October 29, 2004

Interest and objectivity…

What qualities the adjective “objective” refers to in journalism remain deeply confused to the detriment of the profession and our society. This is evident in an excellent essay by Doug McGill, published on PressThink. (A full version of the essay may be found here. My remarks are confined to the edited version from PressThink.) He says of objectivity:

It has at its heart the noble aim of presenting indisputable facts upon which everyone in society can agree, and build upon towards the goal of a better society. Unfortunately, the ideal of objectivity has in practice in today

October 29, 2004

: What about the issues?…

I’m having a difficult time getting worked up about the doctored image in a recent Bush campaign ad.

Campaign ads are not journalism. And they most certainly are not accurate representations of reality (no message is). Campaign ads–good ones, anyway–are propaganda, i.e. part of a systematic propagation of a doctrine, ideology, or idea of value to the campaign.

The problem isn’t that the campaign manipulated an image; the problem is that some voters may view such propaganda uncritically and take it into account in making a political decision. I think it would be a good idea for citizens to consider all campaign ads entertainment.

In other news that I find difficult to get worked up about, a NASA photo analyst, Dr. Robert Nelson, says of bulgegate: “I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate.”

(via Daily Kos)

October 28, 2004

The problem with polls…

Richard Morin runs down some of the problems with modern polling:

Cell phones, Caller ID and increasingly elaborate call screening technologies make it harder than ever to reach a random sample of Americans. Prompted by the popularity of do-not-call lists, a few state legislatures are considering laws that would lump pollsters in with telemarketers and bar them from calling people at home.

Costs are soaring as cooperation rates remain at or near record lows. In some surveys, less than one in five calls produces a completed interview — raising doubts whether such polls accurately reflect the views of the public or merely report the opinions of stay-at-home Americans who are too bored, too infirm or too lonely to hang up.

But there’s a bigger problem: the reporting of polling by journalists and bloggers. All too often the reporting fails to accurately describe the margins of error or the questions asked. Without these adequately explained, any report of a poll is pure (and dangerous) nonsense.

For example, suppose you have a presidential preference poll that puts John Kerry’s support at 48% and George Bush’s support at 46%. Does this mean Kerry leads? If you believe so much political reporting and blogging it does. But check the margin of error, if given, and you’ll likely find that this is a tie. In a poll with a typical margin of error of 3.5 points, anything within the margin is a tie. And any claim of a lead is bunk.

Another example: Suppose you encounter a poll in which one of the candidates leads outside the margin of error. Is this significant? Maybe. Now you have to know what question was asked and how it was asked and to whom it was asked. If you don’t know these things, then you still don’t know what the poll means.

But the poll will have meaning. The media (mainstream and otherwise) will give it meaning. And if people act in political ways based on the meaning given, then that’s what the poll means. Get my meaning?

Do polls as reported in the press affect how people vote? Hmmmmm…the problem is obvious.

UPDATE (2:15 p.m.): William Saletan offers a useful consumer’s guide to the polls:

Why do the polls disagree so much? And which ones should you buy?

That would be easier to decide if you could buy polls the way you buy canned food or cereal, with all the ingredients disclosed on a label. But pollsters don’t package their products that way. Consequently, most of us believe, mistakenly, that a poll is a simple tabulation of a random sample of voters. In reality, polls are full of additives and preservatives, subtractions and selective multiplications, none of which are generally published. The reason many polls consistently differ from others is that their hidden ingredients differ.

It seems to me that journalists should not report on polls unless they understand and present the hidden ingredients.

October 28, 2004

The poor dear little darlings…

Media/political bloggers are mean bullies to poor little (well-paid, high-profile, big-time) reporters!

Journalists covering the campaign believe the intent is often to bully them into caving to a particular point of view. They insist the efforts have not swayed them in any significant way, though others worry the criticism could eventually have a chilling effect.

Is it true? Apparently so:

“I’ve come to feel the only way you can really deal with the press corps is to beat up on them,” [Bob] Somerby said.

Jay Rosen, a champion of civic journalism and weblogging, had this to say.

“The traditional players, including the press, have lost some of the control or exclusive control they used to have…I think there’s a campaign under way to totally politicize journalism and totally politicize press criticism. It’s really an attack not just on the liberal media or press bias, it’s an attack on professionalism itself, on the idea that there could be disinterested reporters”.

Ah-ha! Now there’s something interesting (because charges of media bias certainly are not): These mean media/political bloggers are attacking professionalism. Or, to put it in a scarier way (for an academic, anyway): These mean media/political bloggers want to deny journalistic (objectivist) epistemology! And if they succeed in convincing citizens that there is no “disinterested” reporting, then we might be on the verge of a radical change in journalism to something a lot more like the civic model.

How I love those bullies 🙂

October 27, 2004

Blunt object…

The Springfield News-Leader has been fairly distributing its endorsements between the two major parties. The common theme appears to be pork, i.e. the politicians who bring home the most get the endorsement. This morning the paper endorsed John Kerry for president.

But, more importantly, the News-Leader has properly chastised Matt Blunt, candidate for governor, for his ill-considered remarks last week. Blunt said he thought is was perfectly okay for a private voter registration groups to not turn in the registration cards of political rivals. Do I really need to explain why this is wrong?

UPDATE (8:46 a.m.): More on voter suppression from Political Wire.

October 26, 2004

Sharpen your red pencil…

I have a very busy day ahead of me. I probably won’t be posting anything until late this afternoon. So you might spend some time on The Journ Burn. My students could use your critical eye.

October 25, 2004

The monkey man cometh..

Ken Tucker has this to say about The Daily Show With Jon Stewart:

After all, yes, Stewart endlessly notes that his is a comedy, not a news show, and shouldn

October 25, 2004

Rhetorica update…

I’ve been forgetting to post a promo on Monday mornings about the Radio Rhetorica show. Next week I’ll get back into that habit, including letting you now the general topic, the e-mail address, and the phone number for live call-in.

Late last week a new commenter on this blog requested that I delete his comments. He got freaked out. I am granting that request and will be deleting his comments by this evening. This isn’t something I would normally do, and I’m not very happy about it. But the fellow was obviously an internet newbie who broke one of the long-standing “rules” of internet engagement on BBS systems, forums, and blogs: lurk first, and learn the culture before you post.

I’ll be blogging the election returns this year, meaning I’ll be on the couch in front of the TV poised with my laptop to bring you my scintillating impressions of the election as they pop into my head. So if you’re just really bored next Tuesday night, stop by and read 🙂

Finally, I’ve been getting hit with lots of blog spam lately. It appears that I am among the first blogs on these spammers’ hit lists. Many of their URLS show up here before making it onto the MT blacklist. Over the weekend, I caught one spammer in the act. She (her e-mail address called her Kate) had spent 5 hours on the site leaving almost 400 comment spams. Thanks to MT Blacklist, I was able to stop her and delete the spam. But she and several others this month have cost me money. I had to buy extra bandwidth this morning so that Rhetorica stays live until the end of the month. Consequently, I have decided to close all comments once they are 5 days old. I’m in the process of closing comments on all old posts. This is a long, tedious task.

October 24, 2004

The changing noetic field…

Jay Rosen is a journalism scholar who teaches journalism. I am a rhetoric scholar who teaches journalism. I intend no evaluation by making these statements. Instead, I want to try to answer a question Rosen asks, and it’s important to know from what academic quarter my answer comes.

Rosen offers a list of related topics (from an interview he gave recently) involving the news media, politics, and culture, and then he asks:

There’s too much reality rushing over us every day just now. And it’s pushing me to the limits of my own vocabulary. Can anyone help? Do you even know what I’m talking about? Hit the comment button and tell us: what connects the items on my list?

Yes, I know what he’s talking about. I don’t know that what I am about to say will help. But I may be able to point to a useful body of knowledge (that may, for now, merely restate Rosen’s observation). The noetic field is changing.

A noetic field (as defined by rhetoric scholar 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.”

I think one commonality among the items on Rosen’s list is that each appears to me to indicate, and provide evidence for, something that I have been trying to chart recently: a change in the noetic field. The knowers, what can be known, and the relationship among the knower, the known, and the audience; and the language we use to create, interpret, and communicate are changing in more than an incremental way. And that necessarily means a re-evaluation of competing epistemologies–political, cultural, and journalistic, to name a few.

Those in the blogosphere who have recently added “Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community” to their weblogs (including Rhetorica) are reacting to these changes–some of these changes part of a conscious cultural rending of Enlightenment reason from political action. You’ll notice that I added something: (Transactionalist Chapter). The reason I added this is because the old Enlightenment paradigm is quite dead despite Neil Postman’s heroic efforts to revive it.

We live in neither a subjective world nor an objective world. We live in a transactional world in which human minds meet the facts of reality and then create something like a human reality in response–lived experience as created and evaluated by culture and ideologies. Journalism, as the most important discoursive practice in our culture, drives and is driven by the very changes in the noetic field that create the temporary semantic limbo Rosen identifies.

Where will these changes lead us? Maybe here.

October 22, 2004

The rhetoric of Red Sox…

The World Series has nothing to do with the presidential election–unless we humans do what it is we humans do and create a narrative to structure an ambiguous situation and give it meaning. And no journalist will have a difficult time finding someone willing to create meaning:

“It’s a great metaphor,” said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and former instructor at Boston College. “All Americans always root for the underdog. I’m not sure Kerry is one because the polls are so close right now, but he’s been running behind, and he represents the outsider trying to beat the establishment.”

I cannot recall the World Series playing a role in a presidential campaign. But the underdog Red Sox do seem to add an interesting twist to this campaign now that a narrative has been created to structure these events. But how should Kerry use this rhetorical situation? According to the Kerry campaign, the Red Sox’ success may be good for its candidate.

This was an easy structure to create because of the proximity between Kerry and the Red Sox and the similar pathos of sports and campaign politics. Further, we understand campaign politics in terms of sports metaphors (the other primary metaphor is war, which we also use to understand sports). According to Lakoff and Johnson, “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphoric in nature.”

So proximity, pathos, and metaphor combine to make it easy for us to create a rhetorical situation in which Kerry is associated with the Red Sox’ pursuit of a sports championship without this seeming completely odd or inappropriate.

This also means that the Kerry campaign must make difficult rhetorical choices based on this association. The association–appropriate or not–will have some political consequences since it has now been created and fed into the great conversation of the mainstream news media and blogosphere. The narrative is very real now and cannot be ignored.

But what should the candidates do? I have a little advice:

  1. Avoid any statement that associates Kerry with the team as more than a hometown fan. Anything more creates a situation in which Bush then becomes automatically associated with the St. Louis Cardinals. Neither candidate should wish to see this happen because of the particularly emotional relationship Americans have with the game, its statistics, and its mythos. There may actually be, however, a slight (but dangerous) opportunity here for Kerry. St. Louis will almost certainly go for Kerry. Missouri is a red state with two blue “coasts.” Hmmmmmm…I would err on the side of caution and avoid associating.
  2. Be expansive. Talk like Walt Whitman (thematically, not syntactically, i.e. inclusive, patriotic, and visionary) when you talk about the game and both teams. Equate the great contests, not the contestants.
  3. Cheer all good plays.
  4. For Kerry: More photo-ops like those from yesterday’s news in which you are seen watching the game and enjoying good company. But ferchrissakes avoid looking like a geek. Hold your longneck by the long neck. For Bush: You’re good at this “guy” stuff. Hit the nearest couch and enjoy the series.
  5. If the Red Sox win, for Kerry: Keep your celebration low key. There’s a vast heartland of Cardinals fans who think this is one of the best teams ever. Again, think Whitman. For Bush: Equate the improbable win to the American can-do spirit. We’re the ones who can overcome anything–yes, more Whitman.
  6. If the Cardinals win, for Kerry: Make a fuss over a great show and the strength/good nature of the heartland. Revel in the Red Sox curse. For Bush: Resist the urge to equate yourself with the team at this time. Offer your congratulations and move on.

There’s no playbook here. Kerry and Bush will get to write one.

As for me, I’m undecided at the moment. The Missouri guy in me wants to root for the Cardinals. But, I moved to Springfield from an American League town–Kansas City. The Cardinals have always been cross-state rivals. I like cheering for underdogs (typically American unless we’re talking University of Delaware football–2003 1-AA National Champions–then I want to see nothing but crushing victories over hapless foes). Can I bring myself to root for the birds?

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