April 29, 2006

English-only patriotism…

Eric Bakovic at Language Log offers some intelligent commentary about the Spanish version of the national anthem. It includes a consideration of the challenges of translation and the handling of the President’s recent quote (see: NYT and WP).

April 29, 2006

Rhetorica update…

Over the past four years I’ve enjoyed many stimulating conversations with the readers of Rhetorica. Many of you have disagreed with me. Those disagreements have helped all of us learn more about civic discourse and the press-politics relationship. One big reason: Those who spend time here know it’s not about winning or losing a debate.

Today I banned an anonymous troll (re: #7 of the Blogging Policy). I’ve never had to do that before, and I’m not at all happy about it.

Despite the troll’s initial attitude, I was willing to discuss his issue. I merely wanted him to be polite and to identify himself. I gave him a last chance to do so–stated clearly. He chose not to do as I asked. But, troll-like, he still expected me to waste my time entertaining him.

I’ve left the troll’s comments intact.

(If any of Rhetorica’s regulars want me to address the troll’s issue, I’m happy to do so.)

April 27, 2006

In the camera eye…

Among the various realities we experience, let’s briefly examine two: 1) The reality that exists in the absence of a television camera and 2) the reality that exists in the presence of a television camera. As a case study in these two realities, let’s consider the White House press briefing. As former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer cogently explains, the press and press secretary acted one way before the event was broadcast live and another after Mike McCurry, a Clinton press secretary, switched on the cameras.

Fleischer says:

Gone are the days when this daily session was a serious affair, with mostly serious questions asked and mostly serious answers given. Instead, the public is now treated to a spectacle in which the media do their best to pressure the White House, regardless of which party is in power, into admitting that much of what the president is doing is wrong, and the White House pushes back. The two sides talk past each other, and the viewing public gets to watch a good fight.

This may be “golden age” thinking. But the point is that if you point a television camera at someone then his or her behavior will likely change. What’s fascinating (has anyone done a study?) is that it appears human behavior always changes in the way most suited to the pathos of entertainment. (How polite of me.)

Stonewall McClellan’s performance is all the more interesting when we consider him in regard to that hypothesis. What fortitude and skill it must take to remain utterly stonewall-like (being out of the loop and, therefore, somewhat clueless certainly helps) in the face of television cameras! And then the rollback begins–aided by the pathetic performances of increasingly frustrated and hostile journalists.

The delicious irony here is that few are likely to call for removing the cameras. News organizations–especially electronic media–want the dramatic Q&A sound bites rather than the depth possible in a discussion conducted out of the glare of television lights.

April 26, 2006

Bush introduces Snow…

Here is a transcript of Bush’s announcement of Tony Snow as the new White House press secretary, with my comments in brackets:

BUSH: Good morning.

I’m here in the briefing room to break some news: I’ve asked Tony Snow to serve as my new press secretary.

Tony already knows most of you, and he’s agreed to take the job anyway. And I’m really glad he did.

[Standard rhetorical maneuver #1: Open with a joke.]

I’m confident that Tony Snow will make an outstanding addition to this White House staff. I am confident he will help you do your job.

[It would be interesting to know what Bush thinks that job is.]

My job is to make decisions. And his job is to help explain those decisions to the press corps and the American people.

[Note that Bush uses this short introduction to stay on message, i.e. the “decision” meme. Can Scott McClellan be said to have done such explaining? It depends upon one’s definition of an “explanation” or one’s understanding of the act of “explaining.” “Why” and “how” questions have no end point. And at some point a press secretary must necessarily cut off the pursuit of “why” and “how.” McClellan rarely indulged the press with satisfying answers to such questions–even when the questions were glaringly necessary and legitimate.]

He understands like I understand that the press is vital to our democracy.

[So it’s no longer just a special interest? Or, perhaps, it’s a special interest that’s vital to democracy. Further, this statement stretches credulity because Snow, despite his overt partisanship, conducts himself as a journalist and has been willing to criticize the Bush administration.]

As a professional journalist, Tony Snow understands the importance of the relationship between government and those whose job it is to cover the government.

[The question isn’t whether Snow understands such things. The question is: Will he be allowed to nurture that relationship to the mutual benefit of the press and the administration?–something that most certainly was not the case with McClellan.]

He’s going to work hard to provide you with timely information about my philosophy, my priorities and the actions we are taking to implement our agenda.

[Pure flackery. It’s all about Bush. No indication that answers to “why” and “how” will be priorities.]

He brings a long record of accomplishment to this position. He has spent a quarter of a century in the news business. He’s worked in all three major media: print, radio and television.


He started his career in 1979 as an editorial writer for the Greensboro Record in North Carolina. He went on to write editorials for the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. He ran the editorial pages in both the Daily Press of Newport News and The Washington Times.

He’s written nationally syndicated columns for both the Detroit News and USA Today.

During his career in print journalism, he’s been cited for his work by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press and Gannett.

For seven years he served as the host of “Fox News Sunday.” Most recently, he reached Americans all across our country as the host of “The Tony Snow Show” on Fox News Radio and “Weekend Live with Tony Snow” on the Fox News Channel.

He’s not afraid to express his own opinions. For those of you who’ve read his columns and listened to his radio show, he sometimes has disagreed with me. I asked him about those comments, and he said, “You should have heard what I said about the other guy.”

[Har de har har… but notice that this little joke detonates a smoke screen. What can we really see here? Is Bush suggesting that Snow will continue to criticize his administration and/or “the other guy”? Is he promising no more briefings as usual?]

I like his perspective, I like the perspective he brings to this job, and I think you’re going to like it, too.

[The “like” anaphora is a scheme of power–reinforcement through repetition. And also notice the subtle antithesis between what Bush likes and what he “thinks” the press will like. Further, exactly what is this perspective? Are we talking political ideology, or an understanding of the press-politics relationship, or something else? This is the kind of say-nothing statement designed to be freely interpreted but demanding instead that an alert press begin asking cogent questions.]

Tony knows what it’s like to work inside the White House. In 1991, he took a break from journalism to serve as director of speechwriting and deputy assistant to the president for media affairs.

He’s taught children in Kenya. He belongs to a rock band called Beats Working. He’s a man of courage. He’s a man of integrity. He loves his family a lot. He is the loving husband of a fine wife and the father of three beautiful children.

[More ethos–an important appeal because the administration’s relationship with the press has been rather testy precisely because Stonewall McClellan did his job so well–a job we have every reason to believe Bush authorized and approved of.]

He succeeds a decent and talented man in Scott McClellan.

I’ve known Scott since he worked for me in Texas. We traveled our state together, we traveled our country together, and we have traveled the world together. We have also made history together.

[i.e. rollback?]

Scott should be enormously proud of his service to our nation in an incredibly difficult job. I will always be grateful to him. I will always be proud to call him friend.

I appreciate Scott’s offer to help Tony Snow prepare for his new job. And I’m proud to welcome Tony as part of our team.

Appreciate you, buddy.

SNOW: Well, Mr. President, I want to thank you for the honor of serving as press secretary.

And just a couple of quick notes.

I’m delighted to be here. One of the things I want to do is just make it clear that one of the reason I took the job is not only because I believe in the president, because, believe it or not, I want to work with you. These are times that are going to be very challenging. We’ve got a lot of big issues ahead and we’ve got a lot of important things that all of us are going to be covering together. And I am very excited and I can’t wait.

[Yikes! Better work on your extemporaneous speaking skills. You won’t have a Tele-Promt-R in the briefing room.]

And I want to thank you, Mr. President, for the honor.

And thank all your guys for your forbearance. And I look forward to working with you.


April 26, 2006

Snow job!…

Tony Snow is the new White House press secretary. According to Howard Kurtz’s reporting, “top officials assured him that he would be not just a spokesman but an active participant in administration policy debates.” Is the age of rollback over? Methinks Snow’s first days on the job will be the most scrutinized and analyzed of any press secretary. I’ll be piling on, too.

April 25, 2006

Snow job?…

So Tony Snow, a FOX News anchor, might become the next White House press secretary. What does this mean?

Wait and see. But while you wait, you might want to re-visit Jay Rosen’s idea of Rollback (see also “The Jerk at the Podium“):

This White House doesn’t settle for managing the news–what used to be called “feeding the beast”–because it has a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country, but also less of a wild card in fighting enemies of the state in the permanent war on terror.

“Stonewall” McClellan will be a hard act to follow if, as I have suggested, he was the perfect press secretary for a certain (non)communicative purpose: to maximize obfuscation and stay on message no matter what.

But what if David Gergen is right:

Tony Snow does have the leverage that neither of his predecessors would have had. And that is, if he walks out on them because they’re not open enough, it would be hugely devastating to the administration, so, that he, unlike Scott McClellan, can go in and say, gentlemen, this isn’t good. The press has a legitimate need here. We have got to give it to them. And they know that the moment he walks out the door and disgusted, if they are really totally closed or they lie or whatever, that is a bleak, bleak day at the White House. His predecessors never had that leverage.

That leverage Gergen speaks of is dependent upon the administration’s belief that the press is an important player in civic life. And if that’s not true?

A highlight of Rosen’s “Jerk” post is the idea from the comments section that the press should cover the rhetoric of politics. I’ve been making this same claim for a while now: The rhetorical features of a political text are reportable facts that do not require the intervention of an “expert” source.

The Rhetorica canon on rhetoric as a reportable fact:

Question begging…
Only two years late!…
Reportable facts…

UPDATE (1:15 p.m.): Snow has demands, according to Hotline On Call:

Fox Newser Tony Snow is said by Republicans familiar with the negotiations to have asked for guaranteed access to the president’s ear and to an unusually large degree of latitude to reconfigure the WH press operation. That pleases the new chief of staff, who wants to relegitimize the press podium in the Brady briefing room.

But Snow, not content to be a herald, also wants near-complete control over what he says from the podium, be it bromides, platitudes or substance. That would encroach on the broad portfolio of responsibilities that Dan Bartlett claims for himself.

Maybe something interesting is afoot. What does it mean to “relegitimize the press podium”? Was it illegitimate before? How/when did it get that way? Who benefited and who did not? Does rollback have natural limitations within the context of an open public sphere in a democratic republic?

April 20, 2006

Quick overview…

I’m heading for Kansas City today to attend a presentation about race and sports coverage as part of the Urban Literacies Series presented by UMKC. So I’m planning to do one wrap-up post on the Public Affairs Conference this weekend, including a podcast of audio clips from some of the plenary speakers. Here’s a quick glimpse of the first day:

I attended the first plenary speech by Syd Lieberman who told the story “The Summer of Treason: Philadelphia 1776.” Very entertaining and moving. His reputation as an effective storyteller is well deserved. Narrative is an interesting rhetorical choice because it denies its own rhetoricity. That’s academic-speak for: Narrative tends to hide its persuasive intention by pretending to be merely a story.

Lieberman made an interesting assertion before telling his story: He’d consider it a success if both Democrats and Republicans liked it. Hmmmmmmm… Is he kidding? How could these factions not like it? Our revolutionary narrative is the great founding myth of America, and it is easily spun for nearly any reasonable political purpose.

I attended a panel that considered the relevance of Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat.” Upshot: Interesting stuff we need to know, but the world is definitely “lumpy.” The discussion also included an extended consideration of what “freedom” means–an interesting journey along the razor’s edge of cultural relativism and absolutism.

The panel included John Kifner, a reporter for The New York Times. He made the cogent observation that America, as a country of immigrants trying to escape history, has a poor understanding of the power of history for other cultures, other nations. And this lack of understanding allows us to do stupid things in the world.

And, finally, I attended John Edwards speech “Restoring the American Dream,” about how we might make a better attempt to end poverty in America. I liked that he spoke about poverty in specifically moral terms. What I didn’t like was the obviously canned Q&A with the audience.

Okay, off to KC. I’ll write more about the PAC this weekend (and perhaps I catch up on other promises as well).

April 19, 2006

McClellan steps down…

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan announced his resignation today:

Appearing with Bush on the White House South Lawn just before the president left for a trip to Alabama, McClellan told Bush: “I have given it my all sir and I have given you my all sir, and I will continue to do so as we transition to a new press secretary.”

Bush thanked McClellan “a job well done.”

“I thought he handled his assignment with class, integrity,” Bush said. “It’s going to be hard to replace Scott, but nevertheless he made the decision and I accepted it. One of these days, he and I are going to be rocking in chairs in Texas and talking about the good old days.”

The good old days? Okay, never mind…

McClellan will be difficult to replace. Could Tony Snow fill his shoes? Hmmmmmm… As I’ve said before, McClellan was an excellent press secretary of a certain sort, i.e. his job was to maximize obfuscation and stay on message no matter what–a delicate balance to be sure.

More on McClellan from Rhetorica:

Long past stupid…
Very thin books…
Life on Neptune…
Wrong (maybe) again (perhaps)…

April 19, 2006

Very entertaining…

It’s difficult to have much respect for news organizations that allow (encourage?) their employees to get into public spats. But, then, as Jack Shafer points out, news feuds “detonate with the frequency of Baghdad car bombs.”

The current spat between MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly is entertaining in a twisted sort of way. In fact, it makes for great television–drama, emotion, humor, fancy graphics. Oh, and another necessary element: not too much substance so it’s easy to digest.

April 18, 2006

Rhetorica Podcast…

Another meeting of the Springfield Bloggers. Don’t be eating while you listen to this one.

Rhetorica Podcast

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