Clinton Could Have Had Relations with Teenage Staffer

Read that headline. Now, read it again. Feel free to do a doubletake. Then consider something - that headline comes out as true under most interpretations, and thus cannot even approach the standards of libel. In the age of ever-shortening attention spans, this gives the supposed "Fourth Estate" - the press - yet another tool by which to manipulate opinion with little effort. And with supposedly impartial media, the implications here are quite dangerous.

Before I decided to change paths and become an architectural photographer and historian, I spent a couple of years pursuing a doctorate in linguistic philosophy & metaphysics. This gave me quite a great deal of insight into the ways in which language can be used - and also, into the ways in which language can be manipulated. Let's quickly take a look at this headline and show a number of ways in which it comes out as true:

Assumed reference vs. actual reference: The article itself could be about Bob Clinton, a 20-year-old college student having had a book club with a 19-year-old staffer in the college library. Of course, we inject our own contextual assumptions into a reading of the headline in a vacuum: "[Hillary] Clinton Could Have Had [inappropriate sexual] Relations with Teenage Staffer [on her campaign]." The assumed references to 'Clinton' (wrong Clinton!), 'Relations' (totally innocuous literary relations!), and 'Staffer' (of a library, not a political campaign!) all lead the reader of the headline to infer that the article is about one thing rather than another. In a day and age in which we see many more headlines than we have time to read, this presents the opportunity to use disingenuous headlines to plant the seeds of scandal without even referencing anything the reader is familiar with.

Modal Manipulation: Beware the subjunctive. Regard it with immense distrust. 'Might Have Had' in the headline means very little, semantically, excepting that it is not absolutely impossible that the thing that "could have been" was precluded from being by the laws of physical, metaphysical, or logical impossibility. I "could have had" a tuna fish sandwich for breakfast. I didn't - I loathe tuna fish. That doesn't change the fact that I could have done. But words like 'might', 'could', 'may', etc are tricky little devils. Even assuming that the reader has all the correct references - that the article suggests that Hillary Clinton might have had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a teenaged member of her staff - nothing can invalidate this claim, in the same way that nobody can invalidate the claim that "Bernie Sanders could own only a single pair of underwear." The fact that he doesn't doesn't change the fact that he could.

So what's the point here? That should be easy enough to explain. Headlines can manipulate and deceive without being false. Ditto for entire articles, by extension of the linguistic trickery explained in the explanation of the headline. It only takes a little bit of modal manipulation or reliance on assumed reference to make a thesis come out as true. A headline from The Guardian this morning: "Iowa proved Bernie Sanders can win - and that Hillary Clinton is beatable." This is unarguable true. Bernie Sanders can also win the lottery, and Hillary Clinton is also flammable. This truth neither makes Sanders a likely Powerball victor, nor Clinton a likely candidate for immolation. But anything is possible.

Although my (possibly fake) headline was rather extreme, and The Guardian's (real) headline rather innocuous if guilty of saying next to nothing, they highlight the troubling gap between what is said and what is implied. These days, journalism needs to be parsed with extreme skepticism, if not outright distrust. The mainstream media is by and large owned by the extremely wealthy or by corporations; there is no reason not to assume that they have agendas.

Heck, they could be aiming to take over the world!