Thursday, December 31, 2009



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.

bombSo, 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.]


Thomas J. Brown said...

Hyperbole is the greatest!

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Nonsense! Hyperbole is the most dire threat our society has faced since World War Two. By saying otherwise Mr. Brown is playing into the hands of Al Qaeda, and worse!

The Ridger, FCD said...

Exactly. Your words are truer than true!

Kerstin said...

Have just seen an article that the new body scanners are not going to show certain body parts in detail...ah, yes, and let me guess where the next idiot is going to stick his explosives??? So, my prediction is that in a few years someone will poke around those certain areas with their fingers before you are allowed to fly. All fine and in the interest of safety, of course. Happy 2010!