December 31, 2002

Tabloid news takes over…

Why is the mainstream press spending precious time and ink on the Raelians and their questionable claims of having cloned a child? This is the stuff of weekly tabloids. Quite simply, this story is not news.

First, a journalist should consider the veracity of the source of news. In this case, the claims come from a group of people who believe that we are descended from alien clones. Talk to any reputable physicist about the probability that this is true.

Second, claims have been made and no proof has been offered.

Third, the freelance journalist picked to “verify” the claim has an apparent interest in the subject. The journalist, Michael Guillen, has a doctorate in physics from Cornell University and taught at Harvard University, according to an article in the boston Globe. On the surface, these sound like excellent credentials. But it is a fallacy to suppose that these credentials suggest that Guillen is qualified to verify the claim.

Fourth, there appears to be no willingness to allow independently-chosen, qualified scientists to investigate the claim. So there is no way to verify it without hearsay.

The only news here would be an announcement that reputable scientists were looking into the claim. Since that’s not happening, this claim is simply nonsense and deserves not one minute of airtime nor one inch of copy.

December 30, 2002

Round-ups and predictions…

The calendar–it’s just numbers on a grid. But this purely human invention structures more than our days; it structures our thoughts. The news media are compelled at this time of year to offer the public endless round-ups and predictions.

Here is a sample of the offerings concerning media and technology:

Boston Globe: a media round-up
Los Angeles Times: media company predictions
The Independent: warnings against predictions
San Francisco Chronicle: media/tech round-up
The New York Times: FCC/media in 2003
WorldNetDaily: funniest stories of 2002
Chicago Sun-Times: Richard Roeper predictions
Editor & Publisher: web predictions

Here is a sample of the offerings concerning politics and general news:

Arianna: many random sentences
Boston Globe: what’s ahead
The Hill: year of living dangerously

December 29, 2002

December search strings…

This month, “bushism” was the top search term that brought readers to Rhetorica. That’s interesting because I didn’t write much about Jacob Weisberg’s feature on Slate until late in the month. As you may recall, I have taken the position that it is time to end the Bushisms.

The second-and third-place terms have me a little perplexed, “peggy noonan” and “daniel pearl death video” respectively. I haven’t written anything about Noonan since early November. I wrote about the death video months ago. Hmmmm…

Rounding out the top 20 are the normal terms that indicate the bulk of interest in The Rhetorica Network, terms having to do with rhetoric, politics, journalism, and media bias. I suspect that many of these searches are conducted by students. I get a lot of e-mail asking for help with term papers, which I gladly give.

December 28, 2002

Message control…

I’ve been slow to pick up on this, partly because I think Sen. Hillary Clinton’s observations are obvious: The Republicans do a better job of message control. There are good reasons for the difference. Here’s one:

Republicans, or I should say conservatives, tend to be far more cohesive in terms of moral hierarchy (if you believe George Lakoff, and I do). In other words, it appears that most conservatives believe that defending the moral system is a top or highly-placed priority compared to other, lesser moral values. This means they tend to speak in ways (and create policies) that defend their moral system.

Here’s an example. Liberals go bonkers trying to understand how conservatives can be pro-life and pro-capital punishment. Generally speaking, to the conservative moral hierarchy, this makes perfect sense because defending the moral system is itself the top priority. Unborn children are always innocent. Criminals have chosen to step outside the moral order and, therefore, outside the protection it affords. Plus, death guarantees they will not upset the moral order again.

Liberals, for the most part, do not have a cohesive moral hierarchy. This is not to say that they do not have a cohesive moral system. Rather, there is a broader range of moral values fighting for the top spot, e.g. self-fulfillment, nurturance of children (or nature, or the poor), promotion of well-being (healthcare, welfare), or fighting for the under privileged against the privileged. The list goes on and on. Try coming up with a talking point that neatly summarizes so many different, competing moral values. The liberal problem is that, as expressed in party politics, they cannot “decide” on a top priority that covers so many values and concomitant policies.

(The quote marks around “decide” indicate that this is not, in fact, a conscious decision. Instead, one’s metaphorical world view, and thus moral hierarchy, is not often under one’s direct control. For necessary background, click here, here, here, and here)

Clinton is quite correct. Until liberals are able to create a cohesive moral hierarchy, however, no such message will be forthcoming. (via Oliver Willis)

December 28, 2002

AP misquote changes meaning…

Did Washington Post reporter Peter S. Goodman get his quotes right? Here’s Goodman’s version from a briefing on North Korea yesterday:

The White House denounced the planned expulsions and urged the North to end its nuclear weapons program. “We will not respond to threats or broken commitments,” said spokesman Scott McClellan in Crawford, Tex.

But the official White House transcript reads a bit differently.

But let me make it clear that we will not negotiate in response to threats or broken commitments.

I have not been able to verify the White House version with a video clip yet (having checked C-SPAN so far). But my default position is to trust the transcript first.

These are two very different statements. Goodman’s version makes McClellan sound like a fool because, obviously, the US does respond to threats and broken commitments, e.g. Iraq. Not negotiating in response to threats or broken commitments is an entirely different concept and policy.

While reading the morning paper (KC Star), my wife jokingly read the quote aloud and added: “…unless, of course, there’s oil involved.” Her jibe points up exactly the depth of this error. The quote as portrayed in the Post makes it appear the administration is being unselfconsciously two-faced. This may indeed be true. But it should be reported through ethical journalistic practice, not insinuated through error.

UPDATE (8:24 a.m.): Where did Goodman’s quote come from? A pool report, perhaps? An early transcript? His byline lists him as a foreign service reporter. And the dateline on the story is Seoul. Further, the same quote appears in a Knight-Ridder article with a Beijing dateline.

UPDATE (8:55 a.m.): Ron Fournier, AP White House Correspondent, filed this story at 13:11 ET yesterday from Crawford, Texas. The quote is the same as used by The Washington Post and Knight-Ridder.

UPDATE (9:08 a.m.): This AP story moved less than an hour ago. The quote now conforms to the White House transcript.

UPDATE (9:17 a.m.): Apparently the reporter for Reuters was paying attention. Notice the correct use of the quote. And The New York Times does its own reporting; perhaps that’s one of the reasons why it’s the paper of record.

December 28, 2002

Laspes of journalistic practice…

I’m not sure whether this situation demonstrates a lack of ability to discern what’s news or a lack of understanding of how science works. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think the Raelians are crackpots and the claim by their “scientific director” that they have cloned a human baby is pure nonsense. Why is this getting prominent play in American newspapers this morning?

Creating a human clone would certainly be news. But such a feat requires at least two criteria to qualify: 1) reputable scientists, and 2) proof that meets academic standards. So far these criteria do not seem to exist. That’s not to say these criteria can’t exist in this case; rather, I claim the chances are highly unlikely. In any case, I don’t think journalists should report this until such time as the Raelians demonstrate at least these criteria.

What this situation demonstrates is that the press will fall for any nonsense on a slow news week when someone is willing to hold a press conference. So add “lazy” to the list of journalistic transgressions.

December 27, 2002

Bush admired most…

Gallup’s most admired man and woman polls are an interesting bit of annual nonsense. I should qualify that statement. I think the data from any given year provides mostly a bit of entertainment in the genre of end-of-the-year lists. Taken as a whole, however, this data is quite interesting. Gallup has been taking this poll since 1948.

I find three things interesting: 1) The annual “winner” seems to reflect the most important news event(s) of the given year; 2) What seems like a high percentage of “winners” and top-ten finishers are American presidents, and 3) The “no opinion” category polls as well as the “winner.”

President Bush wins for the second straight year, although his numbers are down a bit from last year.

I think Americans want their president to be worthy of general admiration. This is an wonderful national trait. Our political system, however, makes this trait difficult to maintain with much consistency: one person embodies both the head of government and the head of state. Great Britain, for example, does not have this particular problem.

This conflation often creates a bit of cognitive dissonance for Americans because we want to revere the head of state, but we may loathe the head of government. This very split is one of the things that made Bill Clinton so troublesome. This very split creates the situation that makes some liberals appear to be unpatriotic to some conservatives.

December 27, 2002

War and peace…

In Daniel Schorr’s annual assessment of peace on earth he takes a look at the evolving definitions of “war” and “peace”:

It has become necessary to redefine peace, as it has become necessary to redefine war. War can be a lethal instrument called a suicide bomber, or – we’re not sure yet – it could be germs in an envelope or poison in a reservoir. Peace today is a nervous look at your neighbor, an X-ray of your baggage, a color-coded alert, and a president who says he is at war in defense of a place called homeland.

Peace has become a sometime thing, a search for enemies without return addresses operating from the shadows. Not a whole lot of goodwill toward men, either.

And finally, peace today is waiting for the next war to begin: the war against Iraq that we are promised will make the world safe again. If you don’t count a nuclear North Korea.

I maintain that the supreme political power, indeed the supreme human power, is the power to define. For those who would lead, for good or ill, exercising that power requires more than political office; it requires rhetorical skill. For the despot it also requires an uncritical audience. We may mitigate this power in those who hold legitimate political office by critically questioning definitions and using our own rhetorical skills to fight for our own definitions. In this way we may share the power. In this way, the supreme power remains a social exercise, a democratic exercise–as it should be. By questioning definitions we accept and exercise the responsibility of citizenship.

December 26, 2002

No vacations for the blogosphere…

Slow news day. Slow news week for that matter. So why blog? Why not take a break? Consider this. A graduate student from the University of Minnesota contacted me a few days ago asking for my thoughts about the intersection between journalism and blogging (by far, students send me the most e-mail). Among the questions asked was “Why did you decide to start your own blog?” Here’s the answer I sent:

1- It makes me write every day. That

December 24, 2002

Happy Holidays!

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