May 7, 2015

Why Rhetorica Sucks

I have spent much time on this blog since 2002 examining the persuasive intentions of journalists and politicians in order to help people understand, if just in my particular way, how and why journalists and politicians speak as they do.

Such a project assumes two things (among many):

  1. That journalists and politicians are basically reasonable people.
  2. That political and journalistic discourses are understandable as rational attempts at persuasion.

But we have a problem. The political discourse in America has been destroyed (you can pick your own agent — there are many). Not broken. Not troubled. Destroyed, as in it no longer exists.

So let me define what I’m talking about. By political discourse I mean to indicate texts (complexly understood) intended to identify and examine political/social/economic problems. Further, political discourse is then about negotiating solutions to problems (and, within the solutions role, political discourse is also about “winning” politically and accepting the democratic bargain). And, more positively expressed, political discourse is also about negotiating our common understanding ourselves as a nation and a culture.

That has been destroyed. Don’t believe me? Conduct an experiment: Turn on any cable news channel. Watch for 30 minutes.

Or read The New York Times. This article in today’s edition is arguably the most perfect example of the total loss of our political discourse and what prompts me to write today: Conspiracy Theories Over Jade Helm Training Exercise Gets Some Traction in Texas.

Because we no longer have a functional political discourse, Gov. Greg Abbott knows he faces no political cost whatsoever in feeding red meat to idiots. I absolutely reject any argument that would claim he is himself an idiot, i.e. actually believes Jade Helm 15 is anything more than just another military exercise (albeit a large one).

And he knows it’s a sure win. In that sense it is a heresthetic maneuver. Because every American with half a working brain (a dwindling number, apparently) — and regardless of political ideology — knows that President Obama has no intention “taking over Texas” (whatever the hell that could possibly mean), Abbott will be able to claim victory at the conclusion of the exercise.

This situation (all the bazillion ways this is seriously fucked up) can only occur in a country with no rational political discourse and no news media willing to promote and defend a rational political discourse.

And if you think this one is bad, wait a week.

I have, by fits and starts, tried to reinvigorate Rhetorica. But that’s just impossible in a country with no rational political discourse. In the real world I’m walking around in, Rhetorica is a colossal waste of time.

And that’s why it sucks.

For the three or four of you still reading, it’ll continue to suck by fits and starts.

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March 2, 2015

Journalism and Class Bias

I go long periods of time forgetting to update the oldest document on this website: my examination of structural bias in the news media. Jay Rosen’s post at PressThink today reminds me, again, that I need to add #10 to the list: class bias, specifically middle-class bias.

Rosen is writing about his recent appearance on CNN to discuss the situation with Bill OReilly at FOX News and why O’Reilly isn’t “in trouble” with his employer for fabrications similar to those made by Brian Williams on NBC. Here’s an important moment in his published notes:

Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.

It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.

Long-time readers of Rosen’s work will recognize this — before arriving at the third paragraph quoted — as his continued criticism of the “view from nowhere.” That view, along with many of the nine structural biases, creates much of the approach to news that some conservatives identify as liberal bias. I’m still on the record asserting this:

The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world. I believe journalism is an under-theorized practice. In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I say this as a former journalist. I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

In Rosen’s quote above he identifies what I call middle-class bias — a socio-economic position driven in large part by the particular kind of education journalists achieve, i.e. “liberal” in the academic understanding of that term.

Middle-class bias structures professional practice in journalism because, as with the other structural biases, journalists understand the world through the lenses of their educations, their incomes, and their professional mythology — a narrative that springs directly from middle-class understandings of journalism’s role in a democratic republic. For more on the latter, Rhetorica readers should once again check out pages 55 to 61 of Herbert Gans’ book Democracy and the News where Gans identifies the parts of journalists’ theory (I call it mythology) of democracy:

In logical order, the theory consists of four parts: 1) the journalist’s role is to inform citizens; 2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the…news journalists supply them; 3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically…; 4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be.

Middle class ideas. Middle class concerns. A middle class story.

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February 21, 2015

Narrative Bias and Superstition

This article in The Atlantic calls it magical thinking or superstition. I call it narrative bias.

If Bohr couldn’t resist magical thinking, can anyone? One recent study found that even physicists, chemists, and geologists at MIT and other elite schools were instinctively inclined to attach a purpose to natural events. When the researchers subjected the scientists to time pressure (reasoning that this could expose a person’s uncensored biases), they were twice as likely to approve of statements such as “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” than they were when they had time to respond more deliberately [1].

I’ve discussed narrative bias as one of the structural biases of journalism. That isn’t exactly accurate. It’s really a human bias that journalists cannot escape, and, therefore, it plays a structuring role in their practice.

Here’s the bias stated, perhaps, more correctly: People apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.

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September 3, 2014

Rhetoric, Truthiness, and Critical Thinking

Minus the partisan spin, this article in Slate explains the rhetoric of truthiness in a useful way.

It also creates an excellent argument for critical thinking as a civic virtue. Truthiness — a product of terministic screens — is something opposite of the product of critical thinking. Truthiness is only possible in the absence of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is difficult.

Thus, this Slate article:

Newman, who works out of the University of California–Irvine, recently uncovered an unsettling precondition for truthiness: The less effort it takes to process a factual claim, the more accurate it seems. When we fluidly and frictionlessly absorb a piece of information, one that perhaps snaps neatly onto our existing belief structures, we are filled with a sense of comfort, familiarity, and trust. The information strikes us as credible, and we are more likely to affirm it—whether or not we should.

I’m not sure education can address this, seeing as how its project has taken many hits of late from assertions of truthiness from across the political spectrum. Did I mention critical thinking also makes the people politically troublesome and more difficult to “lead”?

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August 7, 2014

Mass New Media Word Salad

Yes, I did just start a website for my MED581 Issues in media Ethics class called Mass New Media Citizen Ethics. My challenge was coming up with a name that captures the complex nature of media ethics now that citizens — especially millennials — are also, and expect to be, media producers, i.e. more than just a part of the conversation.

I think it works 😉

School starts on 18 August. So keep an eye out for their contributions. And use the contact form to make suggestions. The comment system will be open.

I have listed the site on the sidebar under Media Ethics. I will not be listing it as a part of the Rhetorica Network just yet. Still mulling that over.

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August 1, 2014

Rhetorical Dichotomies and Urbanism

I’m finding the process of writing a script for a documentary film especially interesting in regard to the canon of invention. Much of the advice I’ve been reading — because I’m a total newb at this — says the most you can do early in the process (the research/pre-production phase) is create a general outline. Invention comes before outline. I’ve been doing research, i.e. reading to focus my idea. Previously described:

The Baby Boomers were children of the post-war suburbs and raised their own children in the sprawling communities at the edges of American cities. Owning an individual home outside of a city has long been an essential part of the American Dream. That dream is changing. The Millennial generation is changing it. Young people today are showing a strong preference for living in dense, walkable urban communities. And an increasing number of their empty-nest parents are following them.

I’m finding Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design to be especially helpful because I’ve created two useful dichotomies. “Useful” means rhetorically useful i.e. helping me say, persuasively, what it is I want to say. In an early chapter about the history of suburbia, he identifies two philosophies driving suburban sprawl.

  1. The school of separation: The good life can only be achieved by separating the functions of the city so people can avoid “the worst of its toxicity.”
  2. The school of speed: Freedom is a “matter of velocity — the idea being that the faster you can get away from the city , the freer you will become.”

So I am asserting two (kinda) opposite schools that appear to be guiding a return to cities.

  1. The school of mixed use: This is one of the guiding ideas of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The good life can be achieved by living in areas where many uses intermingle.
  2. The school of proximity: It is better to walk, ride a bicycle, or take public transit to nearby places in a mixed-use urban area.

The whole point of what I’ll call a “rhetorical dichotomy” is to create a model by which you can compare things. In this case, the things are various issues of urbanism and suburbanism. A rhetorical dichotomy ought not, it seems to me, be used to over-simplify an issue. I’ll try not to. The three issues I’ll be examining (until I change my mind) are:

  1. Energy use: How much energy does one consume to live a suburban lifestyle versus an urban lifestyle.
  2. Commute: How much time and expense is involved in commuting to work or traveling to other important destinations?
  3. Infrastructure support: What needs to be built, and what needs to be maintained, to support new urbanism versus suburbanism?

There are, of course, many more issues from which to choose. These interest me now. More to come…

[Cross-posted on Carbon Trace]

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May 27, 2014

Urban Boom, A Documentary Film

From: Carbon Trace Productions and The Rhetorica Network

The Baby Boomers were children of the post-war suburbs and raised their own children in the sprawling communities at the edges of American cities. Owning an individual home outside of a city has long been an essential part of the American Dream.

That dream is changing.

The Millennial generation is changing it. Young people today are showing a strong preference for living in dense, walkable urban communities. And an increasing number of their empty-nest parents are following them.

The Carbon Trace Production Team today announces its first, full-length documentary film project. The working title is Urban Boom. The film will tell the story of Baby Boomers who are leaving the suburbs to find a new American Dream in the cities.

The film will cover the social, political, and economic issues involved in this trend and deal with the problems associated with challenging the past 70 years of cultural mythology.

You may follow production news and details on our Facebook page.

Follow us on Twitter @UrbanboomDoc.

I will also post updates here from time to time.

Want to help? Please “like” our page, tweet our news, and help us find stories to tell. We are now looking for interview subjects — Boomers who have left the suburbs to live in cities. We need a range of experiences and rationales. If you know someone, if you are someone, who would like to contribute a story, please contact me by any method.

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January 22, 2014

Taking a Break, Back in the Spring

Rhetorica and Carbon Trace will be on an extended blogging hiatus until sometime in the spring.

This is mostly a career-related break. I have several projects and matters to attend to that are going to require my full attention.

Now, when I say full attention, that doesn’t mean I’m going dark. I’ll still be commenting on the various topics of interest related to my two blogs through Facebook and Twitter.

I know you’re all out there just clinging to the edges of your seats :-)

Back soonish…

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September 27, 2013

No Adults Left At CNN

The adults have left CNN; the children are in charge.

How is it possible today not to understand the importance of, and indeed practice, the ethic of transparency? If we’ve learned nothing else in this technological revolution sweeping the news media it is this: an interactive media — the only kind left standing — demands transparency.

The argument is simple: In a media situation where anyone can report, publish, and be noticed, transparency (in purpose, methods, and  ethos) becomes the new umbrella ethic, the new route to credibility — the willingness to be open about who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. This is the opposite of the view from nowhere — the false notion that journalists can or should be “objective” in philosophical stance, that their news comes from some place apart from the pressures and intentions of the real world with no purpose other than to inform. (What journalists need to be are custodians of fact who operate with a discipline of verification — and be transparent about it.)

So we learn that the rebirth of the wretched Crossfire includes the abandonment of transparency — no obligation to report conflicts of interest to the viewer.

Well, to be fair, Crossfire ain’t journalism. And, really, given the excesses, excuses, mistakes, and silliness pointed out regularly by Jon Stewart, can we really call CNN an outlet for journalism? Maybe a couple hours per day.

This show is a vampire. Jon Stewart only wounded it before. Who will drive a stake through its evil heart and kill it for good?

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September 25, 2013

Popular Science Shutting Off Comments

There was a time I would have begged Popular Science not to shut off the comments feature.

A few years back I encouraged the former editor of the Springfield News-Leader to implement an open comment system. I said at the time — and still believe — that it is the best way to jump-start discussion. But I also said that some kind of control system would have to be created in order to mitigate the usual crap we suffer from trolls, flamers, and the ideologically blind or politically motivated.

The current editor implemented the current system that uses Facebook as the comment engine — a good move, I think.

Popular Science is choosing to give up. And I like the reasons:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Just today on Facebook I saw a meme that read: Only Science can disprove science. Simplistic as all memes are, but there’s a deep truth here: the rhetoric of science, with its rigorous process of invention (i.e. the scientific method), is not open to persuasion from interlocutors employing different rhetorics (i.e. no scientist cares about your opinion of science). The very method of invention employed by scientists to discover and transmit (persuade) knowledge contains the further argument that one can only challenge the knowledge of science on its home field. We can certainly debate the merits of that, but one thing appears clear to me: One does not challenge the findings on, say, climate change, by arguing that it’s a hoax perpetrated by politically motivated geeks in lab coats for the purpose of world socialist revolution.

On that home field that is.

While political steps we might take to fight climate change might indeed have the effect of challenging capitalist assumptions, the purpose of studying climate change is not to have that effect. The purpose is to understand what is happening and why it’s happening.

The persuasive strategy of the “politically motivated” people identified by Popular Science is, among other things, to change rhetorical venues or change the venue that Popular Science provides and, thus, undermine expertise and trust in science and scientists.

Remember: Rhetorical strategy is about winning. Popular Science is taking its ball and going home to prevent the other team from scoring. It remains to be seen what if any effect this has on the popular discourse of science.

In any case, I understand and sympathize with their frustration.

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