Antics with Semantics

When a newspaper calls its letters section "Voice of the People," can you expect to read what readers really think? Or do editors reserve the right to interpret readers' words to comply with their own preconceptions? The answer depends on which newspaper you're reading -- and the subject of the letter. If your letter presents abortion in an unsympathetic light, your letter may well be aborted or distorted. Four newspapers received identical letters from Bill Beckman, executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee. Three of the four printed it accurately. But the fourth, and largest, changed the wording in a way that changed the meaning. Every time Beckman wrote "pro-life," the September 7 Chicago Tribune printed "anti-abortion." What's wrong with that? Aren't pro-life and anti-abortion synonyms? No, far from it! Beckman explains, "[T]he Pro-Life movement is much more than anti-abortion because we oppose any cultural expediency that views death as a solution, including euthanasia, cloning, population control, etc." He spoke of "the inconsistency of changing references to the Pro-Life movement when such a change would be unthinkable for other movements such as the equal rights movement." Columnist Dan Zanoza of the Illinois Leader adds, "[W]ould the Tribune consider changing the word 'pro-choice' to 'pro-abortion' in a letter the paper might receive from one of its readers?" He adds, "It would seem to me that a letter to the editor can be construed as a direct quote." Something attributed to John Jones should be what John wrote, not modified by an intermediary. Tribune "Voice of the People" editor Dodie Hofstetter says, "I am accused on a daily basis of being pro-this and anti-that. But I do not choose letters because they represent my sentiments, or those of the editorial board . . . I have absolutely no agenda when choosing letters about any subject -- other than trying to find a mix of interesting opinions." Well, okay. That's a noble goal. But apparently Ms. Hofstetter and her counterparts at some other publications forget: If your self-described mandate is "choosing letters," then choose them and print them. Let them be the undistorted voices of what readers really say. Why the aversion to the word pro-life? One "pro-choice" spokesperson objected to the term pro-life -- countering "What do you think we are? Pro-death?" Well, if you favor a procedure that makes a heart stop beating and brain activity cease, wouldn't an objective observer call that promoting death? Journalistic word-jockeying can dismiss a baby's kicking inside the mother's womb, saying "But it's not alive yet." People with that mindset avoid the personal pronouns he and she. If they talk about it, they can con themselves into thinking it's a "product of conception," fair game for that other euphemism termination of pregnancy. Listen, friends, we need to be clear in our language. We are not "anti-abortion" or "anti-choice." We are pro-life, pro-human dignity, pro-human rights. Of course, our opponents don't like that, but be sure your neighbors understand what we believe and that our critics don't change our words. Words matter. For further reading and information: Dan Zanoza, "Chicago Tribune shows anti-life bias," Illinois Leader. You can read Mr. Beckman's letter as printed in the Chicago Tribune (archived; costs $2.95 to retrieve). Also see Tribune public editor Don Wycliff's response to the editing of Beckman's letter (under subheading, "A matter of style"). "Dodie Hofstetter, Voice of the people editor," Chicago Tribune, 29 December 2002. Robert Knight, "L.A. Times Editor Decries Bias in Abortion Story," Concerned Women for America, 29 May 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030312, "Offending Human Dignity." BreakPoint Commentary No. 031001, "Pretty Stones and Dead Babies." BreakPoint Commentary No. 001103, "The Hidden Agenda of Choice." (Archived commentary; free registration required.) Jim Tonkowich, "Image Is Everything," a sample sermon on biotechnology. "The Case for Life," pro-life speech by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), posted on Family Research Council's website. Peter Kreeft, Three Approaches to Abortion(Ignatius, 2002). October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer has produced a brochure, "Why Aren't Women Being Told?", which explains the link between abortion and breast cancer; it's perfect for handing out to others. To receive one free copy, or 10 copies for $5, call 1-877-3-CALLBP.


Chuck Colson



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