January 30, 2008

It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Or is it? We’re not even out of January–haven’t even made it to Super Tuesday–and already the Mayer model has failed to predict one of the two nominees for president. The model predicted victories for Giuliani and Clinton. But, apparently, Giuliani will drop out of the race later today.

So what’s going on? It’s too early to tell. But here are a few possibilities:

1. Nothing has changed. The model will remain statistically significant even if it fails completely this year. (Note: Giuliani’s “lead” in the last Gallup poll was really no lead at all–well inside the margin of error.)

2. Everything has changed. Political campaigns now work exactly as portrayed by the press master narrative. [UPDATE: Actually, there could be several interesting things happening that fall under #2. Check out the comments for two possibilities.]

3. Something else has changed. For example, why are pollsters having such problems predicting outcomes? Could it be there’s something wrong with their system? I suspect it’s getting difficult to obtain accurate results in the era of cell phones, caller ID, and no-call lists.

I’m thinking we’re looking at a combination of 1 and 3. But wait and see. It could be 2. It could be something else.

January 25, 2008

The Logic of Political Journalism

Gotta watch those pesky politicians ‘cuz you just know they’re out to pull the wool over the people’s eyes. What other reason do they have to run for office? We need a watch dog. Let’s call him the “press.”

Here’s one of the things you gotta watch out for: Politicians who use their own money to run for office. Such nefarious characters are trying to buy an election. Never mind the money they raise from others and use to buy the things necessary to win. That money is clean because it signals an endorsement. That raised money is used to buy the same things as personal money is beside the point.

Here’s an example of this silliness from last night’s Republican debate:

MR. RUSSERT: Another quick question. People observing this race in Florida have been somewhat amazed by the number of television ads you’ve been running. Can you tell the voters of Florida and Republicans across the country, how much of your own money have you spent on this race so far?

MR. ROMNEY: In Florida? We’ll report that on the — on the 31st of January as required by law, and probably not a minute earlier. You’ll just have to wait, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: But why not tell the voters of Florida and across the country how much of your own wealth you’re spending so they can make a judgment and factor that into their — their own decision?

Question: Why would a voter factor such a thing into a voting decision? Why would a person concerned with political issues, which actually affect his life, give a damn about personal money? Well, I can think of one thing that challenges the journalistic logic: Perhaps a voter might think better of a candidate willing to spend his own money. But one gets the clear impression from Russert’s entire performance last night that that’s now quite where the Sunday morning sage wants to go with this.

Read the transcript. Study the questions. It’s difficult to imagine how such bad questions (i.e. promote contention and fail to elicit information) can be tolerated by candidates and the voting public.

January 22, 2008

The Mindless Political Press

My media/political bias page is one of the first things I wrote for The Rhetorica Network in the spring of 2002. What I wanted to do is drive home the idea that journalists do what they do based on structural biases of professional practice. You can also call them frames. You can also understand them as professional common sense or professional ideology.

Is a structural bias intentional?

If one intends to practice journalism then I assume one intends to produce a product understood to be journalism. And to do this requires that one learn how to report and write like a journalist. That’s the craft part. The structural biases are embedded in the craft the way girders are embedded in a skyscraper.

Being a rhetoric scholar, I insist my journalism students learn the craft critically, i.e. (but not limited to) thinking about why journalists do the things they do and what it means to the product and the citizens who use the product.

As I’ve said before, I may not be doing them any favors teaching this way. But one thing I’m sure of: Some methods and approaches appear to me to simply reproduce journalists able to do little more than practice the craft. 

Jay Rosen just published a scathing essay in which he challenges political journalism with an apt metaphor (also re: this at PressThink): mindlessness, i.e political journalism is the “beast without a brain.” Here’s what he means:

No one’s in charge, or “the process” is. Conventional forms thrive, even if few believe they work. Routines master people. The way it’s been done “chooses” the way it shall be done.

I’d like to post this in my classroom. In four short sentences, Rosen has cogently justified my quirky way of teaching journalism. Routines cannot easily master critical thinkers because critical thinkers are thinking critically about everything they do. I know that sounds odd, so let me try it this way: Critical thinking is all about challenging conventions, all about asking why. But more, it’s also all about not being bound by any particular way of thinking (except, perhaps, the conventions of critical thinking–but that’s another matter).

Journalists do not challenge conventions. They learn them–from their professors and then from their editors and peers. Rosen’s essay shows why they stick to them. And he calls it mindlessness.

Here’s another particularly interesting moment from Rosen’s essay:

Nonetheless, it’s important to remember: The media has no mind. It might appear to decide things, but if no one takes responsibility for “Edwards must win Iowa,” then it’s not really a decision the media made, but a convergence of judgment among people who may instantly converge around a different judgment if it turns out that Edwards isn’t done after failing to win Iowa.

That’s pretty mindless. Strangely, though, the argument that the media has no mind serves almost no one’s agenda, with one exception, ably represented by Jon Stewart, but including all who satirize the news and the news criers, exposing their collective mindlessness and making it almost… enjoyable.

Yes. But. I would suggest that the argument that “the media has no mind” serves a postmodernist critical agenda (which may certainly include what Jon Stewart does). Journalism as it has been understood until recently is a modernist, positivist enterprise that clings to the old noetic field. That field is dying partly because the postmodernist contraption we call the internet is teaching citizens to talk back–to create and fight for their own realities that won’t be bound by false expertise and the inverted pyramid story structure.

The political press has been mindless in the way Rosen argues for a long time. And it appears to be getting worse–perhaps, in part, because of 1) the primacy of the emotional medium of television in political journalism and 2) increasing pressure to be expert at something now that citizens can be journalists, too.

There’s a lot more to think about and discuss in Rosen’s essay. More later…

January 17, 2008

A Daily Show of Criticism

The edges are pretty rough, but Jon Stewart is back as America’s best media critic using the medium of television. In case you’ve missed it, until the WGA strike ends, or other accommodations are made, Stewart is doing A Daily Show and not The Daily Show. Ha ha, I guess.

Last night Stewart pointed out one of the reasons political journalism practiced on television harms our democracy. I’ve written about it. Jay Rosen has written about it. But you just can’t beat sarcastic satire for driving home the fact that many television journalists can’t think about politics without creating a master narrative that ensures conflict (of the playground kind).

His take down of “taking off the gloves” and the “race card” was spot on.

Where are America’s editors?

January 15, 2008

Defending Freedom of Speech

Watch this video of a right-wing Canadian publisher doing a bang-up good job defending the right to free speech against a charge committing a hate-speech crime by his provincial government.

I found this on Glenn Greenwald’s blog at Salon. The fruits of hate-speech laws are certainly noxious–equally so on college campuses where academics ought to know better.

I have no idea who Ezra Levant is or what he writes about. Greenwald calls him a “pernicious” commentator. But, as he makes clear, that’s hardly the point. Free men have the right to speak whether we like what they have to say or not. 

The corrective to speech you don’t like is more speech.

January 15, 2008

Calm Before the Storm

Slow blogging the past few days– mostly because I was returning from vacation and getting ready for the spring semester. Classes began yesterday. I’m teaching feature writing, photojournalism, and, as usual, media ethics (my main class).

The media ethics students will again be writing for The Golden Mean. I encourage you to read their work and challenge them as necessary. One thing to remember: I use that blog for reading response, so all of the entries will be tied to the chapters in the textbook. As I have done in the past (since 1996), I’ll be using the presidential campaign to focus class discussion.

Other Rhetorica news: I’m busy writing a chapter on bias for 21st Century Communications, to be published later this year by Sage. The deadline is rapidly approaching, so my posting schedule here will be erratic for the next two weeks. I’ll be fully on the job of covering the coverage of the campaign (and making some observations about political rhetoric) a few days before Super Tuesday.

January 9, 2008

Stenographing the Campaign

Taegan Goddard has a question:

Were today’s stories about an impending shake up in the Clinton campaign planted to lay the groundwork for a Clinton comeback story? If so, it was an absolutely brilliant move.

Any competent campaign will attempt to spin expectations before a vote. Any competent reporter should be able to resist that spin. Political stenographers, however, simply write down what campaigns say and pass it along without verification. They pass along assertions of opinion as fact. Pundits do the same–the most independent of them adding their own spin; the partisans merely regurgitating what they’ve been fed.

Campaigns attempt to create master narratives. Controlling a candidate’s story is an important rhetorical tactic. Stories are powerful persuaders because, as we say in academia, narrative denies its own rhetoricity, i.e. stories persuade partly because they don’t seem to be nakedly intended to persuade. Stenographers accept these stories. Reporters check them against reality while resisting creating master narratives of their own.

Suppose a communication person for Clinton begins talking down expectations before a primary–even hinting at a shake up. A stenographer writes this down and puts it in a news story. A reporter checks the facts (which could start with this question: how in the hell can a campaign that’s had a commanding lead in the national polls since the beginning be anything but confident?).

January 8, 2008

Creative Writing in America

Hillary Clinton has been leading the national polls since she began her campaign. She has not spent a single second of this campaign in anything but the lead (correction: one recent poll has Clinton and Obama tied). She is not an underdog.

She has not staged a comeback. One must be behind in order to come back.

Losing in Iowa might be called a setback, but that’s one state that represents a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the national vote. Not much of a setback.

Yet in the fiction that is American political journalism– for example, as authored by a creative writer for the Washington Post–Clinton staged a remarkable comeback in New Hampshire.

I would even be cautious about calling the McCain victory a comeback. Let’s get past Super Tuesday and see where the candidates stand.

On CNN, Lou Dobbs just asked the audience to stay tuned because “politics just got a lot more interesting.” Apparently, like his colleague Wolf Blitzer, he’s incapable of embarrassment.

January 8, 2008

Big Turn Out in New Hampshire

I’ll be interested to know what role younger voters play in New Hampshire today.

You might read the comments to my post yesterday wondering if the Mayer model will fail this year. Vardibidian writes:

So, a couple of questions I am musing over… If the Mayer prediction breaks down, is that a Good Thing or a Bad Thing for our elections and our democracy? If we can say it’s a Bad Thing that our press has been misinforming us about the way that candidates are chosen, is it a Better Thing that the actuality comes closer to that way? Is it the case that the electorate in some sense wants the dramatic world Mayer persuasively claims is fictional? Or is the (it seems to me) rising voice of frustration with Iowa/New Hampshire an indication that the electorate wants a Mayer system, that is, the one they have but don’t know they have?

These are interesting questions. I don’t have interesting answers. Wait and see.

I’m thinking the youth vote may represent a challenge to the model by introducing into the process a group that was largely unimportant before now (because they didn’t vote in numbers great enough to make a difference).

January 8, 2008

The State of Political Reporting Today

Just click here and read about how sick and sad political reporting has become in the United States.

Is it news if a candidate shows emotion or cries? I think not, unless the emotion is unusual in some way or out of proportion to the situation. Neither of these obtained in the Clinton case.

Here’s a more interesting question: Is Wolf Blitzer capable of embarrassment?

If you’re a right-winger taking particular glee in this–don’t. One of your boys will be the target of this kind of nonsense soon enough (and already has been). No one should be the target of this kind of nonsense. This stuff tells us nothing about the political process and fails journalism’s primary purpose: To give people the information they need to be free and self-governing.

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