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Let's stop escalating the language -- and troop levels

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They don't like me much at Starbucks. And I can't blame them.

Those oh-so-nice, skinny, smiling, make-my-day servers are well-versed in the language of "venti, non-fat lattes." (Hold the coffee, cream and sugar, thank you.) But the word "small," uttered in Starbucks' otherwise warm and embracing confines, is enough to put a chill in the caffeinated air.

No matter. I rather enjoy my exchanges with whoever is behind the counter.

"Hi. I'd like a small coffee, please."

"Excuse me."

"A small coffee, please."

"One TALL coffee, coming up."

I mean no one comes out and says, "Hey Buster, can't you read the sign? We don't sell SMALL coffee here. We sell big, bigger and biggest."

That would be rude. But the message is clear: "Get with our program, guy."

Perhaps it's my training as a journalist that won't allow me to do this. I was schooled to say someone died, not that they passed away. That fires kill people, not that they "claim" lives. That wars do, too.

I'm curious, however, whether today's journalists are getting the same lectures about excising euphemism from their lives and copy. Judging from the news I read, I'd guess a fair number of them order a tall -- and not a small -- when they go to Starbucks.

I base this hunch on how regularly and eagerly some journalists adopt the language so carefully gift-wrapped by the White House. Examples abound, but today I'll stick with the latest, The Surge.

If you've been anywhere near any news media for the last three weeks you'll have heard all about The Surge. It's not a tsunami, not even a powerful wave machine. It refers, of course, to all those troops we're going to add to American forces in Baghdad to finally bring peace, stability and justice to Iraq.

The Surge:It sounds strong and just and American.
In truth, it is ludicrous and destructive and ultimately cynical, a plan to send another 20,000 or so U.S. troops to a country where roughly 140,000 American military personnel already are hunkered down in their Humvees, trying to stay alive while Iraqis slaughter each other and everyone else in a lawless Lord of the Flies society we helped create.

But the Bush Administration's new language, effortlessly picked up by many in the news media, makes this new "strategy" (another misnomer) seem manly and cool. It sounds sort of like a new season of that vintage TV show, Hawaii Five-0. (Get out your surf boards and get ready for the Big Wave.)

It's not. And it's way past time for reporters to stop peddling the war in language specially crafted for them by Karl Rove and company.

Perhaps a trial run at Starbucks can help them out of this wilderness of spin. And so, my fellow journalists, let me make a modest New Year's proposal. Be bold. Take the heat. Order a small at Starbucks. You'll feel better for trying. And, with practice, perhaps you'll stop writing The Surge as a euphemism for putting a bunch more soldiers in harm's way for no good reason.

 

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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.

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