Lexicon Valley

We Have Questions to Raise About the Insidiously Banal Phrase Raises Questions

It’s sort of deceptive to say Hillary’s emails raise questions when they answer them instead.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

At the center of one of this election’s latest kerfuffles isn’t another disparagement from Donald Trump or hedge from Hillary Clinton. It’s a common phrase.

Here’s what happened: The New York Times published an article by Eric Lichtblau called “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation Ties to State Dept.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie puzzled at the language in a tweet: “I don’t quite understand how a denied request for special access raises questions about undue ties?” Amanda Marcotte also expressed her bewilderment on Twitter: “Really, if the best you can do is ‘raises questions’, that isn’t much of a story. Journalism is about answering questions.” At Vox, Matthew Yglesias quickly dispatched with raises questions: “[The email chain] certainly doesn’t raise the question of whether Clinton Foundation staff got special access to passports from the State Department. It answers the question. They didn’t, as the story says.” And Paul Krugman subtweeted the very newspaper he files his weekly column for: “If reports about a candidate talk about how something ‘raises questions,’ creates ‘shadows,’ or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air.”

The issue with raises questions, for its critics, runs much deeper than any complaint about sloppy language. In spite of the implication teed up in the headline and lead, Lichtblau found no “pay to play” link between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s State Department in this latest batch of emails. So, the headline and lead’s charge of raises questions doesn’t merely mischaracterize the facts but also presupposes a nonexistent crime. Echoing Krugman, journalist Paul Waldman finds much larger consequences for the presumption. As he argued in the Washington Post, this raises questions reinforces “a larger narrative” that Clinton is fundamentally “tainted by scandal, or corrupt, or just sinister in ways people can never quite put their finger on.” And what’s more, Waldman continues, the usage is downright unfair, for Trump’s affairs don’t go under the same question-raising scrutiny his opponent’s do.

We might make several counterarguments, of course. Linguistically, there is nothing terribly special about the New York Times’ use of raises questions. The phrase is boilerplate headlinese, clichéd almost to the point of meaninglessness. Changing technology and media habits have forced newspapers toward grabbier language; if we want free content, we have to tolerate some level of clickbait. And politically, some insist that language like raises questions treats Clinton not with brass knuckles but with kid gloves.

But consider the objections to raises questions in a larger context. We may disagree with Waldman or Krugman, but we can’t disagree that it’s an example of journalists calling out journalists, of people in the media calling out the media. And this—this tiny instance of self-accountability—feels rare and refreshing in a media environment of too much news and information, in a time of intense polarization, with a set of candidates of historic levels of perceived untrustworthiness, at a moment in democracy when we worry truth is becoming optional.

Sure, criticisms of the Times use of raises questions can seem like a quibble or overreaction, but they cry for clarity, order, reason, consistency. They clamor for words with shared meanings, information with a shared reality. The problem, then, with raises questions isn’t simply one of logic, language, or even reportage. It’s whether we’re all willing to listen to the same answers.