This past week, NPR’s Edward Schumacher-Matos asked, “Fiscal cliff? What fiscal cliff? And who is going over it? Seldom has a popular metaphor been so overworked and been so wrong, and yet curiously been seen by so many as somehow favoring the other political side.” Great Britain’s U.S. edition of The Guardian notes, “The fiscal cliff is the unfortunate yet necessary term that many news organizations and businesses are saddled with for the duration of the debate…A growing group of media – and media-savvy – dissidents are backing away from the term.” Political comedian Bill Maher tweeted, “Media, pls stop using term ‘fiscal cliff’, when America is plunged into the unimaginable hell known as the Clinton tax rates.”
Why this controversy over two words used to describe what the U.S. government may face on January 1? That’s when the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 are scheduled to go into effect, bringing massive budget cuts and significant tax increases–unless Congress and the president can cut a deal to avoid such drastic measures. The media seized upon the term after Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke first used it in February when he described that “a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” would take place on the first of the year.
When I think “fiscal cliff,” I picture a plunge into an abyss of economic disaster. Yet everyone agrees that this wouldn’t happen on New Year’s Day even if no agreement is reached by then. Whatever the negative effects on our economy, they would be slow to happen and would likely be eased by policy-making after the deadline.
Those in the media are linking everything from Wall Street’s performance to consumer confidence polls to the looming “fiscal cliff.” But there is some danger in using words that scare people. Politicians, organizations and the media do this quite often to achieve a desired result. Words are the PR person’s most significant tool, and they can be used well — or abused. There are ethical questions involved in using words that frighten. The “fiscal cliff” maybe be counted among them. Your thoughts?