March 10, 2011

The Rhetoric of Punking

I have no sympathy for people or organizations that get punked. The latest examples are the Governor of Wisconsin taking a fake phone call from a fake Koch brother and an NPR executive taking a meeting with a merry band of O’Keefenicks.

These pranks are not journalism. These pranks offend journalistic ethics beause, at the very least, they require misrepresentation.

But, just as surely, these pranks are news because they create news — real news.

Tip: If you are a politician, news media person, entertainer, or other person in the public eye, you are a potential victim of punking, so be ready.

In order to be ready, one must consider the rhetoric of punking:

1. Punkers are motivated by partisan politics. Punking is a political tactic — an act of political theater.

2. The punker intends to catch the victim doing or saying something embarrassing and stereotypical for the purpose of proving that the victim (or victim’s organization) is nefarious.

3. The punker creates a rhetorical situation that encourages the victim to misidentify an exigence and the kairos necessary to handle the exigence. (This doesn’t mean the data is illegitimate.)

4. The punker creates an elaborate enthymeme for the audience so that it accepts the ethos of the victim as situated rather than invented for him/her by the punker. (See qualifier above.)

5. The rheme (a unit of rhetoric) the punker relies on is narrative; the punker creates a plausible story that creates the rhetorical situation and draws the victim into an exigence. The punker also allows the narrative to become increasingly implausible as the victim is drawn further into the trap. A really good punker creates a “too late” moment in which the victim crosses a point of no return — the source of the most important artifact of punking: the incriminating sound-bite. (We all must, however, be wary of “too late” moments created by disingenuous editing rather than actual punking skill.)

None of that is surprising. It’s standard, frat-boy stuff.

Understanding it in political and rhetorical terms is just the first step in defending against punking.

The larger, and perhaps more interesting, point is that we now live in an age in which punking is easily accomplished and disseminated. And there appears to be no reason whatsoever not to try it. Just avoid breaking laws, and you’re good to go.

The best defense: A damned sensitive bullshit meter and the willingness to check out people before you talk to them. It also wouldn’t hurt to have the kind of personal values that eschew name-calling, demonizing, and incivility. I mean really — a Muslim group wants to give $5 million to NPR? You couldn’t see that one coming? Geez…

9 Responses

  1. Sven 

    Suppressing a gusher of Schadenfreude – especially in light of this, I’ll say the Walker call was unfair and not a symptom of a healthy body politic.

    I don’t believe the caricature of the governor as a craven handmaiden to billionaires is accurate or helpful. However, I do think the episode demonstrated that the Wisconsin press corps failed utterly to present an accurate portrait of what the last election was about. It’d be nice if the SPJ saved a bit of its high dudgeon to point that out.

  2. While obviously targets of punking shouldn’t let themselves be drawn into stupid statements, I am continually surprised by the failure of progressives to simply call out the perfidy of the punkers, while the right wingers like Walker know to stonewall til the fuss subsides. I understand they have different media environments to negotiate (the right has the Fox megaphone; the left only the timid centrist press) but I still don’t get it.

  3. acline 

    The political/rhetorical tactics of the two major factions leave much to be desired re: responding to punking. I choose to be amused by it all.

  4. Tim 

    Maybe we should treat Punking (or Pwning?) Journalism as a genre at the low end of the spectrum that includes Entrapment Journalism, Undercover/Sting Journalism, Ambush Journalism, Investigative Journalism, etc.?

    Some smart journalism org/critics should start the equivalent of the Pwnie Awards.

  5. acline 

    Tim… re: genre I would leave “investigative” off that list, but, yes, I think as long as it’s understood that the modification includes questions of craft and ethics we might have something to work with there.

  6. Tim 

    Excluding investigative already implies there is a sub-genre for the others, but I didn’t intend to imply a group. If news and editorial are genres in journalism, and op/ed a genre in editorial, then what is the name of the genre for pwn, ambush, etc., or are they each genres in journalism.

  7. acline 

    Tim… Good questions, and I don’t know. But I’m going to think about it because I think what you’re suggesting opens some interesting possibilities.

  8. Tim 

    re: interesting possibilities

    Exactly! If I think “pro” and “am” are different genres of journalism, and “pro-am” journalism combines the best (craft and ethics) of each … then within the genres of journalism, where do these fit? Can both pro-jos and am/cit-jos engage in ambush journalism? Does ambush journalism, even when performed by self-proclaimed pros, create/result in an amateurish rhetorical situation?

  9. acline 

    Tim… re: “amateurish” Or “silly” or “needlessly dramatic” I can think of a lot of terms to describe it. And, sometimes, “newsworthy.”

    I don’t know if there have been any “good” examples of cit-j ambush journalism. But it seems a ripe technique for the picking — even if I don’t like it 😉