Suppose that another driver cut me off on the road this morning, and I had to hit my brakes to avoid a collision. Not unusual, of course; this happens to everyone, all the time. Most of us mutter some unkind epithet. But what would you think if I should describe it by saying, “My car was almost smashed to pieces this morning!” ?
Or how about if the last time I had a head cold, after I recovered I told everyone, “I almost died last week!” ?
Well, you’d call it hyperbole, of course: obvious exaggeration for rhetorical effect. Every one of us does it seventeen million times a day.
Oops; there I go again.
So, then, how about when the news media report that on Christmas day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “almost brought down a Northwest Airlines jetliner”? I’ve seen that and many similar statements in newspapers and on television news, over the last few days. But how close is “almost”? How far from actuality can we get before “almost” is inappropriate? And do we want the news media engaging in hyperbole?
To its credit, the New York Times isn’t using those sorts of characterizations. The Times tells us that “the man wanted to bring the plane down,” attributing that statement to federal officials. Saying that he wanted to do it is very different from saying that it almost happened. DHS officials say that what he had was “more incendiary than explosive,” and question “whether at the end of the day he had the ability to do” what he set out to.
Unfortunately, hyperbole sells, and many news outlets aren’t shy about that.
[Back when Richard Reid had his day, a friend of mine noted the new requirement to doff our shoes, and said it was a good thing he hadn’t tried to ignite his underwear, or we’d all be flying naked soon. Perhaps that’s turned out to be prophetic.]