Monday, March 25, 2013

A rhetorical challenge

My favorite public radio station, WBUR, is finishing up a fund-raising drive today (we all hope), and this drive, as usual, featured a number of time-limited pitches spurred by "challenge grants."

"Loyal listeners have pledged $10,000 if we can match their donations [or reach a certain number of donations] by 1 p.m.," and so on, the employees say. (I paraphrase, of course; even I am not a committed enough listener to write down the patter word for word.) "We can only keep the $10,000 if we make that goal," the pitch goes on (though a few cautious announcers say instead that the challenge amount is "not guaranteed").

I remember vaguely thinking, years ago, that there was something odd about the challenge model for public broadcasting fundraising. Are those donors really the sort of people who'd withdraw their support unless it was matched? And why would they? Continuing support doesn't depend on reaching a certain make-or-break level of funding, the way making a movie or starting a business might. Unlike a Kickstarter project, no critical mass of money is necessary for the enterprise to proceed.

But I didn't give it serious thought till one recent season when, after I made my online donation, the station e-mailed me to ask if it could be bundled as part of a challenge grant. I was confused; "I don't want it back," I said. But of course I soon realized that the "challenge" was just a device to get listeners' attention, and the station's risk of forfeit was essentially zero.

Now the collective "challenge" has been institutionalized; if you make a sufficiently generous donation at the station's website, the screen asks you to check a box if you want your largess to be part of a challenge grant (with an assurance that you can have it back if the challenge fails).

This strategy still seems to me like a rhetorical mismatch. First it casts public radio donors as the kind of people who'll take their bucks and go home if other people don't play their game. Then it compromises the public radio brand, which relies so much on integrity, by asking employees to tell fibs. Or maybe I'm just a priggish literalist. But given their downside, I sure hope those "challenges" are getting good results.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Eager peevers

William Zinsser, author of "On Writing Well" (the book is 37 years and seven editions old), recently published a collection of blog posts he'd been writing for The American Scholar. I haven't read the essays, but Edwin M. Yoder Jr. has, and he is delighted, he reports in the Wall Street Journal, to find in Zinsser "as hardened a cultural tory as I." That is: a fellow peever.
Readers of "On Writing Well" may not remember it as particularly cranky, and it's not. But this new collection (whatever its actual contents) apparently includes enough language grousing to keep the reviewer happy. For instance, Yoder reports, Zinsser objects to the "weasel word" relationship:
Zinsser's problem with the word "is that it means whatever anyone needs it to mean. . . . But nowhere in bardic lore is there any word of Antony's relationship with Cleopatra, or Tristan's . . . with Isolde." Nor did Cole Porter "write, 'let's do it, let's have a relationship.' "
Zinsser also "doesn't use email and is offended by the term 'snail mail,' patronizing as it is to the dedicated workers of the U.S. Postal Service who get our checks and bills to us on time," says Yoder.

I suppose Zinsser deserves credit for not limiting himself to the same old peeves. But these new ones seem like odd targets. Relationship, after all, has described many sorts of connection in its three centuries of existence. Yes, for Jane Austen it meant a legal kinship, not mere love or friendship. But her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft used it, writing to her baby daddy, in 1793: "Where shall I find a word to express the relationship which subsists between us?" So our modern use is hardly an unnatural development.

It's more understandable that Zinsser (in the sole excerpt of the book I could find) makes fun of his investment adviser for referring to a subordinate as “the lead assistant assigned to your relationship" with the brokerage. But even this commercial jargon usage has OED entries dating back decades: "Relationship management" and "relationship banking" took root in the 1970s.

As for snail mail, I was surprised to hear it might be offensive; I always assumed it was just an irresistible and innocent backronym coined for the age of e-mail. Google did turn up one example of genuine word rage at it, from a direct mail marketer defending his turf:  
I despise the term "snail mail." It is a pejorative that denigrates all hand-carried mail -- Standard, First Class and Parcel Post -- well as the dedicated men and women who deliver it. It is a far more offensive term than "junk mail."
But aside from this highly interested party, there were only a few people claiming snail mail was disparaging, and they were just guessing: inferring that it was intended that way, or was taken that way, but not themselves claiming to intend or take offense.

So has Zinsser become a complete curmudgeon? I suspect not; this article probably highlights the language gripes out of a combination of journalistic strategy (lead with the red meat) and the reviewer's own love of kvetching. So until I see the primary source, I'm reserving judgment on who's the eagerer peever of the pair.