April 30, 2003

More on emphasis…

I would have advised Howard Dean to change the emphasis of his latest remark. About military preparedness, Dean said: “We won’t always have the strongest military.” Seizing the opportunity this comment presented, John Kerry’s communications director, Chris Lehane, said that Dean’s remark “raises serious questions about his capacity to serve as Commander-in-Chief. No serious candidate for the Presidency has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate an erosion of America’s military supremacy.”

Rather than say America might not always have the strongest military, Dean should have said something like: ‘We must plan for the day when other nations, non-allied nations, are able to confront us on an equal footing.’ This puts the onus on those dastardly others. Plus, it nearly eliminates the possibility that Kerry can hit back with such a calculated misinterpretation because one measure of competence in military affairs surely must be planning for any contingency–including that others might one day challenge us.

This situation is an excellent illustration of the delicate game of verbal nuisance that is campaign politics. This situation illustrates why message control has become so important to a modern campaign.

For a good rundown on this situation, I recommend reading William Saletan’s latest column.

April 30, 2003

America loves a winner…

Howard Kurtz offers a rundown of (mostly liberal) punditry concerning the Bush administration’s “emphasis” on weapons of mass destruction. Does the politics of this “emphasis” upset Americans? I doubt it will. We won the war. Public opinion, however, could change if reconstruction becomes a morass.

April 29, 2003

A matter of politics…

Everything in politics is a matter of emphasis. That’s neither news nor any great revelation. But Paul Krugman, treats the recent statement by a Bush administration official–“We’re not lying…But it was just a matter of emphasis”–regarding our reason for war with Iraq as if it were revelation.

Arguing for, and implementing, nearly any matter of policy involves emphasizing those aspects of the situation that favor either a particular outcome or a particular faction. The engines of this emphasizing are rhetoric and heresthetics.

Krugman asks (rhetorically? naively?): “[A]ren’t the leaders of a democratic nation supposed to tell their citizens the truth?”

Exactly what is this thing he calls “truth”?

It is the “truth” that the Bush administration wanted, for whatever reasons, to remove Saddam Hussein from power and would use force if necessary to do so. It is the “truth” that this is easier to accomplish in a democratic republic if the citizens, if not the world, agree to the policy. So, from an amoral rhetorical perspective–any rhetoric that works is good rhetoric–the Bush administration’s emphasis gets the job done, i.e. implements policy.

Krugman continues:

One wonders whether most of the public will ever learn that the original case for war has turned out to be false. In fact, my guess is that most Americans believe that we have found W.M.D.’s. Each potential find gets blaring coverage on TV; how many people catch the later announcement–if it is ever announced–that it was a false alarm? It’s a pattern of misinformation that recapitulates the way the war was sold in the first place. Each administration charge against Iraq received prominent coverage; the subsequent debunking did not.

Well, a citizen can read all about it this morning in The New York Times. Krugman lapses into the elitist (and discredited) strong-media theory here, i.e. we all swallow whatever the media feeds us. Although his observations about news coverage are, in my opinion, largely correct, that does not translate into a news vacuum for alternate truths. We citizens are responsible for finding and using politically useful information.

What’s important here is not the war or Krugman; what’s important here is the concept of emphasis, its relation to rhetoric and heresthetics, and its use in a democratic republic to create and implement policy. This kind of thing happens every day. It goes by another name: politics.

April 28, 2003

Killer question…

Ronald Reagan rightfully earned the title Great Communicator with his actor’s ability to stick a line and great prep work from his handlers. One might even argue he was too good. He developed and deployed a killer WMD in the form of a question: Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

I admire this question; I admire its political simplicity and its awesome power to reduce four years of governance to the essentials of a citizen’s experience. Nothing short of a robust economy can save any president, of any party, from the consequences of our collective answer.

Time magazine takes a look at the developing Bush campaign:

Presidential campaigns cannot prepare for what Donald Rumsfeld calls “unknown unknowns”—another terrorist attack, a domestic event that becomes a mega-story. What they prepare for are known unknowns. And the biggest one for Bush is the economy. Republican pollsters are telling the White House that job security tops Americans’ list of economic concerns. As a result, the White House mantra is “jobs.” Bush used the word 33 times in a speech last week in Canton, Ohio.

April 27, 2003

Summer schedule…

This is the last week of classes for the spring semester at Park University. Then come the dreaded finals. On 12 May, I’ll begin my summer blogging schedule. I have no idea what that will be yet.

I’m teaching two internet classes this summer, so I’ll be spending a lot of time online. I assume I’ll be spending a lot time blogging, too. I’m also looking forward to finishing my online rhetoric textbook and digging into some analyses of campaign speeches for Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004.

I plan to offer the freshman blogging/composition class again in the fall. I’ve learned a few things this semester about blogs and education, and I plan to make a few revisions to the syllabus. The students now writing Pirate Blog may continue to post as long as they follow the no pornography/no threats of violence rules.

April 25, 2003

Democratic vistas…

Yes, put me down as one of those eggheads who thinks we’d all be better off if the press covered more policy. But pay careful attention to my wording. I’m not suggesting that other news, or other ways of looking at politics, are illegitimate. My concern is the political utility journalistic messages.

The ever-cogent William Powers reminds us all today of the value in the great wide world of events that journalists call news:

There’s a media puritanism that doesn’t believe in a certain kind of news, or at least doubts its value, wants it to go away. We’re supposed to be covering serious policy questions and important events like war, not scandal, sensation, and the other ephemera that are suddenly returning in force. Yet often those are the very stories that tell us the most about ourselves, and even get us talking about the hard stuff. When we finally got to the Lott story, ugly though it was, it prompted a re-examination of whether we’ve come as far on race as we’d thought. The Peterson story, and the question of whether two people were killed or just one, has reopened the tricky when-does-life-begin conversation that almost nobody wants to have.

Thank you, Mr. Powers, for this corrective–if for no other reason than to demonstrate that policy shows its face in unlikely sensation. (via MediaMinded)

April 25, 2003

Inquiring minds want to know…

Carl Bernstein, of Watergate-Woodstein fame, is annoyed that a bunch of journalism students are trying to uncover the identity of Deep Throat. He says:

“The last thing students in a journalism class should be doing is trying to find out who other reporters’ sources are…They should be learning how to protect sources.”

That would make sense if Watergate were a current situation. It is, rather, history. I think this is an excellent exercise in academic, as well as journalistic, research. And inquiring minds want to know.

April 25, 2003

Who’s on first?…

Howard Kurtz rediscovers the presidential campaign this morning. And he encourages the fiction that we can know at this early stage who is ahead in the so-called invisible primary.

Kurtz asks the following questions (I’ve added answers…note that I did not use the definite article):

“Will 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq make national security at least as important as the economy in ’04?” A: Almost certainly. But will the importance of these things be positive or negative? This is the important question because it remains to be seen what the administration will make of victory in Iraq. President Bush’s emerging campaign strategy relies on certain assumptions that are by no means certain.

“What does each plausible contender need to do to break out of the pack?” A: Effectively manage their image while engaging in the difficult task of differentiating themselves from each other and President Bush. A crystal ball would help. (Wow…I’m a big help.)

“Will next week’s debate hosted by George Stephanopoulos prove a turning point?” A: No. But it’s well documented that voters, especially uncommitted voters, find these events politically useful. Pre-primary and primary debates, however, draw only a fraction of the interest/audience of the Presidential debates. (Unfortunately, I’ve just made a political prediction by answering “no.” So I have done a foolish thing. But I’m going to let it stand.)

“Does anyone give a hoot at this stage?” A: Good question. I’ll keep the snark in the bag and let the idealist out for a romp instead–yes, citizens do care…just not about the same things the press cares about. For more detail on this, I refer you to James Fallows’ book Breaking the News.

UPDATE (11:55 a.m.): Interesting observations and questions from The Scrum.

April 24, 2003

News, flack, what?…

Jack Shafer continues his analysis of Judith Miller’s article in The New York Times that asserts, via military sources, that Iraqi scientists destroyed WMDs just prior to the invasion. I asserted earlier that she has no story.

Miller has a good reputation for reporting on chemical/biological weapons. So our tendency might be to allow her plenty of latitude. I suspect this is what NYT editors may have been thinking when they published this weak article, i.e. journalistically weak.

I believe Shafer’s column today demonstrates that Miller either has been taken for a ride or is just not at liberty, for whatever reasons, to say what she may actually know. If she really doesn’t know anything more than she’s saying, this is, then, either sloppy journalism or excellent PR.

April 24, 2003

So thou wilt woo [not]…

In democratic politics, a group must rate to get attention, i.e. have significant numbers and/or cultural power. Apparently, for Republicans, gays just don’t cut it in this regard. And that’s one reason why, according to Washington Whispers, Rick Santorum won’t lose his Republican leadership position for his well articulated stance on homosexuality.

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