September 30, 2004

It’s not a game…

In a bone-headed maneuver when I added the update, I accidently erased what I posted last night. Here it is again as best I can recall it:

One man spoke in complete sentences and spoke as if to adults. One man spoke in fragments and spoke as if to children. I believe the transcript will show that this is a reasonable interpretation of the first presidential debate.

No candidate “won” the debate. You can’t win something that isn’t a contest, i.e. a game with a coherent set of rules and criteria to determine an outcome.

UPDATE (1 October 8:50 a.m.): In response to some of the comments on this post, I need to make this clarification:

By comparing debates to a game, I mean to challenge the notion that a winner (agreed upon by most) may be declared immediately following the event. Without rules and criteria this is plainly impossible. There is a sense in which we can talk about a “win”–a rhetorical sense. If the debate about the debate creates a consensus in the culture, and citizens act in political ways based on that consensus, then we have a winner. This is not an instant process. We have to wait for it.

September 30, 2004

Change is coming…

Adam Nagourney will be avoiding the spin room after the debate. He won’t even be in town. What can this mean? Read Jay Rosen:

But when the lead correspondent of the New York Times won’t play in your game, your game has been downgraded some. From small movements like that bigger pattens of non-compliance might emerge. Adam Nagourney’s Choice could have some effect, especially if we talk about it. (Get it, bloggers?)

This is exactly how change begins. Many of my critics think I am far too idealistic and unrealistic in my suggestions for the press. I suppose I’m guilty–now. But Nagourney is showing us how we get there–eventually.

I’m on the record with this advice: Don’t watch the post-debate spin. Nagourney isn’t going to cover it. If the lead reporter for the NYT can get away with this, so can citizens. He’s saying: I don’t need the spin to do good journalism. You can say: I don’t need to be spun to make a good political/civic decision.

Change is coming.

UPDATE (2:27 p.m.): What Nagourney will be missing (from The Daily Howler):

The Boston Globe

September 30, 2004

Good TV guy…

This is no surprise to regular readers of Rhetoric: I have a low regard for TV news because of the kind of medium that TV is not because of the journalists who try to make the medium work as a disseminator of journalism. One of those people who try very hard to make it work: Aaron Brown if CNN.

September 30, 2004

Instant nonsense…

The Boston Globe claims the public “seemingly” has an “insatiable demand for campaign polls.” Sez who? The qualifier doesn’t relieve the Globe of the responsibility of backing up this assertion.

Toward the end of the article we get this:

Despite potential flaws, pollsters say the public is increasingly showing a direct interest in their numbers, rather than being content to receive them through media filters. Gallup, for example, has started a blog to explain–and, lately, to defend–its methods to the general public.

What pollsters say this? How do they know? These are basic critical questions.

The article sweeps across several polling issues but is pegged on a CBS effort to track the reactions of undecided voters in real time during the debate. The results will be displayed in a dynamic bar chart on the CBS web site. This is just nonsense–interesting geeky nonsense to be sure, but still nonsense.

What role does the immediate reaction to isolated comments play in a citizen’s political choices as recorded by a vote?

There may very well be an interesting and important answer to this question (that will require a proper study to discover). The data from this chart, however, will be instantly reported and commented upon without the slightest understanding of what the data really mean.

Correction: This isn’t just nonsense. This is dangerous nonsense.

September 30, 2004

Today’s schedule…

Tuesdays and Thursdays are my busy teaching days. And I have office hours. I’m busy the rest of the week, too–just in case you’re wondering. I’ve been spending that time for the past couple of weeks writing an essay on Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” for my (hope to be) forthcoming book with co-editor Max Skidmore. It’s a second edition of Word Politics, originally edited by Skidmore in 1972.

After my late class, I’ll be furiously updating The blogs are pouring in. Jay and I have been pleased with the reaction so far. You can follow the progress on Connection @.

I find myself excited about the debate tonight–as a scholar and a citizen. Here’s my plan: Watch the debate then tune in to the live “commentary” on The Daily Show special. I will not be watching any network or cable spinning. Why bother?

If you watched The Daily Show last night you saw a pre-debate “report” by Ed Helms. The funny part: he’d already written his coverage of the debate. Why? Because he knows the master narratives and will simply report the event in such a way that it fits. And the facts? Where will they come from? Bloggers!

To understand why this is funny (and why this is good media critique) one has to plugged in to the news. There’s no way to understand this skit on any level but the purely cynical otherwise. So if The Daily Show audience is mostly stoned slackers, then I say let’s have more stoned slackers!

I’ll refrain from imbibing during the debate. As soon as they shake hands, I’ll be enjoying a few of these.

September 29, 2004

A few questions for Bush and Kerry…

Some famous journalists offer suggested questions for the first debate:

David Halberstam, author and former correspondent for The New York Times–
For Bush and Kerry: “Do you think we are impaled on a major guerilla insurgency in Iraq and how do we un-impale ourselves?”

Nice metaphor, Dave. I see you over-write your questions just as you over-write your books. And did you miss class the day your teacher discussed avoiding yes-or-no questions?

Geneva Overholser, University of Missouri professor and former editor of the Des Moines Register–
For Kerry: “Do you agree that this is a time to show decisiveness as commander-in-chief, and, if so, how can Americans surmise that you’re capable of it when your campaign seems to be constantly shifting its strategy?”

The second part of the question makes an assumption that’s not necessarily safe, i.e. it’s a matter of spin she would accept as a matter of fact. Notice, however, that she tries to distance herself from the assumption with the qualifier “seems.” The yes-or-no first clause is purely rhetorical.

For Bush: “How is it possible that the best military in the world so badly misjudged the postwar period in Iraq and why has it taken you so long to adjust to the realities on the ground?”

The first part of the question is nonsense because it isn’t the job of the military to “judge” the postwar period. The military carries out government policy that may or may not have been thought through well. The second part of the question is interesting; the assumption seems safe enough considering the news of late.

Tony Blankley, editorial page editor of The Washington Times–
For Kerry: “Given the many alternative descriptions you’ve given of the war in Iraq, how can you convince the public that you have the same fire in the belly as the president to fight the war to victory?”

This question refers to the public record and asks Kerry to account for it.

For Bush: “How can you and your administration continue to assert that we don’t need more personnel in the military given that you have said recently that we are stretched thin?”

Good question.

Jimmy Breslin, columnist for Newsday–
For Kerry: “Why don’t you stop talking like a U.S. senator and tell me what you are going to do about the war?”

This is a showboat question unworthy of serious consideration.

For Bush: “Why did you get in the war, and why aren’t you out of it?”

This is either one of the more stupid questions (asked and answered) of the campaign season or a botched attempt to pitch a softball (thanks for the opportunity to hear the same old spin points).

Jack Germond, author and former political columnist for The Sun in Baltimore–
For Bush: “You have depicted the war in Iraq as a patriotic cause, so why haven’t you urged your daughters and other young people in your family and administration to help fight it?”

Calling Michael Moore! Hello Mike? Mind if I rip you off?

Cal Thomas, syndicated columnist–
For Kerry: “You repeatedly say that you’ll bring in our allies and the U.N. to address the situation in Iraq. On that basis, do you intend to toss magic dust at the problem or do you have a compelling reason to believe that our European allies or the U.N. will be more effective with you as president?”

Despite the snotty presentation, this is the best question so far.

For Bush: “We have a serious illegal immigration problem in this country and your administration appears to have done nothing to stem the flow. Why haven’t you addressed this issue and if you get a second term, will you?

This is typical of political questions that assume a state of affairs and assume an evaluation.

Tom Wicker, former columnist for The New York Times–
For Bush and Kerry: “What policy in Iraq do you intend to follow if the January elections are held, and what policy do you intend to follow if they are not held?”

The problem with this question is that it ignores that there might be outcomes following from holding or not holding elections that would surely affect the policy–terribly over-simplified. This question is a nightmare–real mistake bait.

Marvin Kalb, former CBS and NBC correspondent…
For Bush and Kerry: “What do you plan to do within six months of taking office to address the problem of nuclear terrorism?”

Oh, ferchrissakes! This is a total softball: “Well, I’m gonna keep doin’ what I been doin’…”

Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today–
For both: “What is your specific plan for getting us out of the mess in Iraq?”

Nice try. Spin is all you’ll get.

Doug Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland…
For Kerry: “If you so steadfastly believe the war in Iraq is a misadventure, how do we extract ourselves without making Iraq a playground for terrorism?”

Good question.

For Bush: “What makes you think the war in Iraq will be such a democratizing thing?”

Nice try. Spin is all you’ll get.

Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle–
For Kerry: “Even members of your own staff have talked about you having a tin ear for a campaign that would connect emotionally with people, and you’ve had to make a number of course corrections. Why have things gone wrong in your campaign, and who is responsible?”

Is this a stealth softball? This question allows Kerry to suggest that issues are what’s important in an election, which fits exactly with what voters say they want to know more about.

For Bush: “You and/or members of your administration now concede there was a problem of reliable intelligence analysis on weapons of mass destruction and postwar issues. How can you trust what your analysts are telling you now about the war in Iraq?”


September 29, 2004

: Make no mistakes…

I offered my pre-debate criticism here and here. Now let’s consider what the rules mean for candidates and citizens.

I think it’s clear (i.e. you sure don’t need no Ph.D. to figger it out) that the rules were established to ensure that we hear little more than the spin of campaign sound bites.

But this creates a danger for both candidates. These rules will magnify any error or any aggressive attack that fails to stick. Any off-message (i.e. unscripted) slip will be glaringly highlighted compared to the balance of the discourse. The candidate who makes a mistake will be forced to retreat to well-worn spin to cover it up. But this simply make him look like a weasel.

So it appears to me that the key to “winning” is to stay on message, introduce new messages or attacks carefully, and don’t make even a single mistake as you lob one sound bite after another. These debates will look like a tennis match between two pushers.

What do I mean by “winning”? Since these are not debates except by connotation, there is no way to assess a win outside of subjective judgement based on pathetic appeal, i.e. who we like after watching a dramatic performance rather than who we believe after considering a rational discussion. This is not necessarily a bad thing as long as nothing interrupts your emotional experience with partisan interpretation.

The debates will not be won during the event. The debates will be won or lost in the pre- and post-debate commentary and the spin that drives it. A real debate can be judged by any number of criteria. A platform for the joint dissemination of spin points can hardly be called a competition at all except against one’s self–sort of like those two pushers simply trying not to make a mistake while waiting out the opponent.

This situation leaves citizens open to spin about who “won” and why. The debate will be pure pathos, but the post-debate spin will attempt to sell a winner (falsely) on a balance of appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos). The only way to mitigate the influence of the spin is for citizens not to watch it. Watch the debates, then turn off the spin.

September 28, 2004

Well-informed slackers…

Kevin Collins has this to say about the influence of The Daily Show on politics:

Much of this unease stems from a Pew Research Center study that reported that “21 [percent] of people under age 30 say they regularly learn about the campaign and the candidates from comedy shows like…The Daily Show.” However, a new study by Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that those who watch The Daily Show, on average, know more about the presidential campaign than even “national news viewers and newspaper readers.”

So while Bill O’Reilly may disagree, I would argue that The Daily Show is the most intelligent and worthwhile cable news program now airing. The Annenberg study doesn’t say why Daily Show viewers are so well-informed, but I propose that it is both because the show satirizes campaign narratives (i.e., Bush is dumb and Kerry is an elitist flip-flopper) and because, as “fake news,” it can abandon the artificial ideal of journalistic balance.

Let me suggest another reason: In order to find The Daily Show funny one must know what’s happening in the news prior to watching. Assuming this accurately describes the show’s prerequisites, Bill O’Reilly’s charge that fans are a bunch of “stoned slackers” is simply nonsense.

September 28, 2004

Opportunity to light your flamethrower…

My students are now up to speed on The Journ Burn. You might pay them a visit and post critical comments. They need it 🙂

September 28, 2004

Dan’s great teaching moment…

From a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll of 1,006 adults released Monday:

56% said that Rather and CBS had made an honest mistake–perhaps because of “carelessness in their fact-checking and reporting.” Asked if CBS News should fire Rather, 64% said no.

Are Americans media literate? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. This poll result suggests to me that more citizens need to read The Elements of Journalism. The honesty of Rather’s mistake (“Rather” has become a synecdoche for CBS News) in political terms is certainly debatable. But his honesty in terms of professional practice is certainly not. The discipline of verification is the stuff of Journalism 101. Rather failed to adequately verify his information. Are we really talking carelessness here? Or arrogance? Or blind professional competitiveness? Or something else?

I wonder how these poll results might have changed if the 1,006 adults understood this to the same extent that my students now do (thanks to Dan!).

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