gun lobby propaganda that “Obama is coming for” their guns.
While the politics of guns in America is complicated, the wording for the solutions is not.
Academics and seasoned public health advocates replaced “gun control” long ago with “gun violence prevention,” using “GVP” for short-hand. Confused news writers should just follow their lead.
Clearly, the media understands the need for nifty acronyms when it comes to their brands. If not, on-air anchors like Brian Williams would be tripping over their tongues identifying themselves as the Microsoft National Broadcasting Company (MSNBC).
Can GVP and America’s ingrained attitudes surrounding gun ownership be discussed intelligently without blowing the dog-whistle? You bet, as demonstrated recently on the ABC comedy, Black-ish.
The episode opens with an HMS (helicopter mom on steroids) dropping off her son for a sleepover at the fictitious home of Dre and Bow.
The HMS is anxious about her son’s safety because, she explains, “in-vitro was not cheap!” She then rattles off a list of her concerns. Will her baby (now a teenager) be exposed to such hazards as peanuts? Gluten? Black mold? That HBO show, Girls?
When she brings up guns in the home, that sets up rest of the show to discuss gun safety, an important part of GVP.
If only the brilliant Black-ish writers would take a stab at the AP Stylebook—the journalistic bible that strives to bring consistent accuracy to news media writing. There must be a way to make GVP an acronym as common as, let’s say, AP?
The GVP movement has never been stronger, encompassing many organizations from the PTA to the URJ. It is time for the media to put down the dog-whistle and embrace the serious, thoughtful, sometimes painful discussions now taking place among public health advocates across America about the best ways to reduce death and injury by guns. Nothing being proposed conflicts with the Second Amendment.
Until that happens, journalists should plan on reporting the inevitable stories about baby shootings and toddlers who shoot other toddlers. Yes, that actually happens in America while Congress takes no action.
And that is the real scandal in the nation’s capital.