December 31, 2005

Fishy story…

Sometimes the failures of journalism just make we want to scream.


Don’t give me the obvious mumbo-jumbo. I want details–specific, step-by-step, document-by-document, details.

I just tried to “buy” a ticket to Baghdad on Expedia and Tavelocity. Guess what? You can’t do it. So how did this 16-year-old kid do it? Okay, so he made intermediate steps. How did he know to do that? How did he get proper documents? Who gave them to him? Why? Don’t simply tell me he got them. How? Exactly how?

Some stories demand meta-reporting (a practice I’d like to see become routine), i.e. tell me that you’re trying to answer the obvious questions; tell me why you don’t have answers yet; tell me how you’re trying to get the answers.

Man, this story is fishy–waaaaaay fishy.

UPDATE (12:15 p.m.): I’m sitting here daydreaming a bit about this fascinating story. The following is a bit of fancy: I imagine what I would say to Farris Hassan had I been the AP reporter who talked to him in Baghdad. I have no idea what actually happened. I’m not criticizing the AP. And, for all I know, my little flight of fancy is exactly the wrong way to handle it. What it is: A bit about committing journalism.

Me: Hello, Farris. I’d like to ask you a few questions.
Farris: Hello. Yes, sir.
Me: I understand you’re interested in journalism.
Farris: Yes, that’s right, sir. That’s why I came here.
Me: Well, you show spunk, kid. You’ve obviously got the shoe-leather instincts to be a good reporter. I predict you’ll go far in this business.
Farris: Thanks! I appreciate that. And I’m sorry for causing a problem.
Me: No problem, kid. You’re going to be good copy. Now, let’s you and I commit a little journalism.
Farris: Okay…
Me: I want to start by your telling me the entire story. From the moment you decided to come to Iraq until the moment you sat down with me. And I want every detail of every step. I want names, dates, times, documents. I want facts. And I’m going to check out every factual statement you make. Do you mind if I record this?
Farris …uh, no. But, am I in trouble?
Me: Not with me! Like I said, you’re going to be good copy. But journalism is a serious business, and you’ve come to a serious place. And my readers want to know how you got here and why.

The master narrative of this story has become: “Woooooo…you’re in soooo much trouble when you get home!” Let me suggest it might be a bit more important than that.

December 30, 2005

Okay, one more grumble…

Michael Lenehan gets off a good rant in the Chicago Reader with a modest proposal that no journalism be committed by the pros in 2006 in order to show the necessity of the professional product to civic life:

I think it’s time for actual journalists to drive this point home. Today, therefore, I am proposing a yearlong journalism strike. I am urging reporters and editors around the world to put down their notebooks, close their laptops, hang up their phones. Lie down and be counted! Let’s have no reporting, no editing, no application of any human intelligence whatsoever to events public or private till January 1, 2007. I’m calling it the Year Without Journalism. Let’s all relax, let go, and float blissfully in the information-free state (excuse me, I mean free-information state) that our public awaits so eagerly. Let one of those news robots handle the hired truck scandal and further crimes of the Daley administration. Let’s see if Wonkette can deal with the devious bastards in the executive branch any better than Judith Miller did. Let’s have some of those citizen journalists call Burt Natarus and see if they can figure out what the hell he’s talking about. With no news to aggregate, no facts to ruminate, the algorithms and the bedroom pundits will turn on each other like mirrors, producing a perfect regression of narcissistic selfreflection, repeating endlessly, adding nothing, ever shrinking, ad infinitum.

Yes, the professional product is important and will remain important (and should remain important). But two things:

1. About 75 percent of all civic news comes from the PR activities of powerful civic actors, not shoe-leather reporting by journalists (I have the citation for this at my office and will post it here next week). Shoe-leather reporting may certainly flesh out these PR efforts, but owing to the current he-said/she-said reporting model (based on a false notion of journalistic objectivity) that’s not saying much. That journalists are able to get information the public is not normally able to get has much to do with journalists’ institutional legitimacy. If I work for The New York Times, it’s pretty easy to get powerful civic actors to speak with me. If I “work” for the Local Pajama-clad Weblog, I’m lucky if the secretary’s secretary doesn’t laugh at me as she hangs up the phone.

2. An “application of any human intelligence” should indicate more than a warm body taking a quote correctly (a real talent, BTW). It should also indicate something more important than institutional legitimacy. To my way of thinking, the application of human intelligence by journalists should mean their acting as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. If we measure journalism’s product (especially political reporting) by this standard, much of the profession (especially television) has already been “on strike” for a very long time.

Journalism is more than a craft or profession (noun defs. #2 and #3) practiced by those who are paid to do it for news organizations. Journalism is a way of knowing the world and a way of talking about the world. The absence of the professional product would not create the regression of narcissistic self-reflection Lenehan supposes. After a turbulent period of epistemological and rhetorical struggle, new forms of journalistic legitimacy would emerge from the narcissism and bombast of the worst new media practices–exactly the process we’re now experiencing.

December 29, 2005

A final grumble for 2005…

BTW, more intelligent commentary (than mine) on the recently published bias study may be found on Language Log.

Also: “About 22% of U.S. adults believe Mr. Hussein helped plan 9/11, the poll shows, and 26% believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded. Another 24% believe several of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis, according to the online poll of 1,961 adults.”

Hmmmmm… where do they get these ideas?

See you next year!

December 25, 2005

From Family Rhetorica to you…

December 22, 2005

A biased model?…

Regarding the Groseclose-Milyo study that I mentioned on Tuesday, Mark Lieberman has more to say:

Now, the model’s prediction of the probability for a given congressperson to cite a given think tank is the exponential of the congressperson’s utility for that think tank divided by the sum of the exponentials of their utilities for all think tanks. Because of the exponentials, the numbers assigned as valences — and the resulting utilities — will need to be much more tightly clustered if we want to get a reasonable amount of probability mass distributed over less-favored think tanks. But the basic mathematical fact remains the same: think tank ideology, according to this model, only matters to liberals. Or to put it another way, the more liberal the congressperson, the more weight they give to ideology; the more conservative they are, the closer they come to paying attention only to “valence”, i.e. ideology-free quality.

Statistical models are not my thing. I’m waaaaay out of my league here. But it seems to me that Lieberman’s take on the study undercuts my contention that these “guys really try to connect a textual feature with something like intention.”

In any case, my problem with the study springs mostly from matters of scale. The “media” is a big thing. I simply do not think it’s possible to quantify a pervasive political bias without a wider set of data and content analysis protocols that do a proper job of rhetorical analysis.

And, as I have said before: “Is the news media biased toward liberals? Yes. Is the news media biased toward conservatives? Yes. These questions and answers are uninteresting because it is possible to find evidence–anecdotal and otherwise–to “prove” media bias of one stripe or another. Far more interesting and instructive is studying the inherent, or structural, biases of journalism as a professional practice–especially as mediated through television.”

December 22, 2005

Long past stupid…

“Is Scotty here? Where’s Scotty?” Bush asked, half-grinning, according to two people who were in the meeting but asked not to be quoted by name because they were discussing a private event. Bush scanned the room for Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary.

“I want to especially thank Scotty,” the president said, looking at his aide. “I want to thank Scotty for saying” — and he paused for effect…


This anecdote, as reported in the Washington Post, is interesting in that it fits what we understand about message control in the modern presidency: Sometimes, controlling the message–and, thus, the press–by saying nothing works better than saying something. “Works” in this regard means keeping civic conversation framed in ways favorable to the administration.

That’s politics. We have no alternative, Arcadian model. We merely have examples of presidents who thought it was better to talk a bit more to control the message than to talk less.

What interests me here is not Bush’s message control. What interests me is the press’ willing role in Bush’s message control.

Consider this:

“We’ve come to understand that no matter how we slice and dice something, Scott’s going to stick to the recipe,” says Ken Herman, White House correspondent for Cox News Service. “I can’t think of any topic where on the sixth or seventh iteration of a question we get something different from the original answer. By somebody’s measure, that’s the definition of doing the job well. Certainly not ours.”

So why do you participate?

It isn’t a matter of doing a poor job, as if it were possible to do a better job. Participating in this farce leads journalists to do a poor job (which, by the way, is part of the rhetorical intention of the administration). It’s not possible to do a better job. Under the circumstances, I’m not sure I know what would constitute a “better job.”

The icon of the Bush administration’s message machine is Muhammad Ali. Not the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Nope. It’s the Ali who beat George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle by laying against the ropes and waiting for Foreman to wear out. From that point on, it became stupid to flail at Ali if he huddled on the ropes. It’s long past stupid regarding the press’ participation in the press gaggle.

Just stop.

December 20, 2005

Guilt by citation…

Tim Schmoyer has asked that I comment on this study of bias in the news media. My overall impression is this study is a good attempt to quantify something of cultural and political importance. I do not think it measures or proves media bias. How could it?

The study measures citations of “think tanks” in articles and compares those citations to the ADA scores of politicians who cite the same organizations in speeches. Despite an excellent attempt to bridge the gap between citation and intention, the study fails to show a necessary link between citation and bias–even by the authors’ bracketing of the definition of “bias.” How might they have accomplished this? I suggest applying my (revised) formula for the illocutionary act: Fr(p) / C ->PE (one way to get at it, not the only way…and BTW, my thanks to Tim for his help in refining this formula). F = the force of a statement–what we are doing when we utter it, i.e. asserting, directing, commiserating, expressing, or declaring. The exponent r represents the “rheme”–the unit(s) of rhetoric, i.e. those rhetorical forms chosen by the speaker to make the message persuasive. (p) = the propositional content of the statement. And, finally, we must divide by the context–the rhetorical situation–to separate the speech act from other potential situations. That leads us towards a perlocutionary effect, i.e. what happens in regard to the statement.

Okay, that was a long-winded and overly-academic bit of horn blowing. The point is this: A causal connection must be proven by more than circumstance. Groseclose and Milyo make a good attempt. I don’t think it’s good enough. This doesn’t mean their conclusions are wrong, merely not proven.

There are all kinds of biases in the news media. All of them are political in the sense that someone, some interest, or some group is harmed or hurt politically by every message. There’s no such thing as a message that doesn’t help or hurt politically. Think “Happy Holidays” here if you’re looking for a particularly odd and exasperating recent example.

Can we identify liberal and conservative bias in various news outlets? Of course we can. As I have always said, political bias is a very real local phenomenon–local to a person, an issue, a news organization, etc. But this does not suggest that the news media in general are liberal or conservative or anything else. The “news media” is an awfully big and complex thing. It includes The New York Times and the Podunk Weekly Bugle.

The study was peer reviewed and published. But I doubt someone with my credentials reviewed it. But, then, it was published in an economics journal, and I’ll be the first to tell you I haven’t a clue about that discipline.

I think it is, however, a valuable contribution. These guys really try to connect a textual feature with something like intention–which means they are doing exactly the kind of work I think is valuable.

Charges of political bias don’t get you very far toward understanding the news media. Saying The New York Times is a liberal paper (and by Daniel Okrent’s definition I agree to a certain extent) doesn’t help you understand its culture or behavior in a way that’s predictive of journalistic behavior. Want to know what makes journalism really tick? Click here.

December 17, 2005

Rhetorica Podcast…

In which I do my best to survive the Merry-Happy-Christmas-Holiday War:

Rhetorica Podcast

Shot across the bow
Return fire

December 15, 2005

Word! to the Euro-dudes…

I’m still very busy grading papers and projects. But I need to mention this item from USA Today published yesterday (because I find the situation fascinating)[Comments added]:

WASHINGTON — A $300 million Pentagon psychological warfare operation includes plans for placing pro-American messages in foreign media outlets [typical of most any PR effort] without disclosing the U.S. government as the source [against the code of ethics of the PRSA, but, then, the gov’ment probably isn’t a member], one of the military officials in charge of the program says.

Run by psychological warfare experts at the U.S. Special Operations Command, the media campaign is being designed to counter terrorist ideology and sway foreign audiences to support American policies. [A difficult task these days. I’d love to be on the inside for this one–truly a fascinating exercise.] The military wants to fight the information war against al-Qaeda through newspapers, websites, radio, television and “novelty items” such as T-shirts and bumper stickers. [So does this program provide evidence for or against the administration’s notion that the press is just another special interest? Does it accept a strong media theory?]

The program will operate throughout the world, including in allied nations and in countries where the United States is not involved in armed conflict.

The description of the program by Mike Furlong, deputy director of the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element, provides the most detailed look to date at the Pentagon’s global campaign.

The three companies handling the campaign include the Lincoln Group [I’m still wondering how much these guys really know. Like I said in this podcast, I’ll bet I can do this job better (and still fail) for a lot less money. Just gimme a call!], the company being investigated by the Pentagon for paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-U.S. stories.

Military officials involved with the campaign say they’re not planning to place false stories [but it might happen anyway?] in foreign news outlets clandestinely. But the military won’t always reveal its role in distributing pro-American messages, Furlong says.

I’m not being anti-military. Far from it. I’d sooner trust the psy-ops folks with this than the apparently hapless Lincoln Group.

Taking this program to the Europeans is a far different matter than attempting such PR shenanigans in Iraq. For one thing, there’s a lot less cultural noise in the system.

But as a matter persuasion, I’m wondering why the military talked about this: “Hey, you guys! Yeah, you Euro-dudes. Man, we’re getting ready to whip the ol’ PR on you. Word! So heads up and rock on!” Doesn’t this guarantee that European readers will be immediately suspicious of any article or news report that slants pro-American? (Which, it seems to me, is the case anyway.) Hmmmmm…

There must be something else going on here, but damned it I know what it is.

(Actually, I do have a guess–a very dark guess–that speaks to the power of pathos.)

December 11, 2005

Rhetorica Podcast…

In which I read The Sunday New York Times and tell you about it (specifically, my further take on the Lincoln Group’s propaganda efforts):

Rhetorica Podcast

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