Since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has been waging war against the American press by dismissing unfavorable reports as "fake news" and calling the media "the enemy of the American people."
As a countermeasure, the Washington Post has publicly fact-checked every claim that Trump has labeled as fake. In August, the Boston Globe coordinated editorials from newspapers across the nation to push back against Trump's attacks on the press. The Associated Press characterized this effort as the declaration of a "war of words" against Trump.
News organizations might frame themselves as the besieged party in this "war." But what if they're as much to blame as the president in this back-and-forth? And what if readers are to blame as well?
A Book Born Out of the Cold War
In an unpublished manuscript titled "The War of Words," the late rhetorical theorist and cultural critic Kenneth Burke cast the media as agents of political warfare. In 2012, we found this manuscript in Burke's papers and, after working closely with Burke's family and the University of California Press, it was published in October 2018.
In "The War of Words," Burke urges readers to recognize the role they also play in sustaining polarization. He points to how seemingly innocuous features in a news story can actually compromise values readers might hold, whether it's debating the issues further, finding points of consensus, and, ideally, avoiding war.
In 1939--just before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland--Burke wrote an influential essay, "The Rhetoric of Hitler's 'Battle,'" in which he outlined how Hitler had weaponized language to foment antipathy, scapegoat Jews and unite Germans against a common enemy.
After World War II ended and America's leaders turned their attention to the Soviet Union, Burke saw some parallels to Hitler in the way language was being weaponized in the U.S.
He worried that the U.S. might remain on a permanent wartime footing and that a drumbeat of oppositional rhetoric directed at the Soviet Union was making the nation susceptible to slipping into yet another war.
Tormented by this possibility, he published two books, "A Grammar of Motives" and "A Rhetoric of Motives," in which he sought to inoculate Americans from the sort of political speech that, in his view, could lead to a nuclear holocaust.
"The War of Words" was originally supposed to be part of "A Rhetoric of Motives." But at the last minute, Burke decided to set it aside and publish it later...