June 29, 2005

Rhetorica Podcast…

Mike Brothers, a reporter with the Springfield News-Leader, interviews me about local blogs.

June 29, 2005

A question of tone…

A question arose for me as I thought about the Government: In and Out of the News report: What is liberal bias?

Now I obviously have an answer to that question. But I’m wondering how adequate it really is. The reason: The press, or the MSM, or whatever you want to call it, is very many news organizations populated by very many people doing very many things. When someone claims that the news media have a liberal bias, to be within the realm of the reasonable this claim must mean something very specific about a limited set of journalistic behaviors.

As I have argued so many times before, one can find examples of all kinds of bias in the news media. And that makes me yawn.

The CMPA report adds something very interesting to the discussion–interesting enough for me to shake off the bored drowsies for a moment and take notice. What is this thing the report calls “tone”?

We don’t have a good answer yet because we don’t know how the CMPA conducted its research. As I said earlier, I sent e-mail asking about their methodology. I never received an adequate reply.

But that doesn’t mean this concept isn’t interesting or that it might not give us some important things to think about.

As I said before, I found it unremarkable that about two thirds of the broadcasts and news articles studied had a negative tone. I think the structural bias theory adequately explains why. That the federal courts seemed to get more favorable coverage than the executive and legislative branches is not adequately explained by the structural bias theory. I have no way account for this yet without knowing how tone was actually coded (although I have a good guess).

What I’m wondering about, however, is this: What tone ought the coverage of governance and politics have? Do the data represent skepticism or merely the drama of contention (or something else)? Should tone be balanced? If so, should how should it be balanced? By party? By ideology? By opinion regarding particular issues under question? How do we define balance? Who gets to decide? How will they decide?

I’m still not sure what “tone” is based on the report, but I think the CMPA has given us much to think about.

The CMPA does let us know that the coded statements come from sources. So tone has something to do with the balance of voices that journalists use to craft an article.

Do the data prove liberal bias? Hardly. We don’t even know that the data are? One could just as easily claim the data “prove” the press has a centrist bias.

Forget that nonsense for a moment and think about tone. It seems to me there are some important questions regarding tone that need answering. A report has done good work if it raises good questions.

June 29, 2005

Spin, repeat as necessary…

I have nothing to say about the Bush speech. Or, rather, I have nothing to say that works within the constraints of my blogging policy.

My rhetorical analysis would be this: same ol’, same ol’.

I could write a few hundred words (in fact did and erased them) about my ideological reaction.

June 28, 2005

This is the dawning…

Great quote:

The future of news belongs to those who can connect to readers. That’s something people do better than institutions.

Go read the whole thing.

June 28, 2005

Are you interested?…

Long-time and loyal Rhetorica reader Rebecca (say that three times fast!) has made this suggestion: During my summer slow-down, why not “open the asylum to the inmates” by having some Rhetorica readers be guest bloggers? I am open to the idea.

First, I need to know how many of you would like to do that. So far, I assume Rebecca is interested. And my former student Josh says he’s in, too. Anyone else?

I would insist that any guest blogger adhere to my blogging policy. So keep that in mind as you think about it.

June 27, 2005

What about Bob?…

No review of the Cooper-Miller case from SCOTUS. Which means they’ll probably be off to jail soon. From Editor & Publisher:

Cooper, a Time magazine reporter, and Miller, who works for The New York Times, were held in contempt of court last year for refusing to divulge the source or sources who leaked the identity of CIA Agent Valerie Plame to them. Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court held them in contempt in the fall, ordering them to jail if they refused to reveal the source. Plame’s identity had been revealed publicly in 2003 by columnist Robert Novak.

Seems to me if they really want to find out who leaked it they should be asking Bob Novak–who actually outed CIA Agent Valerie Plame in his column. I’ll bet he’d roll over in a second if threatened with jail. Hmmmmmm…

June 27, 2005

SCOTUS and podcasting…

I’ve been in touch with the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System today asking about how today’s Supreme Court ruling affects podcasting. The answer: The Growl cannot legally offer a podcast of any show that contains copyrighted material. That means it is unlikely that MSU can provide a podcast of Radio Rhetorica. I will, however, edit out the music and post them to Ourmedia.org.

The ruling will have no effect on the Rhetorica Podcast.

June 27, 2005

Rhetorica update…

1. Because of a resignation in our department, I’ve been asked to teach photojournalism this year. I’ll be dropping JRN270 Introduction to Journalism. And that means no Bang It Out weblog for the 2005-2006 school year. Although I might have my photo-j students do a photo blog. That could be cool. If you have thoughts about that, let me know.

2. I swear on a stack of rhetoric textbooks that I will finish my 2-part examination of the recent Government: In and Out of the News report soon–this week!

3. I’m working on two difficult essays now and trying to finish a few more interview analyses for The Echo Chamber Project. So, by the end of this week, I’ll begin a general blogging slow-down that will last until school starts. I’ll be here. I’ll be posting. But it may only be two or three things per week.

June 23, 2005

Knightfall, by Davis Merritt

Merritt, Davis. (2005). Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism is Putting Democracy at Risk. New York: AMACOM. [Link to Amazon]

Davis “Buzz” Merritt is well-known in journalism as one of the fathers of the public journalism movement. He spent 42 years in the profession, 23 of those as editor and senior editor of The Wichita Eagle in Kansas. He retired in 1999 and now teaches journalism as an adjunct professor at the University of Kansas and Wichita State University.

This is a rather curious book. The public relations material crows: “Part memoir, part history, and part reportage, involving dozens of interviews with key players, as well as extensive research, Knightfall is also an incisive analysis with a clear point of view.” Well spun. Another way to say it: Merritt tries to do too much. If anything holds this book together it is the clear point of view–one that I share:

Given the inexorability and pace of technology, we may not need newspapers in our media mix at some point in the future–perhaps sooner than later. But we will need newspaper journalism, because democracy can thrive without newspapers, but it cannot thrive without the sort of journalism that newspapers uniquely provide.

Merritt defines newspaper journalism this way:

  • Its content is not shaped by a limiting technology…
  • Its usefulness is based far more on completeness and clarity than immediacy.
  • Its claim on credibility is based on it length and depth, which allow readers to judge the facts behind the story’s headline and opening summary paragraph and then look for internal contradictions.
  • It has intrinsic value and relevance to people rather than merely amusing or entertaining them.
  • Opinions and analysis are labeled as such and are presented separately.

By this definition, newspaper journalism has always been practiced imperfectly when practiced at all. And a large part of Merritt’s complaint is that it cannot be practiced by media giants concerned with increasing profits at the expense of good journalism. He makes his case well.

But Merritt is seduced by the romanticism of the profession, or, rather, the romanticism of writing about the profession. Like so many romantics before him–Dan Rather, Tom Wicker, Bob Schieffer for example–Merritt cannot simply report and write powerfully about his point. He has to sex it up with romantic drama–the ethos and pathos of journalistic war stories. While Merritt is the protagonist of his own heroic epic, he introduces us to a pantheon of journalistic superheroes–men and women of great character and professional resolve who struggle against the corporate dragon. Moments such as these are typical of journalistic memoir:

At every step, his humanity came through first and most strongly. He cared how you were doing; he was constant, relentless even, in recognizing good work with a note or a phone call, and encouraging in positive ways when the work was not up to his standards. And it was his clear standards articulated with grace and style that allowed him, even as the company’s top officer, to inspire the journalists who worked far below him on the organizational chart.

In the margin, I scribbled “Oh, brother!” I can imagine Merritt scribbling to a student who wrote this in his class: “Show, don’t tell!” So why can’t he, and so many other journalists who write memoirs, see that this is romantic drivel? I criticize the narrative bias of journalism not because telling good stories is a bad thing, I criticize it because the story structure is artificial and must be applied with care. Making superheroes out of journalists, making every scene soooooo significant, intrudes on the theme of the story. And in Merritt’s case, the theme is damned important.

Journalists can’t help themselves. I know because I have written this way, too.

Because Knightfall is too many books in one, it is not entirely clear who the audience is. Journalists? Citizens? Corporate dweebs? In a few places, Merritt speaks directly to certain narrow audiences. Because Knightfall is too many books in one, certain audiences will find many parts of the book irrelevant, even boring.

Okay, that’s enough haranguing for one review. You might get the impression I’m not a fan of Merritt. I am a fan and for good reasons, not the least of which is his standing at the leading edge of change in the noetic field. I predicted in my field theory essay (although the metaphor came later) that the change from journalism as lecture to journalism as conversation will lead the profession to embrace the public journalism model. I still believe that.

Merritt’s descriptions of the natural tensions between news and advertising/business offer citizens an assessable look at an important concept: The business of journalism must be good journalism (it’s also good business). A reader will find it difficult to come away from this book thinking that allowing business to influence journalism is a good idea. It isn’t. It never was. And Merritt makes his case clearly, cogently, and (dare I say it?) dramatically.

Readers who are at all concerned with the fate of journalism in America cannot come away from this book feeling good about how the big chains are handling such an important public trust. If newspapers die, however, the harm will be merely to the pocketbooks of investors so long as newspaper journalism survives. Merritt seems resigned to the slow and eventual death of print. All the books in Knightfall share a similar pathos: sad memoir, sad history, sad reportage, and sad analysis. Merritt has chosen to make his last stand on an idea rather than a medium.

He ends it this way:

Citizens will decide, in the long run, what sort of democracy–and what sort of journalism–we have. Maximizing newspaper profits cannot make better democracy. Maximizing citizens can.

Merritt has made important contributions to journalism and deserves a wide audience. The importance of the ideas in this book make it well worth overlooking the flaws in the book’s structure.

June 22, 2005

I do go on (and on and on)…

The inaugural podcast of the Progressive Commons is here. Oh, and it’s called ProgCast. Subscribe here.

Thanks to Kenneth Rufo for including me!

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