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Minding Our Business


The Ghost of Christmas Greetings Past

Published by The State, December 30, 2005

On the third day before Christmas, as I walked into the bank, I crossed paths with a politically prominent acquaintance. Our encounter lasted but a few seconds—a handshake, a "how are you?" and an almost simultaneous exchange of good wishes.

His: "Merry Christmas." Mine: "Happy holidays."

Later, I told my wife: "Well, now he'll have me pegged for one of those PC Yankees."

Not that he would, of course. We even belong to the same church.

But we've been through the season where not only Santa's been making and checking lists. We've read the scolding opinion of a federal judge in Pennsylvania that Intelligent Design "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." In other words, intelligent design is de facto, and now de jure, the equivalent of creationism, in regard to its being taught in public schools as an alternative to science.

All this serves to remind us that words have both meaning and power. To use them loosely is to undermine their significance and effectiveness. To purposefully misuse them is to mislead and undermine our credibility.

As a journalist/educator—a redundancy, if you accept, as I do, that journalists serve to educate—words are my business. I seek to use them carefully, advisedly and within the scope of their definition.

When I hear the word "hate" used by someone in my family, I tend to admonish that "hate is a strong word" that should be used in limited and extreme situations. It should not, for example, be applied to Clemson or USC by devotees of the other school's teams. It might apply to Brussels sprouts.

It should not be applied to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, animists or atheists, for that matter. It occurred to me on Christmas Eve that hate is an extraordinarily hard word to summon while kneeling in a pew, singing "Silent Night." That's how it should be.

In the shorthand of journalism where headline space or television time is limited, we are quick to apply labels and buzz words. Somewhere in this paper, you are likely to find a story that does not quite jibe with its headline. Thin-skinned reporters (an oxymoron?) typically remind critics that someone else usually writes the headlines. Headline writers, to give each his/her due, have the extraordinary challenge of being exact and succinct. Their effort may be abetted or abused by trying to be cute or funny.

A label or characterization can be misleading. What does it mean any more to refer to a politician as "liberal" or "conservative"? Might a "liberal" in the South be more conservative than a "conservative" from the North? And who said geography has anything to do with it? Do political beliefs lie on a line with extremists at the extreme? Or is the political continuum a circle where the extremists are, painfully and even dangerously, close together?

What happens when we make a false presumption?

I participated in a conference of journalists and foreign policy experts in Morocco a few years ago where the question of peace in the Middle East was thoroughly debated. On about the third day, an Arab colleague remarked that it was good to hear the perspective of an open-minded American Jew.

"But I'm not Jewish," I responded.

"I was told you were," the Arab replied.

Did the revelation make my observations less relevant? Did we discard three days of dialogue? Never mind.

In this season when we hope for Peace on Earth and suffer with war in Iraq, President Bush was chastised by some for sending greetings for the "Holiday Season" without mentioning Christmas. The Bushes' White House card did include a verse of scripture, albeit Old Testament.

In good journalistic style, I did some research by pulling out a file of previous White House cards we'd received. Indeed, President Bush's parents wished us a "merry Christmas," but the Clintons' cards called for a "blessed holiday season." I don't recall making a distinction at the time. The pictures unmistakably showed the White House in Christmas trim.

Now we have almost a whole year ahead of us to think about this. More likely, other concerns will occupy us. The holidays ahead—Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, the Fourth of July—are, with the exception of Easter, secular events. Or do we want to quibble over the antecedents of Sts. Valentine and Patrick?

Meanwhile, have a Happy New Year—2006 or the Chinese Year of the Dog. Take your pick.


The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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