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Published:March 20th, 2006 17:08 EST
Bafflegab and the Elephant in the Room

Bafflegab and the Elephant in the Room

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Bafflegab is the language of elitists expressing their contempt for the hoi polloi. As a journalist, it’s your job to make sure they don’t get away with it. Every profession breeds its own jargon. That’s useful and understandable. But when a professional hides behind jargon you can be sure he’s concealing one of two things, and usually both: 1) his contempt for the rest of us, and 2) a failure to grasp his own discipline well enough to translate its tenets into common language.

You can test this premise in several ways. Read the most famous legal documents. They’re invariably the ones that eschew legalese. Read the best speeches, like the Gettysburg Address. They’re invariably the simplest. The problem for the journalist starts early. The tax assessor starts talking about ad valorum taxation. You either get him to translate it into Anglo-Saxon English or he flummoxes you and you pass your confusion along to the reader. Or then there’s the town council president who prefaces all his chats with you by saying, It’s really very complicated. Yeah sure, and if you believe that he’s got a bridge to sell you. It’s his job to uncomplicate it.

It’s his job to explain things to the people who voted for him. Don’t be afraid to tell him so. On the other hand, don’t be a smart aleck. Good reporting is hard work. You’ve got to do your homework. You’ve got to know things so cold that you can explain them to somebody who knows nothing about them. And that means that you can’t just ask an expert and then report what he says.

You have to ask yourself if you understand what he said. You will meet testy people who don’t want to take time to explain things. You will meet people who are covering up things. You will meet people who stonewall you and others who are suspiciously accommodating. You have to sort them out. Nothing will help you more than instilling in yourself a passion for the record.

For example, when a town’s fire department wants to buy a truck the firemen draw up specifications and then they advertise those specs for bid. A fire truck is a big ticket item. If you’re a good reporter and you’re on the police/fire beat, you’ll read those specs. You won’t understand them. So you ask the fire chief to explain them, right?

Well, maybe not. Maybe you had better call a fire chief in the next state. Why? Because specs are often drawn up to preclude certain bidders. In other words, they’re rigged. How does that work. Well, suppose the fire department wants an American La France truck, but town ordinances require that it seek bids from all manufacturers of fire trucks, like Ford. So the department draws up the specs so that Ford can’t possibly satisfy them. Ford won’t snitch, because they don’t want to make waves. But it defeats the purpose of competitive bidding laws. And there is always the chance that a little funny money has passed under the table from a potential bidder to someone in the department. A bit paranoid? Good reporters are a lot paranoid.

Let’s look at another situation. A lawyer for the city draws up specs for bids for title insurance for school properties. You talk to the lawyer and you think you know all about title insurance. So far so good. You’re not blessed with a little birdy who asks you why a city’s school department needs title insurance when the city can exercise the right of eminent domain. But if you had done your homework, the chances are that somewhere along the line someone would have said, Hey, what do they need title insurance for? It’s not private property.

So then you ask yourself who gains when the city spends money on insurance it doesn’t need. Well, the next obvious question is why didn’t the city lawyer tell the schools they don’t need the insurance. Could it be he sells a little title insurance on the side? This kind of stuff doesn’t walk into your office off the street. Well, maybe sometimes somebody with an ax to grind will tip you off, but usually you have to dig. What is title insurance? Who needs it? How much does it cost? Do other school systems have it?

Now here’s where it gets dicey. This whole issue probably came as a routine matter at the end of a long contentious meeting of the school board. The chairman probably said, Oh, before we adjourn, I’d like to take care of a little detail.... So was the chairman in on the scam? You probably left that meeting thinking the little detail wasn’t even worth reporting, whereas in reality it was the most important thing on the agenda.

Most controversies politicians don’t want are introduced as little details. It’s your job to make sure they don’t get away with it. Bafflegab is a disease. It’s very hard to inoculate the public against it. It’s used to hide things, to hornswoggle people who, if they understood what’s going on, might not like it. But there are other ways to get over on the public. I’ll call one of them the elephant in the room. How many times have you studied a story about a wage dispute between workers and management? It probably hasn’t occurred to you that there is almost always something missing, an elephant in the room.

You’ve reported on what management said. You’ve even looked at their quarterly and annual reports. You may even have interviewed a Wall Street industry analyst. You’ve dutifully reported labor’s side. You’ve talked about such matters as cost of living, benefits, pensions, wage stagnation, taxes, foreign competition, globalization. What could there be that you missed? How about a red-hot debate about defining a moral profit margin in the era of globalization? How about asking some clergymen who inveigh week after week about abortion, family values and stem cell research, whether they’ve given any thought to the concept of corporate greed, greed being one of the seven deadly sins, whereas abortion and stem cell research are notably absent from that list?

And who would you ask? A Harvard Business School ethicist maybe? Warren Buffett? Why not? They’re fair game? Moral of the story: always ask yourself if there’s an elephant in the room.