December 30, 2007

What’s Really Going on is Worse

Jay Rosen’s current essay demonstrates one of my central contentions about complaints of liberal or conservative bias in the news media: The press is often thought of as a unified voice with a distinct political bias. This simplistic thinking fits the needs of ideological struggle, but is hardly useful in coming to a better understanding of what journalism is or ought to be.

I get many complaints–usually from right-wingers, but not exclusively so–about my media/political bias page because the complainers usually fail to read it carefully. I do not claim there is no political bias in the news media. I do claim that such charges are usually simplistic, nearly always politically motivated, not at all interesting, and not useful to truly understanding what journalism is, who journalists are, and why?

Think about what Rosen presents: Journalists may be far more motivated by front-page bylines and contention for contention’s sake than by political motives. I gotta tell ya: That’s a far worse a situation–in terms of journalism fulfilling its primary purpose–than political bias of any kind.

This is why I roll my eyes whenever I encounter the attitude that “Everyone knows the news media are ____.” And I ask myself: Just how dumb is this person, or just how politically motivated?

Recent coverage of media bias on Rhetorica:

How Not to be Dumb
Nothing Like Clarity…Sort Of
Feel My Pain

December 29, 2007

It’s About Newspaper Journalism

I once wrote a tough review of a book by a journalist I admire– Davis “Buzz” Merritt. If, however, a book can be judged on the basis of a single idea that springs from it, then, in fact, his book was a great success:

Given the inexorability and pace of technology, we may not need newspapers in our media mix at some point in the future–perhaps sooner than later. But we will need newspaper journalism, because democracy can thrive without newspapers, but it cannot thrive without the sort of journalism that newspapers uniquely provide.

Print is a medium that is never going away. Print, however, no longer requires paper.

I don’t think newspapers are going away–ever. But I do think they will continue to change–as they always have. I’m sticking with the idea that the newspaper of the future will be smaller in size and concentrate on local coverage. It will be a complex media product, i.e. part of news organizations in which printing with ink on dead trees is just one of many ways to offer news to the public.

I think the future of newspaper journalism will belong to those who disconnect themselves from the corporate, mainstream news media.

Paul E. Steiger runs down recent newspaper history in an interesting personal commentary on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today. But the really interesting stuff he saves for the last three paragraphs:

Final word: Next week I move over to a nonprofit called Pro Publica as president and editor-in-chief. When fully staffed, we will be a team of 24 journalists dedicated to reporting on abuses of power by anyone with power: government, business, unions, universities, school systems, doctors, hospitals, lawyers, courts, nonprofits, media. We’ll publish through our Web site and also possibly through newspapers, magazines or TV programs, offering our material free if they provide wide distribution.

Pro Publica is the brainchild of San Francisco entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler, who along with some other donors are providing $10 million a year in funding.

The idea is that we, along with others of similar bent, can in some modest way make up for some of the loss in investigative-reporting resources that results from the collapse of metro newspapers’ business model.

Click here to see Pro Publica.

So what is this thing called newspaper journalism? It is, simply, the kind of journalism one can produce in the medium of print because print is a medium of propositional content. I’ll let Merritt explain:

  • Its content is not shaped by a limiting technology…
  • Its usefulness is based far more on completeness and clarity than immediacy.
  • Its claim on credibility is based on it length and depth, which allow readers to judge the facts behind the story’s headline and opening summary paragraph and then look for internal contradictions.
  • It has intrinsic value and relevance to people rather than merely amusing or entertaining them.
  • Opinions and analysis are labeled as such and are presented separately.

Newspapers will change if for no other reason than they have always changed. I gotta tell ya: I won’t morn the loss of a corporate model that has largely harmed newspaper journalism over the past 20 years. I won’t mourn the loss as long as journalists–citizen and professional–step up to practice newspaper journalism by any available means.

December 28, 2007

Almost the Rhetoric Beat

Julie Bosman has a tiny glimmer of the right idea in her blog post at The New York Times today. She examines a political ad by John Edwards and almost makes the kind of observation we might expect to see from the rhetoric beat.

In the first ad, titled “Born For,” Mr. Edwards tells New Hampshire voters that while “the establishment did nothing,” corporate greed took over Washington, insurance lobbyists killed health care and jobs were lost as a result.

“As much as we like to think so, good intentions won’t change a thing,” Mr. Edwards continues, in an apparent jab at Senator Barack Obama and his campaign’s message of hope. “Corporate greed won’t be stopped without a president who fights for you. Saving the middle class is going to be an epic battle, and that’s a fight I was born for.”

Determining intention is of particular interest to me. I’ve even developed a theory in regard to it. Perhaps a more accurate way to say it is that I’ve re-theorized the illocutionary act of speech-act theory. Austin’s formula, F(p),  deals only with propositional content and illocutionary force, but mine attempts to account for the role of rhetoric in the illocutionary act: Fr(p)/C -> PE. 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.

In order for the formula to work (i.e. give you some kind of reliable result regarding a speaker’s intention), you must have credible data to fill out the parts of the formula. Guessing doesn’t count. Assumptions don’t count.

When Bosman says a line in Edward’s ad is an “apparent jab at Senator Barack Obama and his campaign’s message of hope” she’s moving in the right direction in regard to a rhetoric beat but she doesn’t really know what she’s doing (I’m not claiming she’s wrong; I’m claiming she’s giving us an assumption and further assuming it’s politically useful). How does she know this?

“As much as we like to think so, good intentions won’t change a thing.” This is an enthymeme, aka the “failed syllogism” or the “rhetorical syllogism.” An enthymeme is persuasive because one or more parts of the logical sequence is left unstated. What makes this persuasive is that the reader/auditor fills in the missing part with whatever works. So the line can mean different things to different people and still persuade. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.

I would say Edward’s certainly means for Democratic voters to make a comparison between himself and other Democrats (does it matter which one?– he’s in a “race” with all of them). Beyond that I’m not prepared to go unless you’re just fascinated with my opinions. And since I know that’s not true (and Bosman should realize this, too), my leaving it open helps bring you, dear reader, into the conversation.

Rather than give us an assumption, Bosman should instead give us a range of possibilities and reasons for those possibilities. She should call the tactic what it is and explain how and why politicians use it. And, you know, she doesn’t have to come to some grand conclusion about it. Leaving the question of intention open, using it as an entry point for civic discussion (a comments feature would be nice), would be one way to effectively use the rhetoric beat in this case.

December 28, 2007

How to Write a Local Citizen’s Column

Are the local columns of citizens getting worse, or am I just getting too picky? Perhaps, as with so many things, the truth may be found somewhere in the “middle” of another simplistic dichotomy.

I recently wrote about how to write a letter to the editor. And I had a letter published in the Springfield News-Leader recently complaining about a local column in order to illustrate the silliness of dividing the world into left versus right by local columnists and the paper’s encouragement of same. Today, I want to give my tips for writing a good, local citizen’s column.

(Caveat: If you’re the kind of person who thinks your side is always right and the other side is always wrong, stop reading here. You’re too stupid to understand what I’m about to suggest.)

How to write a local citizen’s column:

1. Follow the guidelines offered by the newspaper regarding length, style, tone, etc. If the style is to run a mug shot, provide one in the .jpg format. And please make it a nice photo. Spend some money if you have to. “Mug shot” is the colloquial term for it; the paper doesn’t really want something that looks like you’ve been arrested.

2. Consider learning a little rhetoric. I’m not talking about the pejorative understanding of that term (i.e. empty and evasive language). I’m talking about the art of persuasion. Rhetoric will teach you how to discover your arguments, how to arrange your arguments effectively, and how to make cogent, effective, and stylistically pleasing points. One of the worst things about local columns is how poorly written so many of them are. I think smooth writing is within the ability of anyone willing to put in a little effort. So put in a little effort.

3. Just because the paper has a title for the column (e.g. “From the Left” or “From the Right”) doesn’t mean you have to stoop to the level of blind partisanship. No one, except other cranks, cares about your opinion of godless liberal traitors or ignorant conservative fascists. While “left” and “right” are simplistic and divisive, we can generally understand that positions on civic issues may be roughly identified with these political labels. The purpose of your column, however, should be to help move civic conversation forward, not simply bash the other side.

4. Have a point; make a point. A point is different from an opinion. For example: You may hold the opinion that teachers are underpaid. No one cares. But you might have a good point about how to correct what you believe is a problem. Two of the biggest mistakes you can make are 1) not having a point that follows from your opinion, or 2) making more than one point.

5. Be a journalist. If you’re submitting a column to the local newspaper then you are a journalist. Will you be a good journalist or a poor journalist? A good journalist reports, i.e. does the necessary work to discover the facts. A good journalist presents facts as fairly and accurately as possible and tells readers how they know the facts are the facts. Good opinion journalism is built upon good reporting. Otherwise, you’re just another crank with an opinion. (Sadly, there are far too many professional opinion journalists who are simply cranks with opinions.)

December 27, 2007

The Press and Political Bullshit

First, watch this important news report.

One way that people use humor is to mitigate pain. That’s partly why satire is funny–it points out the source of pain and attempts to make it not-so-painful by making a joke of it. The best satire, then, is deadly serious. That’s what makes Jon Stewart et. al. so funny and so popular.

This “news” report makes an excellent satirical point about how the press influences political messages by what it chooses to cover. If you focus on bullshit, then bullshit is what becomes important. And if bullshit is important, then politicians are going to bullshit you.

Both the press and politicians can be the source of bullshit. But to beat back the rising tide of bovine do-do requires that the a press be unwilling to create it or spread it.

I’d like to see political journalists start calling out their colleagues and politicians for spreading bullshit. How might they accomplish this? Three ways to start: 1) Accept that bullshit is not news, and 2) start a rhetoric beat, and 3) tell a different story.

The hard part is finding some news organization that will decide its tired of creating and spreading bullshit. As profit-driven businesses (in which the advertiser is the customer and the news consumer is the product), most news organizations are not interested in being different from the competition. And this means most political reporters are not interested in being different from the competition, except as they compete for the best bullshit.

I suggest reading Harry G. Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit to learn more.

(hat tip: busplunge)

December 26, 2007

When the Press Fails, by W. Lance Bennett

I’ve begun reading Lance Bennett’s new book, When the Press Fails, and I’ll post my thoughts and reactions as they seem appropriate. You may recall (and I hope you’ve read) Bennett’s famous textbook, News: The Politics of Illusion. It’s part of my required reading list for journalists.

Bennett and co-authors Regina Lawrence and Steven Livingston examine what they believe is the failure of the press to act as an effective government watchdog in the run-up to the war in Iraq. As they say in the introduction:

The story here is that the press has grown too close to the sources of power in this nation, making it largely the communication mechanism of the government, not the people.

Depending upon how the authors mean this, I may agree. We’ll see.

One of the ways they mean this–and I agree–is that journalism is far too dependent upon official sources of information for confirmation of reality. This is an ethical problem that I tackled in my essay (with Doug McGill and Jeremy Iggers) in the current issue of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. Journalists tend to need confirmation–even second hand–of the first-hand experiences of non-official sources. In other words, for journalism, it often ain’t real until someone in power says it’s real.

And if two people in power disagree, then the reality is (the news is) that they disagree–not that one of them might actually be wrong and one of them might actually have the facts.

Political journalism as currently practiced in the United States lives in very strange epistemological territory.

They further state:

The heart of our concern in this book is why information that may challenge and even undermine official accounts of events is so often screened out of the mainstream news unless there is an opposing official to be the champion who brings it into the story.


The ironic result is that the U.S. press system works best when government is already working well–debating alternatives, responding to challenges from citizen interest groups–and when elected opponents publicly hold each other accountable.


…when other officials inside circles of power…fail to speak out against prevailing government claims…there is no engine to drive critical news coverage.

Bold claims. We’ll see.

Journalism is not entirely a failure. But I do think political journalism–arguably the most important kind–is largely a failure today. Bennett is exploring two important reasons: political journalists are too close power and put too much trust in official sources (status quo bias). Although he does characterize it specifically in the introduction, a third reason following from the previous two is the curious invention strategy of the rhetoric of so much political journalism today: stenography.  

December 25, 2007

Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men

For your listening pleasure today, here’s an encore of my Christmas Wars podcast from 2005:

Rhetorica Podcast

December 20, 2007

Story Formula #42: The Social Trend

Okay, let’s suppose you’re a reporter and your editor gives you this assignment: Find out how people who get their news from Jon Stewart are getting their news during the writer’s strike.

How will you cover this? Perhaps as Verne Gay did for Newsday.

Step one: Find young people who will claim they get their news from The Daily Show. Avoid anyone who claims something more complicated. What you want are provacative quotes that support your assumption.

Step two: Call experts who won’t question the assumption of your story.

Step three: Bury what’s really interesting and deserves coverage: How do fans use these shows in civic and political ways, and how do you know?

December 18, 2007

FCC Changes Media Ownership Rules

From the Associated Press just minutes ago:

WASHINGTON – The Federal Communications Commission, overturning a 32-year-old ban, voted Tuesday to allow broadcasters in the nation’s 20 largest media markets to also own a newspaper.

What does this mean? That’s difficult to say. Are broadcasters itching to buy newspapers? Are broadcast corporations, or the larger corporations that own the broadcast corporations, interested in buying into the news chains? I have no idea.

The idea behind the rule was to make it more difficult for a limited number of owners to control the news. Is this a proper function of government? There are excellent arguments that it is not. And, perhaps, with the ability of citizens to publish and distribute information, news, and entertainment at low cost, perhaps it doesn’t matter anymore.

Well, assuming the internet stays free and open.

December 18, 2007

Way Totally Cool

My book has arrived! Hoo-ray!

Click here, and buy many copies. It’ll make a great Christmas gift for your family and friends 🙂

But seriously folks, I’m just glad this thing is finally in print. The whole project began one evening while I was still in grad school. Professor Skidmore mentioned one of his first books, Word Politics, in class. I got the bright idea to suggest we collaborate on an updated edition. And he agreed!

The result is Politics and Language, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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