August 11, 2016

When Stenography Matters

So I’ve spent a lot time here grousing about stenography.

But the candidacy of Donald Trump is changing the game of journalism a bit — including my game. It’s been easy to point out examples of the lazy reporting I call stenography. But with Trump, I now find it necessary to put a finer point on my grousing.

Let’s use this article in The New York Times as an example. Trump said about President Obama: “He’s the founder of ISIS.” And he said that ISIS “honors” Obama.

OK, so what’s a reporter to do with that?

It’s news. It’s news because a candidate for President of the United States said such a ridiculous thing. But there’s very little you can ask in follow up.

What question can you ask?

I suppose you could ask for specifics about how/why Obama founded ISIS (and risk sounding like a reporter for The Daily Show), but you’re as likely to get a cogent answer as you are to get a invitation to Trump’s next wedding.

And there you have an important distinction between stenography that is reporting the news and stenography that hides the news.

It isn’t stenography to quote the outrageous and let it hang in the air like a fart.

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.

August 24, 2009

Stenography, Again

Reporters must make a choice: Be a reporter or be a stenographer. And they must make this choice despite the very real economic pressures that constrain their work. They must make the right (ethical) choice in order to try to fulfill the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Mark Adams complains, on American Street, that his two dollar newspaper sucks. By that he means:

Enter journalism Professor Jay Rosen of NYU, Twitter Guru and one of the few old guys who gets new media.  He rails against press “curmudgeons” clinging to the old models every day.  Barbara at Mahablog noted his take on the inanity of typical “he said-she said” reporting, the kind of infotainment that led Jon Stewart to virtually destroy CNN’s “Crossfire” program — covering the controversy, the shouting match, instead of digging through the noise and exposing/explaining/truth-telling.  This was the subject of Neal Gabler’s fine piece at the Los Angeles Times which sparked both Barbara and Jay to chime in.

Stenography causes these problems (short list) for citizens trying to find the kind of information that will help them be free and self-governing:

1. Sounds bites get substituted for facts and rational argument.

2. Mere partisan contention becomes news pushing out context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) and proportion (bad kairos).

3. Intentional falsehoods achieve a cultural force equal to facts and (something like) the truth.

A practical example is all the hooey about “death panels.” Journalism, properly and ethically practiced, would have slam-dunked that nonsense instantly.

The upshot here is not that some politicians and pundits are bad people for trying to win politically (an entirely reasonable goal). The upshot is, as Adams says:

That’s his two parts of the print media’s deadly perfect storm, online flight coupled with recession, but there is a third systemic problem — and it’s the stuff right in his lap. He described the elements of this perfect storm in a way that conveniently removed any responsibility on the reporting and editorial staff — and thus any ability for improvement by the talent, the product the producers of news provide.  Excellence in journalism is not rewarded in his analysis, nor mediocrity discouraged.

As in: A big part of what’s going wrong in the MSM is the fault of journalists. Yes, the business model has failed. Yes, there’s new competition for the attention of citizens. Yes, economic times are tough. Yes, editors and reporters are tempest-tossed by these and other economic realities. But also yes, stenography —  apparently the preferred “reporting” method today — is:

1. Boring.

2. Difficult to understand.

3. Elevates hooey to the level of facts and truth.

4. Manipulates citizens.

Returning to the “death panels,” this falsehood was not a myth as Doug Thompson claims. Calling it a myth seems to suggest that the “death panel” idea simply existed out there in the culture and was picked up and shouted to the world by pundits and bloggers.

No. Mainstream journalism — primarily on television — helped promote these wild accusations by focusing on the fact that people were making them rather than digging up the facts of the matter and playing the facts with far more prominence than the falsehood. Mainstream journalism took entirely too long to call bullshit.

There’s an easier way to say all of this. A failure to report the facts and seek the truth thus fails the primary purpose of journalism. And that is unethical.

December 17, 2007

It’s Not Even Good Stenography

Ya gotta love it!

Howard Kurtz gets his shorts properly in a bunch over quoting anonymous political operatives, thus proving that it’s possible to practice journalistic stenography badly. He writes:

Is it really necessary to allow operatives from one campaign to attack another candidate without their names attached? These strategists are paid to slam the other contenders. Why should they be able to hide behind a curtain of anonymity? Do you really want to be aiding and abetting that sort of cheap-shot politics?

Later in the column he mentions something that I think leads directly to stenography:

Political reporters, as a rule, are an industrious band of road warriors who work hard to get people to speak on the record.

It is hard work of a sort to follow a campaign. Eating in greasy spoons, sleeping in strange motels, running here and there on someone else’s schedule. And, yes, trying to get people to talk to you in meaningful ways is very hard work.

My questions: Why are so many of you participating in this zoo in the first place? How many does it take to cover the same old thing day after day? Perhaps all that hard work is misplaced. 

There’s a better story to tell. And it fulfills the primary purpose of journalism.

December 14, 2007

Reporting Versus Stenography

In my recent post about the is-Obama-a-Muslim story in the Washington Post, I offered quick definitions of reporting and stenography (as applied to journalism):

Stenography = writing down what sources say

Reporting = discovering and writing down the facts

(Yes, it’s a “fact” that sources say things. Among the things they say are assertions of fact. What a good journalist is supposed to do is check a source’s assertions for some kind of correspondence to the facts.) 

I heard Lance Bennett touch on this topic in the podcast of Media Matters with Bob McChesney (scroll down to 25 November). He didn’t mention stenography by name, but he did discuss it in practice by noting that much political reporting today is not a search for facts but a competition to get the best spin, i.e. to write down what political sources say.

I’m trying to think of an “in other words” to make the trouble with that even more plain. Hmmmmm… can’t do it. That’s scary enough as it is.

Among the problems with passing along spin and calling it journalism is that it teaches journalists to think of themselves as political insiders (as opposed to “players,” which is another matter). And that leads to politically useless in-the-know analysis articles such as this one by Katharine Q. Seelye about an apparent apology trend going on in the presidential nomination campaign.

(This could have been an interesting one for the rhetoric beat, but Seeyle doesn’t have the chops to pull it off.) 

Some of the topics discussed in her analysis may certainly be worthy of reporting (check the definition above). But all we get from this reporter for The New York Times (that’s supposed to mean something, IMO) is a cynical point of view from inside a political process that’s largely staged precisely to manipulate journalism.

Because this could have been an interesting story from the rhetoric beat, let’s examine one of the reasons it fails:

On the Republican side, Mr. Huckabee was responding to questions in an article to be published on Sunday in The New York Times Magazine. He was asked if he considered Mormonism a cult or a religion. He said he did not know much about it, adding, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

The comments could be damaging to Mr. Romney because polls have shown that many voters are suspicious of Mormonism and would not vote for a Mormon for president.

Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, apologized to Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, after the Republican debate on Wednesday.

Thursday morning, he appeared on MSNBC. “It was never my intention to denigrate his faith,” Mr. Huckabee said. “I raised it not to create a story. I thought we were having a simple, casual conversation.” He said he apologized to Mr. Romney because, “I don’t think his Mormon faith should have anything to do with him being elected.”

But then Mr. Huckabee accused Mr. Romney of running a negative campaign. “We run a positive campaign, more so frankly than Mitt, who’s running ads against me and dropping fliers in Iowa,” he said.

Wow. Could that be a red herring fallacy (employed with intention)? A reporter on the rhetoric beat would have some digging to do to see if this is typical of Huckabee.

But note how miserably Seelye’s analysis of political apology fails in the last quoted paragraph. Are we to gather from this that Huckabee’s apology in insincere because he proceeds to criticize Romney on another matter?

(Are these matters related somehow? That’s the implication. I don’t see it. But if it’s true, Seelye should have told us how they are related and how she knows.)

Even the Clinton example in this article is thin.

Now I’m not claiming that non-apology isn’t real or isn’t a tactic being employed in this campaign. I’m not claiming it isn’t important. I am claiming this lightly reported, heavily “stenographed” analysis is politically useless. 

March 17, 2017

Rhetorica Update

A few things going on this spring (cuz, yeah, it has arrived in Missouri):

  • My Carbon Trace Productions documentary team has two projects in the works: 1) Student Debt (working title), and 2) Syrian Refugee Doctor (working title). For the latter, my team and I leave for Jordan in three weeks to begin filming. BTW, only 4 days left for our crowd-funding campaign for the trip. Click here to see the particulars and make a tax-deductible donation.
  • I am compelled to push this idea: Every journalist needs to begin asking this question of public officials: Do you mean that literally? That whole “literally” thing may be the gift that keeps on giving for the news media in the weeks ahead. I’m going to pull that thread a bit and see what happens. It’s related to the stenography issue.
  • Should Rhetorica become the site for an extended examination of the rhetoric of documentary film (and, perhaps, multimedia journalism, especially in its long audio and video forms)? Oh, no! Not another re-invention! 🙂
August 10, 2016

Where I’m Coming From

Back in the day, I wrote this:

As I learned early in my journalistic career before becoming an academic, there is no such thing as an objective point of view. And the ideal of fairness is almost as elusive. But I will always attempt to be fair according to standards that I will try to make plain. I will try to reveal my biases when I think they intrude on my critiques.

Yesterday I wrote a scathing and snarky critique of Donald Trump’s latest outrage. I did not publish it, and I will not publish it because I need to change a few things regarding the quote above.

You can use the following to decide if you think Rhetorica is worth your time during the remaining weeks of the 2016 election.

I consider Donald Trump to be a dangerous amateur, and I despair for the Republican Party that it chose this person. His candidacy is so alarming that I am unable to maintain the fiction of academic detachment. He must be stopped.

I will hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s just another centrist Democrat. I am sick to death of centrist Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

My track record here over the years, and the tools that I have published for your use, may be employed to determine if anything I write here in the next few weeks is worthwhile.

I will try to maintain focus on press coverage, especially regarding the glaring differences between reporting and stenography.

But I may not be able to let another scathing snark-fest go unpublished.

Just so you know.

August 8, 2016

Covering a “Major Policy Address”

Jay Rosen has been wondering about the “interpretive challenge” the Trump campaign presents for journalists. How do you use the tools of reporting to cover a person who won’t follow the general master narratives that journalists have come to expect about how presidential candidates should speak and behave?

I contend that this interpretive challenge is made even more challenging because much of the old reporting playbook was not a playbook about reporting. Instead, it is a blank stenographers pad waiting to be filled with quotes that will not be examined as long as they fit the general master narrative.

Today I just want to call attention to coverage of a Trump campaign speech (characterized as a “major policy address”) by The New York Times:

But the economic agenda Mr. Trump described included many traditionally Republican policies that offer little to no direct benefit to working-class Americans, while giving a considerable financial boost to the wealthiest.

Now that paragraph is likely to set aflutter the hearts of those who fight liberal bias in the news media.

Is that opinion or fact?

I’m going to sidestep that question for now (I’ll get back to it in the days to come) and say that, no matter what is is, it is certainly reporting. In other words, rather than simply pass along quotes — stenography — the Times has bothered to compare what Trump said with the public and/or historical record.

It happens several more times in this article:

For example, Mr. Trump called for ending what Republicans label the “death tax.” He did not mention that the estate tax currently exempts the first $5.45 million for an individual and $10.9 million for a married couple — meaning that only the very wealthy pay even a dime. If Mr. Trump’s net worth is as large as he has says, his heirs would have a great deal to gain from eliminating the estate tax; the typical displaced steelworker or coal miner, or even a relatively prosperous retiree, would have nothing to gain.

Mr. Trump advocated reducing the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from its current 35 percent. That proposal comes after a decade in which after-tax corporate profits have risen sharply as a share of national income and compensation for workers has fallen.

He advocated “allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of child-care spending from their taxes.” That might sound like a boost for average workers, but the way the tax code works, it would confer the greatest advantage to upper middle-class and wealthier families, and little to no benefit for vast numbers of low-income families.

For expenses of $10,000 a year on child care, the tax deduction would be worth about $3,960 for a family in the top marginal tax bracket making more than $467,000 a year, but only $1,500 to a family making between roughly $19,000 and $75,000. And many lower and lower-middle income families pay little or no federal income tax, so a tax deduction wouldn’t help them.

A bit later in the article, the Times has this to say about other policies:

Other elements of Mr. Trump’s economic agenda lack details that would make similar analysis possible. His proposed moratorium on new regulations would certainly warm the hearts of business interests that have complained of excessive regulation in the Obama era, but it is hard to know how much of a factor regulation has been in the sluggish economic growth of the last several years.

And on energy policy, Mr. Trump reiterated his pledge to tear up the Paris climate agreement and halt the United States’ payments to United Nations for programs to reduce global warming. He said energy regulations were killing manufacturing jobs.

Good journalism unfolds over time. What we see here could be meta-reporting (I’m not actually optimistic about that): reporting about reporting that still needs to be done. The Times should consider these two paragraphs as the starting points for news assignments that will become the context in which these policies are understood the next time Trump mentions them.

August 6, 2016

Setting the Hook on a Juicy Quote

“If Hillary Clinton becomes president you will have terrorism, you will have problems, you will have really, in my opinion, the destruction of this country from within,” Trump said. “Believe me.”

Juicy quote, right?

But what does it mean?

Let’s start with a simple binary: This quote is either true to some extent or mistaken to some extent. We won’t know for sure until the “if” plays out. Seeing that the “if” doesn’t play out is a reasonable interpretation of the speaker’s rhetorical intention.

I could spend a lot more time running this quote through the rhetorical interpretation wringer, but there’s really no point because the reasons why this is a juicy quote are plain to see. Boiled down: OMFG, a presidential candidate said THAT? It’s news!!! No, it’s not news. This is bait for journalists — a big, juicy worm wiggling on a hook. It should be questioned and/or examined, or it should be ignored.

If the reporter is unable to question the speaker for whatever reason, then good reporting demands examining the rhetoric and reporting the facts discovered rather than simply writing it down and passing it along.

I’ve called this the rhetoric beat.

Politicians certainly make news when they speak. But just writing it down and passing it along — stenography — is not reporting.

August 5, 2016

Unanswered Questions

There are plenty of jobs for stenographers in American political journalism. It’s the safest — and easiest — job in the business. American political stenography thrives in the new multimedia/social media context. It is perfectly suited for the clickbait headline, the vacuous soundbite, the hashtag thinking, and the (apparently) declining attention span of the audience.

I’m waking Rhetorica up for the 2016 election.

Unlike years past when I covered a wide range of rhetorical issues in the press and politics, this time I’m focusing on political stenography in journalism. It occurs at all levels. I’ll be particularly focused on its practice in prestigious newspapers and self-aggrandizing cable/network news programs.

You can click that link and read some of what I’ve written about stenography in the past. But in case you don’t want to work quite that hard, what I’m talking about is the near universal practice among American political journalists not to ask — or get answers for — painfully obvious questions when politicians speak in hashtags and soundbites as if it were all so much common sense.

Here’s another way to understand it:

Stenography = writing down what sources say

Reporting = discovering and writing down the facts (about what sources say)

Here’s a short list of problems stenography causes that I published in 2009:

1. Sounds bites get substituted for facts and rational argument.

2. Mere partisan contention becomes news pushing out context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) and proportion (bad kairos).

3. Intentional falsehoods achieve a cultural force equal to facts and (something like) the truth.

Let’s see what happens this time 🙂

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