'Talking Points' and the Legacy Media's Partisan Agenda

The first known use of the term “talking point” was in 1914. Early on, the term had none of the political charge that we associate with the concept today.  Instead, a “talking point” was simply a means to enhance the communication of a message: in preparing an oral presentation, the speaker noted specific ideas that the audience must know or accept. An effective speaker ensures that those ideas are stated succinctly and clearly, often repeating them in order to emphasize their importance.

But over the second half of the twentieth century, the term “talking point” was increasingly used as a derogative in public political discourse. Today, the term is more common than ever: tune into MSNBC or Fox News on any day and you will likely hear someone deriding someone else for “parroting talking points.” Just this week, in responding to the Republican National Committee chairwoman’s suggestion that superdelegates would sabotage the Sanders campaign at a brokered convention, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile told her to “go to hell” and accused her of using “Russian talking points.” It may seem that a careful definition of very basic, common phrases like this one is unnecessary. And yet, in its political usage, the term “talking point” carries much rhetorical baggage.

So, what do people mean when they charge their opponent with rehearsing talking points? A careful analysis of a variety of statements in which the term has been deployed allows a rhetorical description of the phrase. Perhaps its most basic feature is the insinuation that the claim in question is one that is deliberately repeated. Hearkening back to the original usage of the phrase, its political usage also implies that the speaker has planned her response to a given line of inquiry. Thus, resorting to a “talking point” suggests that the speaker’s message is inauthentic or suspect: audiences are warned that the speaker strategically prepared for this communication.

Statements that are labelled “talking points” also tend to give voice to information that is inconvenient in that it challenges a narrative that the accuser seeks to advance. A related characteristic is that the label of “talking point” is meant to call into question the veracity of the statement. But is the “talking point” true? It may be true or untrue -- the important thing is that calling it a talking point suggests that since the speaker supposedly has an “agenda,” the audience should be skeptical of the evidence cited to support it. Insinuating that someone is using talking points is an attempt to negatively predispose the audience to the accused speaker.  Finally, it must be noted that accusing an opponent of repeating a talking point is a strategic means to dismiss the claim in question -- there is the implication that mere “talking points” require no response except to identify them as such.

To sum up, charging someone with rehearsing talking points is an implicit way to manipulate that speaker’s audience, contest the veracity of his claims, and avoid the unpleasant business of responding to them. In short, accusing someone of relying on talking points is a dirty rhetorical trick. And given the increasing reliance on this trick in public discourse, it is important to scrutinize its usage. Who is accusing people of using talking points? Who is being accused of parroting talking points? What sorts of claims are labelled as such?

There are a number of ways that one could begin to answer these questions, but I began the process by analyzing the New York Times’ usage of the term along with a few of its variations. Using the search function on the paper’s website, I tracked instances of “talking point,” “Republican talking point,” “Democratic talking point,” “right-wing talking point,” and “left-wing talking point.” The usage totals for each of those terms was interesting in their own right. But if you search for when those terms are used, some interesting trends start to emerge. I searched for the occurrences of the terms over the course of the four most recent presidential administrations: Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump (when viewing Trump’s totals, bear in mind that we are looking at three years of data versus eight years for the other presidents).

First (In Figure 1), a depiction of the uses of the basic term “talking point” in the paper, by presidential administration. If the paper’s usage rate of the term during the Trump presidency holds (assuming a 2020 victory), then the graph seems to suggest that the New York Times tends to use the phrase slightly more often during Republican administrations. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the paper is disproportionately dismissing what might be framed as Republican “talking points.” The references in Figure 1 could also be uses of the term to frame Democratic claims as “talking points.” Further, some of these instances may be nonpolitical uses of the term. So, it seems as though these trends are pretty benign.


But as we drill down into the explicitly partisan uses of the term, as depicted in Figures 2 and 3, the troubling trends are much more apparent.  Figure 2 represents the paper’s usage of the partisan terms over the course of four administrations in the U.S. section of the paper only.


Finally, Figure 3 depicts the usage of the partisan terms over the four administrations throughout the paper as a whole.


As Figures 2 and 3 indicate, the New York Times clearly thinks that Republicans (and those on the right) are consistently and significantly more prone to rehearsing “talking points” than Democrats and those on the left. Further, if current trends hold, the data suggest that the paper is more likely to identify Republican and right-wing talking points when a Republican holds the White House. Interestingly, the references to Democratic and left-wing talking points also increase during Republican administrations, but generally, there are still great disparities in the raw numbers of Republican and Democratic talking points, with Republicans significantly more likely to be accused of using them.

Readers may be rolling their eyes -- we clearly don’t need a few graphs to show the political bias of the Times. However, given the rhetorical functions of the term (manipulating the speaker’s audience, contesting the veracity of his claims, and avoiding a response), one can imagine how the Times (as the nation’s largest newspaper) might influence public perceptions of ideas and speakers on right. And if the Times’ usage of these terms reflects a wider trend in print media and television, we see that the concept of the “talking point” can serve as a subtle tool for directing public deliberation on issues that are important for American democracy.

The mainstream media is becoming increasingly partisan and opposed to conservative values and ideas. While it is important that media consumers pay careful attention to the ways that news outlets characterize Republican stances on the issues, but they must also be attuned to the ways that they characterize political discourse itself. Although media bias may be intuitively recognized by conservative readers and viewers, people sympathetic to the left’s agenda can easily dismiss charges of bias if our evidence is merely an intuitive response to news reporting. Documenting the bias and compiling data is key, if only so that our assertions regarding media bias aren’t hastily dismissed as “talking points.”

Adam Ellwanger is a rhetorician and associate professor at the University of Houston – Downtown. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him at adamellwanger@gmail.com

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