March 31, 2003

Mass hysteria…

In our modern, civilized democracy, the populace cannot be exhorted to obscene, mindless acts of boorishness or violence because we are heir to, and defenders of, a rational civic discourse. We air our differences as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay taught us to do by the example of The Federalist Papers. We are Americans: Champions of the Enlightenment.

Or maybe not.

March 31, 2003

TV nation…

Richard Blow says the anti-war left is upset with the “mainstream” media for not telling “the truth” about the war in Iraq. Their growing hostility is, he claims, proof of cultural marginality and their anger is more about cultural struggle than media practice. Blow quotes Harvard professor Brian Palmer speaking at a recent rally at the university:

The press won’t tell the truth about this war, Palmer declared. “CNN will show Iraqis dancing in the streets, but it won’t show burned and crushed and obliterated bodies.” The line brought a huge cheer.

Hostility to the American media has become an emerging theme of the anti-war movement. Protesters are giving voice to a feeling of betrayal, a sense that the media ought to be sympathetic to liberals but isn’t–and as a result, we’re getting more propaganda than truth.

The news media should not be sympathetic to any political ideology. It is, by its very practice in an American context, liberal in the sense that journalists see themselves as a check on power and as defenders of underdogs. That function ought to operate just as well during times of war and times of peace. And, for the most part, I think it does–in print.

Truth, balance, fairness, depth, complexity, etc….from TV? The lack of “truth” Palmer decries is not the fault of a conservative media that shuts out liberal thought or marginalizes progressives (although these may be consequences). And it’s not about the media eschewing liberal roots.

It’s about pictures of things blowing up. It’s about patriotic music and fancy logos with shimmering American flags and soaring bald eagles. It’s about the pathos of news tickers and the ethos of retired generals. It’s about embedded reporters who do more coverage of their own embedding than taking a hard look at what that tank just hit.

Sadly, most American’s get their news from television. And television feeds them what the medium will allow (see the structural biases of journalism). And this, I think, offers a better explanation of the source of the problem the progressives have with TV news and, by extension, the news media. Also see “How TV messes with your head…”

(Yes, I’m making several fat assumptions that are difficult–but not impossible–to support in the media environment of 2003. But I think it’s a good thing to take the ol’ idealism out for a walk now and then.)

UPDATE (12:45 p.m.): Sanders LaMont says readers of his paper see the war in black and white.

UPDATE (12:47 p.m.): Michael Getler thinks the Washington Post’s coverage is first rate.

UPDATE (12:55 p.m.): Mike Fancher understands the pathos of TV and its structural biases. Here’s the opening of his Sunday column (emphasis mine):

At some point last week I turned off the television and stopped watching the war with Iraq in real time.

It wasn’t easy and I felt guilty doing it. Combatants are fighting and dying, some of them on my behalf. Innocents are dying. Journalists are dying. The outcome is unknown. How could I look away?

The answer is that television’s relentless sense of urgency was working a hardship on me without giving me much knowledge or understanding in return. Channel surfing to see the latest was doing me more harm than good.

This isn’t a knock on the hard work and dedication of the television journalists covering the war, especially the bravery of those on the battlefield. It’s about the medium they serve. Television’s need to fill every second of every minute of every hour was more than I could take and the progress of this war could offer.

UPDATE (1:00 p.m.): Romensko has a lot of media/war coverage today. I thank him for several of my links. Be sure to check out the critiques of FOX News, the leader in the cable ratings race. This page does not use permalinks. Instead, you’ll need to enter a Quicklink number at the bottom of the page…unless you like scrolling. The number is: A27647

March 31, 2003

Horses cross first finish line…

Why bother calling them candidates?

Nope, they’re horses in a race. This metaphor makes it easy for the press to focus on the easy stuff (such as counting money) and easy to avoid the difficult stuff (such as explaining policy). And horse Howard Dean, despite meeting expectations, is behind the pack. Here’s the spin:

Tony Coelho, who helped manage Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said he was impressed by how much Dean raised in a short time. Meeting expectations and showing momentum are as important – and maybe more important – than having the highest total right now, he said.

“It’s not only what you have in the bank, it’s what can you do next,” Coelho said. “The issue is do you have an organization to raise money and do you have the credibility to go longer.”

Nice try.

In case you’re interested in something Howard Dean might have said recently, I have posted my analysis of his speech to the California State Democratic Convention on Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004.

March 29, 2003

How TV messes with your head…

We’ve seen these kinds of polls in previous administrations. The numbers seem to demonstrate that Americans like the president personally but do not favor many of his important policies. Or, as the headline on this story says, we like Bush more than his policies. What’s not explained is how this curious state of affairs occurs.

Let me chart for you one explanation. A 1988 study by G. E. Marcus, published in the American Political Science Review, demonstrates that one’s emotional reaction to a candidate is predictive of one’s vote for or against that candidate. Communications scholar R. P. Hart, in his 1999 book Seducing America, demonstrates (for the umteenth time) that television is an emotional medium that creates a false sense of intimacy with its subjects. This is the strange phenomenon that compelled people to ask actor Robert Young (Marcus Welby, MD) for medial advice.

Further, the structural biases of TV promote a dramatic, visual presentation of political events. This is why candidates orchestrate events that offer plenty of patriotic, down-home, feel-good visuals and music. This is why televised political events are short on discussions of policy.

So, what happens, according to Hart and so many others, is that people come to like or dislike a candidate based on the images they see and the personal, emotional responses these images encourage. These images are manufactured and may have little relationship to the “real” politician. Armed with these emotional reactions, voters enter the voting booth prepared to cast their votes for politicians who seem most like themselves.

It should not be difficult to understand, then, how crucial positive press and skilled media manipulation are to any candidate.

It should also not be difficult to see that news articles such as the one referenced above are incomplete without an explanation of how and why people can like the president (any president during the TV era) personally and yet not favor his policies. The article treats this phenomenon as if it were “normal.”

On TV, policy is boring–not because policy is boring, but because it is boring on TV. But it is the stuff of policy that affects your life. This is why TV is bad for politics and governance.

March 28, 2003

Real-time, gee-whiz coverage…

At our KC Bloggers meeting on Monday, Jay Manifold, Nels Lindahl, and I were discussing TV coverage of the war and antiwar protests and its emotional/intellectual effects on the audience, especially those of us (in this case, me) who question if this war is a good idea. Being anti-war doesn’t necessarily mean being against our troops or military victory. About watching the war on TV and my thoughts on victory, I said: “When I turn on CNN, I want to see an ass-kicking.”

In other words, I want to see the gee-whiz pictures of our troops opening a can of whoop-ass on Saddam. I want to see victory. I want to feel victory.

For context and something like an accurate, conflicted, and sober portrayal of the war–one that rubs the realities of war in my face, I read the newspaper.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the TV networks and cable outlets are trying to re-vamp coverage as they go and provide context and a glimpse at the big picture–something that’s difficult to achieve considering the structural biases of this medium. I don’t want that. I want pictures–ass-kicking pictures. What does it say about the emotional power of TV and the new technology that I want to see this stuff (never mind for a moment, please, what it says about me). Are we being desensitized to the spectacle of war (notice the pronoun switch)?

The article concludes:

Despite the raw power and immediacy of the live coverage, experts caution that TV can convey only so much and to recognize those limits.

“People need to wake up to the fact these are not video games,” said Boston University’s [John J. ] Schulz [professor of international communication], noting that much of the early coverage was “antiseptic and long-distance…. Television gives us the easy answers; it always has. It’s not the full picture.”

End note: Hmmm…I really really do not want to write a war blog. But the rhetorical intersections between the press and politics are too numerous, interesting, and important to ignore in regard to war. So it is now my goal to keep some kind of perspective rather than simply give in or give up. I write about the war under protest. But I also write about the war under obligation to my purpose as a scholar and popularizer if rhetoric. I’ll trust my readers to help me find that perspective.

UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): We ridicule, you decide: FOX News has this to say to war protestors. (via Thinking It Through)

UPDATE (29 March 5:05 p.m.): Maybe this is what FOX News had in mind.

March 28, 2003

A great gig…

So the networks and cable news channels are trotting out the retired generals to comment on the war. While their commentary is interesting, infuriating, and insightful by turns, I find myself fascinated by the rhetorical situation this practice creates for Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Commander and potential candidate for President of the United States. While the other Democrats struggle with kairos and the proper tone for a campaign run during a war, Clark looks happily dapper and calm as he plays the role of military expert for CNN.

How might this stint as TV talking head help or hurt his chances for a 2004 run? I don’t know yet. But I’ll bet there’s more than one declared candidate who envies this exposure.

UPDATE (10:45 a.m.): Chris Suellentrop has this to say about “embedding” generals in the news shows.

UPDATE (10:50 a.m.): While the Democrats tread lightly on the campaign trail they must still win the first leg of the money race.

March 27, 2003

The rhetoric of war…

Speech-act theory says that to say something is to do something. And I would assert that the flip side of this theory claims that to do something is to say something. What was the Bush administration saying by deciding to leave Iraqi TV intact? Michael Gordan claims this:

It seems to reflect the calculation that Mr. Hussein’s regime was so brittle it would quickly fall. Bush planners appear to have left television off the initial target list because they wanted to use it to administer Iraq immediately after the war and to limit the damage to civilian infrastructure.

Possibly. And I can think of another reason. If the decapitating strike worked, Iraqi TV sans Saddam would send a stark message of domination. We have no way of knowing exactly what message President Bush may have been sending; we’re engaging in interpretation here. But, if either of us are close to correct, the tactic didn’t work. As Gordon says:

Reports from Iraq, however, suggest that the American restraint was seen by many Iraqis as an indication of Mr. Hussein’s resilience, undermining the allied message that his days were numbered.

In other words, just because you send a message, by words or actions, doesn’t mean the auditor will get your drift. The auditor may have another agenda. And, in this case, it’s certain that the auditor has another culture–one that does not necessarily prize what we Americans have to offer. This is a tough sell.

March 27, 2003

A thoughtful letter…

Carol Johnson is one of the KC Bloggers, and she writes EMUSE. She sent the following e-mail to me yesterday and gave me permission to publish it (note: extended entry, click MORE):

I really enjoy reading your blog. I have some comments regarding Shock & Awe and general news coverage, but I don’t know that they are well-thought-out-enough to post on your comments. If you think there is something interesting to them, perhaps you could just expound upon the points in future posts. Mostly these are just general comments because I feel like expressing my opinion.

(more…)

March 26, 2003

Give that man a star…

It seems Jack Shafer agrees with me about the concept of embedding. He says:

The coverage, so far, has depicted U.S. soldiers as brave, enthusiastic, and conscientious warriors who, as they bomb and shoot their way to Baghdad, uphold the highest professional standards of the art of war. These dispatches are believable, even though the video cameras and reporters’ notebooks glean only slivers from the front line.

But, he warns:

The true test of the embed program will come when–and if–those video notes reveal something the Pentagon would rather you not see: an advancing Marine unit greased by an artillery shell; a bloody friendly-fire incident; or, knock on wood, a Geneva Convention violation by U.S. troops. All these examples are possible, and some are likely. The propaganda tide could shift and cause the Pentagon to rue the day they heard the word “embed.”

UPDATE (12:00 p.m.): It’s not all fun and games for “unilateral” journalists, as this article in Editor & Publisher demonstrates. “Embedded” journalists, however, appear to be having “great fun.”

March 25, 2003

Sweeps week…

War is hell if you aren’t getting the ratings you want. NBC executives hope war coverage will boost ratings for the floundering MSNBC. But poll numbers indicate viewers are tuning into other networks to watch the biggest show on earth. (via Romanesko and PoliticalWire)

← Previous Posts