It’s been a long time since I last updated Rhetorica. I’ve spent most of my intellectual energy the past two years working on my first (yes, there will be more) documentary film. It premieres this Saturday at The Moxie in Springfield, Missouri.
The Rhetorica grumpiness continues…
I laughed out loud when I reached the conclusion of Paul Krugman’s column today in The New York Times:
I began writing for The Times during the 2000 election campaign, and what I remember above all from that campaign is the way the conventions of “evenhanded” reporting allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to make clearly false assertions — about his tax cuts, about Social Security — without paying any price. As I wrote at the time, if Mr. Bush said the earth was flat, we’d see headlines along the lines of “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”
Now we have presidential candidates who make Mr. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. But who will tell the people?
You see, there are many people (e.g. bloggers, academics, academic bloggers, rational media critics of all sorts) who have been pointing this out for nearly two decades (confining my time frame to the blogging era and scope to national politics).
If you read Rhetorica regularly back in the day, you know who I’m talking about. Some of them remain linked on my sidebar.
No one in journalism listens. In fact, no one in journalism listens to the advice given in one of the profession’s revered texts: Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. Sometimes I think journalists like this book simply because the words sound good. I mean literally “sound.”
We — a large number of cogent critics — have been pointing out (for nearly two decades) that the business-as-usual, view-from-nowhere, inside-baseball, poll-driven, personality-driven way of covering politics is, in fact, not covering politics in the sense of meeting journalism’s primary purpose: To give people the information they need to be free and self-governing.
That has to mean, among other things, operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification, i.e. reporting not stenography.
Quite frankly there is very little political journalism in the United States of America.
A modest proposal: Actually giving the people the information they need to be free and self-governing might stop journalism’s slide into entertainment and, finally, into oblivion. That, obviously, means journalists have to understand what that kind of information is. So far they show no aptitude.
Senator Numbntuz says X. Senator Blowhard says Y. The polls say Z. And the pundits blather about what it “means.” The current practice of stenography stops there and lets the citizen figure it out. We are reminded daily how well that works.
I have spent much time on this blog since 2002 examining the persuasive intentions of journalists and politicians in order to help people understand, if just in my particular way, how and why journalists and politicians speak as they do.
Such a project assumes two things (among many):
- That journalists and politicians are basically reasonable people.
- That political and journalistic discourses are understandable as rational attempts at persuasion.
But we have a problem. The political discourse in America has been destroyed (you can pick your own agent — there are many). Not broken. Not troubled. Destroyed, as in it no longer exists.
So let me define what I’m talking about. By political discourse I mean to indicate texts (complexly understood) intended to identify and examine political/social/economic problems. Further, political discourse is then about negotiating solutions to problems (and, within the solutions role, political discourse is also about “winning” politically and accepting the democratic bargain). And, more positively expressed, political discourse is also about negotiating our common understanding ourselves as a nation and a culture.
That has been destroyed. Don’t believe me? Conduct an experiment: Turn on any cable news channel. Watch for 30 minutes.
Or read The New York Times. This article in today’s edition is arguably the most perfect example of the total loss of our political discourse and what prompts me to write today: Conspiracy Theories Over Jade Helm Training Exercise Gets Some Traction in Texas.
Because we no longer have a functional political discourse, Gov. Greg Abbott knows he faces no political cost whatsoever in feeding red meat to idiots. I absolutely reject any argument that would claim he is himself an idiot, i.e. actually believes Jade Helm 15 is anything more than just another military exercise (albeit a large one).
And he knows it’s a sure win. In that sense it is a heresthetic maneuver. Because every American with half a working brain (a dwindling number, apparently) — and regardless of political ideology — knows that President Obama has no intention “taking over Texas” (whatever the hell that could possibly mean), Abbott will be able to claim victory at the conclusion of the exercise.
This situation (all the bazillion ways this is seriously fucked up) can only occur in a country with no rational political discourse and no news media willing to promote and defend a rational political discourse.
And if you think this one is bad, wait a week.
I have, by fits and starts, tried to reinvigorate Rhetorica. But that’s just impossible in a country with no rational political discourse. In the real world I’m walking around in, Rhetorica is a colossal waste of time.
And that’s why it sucks.
For the three or four of you still reading, it’ll continue to suck by fits and starts.
I go long periods of time forgetting to update the oldest document on this website: my examination of structural bias in the news media. Jay Rosen’s post at PressThink today reminds me, again, that I need to add #10 to the list: class bias, specifically middle-class bias.
Rosen is writing about his recent appearance on CNN to discuss the situation with Bill OReilly at FOX News and why O’Reilly isn’t “in trouble” with his employer for fabrications similar to those made by Brian Williams on NBC. Here’s an important moment in his published notes:
Here, Roger Ailes exploited a weakness in establishment journalism that in 1996 was dimly understood by its practitioners— or not understood at all. There was a submerged ideology in American newsrooms, populated as they were by people who were more cosmopolitan than “country,” more secular than religious. Journalists in the U.S. were vaguely progressive in the sense of welcoming social change (up to a point) and identifying (up to a point) with those who had grievances against traditional authority. Certainly there weren’t many denizens of the American newsroom eager to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” or who had supported the Vietnam War, or who saw Ronald Reagan as a cultural hero. And there weren’t many alert to the ideological undertow in a mission statement still popular among journalists: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Critics on the left are correct to say that if this is liberalism it is very weak tea. But critics on the right are correct to say that it sure isn’t neutral professionalism. Roger Ailes understood that the “mainstream” journalists his network was built to attack had an ideology that they were unwilling to defend, because they had never recognized it as an ideology. Instead they used terms like “news values.” They talked about standards and credibility and objectivity and being a good professional. They still do this.
It’s not that these terms didn’t mean anything, but they couldn’t capture enough to account for the world view that did in fact prevail in American newsrooms and did in fact conflict with the way a portion of the country — the conservative portion — saw things. That is the conflict that gave rise to Fox News. It was partly due to a misrecognition by journalists of their own belief system. They aren’t as liberal as the cartoon characterizations that are now commonplace on the American right, but they aren’t successful at taking the view from nowhere, either.
Long-time readers of Rosen’s work will recognize this — before arriving at the third paragraph quoted — as his continued criticism of the “view from nowhere.” That view, along with many of the nine structural biases, creates much of the approach to news that some conservatives identify as liberal bias. I’m still on the record asserting this:
The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct bias (right or left depending on the critic). This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what is happening in the world. I believe journalism is an under-theorized practice. In other words, journalists often do what they do without reflecting upon the meaning of the premises and assumptions that support their practice. I say this as a former journalist. I think we may begin to reflect upon journalistic practice by noticing that the press applies a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.
In Rosen’s quote above he identifies what I call middle-class bias — a socio-economic position driven in large part by the particular kind of education journalists achieve, i.e. “liberal” in the academic understanding of that term.
Middle-class bias structures professional practice in journalism because, as with the other structural biases, journalists understand the world through the lenses of their educations, their incomes, and their professional mythology — a narrative that springs directly from middle-class understandings of journalism’s role in a democratic republic. For more on the latter, Rhetorica readers should once again check out pages 55 to 61 of Herbert Gans’ book Democracy and the News where Gans identifies the parts of journalists’ theory (I call it mythology) of democracy:
In logical order, the theory consists of four parts: 1) the journalist’s role is to inform citizens; 2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the…news journalists supply them; 3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically…; 4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be.
Middle class ideas. Middle class concerns. A middle class story.
If Bohr couldn’t resist magical thinking, can anyone? One recent study found that even physicists, chemists, and geologists at MIT and other elite schools were instinctively inclined to attach a purpose to natural events. When the researchers subjected the scientists to time pressure (reasoning that this could expose a person’s uncensored biases), they were twice as likely to approve of statements such as “Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” than they were when they had time to respond more deliberately .
I’ve discussed narrative bias as one of the structural biases of journalism. That isn’t exactly accurate. It’s really a human bias that journalists cannot escape, and, therefore, it plays a structuring role in their practice.
Here’s the bias stated, perhaps, more correctly: People apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events.
The adults have left CNN; the children are in charge.
How is it possible today not to understand the importance of, and indeed practice, the ethic of transparency? If we’ve learned nothing else in this technological revolution sweeping the news media it is this: an interactive media — the only kind left standing — demands transparency.
The argument is simple: In a media situation where anyone can report, publish, and be noticed, transparency (in purpose, methods, and ethos) becomes the new umbrella ethic, the new route to credibility — the willingness to be open about who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. This is the opposite of the view from nowhere — the false notion that journalists can or should be “objective” in philosophical stance, that their news comes from some place apart from the pressures and intentions of the real world with no purpose other than to inform. (What journalists need to be are custodians of fact who operate with a discipline of verification — and be transparent about it.)
So we learn that the rebirth of the wretched Crossfire includes the abandonment of transparency — no obligation to report conflicts of interest to the viewer.
Well, to be fair, Crossfire ain’t journalism. And, really, given the excesses, excuses, mistakes, and silliness pointed out regularly by Jon Stewart, can we really call CNN an outlet for journalism? Maybe a couple hours per day.
This show is a vampire. Jon Stewart only wounded it before. Who will drive a stake through its evil heart and kill it for good?
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.
Apparently, this Rolling Stone cover is causing a stir on Twitter and Facebook:
Twitter and Facebook are ever aflutter with the petty outrages of the current 15-minute moment. And, typically, this petty outrage is fueled entirely by emotional reactions. OMFG!!! Rolling Stone is Glorifying a terrorist!
Now, don’t even attempt to answer that with any argument that isn’t grounded in cogent rhetorical and ethical analysis. For example: Exactly how, as a rhetorical expression, does the cover glorify the guy? You’ll need to define glory both textually and visually. You’ll need to identify it specifically on the cover and differentiate it from other reasonable interpretations. And you’ll need to demonstrate an intention on the part of Rolling Stone to do any such thing. Without intention, well, I think in cases such as this: no rhetorical harm / no rhetorical foul. You remain free to interpret it as you like and get upset about it. (Failing intention, I’ll accept demonstrating that RS has failed cultural sensibilities, but then you’d have to defend those sensibilities as more than mere emoting or mass hysteria.) It wouldn’t hurt if you could also deal with other uses of this image and explain in detail how they differ rhetorically from this use.
I am a subscriber to Rolling Stone, but I am traveling and will not be able to read the article until next week. But the description on the cover sounds like exactly the kind of reporting we should want about this guy. Who is he? What factors led to his decision to bomb the Boston Marathon? And, what’s really important here, what do answers to these questions (and others) say about the future of such acts in the U.S.
I have no idea if the article will live up to this promise, but the cover seems to me a very good start. We get to stare into the face of domestic terrorism and see that it can look like the cute guy who lives next door. Public served, IMO.
Glory? They call him a “monster.” That is infamy.
UPDATE: Rolling Stone responds:
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.
Exactly. Sounds like a cover story to me.
Why does the press get it wrong so often (how often?) on the big stories (and small ones, too)?
Conor Friedersdorf offers a few reasons for some of the many screw-ups we’ve suffered lately. It’s like a lesson in the structural biases of journalism — the very list I’ve been telling you for more than 10 years is important in understanding not only why journalists do what they do but also why they fail when they do.
But that’s not to say that the structural biases are the only source of our recent problems. Another bugaboo familiar to long-time Rhetorica readers (and, apparently, there are still a few of you left) is the failure that occurs when journalists operate as something less than custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.
And while I’m loathe the agree with Instapundit on much of anything, I do think there’s a large measure of “dumb” and “smug” going on.
Journalists — the older ones anyway — are suffering through a turbulent, tech-driven revolution that is raising questions about foundational issues such as the role of the audience, the economics of news, and the presentation of serious, text-driven journalism on 4-inch screens. Let me throw a life buoy — one I guarantee will float in this storm: Operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification and be a little more self-reflective about the role of the structural biases.
Just do it. Or continue to embarrass yourselves.
I think we have reached a new low in journalism.
During the past few big news events, I’ve found myself wondering, as I watch and read, just how badly the various news organizations are screwing it up. I’m defining “screwing it up” as failing to act as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. I’m going to over-generalize from that and assert that news now appears to be partly about the entertainment value of watching journalists get it wrong long before they get it right.
I base that over-generalization on this assumption and prediction (really stepping in it now): No one will lose their jobs over any of this. And no one will lose their jobs the next time. Which ensures there will be a next time. And a next. And a next…
Let’s check in with Jon Stewart.
He starts off the sketch by asserting that The Daily Show is hard on the news media because “we are dicks.” I’ll agree if part of the definition of being a dick is doing the necessary work of critiquing the performance of the news media and holding it to standards that ought to define it.
Journalism needs more dicks.