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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September 19, 2013

Stenography v. Journalism: Game Over

The game has been over for a very long time. The stadium lights are out. The crowd has gone home. Even the cleaning crew has finished mopping up the mess.

Stenography won.

Reporting lost.

I’ve written about this so many times before. I’m not even sure why I’m bothering to mention the latest in post-game commentary by one of the games greatest television stenographers: Chuck Todd.

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July 17, 2013

Attack of the Cute Young Guy

Apparently, this Rolling Stone cover is causing a stir on Twitter and Facebook:

TSARNAEV_cover

Twitter and Facebook are ever aflutter with the petty outrages of the current 15-minute moment. And, typically, this petty outrage is fueled entirely by emotional reactions. OMFG!!! Rolling Stone is Glorifying a terrorist!

Exactly how?

Now, don’t even attempt to answer that with any argument that isn’t grounded in cogent rhetorical and ethical analysis. For example: Exactly how, as a rhetorical expression, does the cover glorify the guy? You’ll need to define glory both textually and visually. You’ll need to identify it specifically on the cover and differentiate it from other reasonable interpretations. And you’ll need to demonstrate an intention on the part of Rolling Stone to do any such thing. Without intention, well, I think in cases such as this: no rhetorical harm / no rhetorical foul. You remain free to interpret it as you like and get upset about it. (Failing intention, I’ll accept demonstrating that RS has failed cultural sensibilities, but then you’d have to defend those sensibilities as more than mere emoting or mass hysteria.) It wouldn’t hurt if you could also deal with other uses of this image and explain in detail how they differ rhetorically from this use.

I am a subscriber to Rolling Stone, but I am traveling and will not be able to read the article until next week. But the description on the cover sounds like exactly the kind of reporting we should want about this guy. Who is he? What factors led to his decision to bomb the Boston Marathon? And, what’s really important here, what do answers to these questions (and others) say about the future of such acts in the U.S.

I have no idea if the article will live up to this promise, but the cover seems to me a very good start. We get to stare into the face of domestic terrorism and see that it can look like the cute guy who lives next door. Public served, IMO.

Glory? They call him a “monster.” That is infamy.

UPDATE: Mass hysteria continues as America suffers a total breakdown in critical thinking.

UPDATE: Rolling Stone responds:

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.

Exactly. Sounds like a cover story to me.

 

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June 7, 2013

Structural Bias and the Failing Press

Why does the press get it wrong so often (how often?) on the big stories (and small ones, too)?

Conor Friedersdorf offers a few reasons for some of the many screw-ups we’ve suffered lately. It’s like a lesson in the structural biases of journalism – the very list I’ve been telling you for more than 10 years is important in understanding not only why journalists do what they do but also why they fail when they do.

But that’s not to say that the structural biases are the only source of our recent problems. Another bugaboo familiar to long-time Rhetorica readers (and, apparently, there are still a few of you left) is the failure that occurs when journalists operate as something less than custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

And while I’m loathe the agree with Instapundit on much of anything, I do think there’s a large measure of “dumb” and “smug” going on.

Journalists — the older ones anyway — are suffering through a turbulent, tech-driven revolution that is raising questions about foundational issues such as the role of the audience, the economics of news, and the presentation of serious, text-driven journalism on 4-inch screens. Let me throw a life buoy — one I guarantee will float in this storm: Operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification and be a little more self-reflective about the role of the structural biases.

Just do it. Or continue to embarrass yourselves.

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April 23, 2013

Journalism Needs More Dicks

I think we have reached a new low in journalism.

During the past few big news events, I’ve found myself wondering, as I watch and read, just how badly the various news organizations are screwing it up. I’m defining “screwing it up” as failing to act as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. I’m going to over-generalize from that and assert that news now appears to be partly about the entertainment value of watching journalists get it wrong long before they get it right.

I base that over-generalization on this assumption and prediction (really stepping in it now): No one will lose their jobs over any of this. And no one will lose their jobs the next time. Which ensures there  will be a next time. And a next. And a next…

Let’s check in with Jon Stewart.

He starts off the sketch by asserting that The Daily Show is hard on the news media because “we are dicks.” I’ll agree if part of the definition of being a dick is doing the necessary work of critiquing the performance of the news media and holding it to standards that ought to define it.

Journalism needs more dicks.

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April 16, 2013

Really? Again? … Well, Yes.

So, yeah, Rhetorica is changing a bit … again.

My grumpy phase appears at an end, so the whole Doom Files thing is a non-starter for me. I’m an optimistic person with an annoyingly enthusiastic personality. So  gloom-and-doom was always a bit of a stretch.

You’ll notice the blog portion of the site no longer has a separate title. The blog will now simply be Rhetorica, and all of my media empire will remain under the banner of The Rhetorica Network.

I’m now going to be casting a much wider net over the culture with the focus remaining rhetoric.

Let’s see how this goes :-)

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April 7, 2013

Social Media And The Damage Done

I like social media as much as anyone else. I use Facebook and Twitter. I consider them excellent professional tools. And these services offer much entertainment. Facebook, Twitter, and other such services are natural products of the interactivity made possible by the internet and multimedia devices.

Plus, it’s hard to beat being able to easily stay in touch with people you enjoy. I tell my students about reuniting with two old friends from college a few years back. We’d lost track of each other because it was easy to lose track back in the day. All it took was one lost phone number or one move with no forwarding address. They can hardly believe such a thing was possible. Today, you can hardly shake someone even if you want to.

One of the fun things we do with social media is share interesting stuff we find on the internet. This desire to share interesting stuff is exactly the urge that gave birth to blogging. And cat memes.

I’ll continue stating the obvious by noting that all this interactivity and sharing also carries an ideological trap — getting suckered into sharing hoaxes that either have the ring of truth or that you fervently wish to be true. That ring is a function of the content conforming to ideology, not conforming to discernible facts. Two recent examples from Facebook:

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Both of these are nonsense and utterly false. Checking with Google took seconds. And checking the links for the telltale signs of bullshit took only a few more seconds (biggest clue among many for both: no primary source links). I suspect the one about the Pope was an April Fool’s joke (tip: never share anything on 1 April). And yet these were shared as if true.

Who doesn’t enjoy a funny website? Here’s one you should check out: Literally Unbelievable — a site dedicated to highlighting posts on Facebook that take stories from The Onion seriously.

Har dee har har, right? Well, wrong. Such credulity — enabled by the refusal to do even minimum checking — is a hallmark of the our failing culture’s canon of invention. We have drawn cultural, political, social, economic, and religious battle lines and refuse to seek stasis, i.e. common ground where we agree about the content of disagreement.

I have no doubt there are people in this country today who believe these two false stories. The damage done is clear.

How do we stop it? Step one: Pass along nothing in social media until you’ve spent at least a moment checking it out. And don’t be enamored of the source. Credible news organizations and learned people have been suckered, too. I’m guilty, too. I’ve passed along nonsense, too. I’m embarrassed, too.

I’m now arguing that the discipline of verification is more than an essential practice of journalism. It must now be an essential practice of citizenship in the social media age.

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March 22, 2013

Rhetoric And The War Ten Years On

I had to go back and read what I had written ten years ago at the beginning of the war with Iraq.

If you had asked me just a day ago what my position on the war was at the time, I would have told you that I was against it, largely because I did not think a case had made on anything more than emotions. I was also wondering how the whole “keep spending while we cut taxes” thing was going to work.

Few of my concerns showed up on Rhetorica. I was too busy doing my rhetorical analysis thing. A post I wrote on 3 February 2003 — Making A Case For War — was typical. I was continuing to respond to the State of the Union address and various criticisms of it. At the time I wrote:

Should we be fired up for war? Should we fight Iraq? I do not know. I leave such questions to the war bloggers. My interest in this is the rhetoric of war as it appears in the Bush 2003 SOTU [broken link]. If his goal is to prepare us for war, if his goal is to persuade us that war is right, then he is doing the time-honored thing to make that case: appealing to our emotions.

But part of what I was doing in this post was wondering about what kind of appeal the American public really wanted — not that such a thing is easy to determine. Here’s how I concluded:

The thinking seems to be–and I agree–that Bush needed to use facts to outline his argument for war. If this sentiment is indeed pervasive, it may indicate an as yet unarticulated rejection of war. If no facts are forthcoming, then all that’s left are emotional appeals. And if we are crying for facts, then we may be crying for peace.

And that, Rhetorica readers, is about as close as I came to taking a stand on one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

While it has never been difficult to determine my politics — I have been transparent about it in various ways — it was a rare thing for me to make political stands in the course of examining and criticizing the rhetoric of the press-politics relationship. The name of this blog used to be Press-Politics Journal, not The Doom Files.

Much has changed in ten years.

Many people are revisiting their relationship to the start of war recently given the grim anniversary of our unprovoked attack on Iraq. I was alerted to Peggy Noonan’s retrospective by a tweet from Jay Rosen:

She laments the damage done to the Republican Party by our rush to war. I think she may be right.

What we’re reading here is simply more shallow punditry — one of the primary currencies of the  rhetoric of a failing culture. Compared to damage done to our state, our nation, and our economy, the damage done to any particular political party is nothing. She pays only the slightest of lip service to the damage done to all of us as she pretends to be offering cogent commentary about politics. I’m reminded of fiddles and burning cities.

Given the damage, I think all of us who spoke publicly — journalists, bloggers, pundits, politicians – about the run-up to war owe our society an apology to the extent that we did not deal in facts and reality as we allowed ourselves to be swept along by emotion. Many of us on the left and right allowed ourselves to be cowed by those who questioned the patriotism of anyone with the nerve to ask tough questions or point out inconvenient facts. We over-reacted to 9/11. We attacked a country without provocation. We tortured people. We killed so many that the count may never be known. We destroyed our reputation in the world. We ruined our economy.

I am sorry.

I wrote about rhetoric — certainly a worthy project. But I did not say enough about what I think the rhetoric really indicated.

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