January 31, 2005

Deer in the headlights…

Brian Montopoli takes a long look at the troubles with op-ed journalism in the age of Armstrong Williams. How do you catch these guys before they do their damage? Perhaps you cannot.

But I have a few suggestions:

1. Publish no op-ed column from single or institutional contributors until the writer comes clean, perhaps in a signed agreement, about all connections to a topic. (These connections may then be noted at the end of the column.)

2. Institute rules that ban any op-ed writer for life who fails to disclose. Share this information with other news organizations. (It’s not like these guys don’t grow on trees–they do. We won’t ever run out.)

3. Publish no syndicated columnist who isn’t employed by a reputable newspaper that accepts, at a minimum, the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. (This one would be tough to swallow. It would cut out, for example, academics as freelance columnists.)

Will this stop the think-tankers and political shills from using op-ed journalism as a form of lobbying? Of course not. But having some standard, some statement that we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, is a better reaction than the deer-in-the-headlights look currently on the collective face of journalism.

January 30, 2005

Oh, happy day…


To those lazy Americans who can’t be bothered to follow politics, to participate in civic affairs, or even simply to vote on election days: Take a good look at your betters. (photo via AFP/Getty/LA Times)

January 29, 2005

Podcast #2

January 29, 2005

Just wait…

Jay Rosen asks:

Tell me… if you were the author of this, and the foil for the author of this, what would you do?


See, the rhetoric of journalism is changing. Rhetorical changes are never radical or swift. They can’t be. That’s why soothsayers who predict rapid and radical change following the introduction of new media technologies are nearly always wrong. To be of initial use, new media technologies must fit the current rhetoric, otherwise the technology would make no sense. Predicting radical change isn’t what Rosen did by suggesting “bloggers versus journalists is over.”

What he did was notice changes that have already occurred and say what he thinks those changes mean. They clearly point to a changing noetic field: 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…[Rhetoric] “is thus ultimately implicated in all a society attempts. It is at the center of a culture’s activities.”

Just wait.

January 29, 2005

Where grammar scolds come from…

A study by the British government claims that grammar lessons do not help students learn to write well. That claim sounds like common sense to me. So does David Beaver’s response on Language Log:

The way grammar has traditionally been taught in the UK is as dull as dishwater…Perhaps the problem is that much grammar teaching is uninsightful taxonomizing, rote teaching of parts of speech and syntax? Personal opinion: if anything is going to help kids write, it is not a bunch of rules and labels, which will just cramp kids’ style and give them premature writer’s block. What is needed is a way to help kids think about the structure of language for themselves, a basic scaffolding, and a way to jump effortlessly from one structure to the next.

There’s another problem with such rote learning of grammar: it creates grammar scolds–people who think they are smarter than the rest of us because they learned all the labels and all the “rules.” The damage done to these people is even worse than the damage done to average students. Average students can overcome writers block and grammarphobia if they encounter a teacher who encourages them to write without shame. The scolds, clinging to an illusion of superiority, dare not consider any usage that challenges the rules. They dare not experiment. All challenges to the rules are examples of language decline.

I have no study to cite, but I suspect, as my own teaching shows, that students quite naturally get hip to grammar if what they are asked to write is connected to their own interests. My dissertation is about reinvigorating the classical concerns of rhetoric in the humanities and social sciences, i.e. students’ writing should be public and aimed at audiences outside of the classroom and academia. As they write to further their own goals they find a way to make the writing good.

The definition of “good” doesn’t mean “correct” by the academic standards. It has many potential meanings. And when the purpose for writing springs from the students’ interests, they know when they have achieved “good” because it has a lot to do with achieving their purpose.

But what does it mean to get hip to grammar? I mean we should rediscover our inner 5-year-olds. We’re all experts in basic usage by that age, i.e. we know how to form words that correspond to the world in conventional ways; we know how to form conventional expressions (e.g. sentences) with those words. We don’t yet know how language works (grammar), but we know how to use it to get things done (rhetoric).

Naming things is a way to gain control of those things. So the idea that we should learn to name the stuff that we call grammar isn’t a bad one. It seems to me, however, that we teach this naming out of context, and the context should be the use of language for real (rhetorical) purposes. If taught outside of any rhetorical purpose, instruction in grammar becomes exactly this boring, rote exercise that teaches some to hate writing and others to become scolds.

January 28, 2005

MO politics today on Radio Rhetorica…

Today on Radio Rhetorica we welcome Dr. George Connor, associate professor of political science at Southwest Missouri State University. We’ll be talking about what’s coming up in Missouri politics. And we’ll be talking about the political, social, and economic implications of Governor Matt Blunt’s proposed cuts to Medicaid.

Listen to Radio Rhetorica every Friday afternoon at 1:30 CT. Just click the “on air” button in the sidebar, and then choose audio stream #1.

Radio Rhetorica will also be available as a podcast early next week.

January 27, 2005

Open archives and podcasting…

I promised to write something about the Blogging, Journalism & Credibility conference this week. I’ve made several promises recently, and I’ve done a poor job of keeping them. I’m simply squeezed for time right now.

Jay Rosen has posted a series of three entries about what attendees gained from the conference. Rather than write a lengthy response of my own, I’d simply like to second one of the developments: Let’s open the archives America’s newspapers so that citizens (and search engines) may have free access. The time has come.

I was unable to follow the conference in real time, but I did learn two things from Rosen’s subsequent coverage:

1. I learned about podcasting. Not only did I learn about it, I’m now doing it. This entry is my first podcast–that’s what the little button is at the top of the entry. It links you to an .mp3 file. My RSS feed embeds the file so that it may be picked up by portable .mp3 players and newsreaders. Since the Radio Rhetorica show is only one hour each week this semester, I’ll be podcasting them. I’ll also try to work up a few other amusing tidbits in the weeks ahead.

2. I learned about tagging. That’s what those new ugly buttons are in the sidebar. I added them after midnight last night. They look like the work of someone operating on too little sleep. I’ll fix them later this afternoon.

Oh, and one other thing. Open-source journalism is here. I’ve begun the groundwork to create such a project at SMS for my journalism students. My goal, at the moment anyway, is to launch an interactive and converged project for the fall 2005 semester. I’ll keep you posted on these developments.

UPDATE (11:15 a.m.): Hmmmmm…my RSS 2.0 feed doesn’t look right.

UPDATE (1:00 p.m.): The RSS feed now looks right, but it appears that I must add the enclosure tag to the RSS template. Anyone know what goes in the tag?

UPDATE (1:35 p.m.): Ah-ha! There’s something called the MTEntryEnclosures tag. Now, how do I use the darn thing?

UPDATE (2:20 p.m.): WooHoo! It works. Seems I needed a plugin to generate the proper RSS tag.

UPDATE (4:39 p.m.): Now those category tag buttons look better.

January 26, 2005

Tell a different story…

Lori Robertson, of the American Journalism Review, considers the plight of White House journalists who must operate in a tightly controlled information environment:

A rigid approach to staying on message and a clampdown on access for reporters and the public have been increasingly used by the executive branch, a trend that began to take shape during the Reagan administration, if not earlier. The current Bush administration has shown that the method can be perfected, with little to no downside for the White House.

Rhetoric is always open for reinterpretation, so I’d be wary of any claims that rhetorical choices have no downside. The reason we academics treat texts in the present tense (Plato claims such and such…Aristotle responds this and that…) is that we understand that messages don’t stop communicating. So let’s wait and see. Be that as it may, while I would like to see any administration allow journalists nearly unfettered access to information, I understand the reasons why the Bush administration continues the trend toward message control.

The administration’s message control, however, is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how reporters ought to respond to effective message control.

Toward the end of the article, much too late in my estimation (but, then, I would have written a different article), we get this:

Mike McCurry [President Clinton’s press secretary from 1995 through 1998] suggests that the press could make some changes as well. When there’s such a premium on discipline and message control, he says, it “cries out for some new reporting techniques to break the barrier.”

This seems like mere common sense to me. McCurry offers some good advice. Judging by some reporters’ reactions to message control, however, McCurry’s idea may be more radical than I suppose. Here is my suggestion:

Tell a different story. Yes, the president is news. No question about that. But it seems that the press too often forgets that what a president does (or what government does) affects citizens. Our lives change when governance happens. Want a good story about Social Security? Avoid trying to sort out “private” versus “personal” accounts (unless you’re willing to get at the policy behind this semantic snit). Go find out how the facts affect real people. Go discover the facts, and eschew the spin.

The facts are rarely discovered by calling the White House, or some bureaucrat on a short leash, for a comment.

Spin. That’s what message control is. The press doesn’t need it to do its job well. Spin hurts good journalism. The facts are out there. The people affected by the facts are out there. And they ought to be the protagonists of the real story.

January 25, 2005

Errors on the big stage…

“America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.” –George W. Bush

I like this sentence. It represents for me all that’s good and ugly about Bush’s second inaugural address. I’ve already dealt with some of the ugly. Today I’ll deal with some of the good.

You may notice that Bush makes an error. The pronoun “our” should be “its.” But, like so many stylistic conventions in English that masquerade as rules of grammar, this error is hardly worth getting upset about because no meaning is lost. In fact, it’s doing interesting rhetorical work; it’s making meaning; it’s intended.

Bush teams “America” with “our” throughout the address–not all instances break the pronoun reference rule.

I’m torn about this next one. Read one way, it could be a mistake. Read another, it’s perfectly acceptable:

“For a half century, America defended our own freedom by standing watch on distant borders.”

If America is something separate from we the people, or more than we the people, then the rule is not violated. But looking at it that way would violate the rhetoric of the other instances. Bush is specifically reinforcing the equation America = We The People. And he’s quite willing to break stylistic conventions to do so.

I like that. I like the message and the image. It fits what I believe about America, and it fits the traditional purpose of the inaugural address: to unite the country following a divisive (they’re all divisive) election. I like it because, beyond the political message, it says that rhetoric wins in the battle for meaning and persuasion over stylistic rules. That’s an empowering idea for speakers and writers of English dialects other than the academic standard.

Get out your red pen and give that address a close reading. You’ll find more “errors.” Here’s another one:

“You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs.”

This sentence is not parallel. The final clause should be “and courage is triumphant.” But following the stylistic convention creates a political problem. We haven’t triumphed yet. We’re in the middle of the triumphing process. So Bush chooses the verb instead of the adjective. Perhaps he learned his lesson with “mission accomplished.”

Correction: Get out a green pen (the color I use most often for grading). Red is fascist. Red accepts the ridiculous notion that errors are always wrong and unintended, that errors do no work other than to destroy meaning or make the writer appear uneducated. These examples I’ve cited are not errors. These are intended because they do rhetorical work. While I find this address on the whole a poor effort considering the gravity of the moment, I admire the willingness of the writers to break the rules on the biggest stage in the world.

January 24, 2005

Feel the burn…

Michael Kinsley says:

“Crossfire” didn’t cause the ideological divisions in this country. It reflected them. Sometimes it reflected them so well that people got angry, and they shouted. But that anger was usually genuine. These were people doing democracy the honor of feeling deeply about it. That’s not so terrible.

Kinsley is confusing what people do on TV with what people who watch TV do.

What we need in our democracy is a little more deep thinking to go with that deep feeling. Otherwise, yes it is so terrible.

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