July 29, 2004

Great expectations…

I wonder what would happen if a political party decided not to create expectations prior to its convention. What would the press do?

For example, Democrats said they would run a positive convention. And the Kerry campaign apparently asked speakers to go easy on President Bush. Why create these expectations?

The obvious answer is: message control. But how much control over the message can a party be said to have when it hands the press one half of a dramatic dichotomy? What the press will do is go looking for the opposite half–the ying of the offered yang. They do this because the fairness bias demands reporters get “both sides” of the story and the narrative bias demands drama in contention.

If you tell journalists that you intend to be “positive,” that guarantees they will go looking for the negative. And they’ll find it. In the case of a political convention, it’s easier to find than one’s own backside.

What would happen if party strategists, handlers, and candidates refused to pre-characterize an event?

For one, it might force journalists to take a little harder look at the substance of the speeches (although I’ll bet this is exactly what some of them think they are doing). But here’s what we get from Todd S. Purdum’s “Political Memo” column in The New York Times:

When Edward M. Kennedy vowed this week that John Kerry’s election would make John Adams’s famous prayer that none but “honest and wise” men ever rule the White House “ring true again,” was he by any chance hinting that he thinks a dishonest dope rules there now?

When Bill Clinton declared that, “strength and wisdom are not opposing values,” was that just a nicer way of saying that he believes, “You don’t have to be dumb to be strong”?

When it comes to the Democrats’ promise to run an upbeat convention, positive is a relative term. Speaker after speaker has wrapped invective in a veil of indirection, softened what would otherwise be stinging attacks with a smile and slyly bashed Mr. Bush while barely mentioning his name.

“It’s the art of the implicit slam,” one veteran Democratic speechwriter here acknowledged, speaking on condition of anonymity because he knew he was speaking out of school.

Of course these are slams. This is the typical, dog-bites-man fare of American political address. It’s damned difficult–not to mention stupid–not to implicitly compare your candidate to the opponent in such speeches and by such methods. Among the few rhetorical points of such campaigning is to draw such distinctions for the audience.

But by setting up a fuzzy expectation of positiveness, the Democrats have made it easy for the press to follow their own scripts to coverage that ignores the substance of the oratory.

Evil thought experiment: I wonder how the coverage would have been different if the Democrats had said they intended to run a savage and negative convention and then delivered exactly the same addresses? Hmmmmm…and what would that say about journalistic practice and the role of journalism in a democracy?

(Note: Normally, I’m happy to see members of the press do even rudimentary textual analysis. But to be politically useful, such analysis must, in the end, lead to something that citizens can use to make an informed decision. One big problem with Purdum’s analysis is simply this: Nearly everyone already gets it. He’s not revealing anything that isn’t already apparent to the average citizen.) (via Political Wire)

July 28, 2004

Cover yer hindquarters…

What does it mean to “cover” an event? Is a few hours of network “coverage” too little?

Tim Rutten wonders about the public interest in regard to convention coverage. And he wonders how it is the networks, using the public airwaves, get away with a few hours coverage of an important civic event?

Unlike newspapers, magazines or cable channels, the networks–and all local television stations, for that matter–transmit their signals over airwaves owned by the people of the United States. Their licenses, in fact, require them to operate in the public interest. In recent years, timid federal regulators have more or less construed that requirement as a tedious formality. But it remains on the books, and flouting it in so flagrant a fashion is, at the very least, in poor taste.

And he correctly scorns USA Today for “casting” Ann Coulter to “cover” the Democratic convention and Michael Moore to “cover” the Republican convention.

What should it mean to cover and event?

July 28, 2004

A gathering of squirrels…

Two nutty ideas have emerged from the press coverage of the Democratic Convention: 1) That the convention is so scripted that there’s no news to be found, and 2) That convention speakers shouldn’t criticize the President if the Kerry campaign has asked that the president not be attacked. (Note: I do not know the exact wording of the request from the Kerry campaign, so I am assuming a contrast between “criticize” and “attack” that seems to me to define the current behavior of some journalists and pundits. I am also aware these terms are open to interpretation.)

I’ve already discussed the first nutty idea. As for the second, with the apparent unity of the Democrats–a minor miracle–fire-breathing attacks just aren’t necessary. The rhetorical situation allows for the effective delivery of other messages–messages that may resonate with the undecided middle (e.g. the stunning Barack Obama speech or Bill Clinton’s assertion that conservatives “need” a divided America).

The narrative bias of journalism dictates that there must be antagonists and protagonists in every story and that the conflict between the two is the central plot and theme. It is typical of columnists and other pundits, then, to interpret in the extreme any political assertion, proposition, or request in order to create the necessary drama. For example, Kerry requests speakers to take it easy on Bush, and that opens the door for columnists to criticize any criticism speakers might make of Bush and/or his policies. Jules Witcover, for example, gets suckered by the surface drama and misses the bigger picture–along with the news.

A more interesting question to ponder is: Why take it easy on Bush? I think Josh Marshall may have discovered the intention behind this rhetorical maneuver.

July 27, 2004

The 100 years (bias) war…

Editor & Publisher takes another look at the bias wars. This article does little to add to our understanding beyond offering a typical journalistic account of the situation. Understanding, however, may not be a value to most of those involved in the bias wars. As I have said, such ranting has far more to do with the needs of ideological struggle.

I cannot claim to be the best or most comprehensive source for such understanding. I am one source, a starting point for another idea: That there exist certain professional practices–structural biases–that dictate (and, therefore, predict) journalistic behavior and that the effects of these biases have a more profound influence on news production and consumption (political utility) than ideological bias.

I have reproduced the E&P article in full, and I have inserted my comments in bold-faced italics.

July 26, 2004

Making choices…

It’s just not possible to follow all, or even most, of the convention bloggers. So here’s my strategy: Check in with Feedster first, then read Jay Rosen. Hey, we j-profs have to stick together. Plus, I suspect his commentary will be among of smartest of the bunch (and run counter to my earlier pessimism). From his first entry (following technical difficulties):

But this has given me time to reflect on what Rebecca Blood said in her advisory to those blogging the convention: decide what role you want to play. I am going to try to make sense of this event by accepting none of the given interpretations, none of which make sense unless we’re are prepared to declare the proceedings absurd and pointless. Some are. I’m not.

I hope many reporters are paying attention.

I’m watching the convention on CNN (and will watch with CNN for the Republicans, too). I will not offer any experiential analyses as did for the primary debates. Instead, I’ll do rhetorical analyses of the Kerry and Bush acceptance speeches.

July 26, 2004

The message is the news…

Does news happen at a political convention? Jay Rosen takes a look at political ritual and what bloggers might contribute to its coverage.

Yes, news happens at political conventions. Beyond any spot news that could transpire, you have a thing called speeches: politicians talking to citizens about important stuff. Some academics, such as myself, call that stuff “propositional content.” If citizens or politicians act on that content, such actions could change the lives of citizens for better or worse.

Yes, a convention is scripted. Why? Because a convention is one big message. It’s one colossal rhetorical situation aimed at persuading citizens to vote for a certain candidate.

Okay, time to put the snark back in his cage. I wonder about statements such as these because the intent seems to be to dismiss what happens at the conventions as something less than news (from Rosen’s entry):

Richard Benedetto of Gannett News reported the news on July 11: “Conventions today are little more than weeklong, made-for-TV infomercials and pep rallies for the party, its candidates and its luminaries.”

Brian Faler in The Washington Post had the story earlier, on July 5: “The conventions have become carefully staged productions intended, primarily, to reintroduce the parties’ nominees to the general public.”

On July 15 it was Reuters, quoting “political experts,” who have discovered: “What was once an exciting and occasionally unpredictable way to pick presidential and vice presidential candidates has descended into empty ritual–set-piece events that are infomercials for Democrats and Republicans.”

But back on May 25, a Boston Globe editorial had the scoop, with an upbeat twist: “Even though everyone knows that conventions have become staged events with little real drama, the nominee usually gets a lift in standing from a week of being bathed in favorable publicity.”

If a script exists, then it can be read and interpreted. Its implications can be pondered. At the very least its propositions can be reported. The possible effects of its propositions can be debated. Background regarding the specifics of propositions can be reported. The possible effects of propositions can be compared with the known effects of similar propositions.

No news? Merely a ritual? The message is the news.

UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): Walter Shapiro works extra hard today to disconnect citizens from politics:

The only real story here in Boston is the omnipresent security and how easy it is for Americans to work themselves into a panic that terrorists will be targeting alternate delegates from Idaho. Yes, of course, the show must go on in a democracy. But what is a pity is that the only role delegates play at a modern convention is to provide a scenic TV backdrop for the speeches.

Oh, and only certain speeches count. And, further, Kerry’s speech is about meeting expectations and not about anything he might actually say.

I’ll bet Shapiro thinks of himself, as many journalists do, as an enabler of democracy.

July 26, 2004

If you have the time…

To keep up with the convention bloggers (official and unofficial), check out Convention Bloggers. You can also follow the action at Technorati. Also check out Feedster.

July 26, 2004

Alien beasts…

Is The New York Times a liberal newspaper? Daniel Okrent has no trouble answering that question: yes. But what does he mean by that?

In Sunday’s column he demonstrates something of the true complexity of a newspaper and the multiple influences on the news product. One of those influences, to which Okrent would assign primary importance in the case of the NYT, is location (and what that means for its primary audience):

Today, only 50 percent of The Times’s readership resides in metropolitan New York, but the paper’s heart, mind and habits remain embedded here. You can take the paper out of the city, but without an effort to take the city and all its attendant provocations, experiments and attitudes out of the paper, readers with a different world view will find The Times an alien beast.

The influence of the NYT on the rest of journalism is often over-stated, but it is a mighty influence all the same. So Okrent’s column will be used by the unthinking and the ideologically-driven as proof positive that the news media have a liberal bias because Okrent claims journalism’s most influential product is a liberal paper. No. The news media have structural biases, and instances of ideological bias are local to a news organization (as Okrent demonstrates), or an editor, or a reporter, or an issue (as Okrent demonstrates), etc. Add to this list: local to a locality, e.g. a big city on the East Coast or a small city in a red state.

Further, Okrent points out that while the NYT may be liberal in its coverage of cultural and social issues (specifically its focus on certain aspects of issues and its headlines), that bias may not hold up in political coverage. He promises to look into this in a future column after he returns from an month-long hiatus.

For me, Okrent’s most damning assertion is about how the NYT appears to those with a different world view, i.e. a view not influenced by a large, eastern metropolitan area. Why should any newspaper, especially one thought to be the paper of record, be an alien beast to any American?

Surely, the editorial pages of a newspaper should argue for a world view that an editorial board believes best reflects the interests of the paper and/or the community. Ideological bias here is a given, and complaining about it is merely silly.

But why should the news and feature articles of any American newspaper appear like an alien beast?

I am not suggesting that it is possible to create journalism inclusive enough to appear familiar to everyone. The word for that isn’t “journalism,” it’s “pabulum.” Instead, I like the direction Okrent is going here: “Taking the New York out of The New York Times would be a really bad idea. But a determination by the editors to be mindful of the weight of its hometown’s presence would not.” I would add this: Be mindful that news situations are ambiguous and complex, and part of what journalism is supposed to do is put events in a useful, understandable context to mitigate some of the ambiguity and complexity. That’s an over-blown, academic way of saying that journalists should get and explain “both sides” of the story.

And that, my friends, is a difficult job.

July 23, 2004


Hmmmmm…we’ve tried being less serious. I’ve got it! Now let

July 23, 2004

Dog bites man…

I consider this a very strange statement: Columnist Tim Goodman claims that gavel-to-gavel coverage of political conventions is “ridiculous because no news whatsoever gets made there.” Now I agree that the gavel-to-gavel thing is a bit much even for cable. But no news at all is made?

A president and presidential candidate make news almost every time they flap their gums. And important politicians who support these candidates make news when they deliver speeches to a mass audience for the purpose of persuading the public to vote a certain way. All of these speeches have complex intent and content.

Perhaps Goodman is guilty merely of bad kairos regarding his hyperbole. But I doubt it. Journalists of all kinds (reporters, editors, editorialists) have a difficult time analyzing texts beyond rooting out the political contention in the white space between the lines. And, well, that’s really an inevitable thing to do when you approach any political statement with a narrative bias, i.e. assume the drama of contention between protagonist and antagonist is the primary plot.

Goodman takes the obligatory shot at the convention bloggers, conveniently ignoring who they are (for example, a prominent political magazine journalist and a noted journalism professor–both Ph.D.s). But these bloggers may be the ones who show journalists what they could and should be doing as custodians of fact: Assume the intention of a politician to do the job of governance and analyze the content of a speech based on that intention first. I am not suggesting journalists ignore political contention; I am suggesting that such contention is secondary to the lives of citizens who must live with the policies that politicians talk about and eventually enact into law.

Covering contention is easy. It’s always there. It’s easy to find. It’s dog-bites-man stuff. In other words, much of the time it isn’t news.

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