August 18, 2009

Of Pundits and Idiots

The term “idiot” has been a bit over-used of late — especially in book titles, even song titles — although I’m cool with Green Day’s use of it.

But it is a great word with a crisp sound and three flexible syllables that allow you to inflect it multiple ways to achieve the right tone for making someone feel like, well, an idiot. I think it also has a curious, aural enthemematic quality, too, such that when you see it in print you make it sound a particular way in your head.

I try not to use the word on Rhetorica, although I’m sure I have a few times.

I’m reading a book right now — about halfway through it — entitled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce. I’m not intending to write a review of it. It’s just something I happen to be reading. And last night when I reached page 104 I happened into a long section quoting me. Surprise! (I do not recall giving Pierce an interview.) He’d quoted a large portion of my oft-quoted blog post entitled How to Be a Pundit (also mentioned in the Wall Street Journal).

This is a bit of serendipity because on Sunday the Springfield News-Leader ran my letter to the editor decrying the idiocy of mindless partisan contention. I think the News-Leader promotes this kind of idiocy — thus harming our local civic discourse — by encouraging amateur, local columnists to be pundits instead of opinion journalists (which anyone can be). They do this by labeling their columns “From the Right” and “From the Left,” which creates a clear expectation of unthinking partisan contention in the form of demonizing.

Further, it does not appear that the News-Leaders attempts in any way to mitigate the demonizing — thus encouraging it. They don’t even check facts — thus encouraging it. So the only thing missing from these silly pissing matches is the wet stain on the paper.

Television is hopeless, so there’s no point complaining about the role that medium plays in civic idiocy. Civic idiocy is good television. But a newspaper, as a medium of propositional content, should be better. It should provide better and encourage better in its readers and contributors.

But those days are over. Welcome to idiot America.

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.

September 6, 2012

When Nazi Rhetoric Is OK

So here’s what South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley:

Harpootlian made the comments in question in addressing Haley holding apress conference in a basement studio at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C. amid the Democratic National Convention.

“She was down in the bunker a la Eva Braun,” Harpootlian said, according to The State.

I think we’d all be better off if we let the conservatives own the Nazi invective (or their singular, and idiotic, combination of Nazi-socialist invective re: Obama). We’d be better off because such language would be easier to isolate and hoot off the civic stage if only one side were doing it. When everyone does it, well, it starts to sound normal.

Comparisons to Nazis — and any allusion to anything Nazi equals a comparison — is only appropriate if the person in question is 1) a fascist, and 2) engaged in an active program of ethic marginalization or cleansing. If those two things do not obtain, then using any kind of Nazi rhetoric ought to be out of bounds.

Haley may be a lot of things, but a Nazi is not one of them. Nothing she does is remotely Nazi like.

So shut up.

December 16, 2009

The Toxic Newspaper

This morning is the first morning of my adult life that I am not a subscriber to a local daily newspaper.

I am distressed by this.

But my distress is nothing compared to the disgust I feel about the harm the Springfield News-Leader is doing to our civic discourse. It is a toxic presence. And I can no longer spend my money on it and, thus, be a party to the damage.

I had not planned to write about my decision on Rhetorica (although I did Tweet it and post it on Facebook). But a conversation my wife and I had this morning convinced me to do so. Wife Rhetorica, by the way, is a professional journalist with more than 25 years experience and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She knows a little something about it.

We were standing in the kitchen wondering what to do with ourselves when she said:

“I didn’t change. The paper changed. You hear all this talk about how people don’t care about politics or their communities so they don’t read papers. Well, it’s not true.”

Yes. That’s exactly what I saw on Twitter and Facebook yesterday. In response to my postings there, I received many positive replies and e-mails from people I know who are vitally interested in this community and vitally interested in news.

The gist of their replies: What took you so long?

Why is the News-Leader toxic? I’ll mention three things (in my opinion):

  • Gannett’s mismanagement of its assets has made it difficult to do good journalism. Coverage of local news is thin at best. Good veterans have been laid off, fired, or otherwise allowed to escape.
  • A shocking amount of “news” in the paper is regurgitated press releases. Two pictured columnists are former reporters now working PR for local organizations. (I don’t blame them. They are simply doing a good job for their clients.)
  • For reasons I do not understand (perhaps economic), the News-Leader has turned its Voices section (the editorial section) into a forum for amateur pundits (I’m being polite) who are apparently not fact-checked or edited or otherwise supervised or taught. This is the most toxic section of the paper as it has been given over to mindless partisan bickering.

The News-Leader is not the only game in town. And, trust me, there will be attempts to fill the gaps. I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks ahead.

And it’s not like I can’t — if feeling the need for self-inflicted pain — just go to the web and see what the News-Leader is offering as news today and in the future.

It’s not the news or journalism I’m giving up on. I’m simply refusing to pay money for a product that I believe is doing more harm than good. In short, the News-Leader utterly fails the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

It would be unethical of me to pay money to harm our civic discourse.

Past coverage of the News-Leader on Rhetorica:

May 14, 2009

Those Darn Shortcuts

How do you make a first-class idiot out of yourself in a hurry in journalism?

OK, yes, there’s actually a long list of answers to that question. The reason is that journalism is a tough craft to practice well, and it is subject to all manner of human foibles and failings.

The particular failing I want to highlight today is my favorite. You know what’s coming…

Journalists should operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

One of the latest lapses: A fake quote lifted from Wikipedia. What really hurts: The fake quote was placed by a college student in order to test “how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.” That’s the “story,” anyway.

Hahahahahaha! I love it!

Here’s the scoop from AP via CNEWS:

When Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald posted a poetic but phoney quote on Wikipedia, he was testing how our globalized, increasingly Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability in an age of instant news.

His report card: Wikipedia passed. Journalism flunked.

The sociology major’s obituary-friendly quote — which he added to the Wikipedia page of Maurice Jarre hours after the French composer’s death March 28 — flew straight on to dozens of U.S. blogs and newspaper websites in Britain, Australia and India.

They used the fabricated material, Fitzgerald said, even though administrators at the free online encyclopedia twice caught the quote’s lack of attribution and removed it.

The Guardian was one of the newspapers fooled by Fitzgerald’s fake quote. The conclusion of Siobhain Butterworth’s explanation is interesting:

It’s worrying that the misinformation only came to light because the perpetrator of the deception emailed publishers to let them know what he’d done and it’s regrettable that he took nearly a month to do so. Why did he wait so long? “I apologise for that,” he said. “I was originally going to do a report for my class and then it didn’t work out. I know I should have told you sooner.”

Is Fitzgerald a “perpetrator”? Hmmmmm… I find it fascinating and very troubling that neither AP nor The Guardian apparently bothered to check out this guy’s story (a little meta-reporting, please!). What class was involved? Why didn’t he turn something in? Did anyone call this guy’s professor to find out if this “experiment” could have been a legitimate part of the class work? This is more failure of craft of exactly the kind that got The Guardian into trouble in the first place.

The Chronicle of Higher Education avoided the implication that Fitzgerald conducted his experiment for a class. But it would have been nice if this newspaper covering higher education had rundown the truth — experiment or hoax? The truth, it seems to me, rides on what this student’s professor has to say.

Somebody call this person and ask!

Ooops, well, too late. The news beast has moved on to other matters.

December 16, 2008

The Rhetoric of Shoes

What is it with shoes?

Nikita Khrushchev brandished one at the United Nations. Richard Reid tried to use one of his to blow up an airplane. And now Muntadar al-Zeidi, in a stunning incident in Iraq, hurls both of his at George W. Bush during a press conference. Before I delve into the rhetoric of shoes, let me say for the record that I agree with Marc Sandalow who writes today that words “remain mightier than swords. And a hell of a lot mightier than shoes.” In other words, ask the man tough questions; don’t throw your shoes at him. That, obviously, assumes more about al-Zeidi as a journalist than we should.

If we were to suppose such behavior possible of an American journalist then Helen Thomas comes to mind as a potential perp. But I think if her little red choo-choo went chugging around the bend she would more likely twist an ear and scold. But, of course, as crusty and cantankerous as she is, it is simply unimaginable that she would ever do such a thing. But, then, our country hasn’t recently been invaded and torn for questionable reasons. There’s no way to tell how any of us might react to such circumstances. That’s no excuse — just recognition that some idiots have reasons for what they do.

What is it with shoes?

I assume it’s a cultural thing (and if I had the time and gumption I’d run this down, but I don’t). The shoe, coming from the foot as it does, which is often smelly, and certainly nothing much to look at (assuming you don’t have a foot fetish), perhaps is a symbol for a kick in the pants. Kicking is often associated with ill treatment of the weak by the powerful. So its use against the powerful by the weak would seem to be a double insult.

But as Reid demonstrated, the shoe can also be a weapon without symbolism. It is a deadly weapon with the right features. A work boot could do serious damage. I suppose you could bitch-slap someone with a flip-flop. That would hurt in more ways than one.

I think al-Zeidi certainly had insult on his mind. A dress show can raise a nasty welt or cut if it lands just right. I assume he would have been happy to score a hit.

So what if…

Where was the Secret Service?

Think about this: Our president was in Iraq — a fairly dangerous place by some accounts. And a nut-case journalist was able to throw two shoes at him from close range. Two!


I assume one can’t smuggle nastier stuff into a presidential press conference. No rotten eggs. No feces. So what’s the next most degrading thing you can throw with the heft to reach its target and the symbolism to get meaning across if the aim is bad? A shoe.

We’re all glad Bush was not hit or hurt. And we’re all pissed at the insult to our leader and country. And we’re all hoping this guy is severely punished. And we’re all hoping the Secret Service gets, and keeps, its act together. Well, most people anyway. I did run across a new Facebook group for people who apparently think this is amusing or acceptable behavior. I won’t link to it.

And what of those sad people cheering this outrage? I think they are the real victims of those shoes. As long as they can hear and embrace that argument I wonder what argument we can offer in return.

January 4, 2008

The Story of the Primary

Journalists apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to make causal sense of events. News fits the events of our world into literary genres driven by master narratives. So the story of recurring events is always the same.

There is a genre of primary coverage. Adam Nagourney phoned his contribution in for The New York Times. Let’s briefly examine what makes the genre work.

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a first-term Democratic senator trying to become the nation’s first African-American president, rolled to victory in the Iowa caucuses on Thursday night, lifted by a record turnout of voters who embraced his promise of change.

Nagourney gets off to a reasonably good start. He needs to tell us how he knows voters “embraced his promise of change.”

The victory by Mr. Obama, 46, amounted to a startling setback for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 60, of New York, who just months ago presented herself as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. The result left uncertain the prospects for John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, who had staked his second bid for the White House on winning Iowa.

Who says it was startling? The polls in Iowa certainly didn’t indicate that an Obama win would startle anyone. But the caucuses are over and, apparently, anything that happened before is ancient history and of no relevance to the new reality.

And what’s this nonsense about “presented herself”? Responsible national polls give her a comfortable lead–a lead she’s enjoyed for about a year.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards, who edged her out for second place by less than a percentage point, both vowed to stay in the race.

This is idiotic. Does he seriously expect candidates with serious national poll numbers to drop out of the race after Iowa? Or is he meeting the needs of the genre, which requires a story of struggle? A writer trying to meet the needs of the genre–to sustain the master narrative–must ignore any evidence that reality is something other than dictated by the genre.

It goes on like this because Nagourney is a good author who knows how to write the literature of his genre.

May 14, 2007

How to Write a Letter to the Editor

An interesting situation in Missouri gives me the opportunity to be pedantic regarding the proper rhetoric for letters to the editor. What you perceive as bias in how an editor chooses letters may in fact be a reflection of your own inability to write a proper letter. Then again, it could be bias. But assuming so does not make it so. You’ll find background on Tony Messenger’s blog here and here. In his latest entry, Messenger publishes a note from a local writer accusing him of publishing a “thin skinned blog attack against claims that newspapers including the Leader have censored voices of conservative Missourians.”

If this person’s response is anything like his/her letters to the editor, it’s no wonder they don’t get published.

There are as many ways to choose letters to the editor as there are editors doing the choosing. Some editors surely handle the job with grace, intelligence, fair-mindedness, and sensitivity. Others surely don’t. So my advice is generic, i.e. it will help you write a good letter that ought to get a favorable reading much of the time.

So, FWIW, I offer you Dr. Cline’s tips for getting your letter published:

1. Be partisan if you want; just don’t be stupid. Not all liberals are baby-killing, Hollywood-loving traitors. Not all conservatives are ignorant, fascist warmongers. Using demonizing stereotypes as the basis of your portrayal of the opposition marks you as stupid. Why? Because not all liberals think alike. Not all conservatives think alike. Letters based on such stereotypes do not encourage civic discourse and do not help discover solutions to our civic and political problems.

2. Opinions belong to the community. The ancient Greeks had the right idea about opinion. No one has a “personal” opinion, i.e. an opinion that belongs to you alone. So realize that when you write a letter to the newspaper, the chances are next to 100 percent that at least one other person has sent a similar letter. Newspapers get bunches of letters every day and can only publish a fraction. “Your” opinion is actually meaningless. Your point, however, may be important.

3. Have a point; make a point. A point is different from an opinion. For example: You may hold the opinion that teachers are underpaid. No one cares. But you might have a good point about how to correct what you believe is a problem, e.g. propose a specific solution. The two biggest mistakes you can make here are 1) not having a point that follows from your opinion, or 2) making more than one point.

[Editor’s note: I am not suggesting that letters must propose specific solutions or that you must so propose to buy the right to criticize. This is just an example.]

4. Practice good kairos. That’s a word from ancient Greek rhetoric that means roughly “timing and proportion.” It’s not a good idea to go off on a rant just because you’re feeling grumpy. A good letter to the editor responds to something or draws attention to something new or urgent. That’s the timing part. The proportion part is about not going off half-cocked. While writing a rant might make you feel better, it’s not going to get a favorable reading from an editor (partly because he/she has to wade through so many rants to find publishable letters).

5. Write tight. Letters to the editor should be short–fewer that 150 words. If your paper has a suggested word count, stick to it. If you don’t know, find out before you write. More is never better.

6. Avoid fallacies. Some fallacies are so obvious that even a newspaper editor can catch them 🙂 Clever writers may use fallacies as tools of persuasion. Such dishonest discourse is merely naked propaganda and unworthy of honest civic discussion. If you want to be that kind of a person, go for it. Just don’t whine when the paper doesn’t print your letters.

7. No Astroturf. That’s nifty word for “fake, grassroots support.” Don’t send canned letters written by political operatives. The internet makes it easy to catch this nonsense. I can’t tell you for sure that editors black-ball certain letter writers. But I’d bet that sending Astroturf is one of those offenses that will lead your local paper to overlook your future contributions.

8. You can change the world, just not right away. Letters to the editor should be thought of as bits of a sustained civic conversation. You are not going to change hearts and minds with a single letter. But you might have a chance with several, well-written letters offered over time. Write for the moment. Write for the one point you’re making today. Don’t write as if you expect to slam-dunk the issue for all time. Ain’t going to happen.

9. Don’t be a whiner. If you’re not getting published, make an appointment to speak to someone at the paper about it. You may be surprised to learn that it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with mistakes you’re making.

10. Be a local character. This one is not good advice. But there are plenty of examples of blithering idiots who are regularly published in the paper precisely because they are blithering idiots. A few years back I asked the News-Leader editorial page editor (not Messenger) why he’d published a particularly odious letter (one of many he’d published) from a well-known local white supremacist. His answer: “Sometimes you have to shine a light on the cockroaches.”

To conclude: You do not have a First Amendment right to be published in your local newspaper. You do, however, have the right to publish your own newspaper, or a blog, or you can stand on a soapbox and speechify to your heart’s content.

April 1, 2006

Stop being absurd…

Apparently, this is no April fools joke:

BLACKBURN, England (CNN) — One day after Condoleezza Rice said the United States made possibly “thousands” of tactical mistakes in the war against Iraq, the secretary of state says she was speaking “figuratively, not literally.”

On Saturday, a reporter asked Rice to give examples of the mistakes.

“First of all, I meant it figuratively, not literally. Let me be very clear about that. I wasn’t sitting around counting,” she replied. “The point I was making to the questioner…is that, of course, if you’ve ever made decisions, you’ve undoubtedly made mistakes.

“The important thing is to get the big strategic decisions right, and that I am confident that the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein and give the Iraqi people an opportunity for peace and for democracy is the right decision.”

“The other point I was making to the questioner is that I’m enough of a historian to know that things that looked brilliant at the moment turn out in historical perspective to be mistakes, and the things that look like mistakes turn out to have been right decisions.”

Obviously Rice was dealing in hyperbole. No one is stupid enough to think she’s been counting. But there certainly is nothing wrong with asking her for a few examples.

Rather than admit to even one little mistake, she treats the reporter like an idiot. And while the reporter is certainly not a stand-in for the public, Rice treats the masses as asses with her remark.

She’s used this same combination of hyperbole and innumeracy before. Remember the 75 percent of top al Qaeda leadership caught or killed in Afghanistan? A percent demands numerical precisian because you can’t have 75 percent of something without first having a definite something. But she didn’t have a definite something, which was made painfully apparent with the next question the reporter asked.

Rice pulls a little academic shenanigans today, too. I agree that what counts as a mistake or a success will be partly determined by history. I’ve made the same claim about my own discipline. For example, the “read my lips” line by George H. W. Bush was an effective bit of rhetoric when first uttered, but it turned out to be a political disaster over time. But Rice’s contention amounts to an over generalization. Surely this administration has made a mistake or two in Iraq. Stop being absurd, and just name one.

February 5, 2006

Rhetorica Podcast…

In which I discuss not treating citizens like idiots just because they speak a dialect of English other than the so-called academic standard:

Rhetorica Podcast

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