Daniel Tencer
Raw Story
June 18, 2010

Media critics and linguists are criticizing CNN for running a story claiming that President Obama’s Tuesday night address to the nation on the Gulf oil spill “may have gone over the heads of many in his audience.”

What’s more, critics say, the story was based on an analysis carried out by a linguistics “expert” of dubious credentials who once claimed that Sarah Palin speaks at a higher language level than Vice President Joe Biden.

In a story published on its Web site Thursday, CNN reported on an analysis from Paul J.J. Payack, who runs the Global Language Monitor.

Payack’s analysis determined that Obama’s speech was at a 9.8-grade level, meaning at a level of English slightly below that expected of 10th-grade students. (Studies indicate that the average American reads at a level between 8th and 9th grade.)

“The scores indicate that this was not Obama at his best, especially when attempting make an emotional connection to the American people,” Payack concludes in his analysis.

But Payack’s own comparative statistics show that Obama’s speech was on the same grade level as President Ronald Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall” speech (also 9.8), and was considerably lower than President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”), which clocked in at a 10.8-grade level.

Despite this, CNN pronounced that the speech “may have gone over the heads of many in his audience,” a claim now being ridiculed by some bloggers and commentators.

“To ‘connect’ with Americans,” suggests Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post, “Obama should have definitely said: ‘OIL GO BOOM! ME NEED HELP FROM BIG BRAINS. I CALL THE CHU-MAN ON THE RINGY PHONE.’”

Other commentators took CNN to task for basing the story on a linguistics expert who some others in the field consider to be a fraud.

“Payack is not a professional linguist — he often boasts of a Harvard degree, which turns out to be some coursework in comparative literature that he took through Harvard’s extension program,” Ben Zimmer wrote at the University of Pennsylvania’s linguistics blog.

Alex Pareene at Salon.com writes that Payack is “a professional self-promoter who provides ready-made bullshit ’stories’ about language to media outlets like CNN. He is a professional expert with no expertise. He is a fraud. CNN has been going to him for stories like this for years, of course.”

Some see a political agenda at work behind the story, as it fits nicely into the popular theme about President Obama being too aloof and intellectual to connect with the American public.

“I’m beginning to wonder why CNN didn’t make use of Paul Payack’s talent back when George W. Bush was talking about ‘misunderestimation’ and ‘working hard to put food on your family’,” writes Kevin Staley-Joyce at the First Things blog.

CNN has used Payack as an analyst before. During the 2008 presidential election, Payack declared that Sarah Palin spoke during her debate with Joe Biden at a tenth-grade level, while Biden spoke at an eighth-grade level.