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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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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July 17, 2013

Attack of the Cute Young Guy

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!

Exactly how?

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: Mass hysteria continues as America suffers a total breakdown in critical thinking.

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.


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June 7, 2013

Structural Bias and the Failing Press

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.

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April 23, 2013

Journalism Needs More Dicks

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.

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February 6, 2013

How to Talk About Journalism

Jay Rosen offers an interesting post on Press Think that is kinda sorta like a prose poem that attempts to create stasis between newsroom traditionalists and the promoters of the brave new world of journalism in the internet age. We can see in this an emerging rhetoric of the new new new journalism.

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January 17, 2013

Linking And Verification

I’ll never stop harping on the discipline of verification — the essential practice of anything we would hope to call journalism.

And, once again, we see what happens when journalists fail to do the most essential and basic thing the practice of journalism demands.

Steve Buttry has much to say, and cogent advice, about the role of linking in verification.

As I tell my multimedia journalism students: “Always be linking.” I’ll also be assigning them to read everything about this current mess (including my media ethics students).

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