February 27, 2004

Funny stuff…

Non Sequitur


From: ucomics.com

February 27, 2004

: What Dukakis should have said…

Sometimes in presidential debates a moment arises that appears to be either the turning point in the campaign or the final nail in the coffin. Examples include: Ford’s assertion about eastern Europe, Reagan’s classic age put-down of Mondale, or Dukakis’ fumbled rape question.

Sen. John Kerry survived such a moment last night after Larry King, normally a competent soft-baller, threw this curve-ball in regard to the death penalty: “A person who kills a 5-year-old should live?”

Kerry’s reply: “My instinct is to want to strangle that person with my own hands…I understand the instincts, I really do.”

Good answer.

Such questions are not designed to draw cogent responses to real concerns about policy. Such questions are purely pathetic attempts to trap politicians into making “newsworthy” errors. Such questions offer us a perfect example of the decidedly non-neutral role the press plays in campaign politics.

Kerry answered pathos with pathos. So his response is “good” in the sense that he did no damage to himself (the way Dukakis did). But we the people are no better off, nor better informed, for the question or the answer.

February 26, 2004

Journalists and language…

What role do the news media play in politics? You’re likely to hear some journalists claim they play only the role of neutral observer. This is utter nonsense, but it is mythically powerful nonsense.

One of the reasons its possible for some journalists to believe they are merely neutral observers is that they are, in my opinion, woefully under-schooled in the disciplines of rhetoric and linguistics (which seems odd to me considering the central role of language in the profession). In other words, journalists are writers who know dangerously too little about language and the role their profession plays in the cultural formation of knowledge.

Those affected by news coverage, however, often have a good handle on the situation: From the Boston Globe:

For much of his campaign, Kucinich has complained that news outlets arbitrarily and prematurely winnow the field into front-runners and Don Quixotes. That effort then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the lack of media attention hampers the lesser-known candidates.

Among other things, this winnowing and assigning of roles is a function of narrative bias, one of the structural biases of journalism.

Humans are story-telling creatures. There is simply no way I can see that journalism will ever be able to avoid this bias unless it returns to the early days of the business, when papers were filled with public documents and the texts of speeches rather than what we understand as reporting (a rather recent development). Journalists, however, could become more self-aware of this bias.

Yes, they are aware of it on a certain level–thus the hand-wringing we occasionally see over such things as master narratives and memes. But without a deeper understanding of language use, such hand-wringing never becomes positive action for change and growth. The reason: journalism’s objectivist epistemology teaches journalists that language can be used in politically neutral ways and that they can be neutral observers of a socio-political scene that they have little hand in creating.

Consider this quote from Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy:

“I’m not terribly sympathetic [to Kucinich’s claims]…I think it’s been demonstrated you can be an obscure guy [and attract headlines], but you’ve got to catch fire…It’s easy for the candidate to blame the media for not giving them attention.”

Considering that most Americans experience politics through the news media rather than directly, one wonders how it is that a candidate “catches fire” in the absence of media attention. And who determines what “catches fire” means? What are the qualities of this metaphoric understanding of political efficacy? Why are these qualities important? What relationship do these qualities have to governance and the eventual affect of policy on the lives of citizens?

Kucinich’s remedies would wear like dirty bandaids–ineffective and harmful. My remedy is far more basic and begins with the education of journalists. To my way of thinking, no journalism student in this country should graduate without a thorough grounding in the important theories of language use.

For more on the role of the press in politics, you should be reading Jay Rosen’s weblog PressThink. Of particular interest: Psst…The Press is a Player.

February 26, 2004

Lost its sizzle?…

Tony Ortega, KC’s king of the meat metaphor, grilled me again about the Mayer predictive model of primary campaigns. The last time we chewed the fat it was still a choice cut. Today, it appears to be so much hamburger. But I cautioned him not to be too quick to wrap it for the freezer because there’s still lots to digest.

February 25, 2004

Catch my meaning…

One of the fascinating things about disciplinarity in academia is the penchant for seeing the world almost exclusively in terms of one’s speciality. As a rhetoric scholar, I see human events as primarily rhetorical battles or language games. I realize this isn’t so in any universal sense (other factors do exist), but I do see sense in the world because of my disciplinary view. And trying to make sense of the world is, I would argue, a universal endeavor of the human animal.

I tell my students that politics is a game of definitions. If you win the definition, you win the policy.

For example: Is it a “death tax” or an “inheritance tax”? I contend that policy will follow the definition that the society accepts (i.e. those in the majority or in power).

And there is no better example of the primacy of definition in politics than the current battle over what a “marriage” is. What things are is central to who and what we are culturally and politically.

Literalists are already quibbling about semantic arguments in regard to marriage, as if such arguments were trivial. Just the opposite is true. Semantics is central to political issues.

The central role of defining as a political act may be seen in the President’s speech yesterday supporting a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman:

In recent months, however, some activist judges and local officials have made an aggressive attempt to redefine marriage.

In San Francisco, city officials have issued thousands of marriage licenses to people of the same gender, contrary to the California Family Code. That code, which clearly defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, was approved overwhelmingly by the voters of California.

If we’re to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America. Decisive and democratic action is needed because attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country.

Those who want to change the meaning of marriage will claim that this provision requires all states and cities to recognize same-sex marriages performed anywhere in America.

The amendment should fully protect marriage, while leaving the state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage.

America’s a free society which limits the role of government in the lives of our citizens. This commitment of freedom, however, does not require the redefinition of one of our most basic social institutions.

Any argument that begins with “well, that’s just semantics” is either a conscious attempt to deny the central role of semantics (indeed the central role of language in all human endeavors) or mere naivete.

February 24, 2004

Vanishing quote…

Yesterday, I commented on Education Secretary Rod Paige’s improperly applying the term “terrorist” to the NEA. I quoted a response by President Bush as published by CNN:

“I fully understand it’s going to be the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue…But surely we can shuffle that aside sometimes and focus on our people.”

But if you click the link and read the article, the quote is missing. Today’s CNN article makes this claim:

President Bush has not commented on Paige’s remarks so far. An administration official said Monday the secretary was clearly making a joke but he should not have used the “terrorist” label in taking issue with the NEA.

I’ve taken a quick spin around the internet trying to find the Bush quote. No luck. So, did the reporter get it wrong or what?

UPDATE (7:10 p.m.): See the comments for a link to the original AP article. The arrangement of the article makes it appear that Bush is reacting directly to Paige. I assume an editor removed the quote to correct this ambiguity.

February 24, 2004

Yadda, yadda, yadda…

Today on Radio Rhetorica I’ll be discussing, among other things, the quality of our political discourse as we head toward Super Tuesday. You may listen and watch live online. Just click the “on air” button in the left-hand sidebar. You may call in during the show: 816-584-6326. Or, send e-mail to: radio -at- rhetorica.net.

UPDATE (2:50 p.m.): I may have to change the name of my radio show from Radio Rhetorica to Radio Snafu. Today, I managed to “broadcast” for an hour and a half without the transmitter being turned on. As it turns out, I have to turn it on since my show opens the broadcast day on Tuesdays. In the irony department, long-time Rhetorica reader Rebecca called in. She’s unable to receive the webcast and just wanted to listen in. After a moment of goading from her, Ben and I got into a typical talking-head snit for a few minutes over the issue of gays and marriage. When we finished, I reassured listeners that we weren’t devolving into typical flame-war radio. We have higher ideals. Later, my wife told me that was the most interesting moment of the show.

February 24, 2004

Taking notes (and little else)…

So the Democratic candidates have been hammering the President (and to a lesser extent each other) for months now, i.e. fairly normal campaign politics. The President himself has now taken a few shots.

This would be a good time (if rather late) for the press to start playing the role of custodian to the facts. The article linked above is typical of he-said-she-said horse-race coverage because the reporter allows all parties to speak without the slightest attempt to check statements for veracity.

This CNN effort is a good example of politically useless stenography.

UPDATE (8:35 a.m.): This Washington Post article by Mike Allen is only marginally better than the CNN effort.

UPDATE (2:55 p.m.): Here’s a look at what being a custodian of the facts could mean. But notice that it’s published as “news analysis.” Hmmmm…

February 23, 2004

NEA, Hamas, al Qaeda? What’s the diff?…

The word “terrorist” used to mean something. For the most part, it identified a person who commits violence against people and property for political purposes, one of which is to foment panic in a population.

Is “terrorist” losing its meaning? Is it becoming a general condemnation for any political opposition? We’ve seen this usage mostly on the extreme fringes of the political spectrum. But it seems using the term for one’s political opposition is becoming more mainstream.

No matter what you think of the National Education Association, it is not a terrorist organization. And to call it one, even as a joke, demeans the democratic bargain and the tens of thousands of victims of real terrorism around the world.

The best our President could muster in response: “I fully understand it’s going to be the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue…But surely we can shuffle that aside sometimes and focus on our people.”

What else should we shuffle aside in this mean season?

February 23, 2004

In defense of the clich

Writing teachers often advise students to avoid clich

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