October 29, 2007

When Good Ideas Go Wrong

How many ways are there to tell a different story of campaign politics?

I think this concept is limited only by the imaginations and initiative of journalists (also recognizing certain other constraints that can be overcome with great effort, e.g. newsroom culture, budgets, and time).

This headline in the Week in Review section of The New York Times on Sunday got me all excited: Attorneys at Politics: Would You Hire One to Represent You?

That’s a cool idea. We might actually learn something about who these candidates are as politicians by examining who they were as lawyers.


Look. You can’t tackle a topic as complex as this in one article/column–and certainly not one article/column that attempts to cover most of the major candidates. All you get are amusing or horrifying vignettes that really tell you very little (while persuading you that they tell a great deal, which, BTW, is actually harmful to understanding much of anything about politics).

Here’s a good idea that could have given citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing and instead turned out doing exactly the opposite. Which, by the way, is unethical–seeing as how every code of ethics of journalism that I’ve ever read promotes the idea of journalism as the stuff that helps citizens make civic/public life work.

October 26, 2007

More on Being a Custodian of Fact

That term–you’ve read it here before. Many times.

Take a look at this short entry on Language Log. First, the quote from Headsup:

Maybe when we write about stuff in the observable world, we should assume that people are going to ask us how we know it. And we could assign different values to different sorts of claims about truth. And people who had more evidence to support what they said would get better play, and people who were just blowing smoke would be consigned to the far outer circles of hell. Or something.

And Mark Liberman’s response:

Not for columnists — the international taxi-drivers association would never allow it. And as for the rest of the journalistic enterprise, there seems to be some sort of Gresham’s Law of Headlines that penalizes those who operate by Fev’s guidelines. Overvalued stories drive undervalued ones out of circulation; or more succinctly, sensationalist headlines drive out honest ones. I’d like to say that science works the way he recommends, but in my experience, I’m afraid that this is true only in the aggregate and on longish time scales.

While I think Liberman is entirely correct regarding this Gresham’s Law of Headlines, it seems to me Fev’s vision should be easily fought for and won. Here’s what I said in 2004 (link above):

Okay, so what’s a “fact“? Where do they come from? Facts are found (created) by measurements or (verified) eyewitness accounts. You may notice that the two parts of my definition don’t match. A measurement, as long as we agree on the instrument of measure, gives us a number to work with. But human perception of events comes filtered. What I’m getting at here is this: facts are not necessarily easy things to nail down unless we’re measuring (and even then we can run into problems).

There can be no argument over facts in themselves. We argue about how facts are measured and what facts mean. And we argue about assertions of fact until such assertions are established as fact. Reporters should consider the statements by sources as assertions of fact until such time as the reporter can establish them as facts. The news organization, then, should not publish unverified assertions without disclaimers or qualifiers.

I like Fev’s idea.

October 22, 2007

Dumbness in Campaign Reporting

The state of political campaign reporting in America is: Dumb.

It’s dumb because journalists tell the wrong story. They mostly tell the story of political struggle between candidates rather than telling more stories about the people’s experiences of governance–something that would actually be useful.

So you’ve read about that here before. And, lucky you, you’ll get to read more because I have another essay about it coming out soon in Media Ethics.

Now, part of the idea behind having reporters write blogs is to allow them to report/comment on stuff that doesn’t get in the paper–to add flavor, nuance, insiderness… whatever seems appropriate. The point should always be, however, to be smart–to give the people a little more to help them be free and self-governing.

But here’s The New York Times and political reporter Katharine Q. Seelye being, well, dumb.

Where to begin… how about the lead?

So here’s a puzzle. If Rudolph W. Giuliani is leading the Republican field in the national polls, and Mitt Romney is leading the field in the early states, why is John McCain running closer to Hillary Clinton than the rest of the pack?

Is that an interesting question? Not really. Journalism reports polling statistics with a false sense of accuracy and gives readers too little information to come to useful conclusions. Much reporting of polling actually makes people dumber to the extent that they pay any attention to it. Continuing on…

All the Republicans would lose to Mrs. Clinton if the election were held today, according to the ongoing poll analysis by realclearpolitics.com. But Mr. McCain does better than anyone against her in the hypothetical one-on-one match-ups.

He loses to her by 3.3 points. Mr. Giuliani is very close — he would lose by 4 points, which is insignificant but enough for Mr. McCain to claim bragging rights. Mr. Romney would lose to Mrs. Clinton by 10.3 points. Fred Thompson would lose by 11.7 points.

Insignificant is an understatement. Anyone bragging about a .7 difference would be trying to pull one over on you. Reporting it, as Seelye does, compounds the dumbness because .7 ain’t news. It ain’t nuthin’ at all. Continuing on…

And yet in national polls, Mr. McCain is basically tied for third with Mr. Romney, trailing Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Thompson.

What accounts for this? What advantages does Mr. McCain bring against Mrs. Clinton that he doesn’t bring in match-ups against his rivals?

Notice that we’ve gone from an understated “insignificant” to “advantages.” This is journalistic fraud.

Ah, but no sense getting worked up about this now. There’s a long election season ahead of us and plenty of dumbness headed our way.

October 15, 2007

Rhetorica Update

Last week was mid-term, so I was busy giving exams.

I’m finishing an essay this week–another iteration of my tell-a-different-story shtick. More on this later.

And we’re off for fall break beginning Thursday, so there won’t be much to talk about regarding my Introduction to Journalism class this week (mostly going over the exam).

My plan is to catch up on blogging during the break.

October 4, 2007

The Rhetoric of Hugs

Tim posted this at his most excellent blog Jig’s Old Saws.

[Editor’s Note: This is the same Tim who regularly challenges and encourages me in the comments on Rhetorica.]

His introduction to this is simply: “See if you can watch this without smiling…”

What does this mean? What does he mean by it?

I smiled. You will, too. Why?

It’s funny in places. It’s heartwarming and even heartbreaking. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll be manipulated! But I do not mean that pejoratively. We discussed the meaning of “manipulation” in my media ethics class today. I claimed there’s no such thing as a non-manipulative message because there’s no such thing as a message devoid of rhetoric (not all rhetoric scholars agree). So is manipulation good or bad? The answer is: Yes.

What is the man in the video trying to say? Here’s a place to begin your own examination: Notice that we know nothing of the subjects, and I think it’s safe to assume they know nothing of each other (further assuming this is what it appears to be). That means these people freely hugged each other without knowing, oh, stuff about the other’s politics, religion, economic status…add a string of et ceteras here.

A hug is an act with meaning, i.e. and expression with an embodied rhetoric. In this video it appears to mean: “I accept you, and it’s fun to do so. And I’ll be damned if I’ll be embarrassed by it or allow anyone to tell me I can’t express myself this way.” 

October 3, 2007

More on Civil Civic Discourse

Recall that I repudiated the General Betray Us ad. And properly so. Accusing a soldier–a general–of betrayal is a damned serious matter. And nothing in the ad came even remotely close to justifying such an accusation or characterization.

I’d also say that characterizing soldiers as “phoney” because they oppose the war in Iraq is in the same league.

Are soldiers supposed to support the wars they fight, or are they supposed to fight them? Perhaps that dichotomy is false. But what I mean to get at is this: A soldier has a duty to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. I’m not aware of any requirement that they sign on to any particular political opinion about the wars they fight.

So perhaps this is the conclusion I sought to my earlier post: Uncivil tongues wag because we (i.e. Americans) allow it and, in the end, because we really don’t care as long as we win.