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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 01/12/2011

'Blood libel' and the rising tide of the catch phrase

By Melissa Bell

This morning, a video of a somber Sarah Palin greeted political watchers: "Like millions of Americans, I learned of the tragic events in Arizona on Saturday," the former vice presidential candidate started out her eight-minute statement.

A few minutes into the message, she got to the crux of her argument: "Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn."

Out of the eight minutes, her argument came down to a nine-second sound bite. Out of those nine seconds, journalists seized on two words: "blood libel."

The response was fast and resolute. Everyone, from the Guardian to blogs usually reserved for comedy videos, weighed in on the topic, and most were not pleased with the use. "Blood libel" shot up to the top-searched term in Google.

The term had been in use for a few days connected to the Arizona shooting, thanks to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. It's been used before, by writers on both the left and the right, as a term to describe race, homosexuality and even Sarah Palin.

While the debate rages on whether or not Palin's choice of words was a cruel and sensational choice, another question should be asked: When and why did the national conversation get parsed down into two-word sound bites? And should we be worried about this?

Ten days ago, in the Boston Globe, Craig Fehrman wrote about the shrinking sound bite. Since 1988, political statements have been averaging around a mere nine seconds, compared to a 43-second sound bite in 1968.

You might debate whom to blame -- asked about nine-second sound bites, one TV executive replied, "The politicians started it" -- but you can't dispute the trend. In recent presidential elections, the average TV sound bite has dropped to a tick under eight seconds. A shorter, dumber and shriller political discourse, it seems, has become another hazard of modern life.

However, Fehrman says that it is not as bad as it sounds. The change happened as a result of smarter, more in-depth reporting taking up more space than just willy-nilly quoting of political stump speeches.

NPR interviewed Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, whose job it is to figure out the right phrases that "in effect win the argument without taking the time for argument."

But has the shift gone to far? Is two words too few to encapsulate an argument? Sound bites are now parsed into a one- or two-word catch phrase that captures the attention of political watchers. In the last year alone, the catch phrase has driven political conversation in a dramatic way.

There's ObamaCare, shellacking, man up, death panels, drill baby drill, energy independence -- the list could go on and on.

Sarah Palin has built a career out of these catch phrases. And the media has responded in kind, writing reams of stories devoted to breaking the etymology down. A word is seized upon, used hundreds of times and then forgotten.

This graphic shows the history of hot-button terms this year. Blood libel, in the next few days, will surely get its own place on there.


Perhaps, though, the criticism that the catch phrase was seized upon by Palin's speechwriter too soon, without an in-depth analysis of its meanings, may give politicians pause before relying on a catch phrase.

What do you think? Is the catch phrase just a natural progression of the sound-bite-hungry media?

By Melissa Bell  | January 12, 2011; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  The Daily Catch  
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Next: 'Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides,' or in other nomenclature, What I'm Watching Tonight


Sound bite or not, words matter. Especially in emotionally raw times.

Posted by: AWCG | January 12, 2011 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Next, Princess Airhead will be proclaiming that anyone who disagrees with her is "antisemantic."

Posted by: thomasmc1957 | January 12, 2011 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Sarah's theme song:

Don't cry for me America
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise
Don't keep your distance!!!

Posted by: hamishdad | January 12, 2011 6:31 PM | Report abuse

As far as I'm concerned, "blood libel" should never be used as a "catch phrase," by Sarah Palin or anyone else. I also don't care that it has been used metaphorically by various columnists. I disagree with Dershowitz on this issue.

I think that the term has much too potent and tragic a history to be used casually, whatever others might say. My hunch is that Palin was unaware of this history, which wouldn't surprise me. Use of the term as she did trivializes its real meaning.

Posted by: paceaj | January 12, 2011 11:51 PM | Report abuse

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