Why 'spokesperson' is still irksome

In the S&P downgrade debacle, it's not clear who speaks for whom.

Of all the indignities associated with Standard & Poor's downgrade of America's credit rating, this may be a minor point.

But I'm going to make it anyway: The news coverage of this debacle, and especially the salvos fired off Aug. 5, between S&P and the US Treasury Department, showed that "spokesperson" is still all too much a part of our public discourse. Alas.

As you may recall, during the course of the day Aug. 5, it became apparent that the S&P calculations included a math error on the order of some $2 trillion. This was pointed out by the Treasury Department – and S&P decided to go ahead with the downgrade anyway.

This was not well received at Treasury, as you can imagine.

"A judgment flawed by a $2 trillion error speaks for itself," was the quote all over the front pages and the Web.

OK, so the error speaks for itself – but who speaks for the Treasury?

An online report from CBS News stated, "Late Friday, a Treasury Dept. spokesman told CBS News' Mark Knoller that 'A judgment flawed by a $2-trillion error speaks for itself.' "

An online report from ABC News of what would appear to be the same moment suggests a gathering of a number of journalists rather than a CBS exclusive: "A Treasury Department spokesperson told reporters, 'A judgment flawed by a $2 trillion error speaks for itself.' "

If the CBS correspondent simply failed to notice other people in the room, he would not be the first reporter to do so. But note how the CBS "spokesman" has become "spokesperson" in the ABC report. CNN used "spokesperson" as well.

Other news organizations such as Slate and Dawn, the Pakistani newspaper, attributed the "$2 trillion" line to a "spokesman," as did Fox News, under the headline, "Republicans Want Geithner to Walk The Plank After Credit Downgrade."

But The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, The Seattle Times, and MSNBC all used "spokeswoman" to identify the official from whose mouth the "$2 trillion" sound bite emerged.

What to make of all this? We would all have been better off had this quote been attached to someone with a specific name and identity.

A spokesman or spokeswoman is one who speaks publicly, on the record, for someone or some organization. "An official who could not be quoted by name because he is not authorized to speak on this subject," to give an example of the kind of formulation one sees frequently in American publications, may be a very useful source for a reporter. But such an official is not a spokesman.

My longstanding gripe against "spokesperson" is that, used as a stand-alone term, it signals someone whose name, title, and even gender are unclear. How authoritative can such a person be?

If one doesn't know the gender of a source, or needs to conceal gender to preserve confidentiality, a term like "official" is often better – in part because it seems more straightforward and less coy. Some news organizations attributed the "$2 trillion" quote to "an official."

It may be that more than one Treasury official was tasked with putting out the same sound bite to the media. It may also be that one woman's identity was fogged as a "person" and even as a "man."

Anonymous, they say, was a woman.

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