February 16, 2011

Willful Misinterpretation

[Editor’s Note: The following critique is based on journalistic texts as presented and not a deeper examination of original source material of those texts, i.e. the stories as presented to the audience.]

Willful misinterpretation of a message is not a tool of opinion journalism.

Willful misinterpretation is a tool of punditry and propaganda.

Willful misinterpretation is one bad byproduct of our new view-from-somewhere age. I’m all for viewing events from particular points of view and being open with the audience about those points of view. But willful misinterpretation falls outside the bounds of the ethical practice of journalism informed by one’s point of view.

Willful misinterpretation is the deliberate misreading of a message — in order to distort the message — of a source or other news-maker. Such an act would simply fall into the realm of punditry if it weren’t for the added twist of distorting a message for partisan reasons.

Let’s look at two recent examples from Talking Points Memo. (Several online news sites from across the limited left-right axis have turned this style of “reporting” into a high art.)

Example #1: South Dakota Bill Could Legalize Murder Of Abortion Providers

No, it couldn’t. Anyone with a modicum of interpretive skill can see that the bill does nothing of the kind. It really seems to do nothing at all. Consider:

Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones first reported on Tuesday that HB 1171 would amend the current law to include the following language (bold parts are new):

Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person while resisting any attempt to murder such person, or to harm the unborn child of such person in a manner and to a degree likely to result in the death of the unborn child, or to commit any felony upon him or her, or upon or in any dwelling house in which such person is.Homicide is justifiable if committed by any person in the lawful defense of such person, or of his or her husband, wife, parent, child, master, mistress, or servant, or the unborn child of any such enumerated person, if there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury, and imminent danger of such design being accomplished.

At first blush it appears to do exactly what the inflammatory headline suggests. But pay more careful attention to the bill’s language: “resisting any attempt to murder” and “commit any felony upon him or her” and “reasonable ground to apprehend a design to commit a felony, or to do some great personal injury.”

The only way to read this as a potential legalization of killing abortion providers is to completely ignore that language. It’s a far more cogent critique of this law to say that it attempts to create “personhood” for the unborn, which would be real news if achieved.

I’m not claiming anything about the intention of the bill’s sponsors. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “legalizing murder.”

Example #2: Bachmann Blasts First Lady And ‘Nanny State’ — For Promoting Breastfeeding

No, she didn’t. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying:

“I’ve given birth to five babies, and I’ve breastfed every single one of these babies,” Bachmann said. “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies, I mean, you wanna talk about the nanny state — I think you just got the new definition of the nanny state.”

She legitimately questions the use of government funds for a specific purpose: buying people breast pumps. She claims to have breast-fed her own kinds and says nothing about the general promotion of breastfeeding by the First Lady. One can disagree with her, but one (i.e. the journalist writing this story and the editor writing the headline) ought not distort by amplification. There is no logical link between questioning policy regarding breast pumps and a general “blasting” of the First Lady and the “nanny state” for promoting breast feeding.

I’m not claiming anything about Bachmann’s position on breast feeding. I’m claiming that the reporting and textual evidence does not add up to “blasting” the “promotion” of breast feeding.

Journalism — even journalism practiced on the web and practiced from a transparent point of view — must not violate the primary purpose of journalism (to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) by distorting events based on willful misinterpretation. I call it willful because the writers and editors of TPM (and other liberal and conservative web operations) know better. They know what good journalism is. They are choosing not to practice it.

But worse, they are choosing to misinform the public for partisan reasons. And that takes their work out of the realm of journalism (or opinion journalism) and into the realm of propaganda.

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January 19, 2011

Idioms and Metaphors

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The Daily Show clip demonstrates just how silly language issues can get.

But I think it’s particularly important now to draw a distinction between legitimate American idioms and metaphors based on firearms versus violent rhetoric.

The -killing suffix is an entirely legitimate American idiom. We can certainly argue about the merits of “job-killing” in the context of healthcare legislation, i.e. whether or not that is as accurate description. To suggest that -killing in this context is doing the same kind of cultural damage as “second amendment remedies” is just nutty.

Before we can begin any real examination of violent rhetoric in American society (particularly our politics), I think we must bracket out legitimate idiomatic and metaphorical expressions based on firearms. American English is full of these expressions — many, I would argue, used everyday by people who don’t even realize the expression is based on firearms. Example: lock, stock, and barrel.

I would put “reload” in that same category of standard American expressions because it is an idiom meaning roughly to “re-energize.” Sarah Palin’s use of it in the context of “don’t retreat” still doesn’t rise to the level of violent rhetoric because we use “retreat” — a military idiom — to mean roughly “backing down,” “giving up” or “going to a safe place to reconsider.”

I am not suggesting that standard idioms and metaphors cannot be employed as violent rhetoric. What I am suggesting is that their use is so ingrained that we must be careful not to label as violence standard forms of speech used in appropriate ways.

I think before this entire conversation about civility and violent rhetoric can move forward, we must do a better job of defining what we actually mean by violent rhetoric.

Just as nutty as suggestions that standard expressions are evidence of  violent rhetoric are suggestions that a “climate of discourse” had nothing to do with the Tucson shooting. To be sure: We do not know — and may never know — to what extent the (low) quality of our political discourse played in this catastrophe. It doesn’t actually matter because that climate — that context — always plays some role in suggesting the range of acceptable behavior. The climate helps make such things possible (as do many other things) to some extent (we should try to figure out to what extent).

This is also why we cannot and should not place specific blame on individuals for “causing” the Tucson shooting. What many people in politics and the media are guilty of is degrading the climate of discourse that then places violence somewhere at the edges of acceptable behavior.

Example: Sharron Angle’s “second amendment remedies.” This can mean only one thing: shooting people. The second amendment is about two things: 1) the right of citizens to keep and bear arms and 2) the right of the people/states to form militias. The purpose was to make sure that we the people had at our disposal the means to protect ourselves, including protecting ourselves from actual government tyranny. Sharron Angle most certainly did engage in violent rhetoric outside the bounds of standard America idioms and metaphors. She most certainly is guilty of degrading our civic discourse, in my opinion.

It is possible, I suppose, to argue that she is reacting to actual tyranny and, therefore, is well within political bounds and, therefore, rhetorical bounds. I wonder, however, what that would look like if, say, the election results had gone a different way.

Who would be the first to “pull the trigger”? — and I do not mean, idiomatically, “getting things started.”

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January 11, 2011

Rhetorica Update

Welcome to 2011 — Rhetorica’s ninth year.

Here are some coming attractions:

  • A student of mine is doing an independent study project in online opinion journalism. I hope Rhetorica readers will check into her site often. I’ll be mentioning her work here as well. Link soon.
  • I’ll pick up the pace examining the work of various opinion journalists. My goal is one per month. I’ll be looking at Thomas Friedman next. Please let me know if you have suggestions — good, bad, mediocre, and any faction.
  • Jay Rosen’s criticism of the “view from nowhere” has been getting a lot of attention recently. This has prompted me to do some more thinking about the role of the rhetoric of journalism — its particular (peculiar) discourse forms — in encouraging this view. I’m especially interested in this now because I think I may be onto identifying and describing the psychology of the “view from nowhere,” which might give us further clues to its sources. This springs from from collaborative research I’ve been doing with Dr. Harry Hom, emeritus professor of psychology at MSU. More on this soon.
  • This should be the break-out semester for the Ozarks News Journal. Last semester’s class got the site up and running. My charge to the current class: make it better (i.e. good journalism) and get attention.
  • Last year I swore off doing any more analysis of  political journalism. I’m sticking to that. And, really, that ought to also mean swearing off analysis of political rhetoric. The two are obviously not the same but just as obviously related. I intend to tread lightly in the realm of politics. My posting of the Olbermann video on 9 January was not treading lightly. Posting it sprung directly from my own raw feelings about politics today. I stand by my statement about violent rhetoric. I could have made it without posting the video. I do not, however, apologize for posting the video. Something more productive may spring from this. I think we need to know what the actual extent of violent rhetoric is in our politics, who uses it, how they use it, and why they use it. Only after we know these things will it be possible to make intelligent hypotheses about the effects of violent rhetoric on our civic discourse. I’m thinking now about the possibilities of doing this work.

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January 9, 2011

Second Amendment Remedies

Violence or the threat of violence or the implication of violence or the iconography of violence has no place in our politics.

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October 17, 2010

Of Reporters, Trolls, and Stasis

Springfield News-Leader Executive Editor David Stoeffler announced today that reporters will participate (within certain limits) in online discussions of news articles on the News-Leader web site. I think this is a good move.

I also thought opening the comment system to anonymous users was a good move. I have come to believe that news organizations ought to begin encouraging more civil and thoughtful discussion by offering levels of service that encourage people to participate openly. Don’t eliminate anonymity; marginalize it.

Stoeffler’s announcement prompts me to think about online comments as an interesting rhetorical situation for reporters who are used to dealing with the public in a very particular way. What exigencies will prompt them to respond? What will be their persuasive intentions? What will be there rhetorical strategies?

How will they deal with trolls?

That first list of questions requires some data and analysis to answer (so I’ll be watching closely). But I’ll take a stab at the troll question now because it involves the concept of stasis — the very thing the skilled troll attempts to destroy. And I have plenty of “data” from many years of experience.

(History buffs may wish to check out the story of alt.syntax.tactical — a Usenet group set up to start flame wars. This group is famous for attacking the group alt.rec.cats back in the stone age, aka. the 90s.)

A common tactic of the troll today is to deny stasis, i.e. not allow the point of contention to be agreed upon so that it may be discussed. There are ways to do this both skillful and ham-handed, and we see the entire range on the News-Leader site.

Most commonly it works this way:

  1. Point A is made (either in print or online).
  2. Troll asks a reasonable question regarding point A.
  3. Troll follows up by changing discussion to point B.
  4. Troll follows up by changing discussion to point C.

And so on…

Depending upon the skill of the troll, the conversation can slowly devolve into ranting and nonsense because the troll finds and pushes the emotional buttons of the participants.

So what’s a reporter to do?

Do your job: Your value to the community is your reporting, not your online commenting.

Answer a commenter’s question only once: As the example above demonstrates, a troll wants to sucker you into a longer exchange for their own entertainment. Refuse to play.

Post links to additional information: A good policy in any online discussion.

Limit the scope of your participation: Develop a short disclaimer to append to all your online comments that explains what you will and will not respond to and why.

Identify and share: Did you detect a troll? Share your information with the online community and the newsroom. Post the username. Refuse to acknowledge that username in the future.

Remember: Trolls are NOT civic actors of good will. Their goal is to make your life hell and destroy the quality of discourse in online comments. Don’t let them win.

Also remember: I think most online participants are sincere. Don’t confuse a lack of rhetorical skill with trolling.

UPDATE: In response to an e-mail asking if I’m being a bit traditionalist re: a reporter’s relationship with the community: I am confining my remarks here to dealing with trolls. I think reporters can and should use the comment feature in numerous ways to enhance their reporting. More on this later…

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August 2, 2010

The Power of Reporting

Reading much of what passes for opinion journalism today at the national level  is a dreary experience in partisan bickering. So much of what passes for opinion journalism today is actually punditry.

Earlier I highlighted the work of Jim Dwyer, a local columnist for The New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1995, because his work is anything but dreary. He offers us a model for what opinion journalism is supposed to be: opinion based on reporting.

Compare this recent column by Dwyer to this one by Maureen Dowd, also of the Times. What you have here is nothing less than the difference between serious journalism and fluff. Reporting is the reason for that difference. Dowd’s column shows no reporting effort at all. And the result is predicable dreck. Note that her only quoted source comes from Vanity Fair. Dowd offers us an example of lazy reporting — something we should expect not to see in The New York Times.

One might argue that Dowd is commenting on the culture as she sees it. Fine. And I would ask: Why should I care what Maureen Dowd thinks about anything? What expertise does she bring to bear that makes her a cultural (or political) commentator worth listening to?

R E P O R T I N G

Dwyer’s column, on the other hand, shows us what happens when a serious opinion journalist bothers to ask real questions of real people — and bothers to tell a story.

Consider Dwyer’s lead:

One afternoon, Duane P. Kerzic was arrested by the Amtrak police while taking pictures of a train pulling into Pennsylvania Station. At first, the police asked him to delete the images from his camera, but he refused. He ended up handcuffed to the wall of a holding cell while an officer wrote a ticket for trespassing.

The column examines Amtrak’s apparent aversion to the photographing of its trains despite the irony of running an annual “Picture Our Trains” photo context (that now appears to be cancelled).

As the story progresses, Dwyer comments on more than the fate of Kerzic and others who have been harassed or arrested taking pictures on government property. He questions government censorship:

But how could Amtrak — the national railroad, whose preferred stock is owned by the American public and whose chief executive and board of directors are appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress — require that a Web site criticizing the railroad be shut down as a condition of settling a lawsuit for wrongful arrest?

What qualifications does Amtrak have to function as a censor?

Followed shortly by this:

Since 9/11, a number of government bodies have sought to limit photography in railroad stations and other public buildings. One rationale is that pictures would help people planning acts of mayhem. It has been a largely futile effort. On a practical level, decent cameras now come in every size and shape, and controlling how people use them would require legions of police officers. Moreover, taking photographs and displaying them is speech protected by the First Amendment, no less than taking notes and writing them up.

Dwyer finishes the column with more examples and then this excoriating conclusion:

Since Mr. Kerzic’s run-in with the police at Penn Station, Amtrak has dropped its Web page on the “Picture Our Trains” contest.

Mr. Colbert wasn’t standing for it.

“This photography contest,” he said, “is Amtrak’s cleverest ruse since their so-called timetable.”

One does not have to agree with Dwyer’s opinion to understand that this is a far better example of opinion journalism than a partisan rant or cultural musing based on little demonstrated reporting.

I’ll grant you than some readers may find partisan rants and cultural musings entertaining. But entertainment is not journalism’s primary concern or purpose — that purpose, stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

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July 20, 2010

Punditry As News

Peter Baker’s column in The New York Times on Sunday provides a textbook example of journalistic blindness. He discusses how politicians and pundits attack opposition quotes to score political points.

In this case, pundits and politicians attacked this quote from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “There’s no doubt there are enough seats in play that could cause Republicans to gain control.” He was speaking about Congress.

Baker writes:

With that, the noise machine cranked into high gear. The White House had admitted it might lose the House. Never mind that it was a simple statement of fact and that Mr. Gibbs was not saying he wanted the other side to win or thought that they would. No one has found the political professional who genuinely disagrees that the House could go either way. But the mere fact that Mr. Gibbs said it launched a thousand ships of speculation, analysis, attacks and counter-attacks.

And my question is this: What role did journalism play in amplifying the noise machine? (I’m using the term “journalism” instead of news media because the latter encompasses organizations whose link to journalism is now merely nominal.)

That some bloggers, pundits, and politicians twist quotes and communicative intentions for political gain is not at all surprising. Are these tactics news?

Baker is writing a column — a bit of opinion journalism. But he fails to tell us what he thinks of the role of journalism in enabling the noise machine:

This is what passes for political discourse in Washington these days. Someone in a position of authority, or at least celebrity, says something modestly interesting and someone on the other side — or sometimes even the same side — blows it up into something resembling a full-fledged contretemps. It’s politics by slip of the tongue.

This at a time when the issues confronting Washington could hardly be more consequential. Yet explaining the new financial regulation bill that passed last week or the new health care program slowly coming into effect is complicated compared to the media catnip of a good partisan spat.

What could have followed these paragraphs: A withering examination of the role of journalism in allowing these silly little spats to become “news.” Instead, Baker indicts “political discourse” as if journalism plays no role in it.

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July 14, 2010

Who Really Matters

Jim Dwyer won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1995 for his work as a local columnist for Newsday. Today he is a local columnist for The New York Times.

It is inaccurate to say that Dwyer writes about New York City. He writes about the people who live there and their interactions with the city. He tells their stories. He is able to do this because he’s an old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporter who bothers to get out of the office and into the streets.

How do I know this? Read his work. It’s right there in the words — words you can’t get poking around on the internet or resting on your laurels (or supposed expertise). Recall what I wrote earlier:

…opinion journalism well done is all about caring about the community. It is all about being connected to the community. It is all about well-worn shoe leather and familiar faces. It’s all about visibility and transparency. The good opinion journalist is the person you meet for coffee to discuss her latest column. The opinion journalist is the one who listens (when reporters and editors too often do not). In other words, opinion journalism well done is all about the very things that are apparently important in the new media environment.

Dwyer’s work represents excellent opinion journalism based on reporting and personal experience with the people whose stories he tells.

Dwyer has a point of view and an agenda that is plain to see: He challenges what he believes to be injustice, waste, and corruption.

Check out his columns. Coming next: A close analysis of a Dwyer column.

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July 5, 2010

Who Wins Pulitzer Prizes?

Among the categories of Pulitzer prizes is “commentary.” The Pulitzer website doesn’t offer much of a description of what this category means: “For distinguished commentary, in print or online or both.” It is clear from the list of winners that this is the category for opinion journalism as I am defining it.

Two things come to mind as I look over the list of winners:

1. Nearly all of the winners worked for large news organizations.

2. Some of them — at least in their recent work — are properly defined as pundits rather than opinion journalists.

The Pulitzer Prize Board’s lack of a comprehensive definition of “commentary”  has the effect of allowing a wide range of entrants and winners — perhaps intended. There’s nothing I can find on the website that suggests punditry is forbidden. In fact, I see plenty of evidence that punditry is prize-worthy.

My purpose is not to argue with the Pulitzer Prize Board or to suggest they are wrong in either judging punditry alongside opinion journalism (under the catch-all “commentary”) or awarding prizes to punditry over opinion journalism. I’m simply highlighting this curious state of affairs because I intend to begin my search for best practices by examining some of the winners.

Who wins Pulitzer Prizes in commentary? Why do they win?

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June 4, 2010

The Elements of Journalism

I find it helps to read a good book more than once.

A few days ago I began my third close reading of The Elements of Journalism (2nd Ed.) by Kovach and Rosenstiel.

This book has become canonical in journalism — in professional practice and academic study. That doesn’t mean it is a flawless text. I have plenty of nits to pick with it. But, as a whole, it is one of the finest expressions of the craft and ethics of journalism available today. It is one of my must-read books for journalists. And if I had a must-read list for citizens, it would have a safe spot there, too.

I don’t want journalists and citizens to just read this book (or even just read it closely). I want journalists to do what it says, and I want citizens to hold them to it.

You’ll hear all kinds of lip-service paid to Elements. You’ll see all kinds of failure to live up to its demands — especially in opinion journalism.

I’ll be approaching my search for good opinion journalism and my castigation of punditry passed off as same (nothing wrong with punditry that doesn’t claim the mantle of journalism, IMO) with Elements as one of my foundations. It is a convenient whip because so many journalists will nod and tell you it is a proper expression of what journalism is supposed to be.

Thank you for handling me the whip. Now I intend to use it.

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