November 26, 2003

Giving thanks…

In a few minutes it will be time to leave Park University and head home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Most of the students have already cleared out. But I told my classes I’d hang around until noon today just in case any of them need to talk with me about their papers.

There will be no Radio Rhetorica on Thursday. But Ben Gardner and I return next week with more ________ commentary (listeners can fill in the adjective).

I’m planning to have a quiet family holiday. So no blogging until Monday. Until then, if you’re planning to keep up with your online reading, you might care to take a look at the following essays posted to Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004:

1. The Press-Politics of the Presidential Primary Process

2. How to Read a Campaign Horse-race Story


Have a safe and happy holiday.


November 26, 2003

Pathos and obfuscation…

“Some are now attacking the President for attacking the terrorists.”

So says a political ad by the Republican National Committee now running in Iowa. This is standard fare for political ads. We’ll see more of this kind of thing from both major parties.

Who are “some”? This word has enthymematic appeal and is a favorite pronoun of sound-bite discourse. The listener supplies the proper nouns with a little help from the context, tone, and ideology of the overall messge.

The assertion uses the figure of antanaclasis–the repetition of a word whose meaning changes in the second instance. In this case, the change is subtle: from a metaphorical concept of argument as a military battle in the first instance to the literal meaning in the second instance. Such figures allow the rhetor to conflate complex messages in simple, pleasing sound bites.

Who are the terrorists? To fully identify them, or even define the term, would destroy the sound bite and add unnecessary complication to the rhetorical intent. I assert that we understand this term today in regard to the events of 9/11. So the use of this term suggests that “some” “attack” the president for attacking the people who attacked us. The sound bite is quite obviously crafted to allow plausible deniability in this regard. But even a simplistic rhetorical analysis such as this one exposes the phony literalism.

Finally, the main appeal here is pathos–the appeal to emotion. If one thinks about this for a moment–even those who support our actions in Iraq–it’s difficult to point to anyone of consequence among the Democrats that actually is against our hunting down and arresting or killing those responsible for 9/11.

This sound bite, however, obviously conflates the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The issue here should be whether that conflation is warranted. On that issue, the American public deserves cogent discussion, not pathetic sound bites from the Republicans or equally pathetic charges of failure from the Democrats.

For more on this ad, read Josh Marshall’s column in The Hill.

November 26, 2003

Turn the other cheek…

Jack Shafer wonders why the Washington Post does not defend itself more substantively in regard to an article about WMDs. This situation is an excellent example of the fairness bias run amuck.

Boiled down: Paper runs well-reported article. Insider (who refused to comment for the article) writes letter to the editor complaining. Insider is off the mark. Paper lets insider’s letter stand without comment.

The fairness bias dictates that it is unfair to comment in this situation. The paper has had its say. Now the letter writer has his say. And you, dear reader, are left to figure it out. Should newspapers leave their readers hanging in this way? What would happen if newspapers commented in return?

November 26, 2003

You go, Irving!…

What if newspapers stopped competing with television for breaking news and, instead, began practicing second-day journalism exclusively? Move breaking items to page two as shorts. Let television handle the headlines. Print jockeys have been struggling to find the magic formula to stop reader attrition. Let me suggest that taking readers seriously–a radical thought–might be the key.

I wonder what Irving Tobin would think of this idea? What does Irving want? He’s the guy who tries to read The New York Times in its entirety every day (minus sports). At the moment, he’s a year and five months behind. For current events, Tobin listens to the radio when he drives.

Wife Phyllis Tobin is a clinical psychologist and declines to speculate about her husband’s mental health, although she says he’s the smartest guy she knows. We might imagine he has quite a grasp on how we got here (in the broadest senses of nation and current events).

I wonder how much smarter Tobin would be–how much smarter we all would be–if it took more effort to read a newspaper but that effort paid off in deeper understanding and political utility–something more useful than, say, getting hip to the latest fad or pop-culture trend.

As Tobin uses radio, we could use television for the information it delivers best: 1) entertainment, and 2) breaking news in pictures with initial information and reactions. Then we might settle down at some later time–a matter of days at most–and begin to learn the deeper truth of a situation: corrected and more complete information, relevant knowledge, and, perhaps, a little wisdom.

November 25, 2003

Dead end…

I’d like to think the reason for canning K Street is that HBO realized they could be contributing further damage to our civic discourse by promoting a show that blurs too many boundaries. There are no details yet from E! Online, but it seems clear the real reason is that the show was simply boring and few people watched it. Who says the masses are asses? Not me.

November 25, 2003

: Like a coyote…

Just one word: ugly.

This is another installment in my series (here, here, here, and here) of experiential analyses of the Democratic debates. As of this writing, I have not read, seen, or heard a news account of the debate. I took no notes. I simply experienced the debate as TV presented it.

It appears the Democrats made a mistake scheduling so many debates before the Iowa caucuses. We’re into serious diminishing returns territory here. If you were playing Slate’s debate drinking game, by the time Richard Gephardt said the leader of North Korea was “half nuts,” you’d have been half crocked. We’ve heard all of this before–well, except the “nuts” thing (transcript).

The biggest flaw in this ugly incident was the performance of NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who mugged each of the candidates with questions designed to elicit contention rather than politically useful information.

As often happens in horrible accidents, by some miracle one person emerges unscratched. That person was John Edwards. I do not mean to suggest he “won” the debate. But his performance was consistently presidential and of a tone and substance that I think could offer a real challenge to President Bush. Why is this man not polling better? Hmmmm…

Howard Dean took more buckshot in the ass. He’s getting pretty good at picking it out and moving on. It appears the only thing that will scuttle his ship is a powerful idea powerfully presented. I think only John Edwards is capable of delivering that salvo, but not many are listening to him.

You know the debate is an ugly mess when Dennis Kucinich appears reasonable.

Al Sharpton had a few interesting moments, which tells me he thrives when situations turn ugly.

Carol Moseley Braun is the rock in this group. Her demeanor and presentation never change. I stand by all of my earlier assessments of her.

Kerry? Gephardt? Clark? More of the same. Although I did think Clark had a few good moments. You could tell he wanted to open a can of whoop-ass on Brokaw. Now that would have improved this debate tremendously.

Lieberman? Geez, it was 30 minutes into the debate before I noticed he wasn’t there.

November 24, 2003

Player scorecard…

The Washingtonian offers a scorecard of administration players behind the “senior official” attributions.

I wish the journalism establishment could find a way to stop quoting anonymous sources. Otherwise, I think reporters and editors should offer more identifying information with unattributed quotes. For example: “Blah blah blah,” according to a senior administration official in charge of ______. (via Political Wire)

November 24, 2003

Who shot Kennedy…

About ten years ago, Bonar Menninger asked me to read his manuscript of Mortal Error prior to publication. We had worked together at the Kansas City Business Journal some years before, so he was well aware of my interest in, and knowledge of, guns and ballistics. At the time, I made part of my living writing about shooting and hunting.

Menninger had met a man who asked an important, complex question: How many shots were fired at President Kennedy; where did the bullets come from; where did the bullets land?

Ballistics is the science of projectiles. I am no math whiz, but I do have a good practical understanding of ballistics. For any given shooting situation, I have definite opinions about what bullets, calibers, loads, and guns to use to complete the job (on paper targets and tasty critters).

I was stunned by the manuscript and came away feeling that I now knew the truth about the Kennedy assassination in terms of ballistics–the shots fired that day. Mortal Error is not about conspiracy theories or political intrigue. It is a book about ballistics and one man’s search for the truth. It is a book about math.

Many have criticized the book by mere assertion. As far as I know, not a single person has come forward since its publication to refute the math. Can’t refute the math, can’t refute the book.

November 22, 2003

Too much information…

No, too much knowledge.

The blogging world certainly delivers information. We may define “information” any number of ways. I prefer to think of it as statements about facts in the world (via Neil Postman). But information may also be thought of as the reduction of uncertainty (via PressThink).

I think it’s instructive to think of “knowledge” as organized information embedded in a context (also via Postman). This definition works well with either definition of information. Actually, we may think of these as merely two ways to state the same definition. Postman’s definition is rhetorical in that it puts the concept of information squarely within the framework of a message, i.e. a statement or speech act. The Shannon-Weaver model uses formal language to demonstrate the communicative or interpretive value of reducing uncertainty. Both conceptions operate on the premise that information must have comparative utility.

(Interesting question: Is it, then, impossible to have too much information? What are we talking about when we claim it?)

I had an unusually busy week recently that affected the number (and quality) of my posts to Rhetorica. I also was unable to spend much time reading my favorite news sites and blogs. And I was in a complete twit about it!

Information was still getting in that week. But what I missed was the knowledge. I may have reached the point of knowledge overload, i.e. I can’t keep up with all the excellent blogs I enjoy reading. There are just too many of them and the number keeps growing! And I can’t keep up with all the ideas sparked by all of this knowledge.

(Further, the very best bloggers make their readers work harder, i.e. by making us read longer, well-developed posts that cross the knowledge-wisdom boundary.)

This post is certainly weak on knowledge, unless you’re just intensely interested in me 🙂 I just needed a break from grading papers, and writing this post seemed like the thing to do.

November 22, 2003

The news media are biased!…

It’s a day late, but not a dollar short. I’ve finally added the expediency bias to my list of the structural biases of journalism. Thanks to Jay Manifold and Lex Alexander for their refinements.

UPDATE (10:00 a.m.): No sooner do I add the expediency bias to the Critical Meter than a perfect example presents itself (and the fairness bias, too). Go read Jay Rosen’s deconstruction of “Spin Alley,” the zone where news goes to die. One of the reasons reporters enter this zone: “It’s convenient, given my deadline and the need for reactions and quotes.”

UPDATE (10:25 a.m.): I added this comment to Rosen’s post (typos corrected):

As I was reading your post, and saw that you were going to give a definition of “information,” I naturally assumed you’d go with Postman. But I was pleasantly surprised by your choice and your subsequent comments about the 2004 nomination in light of the Mayer predictive model of primary campaigns (Re: Mayer, William G. “Forecasting Presidential Nominations or, My Model Worked Just Fine, Thank you.” PS: Political Science & Politics. APSA. 36(2) 2003: 153-57.). The Mayer model demonstrates that there is no uncertainty to the nomination. Since 1980, the leader in the last national Gallup poll before Iowa won the nomination for both parties. The only anomaly was Hart in 1988 for obvious reasons.

[Ed. note: For a refinement of the Postman and Shannon-Weaver definitions of information (or how/why I’m making the distinction above), please read this post.]

Now that is a great predictive track record. Mayer uses his data to make claims about the McGovern-Fraser reforms. I use his data to suggest that the press needs to take a harder look at what’s really going on.

In terms of information being a reduction of uncertainty: If the primary process is nearly 100 percent predictable before the voting begins, then that suggests that press coverage of it as an uncertain horse race constitutes subtracting information from the process by adding unnecessary complexity!

UPDATE (2:55 p.m.): Jeff Jarvis comments on Rosen’s post and mentions the concept of “spin spam.”

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