Regular Reader Carl P. sends along this thought-provoking Editor & Publisher editorial about what writer Ralph Keyes refers to as Retrotalk and how journalists who use same tend to lose contact with a major portion of their audiences.
You know, the folks who aren’t as old as dirt.
Or as I am.
When a Minneapolis Star Tribune article included the line, “And by the way, have you stopped beating your wife?” many readers wondered why the paper would pose such an off-the-wall question. (Lawyers have long considered it a classic query that can’t be answered without self-incrimination.) Making sense of the many verbal fossils in our lexicon requires familiarity with events that left behind a linguistic residue. We don’t all have that familiarity. As The Miami Herald‘s Leonard Pitts once discovered, “Everyone knows that” can be a risky assumption. Pitts’ editor, who grew up in a home without television, challenged his reference to Mayberry in a column. Wouldn’t readers wonder, “Where’s that?” she asked about the iconic small-town setting of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Retrotalk is ubiquitous among journalists of a certain age. By using it they set themselves apart from those born in the last three or four decades. On “Meet the Press,” New York Times columnist David Brooks said about Hillary Clinton, “In the first debate she’s Emily Post, now she’s Howard Beale,” referring to the late etiquette maven and the angry protagonist of the 1976 movie “Network.” In a recent column Brooks wrote, “And not to get Rod McKuen on you or anything …” Say what? Inquiring younger minds want to know.
Last year, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel called a press conference amid speculation that he would announce his intention to run for president, then said only that he was reviewing his options. Washington Post writer Dana Milbank called Hagel’s event “the political equivalent of Geraldo opening Al Capone’s vault,” alluding to Geraldo Rivera’s 1986 discovery on live television that this vault was empty. Post columnist Eugene Robinson later said on “Meet the Press” that if Hillary Clinton were to not only speak at a black church but eat there as well, “it could be a kind of reverse ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’” (referencing the 1967 movie).
Falling back on retro-references this way can give press coverage the flavor of a private conversation among those born before 1960. The implicit message to younger readers seems to be: Hey, if you don’t know what we’re talking about, maybe you should butt out. Haven’t you got some twittering to do?
The Times is a citadel of retrotalk, on its Op-Ed page especially. Columnist Frank Rich once commented that George W. Bush had “a slight, almost Chauncey Gardiner quality,” referring to Peter Sellers’ simple-minded character in the 1979 movie “Being There.”
The Queen of Retrotalk is Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Dozens of examples I’ve harvested from her columns include “Nosey Parker,” “Ma Barker,” “Norma Desmond,” “Palin’s Imelda Marcos moment” and “Hillary’s inner Eve Harrington.” To describe how it felt to drive through Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and see no women on the streets, Dowd invoked a “Rod Serling–type feeling.”
Perhaps such news coverage should include a warning label: “If you’re under 40, certain references may need to be Googled.”
This is something of which I am often guilty. In my defense, I do try to link to Wiki or some other source which explains the reference for all you young whippersnappers.
But I think it is indicative of a much greater issue that the aging of the commentariat. I suggest that our culture died a sad and lonely death at some point late in the last century and we are left only with references to what came before to put things into some sort of perspective.
As we say around here….