May 31, 2005

I cannot be trusted; I intend you harm…

[Warning: Stop reading Rhetorica. I intend you harm. As a liberal, I cannot be trusted. Everything I write here is intended to persuade you to be a liberal, too. Any mention I make of an academic ideology is merely a ruse.]

We’ve come to dangerous place in civic discourse: The idea that one’s political ideology trumps all other ideologies. That’s the thinking behind adding two ombudsmen for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting–one conservative and one (less clearly) liberal. And now the Organization of News Ombudsmen has denied full membership to Ken Bode and William Schulz.

I see the disastrous effects of this idea in my classes–much more so now than five years ago. Some students will now ask me outright about my politics early in the semester. And when I utter the L-word, I can see the conservatives among them throw up defensive shields, as if what I intend to do is convert them to my way of thinking. I have no such intention.

I have enjoyed some of my best relationships with conservative students. Some of them come to understand that I have much to teach them that they can really use, and that I absolutely do not grade or otherwise evaluate them on their ideology. But winning them over is getting ever more difficult as the culture teaches them that I (by definition as a liberal college professor and–strike two!–a former journalist) intend to change their beliefs. (I certainly intend to challenge them as I challenge all students no matter what they think.) That I intend them harm. That I intend to persuade them to my way of thinking. That intend to insult their beliefs.

Can an ombudsman operate with an ideology that is stronger than political ideology? (I wonder if some citizens today are even capable of understanding that ideology isn’t just about politics.) Can a professor teach with an ideology that is stronger than political ideology? Can a honey-dew dipper clean septic tanks with an ideology that’s stronger than political ideology?



May 31, 2005

Ozark Documentary Project…

I’ve started uploading project #2 to the Ozark Documentary Project. I’m about 1/3 finished. I expect to finish tomorrow morning–the (late) deadline I set for myself.

I have mixed feelings about the first two projects. And I accept the responsibility for the mixed quality of the articles. I miscalculated.

But that’s to be expected. Pedagogy isn’t a science; it’s an art. The variables are nearly impossible to control and results are nearly impossible to predict. I learned, however, that if I want to teach reporting at a depth that approaches professional quality, then I must assign fewer articles for the project and assign more intermediate deadlines. And I’ll make the final deadline about week 13 so there will be plenty of time for the student editors to clean up the copy and upload the project before the final exam.

I have not edited these stories, or, rather, I’ve edited with a very light hand as I have uploaded them–meaning I correct any glaring errors that jump out at me. The product you read is the product the students produced. And that’s as it should be–good, bad, and mediocre.

Next semester, I’ll be assigning one project article (of at least 2,500 words), two open-source articles, and one article for The Standard.

May 30, 2005

Thank you…

Memorial Day 2004

To all who serve and have served,

Thank you

May 27, 2005

You know what to do…

Go read Tim Porter now.

Most journalists coming out of school are confronted either with small town newspapers or suburban news bureau in their first jobs, where investigative reporting is about as popular — or wanted — as first-person essays. There is already a high frustration level among young reporters from better J-schools who end up at small newspapers where they bemoan, for example, their inability to practice the CAR techniques they learned in school and don’t appreciate the opportunity they have to report on a local community.

re: what I wrote earlier

I like this, too:

We need to equip journalists to think, be critical (not criticizers), act decisively and purposely – and then communicate, continuously.

May 27, 2005

More (incomplete, inadequate) answers…

Jay Rosen wants to know what others think of Glenn Reynolds’ answers to the questions Rosen posed to Kevin Drum. I answered them, too. Here are Reynolds’ answers and my comments:

I think that the press is unavoidably political. What has bothered people (and what gets Kevin heated up about “the right wing press destruction machine”) is that until recently the politics were pretty uniformly left-leaning, to the point that the press became a well-defined political player on its own. Not for nothing does Howard Feinman write about the “Media Party.” Now that’s changing (this is the part that has Kevin heated up) and things that used to go unchallenged and unremarked are now challenged and remarked upon.

Part of the problem with the question is the definition of “political.” We may understand it, as Reynolds apparently does here, as identifying, and acting upon, a particular ideology for the purpose of achieving civic goals. We may also understand it, as I do in my answers, as the negotiation of power and choice.

What kind of politics should it have? Non-monolithic, and transparent. If, as First Amendment theory suggests, the marketplace of ideas is a check on the political power of an unelected press, then we need diversity of perspective and a willingness of press organs to criticize each others’ reporting.

What does he mean by monolithic? Liberal? Or, more interesting, could he mean monolithic in the particular way the press exercises power and choice? If he were to mean the latter, then I would be comfortable with his answers to the first two questions.

I’m impressed with his idea that news organizations should be willing to criticize the reporting of other organizations. I have agreed with Tim Porter about the silliness of the old, time-bound notion of press competition, i.e. getting the scoop. I would welcome a new form of competition in which news organizations try to do the best job of reporting and point out the failings of their competition.

How do we know when the press has it right? When we’ve got news organs representing a diversity of perspectives. We’re making progress in that direction, but we’re a long way from getting there.

Should news organizations represent a diversity of perspectives? I say yes. But does Reynolds mean what I mean. I wonder.

I mean that journalists should understand that political experience is complicated and nearly always feels like objective reality to the experiencer. It takes extraordinary sensitivity to language–and the ways of knowing of diverse discourse communities–to construct a portrayal of events that we may understand as a close approximation of truth.


May 27, 2005

Critical limbo…

What does President Bush mean when he makes certain remarks in press conferences? Judy Keen, of USA Today, thinks she knows.

What we have here is far more entertainment than enlightenment. The chart of remarks is interesting, but Keen falls into critical tautology in the “why he says it” section. She’s making an attempt at explicating intention–a worthy goal. But she falls a bit short. For example:

What he says: “We’re making progress.”
When he says it: When he’s pressed on difficult issues, such as overhauling Social Security or ending North Korea’s nuclear program.
Why he says it: He’s saying that he’s working on it.

No kidding?

But wait a minute. This critical tautology isn’t even an articulation of intention, which is what she suggests by “why he says it.” Instead, Keen gives us a re-statement, or a “what he means.”

I applaud any attempt at rhetorical analysis. The problem is that, IMHO, journalists are generally handicapped in this endeavor in a way the general public is not. Journalists think they know a lot about language merely because they write for a living–a dangerous fiction. Your average Joe, having been subjected to the typical English pedagogy of the public schools, has learned (sadly) to be afraid of language, writing, and public speaking. So he approaches it with the only critical technique left (assuming he’s not a Rhetorica reader): good ol’ common sense.

Okay, I better stop here. I can feel myself getting ready to type things I don’t really believe. Let’s just leave it at this: I would rather have seen USA Today do two things:

1. Interview an expert(s).
2. Set up some kind of citizen participation.

The analysis (lecture) Keen offers lands in a strange sort of critical limbo: not expert enough or connected enough to be very useful.


May 27, 2005

Now, this…

Exactly what Neil Postman was talking about when he claimed that television is a poor medium for propositional content: Its relentless movement in time not only doesn’t allow for much reflection, it tends to equalize the (un)importance of events. When the anchor says “Now, this…” we could be moving from the important to the trivial, and this makes the trivial seem important by comparison. And the truly important? Well, it’ll have to wait until after we learn who won American Idol.

May 26, 2005

Teaching arrogance…

I don’t like the sound of this:

“Those of us who run journalism schools are confronted with the prospect of ever fewer distinguished media outlets–especially in broadcast–to which we can aspire to send our students to work.”

The quote belongs to Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s part of a group of five deans of prominent journalism schools who are going to spend $6 million over the next three years to figure out how to better prepare students for the new reality (whatever that turns out to be).

I don’t like this statement because it smacks of journalistic arrogance. The plain fact of the matter is that most journalism is practiced at the local level for modest news organizations. That’s where most of our students will go to work. And I think we do our students, and the citizens of the communities in which they practice, a disservice by encouraging (even) our (best) students to believe that good journalism must be practiced at big-time news organizations.

The only size that matters in journalism is community assessment of its quality (does it help do what must be done?) and not its bigness in terms of national influence or circulation.

The loss of The New York Times would be a blow to civic discourse nationally. But the loss of the Springfield News-Leader would be far worse. The Times covers the world. So do a lot of other newspapers. Only one daily newspaper covers Springfield, Missouri. And, frankly, it’s far more important to us here than the Times ever can or will be. People hereabouts deserve good journalism, too. And we who teach journalism should be preparing our students to practice it well at any news organization–especially the small, local operations. Who is the audience for journalism? It’s not that mythical general audience the textbooks mention. That’s just nonsense. The audience for journalism is an amalgam of local communities.

  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that national is better than local.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that the audience is “general.”
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them to elevate investigative reporting over solid day-to-day reporting.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them to value winning prizes for their work.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we fail to teach them what language really is, how it really works, and how people really use it.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that journalists have more First Amendment rights than citizens.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them that journalists are responsible for making democracy work.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them to ignore the fact that they are players in civic affairs.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we teach them the nonsense of the philosophical ideal of objectivity rather than the objective process of good reporting.
  • We teach students to be arrogant when we fail to teach them that the public always knows more than they do.

Give me another few minutes; I can come up with more. But you get the idea. I contend that much of journalism’s current misfortune arises from journalistic arrogance.

So I have a question for my learned colleagues: How will you teach the next generation to be more humble about their skills, more realistic about their socio-political impact, more connected to their communities, and more interested in good journalism no matter where they practice it?

UPDATE (7:10 p.m.): Somewhat related posts here: PressThink and Sisyphean Musings.

Questions (from Jay Rosen) and (incomplete, inadequate) answers:

Is the press, properly understood, a political animal?

No brainer. Of course it is. But so is any civic institution–especially one that asserts for itself rights under the Constitution. I say “asserts for itself” because the reference to “the press” in the First Amendment does not indicate a business or industry as journalistic mythology would have us believe; it indicates a machine that individual citizens and groups may own and use to print stuff that they are then free to distribute to the public.

You cannot observe something without being a part of it. There is no objective point of view. If the press covers politics, then the press is practicing politics.

If so, what kind of politics should it have?

The press should have the kind of politics that any civic institution should have: the kind that preserves its function in society. (Hmmmmmm…it will take a book-length manuscript to explain that one.) If the press sees itself as operating above, for, or outside the public (i.e. lecture), then that will lead to a certain kind of politics. If the press sees itself as operating with the public (conversation), that could lead to another kind of politics. I’ve made my choice of preposition clear. Perhaps we should ask: What kind of politics do we want the press to have?

How do we know if the press has got the politics part right?

No such thing as an institutional “right politics” exists because the press is (?), and should be, a multiplicity of voices and values (professional, independent, and individual) speaking to a multiplicity of individuals, groups, and institutions. I suppose we may know when it works when we have the information and knowledge we need to govern ourselves and act in the world with knowledge of complex systems and interrelationships, i.e. contentions (cultural, economic, historical, political) among individuals, groups, institutions, and nation-states.

May 26, 2005

Rhetorica Podcast…

Today’s Rhetorica Podcast is longer and over-produced!

Topics: 1) My new (if it gets published) book Language and Politics, 2) Creating my own tunes with MTV Music Generator, 3) What George Orwell is up to, and 4) The Echo Chamber Project.

May 25, 2005

A good idea for Google…

What I find frustrating about studies such as this one is that the methodology seems to indicate a near total lack of consideration for what language is, how it works, or how/why people use it. In other words, such studies rarely consider linguistics, rhetoric, (illocutionary) communication, intention, interpretation, and (perlocutionary) action. I just have a difficult time understanding how any statement can be isolated from its context without losing all but its base syntactical and semantic meanings (although linguists do this to help them study structure). How can one assess bias outside of the entire context of a message (i.e. rhetorical situation)?

For example:

“John Kerry is a no-good polecat,” said Senator Blowhard.

Is that a positive or negative reference to John Kerry? I contend that you cannot tell unless the statement is placed in its proper (social, political, economic, professional, historical, etc.) context. It appears to be negative. But proper textual analysis is necessary to make a final conclusion, and proper textual analysis includes consideration of the context of a message.

All that said: The type of analysis represented in this study has much currency in communications studies today–especially in academic journals about journalism and mass communication. I’m an odd duck–a rhetoric scholar from the English studies tradition. I’m not claiming that such analysis is worthless, only that I think it fails to account for the knowledge and scholarship established by complementary disciplines such as linguistics and rhetoric.

One negative I see coming from this study: Knee-jerk, partisan, anti-bias ranters may use this as proof of liberal bias–even in the absence of any human intention.

[A suggestion for the scholar: Run your test again in an off-election year and compare the results to the first study. Run at least two tests: one actor based like the first test and one issue based. The context problems will still exist. But you may discover some interesting things about Google’s results in a non-election cycle. Same RQ and H1.]

One positive I see coming from this study: If the people at Google take it seriously (and they should), it might encourage them to refine their advanced news search so that users may choose what type(s) of media should be represented in search returns (in addition to names of specific news organizations currently allowed). That would be useful.

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