There is a use of the word “failed” that really bugs me, and I get the chance to be bugged almost daily by news reports on the radio and TV and in the paper. It is in the phrase “Congress failed to pass such-and-such a bill” or “Congress failed to confirm the appointment of so-and-so to something.” Now, one might fairly say that a bill failed to pass or that someone failed to gain confirmation, or that the sponsors of a measure failed to secure sufficient support for something, but even that is more value laden than to say a bill was simply not passed or a nomination was not confirmed. But to say that Congress “failed” to pass a bill or confirm a nomination suggests that it was somehow objectively ordained that the bill was supposed to pass or the appointment was supposed to be confirmed, when what actually happened was not a failure, but just a decision, albeit a decision reached through a complex rational process. It is as if after considering buying a car and after weighing the need to replace my current one, the cost of a new one, and my other financial obligations I decide not to, my decision is reported as a “failure to buy a new car.” Why does this matter? I think it matters — a lot — because it contributes to the impression that our public institutions are failing all the time, when every time they decide an issue it is reported as a failure. And this happens at the hand of supposedly impartial and even-handed news reporters and commentators. This use of the word failure has become the common way of reporting on governmental actions. It is every bit as corrosive of public trust and the social order as the running diatribe against the government that one hears on talk radio, even if more subtle and its consequences unintended. If it is true, as has been said, that clear speaking leads to clear thinking leads to clear speaking leads to clear thinking, then the converse is certainly true that confused use of words leads to confused thinking leads to confused speaking leads to confused thinking. Those who attend Noonday prayer at St. Alban’s on Thursdays, my day to officiate, know that the additional intercession that I use most frequently is the one for Those who Influence Public Opinion, in which we pray that those who speak where many listen and write what many read may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous. (Book of Common Prayer, page 827.) May we all join in that prayer more often, and do our part to think and speak more clearly and influence others to do so.
Amen! Thank you for saying this so clearly. –Noell S.