December 28, 2007

Almost the Rhetoric Beat

Julie Bosman has a tiny glimmer of the right idea in her blog post at The New York Times today. She examines a political ad by John Edwards and almost makes the kind of observation we might expect to see from the rhetoric beat.

In the first ad, titled “Born For,” Mr. Edwards tells New Hampshire voters that while “the establishment did nothing,” corporate greed took over Washington, insurance lobbyists killed health care and jobs were lost as a result.

“As much as we like to think so, good intentions won’t change a thing,” Mr. Edwards continues, in an apparent jab at Senator Barack Obama and his campaign’s message of hope. “Corporate greed won’t be stopped without a president who fights for you. Saving the middle class is going to be an epic battle, and that’s a fight I was born for.”

Determining intention is of particular interest to me. I’ve even developed a theory in regard to it. Perhaps a more accurate way to say it is that I’ve re-theorized the illocutionary act of speech-act theory. Austin’s formula, F(p),  deals only with propositional content and illocutionary force, but mine attempts to account for the role of rhetoric in the illocutionary act: Fr(p)/C -> PE. F = the force of a statement–what we are doing when we utter it, i.e. asserting, directing, commiserating, expressing, or declaring. The exponent r represents the “rheme”–the unit(s) of rhetoric, i.e. those rhetorical forms chosen by the speaker to make the message persuasive. (p) = the propositional content of the statement. And, finally, we must divide by the context–the rhetorical situation–to separate the speech act from other potential situations. That leads us towards a perlocutionary effect, i.e. what happens in regard to the statement.

In order for the formula to work (i.e. give you some kind of reliable result regarding a speaker’s intention), you must have credible data to fill out the parts of the formula. Guessing doesn’t count. Assumptions don’t count.

When Bosman says a line in Edward’s ad is an “apparent jab at Senator Barack Obama and his campaign’s message of hope” she’s moving in the right direction in regard to a rhetoric beat but she doesn’t really know what she’s doing (I’m not claiming she’s wrong; I’m claiming she’s giving us an assumption and further assuming it’s politically useful). How does she know this?

“As much as we like to think so, good intentions won’t change a thing.” This is an enthymeme, aka the “failed syllogism” or the “rhetorical syllogism.” An enthymeme is persuasive because one or more parts of the logical sequence is left unstated. What makes this persuasive is that the reader/auditor fills in the missing part with whatever works. So the line can mean different things to different people and still persuade. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.

I would say Edward’s certainly means for Democratic voters to make a comparison between himself and other Democrats (does it matter which one?– he’s in a “race” with all of them). Beyond that I’m not prepared to go unless you’re just fascinated with my opinions. And since I know that’s not true (and Bosman should realize this, too), my leaving it open helps bring you, dear reader, into the conversation.

Rather than give us an assumption, Bosman should instead give us a range of possibilities and reasons for those possibilities. She should call the tactic what it is and explain how and why politicians use it. And, you know, she doesn’t have to come to some grand conclusion about it. Leaving the question of intention open, using it as an entry point for civic discussion (a comments feature would be nice), would be one way to effectively use the rhetoric beat in this case.

November 5, 2007

More on the Rhetoric Beat

Tim at Jig’s Old Saws tears into Brent Cunningham re: the rhetoric beat. I mentioned it approvingly late last week. I say “approvingly” because I’m glad an outfit like the Columbia Journalism Review is running an essay about an important gap in the coverage of civic affairs.

I linked to this post from 2006. While I voiced a concern, I failed to put a fine enough point on it–allowing the link to be my argument.

Here’s the finer point: The rhetoric beat–a great idea!–cannot and should not police vocabulary because:

Simply communicating by written or spoken words introduces bias to the message. If, as asserted earlier, there is no such thing as an objective point of view, then there cannot be objective or transparent language, i.e. a one-to-one correspondence between reality and words such that I may accurately represent reality so that you experience it as I do. Language mediates our lived experiences. And our evaluation of those experiences are reflected in our language use. Rhetoric scholar James A. Berlin once said that language is “never innocent.” By this he meant that language cannot be neutral; it reflects and structures our ideologies and world views. To speak at all is to speak politically.

Getting fussy about estate taxes versus death taxes versus inheritance taxes is the stuff of opinion journalism. That’s fine.

Reporters, who should be ever mindful that no terms are politically neutral, can cover a rhetoric beat if they cover the right thing: the structure of argument, not vocabulary.

Let’s revisit that post from 2006 for an example:

A strawman fallacy sets up this way:

Faction A claims X, but the truth is actually Y.

The claim X is a strawman if it meets one of the conditions above.

We often see it appear in journalism (strategically?) in this form (politicians use this, too):

Some say X, but the truth is actually Y.

Notice that X and Y replace propositional content (all the stuff about e.g. “civil war” versus “sectarian violence”). We can do this because many rhetorical strategies (also fallacies used strategically) have specific and identifiable structures. It is exactly these structures that should be the focus of any reporting of civic rhetoric.

November 2, 2007

The Rhetoric Beat

I’ve been suggesting, since I began writing this blog more than five years ago, that journalism ought to cover the rhetoric of civic discourse (including its own). For example, I wrote just last year:

If the rhetorical features of a political text may be identified outside considerations of ideology, then they are reportable facts and should be reported by the news media. Lies are also reportable facts.

(A simple search string brings up this list from Rhetorica.)

Reportable facts. You look at the world. You make note of it. You report it. Easy.

Well, maybe not…but let’s move on.

Brent Cunningham’s essay in the Columbia Journalism Review is well worth your time. He thinks there should be a rhetoric beat in American journalism. Welcome to the club, Brent. It’s small, but it’s important.

I would, however, offer this caution: The rhetoric beat would require specific training and reliance on neutral experts. Otherwise this beat could make people dumber by treating rhetoric in the same sloppy way journalism sometimes treats the sciences (and politics, and…well, you know).

March 16, 2004

: Beat me, hurt me…

I didn’t have time to mention this item before the radio show today, but Ben Gardner and I did kick around the implications of Kerry’s (sort of) assertion that he has support for his candidacy from foreign leaders. Here’s how the Washington Post played the misquote:

At the time Kerry made the remarks in Florida, press reports based on a transcription of a tape recording quoted him as referring to “foreign leaders.” On Monday, however, the Boston Globe reporter who transcribed Kerry’s comments said he had confused the word “foreign” with “more.” However, the context–that Kerry contended his campaign had international support–has not been challenged by Kerry or his aides.

That the Kerry campaign did not challenge the interpretation before press time is telling. Despite what wiggle room there might be here, we should be asking: Who is the audience and what is the purpose of Kerry’s statement as interpreted?

My quick guess: This is merely a floater (a test message) disguised as a play to a certain segment of the Democratic base (i.e. those comfortable with the idea that America, as the lone superpower, should be a bit more humble in the world).

On the show today, Ben correctly pointed out that Americans are usually loathe to admit or allow foreign voices in presidential campaigns. I agreed, adding that I find Kerry’s tactic “dangerous,” i.e. there’s a high potential for backfire. And it’s easy to see why: There’s no way Kerry can reveal which foreign leader may have said what to him in regard to the campaign. And no such leader would ever admit it–except maybe the French (which was a little joke on my part… har har…it is radio, you know…an entertainment medium). This prompted the very tactic presidential press secretary Scott McClellan used, freely accusing Kerry of “making it up” and saying:

“Either he is straightforward and states who they are, or the only conclusion one can draw is that he is making it up to attack the president.”

In other words, Kerry’s tactic allowed McClellan to use a naked either-or fallacy with impunity and make it sound cogent. Here’s a stick–beat me with it!

I suspect it’s true, as far as it goes, that some leader somewhere expressed the desire to see Kerry win. That’s no stretch at all. But I would think Kerry’s communications staff could have crafted a more nuanced talking point that allowed the idea to float without the dangerously heavy ballast.

March 11, 2010

The Rhetoric of Cable TV News

Mark Lieberman at Language Log beat me to this one (drat!). Here, from The Onion, is some bullshit happening somewhere:


April 3, 2008

When Linguists Beat Their Heads Against Walls

As long-time Rhetorica readers know, I admire the “grammar jockeys” at Language Log. I had just enough linguistic training in grad school (while working on a Ph.D. in rhetoric) to be dangerous to myself and others when I attempt to do what they do so well. Read this. It gets at, better than I am able, something I’ve written about many times in this very space.

The money quote for me:

But this last step is important because it leads to the humane conclusion that users of the language are all concerned, tacitly of course, with communicative values; people who use non-standard variants are not just sloppy, lazy, cognitively impaired simpletons who have, moreover, perversely rejected the excellences of the standard.

UPDATE: While you’re at it, read this too. Has nothing to do with the topic at hand. I just like what he has to say.

July 20, 2005

Rhetoric of stale criticism….

Did President Bush bypass the media filter by announcing his pick for the Supreme Court at 9 p.m. EDT? Howard Kurtz thinks so:

By choosing to unveil his nominee at 9 p.m., Bush not only threw the media establishment into a tizzy, he also broke the news right on deadline for East Coast newspapers and after the network newscasts. He cut through “the filter,” as he calls the media, preventing — or at least delaying — journalists from researching long pieces picking apart his choice. The president also guaranteed himself a bigger audience than with a morning announcement…

I agree that one rhetorical intention of the timing was to maximize the audience–that’s good kairos. Further, the timing meant that he could take dramatic advantage of the day-long, breathless cable news speculation. And, certainly, an evening announcement strains newspaper deadlines.

But here’s what I find curious: Does Kurtz suppose that newspapers ought to write “long pieces picking apart his choice” for the following morning (assuming by “picking apart” we mean good reporting and cogent analysis)?

I don’t. Let TV handle the breaking news. Proper (complex) coverage of a Supreme Court nomination–something only print can provide–takes time.

It gets weirder: “The prime-time maneuver also neutralized the blogosphere…”


Surely, a lot of half-cocked nuts “went off” prematurely. The strength of the blogosphere, however, isn’t speed; it’s spread (different from depth). The blogosphere, similar to print (but in a different way), does its best work over time as the web of inquiry, analysis, and commentary spreads across a topic.

Howard Kurtz’ media criticism has become terribly stale. His columns read more like truncated, gothic potboilers of media drama than cogent analysis. Time for a new beat.

October 22, 2004

The rhetoric of Red Sox…

The World Series has nothing to do with the presidential election–unless we humans do what it is we humans do and create a narrative to structure an ambiguous situation and give it meaning. And no journalist will have a difficult time finding someone willing to create meaning:

“It’s a great metaphor,” said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and former instructor at Boston College. “All Americans always root for the underdog. I’m not sure Kerry is one because the polls are so close right now, but he’s been running behind, and he represents the outsider trying to beat the establishment.”

I cannot recall the World Series playing a role in a presidential campaign. But the underdog Red Sox do seem to add an interesting twist to this campaign now that a narrative has been created to structure these events. But how should Kerry use this rhetorical situation? According to the Kerry campaign, the Red Sox’ success may be good for its candidate.

This was an easy structure to create because of the proximity between Kerry and the Red Sox and the similar pathos of sports and campaign politics. Further, we understand campaign politics in terms of sports metaphors (the other primary metaphor is war, which we also use to understand sports). According to Lakoff and Johnson, “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphoric in nature.”

So proximity, pathos, and metaphor combine to make it easy for us to create a rhetorical situation in which Kerry is associated with the Red Sox’ pursuit of a sports championship without this seeming completely odd or inappropriate.

This also means that the Kerry campaign must make difficult rhetorical choices based on this association. The association–appropriate or not–will have some political consequences since it has now been created and fed into the great conversation of the mainstream news media and blogosphere. The narrative is very real now and cannot be ignored.

But what should the candidates do? I have a little advice:

  1. Avoid any statement that associates Kerry with the team as more than a hometown fan. Anything more creates a situation in which Bush then becomes automatically associated with the St. Louis Cardinals. Neither candidate should wish to see this happen because of the particularly emotional relationship Americans have with the game, its statistics, and its mythos. There may actually be, however, a slight (but dangerous) opportunity here for Kerry. St. Louis will almost certainly go for Kerry. Missouri is a red state with two blue “coasts.” Hmmmmmm…I would err on the side of caution and avoid associating.
  2. Be expansive. Talk like Walt Whitman (thematically, not syntactically, i.e. inclusive, patriotic, and visionary) when you talk about the game and both teams. Equate the great contests, not the contestants.
  3. Cheer all good plays.
  4. For Kerry: More photo-ops like those from yesterday’s news in which you are seen watching the game and enjoying good company. But ferchrissakes avoid looking like a geek. Hold your longneck by the long neck. For Bush: You’re good at this “guy” stuff. Hit the nearest couch and enjoy the series.
  5. If the Red Sox win, for Kerry: Keep your celebration low key. There’s a vast heartland of Cardinals fans who think this is one of the best teams ever. Again, think Whitman. For Bush: Equate the improbable win to the American can-do spirit. We’re the ones who can overcome anything–yes, more Whitman.
  6. If the Cardinals win, for Kerry: Make a fuss over a great show and the strength/good nature of the heartland. Revel in the Red Sox curse. For Bush: Resist the urge to equate yourself with the team at this time. Offer your congratulations and move on.

There’s no playbook here. Kerry and Bush will get to write one.

As for me, I’m undecided at the moment. The Missouri guy in me wants to root for the Cardinals. But, I moved to Springfield from an American League town–Kansas City. The Cardinals have always been cross-state rivals. I like cheering for underdogs (typically American unless we’re talking University of Delaware football–2003 1-AA National Champions–then I want to see nothing but crushing victories over hapless foes). Can I bring myself to root for the birds?

January 20, 2004

: I watch TV…

It occurs to me that I can treat victory-night performances in the same way I treated the debates: as television experiences. So here’s my experiential analysis of the Iowa caucuses.

I saw three presidents last night while watching CNN’s coverage: John Kerry, John Edwards, and Richard Gephardt. Dean’s third-place victory scream–yes, it was a primal scream right there on the TV–was just more evidence that this man either 1) does not have a competent campaign communications staff or 2) does not have sense enough to listen to them.

I have been resisting the “angry” meme and its master narrative. But the Iowa results may indicate that this meme has more substance than I had at first thought. William Saletan puts it this way:

If you watched Zogby or other tracking polls over the past week, the most striking gap was between the favorables of Kerry and Edwards and the favorables of Dean and Gephardt. (Favorables are the numbers showing how many voters have a favorable opinion of the candidate and how many have an unfavorable opinion.) Kerry’s and Edwards’ unfavorables–the percentage of respondents saying they had an unfavorable opinion of each of those candidates–hovered around 10 percent. Gephardt’s number was around 20, and Dean’s was around 30. (Evidently Dean beat Gephardt because he had enough commitment from some supporters to cancel out the loss of others.) Comments from caucusgoers tonight and over the past week confirm that Iowa wasn’t so much won by Kerry and Edwards tonight as it was lost by Dean and Gephardt. Moral: In a big field, belligerence doesn’t pay. While you’re beating up the guy on your left, the guy on your right is coasting to victory.

In 1988, Gary Hart lost the nomination because he was caught, well, you know. What (else) will Howard Dean do to lose this nomination?

I thought Gephardt delivered a dignified parting address. While he is one of the five that I think need to be gone by the end of next week, I at least wanted to see him make it to the end of next week. With Moseley-Braun out, that leaves Kucinich, Lieberman, and Sharpton left to provide comic relief. After New Hampshire, it won

December 22, 2003

: Don’t hurt me!…

One definition of effective campaign rhetoric surely includes this: Whatever works as long as you can get away with it. The getting-away-with-it part is tricky because today’s successful comment can become tomorrow’s albatross (re: “read my lips, no new taxes”). Political rhetoric is always open to reinterpretation.

Was it a mistake for Wesley Clark to say he’d “beat the shit” out of anyone who questions his patriotism?

It seems to me that this off-hand comment is a sound bite for what he told an audience in New Hampshire recently:

“You know, the American flag doesn’t belong to the Republican Party…That’s our flag. We saluted that flag. We served under it. We fought for it. We watched brave men and women buried under it. And no Tom DeLay or John Ashcroft or George W. Bush is going to take this flag away from us.”

It also seems to me that Clark and Dean need to get over this little VP snit. (via Political Wire)

← Previous Posts

Powered by: Wordpress