Immediate Rhetoric

Recently I read newspaper stories that included the following sentences: : “Messages left with a spokesperson were not immediately returned.” “Officials in the White House had no immediate response.”

Arguably, we’re not intended to read such sentences word for word. Instead, the whole sentence becomes a “sign,” which signals that people working for the newspaper tried to get more information from a source but were not able to get the information, and which may also signal the implication that the spokesperson, official, company, or celebrity [you get the idea] has something to hide and that, therefore, news actually exists.

My favorite parody of this second signal occurred eras ago on the Mary Tyler Moore show, when local news-word-speaker Ted said that the Minneapolis TV station had called the White House about something and been rebuffed. Ted adopts the anchorperson’s most grave expression (with makeup), looks into the camera, drops the voice an octave, and asks, “Something to hide, Mr. President?”

When we do read sentences including the “immediate” rhetoric, we may note that they’re inaccurate. That is: Of course the messages weren’t returned, and indeed the writer probably meant to write that no one called, emailed, texted, or visited in response to messages. The writer did not really want his or her message to be returned (“She wrote upon it: ‘Return to Sender”).

Or, in the second case, the writer meant that no one in the executive branch had yet answered a question asked—but “yet” is the issue, not “immediate.” Indeed, because of the way time seems to work, an immediate response may not have been possible. How about, “Officials had no eventual response”? Even more taciturn: “No word yet.”

Channeling Orwell, we should care about such apparently trivial mistakes only because it is, arguably, in our interest to care about precision. Of course, every one of us makes such errors of imprecision frequently in speech and writing. In casual speech, there’s probably no call or cause to correct the error, which may not even be recognized as an error by our interlocutor, who understands almost immediately that we really didn’t mean “immediately.”

In writing, revision and editing often allow the correction. In journalism, that’s what editors—of the managerial and copy types—are for. Or is it time now to say “were for”? Most habitual readers of newspapers have noticed the erosion of precision (if that implied metaphor works), as newspapers have declined financially.

With regard both to professional and amateur (such as this one) blogs, do we even expect such precision? I am paraphrasing what a colleague observed not long ago when he wrote, “Writers revise; bloggers move on to another post.

Readers also move on, as well they should, sometimes more quickly than writers and bloggers, partly because readers may have the attitude, “Who has time to read informational sentences with care?” Or: “Who cares?” Orwellites care. Sometimes.

A broader issue with regard to “immediate rhetoric” is the extent to which media and politicos almost constantly need—or behave as if they needed—to create a sense of heightened immediacy bordering on the emergent, the urgent, or even the crucial. Hence “This just in,” “We have breaking news,” “If you just joined us,” “Let us bring you up to date (speed) on the crisis in . . .” and Fatherland Security’s infamous color-coded “levels” of emergency—all part of the Tom Ridge Revue.

Apparently our rhetorical, political, and economic role is to have an immediate response—such as ceasing to listen?


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