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Scared Yet?

The Wall Street Journal's punctuation fetish.

There are so many things that make The Wall Street Journal editorial page a source of personal fascination--the undying faith in voodoo economics, the staunch defense of executive privilege and disdain for independent counsels during Republican presidencies alternating with disdain for executive privilege and staunch defense of independent counsels during Democratic presidencies--but perhaps the most intriguing is the wildly promiscuous use of quotation marks. Over the years, it's become an obsession of mine.

Like most of us, the Journal uses scare quotes to signify that a term is misleading. A 2007 editorial on climate change complained that "political and media activists attempt to stigmatize anyone who doesn't pay homage to their 'scientific consensus.'" As a matter of grammar, if not as a matter of fact, this is perfectly clear: The Journal believes no scientific consensus on climate change exists. Likewise, the Journal holds that tax cuts do not reduce revenue and will unfailingly scare-quote any term that implies otherwise--i.e., "The estimated 'cost' of this fix to the Treasury over 10 years would be some $632 billion."

Watch TNR editor Franklin Foer discuss this column with TNR senior editor Jonathan Chait:

The Journal also uses the device to imply skepticism about phenomena it finds ideologically inconvenient. Thus terms like "the deficit" and "inequality, " if they must appear at all on the Journal editorial page, are constantly set off in scare quotes. ("With all the political and media chatter about 'inequality' these days ...") Is there any way to read this other than as an implication that the government's books have been balanced for years and all Americans enjoy exactly the same level of income?

Other uses of scare quotes so defy convention as to suggest a novel dialect of the English language. One editorial assailed legislation that would legalize "lower-cost 'generic' copies of biopharmaceuticals." Another complained, "we can expect a spate of 'analysis' stories purporting to tell us just how much America's top executives are making." Yet another--siding with Hank Greenberg against Eliot Spitzer--sputtered, "Mr. Spitzer's Starr 'report' claimed that Mr. Greenberg had benefitted from 'self-dealing.'"

Clearly, the Journal stands against, respectively, generic drugs, news analysis about CEO salaries, and accusations against Hank Greenberg. But the scare quotes seem to imply that the Journal further believes generic drugs are not actually "generic," news analysis is not actually "analysis," and Eliot Spitzer's report was not, in fact, a "report." (Would the Journal accept the term "dossier"? "Formal statement"? "Published finding of facts"?) As for the quotes around "self-dealing," it's not clear whether the editorial was repeating a verbatim phrase from Spitzer's report--sorry, "report"--or suggesting that "self-dealing" is a mythical activity, sort of like witchcraft, concocted by anti-corporate leftists to smear business owners.

The Journal's fixation with the scare quote is one of the great journalistic marriages between medium and grammatical device. For one thing, it perfectly suits the Journal's passion for scandal-mongering. Recently, I was perusing Whitewater, Volume VI, the last in a series of a half-dozen bound collections of Journal editorials fulminating against the Clinton administration and its multitudinous sinister plots. Scare quotes, of course, can be found throughout, decorating terms like "professionals" (the staff at the Justice Department) and "unproven" (the Filegate scandal, of which the administration was later exonerated by the independent counsel).

The scare quote is the perfect device for making an insinuation without proving it, or even necessarily making clear what you're insinuating. A mundane fact--say, Paul Gigot taking a colleague to dinner--translated into Journal editorial-ese would be rendered, "Wall Street Journal editorial page 'editor' Paul Gigot recently patronized a 'legitimate business establishment' with his 'associate.'"

And scare quotes express the page's voice in a way no other writing style could. This is especially clear when, as happens from time to time, an editorial whips itself into a frenzy of scare-quoting that can be halted only by the physical limitations of the printed newspage. Consider the following passages, all of which come from a single editorial published last month:

      "Universal" government-run health care proved
      too ambitious even for FDR, who stripped it out of
      the Social Security Act of 1935.

      These private plans would then "compete" with a new
      public insurance option, i.e., a program managed by the
      government and modeled after Medicare. Lower-income
      earners would get subsidies to make
      coverage "affordable."

      The draft doesn't include an exact cost, though
      casually notes the ballpark "investment" could run
      as high as $150 billion a year.

      As for the claim that centralizing health
      spending will lead to more "efficiency"...

      [F]ederal officials will run not only the new plan but
      also the "market" in which it "competes" with
      private programs ...

Taken as a piece of straight writing, this editorial would appear to be the expression of some kind of mental disorder. But, if you read it in the spoken voice, it's not only reasonable but a perfectly apt expression of the Journal's editorial sensibility. The page's perspective is that of the business tycoon peering down disdainfully at the peons who deign to challenge him. Imagine the above passages spoken in the voice of Potter from It's a Wonderful Life ("Why don't you go to the 'riff-raff' you love so much and ask them to let you have 'eight thousand dollars'?") or the Emperor from Return of the Jedi ("From here you will witness the final destruction of the 'Alliance' and the end of your insignificant 'rebellion'").

The scare quotes also serve as a shortcut for the inattentive reader. Imagine a busy manager, quickly skimming over an editorial. He might come across a phrase like "the deficit," and suppose it's a bad thing, or "affordable" health care, and suppose it's a good thing. The scare quotes would usefully signal the appropriate response: "Affordable" health care? Bah! The downside of this practice is that it's also a shortcut for the writers, allowing them to wallow in their ideological prejudices without spelling out their empirical premises. But maybe the Journal doesn't really consider this a "downside."

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.