Passive Aggressive

The way some news stories are written, the truth can hide in plain view.
Kam Napier

The passive voice can be used to cover a multitude of sins. That’s why people with something to hide take cover in its warm, vague nothingness.

One thinks of Ronald Reagan declaring during the Iran-Contra scandal that “mistakes were made.” The passive voice is the language of the whitewash, the cover-up.

It’s no surprise that newsmakers in trouble hide behind the passive voice, but it is a surprise and a disappointment when news reporters pull the same trick to minimize a public figure’s bad behavior.

I’m talking about the coverage surrounding Lisa Matsumoto, who—and please note how simply this can be said—killed herself and nearly killed Cassie Olaivar by driving drunk on the wrong side of the road.

Not that it was always easy to figure that out from the coverage. From the moment the story broke, our daily media wrapped Matsumoto in a protective cocoon of passive sentences, often turning away as quickly as possible from the bloody accident scene in order to eulogize the “renowned local playwright and performer.”

“Her death leaves friends stunned this creative force has been silenced,” intoned KHON, in a nebulous bit of syntax that suggests Matsumoto was the victim of some outside agency and not actually the author of her own death.

Or consider this mushy sentence from KHNL, which similarly separates actor from action: “She wrote stories with happy endings, [b]ut a wrong-way, head-on crash on the H-1 Freeway created a tragedy for a beloved Hawaii author and playwright.” Really? The crash created the tragedy? All by itself?

As slippery as these sentences are, they are all the more offensive when you stop and wonder—would the daily media have shown such deference toward a dead drunk driver who nearly killed someone else if that drunk driver had been, say, a city councilmember? A trial lawyer? An 18-year-old in a tricked-out racer-boy car? For some reason, the media gave Matsumoto a moral pass. They did it by bending over backwards to describe the events as if Matsumoto was just one of the victims that night, and not the cause of the whole mess. They did it even in opinion pieces, in which they couldn’t even claim that professional journalistic “objectivity” led to such passive, blameless writing.

Consider the Advertiser’s Dec. 20 editorial, four days after officials reported that Matsumoto’s blood-alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit:  “When [Olaivar] had the misfortune to collide with the car driven by prominent playwright Lisa Y. Matsumoto, she was thrust into the limelight. As a victim, yes, but also as a public example of how the DUI problem can affect anyone, anywhere, at random and with often tragic consequences. Olaivar, who survived with broken bones and severe cuts, happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

This has got to be one of the most intellectually dishonest paragraphs I’ve ever read. “Misfortune to collide” with Matsumoto’s car? Wait a minute, who hit who? This sentence implies that Olaivar hit Matsumoto, not the other way around! And the kicker: “Olaivar … happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Are they kidding? Because if this is what its editors take away from the event, there’s something about “tragedy,” or even “news,” that they don’t understand.  This story is tragic and news, precisely because Olaivar was in the right place, at the right time, where she had every right to be, and would have been fine—until a drunken famous playwright drove right into her.

I’m not the first to point out that the Advertiser has a thinking problem on this story. But don’t expect the paper to admit that it does. On Dec. 23, Advertiser editor Mark Platte defended his paper’s coverage from complaints like mine. “There was nothing wrong with our reporting on this tragedy,” he wrote. “The stories were handled with great care.”

Sounds like somebody needs a moment of clarity.