August 15, 2009

Rhetoric of Press Thuggery

If there were any journalists left at MSNBC, I suppose they would be appalled by Lawrence O’Donnell’s thuggish behavior and his lack of cogent interviewing skills.

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The rhetorical tactics we see displayed here are thought to be the oldest in use among humans: volume and repetition. Add interruptions and a nasty tone of voice and you guarantee that nothing of substance will be learned in this “interview.” But it sure is entertaining. And that means it’s good television. And that’s not a good thing for our civic discourse.

O’Donnell could have conducted an interview that would have elicited from Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) answers with a high degree of political utility, i.e. get him to say stuff that we might actually be able to use to our civic benefit. But, of course, that kind of interview requires rhetorical talent, interviewing skill, and a high regard for the primary purpose of journalism (also its guiding ethic): To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

The only people who will get anything out of this performance are the easily-amused and the blindly partisan.

7 Responses

  1. Tim 

    Thought it would be interesting to compare with O’Reilly’s interview with Obama last year. Which I thought was very interesting rhetorically.

  2. acline 

    Tim… O’Reilly does a far better job of interviewing in that example than O’Donnell does in the above example. He could tone down the snottiness a bit, but he’s doing something far more like what I’m talking about re: ask questions that elicit the kind of information we need to be free and self-governing.

    And, yes, there are something interesting — and, compared to O’Donnell, more sophisticated — rhetorical tactics working here.

  3. Daniel 

    This interview completely failed. I think O’Donnell walked into this with a valid argument but he just ruined it with his personality. Why not pull the interviewer in with simple questions (without that inflammatory and meaningless opening clip) and show a contradiction?

    (1) Do you think Medicare is socialism?
    (a) No.

    (2) Do you think extending Medicare to every citizen is socialism?
    (a) Yes.

    (3) If Medicare is not socialism and you support it it, then opposing the extension of Medicare to every citizen would seem contradictory. How can you defend this?

  4. acline 

    Daniel… Exactly.

  5. Tim 

    “the oldest in use among humans”

    Wow. Why would that be if it fails with everyone on this thread? Is it because it works so well with the “easily-amused and the blindly partisan” and “they” are so many? Maybe!'donnell+Culberson

  6. Tim 
  7. acline 

    Tim… re: “oldest” I’m repeating (and using in my own way) an idea by rhetoric scholar George Kennedy from his famous essay “A Hoot in the Dark.” There’s no evidence for this at all. It’s the result, basically, of a thought experiment.