February 27, 2008

Where We Are Now

Just in case you missed it last night:

1. Russert’s question is not designed to do anything other that make Obama uncomfortable. Are we supposed to glean from his discomfort some idea of his leadership ability?

2. Clinton’s parsing of “reject” versus “denounce” is classic–depending, of course, on what the meaning of “is” is.

February 27, 2008

WTF? Ya Gotta Be Kiddin Me

Woo-hoo! Next Tuesday is National Grammar Day! Ha! And you thought the big news was the Ohio and Texas primaries. Nope. Tuesday will be all about making sure everyone writes and speaks right.

You’ll find some details and commentary at Language Log–a blog written by people who actually know something about language. This gets it about right:

The first is the assumption that non-standard variants are unclear and therefore impede communication.  This proposition is mostly just taken for granted, without any kind of defense — in what way is “between you and I” less clear than “between you and me”?  in what way is “all shook up” less clear than “all shaken up”?  they’re non-standard, certainly, but LESS CLEAR? — and the occasional explanations of how particular non-standard usages are unclear don’t survive scrutiny.  Instead, it’s just an article of faith that non-standard variants (and conversational, informal, and innovative variants, and variants restricted to certain geographic regions or social groups) are unclear, vague, sloppy, or lazy; the written, formal, established, generally used standard variants are taken to be intrinsically superior, and everything that deviates from them to be intrinsically debased to some degree.  I have yet to see actual arguments in favor of this idea, and it has always struck me as deeply mean-spirited.  After all, you can point out that some variant is standard (generally used by the educated middle class) and an alternative non-standard without demonizing the non-standard variant.

The point Arnold Zwicky is making here is particularly important from a rhetorical perspective. False claims of impeding communication work to silence dissent from groups that speak/write in so-called “non-standard” forms. The “mistakes” allow critics to ignore substance–whew!–and diss a message on style (thus implying the speaker is stuuuupid). How convenient!

(When I write about such things, someone usually responds with: So you teach journalism students it’s OK to make mistakes? Nooooooo. I teach them a professional discourse that is neither correct nor incorrect. It is simply the way one should write if one wishes to practice journalism and get paid for it. Oh, and I teach them never to look down on those who write and speak differently.)

So Rhetorica formally declares next Tuesday as National Talk, Like, What-Evrrr Day. Get out there and deliver your messages to the world fearing not in the scorn of those desiccated souls who would police your language at the expense of your thoughts.

Man, I wanna dig your rap.

February 24, 2008

Hoyt Hits Nail on Head; Will Nail Listen?

Clark Hoyt, public editor of The New York Times, examines the recent McCain story and–no surprise–demonstrates he understands the basics of good journalism:

A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

The pity of it is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story. McCain, who was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for exercising “poor judgment” by intervening with federal regulators on behalf of a corrupt savings and loan executive, recast himself as a crusader against special interests and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet he has continued to maintain complex relationships with lobbyists like Iseman, at whose request he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to urge a speed-up on a decision affecting one of her clients.

Much of that story has been reported over the years, but it was still worth pulling together to help voters in 2008 better understand the John McCain who might be their next president.

Now the question is: Will Bill Keller listen? Yesterday I charged him with arrogance of a type all too common in journalism: “We know the truth.” Will he stand by the story, or will he acknowledge what is apparent to so many (across the simplistic political divide): The Times mucked-up a good story leading with the stink sexual shenanigans it cannot prove.

February 22, 2008

Supposed Sex is Sexier Than No Sex

It is not possible that Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, is a stupid man. You can’t get where he’s got and be dumb. But that doesn’t mean you can’t say dumb things (re: reaction to the McCain story):

And, frankly, I was a little surprised by how few readers saw what was, to us, the larger point of the story. Perhaps here, at the outset of this conversation, is a good point to state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing.

I’ll be happy to sponsor Mr. Keller to take our JRN270 Introduction to Journalism class as a refresher. Here’s what he’d learn: The lead to a news or news analysis article is supposed to be the most important new development or the most important context in which to understand the news. If you smear the lead with mud then dirt is the context of the story. The time to “state as clearly as possible our purpose in publishing” (i.e. what is the news?) was in the lead paragraphs of the article.

The New York Times led with sex.

And not even good sex. It led with anonymously-sourced maybe-sex that the public is supposed to trust that the NYT got right.

Sorry. No thanks. Not buying that snake oil.

No. Bill Keller is not stupid. He instead suffers an affliction all too common among journalists, especially those at the “top” of the profession–arrogance.

February 22, 2008

Voice of Panic, part 2

From a report on the Democratic debate by The New York Times:

Playing off a trademark line of Mr. Obama’s, she said: “Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in. It’s change you can Xerox.”

The comment elicited loud groans and some applause from the audience at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mr. Obama softly spoke over her, saying, “Oh, but that’s not what happened there,” yet eventually chose not to engage, saying he wanted to reply only to her criticism on the issues. A moment earlier, though, he had defended his use of Mr. Patrick’s language, saying that it was limited to two lines–and that the criticisms reflected a “silly season in politics.”

“The notion that I had plagiarized from somebody who’s one of my national co-chairs who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think is silly,” he said to applause and laughter.

I don’t care to go into a long explanation of plagiarism right now. But I will say this: What constitutes plagiarism is not the same across rhetorical contexts. Clinton’s charge only works if we accept an academic or journalistic context. Obama, however, is not writing scholarly or journalistic texts for scholarly or journalistic purposes. Further, it seems clear (and on the record) that Obama and Patrick have given each other permission to share good lines. 

February 21, 2008

Sex Sells

In regard to today’s story about John McCain in The New York Times, Kelly McBride, an ethicist with Poynter, opened her remarks this way:

Within minutes of posting a long story on Sen. John McCain’s ethical blindspots Wednesday evening, The New York Times’ Web site was gathering hundreds of comments. Although the thrust of the story was an examination of the Republican candidate’s mixed record on moral and ethical choices, that’s not what most readers will take away.

There’s a very good reason why readers do not take away from this article that it’s an otherwise entirely fair and appropriate “examination of the Republican candidate’s mixed record on moral and ethical choices”: The New York Times led with sex.

You don’t have to be a journalism major or have taken a media literacy class to know that the first thing a newspaper tells you (i.e. the lead paragraphs) are what it thinks is the most important information in the story or the most important context in which to understand the story.

The New York Times led with sex!

McBride is 100 percent correct:

The Times’ story is about McCain’s contradictory nature. But leading and ending with the most salacious example of that contradiction guarantees that as the story is retold today, it will become a question of whether McCain had an affair.

Public Editor Clark Hoyt needs to address this article in his Sunday column. (Ed. Note: I sent Hoyt e-mail this morning asking him to address it.)

I’ll be interested in the rationalizations for this choice. To get a jump on why such things occur, I suggest you check out the structural biases of journalism.

UPDATE: An inside look at this story from The New Republic.

UPDATE: Apparently NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller doesn’t understand that “facts” presented in journalism always exist in a context that journalism itself creates.

UPDATE: CJR has five questions for Bill Keller.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen has several observations and questions.

February 19, 2008

Is This the Voice of Panic?

According to Political Wire, Hillary Clinton will give a speech shortly–before the polls close in Wisconsin. Here’s an excerpt:

Both Senator Obama and I would make history. But only one of us is ready on day one to be commander in chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to defeat the Republicans. Only one of us has spent 35 years being a doer, a fighter and a champion for those who need a voice. That is what I would bring to the White House. That is the choice in this election… It’s about picking a president who relies not just on words–but on work, hard work, to get America back to work. Someone who’s not just in the speeches business–but will get America back in the solutions business.

I hate the “card” metaphor, but here goes anyway: The press has been playing the race and gender cards. Clinton is playing the experience card at time when it may not be what voters want to hear. And she’s playing the empty-rhetoric card. That might have worked in 1952 before television became a force in campaign politics. Now it just seems like panic.

Antithesis is the obvious scheme for such a message. But also note her naked use of the strawman fallacy, e.g. “relies not just on words” and “not just in the speeches business.” Also note that the fallacy attacks the very thing that may draw voters to Obama. For example, read what an independent editorial editor says about listening to Obama:

I had seen some of Obama’s stump speeches. I remember when he burst upon the scene at the Democratic Convention a few years ago. I knew about “Yes I can.”

But this was different. I wasn’t listening as a journalist on Super Tuesday waiting to glean some sort of insight into what the election meant. I was just a guy watching three different candidates define themselves on national television. I was a citizen. A voter.

And I was watching a great orator become the voice of a new generation.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. sharing his dream. Neil Armstrong taking one giant leap for mankind. Ronald Reagan envisioning a shining city on a hill.

Never underestimate the power of eloquence in the television age. Neither should you assume that eloquence is simply the fluff of speech. The fluff has to hang on something or it will simply flutter away in the first breeze.

This item would not have drawn my interest if not for her delivering a speech 30 minutes before the polls close. That makes this an interesting study in kairos.

UPDATE: It’s not clear from CNN’s coverage when Clinton began her speech. But it appears to me that she started at some point after the polls closed in Wisconsin.

February 19, 2008

Feeding the Beast

Paul Farhi has an interesting article in today’s Washington Post about the expanding need for know-it-all bloviators (aka. pundits) to pontificate about the nomination campaign for cable news. This part is amusing:

Why are so many called to opine so often? Primarily because the news networks are covering the campaign so intensely, fueled by higher-than-usual viewership this year.

During the week of Super Tuesday, 75 percent of available airtime on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News was dedicated to dissecting the campaign, according to the Washington-based, nonprofit Project for Excellence in Journalism. That was more than 10 times the amount the cable news networks spent on the next most heavily reported story that week: the tornadoes in the Midwest and Southeast (the war in Iraq didn’t make the top five).

Did you catch it? We’re told more people are watching cable news (still dwarfed by the networks, btw), but the assertion is simply made without benefit of facts. We have to slog on to the middle of the article before we learn this:

It [i.e. lots of bloviating bloviators bloviating about the campaign] may also be helping the ratings. From late December to mid-February, CNN, Fox and MSNBC collectively recorded a 62 percent increase in their prime-time audience, compared with the same period in the last campaign in 2003-04, according to Nielsen data. During all hours of the day, the increase for the three networks was 73 percent.

What do the bloviating bloviators have to do with this increase? (Wow… Farhi used “may.” Good for him.) Who knows? But I really wonder if that’s it. I wonder if viewers simply want campaign news and turn to cable channels to get it (stop snickering; this is serious). Perhaps the viewers would have increased without endless chatter and the equally endless promotion of the endless chatter. (I just want to choke the snot out of Wolf Blitzer every time he says “And now, turning to America’s best political team on television…”)

The balance of the article tells us what wonderful experts these people are and how much money they make. Man, someone is getting ripped off. Care to guess who?

February 18, 2008

Zombies for Obama!

I’ve been fascinated by the whole “cult of Obama” thing. What does it mean?

The answer depends upon who is using the term and why they are using it (which, obviously, can be said of any human communication).

First, let’s separate this term from “Obama is a cult” because this is a much different assertion. You can see from the Google results that these search strings return very different results. For the most part we can dismiss the latter (depending upon what follows “cult”) as merely partisan nonsense. Nothing about anything Obama does or his supporters do can reasonably be called cult-like in the sense of a creepy, mystical group of zombies worshiping a nefarious leader. Trying to prove otherwise only makes one look silly.

“Cult of Obama,” on the other hand, seems to indicate something accurate and positive: “an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, [especially] as manifested by a body of admirers.” As in the kind of veneration many conservatives show for Ronald Reagan.

The problem here (or the opportunity, depending on your POV) is that “cult” generally has a negative connotation. There’s nothing negative about the definition cited above. But that’s generally not what people hear when one utters the world “cult” in regard to an actual person (as opposed to a thing, e.g. a “cult of physical fitness”).

Now, you might be thinking I’m about to chastise the political right for creating and perpetuating this silliness. Not so. And the reason is quite simple: It appears the culprits, for the most part, are “journalists.”

February 15, 2008

Why is This News?

A long time ago The New York Times adopted the motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The NYT played an interesting role in the history of journalism at a moment when journalism was struggling with its identity–to be about entertainment or about information (re: Discovering The News). The NYT chose the information model.

What, however, is information?

Let’s review Neil Postman’s articulation of information theory:

Information: Statements about facts in the world.
Knowledge: Organized information embedded in a context.
Wisdom: The capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems.

Information is foundational to knowledge and wisdom, but it is of little use by itself. Journalism, to be any good at all, to be of any use at all, must be a knowledge practice.

So, at first blush, one ought to ask: Why is this news? Why should we consider, or care about, anything Rush Limbaugh has to say about anything (or what the NYT has to say about Linbaugh). I mean, he’s the guy who will tell you straight up he’s “just an entertainer” whenever he gets himself into trouble. Who gives a rip who he plans to endorse for president or who he likes and doesn’t like or who he thinks is or isn’t a good conservative?

But you see, this is news. Good news–in the sense that it is attempting to create knowledge.

Here’s what I mean: This article is merely pegged to Limbaugh’s disdain for John McCain. It’s really an article about influence, or lack thereof, in political punditry today and what really motivates bloviators such as Limbaugh (hint: $$$). That’s a story that can’t be told enough (at least until it becomes difficult to make a living bloviating) these days, IMHO

The article is lacking, however, an examination of the role Limbaugh plays in popularizing right-wing spin points. But that has been well examined before, so the writer/editor may simply assume readers are well aware of 40+ years of political history.

(Left-wing attempts to inflict the same sort of nonsense on us also need further examination.) 

On the other hand, if the primary purpose of journalism is to give people the [knowledge] they need to be free and self-governing, then this article falls into some secondary category of purpose. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’d place articles such as this on a plane (or a rung of Hell) higher than the typical horse-race article.

Jason Wert, an interesting local blogger and citizen journalist, wrote a column published in today’s Springfield News-Leader examining the role of punditry in nomination campaign. 

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