July 21, 2006

Rhetorica readers on recent topics

Click the “continued” link to read recent comments from Jay Manifold and Sven.

July 20, 2006

Rhetorica Podcast

Doug McGill and I drive into the American night talking about journalism.

Rhetorica Podcast

July 20, 2006

Journalism ethics and the inquiring egghead

Your assignment for today is to read Good News, Bad News by Jeremy Iggers. Especially if you are a journalist. Especially if you are a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

When Doug McGill and I developed our abstract for the 2006 Media Ethics Colloquium, we answered the question “Who is a journalist?” based on the following (a summary from the abstract):

Commercial news organizations do not get to decide who counts as a journalist; audiences get to decide who counts. So would-be journalists must create legitimacy among the publics they would serve. And we suggest three ways that may be done outside of a traditional newsroom: 1) be loyal to the audience first, 2) make the invisible visible (i.e. cover those people and topics the so-called mainstream media ignore), and 3) operate with a discipline of verification and as a custodian of facts. Do these things and you may properly call yourself a journalist.

Our abstract was combined with Iggers’ by the colloquium sponsors because we are working roughly in the same general direction–the commonality for the sponsors being technology, i.e. what the interactivity of the internet makes possible for a citizen journalism.

Yesterday, the three of us had our first meeting face to face for the purpose of figuring out how to cram our abstracts together or how to make something rise from the ashes. We went the Phoenix route.

The meeting was wonderfully productive because Iggers and McGill are generous thinkers unafraid to take a hard look at something and say what they really think. Iggers has a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and I believe ethics is his specialty.

Iggers’ work in journalism ethics (that book you should have purchased a few moments ago) gives our project an important focus–and you’ve read it before right here on Rhetorica. It’s the articulation of the purpose of journalism from The Elements of Journalism: The purpose of journalism is to give the public the information it needs to be free and self-governing. I’ve often edited that to “make civic life work” because I consider it more culturally, politically, and socially inclusive–but never mind. McGill and I had approached this purpose (not specifically articulated in our abstract) in terms of professional procedure. Iggers approaches it in terms of ethical practice or, perhaps, moral procedure. His book demonstrates how the current discourse of journalism ethics actually hinders ethical practice based on an ethic of social responsibility. I don’t need to explain that now. Why? Because you just bought book and can read it for yourself.

So, our abstract is changing. I’ll post details once I’ve begun writing the first draft. I hope you find it enlightening and provocative.

Hint: Iggers challenged the idea above that “commercial news organizations do not get to decide who counts as a journalist; audiences get to decide who counts.” That’s kind of a default idea for me following from my particular school of rhetoric (social-epistemic). Text and its use by an audience plays a central role in my understanding of how we use rhetoric to create what we know in a transaction among interlocutors. This presents a problem for me as a teacher of journalism. If an audience uses a text in journalistic ways (i.e. the purpose I mentioned) then I am bound to define it as journalism. Which means I have to define, for example, The Daily Show as journalism (Iggers pointed out a more uncomfortable example).

So I can’t really do that. If journalism has a (procedural/ethical) purpose–on which all three of us agree–then we must be able to identify its practice independent of any use by an audience.

My question was: Who gets to decide what’s journalism? My default answer is: the audience. But it doesn’t work if our purpose is to answer the question “Who is a journalist?” and include citizens’ practices in the answer. Iggers’ answer to my question was more useful and interesting. Stay tuned.

One last plug (for Iggers): If you live in Minnesota, read The Daily Planet.

July 19, 2006

Bush says “shit”; Journalism in a tizzy

For a complete rundown on the whole “shit” thing, I suggest Benjamin Zimmer’s post at Language Log.

My advice to news orgnaizations: Just run it; print it. Big fucking deal.

What I find more fascinating than the rather natural use of “shit” is the content of the exchange in the given rhetorical situation. Let’s review:

Bush: I think Condi (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) is going to go (to the Middle East) pretty soon.

Blair: Right, that’s all that matters, it will take some time to get that together. … See, if she (Rice) goes out she’s got to succeed as it were, where as I can just go out and talk.

Bush: See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.

This is a short snippet taken out of context. What I find fascinating about it isn’t Bush’s s-bomb but how ordinary and obvious this moment is. Instead of being shocked, SHOCKED, by “shit,” shouldn’t we wonder about the substance of this?

Bush makes a simple declarative statement about a probable event–Rice visiting the Middle East. The importance of this statement does not need to be spelled out. Bush understands that Blair understands. He’s the only intended audience, and they share enough context to make this statement rich with meaning.

Blair’s reply has the quality of down-home small talk (Americans will find the “as it were” cute), as if these two guys are sitting in rockers on Mom’s front porch. Blair’s first sentence acknowledges Bush’s statement but adds an interesting twist: “that’s all that matters.” Hmmmmmmmm… Is he saying that a Rice trip is important merely as a diplomatic show? Or might he mean to suggest that a trip is crucially important in its symbolism? Perhaps the latter because Blair follows that with a moment of what appears to be self deprecation following what initially appears to be a painfully obvious statement. He could also be making a statement about his own domestic situation and its possible effects on his making a trip.

By the way: Succeed at what exactly? What is it Rice can do that Blair cannot do? Why?

Bush’s reply is interesting (having nothing to do with “shit”) because: Who is they? Depending upon the answer, Bush’s statement is either stunningly vacuous or painfully obvious If “they” is diplomats such as Rice, this qualifies as a head-slap moment: “Well, why didn’t I think of that? Let’s just get them to stop fighting!” If “they” is Syria, then, yeah Mr. President, that’s a perfectly good and obvious plan (the standard interpretation). The difficulty lies in the execution. Let’s talk about that! This meaning of “they” would make this statement more porch talk (i.e. shared understandings make it tick).

There’s a lot more to their candid conversation. The Reuters link above has the details. It ends this way (gentle teasing by Bush):

Bush: Thanks for the sweater, it was awfully thoughtful of you. I know you picked it out yourself.

Blair: Oh, absolutely.

Yep. Porch talk.

So, to end this quickly, there’s a lot more going on here that’s interesting other than a silly little s-bomb. Get over it fercrissakes!

July 18, 2006

Journalism sometimes covers science badly

I’ve heard Jay Manifold complain about journalists getting (basic) science wrong. And the grammar jockeys at Language Log often lament journalists’ poor understanding of the science of linguistics. Locally, John Stone has bent my ear on this subject. He’s a former biology professor.

Three citations do not a trend make, but it’s no big stretch to suppose that the more technical the subject matter the more room there is for error–especially when journalistic rhetoric demands simple, declarative sentence structures and vivid and concrete descriptions (whatever those are).

Further, journalists get into trouble on all kinds of stories when they let the writer in them get the better of the reporter in them. This essential duality isn’t discussed nearly enough. Perhaps I’ll discuss it more…later.

Anyway, when I read K. C. Cole’s article in the Columbia Journalism Review, I had to wonder: Is she kidding? Consider this:

Editors, however, seem to absorb difficulty differently. If they don’t understand something, they often think it can’t be right–or that it’s not worth writing about. Either the writers aren’t being clear (which, of course, may be the case), or the scientists don’t know what they’re talking about (in some cases, a given).

Why the difference? My theory is that editors of newspapers and other major periodicals are not just ordinary folk. They tend to be very accomplished people. They’re used to being the smartest guys in the room. So science makes them squirm. And because they can’t bear to feel dumb, science coverage suffers.

I’m not going say editors are dumb. I admire journalists. They do heroic work under a variety of difficult circumstances that would drive most people nuts in a matter of hours. I admire them even as I pointedly criticize them nearly every day on Rhetorica.

But is Cole calling them dumb? Think about it: One definition of willful ignorance (the worst kind) is surely thinking something can’t be right simply because you don’t understand it. And, worse, further thinking that what you don’t understand can’t be worth writing about, i.e. can’t be of interest to anyone else. Talk about dissing on a topic!

Whether Cole has hit on the reason editors sometimes reject (science) stories, I cannot say. But it is a common experience among reporters to have editors reject stories for exasperatingly thin reasons.

Okay, so here’s where this really gets troubling: One essential of “accomplishment” ought to be the ability to deal with new information. Otherwise, how does one grow? Dealing with new information is exactly what editors are supposed to do as a regular part of their jobs.

I’m still not going down the editors-are-dumb road. But I’m wondering how Cole’s contention maps to the structural biases of journalism. I don’t think Cole is correct that this phenomenon has something to do with who editors are as people (although journalistic arrogance probably plays a role here). I think it has to do with the structure of professional practice that encourages and rewards not believing something because you don’t understand it.


July 18, 2006

Springfield Bloggers meet tonight

For a good time, just show up at the Patton Alley Pub in Springfield at 7:00 p.m. this evening. The Springfield Bloggers are meeting. Unfortunately, I cannot attend. I’m sitting in Starbucks in downtown Rochester, Minnesota. I’ll be here for a few days working with Doug McGill and Jeremy Iggers. Details here.

So that means no podcast of the festivities–at least from me.

Have fun, and hoist a cold one for me!

July 17, 2006

Milbank hits a foul on softball questions

Dana Milbank reviews a new book by Helen Thomas in today’s Washington Post. He’s less than impressed:

[In part, the book] is a rather unpleasant rehashing of the liberal criticism of the press’s performance before the Iraq war. Here, Thomas departs from personal anecdote and merely recites some of the millions of words that have been devoted to the cause in previous books, articles and blogs. It is an effort unworthy of a woman who, whatever her late husband was, truly is a journalistic icon.

Milbank then challenges Thomas’s observation that the press tossed softballs to President Bush at the 6 March 2003 news conference about Iraq and WMDs. To show how wrong she is, Milbank lists a few of the questions asked. Let’s review them.

“If all these nations…have access to the same intelligence information, why is it that they are reluctant to think that the threat is so real, so imminent that we need to move to the brink of war now?”

This question misunderstands Bush’s view of himself, his own perceived place in history, his personality, and his vision of the United States. That other nations do not see what his administration sees is no challenge at all. Further, it asks for opinion instead of facts. It begins with an “if” conditional that allows for dismissing the conditions.

“I wonder why you think so many people around the world take a different view of the threat that Saddam Hussein poses than you and your allies?”

This is a rhetorical question and, therefore, is more editorial comment than a real attempt at getting information. Again, it requires only an opinion from Bush.

“How would you answer your critics who say that they think this is somehow personal? As Senator Kennedy put it…your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a more dangerous place.”

So now he’s being asked for an opinion regarding another politician’s opinion. Who gives a rip? If it’s personal, do the reporting necessary to prove it and then ask a question that requires information (def.: statements about facts) to answer.

“What went wrong that so many governments and people around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?”

Ask them. Then ask this same sort of question using specific information. This question asks for opinion rather than information. You see, the problem isn’t that the reporter has his or her information wrong. It’s that without specifics used to elicit specifics, all Bush has to do is stand firm on his talking points. He might stand firm on his talking points anyway, but the difference between a well-formed, well-asked question that demands information and a talking-points answer would be stark.

“There are a lot of people in this country…who still wonder why blood has to be shed if he hasn’t attacked us.”

No kidding?

“Do you ever worry…that this could lead to more terrorism, more anti-American sentiment, more instability in the Middle East?”

This is almost a good question. It gets at an important point. But it’s a rookie mistake: a yes-or-no question. It would be better to cite a specific and compelling expert or set of data to establish the premise. All Bush has to do is deny the premise.

“What can you say tonight, sir, to the sons and the daughters of the Americans who served in Vietnam to assure them that you will not lead this country down a similar path in Iraq?”

Note to Milbank: This is a classic softball question. It begs: “Please, tell us another patriotic platitude.” The question’s premise assumes an historical correspondence of some sort between Vietnam and Iraq–a poor assumption.

So what adjective should we put to questions of this kind? Tough? Obsequious? How about: poor.

Now, I’m not privileging Thomas’s questions here. Milbank reproduces a few of her recent doosies. They are not so much questions as they are mini-editorials. Allow me to commit journalistic heresy: I think Thomas has morphed into a crank.

Okay, the lesson here is this: Editorializing questions that spring from opinion and ask for opinion may certainly be uncomfortable. But they are hardly tough, probing, or useful.

So what do I suggest? Click here read a PowerPoint presentation on critical reporting.

July 15, 2006

World war rhetoric overheats the pundits

It seems to me that for a war to be a world war–e.g. World War I and World War II–it must involve several major world powers fighting in several theaters of operation with sizeable numbers of armed forces for the purposes of subjugating or defending or liberating.

A few right-wing pundits–who mostly play journalists on TV–have called current conflicts in the world by WW numbers III, IV, and V.

These guys–including Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck–are overwrought. But this is a calculated rhetorical maneuver to persuade Americans to think a certain way about the dangers of the conflicts in the Middle East. Calling these conflicts a new world war is another way to escalate the fear that drives the public acceptance of the “war on terror.” This is pure pathos, which is why we’re getting it from TV talkers.

Critics who complain about this tactic (or who merely point out how dumb it is) may then be shouted down as disloyal, traitorous, unrealistic, weak…you name it.

This effort will fail, however, because the public may plainly see that the Bush administration is not treating these conflicts the way Wilson and Roosevelt treated the two real World Wars–and perhaps he shouldn’t. Americans are being asked to sacrifice nothing to a war effort, e.g. money, resources, or time served in the military.

July 15, 2006

Rhetorica Podcast

Jack Wilson, of Fat Jack’s Rants, interviews me about citizen journalism.

Rhetorica Podcast

July 14, 2006

Debate and dialectic: What didn’t happen at the NYT

Gail Collins, of The New York Times, regrets not questioning the Times’ WMD reporting as editor of the editorial page:

Her biggest regret as opinion leader was not questioning the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the war. While the editorial page has long opposed the invasion, due mostly to the lack of a U.N. authorization, it had supported the contention that WMD’s existed early on.

“If I had to do it over again, I would have paid a lot more attention to the people on the board who had doubts,” Collins said. “I thought there were weapons of mass destruction and most of the board members did. Frankly, we did not spend enough time debating the issue.” She said that led to early editorials that proclaimed the existence as a matter of fact rather than a questionable assertion. “We should have argued among ourselves more,” she stressed. “Given our readers some of a sense that there was an argument about it, we tended to take it for granted.”

Debate and dialectic–the Platonic (and Hegelian) path to (something like) the truth. But, then, as a culture–a discourse community–the truth of WMDs was common sense to the editorial board of the Times. No need for dialectic. Common sense of this kind–the kind that creates and clings to commonplaces–is the enemy of good journalism.

One can hope that Collins’ regret might spark some self-reflection in American journalism and a desire to develop and follow a discipline of verification. I say “develop” because, in fact, no such discipline actually exists. It’s an idea without agreed-upon or codified procedures and without a clearly stated, theoretically sound ethic.

But, really, Collins is only marginally responsible simply because she, like Times’ readers, relied in part on the Times’ reporting to be accurate (i.e. operational or potential WMDs of certain kinds either existed in some number or they did not).

The ones who should have been asking the hard questions and demanding adequate verification were Judy Miller’s editors.

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