DATE May 20, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sameer Khader and Jehane Noujaim discuss the
documentary "Control Room"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Over 40 million Arabic people around the world tune in to the Arabic news
network Al-Jazeera, which went on the air in 1996. Through its satellite
broadcast from Qatar, Al-Jazeera has been able to circumvent Arab governments
that censor the news. The network's critics says that its news is biased
against America and Israel. The documentary "The Control Room" takes us
behind the scenes of Al-Jazeera just before and during the war in Iraq. It
was shot at Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar and 10 miles away at CENTCOM,
the US military Central Command, where reporters from around the world had
gathered for briefings from the American military. The movie introduces us to
some of the journalists at Al-Jazeera and shows their interactions with US
military press officer Lieutenant Josh Rushing. Rushing has since been
promoted to captain.
In this seen, Lieutenant Rushing is speaking with Hassan Ibrahim, a reporter
from Al-Jazeera. The lieutenant had just said that the Americans believe that
Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and that they had the will to use them
against us. Ibrahim responds.
(Soundbite of "Control Room")
Mr. HASSAN IBRAHIM: When did Saddam threaten the US with weapons of mass
Lieutenant JOSH RUSHING: Oh, I see. I'm sorry. I misunderstood your
question. We believe you have the will to give them the forces to use against
us and--Oh, go ahead.
Mr. IBRAHIM: I'm just conveying to you what people are saying. They're
saying that the US is inventing a purpose as it goes along. In the beginning,
it was weapons of mass destruction, and then the whole thing transformed into
removing Saddam from power. So...
Lt. RUSHING: Why do they think we're doing this? What do they think our
Mr. IBRAHIM: No one knows. I mean, people think you're there to
Lt. RUSHING: Really?
Mr. IBRAHIM: ...control the oil of Iraq, control the Iraqi foreign politics,
to control the region.
Lt. RUSHING: I won't back down off of my point when we talk about our intent
in this, in what we're doing. We're not here to occupy an Arab land. We're
not here to take your oil. We're not here to kill Arabs or take mosques or
any of the other myriad of reasons.
GROSS: Throughout the film, Ibrahim and Lieutenant Rushing continue their
conversation in the hopes of understanding each other's point of view. My
guests are Jehane Noujaim, the director of the film, "The Control Room," and
Sameer Khader, a senior producer at Al-Jazeera who is prominently featured in
Captain Rushing wanted to join our interview, but the Marine Corps declined to
give him permission. I asked the director, Jehane Noujaim, why she wanted to
make the movie.
Ms. JEHANE NOUJAIM (Director): I've grown up between the Middle East and the
United States my entire life. My mother is American and my father is
Egyptian. And going back and forth, you see very different perceptions of
what's happening in the world. And that leads you to figure--think about
where are people getting their perspectives from and leads you to the news and
news creation, and I used to volunteer at a very small village on the
outskirts of Cairo which was a very poor neighborhood. I used to teach
classes there. And I remember going back soon after Al-Jazeera started, and
people were pooling their money together to buy satellite dishes because they
were able to watch these debate shows that had addressed topics that were
And so it was fascinating to watch people watching these programs about the
role of religion in the government and, you now, the issue of the veil and
many issues that had never been talked about before. And they were very--they
had become very, very widely criticized by different Arab governments,
including the Egyptian government, and then more recently they were heavily
criticized by the United States and the US administration. So I was just
thinking, you know, this channel that's so popular with the people and yet so
hated and just criticized by all of these governments, you know, has to be
doing something right. Who are these people behind it?
GROSS: What was your approach when you went to CENTCOM during the war in
Iraq, to cover how Al-Jazeera was covering the war, and to also, you know,
speak at length with a US military press officer and speak as well to other
members of the American media? What was your strategy in comparing and
Ms. NOUJAIM: You know, I don't think I had much of a strategy. And I didn't
really seek out to compare and contrast. What I wanted to find were people
that were really going through a struggle to try and figure out, you know, how
to report the news as fairly as possible, how to get the information.
And when I went to CENTCOM, I spoke to a number of Western journalists. I
spoke to people from ABC, CNN, NBC, across the board, but it was very
difficult to get access at the time because there was kind of a culture of
fear because Peter Arnett had just been fired for talking to Iraqi television.
And people were basically, like, `Look, I have a lot to say on this, but I'm
not willing to lose my job for this, you know, documentary that you're doing.'
And everybody had signed contracts with their companies that said that they
weren't going to give their personal opinions on camera, that they weren't
allowed to give their personal opinions.
So we got very, very lucky in finding Tom Mintier from CNN. He was a seasoned
journalist. He'd started with CNN, he'd been through the Vietnam War, the
last Gulf War. And so when we met him and we talked to him about the project
that we were doing, that we were just following journalists from Al-Jazeera
and from Central Command. He said, `Sure, I'll be a part of it.' I don't
know if he ever asked for permission. He's actually not with CNN anymore.
But he was somebody that, I think, felt like he had the leeway to go ahead and
give his views, but he was very careful about what he was saying.
And then meeting Lieutenant Rushing was really completely by chance. I met
him through our executive producer who was there as a journalist and...
GROSS: Well, Rushing is the military press officer who...
Ms. NOUJAIM: Right.
GROSS: ...interacts with all the press at CENTCOM.
Ms. NOUJAIM: Right. Right. He--well, he interacts with all the press, but
his assignment was to explain the American position in Iraq, primarily to the
Arab journalists that were at CENTCOM, too, Al-Jazeera to Abu Dhabi Television
and to Al-Arabiya. And so I thought that he was going to be faced with some
very interesting questions because he was somebody that, to me, seemed like he
had a lot of integrity. He said very early on, `Look, I wouldn't be able to
do this job if I didn't honestly believe that we are here for the right
purposes. And, you know, maybe we won't decrease terrorism in, you know, a
week, a month, but give it 10 years, we're looking at generations, we're
looking long-term here,' and he was somebody that I found to be very, very
dedicated and very good at what he did.
GROSS: Now Joshua Rushing, the US military press officer, who part of her
film is built around--He's one of the main characters, so to speak, in the
movie--he was originally going to join us today in our interview, but then we
found out he couldn't come. What was the reason for that?
Ms. NOUJAIM: Well, I'm not sure exactly where it is right now. Right before
I came into this interview, I was making phone calls to see whether he could
be a part of some of the interviews in the future. You know, I think this is
really--it's really too bad, because he's somebody that definitely opened my
eyes and made me see that the military is a very diverse operation, and you
have people that are really trying to understand the other side, understand
the point of view and interact with the other side, and so, you know, we had
dinner with him yesterday, and he's in his hotel today and he's still waiting
to get permission, but, you know, hopefully it'll come through.
It's actually a different section of the military that--he got the permission
from CENTCOM. It was his assignment to be dealing with this documentary as
well as Al-Jazeera, so hopefully he'll be able to talk about his views in the
GROSS: My guest is Jehane Noujaim, and she directed the new documentary "The
Control Room," which is about press coverage of the war in Iraq, comparing the
perspectives of the US military press officer, of Al-Jazeera and the American
I want to introduce Sameer Khader, who is a senior producer with Al-Jazeera,
and he's one of the people interviewed in "The Control Room."
Sameer, welcome. And let me ask you just a really big, broad general question
and that is: How would you compare how Al-Jazeera covered the war with how
American TV covered it? And I should preface that by saying I know that
American TV is made up of a lot of different stations who covered it
differently, but I know I'm dealing with generalizations here. So, that said,
what do you think?
Mr. SAMEER KHADER (Al-Jazeera Senior Producer): Yeah, I know that. Yeah.
We had--it's our job to follow what other news organizations are doing,
because you have to compare yourself with somebody else so as to try to assess
yourself. I think that both of us, or the Al-Jazeera and the United States
and Europe, every professional news organization covered the war the same way,
with the same professional criteria, with the same dedication, with the same
objectivity, but with--and here's the difference--from different perspective.
For example, what's important for the American audience doesn't mean that this
thing is important for an Arab audience. While the American organizations
will focus on the American troops in the field, an Arab news organization will
focus on the people, the people of Iraq, the people who are suffering. This
is the only difference, so it has--we have different perspective but the same
coverage, the same criteria.
GROSS: One of the specific comments about your war coverage that Joshua
Rushing makes, and he is the US military press officer who's interviewed a lot
in the movie "The Control Room," he says that, you know, right before you went
to commercial breaks, there was a collage that would show, you know, American
troops coming in and tanks and bombs, and then there'd be an image of a young
child who was wounded with her head bandaged, as if the point of this collage
was just to make a point that the Americans are there and they're causing
Mr. KHADER: You have collage in all news channels. You have it on CNN, you
have it on NBC, on ABC. Every news channel have their own collage. But if
you look to the same collage on CNN or any American news channel, you will see
something, and this something appeals to your audience. My audience the--our
audience in Al-Jazeera are the people of Iraq and the people of the Middle
East. The people of the Middle East consider Iraq as their brothers, as Arabs
and Muslims. So they focus on the suffering of the war. We didn't say that
this war was just or unjust. We were just saying that this war brings
suffering to the people. Is it the right instrument to be used to topple a
dictatorship? That's all what we said.
GROSS: I'm interested in how you're covering what's going on in Iraq now.
Let's start with the prison abuse scandal. You know, Americans have been
seeing the photographs of the naked Iraqi prisoners tied together with
American soldiers giving the thumbs-up sign. We saw the photograph of a naked
Iraqi who was being threatened with attack dogs. And who was later bit by one
of those attack dogs, although that photo has not been released. Have you
been showing those photos?
Mr. KHADER: Yes, we have shown the photos that were shown by all the
news-making organizations. No more, no less. We covered it exactly in the
same manner that was covered by American news channels with some focus, of
course, on the fact that these kinds of practices used to be the rule when
Saddam Hussein was in power. And they are still now considered as a general
rule in many Arab countries. So the general feeling of our audience was the
following: These practices are very common in this part of the world. But
it's not common in the United States. And the United States of America came
to the region with a flag of freedom and liberation and democracy, so it was
very odd for Arabs to see these kinds of practices. So their reaction was:
If America does the same thing as our regime, what's the difference?
GROSS: Are you covering the American reaction to those photos and to what
went on at Abu Ghraib, the fact that there are hearings, that there's a lot of
outrage, you know, that it was the American press that uncovered this, that
even people in the CIA have leaked the information because they thought it was
Mr. KHADER: Yes, we covered these reactions and for--and you may be
surprised to know that all the hearings, the congressional hearings were
broadcast live on Al-Jazeera for three, four consecutive hours every day.
GROSS: Did you get a big audience for that?
Mr. KHADER: Yes. People love to follow these things, because they see
democracy in action. They see accountability and responsibility.
GROSS: My guests are Jehane Noujaim, the director of the documentary "The
Control Room," and Sameer Khader, a senior producer at Al-Jazeera. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Jehane Noujaim, director of the documentary "The Control
Room," which takes us behind the scenes at the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera,
and Sameer Khader, a senior producer at Al-Jazeera.
I just want to ask you about something that I know has been very controversial
in the United States and that is the use of the word `martyrs' to describe
suicide bombers. And I know that Al-Jazeera uses the word `martyrs' to
describe Palestinians who blow themselves up to attack Israelis. Have you
been using the word `martyrs' for Iraqis also?
Mr. KHADER: No. No. But, you know, it's a theological debate here. And I
can't really answer you about that, but bear in mind that the word `suicide
attack' in Arabic--in the Arabic language, suicide means `infidelity.' It
means that you don't believe in God. So we don't use the word suicide. So we
are bound to use the word martyr and the word `martyr' in Arabic, it doesn't
have the same meaning like martyr in English or any other Latin language. So
you have, for example, somebody crossing the street and hit by a car; he's a
martyr. This is truly the full meaning of the word in Arabic.
GROSS: I don't understand. What does it mean?
Mr. KHADER: Martyr means that a person is martyred is a person that God has
chosen to call him to him. It's--I'm sorry, this is a debate that transcends
my capacity, my natural capacity.
GROSS: Is this a debate that you have at Al-Jazeera, or does everybody at
Al-Jazeera agree about it?
Mr. KHADER: Yes, of course, every day. Yes. Yes. We talk about that every
day in our editorial routines.
GROSS: As an editor at Al-Jazeera, what's your position on that? What do you
argue when the debates begin?
Mr. KHADER: I try--personally, I try always to push the direction of
secularism in journalism, which means to leave all the spiritual and
theological consideration behind us. But I'm only one man. I have others who
support my position, but you know, since we are a channel preaching democracy,
we should at least be a democratic channel.
GROSS: Are you saying that you lose on that one, but you defer to the
Mr. KHADER: No. Look, we don't vote on these things, huh? There's no vote.
There is a consensus.
GROSS: Right. But are you saying you disagree with the use of the word
`martyr' because it's too theological?
Mr. KHADER: Yes, too much theological. Yes.
GROSS: What are some of the reactions you've gotten from Arab governments to
stories that you've run? You know, some of the Arab governments are famous
for press censorship. One of the important roles that Al-Jazeera has played
is, as a satellite television operating from Qatar, you don't have to pass
your stories through the kind of government censorship that you would have to
operate from if you--that you would have to deal with if you were based in
certain other Arab countries. So have there been attempts by Arab governments
to try to pressure you into not covering certain stories, or have there just
Mr. KHADER: Yes, of course. Yes.
GROSS: Yes? Tell us a little bit about that.
Mr. KHADER: Well, there's nothing to tell. It's something obvious. Any
government in the Arab world, when we try to tackle a given file, a given
subject, they try to cover up story and they try to prevent us from covering
it. And we have all the wrath of the religious establishment, the Islamic
world, not only the Arab world. And we tackled also items regarding
corruption in the high sphere of Arab government, and you know these questions
are very, very sensitive in our area. When you tell your public that this
minister or this prime minister or this president is a corrupt one and you
bring the evidence of this corruption, of course, these countries will not be
easy in dealing with us.
GROSS: You say in "The Control Room" that you would take a job at FOX TV if
they offered you one. I think that's probably not about to happen, but...
Mr. KHADER: ...(Unintelligible) No, no. No. No, no. No. No, no. It has
nothing to do with if it happens or not. It was a little taken out of
context. The question that was directed to me by Jehane was if I would
consider to move to America to take a job in the United States and I said,
`Why not?' And from previous conversations, she used to know that I don't
really appreciate what FOX News do regarding the war in Iraq, and she Jehane
would say, `Even with FOX?' I said, `Why not? Yeah. Even with FOX, yeah.'
GROSS: Now in the movie "The Control Room," you say that you hope to send
your children to America to study. I think you also say you hope that they'll
live in America. Do you have dual feelings about America?
Mr. KHADER: No. I don't have dual feelings. I love America. I respect
American way and American ideals, everything about America. But like any
Arab, Middle Eastern human being, I hate American policies, American foreign
policy regarding the Middle East, especially regarding the Palestinian
GROSS: So you make a distinction between American foreign policy...
Mr. KHADER: Of course. Of course.
GROSS: ...and American values and America itself.
Mr. KHADER: Yes. Of course. And this is what we always try to explain on
the screens of Al-Jazeera, to our audience, that there is a difference between
the American people and the American government. Even within the American
government, any given American government, there are good and the less good.
GROSS: Well, thank you both very much for talking with us.
Mr. KHADER: Thank you.
Ms. NOUJAIM: Thank you for having us.
GROSS: Sameer Khader is a senior producer at Al-Jazeera. Jehane Noujaim
directed the new documentary "The Control Room."
I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, the culture wars, blogging and the way teen-agers talk. We
talk with our linguist Geoff Nunberg. He has a new book called "Going
Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times." Also
Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new 25th anniversary edition DVD of Sondheim's
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: What language can tell us about our culture and our
changing ideas and sensibilities
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has a new book that collects his broadcast
commentaries and the columns he's written for The New York Times. Geoff is a
senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at
Stanford University and chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage
Dictionary. He says that his new book isn't really for language buffs. It's
not about the way that language is going to hell in a handbasket. The book is
about what language can tell us about our culture and our changing ideas and
sensibilities. It's called "Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture
in Confrontational Times." And, yes, I'm not accidentally mispronouncing the
title. The title is "Going Nucular." I'll let Geoff explain why.
GEOFF NUNBERG (Author): That's the title of one of the pieces in the book
about one of George Bush's pronunciation of nuclear as nuclear (pronounced
NU-CU-LAR). And it struck me as standing in for a lot of the ways that people
think about the language and the way Bush uses it, in particular. I had
listened to it. Everybody thinks it's just a kind of mistake borne of
ignorance, but the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that in
Bush's mouth it was probably less merely a mistake and more a kind of choice.
I call it a faux baba pronunciation.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you think you can hear the so-called culture wars
reflected in the way American is speaking; if you hear divisions and how
people on different sides of the political spectrum speak.
NUNBERG: Well, there are different kinds of divisions. I mean, obviously,
there are going to be divisions in the way people talk about the particular
issues that have been in the fore in the culture wars, so whether you describe
a certain position as being pro-life or anti-abortion rights or pro-choice or
anti-life, I guess, depends obviously what position you take on that issue.
But in another sense I think it goes even deeper than that. I think there are
differences in tone between the left and the right that run a lot deeper than
that. You know, I was listening a couple of years ago to a right-wing, kind
of an angry white guy radio station because I can be a angry white guy at
times, too. And I noticed that the hosts of those stations are always using
`see,' like, `See, the Democrats really don't want to tell you that such and
such,' or `See, those people really don't want to work.'
On left-wing radio stations, like Pacifica, or on NPR, people don't say `see,'
they say `look.' And that's an important difference that look is the word you
use when you're trying to persuade somebody of something. See's the word you
use when you're trying to clue somebody in on something. It struck me that it
really was suggestive of two very different mentalities that are associated
with those two sides.
GROSS: Were you saying that NPR is left-wing?
NUNBERG: No, no. I said...
GROSS: Or you use the word or--OK.
NUNBERG: ...left-wing stations or NPR.
GROSS: OK, just checking.
Have you been listening to the language of the presidential campaign and how
President Bush and...
GROSS: ...John Kerry have been speaking?
NUNBERG: Yeah, I don't think it's really gotten going yet. I mean, I think
it'll emerge in a couple of months. But there are already some clear
differences. I mean, one thing that was very striking during the Democratic
primaries was that, for the first time in many years, the Democrats were not
reluctant to talk about words--use words like `moral' and `values' and so on.
Kerry was saying that the US has a broken value system. Howard Dean was
saying we've lost our moral compass. John Edwards was using that kind of
language. And that I think reflects an interesting shift. Even as the
Republicans have either taken over or tried to neutralize a lot of the
language of the left, the Democrats have moved in and are trying to neutralize
or reassert their ownership of a lot of that language of values and families
and so on.
GROSS: Geoff, I'm just kind of curious. We often get feedback to the pieces
you've done on FRESH AIR, but I'm wondering, you get feedback directly, too,
of the pieces that you've done for us. What's been the most controversial?
What's gotten the biggest response?
NUNBERG: Well, the one piece that's gotten by far the biggest response was a
piece I did back in, I think, 2001 on Bernard Goldberg's book "Bias," which
claimed that a sign that the media had a liberal bias was the fact that they
always identify conservatives as conservatives but they never identify
liberals as liberals. And he just kind of asserted this without any evidence,
so I thought, `Well, this is something we can check.' We can do counts
nowadays. So I went to a bunch of major newspapers and set up this rather
elaborate procedure for doing the counts, and I discovered, `Well, no, as it
happens, major newspapers identify liberals as liberals about 35 percent more
often than they identify conservatives as conservatives.' I got enormous
amounts of mail on that piece and it was picked up by CNN and other stations
and became a controversial matter, and other people did other counts and so
on. So I'd have to say that because it got into that particular controversy
about bias, it was the piece that received the most mail by far.
GROSS: Now I think it's so interesting that there are these computerized
search engines that you can use now to research things like this that you
would have never been able to research before, at least not as quickly and
NUNBERG: No, you know, it's completely changed the way people think about
lexicography and language. You know, the Oxford English Dictionary, when it
appeared, contained a total of, I think, about 1,800,000 citations for all the
words that demonstrate the meanings of the words that were collected over a
period of 30 or 35 years by all of these volunteer readers who sat there
writing out all these slips which were then sent in to Oxford and assembled in
the little shed in the back of Sir James Murray's garden. And nowadays I can
do a Google search or a Nexus search and find a million citations for a single
word like `insane' in the course of a couple of seconds, so that's one way
that they can be interesting. Another thing we can do is we can count things,
which you couldn't do before. You can look to see if a word's becoming more
popular or less popular.
I did a piece for FRESH AIR on the word `roil.' Phyllis Myers, the producer,
called me and said, `What's with this word roil? How come I keep seeing it
R-O-I-L?' And I said, `Gee, I don't know.' And I went to the newspaper
databases and I looked and, sure enough, that word had become 10 times as
common in newspapers as it was 20 years ago. Now it's a favorite word of
headline writers because it's only four letters long, and, you know, two of
them are skinny. But it's just a word that suddenly became more frequent for
some reason. Sometimes that's more interesting.
The word--I went and looked to see how people have described Lou Gehrig and
Babe Ruth over the decades and it turns out that they're about three times as
likely now to be described as legends as opposed to heroes as they were 20
years ago. And that's a sign of how this word `legend' is taking the place of
`hero' in the lexicon.
You can look at a phrase like `class warfare,' for example, and watch it spike
whenever the Democrats start to criticize Republican tax proposals. So in
those ways you can really discover enormous numbers of things about the ways
words are used.
GROSS: So with the help of search engines, are you doing a different kind of
linguistic analysis than you used to? Are you looking for things that you
didn't look for before?
NUNBERG: Oh, yeah. I'm always trying to figure out ways now to make points
statistically, just in terms of some little almost statistical anecdote that
drives home a point that otherwise wouldn't be clear. Not long ago, I went to
The New York Times and The Washington Post and I did a search on the phrases
`liberal values' and `conservative values,' and it turned out that even in
those supposedly liberal papers `conservative values' was something like three
or four times as frequent as `liberal values' was, which is really a sign of
how we think of that word `values' that it belongs to the right and doesn't
belong to the left. And that's a point that would be hard to make if you
didn't have that little statistical anecdote to go on.
GROSS: Our guest is linguist Geoff Nunberg. He has a new book collecting his
FRESH AIR commentaries and New York Times columns. It's called "Going
We'll talk more after a break. This FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's language commentator Geoff Nunberg, and he
has a new book called "Going Nuclear: Language, Politics, and Culture in
Confrontational Times," and it collects pieces that he's written over the past
few years for FRESH AIR, The New York Times and other places.
We've been talking about language that has some kind of political charge to
it. You've done a lot of pieces that have absolutely nothing to do with that.
One of the most popular pieces that you did for FRESH AIR was on the use of
the word `like' and how that has changed. And `like' is a word that so many
people find irritating, and you had such interesting things to say about it.
I'm going to ask you to just, like, recap a couple of ways that you think the
word `like' has changed from the way it was first used by hipsters in the
NUNBERG: I think we owe the hipsters either the responsibility or the blame
for a lot of the words that have been the most important over the last 50
years, like `cool' is a word that came out of the hipsters and so is `like,'
in an interesting way. I mean, it was used by the hipsters as a way of
distancing themselves from what they were saying and it was picked up by a
bunch of disc jockeys like Wolfman Jack and Hilyth(ph), a Philadelphia disc
jockey. It passed into teen-age slang with the help of that Bob Denver
character, the Maynard G. Krebs' Beatnik character, in "The Many Loves of
Dobie Gillis" and it entered teen-age slang sometime in the '60s, at which
point it instantly came, for most observers, an index of the general
degeneration of the teen-age mind and attention and of everything that was
wrong in America, as if they themselves had spoken perfect grammatical English
when they were in their teens.
But it did a lot of work in teen-age language at that time. It was a way of
distancing yourself from a request. For example, you'd say, `Could I, like,
borrow your sweater,' which was a little more polite in some way than saying,
`Could I borrow your sweater.' And then sometime around the `80s it became
what we linguists call a quotative as in, `So I was, like, you've gotta be
kidding.' Moon Unit Zappa helped that one along a lot and it became
associated with Valley Girl slang, spread very rapidly and, once again, was
denounced as the most terrible thing that had happened to the English language
since the Norman invasion.
It's interesting because when you listen to the way teen-agers use that,
either in its kind of weakening sense or in its quotative sense, it has a real
purpose. What struck me about this was that I was thinking about the word and
I was listening to the news reports of a school shooting down near San Diego a
couple of years ago, they were interviewing all these students about what had
happened. The students were clearly shaken up and disturbed by it. They
weren't particularly articulate. They were saying `you know' and `um' and so
on and so forth; they didn't say `like.' None of those teen-agers said `like'
in describing what had happened. And that's because `like' is a word that
conveys a certain ironic distance from you're talking about and when the
circumstances don't call for ironic distance, they just turn it off. It isn't
just a mindless tick, in other words. It has a meaning. It's used when it's
appropriate. It isn't used when it isn't appropriate.
GROSS: In your new book, "Going Nucular," you have collected pieces from
FRESH AIR, The New York Times and other places you've written for and you also
write a little bit about that fact that you've written for blogs. And, you
know, you mentioned that the style for each of these is different. And I'd be
really interested in hearing about the difference in how you write, say, for a
newspaper and how you write for our show. Now I know Phyllis, who produces
your commentaries for FRESH AIR, is probably always trying to encourage you
to write in short, straightforward sentences because the ear finds it easier
to follow; sentences that like that where there's no grammatical
complications. There's no, like, inversions. There's not a lot of separate
clauses. But, of course, in a newspaper you don't have to worry about that
kind of thing. So can you talk a little bit about what it's been like for you
to write for both mediums?
NUNBERG: Well, writing, certainly, for FRESH AIR and for radio, in general,
there are all these little grammatical tricks that you're talking about. You
write these very short, declarative sentences. You avoid using relative
clauses. You don't ever make lists of more than three items; that's a rule
that Phyllis told me early on when I started doing these and I found is a very
good rule to bear in mind. Then the other things--I mean, the fact is that
when you're doing a radio piece, as you know, you're coming to the end of the
piece and you want your listeners to know that the piece is about to end, so
you have to have this kind of summary, little quippy sentence at the end to
say, `OK, now, the piece is about to end. Now we're coming to the end. Now
here's a little quip to tell you that the piece is over.' Because you don't
have a little box at the end of the article and--OK. So there are a lot of
differences like that. Of course, writing for The New York Times has its own
quirks and whatever. I mean, everybody's Mr.--you know, Mr. Sting, Ms. Cher,
and so on. You have to give these full identifications of everybody, and you
have to write in this--I have a lot of trouble writing for The Times in a
lively way. I think it's like the font. Anything that shows up in that font
is going to sound like that.
GROSS: You dedicate your book, "Going Nucular," to your father, who you
describe as a lover of words. In what sense was he that?
NUNBERG: Well, he was someone who took language very seriously, who was
scrupulous, even fastidious, about getting the rules right. I recall once
somebody used the word `fulsome' in a way that just meant copious or
abundant. He said, `No, no, fulsome means treacly or sickening or excessive.
In that sense, it doesn't mean that.' Held his finger up in the air. That was
really very characteristic of second-generation immigrants, especially Jewish
immigrants of his generation, who felt that in some way mastering the language
was a way of creating a kind of entitlement to American culture. One of the
things that is very striking is how many of the language mavens, and note that
word `mavens,' are, in fact, Jews of that generation--Theodore Bernstein and
John Simon and Edwin Newman and William Safire and so forth, all of whom
inherited in some sense that affection and fastidiousness about English
GROSS: How do you see your work compare to theirs?
NUNBERG: Well, you know, in a certain sense, I inherited that from my dad,
too. I took it to excess or whatever when I became a linguist. And at that
point you begin to think of language not just in terms of a set of little
rules of correctness and so on but as this deeper, more complex structure that
really a lifetime a study will not get you to the heart of. And at that point
you begin to think of language differently. You begin to think not just of
trying to get the rules right and so on but understand why the rules are the
rules and what the language is trying to tell us.
And at some point, listening to language becomes a way of finding out other
things. You know, the words that most people find interesting when they hear
you're a linguist, they say, `Oh, I'm interested in'--there're words like
serendipitous or antimacassar or things like that. What makes linguists
linguists are linguists are the ones who think that a really interesting word
is like `the,' and so linguistics is in the battle for the long haul. But I'm
not actually that interested in words as such. If you find yourself thinking
about a word and it doesn't take you somewhere outside of language, then it's
usually not that interesting. Where what's interesting is the way words can
betray attitudes, social changes, ways of thinking about the world that would
otherwise be really hard to get at.
GROSS: In your role as a father, have you ever been in conflict with your
role as a linguist? In other words, hearing your daughter talk as she grows
up, is there a conflict in you between wanting to correct her as a father to
make sure she speaks well and properly and all that and an interest in just
standing back and listening? Because that's what you do in your role as a
linguist, you listen and observe and then try to figure out what it means.
NUNBERG: For a long time I said, you know, `I'm not going to correct my
daughter.' She'll come to the right forms, you know, in due time and I'm
really more interested in listening to what she has to say and trying to
understand it, because I think, to a certain extent, if you think, if you're
always trying to correct, you're not really going to be listening to what's
going on. And I had this very strong belief till, I guess, about four or five
years ago when she started to have writing assignments. Then I would have to
go over them with her. And at that point all bets were off. `No, Sophie, you
put a comma before a non-restrictive clause,' and so on. And at that point, I
began to correct her, but I still don't correct her, I think, in the way my
father would have corrected me.
GROSS: Which was?
NUNBERG: She might dispute that but...
GROSS: How would he correct you?
NUNBERG: Well, you know, my sense is, though, what do I know? This is the
correct rule. Sooner or later, she'll learn it. If she doesn't learn it,
maybe it wasn't that important a rule to begin with. So I kind of let it go.
I certainly don't--you know, when these old bugbears--when she says
`hopefully' or she uses `anxious' to mean eager and things like that, I mean,
everybody does that and who cares? I certainly don't correct her when she
uses `like' as in, `So, I was, like, you gotta be kidding,' and so on, because
that's just part of the language she speaks. It would be absurd for me to
GROSS: Well, Geoff, a pleasure to talk with you.
NUNBERG: Great to talk to you, Terry.
GROSS: And take care.
NUNBERG: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.
GROSS: And congratulations on the book.
NUNBERG: Thank you.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg's new book is called "Going Nucular: Language,
Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new 25th anniversary edition DVD
of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New DVD version of "Sweeney Todd"
TERRY GROSS, host:
A Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins" has been nominated for
seven Tony Awards. If you can't get to the theater, you can stay home and
watch a great Stephen Sondheim musical. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of
Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," Warner Home Video has released a DVD of the version
that was shown on TV in 1982 with some members of the original cast, including
Angela Lansbury. Classic music critic Lloyd Schwartz says the new restored
DVD is a major addition to the Sondheim discography, one of the most
successful transfers of a Broadway show to the small screen.
(Soundbite from "Sweeney Todd")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
Chorus: (Singing) Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) He served a dark and a vengeful god.
Chorus: (Singing) He served a dark and a vengeful god.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) What happened then? Well, that's the play, and
he wouldn't want us to give it away. Not Sweeney.
Chorus: (Singing) Not Sweeney Todd. A demon, a pauper, a thief. Treat.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:
Stephen Sondheim's most ambitious, some would say most operatic and grimmest
musical, opened on Broadway 25 years ago and walked away with eight Tony
Awards. Three years later, it was taped for television in Los Angeles, and
the multiple cameras captured both the fluidity and the tension of director
Harold Prince's legendary production.
George Hearn, who replaced Len Cariou as the revenge-obsessed Sweeney Todd,
the demon barber of Fleet Street, won an Emmy for this TV version. And Angela
Lansbury, one of those original Tony winners, repeats the role she created,
Mrs. Lovett, the maker of the worst pies in London.
(Soundbite from "Sweeney Todd")
Ms. ANGELA LANSBURY: (Singing) A customer! Wait, what's your rush, what's
your hurry? You gave me such a fright; I thought you was the ghost. Half a
minute, can'tcher? Sit. Sit ye down, Sit. All I meant is that I haven't
seen a customer for weeks. Did you come here for the pie, sir? Do forgive me
if my head's a little vague. What is that? But you'd think we had the
plague? From the way the people keep avoiding--no, you don't. Heaven knows I
try, sir. Yuck. But there's no one comes in even to inhale. Tsk. Right you
are, sir. Would you like a drop of ale? Mind you, I can hardly blame them.
These are probably the worst pies in London.
SCHWARTZ: The story first saw the light of day as a hoary melodrama about the
victim of a sinister plot who is determined to give his villainous enemies
closer shaves than they ever bargained for. Then his lady friend grinds their
remains into tasty meat pies. Sondheim and Harold Prince turn this raw
material into an existential indictment of human green and cruelty.
(Soundbite from "Sweeney Todd")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) There's a hole in the world like a great black
pit and the vermin of the world inhabit it. And its morals aren't worth what
a pig would spit and it goes by the name of London. At the top of the holes
are the privileged few making mock of the vermin and the lower zoo, turning
beauty into filth and greed. I, too, have sailed the world and seen its
wonders. For the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru. But there's no place
SCHWARTZ: This is a long way from "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," but
Sondheim's score is one of his richest and the performances are hair-raising.
It's a powerful work, though I have to confess I like it best when it's got
its tongue in its cheek, along with those savory meat pies.
(Soundbite from "Sweeney Todd")
Unidentified Man: What is that?
Ms. LANSBURY: (Singing) It's priests. Have a little priest.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Is it really good?
Ms. LANSBURY: (Singing) Sir, it's too good at least. Then again, they don't
come it seems off the flesh, so it's pretty fresh.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Awful lot of fat.
Ms. LANSBURY: (Singing) Only where it sat.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Haven't you got poet? Or something like that?
Ms. LANSBURY: (Singing) No, you see, the trouble with poet is how do you know
it's deceased? Try the priest.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Heavenly.
SCHWARTZ: Along with "Sweeney Todd," Warner Home Video has also released an
enjoyable example of non-musical Sondhiem, a fiendishly clever 1973 film
called "The Last of Sheila," which Sondheim co-wrote with fellow mystery buff
"Psycho" star Anthony Perkins. Here we have more murder and revenge but in a
slyer vein, a campy whodunit glamorously filmed on the Riviera and full of
Hollywood inside jokes. The plotting is as deliriously intricate as one of
Sondheim's cascades of multiple rhymes. Even the three gossipy stars on the
DVD's alternate soundtrack, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon and Raquel Welch,
admit they can't quite follow the plot.
Unidentified Woman: I have to say I had a very hard time understanding
exactly what the game was all about. I was always getting lost. I couldn't
figure out what was going on. I mean, I could and then I couldn't, you know,
because it was very complicated.
SCHWARTZ: Other members of the lively cast include James Mason as a director
who may be a little too fond of little girls, and devilish James Coburn, as
both the precipitator of the plot and one of its victims. Was he, like
Sweeney Todd, out for justifiable revenge or was he just your typical
Hollywood sadist? Even the title holds a clue. You might have to watch the
last of "Sheila" more than once to find out, if you ever do.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. I'm
(Soundbite from "Sweeney Todd")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
Chorus: (Singing) Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) He served a dark and a hungry god.
Chorus: (Singing) He served a dark and a hungry god.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) To seek revenge may lead to hell.
Ms. LANSBURY: (Singing) Not everyone does it and seldom as well.
Unidentified Man and Ms. LANSBURY: (Singing) As Sweeney. As Sweeney Todd.
Chorus: (Singing) A demon, a pauper, a thief. Sweet.
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we feature an interview with the great jazz
drummer Elvin Jones. He died Tuesday at the age of 76. He was best known for
his work with John Coltrane. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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