March 31, 2004

Air America is (yawn) on the air…

Air America, the liberal radio network established to answer Rush Limbaugh et. al., began airing today. You may listen live here. John Cook discusses the kinks in the system, especially with “The O’Franken Factor,” in a column for the Chicago Tribune.

I have questioned the concept of liberal talk radio before. I have no problem with the desire to do it or the bias that drives it, just as I have no problem with the right-wing product. Rather, I don’t think it will draw much of an audience; it’s not a good business concept.

Conservatives and liberals think differently (their world views are constructed with different metaphors). And these differences, including the right’s effective crafting of its message over a generation, make all the difference in radio. The right is entertaining. The left is not. The right created effective codes and frames. The left did not. The right specifically cultivated media personalities and the conservatives thinkers to back them up. The left, for the most part, did not. Here’s what Cook has to say:

But a larger question, once the hobgoblins are exorcised, is whether Franken’s low-key, sarcastic persona can translate into compelling radio. Though he has made a career of what he describes as “hard-hitting advocacy comedy,” Franken is not a fire-breather. The only time he raised his voice on the air was to shriek “Lies!” in a high-pitched Gollum impression, in response to some perceived mendacity on the part of the White House — not out of genuine indignation, but in a sort of irony-swaddled caricature of an outraged curmudgeon. The message: Righteousness (a la Bill O’Reilly) isn’t funny. Knowing parody is.


Talk radio is not a genre of ideas. It is a reactive genre and an emotional genre. On radio, it is possible to present information, even heavily spun information, in ways that are critical and complicated–ways that appeal to the person seeking understanding (knowledge and wisdom) more than ideological validation. But the audience for this type of radio (or TV) appears to be small. C-SPAN and NPR pull it off. Can you think of others?

This is right on point:

“Talk radio tends to reward directness,” said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio. “Subtlety and nuance means the message gets lost. Conservatives have figured out how to hone the message so it’s polished and gleaming.” For that reason, along with the general difficulty of building a new network in the saturated talk-radio market, Taylor said, Air America’s ratings will be “microscopic” in the beginning.

And in the end, I just don’t see this working until liberals do what George Lakoff has suggested: Develop a common ideological language with which to frame the issues across a diverse liberal constituency. That’s a tall order. Conservatives offer a far more unified world view and language to articulate that view. (More background on Rhetorica here and here.)

What sells in electronic media is ideological validation. The right has perfected its talking points and its media personalities to such an extent that they present an entertaining product for people who wish to bask in the glory of their own ideology. I do not believe this basking is a good thing for the continued health of a democratic republic. And I do not think liberals should stoop to imitating it. It’s a lot like admitting ideological defeat.

March 30, 2004

In the good ‘ol yammer time…

We have a guest on Radio Rhetorica today. Ryan Silvey is a candidate for state representative for Missouri’s 38th district. He’s a Republican that recently worked for the very popular Sen. Kit Bond. Ben Gardner will conduct the interview, which will begin at about 11:20 and last until the end of the show.

There are lots of interesting issues popping in Missouri politics right now, including: concealed carry, intelligent design, and (lack of) state support for higher education.

As usual, you may listen live by clicking the “on air” button and following the links. You may send e-mail to the show at Or, give us a call at 816-584-6326.

There are four weeks left to the semester, and that means there are only four more Radio Rhetorica shows until the summer break. We’ll try to get Jay Manifold on again before we sign off (so gimme a holler, Jay).

March 29, 2004

Weapons of war…

It seems to me that a columnist working for a newspaper should be held to that paper’s correction policy. Why would the op-ed page have a standard different from the news pages? Daniel Okrent considers this question in his Sunday column. He says:

For the news pages, the rule is succinct. “Because its voice is loud and far-reaching,” the paper’s stylebook says, “The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small (even misspellings of names), promptly and in a prominent reserved space in the paper.” But on the page where The Times’s seven Op-Ed columnists roam, there has long been no rule at all, or at least not one clearly elucidated and publicly promulgated. When I began in this job last fall, I was told The Times considered the space granted Op-Ed columnists theirs to use as they wish, subject only to the limits of legality, decency and publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.’s patience. Columnists decided when to run corrections, and where in their columns to run them.

About facts, as facts, there can be no argument. Arguments arise over what facts mean in a subjective sense and within historical and socio-political contexts. Facts may be used well or poorly; they may also be used to obscure the truth or to elucidate it. A columnist, as a purveyor of opinion, may use facts in intentionally rhetorical ways, i.e. bend them, twist them, or omit them in order to effect persuasion. Reporters for the news pages must conform to the objective news gathering standards of the profession in order to suppress, as much as humanly possible, any hint that information (statements about facts in the world) is spun to effect a political purpose.

But it seems to me that both reporter and columnist should live by the same corrections policy. Here’s Okrent again:

At the very minimum, anything that is indisputably inaccurate must be corrected: there is no protected opinion that holds that the sun rises in the west. Same with the patent misuse or distortion of quotations that are already in the public record.

The first part of Okrent’s statement asserts what I believe needs no assertion: In a newspaper, facts are sacrosanct. You must get it right. The second part begins to intrude on the rhetorical use of facts as weapons of argument.

Newspaper editors must ask this tough question: Are we comfortable allowing facts to be used in ways that rend them from historical and socio-political contexts; are we comfortable with columnists using facts (or quotes out of context) to lie?

A misstatement of a fact can and should be corrected according to the paper’s policy (including misquotes). But how do we deal with the willful misuse of facts? How we do even define that misuse when such use is bound up in a rhetorical performance aimed at changing hearts and minds? To the rhetor, such use may be legitimate within the context of a greater good. It is exactly this greater good that so often blinds us to our own misuse, or eases our minds as we willfully overlook that misuse.

I suppose what this means is that newspapers must do two things (or, rather, keep doing them as the case may be): 1- Correct all factual errors promptly and prominently and 2) allow all voices access to the op-ed pages so the politically motivated use of facts may be vigorously opposed by those who would use them for other political ends.

March 27, 2004

Toward a field theory of journalism…

Yes, I’m finally concluding this series. I’ll compile the entries into one (coherent?) text and post it in the Blog Essays section in the left sidebar. Okay, so let’s get on with it. In this final entry I will (briefly) consider the evolution of the noetic field and what it might mean to journalism as we may practice it in the near future. Yes, that’s a big topic, and one could write a book about it–hmmmmmmmm 🙂

I began this series with a definition of “noetic field”:

To begin understanding the influence of journalism on culture I think it’s important to consider the concept of noetic field. A noetic field (as defined by James A. Berlin in Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges) is a “closed system defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower; the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language.” Berlin concludes from this (and I agree) that rhetoric “is thus ultimately implicated in all a society attempts. It is at the center of a culture’s activities.”

At any given time there is a dominant noetic field and, therefore, a dominant rhetoric.

This concept is important because, I would argue, journalism is a central cultural practice in the formation and perpetuation of the noetic field. Shifts in the field affect the practice of journalism; shifts in journalism affect the characteristics of the field. One might even argue (although I’m not prepared to go there yet) that journalism (broadly defined) is the noetic field by virtue of being our culture’s most important discoursive practice. (There are also interesting historical forces at work here that include the evolution of American civic life and socio-political participation in the public sphere. For a cogent analysis of this, I refer you to The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, by Michael Schudson.)

A quick consideration of generational history, as described by William Strauss and Neil Howe, demonstrates that known shifts in the noetic field map rather neatly onto their 4-part cycle of generational personality. The noetic shifts, and, therefore, changes in journalism and rhetoric education, appear to occur to varying degrees during the “secular crisis” and “spiritual awakening” parts of the cycle. And these shifts in journalism and rhetoric education have some interesting commonalities.

For example, at the last “spiritual awakening” during the 60s and 70s, English composition shifted from product-centered to process-centered methods of the teaching (pedagogy). And expressivist models and methods of writing became popular. These models and methods promoted the idea that what was important to write about came from within the student. A student’s experience of the world should be the central focus of writing, and the student should be encouraged to deal personally and vividly with these experiences. What came before (and still rules English composition in the academy) is a model we call “current-traditional rhetoric”–characterized by an objective stance, expository style, and writing formulas based on certain modes or essay types.

At the same moment, the so-called “New Journalism” and “gonzo” journalism became popular. These forms showed the same concern for personal experience and vivid style being promoted in the academy.

As you may know, both the new journalism and process pedagogy have been appropriated by the more traditional paradigm. A noetic field, it seems, changes slowly and, perhaps, by appropriation. But I believe the seeds of permanent change did sprout. And I believe they are taking root now and will flower at the next “secular crisis,” slated to begin, according to Strauss and Howe, in just a few years.

I believe we will see the profession-wide adoption of civic or public journalism within the next 15 years. In English composition, and the academy in general, we will see a greater move toward more public essayism, civic participation/service learning, and public engagement through writing.

I’ve only been able to hint at the “whys” and “hows” in this series. And, really, the work to nail all this down–or to discover that I’m throughly mistaken–is still in its earliest stages. At the moment, I believe these three points to be true (i.e. statements that have an understanding-based fit to the world):

1- Journalism is the most important discoursive practice in our culture.
2- As such, it is crucially important that journalists understand the power of their craft and the structure of their profession beyond mere grammatical competence and simplistic notions of “objectivity.”
3- Civic journalism is not a fad; it is the leading edge of a new rhetorical paradigm and, thus, a new noetic field for us all.

Prior entries in this series:
Toward a field theory of journalism
Why a “field” metaphor
Parts of the noetic field
The epistemology of journalism
Who is the knower?
The journalist, the facts, the source, and the audience
Journalistic language and the rhetorical situation

March 25, 2004

Isn’t life strange…

It’s the mean season in academia. I’ll be more forthcoming with details of my adventures as soon as something actually happens, i.e. hard news about my status.

This has been a terribly stressful week. I need a blogging break today. I’ll be online checking comments and reading my favorites and e-mail. I don’t have the energy or desire to write anything of my own today.

March 24, 2004

How do you define “grownup”?…

Jay Mathews’ article in Monday’s Washington Post is about education, not press-politics. But I was attracted by the headline (Win Arguments With This Book) and the lead:

I realize the fashion in book publishing these days is full-throated ideological screeds. Rightists call leftists traitors. Leftists call rightists dummies. Millions buy whichever books reinforce their own views, open them up at bedtime and drift off to sleep happy. It is intellectual comfort food, and I suppose for most grownups it is relatively harmless.

Yet I find, on those occasions when I am forced to read something more even-handed, that such books both inform and annoy me, and I like it.

Mathews is discussing “School Figures: The Data Behind the Debate,” by Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. What he likes about the book is that it’s full of research, which means it’s full of data that we may read and interpret.

Those acts–reading (and all that means) and interpreting–are exactly what the writers of political hackery do not want you to engage in. Instead, such books are written specifically to be used as Mathews suggests: to give one a warm and fuzzy feeling about one’s own ideology.

No one reads Ann Coulter or Michael Moore, for example, to be challenged (unless, of course, you are a braveheart of the opposite persuasion reading it for another sort of entertainment). But, as I tell my students over and over again: Intellectual growth is achieved through, among other things, challenge.

I would offer one criticism to Mathews. There is nothing “relatively harmless” about feeding one’s inner ideologue a dose of partisan pabulum–depending, of course, upon how Mathews is defining “grownup” 🙂

March 24, 2004

Silence is painful…

The Invisible Adjunct is calling it quits–not only quitting the blog but giving up on the job search and leaving academia. While I fully understand the pain of this decision, I hope that this anonymous blogger will have a change of heart about the blog. It has been an important contribution to the discussion of the academic underclass. I will leave the link active for a while in the hopes that the writer returns.

March 23, 2004

Blah, blah, blah…

Radio Rhetorica is on the air at its usual time today–11 a.m. CST. You may listen live on the web. Just click the “on air” button to the left, then follow the “listen live” link. You may send e-mail to the show: radio -at- I’ll be getting back to regular posting later this afternoon.

March 22, 2004

The concept of audience…

In the discipline of rhetoric, the audience is a central concept in the formation of a message. I would argue that no message is even possible without audience because there could be no intention driving the communication. Among other things, rhetoric is the energy of language and this assumes that that energy is focused on an audience from which something is expected.

Paul Farhi reads The State of the News Media 2004 report and finds fault in the audience for misperception and contradictory attitudes about what journalism really is. It seems that for Farhi, the message exists prior to intention. He says:

Tom Rosenstiel, PEJ executive director, acknowledges that there’s some “fascinating dissonance” in public attitudes toward the media. But he adds, “Even if one dismisses this as ill-informed, the media needs an audience, so you have to worry about it.”

Well, maybe. But I’ve always thought that asking people their opinion of the “news media” or even “television news” was like asking people their opinion of “lawyers” or “used-car salesmen.” That is, it’s an abstraction, and one that invites a reflexive, generic cynicism (people tend to remember the things the media got wrong rather than the many things accurately reported). “The media” are, of course, many things. They are CBS News and The Washington Post and “Entertainment Tonight” and the Drudge Report and Fly Fishing magazine and maybe even “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Even within a specific news organization, the term has great variability: Should we judge NBC News by Tim Russert’s interviews on “Meet the Press,” or by another Princess Di piece on “Dateline” or by Katie Couric’s cooking segments on the “Today” show?

Look a little closer at public dissatisfaction with the news media and what you find is less than you think. Virtually all major news media–print, radio, broadcast and cable TV–have been losing readers and viewers for years, and in some cases for decades. Can this really be evidence of the media’s failure, or is something else going on? The audience defection, after all, has affected all kinds of news outlets, no matter their perceived trustworthiness, depth or quality. The reasons for citizen disengagement from the news, like falling voter turnout, are without doubt complex. But I suspect they boil down to a few simple things: People are too busy, too lazy, or just aren’t very interested in the world at large. Hard to blame the media for that.

And he knows this how? Oh, wait…he suspects. And, like most journalists who understand far too little about language use (except the simple skill of grammatical competence), he has nowhere to look for answers but within his own ill-formed suspicions.

Maybe journalism should worry about its audience? Not if the decades-long slide into oblivion (at least for newspapers) isn’t troubling.

What do journalists intend to do when they communicate? That’s another way of asking a question Jay Rosen asked in the title of his book, What Are Journalists For? How can they intend anything in the absence of audience? And an absenting audience is exactly what they have.

March 22, 2004

The scarlet letter…

Walter Cronkite thinks John Kerry needs to find the courage of his convictions or else he “cannot hope to convince the nation that he should be given its leadership.” In other words, he needs to be proud of being a liberal.

The problem with that, of course, is that Republicans and conservatives have done an excellent job over the past 30 years of making the L-word a dirty word. Do not suppose that I am criticizing Republicans for this rhetorical tactic. I marvel at the skill and singularity of purpose it took to define as “evil” many of the central values of this nation.

One may certainly argue that the policies of liberalism have caused this revulsion. But I find such an argument contrary to the facts. Certainly we may list any number of failed policies from either wing as proof of failure. But such anecdotal evidence pales in comparison to the actual politics of the situation: a concerted and well-focused effort to define liberalism out of American values. I am in awe of this achievement and at the same time horrified by it.

So great is this achievement that many liberals do actually avoid the L-word. This is what defeat looks like.

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