In Depth

Terminology Takes on Political Slant

News Nets Debate Whether Plan Is a ‘Bailout’ or a ‘Rescue’

The debate within television news organizations over what to call the financial legislation passed last week rivaled the debate over the bill itself.

“We’re betting heavily on this bailout, rescue—call it what you want—package,” Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial, said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Friday morning.

“We want to turn now to the other big story of the day: The roiling economy, the great bailout, the House expected to go back to the well again, another make-or-break vote later today on the revised rescue plan,” Diane Sawyer said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” after the words “The Great Bailout” swirled onto the screen.

“Bailout” and “rescue” became the default nomenclature last week. No one went for Troubled Asset Relief Program, the legislation’s actual name, or its acronym TARP.

Both defaults carry connotations that could be interpreted as painting the plan favorably or unfavorably.

Bailout is a term the public has heard before. Over the years, the U.S. government had bailed out Lockheed, New York City, Chrysler, several thousand savings and loan institutions and the airline industry. More recently, it’s been Bear Sterns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and insurance giant AIG.

Then the first bill to fix the financial mess failed and blame-gamers said it was because the bill was positioned as a lifeline for greedy fat cats on Wall Street (aka “bailout”) rather than an effort to save the American economy.

Another label was born: rescue.

By last week, when the economic and political talk was focused on the liquidity crunch and credit constriction, there was an on-screen battle of the labels and an off-camera discussion about what each meant and whether “bailout” was more politically charged than “rescue.”

The questions were particularly germane to the television news world because, as ratings for news and business news channels indicated, people were flocking to TV for instant updates.
Especially in times of fast-breaking crisis, “The basic immediacy is in television. What do you find out right now?” Richard Wald, the former senior VP of editorial quality at ABC News who is the Fred Friendly Professor at Columbia University of Journalism School, said. “Television only deals with labels.”

At ABC’s “World News With Charles Gibson,” Treasury Department sources and economists were consulted and an internal discussion on Monday about whether “bailout” or “rescue” was more accurate led to an immediate turn to “rescue” in special reports during the day and on “World News” that night.

The collective decision was that “rescue” is “a less politically charged, more descriptive word,” executive producer Jon Banner said.

At Fox Business Network, throughout the business day, the chyrons and the FBN anchors and beat reporters were all about “rescue.” There was internal discussion, but no edict, about which word was more appropriate, according to Ray Hennessey, director of business news editorial.

“So much of what we do is the language of our audience,” he said. “You don’t call the rescue squad unless it is really needed.”

CNBC seemed to split the difference. Most often viewers read “rescue” in the graphics and heard “bailout” from the channel’s anchors and beat teams, a dichotomy that had not seemed apparent to business news managing editor Tyler Mathisen.

“We’ve had no full-stop discussion of what our nomenclature is,” he said.

CNN stuck with “bailout” after editorial discussions, New York bureau chief Darius Walker said.
Although the “Washington-speak” would change, the package had been introduced as a bailout and “we stuck with bailout. We are consistent and wanted to remain consistent. We all felt very comfortable with our decision,” he said. Deciding if bailout is more politically charged than rescue “is not my determination,” he added.

CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, CNN’s Lou Dobbs and Fox’s Neil Cavuto all have commentary latitude that most of their colleagues do not. Last week, Mr. Kudlow was all about rescue, rescue, rescue. Mr. Dobbs and Mr. Cavuto were all about bailout, bailout, bailout—and in no flattering terms.

But Mr. Cavuto, who appears on both Fox Business Network and Fox News Channel, was to host a live Fox News special titled “Fox News Special Business Report: The Rescue Rumble.”