October 15, 2018

The Rhetoric of Fake News

Without a proper academic study, it’s difficult to say just how much the passing along of fake news (mostly by linking and tweeting) is the result of not knowing something is fake but passing it along because it fits a world view or knowing it’s fake but passing it along because it fits the needs of a persuasive intention. There are other ways to bifurcate this and many possible explanations I’m choosing to ignore right now.

I think Regina Rini’s column in The New York Times is interesting and instructive in coming to some understanding of this situation. Specifically, she foregrounds the role of situated ethos in the viral growth of fake news: We tend to believe friends and family whom we trust. As she says:

Part of the reason that people believe you when you share information is this: they’ve determined your credibility and can hold you accountable if you are lying or if you’re wrong. The reliability of secondhand knowledge comes from these norms.

So she’s proposing a different way for Facebook, in particular, to use the power of credibility to fight fake news. Here’s the upshot:

Instead of using this data to calculate a secret score, Facebook should display a simple reliability marker on every post and comment. Imagine a little colored dot next to the user’s name, similar to the blue verification badges Facebook and Twitter give to trusted accounts: a green dot could indicate that the user hasn’t chosen to share much disputed news, a yellow dot could indicate that they do it sometimes, and a red dot could indicate that they do it often. These reliability markers would allow anyone to see at a glance how reliable their friends are.

There is no censorship in this proposal. Facebook needn’t bend its algorithms to suppress posts from users with poor reliability markers: Every user could still post whatever they want, regardless of whether the facts of the stories they share are in dispute. People could choose to use social media the same way they do today, but now they’d have a choice whenever they encounter new information.

I like this idea. Here’s why I think it won’t work:

Of the two propositions I mention to start this post, I have reason to believe (my hypothesis) that the linking and tweeting of fake news for a rhetorical purpose is more likely than passing it along out of ignorance about its fakeness. I doubt there are many people who are a mere head-slap away from realizing — Gadzooks! — “I’ve been passing along Birther nonsense because I trusted Uncle Joe. If only there had been a red dot!” My contention: Uncle Joe’s nonsense got passed along because his niece or nephew had a persuasive intention to do so whether the stuff was true or not. A reminder: As long as you don’t get caught and shamed, lies and fallacies and fake news are just as much tools of rhetoric as, say, Aristotle’s artistic proofs.

An uncomfortable number of people today do not trust the news media despite its attempts at transparency and its well-established Code of Ethics. Who, exactly, is going to trust a red dot placed by Facebook based on … what? Where’s the trust coming from? What’s the ethos?

I really do like Rimi’s idea … ten years ago.

It’s too late.

September 20, 2018

“Every Child” to Screen at Public Affairs Conference

My student documentary team and I have finished another short film entitled Every Child. It premieres as part of the 2018 Public Affairs Conference at Missouri State University.

The conference opens with the Unity in Community Film Festival — a day-long screening of films following the conference theme. My team produced two of the five films. You can check out our work at Carbon Trace Productions.

The feature film of the festival is Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.

In other news:

I ditched the Springfield Report website that used to be a publishing venue for my multimedia journalism class. And I ditched my Carbon Trace bicycle/alternative transportation blog because it was hacked in a brute-force attack. Because I’m also running the non-profit production company on that domain, I felt it best just to let that bit of work slide into oblivion.

Rhetorica, however, will live on. I back it up regularly enough that I can move the content anywhere if something similar should happen here.

If you visit the Carbon Trace Productions site, you’ll notice something called Eyewitness in the menu. That’s the news arm of Carbon Trace Productions. There’s not much there right now, but soon we’ll begin making it something like Vice for Springfield.

President Trump visits Springfield tomorrow for a rally. I’m unable to attend. But I may have something to say following the fake news reports 😉

As a professor of journalism, does that mean I get to be an enemy of America, too?

November 29, 2017

I Bought A Digital Subscription

I just renewed my digital subscription to The New York Times this week.

Last night I added, for the first time, a digital subscription to the Washington Post.

I’m a sucker for that “democracy dies in darkness” tag line. Here’s what I actually think about such things. But this an emotional response, not an intellectual one.

And this is, IMO, dead on:

But such incredulity misses the deeper significance of this stuff. The brazenness of it is the whole point — his utter shamelessness itself is meant to achieve his goal. In any given case, Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power — the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.

(Obvious quibble from my theoretical perspective: rendering reality irrelevant IS a persuasive intention. But never mind.)

In a nutshell, this is one reason the press finds it difficult to cover President Trump. And it hints at the way forward.

My long-standing cure (one of many) remains unchanged: the rhetoric beat.

November 25, 2016

It Was Supposed to Make Us Smarter

There comes a moment every semester in my class MED130 Fundamentals of Media Convergence (because we couldn’t think of anything else to call it) when I tell students about two things I know to be true:

  1. Once you introduce a technology you can’t take it back.
  2. People will use technology for their own purposes and not necessarily the purposes imagined by its creators.

Think internet and porn.

Then again, think social media and fake news.

Apparently, the digital natives are having a difficult time with media literacy and critical thinking in the evaluation of information discovered online — especially as presented through social media.

What is fake news? Independent of rhetorical intention (e.g. satire, political manipulation, trolling, etc.), it seems to me that these are the essentials of fake news:

  1. Fake news imitates the time frame and time-bound nature of news. So the news-of-the-future skit on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In show does not count as fake news. Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live does.
  2. Fake news imitates standard news conventions (if imperfectly) regarding presentation and style.
  3. Fake news is counter-factual. This might seem like pointing out the obvious, but that state of being requires a culture to operate with a shared body of facts (not a shared interpretation of facts). I think we left that state of being behind a long time ago.
  4. Snippets of crap taken from fake news posted on social media is not fake news. That’s your Facebook buddy being a dumbass. That your buddy posted a meme or truncated snippet of bullshit is your opportunity to point out what a dumbass he is; it is not your opportunity to believe anything. In other words, fake news is the original expression following the first three points above. Conversely, your buddy posting a snippet based on real news is not real news until you’ve done the work of checking it out. (So, yes, in our current media environment the discipline of verification is also essential to citizenship.)

Fake news, then, isn’t a problem by itself. It can be wildly popular entertainment or cogently biting satire (here’s a good Black Friday example). Fake news is fun. It’s educational. I show the following video to all of my journalism students as an example of the problems caused by standard news form when you follow it uncritically:

The problem isn’t fake news. The problem isn’t even that people share fake news to social media.

The problem is a lack of media literacy and critical thinking.

Hmmmm… What to do…

November 7, 2016

A Quick Interjection in the Silence

Rhetorica, as a site examining media-political rhetoric, remains retired.

But I have to call your attention — whatever is left of my readership — to Jay Rosen’s current entry on PressThink. The whole thing is important, but this struck me in particular:

How can you say to readers: these people live in a different reality than we do… and leave it there? That is not the kind of story you can drop on our doorsteps and walk away from. It’s describing a rupture in the body politic, a tear in the space-time continuum that lies behind political journalism. I don’t think the editors understood what they were doing. But even today they would find this criticism baffling. We reported what people in this movement believe. Accurately! What’s your problem?

Back in the day, here’s what I wrote about facts as a liberal bias.

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.

May 20, 2016

News v. Reality

As the saying goes: If a dog bites a man, that’s not news, but if a man bites a dog, that’s news.

It’s also not reality, or, rather, an odd little bit of it. The odd part is what makes it news. It’s the “little bit” that often gets lost.

So, shark bites blond female child off coast of Florida and we go crazy worrying about shark attacks because, well, shark attacks are in the news. Never mind that your blond female child is far more likely to die in a traffic crash. Want to be afraid of something? Be afraid of your car.

Other stuff gets blown out of proportion, too. Today The New York Times ran an op-ed by 

In this highly charged election, it’s no surprise that the news media see every poll like an addict sees a new fix. That is especially true of polls that show large and unexpected changes. Those polls get intense coverage and analysis, adding to their presumed validity.

The problem is that the polls that make the news are also the ones most likely to be wrong. And to folks like us, who know the polling game and can sort out real trends from normal perturbations, too many of this year’s polls, and their coverage, have been cringeworthy.

Men are, apparently, biting dogs like crazy.

Or at least that’s what the press sees.

And the stories they tell themselves about their practice maintain that what they see is real.

This op-ed is just another in a long list of attempts to point out the damage the press does reporting polls as if they were so many men biting dogs, as if they were real.

May 7, 2015

Why Rhetorica Sucks

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):

  1. That journalists and politicians are basically reasonable people.
  2. 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.

September 27, 2013

No Adults Left At CNN

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?

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.

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