BROOKE GLADSTONE: In life, a rose by any other name will smell as sweet. But in politics, an old sneaker can smell like a rose, if you convince people, with the help of the media, to call it a rose. Politicians have used words to inspire and seduce since the dawn of nations. Consider the very phrase "Social Security." That program had detractors, but the soothing sibilance of social security was music to a nation mired in Depression. Back then, the story goes, members of Congress toyed with the phrase "Economic Security." But, no. Social Security was best.
MICHAEL TANNER: From the very beginning, the whole Social Security debate has been caught up in the use of language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's Michael Tanner of the Libertarian Cato Institute. He helped shape President Bush's plan to change the program and the language to sell it. Once, he liked the phrase "private accounts" to describe part of that plan, but now the president and much of the media say "personal accounts." Tanner says Franklin Roosevelt was just as conscious of the power of words.
MICHAEL TANNER: Go back even more sort of Orwellian to the Federal Insurance Contribution Act, which is what your Social Security taxes are called. They're certainly not a contribution. They're a tax. And it's not really insurance in any sense of the word. It is simply a tax and a government spending program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The president wants to change it. He calls it "reform." Many in the media have called it reform.
WOLF BLITZER - CNN: Governor Richardson, on the issue of Social Security reform, we…
NPR CORRESPONDENT: Social Security reform is by far the most politically difficult thing President Bush has attempted…
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS - ABC: …and Social Security reform, and a lot of Democrats are wondering where you stand on Social Security reform…
TIM RUSSERT - NBC: Will there be Social Security reform this year?
MAN: Of course there will be, because the president is defining this issue. People that define the issue, determine the outcome, and the…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You just heard CNN, NPR, ABC and NBC refer to the president's plan as "reform." But several news outlets, including NPR, no longer do.
CORRESPONDENT: And Democrats opposed to President Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security say if the…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On February 8th, NPR Washington editor Ron Elving sent a memo to staff members instructing them to use more neutral words to describe the president's plan.
RON ELVING: "Reform," if you look at the dictionary, has a strong implication of improvement - to better something. It's a corrective process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He suggested some substitutes like--:
RON ELVING: Revision or change or revamping or overhaul, retooling…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I refer you, then, back to your dictionary, Ron, because I looked up "overhaul," and it means "to examine for purposes of repair," very much like "reform."
RON ELVING: You make a good point, and I would re-examine the use of the term "overhaul." I do not think that it contains the same implication that a system has to be improved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "Overhaul" is also a word used by the New York Times, but "reform" is a word with a long political pedigree. The Clinton administration made much of what it called "Welfare Reform," but Elving notes, in that case, reporters invoked the "R" word liberally.
RON ELVING: In part, because welfare reform was a cause for President Clinton and a cause for the Republican Congress, so neither side of the partisan divide was absolutely opposed to calling it reform.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Same thing with Campaign Finance Reform. Some members of congress didn't like it, but it was a bi-partisan issue, in what was amazing in retrospect, a more bi-partisan time. Now, as we are often reminded, we are a nation at war, and yet we struggle for consensus on nearly every issue, including what war we're at.
WOLF BLITZER: Our Late Edition web question of the week asked is the United States winning the war on terror. Here's how you voted…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: CNN is not unusual among networks in applying the phrase "war on terror" to a range of government activities, including homeland security, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and sometimes, all of them together. That is, after all, how the president sees it.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Our generational commitment to the advance of freedom, especially in the Middle East, is now being tested and honored in Iraq. That country is a vital front in the war on terror.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But some news outlets, including such newspapers as the New York Times, avoid the phrase or put it in quotes. Frequently, though not always, they separate out Iraq, since many disagree over whether that should be considered part of the war on terror. Randy Weissman is deputy editor of the Chicago Tribune, which has recently revised - or should I say reformed? - its style book.
RANDY WEISSMAN: When we're talking specifically about money to fund troops who are going to Iraq, we do not refer to that as the war on terror, but when you talk about the entire budget that Bush is looking for, which covers Afghanistan and Al Qaeda and intelligence-gathering information and the war in Iraq, then that whole thing encompasses the war on terror.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chicago Tribune Public Editor Don Wycliff notes that, in the case of Iraq, events have rendered a once-questionable term more accurate.
DAN WYCLIFF: The fact of the matter is, the war in Iraq now may in fact have become part of the war on terror, precisely as a result of our invasion and what has happened since then. So semantics have to reflect the reality properly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the Associated Press, reporters rarely invoke the war on terror.
NORM GOLDSTEIN: I don't think we use it independently. I think, when we use it, we are quoting someone else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: AP Style Book Editor Norm Goldstein.
NORM GOLDSTEIN: I think the, the major question about war on terror, strangely, is whether it should be capitalized or not, and we do not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He who controls the language, controls the debate. Political consultant Frank Luntz is a master of Republican phrasemaking. In a Frontline documentary called The Persuaders, he explained how he sold the idea of cutting the seemingly invulnerable estate tax.
FRANK LUNTZ: For years, they couldn't eliminate it. The public wouldn't support it, because the word "estate" sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it's not an estate tax, it's a "death tax," because you're taxed at death. And suddenly something that isn't viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mindful of the conscious manipulation, most media outlets resist the "death tax," but when the president says it, the media must report it. That's the right of every politician - even Democrats. Like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who coined his own phrase when commenting on the president's economic policies after the State of the Union address.
HARRY REID: After we worked so hard to eliminate the deficit, his policies have added trillions to the debt. In effect, a birth tax of 36,000 dollars on every child that is born.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So - reform versus overhaul; private accounts versus personal accounts. The definition of moral values. The definition of the war on terror. These semantic disputes and many others offer proof positive to both sides that the media are biased. I put the question to Chicago Tribune Public Editor Don Wycliff - Do media outlets ever adopt language to prove that they're not - you know - biased? Are changes made in the style book in order to-
DON WYCLIFF: Appease?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Appease.
DON WYCLIFF: Absolutely not. [LAUGHS] No. We have an obligation to reality. We have an obligation to certain principles, certain journalistic principles like objectivity and verification. The partisans on both sides have no such obligation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We asked ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and the Wall Street Journal to comment on their word choices. They all declined. Most news outlets don't have a formal process for dealing with linguistic land mines like "reform," but they do read their mail, and they say they respond to suggestions for more neutral terminology. On several issues, though, they disagreed on what that was. That's not surprising. Neutral words turn acid in the crucible of politics. Under the steady gaze of millions of newly minted media critics, even the best-intentioned journalists can, and do, get burned. [MUSIC]