COMMENTS: Look out for a new TV news euphemism for dealing with racism

TV news often uses the word "powerful" to introduce an image or a soundbite or a story that delivers special resonance. "Powerful" frequently promises to display heightened emotion…but it may also refer to delivering extra rhetorical punch, or striking a chord of authenticity, or triggering a touchy cultural controversy. It is a way of advertising strength of impact — yet offering neither endorsement nor refutation of the underlying sentiment.

Such routine use of the word turns out to be a redundancy. Any item that rises to the level of being interesting enough to deserve to take up time during a nightly newscast must, by definition, be especially resonant, or emotional, or vivid, or authentic, or controversial. Thus in the routine run of news "powerful" means little more than "newsworthy."

However, the news in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day has been anything but routine. Coverage of the street protests — and of the underlying police abuses that they are responding to — has meant that the mainstream network nightly newscasts have had to confront whether to name directly a phenomenon that has hitherto been taboo. The decision has to be made: whether the longstanding preference to refer to "race relations" or "racial frictions" in society must now be replaced with the more forthright (and to many ears, more accusatory) term "systemic racism".

So the term "Powerful" comes to the rescue. It has taken on a specialized extra meaning as the euphemism that is used to refer to speech that directly acknowledges that society's problem is one of racism.

So ABC World News Tonight on Tuesday referred to the sermons at George Floyd's funeral as "Powerful Messages." CBS Evening News on Wednesday referred to a white airline executive reading White Fragility by Robin Diangelo as having had a "Powerful Conversation" with an African-American flight attendant. NBC Nightly News on Tuesday described the statement to his troops by Gen Charles Brown, the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force who happens to be African-American, on the racist history of the USAF history as a "Powerful Message."

Watch out for "Powerful". Nowadays it is a euphemism for someone who names systemic racism forthrightly without euphemism. Thus TV news can acknowledge the strength of the impact of referring to racism...while still sitting on the fence about the veracity of its underlying systemic diagnosis.


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