The Rhetorica Network offers analysis and commentary about the rhetoric of journalism, politics, and our culture. This site features the Rhetorica web log, a rhetoric primer, a primer of critical techniques, and information for citizens. The character of Rhetorica represents the purposes and canons of classical rhetoric. --Andrew R. Cline, Ph.D.
Here’s what happens when you get it wrong:
Thanks to long-time Rhetorica reader Sven for calling my attention to this “performance” in the comments to my previous post. I wasn’t planning to pay any attention to this at all, but Sven knows I have a soft spot for kairotic train wrecks
Click here for my commentary (3 posts) on Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006. For the most part, I think his performance there worked, i.e. he achieves his rhetorical intentions as I understand them.
The Colbert schtick didn’t quite work (there’s an understatement) in a formal, Congressional hearing room. But the key to understanding this train wreck is what the audience represents for Colbert– how he uses them.
His powerful performance at the 2006 dinner relied on merciless satire of the very people sitting in front of him. They were not the audience. They were the fodder. Colbert was performing for people watching on television — aka. citizens of a democratic republic.
Yesterday, power was the audience and policy was the issue. Bringing Stephen Colbert the character to the hearing was simply bad kairos.
The second week of school began today. The first week was busy, and the second week will be more of the same — typical fits and starts of getting a new semester under way (plus new service duties now that I have tenure).
Things I’m working on that will appear soon:
1. My answer to this question.
2. More of my series on codes of ethics.
3. Examining a new form of writing.
A hardware malfunction with my server provider recently caused the last entry (Minute 4:40) and a few comments to be lost. Everything is working fine now. So onward and upward!
Like most of my posts that begin with “rhetoric of” headlines, this one will deliver far less than the headline suggests (or far more in terms of questions). That statement, BTW, is a rhetorical maneuver.
One other maneuver: I’m about to get all traditional on you.
The rhetorical maneuvers of mainstream journalism are well-known to anyone who bothers to either study the craft or pays even modest attention to how journalists write or speak. There are many ways to classify, and thus understand, these maneuvers. For example (and just to name two), we can understand them in terms of classical rhetoric, and/or we can understand them in terms of structural bias.
A student sent me e-mail today asking about a headline he saw on the CNN website: “Woody Harrelson claims he mistook photographer for zombie.” I have no idea what this is about. Nor do I particularly care (because it’s not information I need to be free and self-governing unless the government is failing to fight zombies). My student was asking the question because I asked his class to write blog posts in which they examine the intersection of journalistic craft and journalistic ethics. I’ve told them that journalism conflates craft and ethics in such a way that practicing the craft as understood by journalists is damned near the same as practicing it ethically from the perspective of mainstream journalism.
(I’m well aware of the boat-load of qualifications that need to accopmany an assertion of that sort.)
I wrote back to the student: “I don’t like it. I say he ‘said’ it.”
I don’t need to know what the story is about to dislike the attributive verb “claim.” The verb claim, like others such as “admit,” is an opinion on the part of the reporter. The vast majority of reporters, IMO, are not qualified to make such assessments. For the most part they lack both the training in an appropriate field and the criteria to back up saying that someone “claimed” something rather than “said” it. If the words came out of Harrelson’s mouth, then he “said” it. That’s it. That’s all you need. That’s all you know. (!!!)
The rhetorical maneuver that “said” represents is rather important to journalism of a particular kind. What “said” says is: This is a record of what a person said, and you, dear audience member, can make up your own mind about what the content of said statement means.
Assuming the journalists involved in the news story have done their jobs properly (e.g. provided information and knowledge), the reader probably can make an assessment about Harrelson and zombies (or whatever other news situation). But using the attributive verb “claim,” the journalists involved (i.e. reporter and his/her editors) have decided for you what to think. Do you know absolutely for sure that Harrelson didn’t think he was seeing a zombie? (Must… stop… here. Must… not… google… story…)
Using “claim” is an unjustified and unsupportable opinion. It is, therefore, poor craft and poor ethics.
I believe there are three acceptable attributive verbs for news reporting: said, asked, and according to (used mostly for paper sources, e.g. reports). Everything else is an opinion (just like this entire entry).
It’s always good to get it in writing. And that paper has arrived. I have achieved tenure and promotion at Missouri State University (pending approval by the Board of Governors). Rhetorica has played an important role in this achievement by offering me a popular outlet for my thinking, a good place to float ideas and mull them over publicly. Thanks to all my readers for helping make this journey interesting, fun, and productive.
Let the merriment begin!
UPDATE (9 March): I’ve begun rebuilding the blogroll. Links will not be complete until the end of the week. Please leave suggestions in the comments.
You may have noticed a few “cobwebs” in the Rhetorical blogroll. That’s because it has been a long time since I did much routine maintenance on that part of the site (other parts, too, but let’s not get into that right now). My goal for this weekend is to create a new sidebar, i.e. out with the old, in with the new, and perhaps a few other changes to make that part of the page more useful. If you have any suggestions for sites that I should be linking to, please leave a comment.
And BTW, today is the seventh anniversary of the opening of The Rhetorica Network. The Press-Politics blog you’re reading now will have its anniversary in late April. Much hoopla will likely ensue.
Tuesday I’ll be planted in front of my TV and my laptop to “cover” the inaugural. Be sure to keep Rhetorica in mind as you’re surfing for news and commentary.
I’ll also be posting about the inaugural at Carbon Trace, my bicycle-commuting blog. Check there if you’re interested in issues such as active transportation and public transportation.