May 16, 2016

The purpose of this essay is to drown a political cliché: “create a firestorm of controversy.” I can’t think of any handy phrase in our political lexicon more overused than this one. In a morning’s Google search, I have found thousands upon thousands of examples on an endless series of topics, most of them dated from the last decade.

When I added the name of the combustible Mr. Trump, the numbers spiked, especially from news sites over the last year. When I assumed this was a Trump phenomenon, I added the name Hillary and found a surprising number of examples.

I am no critic of the press in this election cycle. I have witnessed great work, especially in the exacting discipline of fact-checking the false claims of candidates and advocates. But I will say this: that the shocking overuse of “firestorm” and “firestorm of controversy” says something bad about our current political discourse and the news coverage that follows it.

Rather than thoughtful nuanced reporting on the issues, it suggests that certain journalists have turned themselves into firestorm trackers. Where journalists were once oversensitive to gaffes, they now seem more intent on following the angry reaction or defense of those gaffes, especially through social media like Twitter.

Having just written an essay on the power of understatement in writing, I recognize that the firestorm syndrome is the opposite: unmitigated hyperbole as a way of heating up coverage. It’s the journalist or commentator as carnival barker: “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and watch the amazing firestorm of controversy….”

Of course, conflict is a classic news value. Journalism scholars and teachers, such as Melvin Mencher, list it along with values such as timeliness, proximity, currency, prominence, impact, and the bizarre. So, yes, please report on conflict. But try to do it in context, and hold the hype. The ubiquity of “firestorm” devalues its original meaning. More significant: its abuse is a substitute for thinking, a barrier to originality.

Cliches come and go. In the 1970s I noticed television news reporters talking about medical examiners or rescue workers going through the rubble “performing their grim task.” I actually heard that one recently in tornado disaster coverage, but it reminded me that it has mostly faded away. “The dream became a nightmare” still pops up but not with as much currency as it seemed to have a decade or so ago.

When you watch and read as much news as I do, you begin to notice the repetition. In the current cycle of political coverage “firestorm” was everywhere, spreading like…oy!…pick your own metaphor. So I Googled “firestorm.”

Little did I know that Firestorm was the name of a D.C. Comics superhero, capable of flying and absorbing radiation. From their website:

“All of us have a little voice in our heads that helps us make wise decisions—at least when we’re willing to listen to it. But if your voice belongs to an antisocial, student bookworm complaining about getting to chemistry class on time, you’re probably the combustible hero known as Firestorm.”

The Wikipedia entry that came up dealt with the physics of firestorms:

“A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest bushfires and wildfires. Although the word has been used to describe certain large fires, the phenomenon’s determining characteristic is a fire with its own storm-force winds from every point of the compass.”

In unscientific language, a firestorm, unlike other kinds of fires, is one that feeds and sustains itself for a time, rather than burning itself out.

OK, I get it. That definition might indeed apply as a metaphor for the debate over a particular political or social controversy. The “wind system” that keeps it burning is the chatter of candidates, pundits, and partisans on the air and in social media. Fair enough.

But that implies that the users of the metaphor understand its origin and nature. Not a single person I’ve asked could offer a persuasive definition.

So I refined my search, using a phrase rather than a word, in a variety of tenses:

  • “Create (or created) a firestorm”
  • “Create (or created) a firestorm of controversy”
  • “Ignited (or sparked) a firestorm of controversy”

Here are some examples, among thousands, that turned up high in the search:

These few examples reveal some things about the attractiveness of “firestorm.” The first is utility: the phrase can be use to describe an inexhaustible supply of controversies in politics, business, science, and popular culture. The second, as in the last example, enables a writer burdened with jargon reaching for something that will enliven the prose.

I revised the search again to “Trump created a firestorm of controversy.”

The effect was like the sound of hitting a huge slot-machine jackpot at an Atlantic City casino. (That, by the way, is what a decent creative image looks like.) “Donald Trump is facing a firestorm of protests after his controversial comments about Sen. John McCain’s war record.” “Donald Trump ignites online firestorm with controversial remarks “In Iowa later that night, Trump touched off a further firestorm when pressed by NBC News…

The Hill: “Trump’s call to punish women for illegal abortions sparks firestorm

The Blaze (appropriately named) “Donald Trump ignites online firestorm with controversialremark on eminent domain “Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump created a firestorm of
controversy with his comments about Mexican illegal immigrants….”

I would expect better from a scholar like Jonathan Turley, but here he goes on his website: “Trump created a firestorm in announcing his candidacy on June 16…

We get it, Donald Trump is not the Great Uniter. He’s the Great Igniter.

Almost as an afterthought, I refined the search to include Hillary Clinton. You guessed it: Dick Morris: “FBI report will create firestorm against Hillary “…thought the press conference would end the firestorm over theemails…

BuzzFeed, via “The editor who created a firestorm Tuesday when he revealed information about a Hillary Clinton speech is speaking out.”

Enough is enough. Have fun and do your own search. What becomes curious in such searches becomes ludicrous when you see the overuse.

As evidence on why this abuse of language matters, I offer as an expert witness Mr. Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argues that language abuse and political abuse exist in a vicious cycle and can be found in the words of all political parties.

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language [in 1946]. It become ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Orwell describes the evidence of language use in his time. One category is the “dying metaphor,” another phrase for cliché. He lists a “huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” He includes as examples: take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, Achilles’ heel, swan song, and hotbed.

If he worked down the hall from me, I bet old Eric would add our “firestorm” to this list.

In the hands of what he calls “tired hacks” language loses it humanity and particularity: “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases…one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.”

What should writers do? We’ll start with Orwell:

  1. Don’t use a phrase or image that you are used to seeing in print (or hearing on the air).
  2. Now me:

  3. If you can’t find a better image than the tired one, write it straight.
  4. The occasional cliché is OK (I am fond of “the fleas come with the dog”), but watch for those places where they pile up. Don’t turn writing, using another Orwell image, into an act of fitting together the pieces of a “prefabricated henhouse.” (Good image, George!)
  5. Show, don’t tell. What was the evidence that led you to the tired phrase? Maybe you can avoid “firestorm” by reporting in detail the elements of conflict.
  6. Remember that the first step toward sobriety is admitting that you have a problem. Make a personal pledge to avoid “firestorm,” or join a club to see how many times you can get it in the paper.
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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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