July 30, 2005

It’s that time again…

The cat picture can only mean one thing: Blogging Break!

And a Rhetorica blogging break can only mean one thing: All kinds of interesting stuff is going to happen this week!

I’m taking a week-long break beginning today. I need to decompress after finishing my latest essay. Plus, I had set a reading goal for myself this summer, and I’m not reaching it. That’s going to change beginning this week. I may not reach my goal by the time classes start, but I’m at least going to enjoy trying during my blogging break.

On deck:

  • The Press, edited by Overholser and Jamieson (Oxford UP, 2005)
  • Hey Rube, by Hunter S. Thompson (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
  • Tennis and the Meaning of Life, edited by Jay Jennings (Harcout Brace, 1995)

Just in case you’re wondering what happened to the idea of guest bloggers this summer: I decided against it. My decision had nothing to do with the writers who expressed interest; I would have been pleased and proud to have published anything they might have written. I simply decided I didn’t like the idea.

Have good week. Stay cool–temperaturewise that is (everyone knows Rhetorica readers are cool otherwise).

July 30, 2005

ECP update…

Kent Bye, at The Echo Chamber Project, is now vblogging, which makes perfect sense. Plus, here’s a little ECP news.

I posted excerpts from my recent (draft) essay about the project on my ECP blogspace.

July 29, 2005

Media Matters for America responds…

Paul Waldman, of Media Matters for America, sent this e-mail about yesterday’s post:

I have to take issue with a couple of the things you said about Media Matters in your post “What Can You Trust…” They may seem like minor points, but they are actually pretty critical to us.

You toss in Media Matters with other groups that are attempting to “prove” media bias – this is a common mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. Media Matters does not try to prove bias. Media Matters does not allege bias. We have a strict rule that we never, ever, ever charge anyone with bias. We never use the word “bias.” We correct misinformation in the most straightforward way we can.

We don’t talk about journalist’s motives or what we think might be in their hearts. Our work stems from two basic beliefs: First, that conservatives regularly lie, deceive and misinform, and their misinformation finds its way not only into their explicitly ideological media sources but into the supposedly mainstream media as well; and second, that journalists have been so beaten down by conservative criticism that they pass on misinformation and spin all the time. We look for this misinformation and correct it.

As for David Brock, we are all too well aware that his renunciation of his conservative past creates a credibility problem. The way we deal with that issue is by being as transparent and careful as possible. Every time we make an empirical claim it is based on the most credible sources we can find. There is no commentary on the Media Matters site.

As for Rosenstiel’s comment, it is the same lame cop-out so many journalists use when they say, “If we’re being criticized by the right and the left, we must be doing our jobs.” If you’re being criticized by someone who has a clear set of beliefs, you can just dismiss the criticism out of hand without addressing its substance. How convenient!

You seem to be implying that people who “fight political battles rather than attempt to come to a better understanding of how the news media work or how/why journalists behave as they do” can’t be producing a legitimate or valuable critique (and correct me if I’m wrong here). Frankly, that’s beyond ridiculous. Do we have a “political” agenda? Of course. But saying that means our work is without value is just as absurd as saying that who a journalist voted for offers “proof” of their “bias.” Either the points we make are legitimate or they aren’t. I’d encourage you to spend a few minutes at our site and see if you’d like to amend your comments.

Feel free to post this if you like.

Paul Waldman
Senior Fellow
Media Matters for America

Mr. Waldman:

Thank you for writing to Rhetorica. I appreciate your interest.

I am well aware that Media Matters for America does not use the term “bias.” But that doesn’t mean that’s not what MMA is talking about. In my opinion, MMA simply approaches it through the back door by stating that “conservatives regularly lie, deceive and misinform, and their misinformation finds its way not only into their explicitly ideological media sources.” If it quacks like a duck, well, you know.

I think MMA might do a greater service for America if it abandoned the first of its basic beliefs and put its talent to work trying to come to a better understanding of how politicians communicate with the news media and why they do so in particular ways.

I agree that “journalists have been so beaten down by conservative criticism that they pass on misinformation and spin all the time.” But that’s still a bias. If a reporter consciously passes on information known to be spin or deception to avoid charges of bias (or other political discomfort) by conservatives, that’s a bias.

We can quibble all we want about the word “bias,” but I’ll concede that MMA is doing something a bit different from FAIR and AIM–and a bit better. I’ll also tell you that as a liberal, I’m glad MMA exists and is fighting real instances of conservative spin and deception.

I make no claims, nor take any position, about Mr. Brock. I think MMA’s work speaks for itself, and Mr. Rosenstiel should look there for the answer to his question.

I’m concerned with motive.

I’d ask you to re-read my entry carefully, especially this part:

Caveat: I am not claiming that ideologically-driven or interested research is useless or unimportant. Applied research, for example, attempts to solve real problems–certainly interested. I’m drawing the distinction between politically-driven research–i.e. research to solve the problem of winning politically–and “pure” research meant to increase understanding of a given phenomenon.

And I made this rather strong generalization (i.e. a fallacy I use for rhetorical purposes):

Any research that proceeds from ideological concerns is necessarily flawed and should be met with more than academic skepticism; its motives should be scorned.

I certainly think it’s a good idea to fact-check the news media and political spinmeisters, but I have to scorn the motive that approaches it with the attitude that “conservatives regularly lie, deceive and misinform.” (Which, by the way, may be entirely true. I’d rather an academic do a proper study to prove it sans the conservatives-are-regular-liars motive.)

A proper academic attitude would be to fact-check the press and politicians regardless of faction for the purposes of coming to a better understanding about how the press-politics relationship works and what that means to citizens. MMA is not an academic institution. MMA does not have an academic purpose; it has a political purpose. And my criticism of it assumes that academic motives for research are better. Is that fair? No.

In terms of my own politics, I cheer what MMA does. In terms of my professional interest in establishing theory regarding the press-politics relationship, I have to be very careful about relying on your claims and representations.

UPDATE (1:50 p.m.): Dan Mitchell writes to Romenesko:

In pursuing the truth, we often screw up. And for mostly institutional reasons, the biases of political manipulators (like, say, Tim Graham or David Brock) surely shape how political news is presented. But it certainly isn’t because the reporters themselves are engaged in partisanship. Not knowingly, anyway.

This shaping Mitchell speaks of is one of the things MMA hopes to expose. Wouldn’t it be interesting if MMA did this without a political agenda? What might we learn?

July 29, 2005

Welcome back…

Sisyphus, aka. Tim Schmoyer, is back to blogging after his move from somewhere to somewhere else. From his current post, in reaction to Orville Schell and Dave McLemore:

I consider the next step in journalism an infusion of news story telling with such modest admissions of inescapable fallibility. This is an important step in line with the change in the noetic field. From “journalism as lecture” to “journalism as conversation” and “my readers know more than I do”.

July 29, 2005

It’s about conversation, not blogging…

Bob Cauthorn writes a memo to the mainstream media about blogging. His point: You don’t get to do it; you get to distribute it. Here are two interesting moments from his long, rambling essay:

The DNA of blogging is a complicated matter that touches on being outside voices and taking personal control of the media. But at minimum the DNA of blogging has to do with distributing the conversation. Contrary to that, the DNA of mainstream media — to date — is all about dominating the conversation.

Bloggers are, for all intents and purposes, the pamphleteers of the 1700s all decked out in modern livery. Some are crazy. Some are geniuses. Some are vile. Some are heroic. Some boring. Some cooler than cool. In other words, they’re us.

Like those pamphleteers, at this point blogging tends to be more about opinions than facts. Also like those pamphleteers, bloggers are in the process of laying the groundwork for very important journalism going forth from here.

The notion that a media company should populate its blogs with staff writers comes directly from the Academy of Stupid Old Ideas.

The real opportunity doesn’t involve spewing more of the same on the street, it involves inviting the outside voices to come inside.

A smart news media company should become a hub for allowing outside blogs to get attention and an audience.

That news organizations are taking blogs seriously as sources of information and socio-political barometers is a reasonable first step in dealing with a new medium (i.e. the internet, not blogging) and the kind of information it allows and encourages. I agree with Cauthorn that doing blogs is not such a great idea unless such projects are linked to distribution efforts–efforts to move from the rhetoric of lecture to the rhetoric of conversation.

Why are such efforts smart? There are many answers. Here’s one I like: Bloggers, the people who read them, and the people who read newspapers are, it seems to me, C4s–high competence, high commitment citizens, i.e. people who pay attention to civic affairs and vote.

July 28, 2005

How to write good…

I am not a linguist, although I’ve had a little graduate training in that discipline. One of my areas of interest is intentionality, which puts me on the boundary between rhetoric and linguistics. My (I hope soon to be) important contribution to rhetoric involves accounting for the role of rhetoric in the linguistic theory of speech-acts.

As I have said many times, journalists consider themselves language experts merely because they are competent in one aspect of language use–a culturally visible aspect–textual “correctness,” i.e. the ability to reproduce standard English in textual form according to rules (many of them arbitrary) generally accepted by the profession and grammar scolds.

Beyond this, journalists are woefully under-educated.

My earlier post today touches on this toward the end. Geoffrey K. Pullum, at Language Log, discusses what happened when Science Times (no link found) wrote a “crappy” subhead for an otherwise serviceable article about the Ethnologue by the Summer Institute of Linguistics: “Feeling misunderstood? A chronicle of signs and sounds explains why.” Pullum writes (emphasis added):

The Ethnologue is not a chronicle; it is not about signs or sounds; and it does not aim or attempt to explain anything, still less why you might feel misunderstood. But when the topic is language, newspaper editorial staff, even in the Science Times department of the New York Times, believe they do not need to know anything at all about the subject matter or even the text of the article. They know enough already. Not for them any hint of dialect individuation or morphological systems or comparative reconstruction or cognate identification or mutual intelligibility tests or syntactic typology. Language is just funny sounds and signs and words for naming things and it’s all about making yourself understood and we can write the subheads without even looking at the article.

Language Log is worth your time. A good entry point? This article, in which Pullum refers to Struck & White’s The Elements of Style as a “toxic little book of crap.” Well, that toxic little book of crap is one important source of language (mis)information for journalists. (I’ve had students nearly choke with disbelief when I’ve used Pullum’s description in class.) Also read Pullum’s take down of one S & W’s dumbest rules: Omit needless words.

Every journalist in America should be reading Language Log…that is, after they’ve finished reading Rhetorica 🙂

July 28, 2005

What can you trust?…

Is it possible to change your political ideology? I doubt it’s possible to do so consciously, i.e. by force of will. But I think it’s pretty clear that our minds do change.

Should we distrust someone whose ideology flip-flops?

Take David Brock, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, for example. He’s turned his much ballyhooed conversion from conservative to liberal into a growing media-criticism empire. Should we trust him?

Here’s what Tom Rosenstiel, director of Project for Excellence in Journalism, says:

“Once somebody has demonstrated himself to be an utterly untrustworthy liar…why in the world would anybody think he has credibility now that he has switched teams?”

Recall that in his book, Blinded by the Right, Brock says he was a liar for the GOP.

I think the answer to Rosenstiel’s question may be found in the work that Media Matters does. In any case, I think Rosenstiel is a bit more on point when he says:

“I don’t have a lot of patience for any media criticism that is based in ideology.

Amen, brother!

Allow me a sweeping generalization: Any research that proceeds from ideological concerns is necessarily flawed and should be met with more than academic skepticism; its motives should be scorned.

(Caveat: I am not claiming that ideologically-driven or interested research is useless or unimportant. Applied research, for example, attempts to solve real problems–certainly interested. I’m drawing the distinction between politically-driven research–i.e. research to solve the problem of winning politically–and “pure” research meant to increase understanding of a given phenomenon.)

Rosenstiel’s next statement (continuing directly) is interesting:

“Frankly, [for] reporters who cover the news business, it makes our lives more complicated.”

Any good journalist should be able to accept, and learn from, research-based criticism. But putting an ideological spin on it adds an unnecessary degree of difficulty. The journalist then must weigh the findings of the research against the motivations driving it. The findings may be 100 percent legitimate. So the spin ends up hurting the journalist and the researcher by introducing a pathetic intrusion.

There’s no getting around these facts: 1) Political experience is complicated (which I think journalists understand for the most part), but 2) It is quite impossible (at the moment) to write news articles that speak the language of diverse ideologies given the current noetic field because journalists operate with the following misconceptions about language (from my Media/Political Bias page and George Lakoff’s Moral Politics):

  • Concepts are literal and nonpartisan: The standard six-question rubric of journalism (who, what, when, where, why, how) cannot capture the complexity of issues as seen through, and expressed by, the incompatible moral systems of liberals and conservatives.
  • Language use is neutral: “Language is associated with a conceptual system. To use the language of a moral or political conceptual system is to use and to reinforce that conceptual system.”
  • News can be reported in neutral terms: Not if #2 is correct. To choose a discourse is to choose a position. To attempt neutrality confuses the political concepts. Is it an “inheritance tax” or a “death tax”? What could possibly be a neutral term? To use both in the name of balance is confusing because most news articles don’t have the space, and most TV treatments don’t have the time, to fully explain the terms and why liberals prefer one and conservatives prefer the other. There’s no time or space to explain why this language difference matters (beyond political tactics) to the formation, implementation, and evaluation of policy.
  • Mere use of language cannot put anyone at a disadvantage: Again, see #2.
  • All readers and viewers share the same conceptual system: We share the same English language, i.e. its grammar. We often do not share dialects or the denotations and connotations of concepts, lived experience, and ideologies. The statement “I am a patriotic American” means something entirely different to liberals and conservatives. That difference is more than a matter of connotation. The differences in connotation spring from different moral constructs. What the conservative means by that statement appears immoral to the liberal and vice versa.

MMA, FAIR, AIM and all the rest fight political battles rather than attempt to come to a better understanding of how the news media work or how/why journalists behave as they do. These groups are proof that you can find evidence to “prove” any kind of bias. And if you can do that, then it’s 100 percent certain that something else is going on.

July 25, 2005

Reportable facts…

What is a reportable fact?

That question could require a book-length manuscript to answer. For a shorter treatment of journalistic epistemology, you might read my field theory blog essay.

I’ve discussed other answers to this question, for example in this entry about scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s concept of “custodian of fact.”

Let me suggest another reportable fact: the motive of an anonymous source. Here’s what Mark Feldstein has to say in an essay about anonymous sources from the Washington Post:

The problem is that by deliberately omitting the essential explanation of how the source is attempting to manipulate the agenda, the journalist often becomes a virtual accomplice hiding the ongoing but subterranean bureaucratic or ideological conflict at the heart of the story.

This speaks to two issues, one journalists should want to encourage and one they should want to avoid: transparency and stenography.

Reporting the motive of an anonymous source (i.e. a combination of the reason for anonymity and the rhetorical intention behind it) allows readers to understand the information in a fuller context. Further, it gives readers a glimpse inside the process of reporting (what the reporter does) and the process of using reporting as a political tool (what the source does).

Journalism should not abandon the use of anonymous sources. But neither should reporters simply leave reportable facts hidden in their notebooks.

When reporters simply write what they are told, they are no more than stenographers.

July 23, 2005

Comments temporarily disabled…

I received the following e-mail from the abuse department of ICDSoft:

We would like to inform you that we have disabled the access to the following script on your account:


because it was overloading the server and endangered its stability. If we did not restrict the access to this directory, your site could have halted the server affect all the 350 customers hosted on it. We cannot afford to endanger the stability and performance of any of our servers.

Please note that this module does not have built-in limitations, and can exhaust the server resources really fast. This Movable Type is not in any way optimized and is not used any more. Please consider using another module, named mt-blacklist.cgi.

I disabled Blacklist when I started using Typekey.

For the moment, no one can leave comments on Rhetorica. I’ll try to get this problem fixed as soon as possible.

UPDATE (11:10 a.m.): Comments are back on. I don’t know for how long.

UPDATE (11:45 a.m.): I have implemented a plugin that disguises the URL for mt-comments.cgi. What that means: You can only leave comments on Rhetorica if you have Java enabled. I’m sorry for any inconvenience.

July 21, 2005

What role for us in fly-over land?…

Orville Schell, Dean of the School of Journalism at Berkeley, writes a guest column on PressThink in response to an earlier column by Jay Rosen regarding the announcement of a consortium of journalism schools dedicated to revitalizing journalism education.

My first reaction zeroed in on a quote by Schell, in which I detected one of sources of journalistic arrogance.

I’m glad to see the members of this consortium plan to encourage other schools and scholars to participate. I plan to participate. And I’ll spend the better part of next semester figuring out what kind of role I’d like to (try to) play. My most serviceable contribution may involve the idea of arrogance as it intersects with local journalism and where our students are likely to work.

The big j-schools can reasonably suppose that their best students will start at “good” jobs and progress to the “highest” levels of the profession. I want to challenge those adjectives because 1) most of our students will not practice at the “highest” levels, and 2) people who read newspapers or watch local news in fly-over land deserve good journalism, too–practiced by journalists who are not simply using the local news organization as a stepping stone. That’s a recipe for disengagement by the reporter who disrespects the community and the community that feels disrespected. Such disengagement, I would think, is anathema to the Carnegie Corporation of New York–one of the funders of this $6 million project.

(I know about such arrogance and disengagement. I was one of those smart-ass young journalists who took a job at a medium-sized southern daily and couldn’t wait to get out of there from the moment I hit town. I realize now what an opportunity I missed to do work that really mattered.)

Here’s what I wrote when this consortium was first announced: “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.”

So my questions (for now…more to follow) to Schell et. al. are these: What role can a school such as Missouri State University play? What role can I play? Is there room in this grand plan for making local journalism better–the kind of journalism practiced at small newspapers and local television stations?

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