Why WOSU Won’t Use The Term “Fiscal Cliff”


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Like Wile E. Coyote, if Congress goes off the "cliff", it will survive.

As the WOSU News staff knows, we have a lot of “rules”. There are the big rules : be accurate, be fair, don’t swear on the air. And there are other “rules”. One is  never to use the word “woo” unless it is followed by the word “HOO!”. “Woo” is a nice short, three character substitute for the word  ”attract” , or the phrase,” tries to convince”, but it’s a media word, a word that never occurs in normal conversation. (Did you say you wooed your partner for years? No, unless you’re a headline writer.)

That brings us to our latest rule. WOSU news reporters are banned from using the phrase, Fiscal Cliff to describe the January first deadline for automatic federal tax hikes and spending cuts. Our sources can use the term, we will quote them accurately and use soundbites that include Fiscal Cliff.  NPR and other networks will use the term, but we will not write it in our copy or read it on the air.

The reason: it’s inaccurate. We’re not trying to be rebels and buck media trends, we’re just trying to accurately describe the deficit negotiations and upcoming deadline.

Just about everyone uses the term cliff, believing if Congress and President Obama do not agree to a deficit reduction deal, the economy will plunge into recession. It could.

But unless you are Wile E. Coyote, falling off a cliff of considerable height is the end. You cannot stop, turn around and go back up. You cannot hit the bottom, generate a cloud of dust and survive, like Wile E.. You fall off a cliff, it’s the end, you die – just like Thelma and Louise.

That’s not what Congress and President Obama face. Yes, if they don’t reach a deal before the first of the year, taxes will rise. Take-home pay will shrink. The economy likely will suffer. But here’s where the term falling off a cliff, ahem, falls short. Congress and the president can change their minds. They can reach a deal in mid-January or February, and reverse some or all of the tax increases.

Fiscal Cliff is even more inaccurate when it comes to the spending cuts. Because of the cumbersome federal budget process, the mandatory 10 percent cuts to the military and other programs would not go into effect for months, giving lawmakers even more time to reach a deal.

Hardly a Thelma and Louise ending.

Fiscal Cliff is just the latest media and politically generated shorthand coined to prompt action or spin the truth. Take the term Surge, for example. When President George W. Bush chose to increase the number of troops in Iraq, his administration branded it The Surge, and the media adopted it.  Surge is a positive term, connotes deliberate action to bring about something good, a much softer way of saying we’re adding thousands troops to a war going badly. It was not a new approach. Lyndon Johnson used the term Escalation when adding troops during the Vietnam War, but when the conflict worsened, Escalation took on a negative meaning.  Because The Surge was successful in Iraq, the Obama administration was able to re-use Surge when it added troops to Afghanistan.

Cable networks, politicians and their advocates coined the term Fiscal Cliff to create tension, increase TV ratings and prompt action. Since then the term has taken on a life of its own.
But it’s no different than calling it Taxmageddon or Taxocalypse.

If there is no deal, January first is not the end of the economy, it will not plunge off a cliff to its death. It will be more like a hill, a bump, or as NPR’s Tamara Keith calls it a Fiscal Dune.

In our newsroom we’ll just call it automatic tax hikes and spending cuts.

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