I wish the media would not appropriate perfectly good words for their slogans. First of all, we need those words and do not want immediate mental associations to some corporate identity – and I know that this is exactly the reason the phrases are chosen, but hear me out, because… Second of all, words that make sense in a sentence where they serve a necessary descriptive or instructive purpose are dumb in isolation.
Take MSNBC’s “lean forward.” That turned me off immediately. I could just imagine the intense brainstorming session that was held around that one: How do we say we’re progressive without saying “progressive”? It needs to have action, to make people feel active. Yeah, and emphatic, like it’s in italics. Right, right – and what do italics do? They lean forward… Lean forward – perfect! It’s got visual meaning, political meaning, and marketing meaning – we want folks to be so into MSNBC, they lean forward when they watch!
I don’t know. Lean forward brings to mind a figure who is somewhat unbalanced, possibly ready to trip or tip over; or someone pushing against a hard wind; or someone who’s fixin’ to get a swat on the nose – virtual or literal – for sticking it where it doesn’t belong. Some of us politically progressive types, when confronted with something new and different, would still rather pause at a safe distance and poke it with a stick before we lean forward. In folk dancing, the “lean” as a dance step is never done exclusively in one direction. It’s dancing, after all, and not falling over. A big lean is one direction is followed nicely by a lean in the other direction. Or you might have a quick lean-lean and then settle back to center.
We have the word “lean” suggesting imbalance, and then we have the word “forward,” highly useful but now unfortunately shaded by the insidious slogan. So that when President Obama says “Forward!” it sounds like he’s a shill for the progressive network that cheers him on. It also sounds vaguely military to me, like “Onward!” or “Once more unto the breech!” Now, even an innocent email from our re-elected Senator Udall labeled “Going Forward” feels a little sinister. You too, Tom? But that’s what we’re doing – pushing on, planning for the future – going forward. I like the word forward, but not as much as I used to.
Lean forward is what we do when we don’t want to get something on ourselves, like when we have to spit, or when we’re eating a slice of greasy pizza. I might lean forward if I can’t hear you; I could lean forward to smell a rose and avoid the thorns. While I enjoy MSNBC and put on Rachel and Lawrence almost every night, I don’t sit there leaning forward to catch every word – I’m usually doing things around the house or at the computer. When I do actually watch, the “lean forward” campaign with those earnest cameos by the star commentators drives me nuts. You’d think they were the ones running for office, while “lean forward” scrolls along the top of the screen, more of a stage direction than slogan.
“Lean forward” seems obviously intended to convey “left-leaning.” That’s kind of a funny counterpoint to Fox News labeling themselves “fair and balanced” when they clearly tilt way to the right. Note that the phrase “fair and balanced” is ruined too; now we use it facetiously with air quotes. Given our obsession with making media devices smaller and messages shorter, I suppose we can look
forward (darn!) ahead to even more cryptic branding, at which point the words the rest of us need to communicate will be safe. Instead of “fair and balanced” and “lean forward” the partisan networks can just use Xs and Os, which we can interpret in the way that best fits our world view, which is what we do anyway.