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?

June 25, 2018

Harshing the Civic Mellow

Nail. Head. Hit.

When it comes to protests, mean words, civil disobedience, boycotts, public shunning, we may disagree when one or other is wise or called for. But these are entirely legitimate tools of political action, civic action. Many calls for civility are simply calls for unilateral disarmament from those protesting injustices and abuses of power.

That’s Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo.

Calls for civility almost always come from people with social, economic, and political power who don’t want their tender mellows harshed.

June 19, 2018

Big Lies, Small Lies, and Child Abuse

The government is telling lies about its abuse of children on the southern border. Like any fallacy, logical or otherwise, this tactic can certainly be employed as a rhetorical strategy. Big news there, right?

There’s been plenty of fact-checking and outrage. But let me suggest another tactic for ending this abuse of children: Shine a light on those responsible.

Big news, again, right?

No. I mean expose the people who are actually doing the dirty work on the ground: Border Patrol agents. These men and women need to take moral responsibility or become monsters. Former Head Customs and Border Protection Gil Kerlikowske lamented the effect this duty might have on the agents.

I suggest each agent is morally responsible for their own soul. If agents choose to put children in cages — and make jokes about their anguish (re: PBS link above) — then we have the right to hold these individuals responsible for the damage they cause.

Agents should refuse this duty. And they should gladly accept any consequence for refusing as morally superior to following heinous orders.

I’ve been tweeting about it:

January 9, 2018

No. Just no.

The ancient Greeks put a lot of stock in the ability to speak well in public. They understood effective speakers to have political and cultural power. They made moral judgments about their fellow Greeks based on the ability to speak well in public. In general, it was within the range of unbelievable for them that the unworthy could be good public speakers.

That seems naive to us today. But, simplistically, there are big cultural and technological differences between us and the ancient Greeks. The power of public speaking, and all the assumptions they made about its most effective practitioners, was reality for them.

Oprah Winfrey gave a (rhetorically) good speech at the Golden Globes awards ceremony.

Now some members of the Democratic Party and the political left (including pundits) —  tearing a page from the ancient Greek playbook —  are losing their minds because — OMG! — she could be President.

No. Just no.

I have already had my fill of amateurs who have launched their political careers in offices not meant as political training grounds. The current governor of Missouri — Eric Greitens — is a good example of not using an executive office to learn how to be a politician. Maybe he’ll get it someday. But it’s not looking good.

There’s another example I can think of. And maybe after I finish the sloppy Michael Wolff book I’ll have something to add.

Oprah Winfrey and I share much (not all) politically (if I understand her correctly). That doesn’t mean I want her anywhere near the Oval Office.

And, IMO, sober members of the political left in this country should be aghast that this terrible idea has been planted in the brain of another entertainer with a massive ego (just check out her magazine covers).

Look, a big problem (i.e. not the only one) with Trump isn’t his policies– to the extent that you agree or disagree with any given policy and to the extent that he can be said to have policies and understands them. An important problem is he’s an entertainer — an amateur politician — with a massive ego who is learning (or not, as the case may be) how to be a politician having achieved an office that should be the final chapter in a long story of public service in governance.

This was, BTW, a legitimate criticism of Obama — not enough experience going in. But he was a professional and avoided doing things such was Tweeting about his big button.

Please, Ms. Winfrey. Check that ego. You give a good speech. You are not ready to be President.

Please, Democratic Party, do not make me beg you to avoid making such a massively stupid choice.

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 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.

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.

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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