September 22, 2009

On Calling Bullshit

A few weeks ago I chastised the news media for not calling bullshit sooner on the “death panel” canard, which drew a question from a long-time Rhetorica reader: “How does ‘a poor job of calling bullshit’ and ‘call[ing] bullshit inconsistently’ relate back to a ‘rhetoric beat‘?” Here’s my original post on the concept of a rhetoric beat.

I believe that the rhetorical features of public messages (politics, journalism, education, etc.) are reportable facts. By “rhetorical features” I mean the specific persuasive strategies employed by the communicator to achieve their communicative intention (see: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Intention and The Engine of Bullshit).

Reporting the rhetorical features of public messages helps citizens analyze those messages so they can make informed decisions. The rhetoric beat meets the test of journalism’s primary purpose: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

But there’s an added benefit that also fits that ethical purpose: Covering the rhetoric beat highlights bullshit, so it is possible that it could help persuade powerful civic actors to stop employing so much of it (see: Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit).

Two problems:

1. As I wrote before: “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).”

2. Journalism must be willing to call bullshit on itself. While self-awareness is a good thing, I think this attitude could be helped along if news organizations routinely watched, and reported on, the craft and ethics of other news organizations (see: Ripping Them a New One). Journalism treats itself as outside the field of play coaching (watching, criticizing) others but not subject to coaching (watching, criticizing) itself. Combine this attitude with new media interactivity and a failed business model (corporate journalism) and what you get is the current sorry state of the MSM today.

Calling bullshit is also a problem because it disrupts the narrative, status quo, and fairness biases of journalism. So it ain’t happenin’ in that regard either.

When I said that journalism “took entirely too long to call bullshit,” I was guilty of assuming a world (craft, ethic) that doesn’t actually exist.

2 Responses

  1. Tim 

    So …

    – the rhetoric beat is at minimum useful to citizens and serves the purpose of journalism,

    – is missing, and

    – is impossible for journalists (based on training/expertise) and not allowed by the current business model?

  2. acline 

    Tim… Yes, except that I would not say “impossible.” Instead, “damned difficult” because it (craft, exist) doesn’t actually exist at the moment in the MSM. I think the rhetoric beat will be a feature of journalism as practiced on the web following the MSM apocalypse.