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.

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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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August 10, 2016

Where I’m Coming From

Back in the day, I wrote this:

As I learned early in my journalistic career before becoming an academic, there is no such thing as an objective point of view. And the ideal of fairness is almost as elusive. But I will always attempt to be fair according to standards that I will try to make plain. I will try to reveal my biases when I think they intrude on my critiques.

Yesterday I wrote a scathing and snarky critique of Donald Trump’s latest outrage. I did not publish it, and I will not publish it because I need to change a few things regarding the quote above.

You can use the following to decide if you think Rhetorica is worth your time during the remaining weeks of the 2016 election.

I consider Donald Trump to be a dangerous amateur, and I despair for the Republican Party that it chose this person. His candidacy is so alarming that I am unable to maintain the fiction of academic detachment. He must be stopped.

I will hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s just another centrist Democrat. I am sick to death of centrist Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

My track record here over the years, and the tools that I have published for your use, may be employed to determine if anything I write here in the next few weeks is worthwhile.

I will try to maintain focus on press coverage, especially regarding the glaring differences between reporting and stenography.

But I may not be able to let another scathing snark-fest go unpublished.

Just so you know.

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August 8, 2016

Covering a “Major Policy Address”

Jay Rosen has been wondering about the “interpretive challenge” the Trump campaign presents for journalists. How do you use the tools of reporting to cover a person who won’t follow the general master narratives that journalists have come to expect about how presidential candidates should speak and behave?

I contend that this interpretive challenge is made even more challenging because much of the old reporting playbook was not a playbook about reporting. Instead, it is a blank stenographers pad waiting to be filled with quotes that will not be examined as long as they fit the general master narrative.

Today I just want to call attention to coverage of a Trump campaign speech (characterized as a “major policy address”) by The New York Times:

But the economic agenda Mr. Trump described included many traditionally Republican policies that offer little to no direct benefit to working-class Americans, while giving a considerable financial boost to the wealthiest.

Now that paragraph is likely to set aflutter the hearts of those who fight liberal bias in the news media.

Is that opinion or fact?

I’m going to sidestep that question for now (I’ll get back to it in the days to come) and say that, no matter what is is, it is certainly reporting. In other words, rather than simply pass along quotes — stenography — the Times has bothered to compare what Trump said with the public and/or historical record.

It happens several more times in this article:

For example, Mr. Trump called for ending what Republicans label the “death tax.” He did not mention that the estate tax currently exempts the first $5.45 million for an individual and $10.9 million for a married couple — meaning that only the very wealthy pay even a dime. If Mr. Trump’s net worth is as large as he has says, his heirs would have a great deal to gain from eliminating the estate tax; the typical displaced steelworker or coal miner, or even a relatively prosperous retiree, would have nothing to gain.

Mr. Trump advocated reducing the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from its current 35 percent. That proposal comes after a decade in which after-tax corporate profits have risen sharply as a share of national income and compensation for workers has fallen.

He advocated “allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of child-care spending from their taxes.” That might sound like a boost for average workers, but the way the tax code works, it would confer the greatest advantage to upper middle-class and wealthier families, and little to no benefit for vast numbers of low-income families.

For expenses of $10,000 a year on child care, the tax deduction would be worth about $3,960 for a family in the top marginal tax bracket making more than $467,000 a year, but only $1,500 to a family making between roughly $19,000 and $75,000. And many lower and lower-middle income families pay little or no federal income tax, so a tax deduction wouldn’t help them.

A bit later in the article, the Times has this to say about other policies:

Other elements of Mr. Trump’s economic agenda lack details that would make similar analysis possible. His proposed moratorium on new regulations would certainly warm the hearts of business interests that have complained of excessive regulation in the Obama era, but it is hard to know how much of a factor regulation has been in the sluggish economic growth of the last several years.

And on energy policy, Mr. Trump reiterated his pledge to tear up the Paris climate agreement and halt the United States’ payments to United Nations for programs to reduce global warming. He said energy regulations were killing manufacturing jobs.

Good journalism unfolds over time. What we see here could be meta-reporting (I’m not actually optimistic about that): reporting about reporting that still needs to be done. The Times should consider these two paragraphs as the starting points for news assignments that will become the context in which these policies are understood the next time Trump mentions them.

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August 6, 2016

Setting the Hook on a Juicy Quote

“If Hillary Clinton becomes president you will have terrorism, you will have problems, you will have really, in my opinion, the destruction of this country from within,” Trump said. “Believe me.”

Juicy quote, right?

But what does it mean?

Let’s start with a simple binary: This quote is either true to some extent or mistaken to some extent. We won’t know for sure until the “if” plays out. Seeing that the “if” doesn’t play out is a reasonable interpretation of the speaker’s rhetorical intention.

I could spend a lot more time running this quote through the rhetorical interpretation wringer, but there’s really no point because the reasons why this is a juicy quote are plain to see. Boiled down: OMFG, a presidential candidate said THAT? It’s news!!! No, it’s not news. This is bait for journalists — a big, juicy worm wiggling on a hook. It should be questioned and/or examined, or it should be ignored.

If the reporter is unable to question the speaker for whatever reason, then good reporting demands examining the rhetoric and reporting the facts discovered rather than simply writing it down and passing it along.

I’ve called this the rhetoric beat.

Politicians certainly make news when they speak. But just writing it down and passing it along — stenography — is not reporting.

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August 5, 2016

Unanswered Questions

There are plenty of jobs for stenographers in American political journalism. It’s the safest — and easiest — job in the business. American political stenography thrives in the new multimedia/social media context. It is perfectly suited for the clickbait headline, the vacuous soundbite, the hashtag thinking, and the (apparently) declining attention span of the audience.

I’m waking Rhetorica up for the 2016 election.

Unlike years past when I covered a wide range of rhetorical issues in the press and politics, this time I’m focusing on political stenography in journalism. It occurs at all levels. I’ll be particularly focused on its practice in prestigious newspapers and self-aggrandizing cable/network news programs.

You can click that link and read some of what I’ve written about stenography in the past. But in case you don’t want to work quite that hard, what I’m talking about is the near universal practice among American political journalists not to ask — or get answers for — painfully obvious questions when politicians speak in hashtags and soundbites as if it were all so much common sense.

Here’s another way to understand it:

Stenography = writing down what sources say

Reporting = discovering and writing down the facts (about what sources say)

Here’s a short list of problems stenography causes that I published in 2009:

1. Sounds bites get substituted for facts and rational argument.

2. Mere partisan contention becomes news pushing out context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) and proportion (bad kairos).

3. Intentional falsehoods achieve a cultural force equal to facts and (something like) the truth.

Let’s see what happens this time 🙂

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September 18, 2015

My LOL Moment with Paul Krugman

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?

Just, wow.

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).

Two decades.

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.

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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 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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March 22, 2013

Rhetoric And The War Ten Years On

I had to go back and read what I had written ten years ago at the beginning of the war with Iraq.

If you had asked me just a day ago what my position on the war was at the time, I would have told you that I was against it, largely because I did not think a case had made on anything more than emotions. I was also wondering how the whole “keep spending while we cut taxes” thing was going to work.

Few of my concerns showed up on Rhetorica. I was too busy doing my rhetorical analysis thing. A post I wrote on 3 February 2003 — Making A Case For War — was typical. I was continuing to respond to the State of the Union address and various criticisms of it. At the time I wrote:

Should we be fired up for war? Should we fight Iraq? I do not know. I leave such questions to the war bloggers. My interest in this is the rhetoric of war as it appears in the Bush 2003 SOTU [broken link]. If his goal is to prepare us for war, if his goal is to persuade us that war is right, then he is doing the time-honored thing to make that case: appealing to our emotions.

But part of what I was doing in this post was wondering about what kind of appeal the American public really wanted — not that such a thing is easy to determine. Here’s how I concluded:

The thinking seems to be–and I agree–that Bush needed to use facts to outline his argument for war. If this sentiment is indeed pervasive, it may indicate an as yet unarticulated rejection of war. If no facts are forthcoming, then all that’s left are emotional appeals. And if we are crying for facts, then we may be crying for peace.

And that, Rhetorica readers, is about as close as I came to taking a stand on one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

While it has never been difficult to determine my politics — I have been transparent about it in various ways — it was a rare thing for me to make political stands in the course of examining and criticizing the rhetoric of the press-politics relationship. The name of this blog used to be Press-Politics Journal, not The Doom Files.

Much has changed in ten years.

Many people are revisiting their relationship to the start of war recently given the grim anniversary of our unprovoked attack on Iraq. I was alerted to Peggy Noonan’s retrospective by a tweet from Jay Rosen:

She laments the damage done to the Republican Party by our rush to war. I think she may be right.

What we’re reading here is simply more shallow punditry — one of the primary currencies of the  rhetoric of a failing culture. Compared to damage done to our state, our nation, and our economy, the damage done to any particular political party is nothing. She pays only the slightest of lip service to the damage done to all of us as she pretends to be offering cogent commentary about politics. I’m reminded of fiddles and burning cities.

Given the damage, I think all of us who spoke publicly — journalists, bloggers, pundits, politicians — about the run-up to war owe our society an apology to the extent that we did not deal in facts and reality as we allowed ourselves to be swept along by emotion. Many of us on the left and right allowed ourselves to be cowed by those who questioned the patriotism of anyone with the nerve to ask tough questions or point out inconvenient facts. We over-reacted to 9/11. We attacked a country without provocation. We tortured people. We killed so many that the count may never be known. We destroyed our reputation in the world. We ruined our economy.

I am sorry.

I wrote about rhetoric — certainly a worthy project. But I did not say enough about what I think the rhetoric really indicated.

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