February 28, 2003

Out of context…

I’m a big fan of Daypop, the news and weblog search engine. They have a new feature I find fascinating. It’s called “Top Word Bursts,” and it tracks popular words across the blogosphere. Why? I don’t know. What do single terms “mean” out of context?

One use I can see for Word Bursts is shameless self-promotion, turning us bloggers into telemarketers of a sort–annoying! You see, the goal would be to post an entry every day that contains as many of the popular words as you can stuff into a few sentences. Some words would be difficult to work smoothly into a discourse. For example, how do you work adwords, spybots, and isonews into the same entry? Sounds like a recipe for brain stagnation. Might be perilous to one’s popularity. Your readers might end up dazed by the feat. Bezos as it may, some will try. I can horta cry of “foul” from those with more self-respect.

As a concession to good blogging, I think we should resist cheap attempts to wabi our rfid.

February 28, 2003

Psychology 101…

As I was reading William Powers‘ column on talk-radio pundits, I thought I might begin this entry with: “William Powers is a voice of sanity in media criticism.” While I believe that’s true, starting that way would be a bit ironic considering his foray into pop psychology and what I would actually “mean” by sanity.

Powers considers the role of ideology in talk-radio. He says:

The word “ideology” comes from the Greek idea, and the dictionary defines it as a system of ideas, a way of thinking about the world. But in the media today, ideology is not about thinking at all. It’s about the opposite of thinking: perfect allegiance to a rigid menu of positions and attitudes, and unbending fealty to either Team A or Team B. There’s no room for variation, eccentricity, originality or independence, because the two teams are engaged in a battle for an enormously valuable prize.

What Powers describes, obviously, is not ideology, but dogma. The prize is money. And money is earned by producing an entertaining product that has more to do with the amusement of struggle than the serious consideration of ideas. Oh, and the hosts? They are personally driven by anger:

All media ideologues have one thing in common: anger. Scratch a real ideologue, left or right, and invariably what you find is a person who is working out some ancient vendetta against a parent, a sibling, a school, a company or some social group that rejected them and made them feel small. The anger became a passion, and passion can produce compelling, lucrative media content.

I enjoy cogent commentary. But I also enjoy a well-crafted rant–exactly what Powers gives us. I mean no disrespect–quite the contrary. This pop-psychobabble about anger may have some shred of truth to it. That’s hardly the point. Powers’ rhetorical maneuver is to use that dubious analysis as a stinging rebuke embedded in an otherwise rational commentary.

In other words, Powers just called Limbaugh/Moore and their ilk “craven, money-driven entertainers” without the overt name-calling.

February 27, 2003

The drift of public mood…

Jack Shafer points to a facinating study of news consuming habits in his column about why MSNBC cancelled Phil Donahue’s show. Shafer claims the cancellation may be attributed to who watches cable news: conservatives.

According to the study, a greater percentage of self-identified conservatives “regularly watch, read, or listen to” news and information from a wide range of specific outlets than those who self-identify as liberals. Of the media listed in the graphic “Audience Ideology Profile,” self-identified liberals are the greater percentage of the audience for just one category: literary magazines. Hmmmm…

It’s difficult to image that liberals are not consuming news and information or that liberals make up such a tiny portion of the population. Rather, as the party structure of politics continues to erode, an ever-increasing number of people self-identify as “moderate” or “independent.” The terms “liberal” and “conservative” (as often applied to party identification) swing in and out of popularity with shifts in the public mood. Without a strong party structure in a citizen’s day-to-day experience of politics, similar to situations earlier in our history, citizens now drift back and forth across a broad moderate zone of ideology.

At the moment, the drift appears to be to the right of that zone. It would be folly to suppose that the public mood will loiter very long in any particular zone.

UPDATE (12:35 p.m.): Tapped offers a round-up of reasons for Phil’s demise.

February 27, 2003

Late to the debate…

Howard Kurtz thinks the media are late to the debate over war with Iraq. He says:

Whether you’re for or against the war, a full-throated debate in the media is overdue. This was the first time this year that the Sunday shows had given such prominent treatment to (admittedly famous) peace activists. The Beltway tilt toward officialdom–and the president’s domination of the airwaves with his anti-Saddam campaign–have largely muffled dissent, at least until now.

Suddenly, you had millions of people protesting the war here and around the globe the weekend before last. You can almost envision TV execs stroking their chins and saying, “Hmmm. Maybe this antiwar thing is bigger than we thought. Maybe it’s the next reality programming. Get me Sarandon!”

I suppose we may disagree over the definition of “full-throated.” But it seems to me that the debate is there to read, if not to be seen on TV as Kurtz is claiming.

February 26, 2003

What TV does well…

Yesterday I did something that I’ve done often over the past year: put quote marks around “journalist” in reference to someone who practices that profession on television. I intend never to do this again because 1) it is snarky, and 2) it does not accurately convey what I’m trying to say.

There are many learned, able, and dedicated people trying to practice journalism on television. It is the medium, not their efforts, that often fail. As Neil Postman began pointing out with his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, television cannot adequately convey the kind of propositional content necessary to make the news politically useful. For the most part, I agree with Postman’s assessment, which will come as no surprise to regular readers of Rhetorica.

But I think Postman ignores what TV can and does do well in journalism: Point a camera at breaking news and offer immediate, on-the-scene reaction from journalists and participants. Print just cannot match the immediacy of TV in this regard.

When the space shuttle Columbia exploded, I rushed to the TV. When terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, I rushed to the TV. When a tornado formed near my suburban neighborhood, I rushed to the TV.

Once the tumult subsides, TV is left with little more than a rehash of video and endless interviews with experts. While some of this may be of value, the structure of television as a news medium ensures that only a limited amount of this information will be useful to consumers. For depth, for perspective, for background, for simple retention, one must use print.

To keep up the illusion of immediacy, TV producers heap onto the screen an ever-confusing array of logos, theme songs, streaming text, and video insets. Watching TV news has become a truly postmodern experience. My wife and I regularly watch News Night with Aaron Brown on CNN. This kind of thing plays out several times per hour:

Wife: >>chuckle<< Me: That's not funny. Wife: No, the thing about the alligator. Me: Oh...on the streamer. Damn... Wife: What? Me: I missed it. It's too much. You can't watch or listen to all that's going on. It gives the impression that news is popping when all that's really happening is that you're getting overloaded. TV can truly be a window to the world. I am thankful for it every time something of importance happens, and I am able to watch and listen as events unfold. Print will never match that. Even the internet cannot match TV at this point. The men and women who place themselves at risk to point cameras at great events, and talk to a lens filled with anxious viewers, deserve our respect and thanks, not snarky quote marks.

February 25, 2003

It’s what you do with it…

Janet Kolodzy says competition in the news business, thought to lead to more diverse coverage and points of view, is overrated. She says: “The issue is not who owns the media; it is what they do with it.”

I agree with this to an extent. I don’t think the issue of media ownership and competition, however, is as simple as Kolodzy portrays it (from her TV “journalist” perspective). I don’t think we can understand the issue outside the complex social-political-cultural web in which the news organizations exist and reporters/editors operate.

Some of Kolodzy’s condemnations are right on, but many of them, I would argue, have only a tangential relationship to issues of competition or ownership. Some of these problems are structural in nature and speak more to what journalism is as practiced in America than to what the media are because of who/what owns them.

UPDATE (3:45 p.m.): I see that I’ve thrown quote marks around “journalist” again in reference to those who practice it on TV. Hmmmm…I am conflicted about TV as a medium for journalism. Putting quotes around the word, however, does more to insult the journalist that to convey what it is I’m really trying to say. Tomorrow, in my first post, I intend to deal with what I think TV can do well in journalism.

February 25, 2003

Yahoo radio…

What would be wrong with liberal talk-radio? The same thing that’s wrong with conservative talk-radio: Yahoo discourse. Leonard Pitts, as usual, says it well:

I mean, naif that I am, I’d like to think the ability to see the world in multiple dimensions, to think beneath the surface, to handle complexity, is inherently neither liberal nor conservative. I’d like to think it is the mark of thoughtfulness, maturity and intelligence, period. And I’d like to think those are things we’d all hope to be. Certainly dialogue rooted in those qualities would be of significantly higher quality than most of what now passes for social and political discourse.

I, too, am a naif.

February 24, 2003

A must-read for political reporters…

Paul Waldman, associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, offers us an excellent look at how and why political reporters/editors approach campaign coverage as they do. You’ll get to see how the structural biases constrain and dictate journalistic messages. For example:

…political reporters don’t like wide-open races. Instead, for their own reasons, they prefer a time-tested script with four primary categories of characters: the Mighty Front-Runner, the Charging Challenger, the Doomed Press Darling and the Assorted Afterthoughts. While not all the actors have been cast, the roles themselves are set. There will be the usual twists and turns along the way, but the plot’s narrative varies little from election to election.

I contend that journalism is an under-theorized practice. That means that many people practice it without asking enough “why” questions. Waldman attempts to answer some of these questions regarding the evolution of political reporting. Now we need for reporters and editors to begin asking themselves why they continue some of these practices. (via MediaMinded)

February 24, 2003

Absolute style…

Marc Fisher says liberal talk-radio won’t work because the idea is based on three false assumptions. One of those assumptions I find particularly interesting:

2) The huge corporations that control most of radio want to feed only Republican ideas to pliant American ears. Oh, please. People like the Drobnys and Hillary “Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy” Clinton hear Limbaugh as a rock-ribbed Republican. But to radio executives, he’s Jeff Christy, which was his on-air name in the ’70s, when Rush was a Top 40 jock whose shtick even then involved the “Excellence in Broadcasting” network and a lot of table-thumping. The suits at Clear Channel and other big radio companies don’t care if Rush is conservative or liberal, a Rhodes scholar or a mental midget. They want ratings—period. “The job of a talk host is to get you riled up and establish absolutes, because only an absolute point of view produces phone calls, which are really hard to generate,” says Walt Sabo, the radio consultant who is the architect of “hot talk,” the seemingly nonpolitical talk heard on FM stations. What talkers say hardly matters; how they say it is everything.

We hardly need more evidence that such programming, right or left, is merely entertainment (which makes it politically dangerous). But there it is. What I find interesting here is the focus on style over substance: Speaking in absolutes incites callers. Don’t confuse the proper search for cap-T truth (substance) by philosophers, scientists, and theologians with what’s being identified as “absolute” (style) by Sabo.

February 24, 2003

America’s _____ channel…

MSNBC is changing its image (again) to emphasize hard news, says Elizabeth Jensen.

Now think about that for a second. What about changing the way MSNBC covers news so it will be an actual hard-news cable network? Yeah, but that’s a silly question. A war with Iraq, if it comes, will not last forever. And MSNBC surely doesn’t want to be typecast afterward. Better to change a few logos and slogans instead.

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