Honesty loses out when the media don’t explain Sarah Palin’s shorthand

Parsing Sarah Palin’s crude acronymic reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union address last week wherein he promoted his “Win the Future” philosophy was probably no problem for people who use computers and other electronic gadgets rather than their voices for conversations with their fellow citizens, who often are sitting in the same room with them.

But for those who don’t have computers or who are not members of the society of texters and twitteres (and thus ignorant of the shorthand that characterizes texting communication), reading what John McCain’s running mate said or hearing commentators repeat it on radio or television probably was a “SW” moment – as in “Say What?”

Which raises a question: In reporting this, why didn’t the MSM (mainstream media) elaborate fully on the moose-hunting mama from Alaska’s smarmy remark about the speech for their readers and listeners? While listening to it, she said, she had “a lot of WTF moments.”

For most MSM outlets, her choice of these three letters to represent her reaction was apparently seen as just another item from the Palin folder of oddities. No need to dwell on it; pass it on with a wink and a nod. And anyway, don’t most people know what she was saying by using the three letters? In the texting lexicon they spell out to: “What the [insert here a verbal vulgarity for the sex act]!”

That last assertion surely is arguable. In no time at all I can think of dozens of relatives and friends who wouldn’t get the Palin reference and its stretched-out meaning, most of them with positive attitudes toward herself.

A website entitled “netlingo” says that more than 80 million Americans are now communicating via text messaging, and the site lists several hundred collections of letters and numbers and symbols that apparently are widely used in the back and forth of texting. Some – LOL (Laugh Out Loud); BTW (By the Way); 2nite; 2moro; TMI (Too Much Information) have worked their way into casual conversation and printed matter, but for the most part the listing essentially lays out another language system for regular texters.

A survey in 2005 estimated that about 75 percent of Americans owned and were using a computer at the time; no doubt that percentage has increased, so let’s put it at 85 percent in 2011, which would suggest that some 45 million of our fellow citizens (out of a 2010 census count of 308 million), or at least a goodly segment of them, keep up with things at home in some other way, like reading newspapers, listening to the radio, watching television, or talking with others.

For purposes of comparison, in the 2008 election, 62 million Americans voted for Obama and Joseph Biden, and 55 million chose McCain and Palin.

It would not be surprising if some company or some government agency has a good fix on the identities and lifestyles of those 45 million who have yet to see the value of having a computer in their homes; given the political and economic value of getting these additional voters online, there is a lot to be gained by including them in the national electronic conversation.

While it may be possible to locate these computer-less homes and their owners, it’s unlikely that anyone can get beyond a guessing game as to why the owner of any single home willfully disdains the use of the electronic technology that ties 85 percent of his peers to the world of 2011. But he is out there, part of a community of citizens who maybe can’t afford a computer or who can’t fathom a computer’s workings or who consider modern technology the handwork of the Devil or who just don’t care.

Which creates an issue in this era of ever-more sophisticated, and exclusive, methods of communication: How does a nation long comfortable with an unwritten consensus that certain words and phrases are not acceptable in public discourse cope with a parallel world with a differing consensus, a world populated for the most part by the younger set, where anything goes regarding words, phrases, novels, plays, poems, music, photography, films, cable and satellite television, and electronic conversation?

An honest society of journalists would not let Sarah Palin, the self-anointed defender of family values and the heroic down-home American way of life, get away with saying “WTF”; its members would insist that things be spelled out so that readers and listeners would know exactly what she was saying. An honest society would also hold the perfervid screamers on the left to the same standard: Say what you mean and say it out straight for all to hear.

Writers, editors, and publishers generally have reasons, not all of them good ones, for holding something back – they won’t name a source because she might be killed or lose a job; they won’t publish something because of national security reasons, or because it might hurt the business; they won’t publish the name of someone who has been raped because of sensibilities to the victim’s sense of self and his or her situation in society.

But what is it about some words – and acronyms – that keep the mainstream media from giving readers, listeners, and viewers all the facts and fully drawn statements about issues in the public arena?

For one thing, there is a sense of propriety pervading these institutions, which have long hewed to the use of polite language to report on the worst of happenings. There is much merit in such an approach, which has had a lasting hold on the media culture in this country.

But in 2011, it’s no longer newspaper vs. newspaper; it’s varnished media trying to hold off unvarnished media, and surely there is much merit in letting us all deal directly with the unvarnished reality of what people who want to be our country’s leaders say and do.