March 28, 2008

What Sticks, What Slides

Matt Bai has a “postulate” about why some political missteps dog candidates and why others seem to fade quickly away: “…whether or not a bad moment sticks to the candidate depends on how closely related it is to the core rationale of that candidate or his opponent.”

Sounds good. If this postulate is to become a theory will depend entirely on its ability to predict outcomes.

One thing is missing in the Bai postulate: The role of the news media. His postulate seems to assume that news of political missteps come from nowhere or everywhere or just spring fully formed in the public mind. The fact of the matter is this: Most Americans experience presidential campaign politics through the news media and/or the interactive media. In other words– mediated.

One might posit this amended postulate: Whether or not a bad moment sticks to the candidate depends on how closely the news media and pundits connect it to the core rationale of that candidate or his opponent and how much time and ink is spent discussing the connection.

March 27, 2008

Head-slap Moment for the Times

Perhaps The New York Times is behind the times. Or perhaps it thinks its readers are. Today’s head-slap moment –wow, there’s information sharing going on out there!– demonstrates something far more interesting about how people use the internet. The article begins:

Senator Barack Obama’s videotaped response to President Bush’s final State of the Union address — almost five minutes of Mr. Obama’s talking directly to the camera — elicited little attention from newspaper and television reporters in January.

But on the medium it was made for, the Internet, the video caught fire. Quickly after it was posted on YouTube, it appeared on the video-sharing site’s most popular list and Google’s most blogged list. It has been viewed more than 1.3 million times, been linked by more than 500 blogs and distributed widely on social networking sites like Facebook.

It is not news that young politically minded viewers are turning to alternative sources like YouTube, Facebook and late-night comedy shows like “The Daily Show.” But that is only the beginning of how they process information.

According to interviews and recent surveys, younger voters tend to be not just consumers of news and current events but conduits as well — sending out e-mailed links and videos to friends and their social networks. And in turn, they rely on friends and online connections for news to come to them. In essence, they are replacing the professional filter — reading The Washington Post, clicking on — with a social one.

Anyone paying attention for the past 10 years knows what social networking is (or anyone who has neighbors, friends, and family). The internet simply makes social networking easier and more efficient. And, like any new medium, the internet has other effects on communication that we’re only just now beginning to anticipate and understand.

But what strikes me about this article is how it misses something far more interesting about what young people (and some old ones) are passing on. We learn from the article that they like to pass on video. But of what exactly? And what does that mean?

The lead, perhaps, gives us a clue: The “unfiltered” response of Barack Obama (could be any public person speaking directly to the public on an issue of public importance). What is it about such an artifact that would elicit 1.3 million views?

I hesitate to conclude that people simply want unfiltered news (there really is no such thing, BTW). I’m thinking they might actually want something that typical news coverage isn’t giving them. Now there’s a story!

March 25, 2008

How Should the Press Cover Campaigns?

The American Journalism Review takes a look at how much has gone wrong in political coverage of the nomination campaigns. And you can read my essay on the topic at Media Ethics. [Ed. Note: The AJR quotes Andrew Cline– the other one.]

I agree with much of what Paul Farhi has to say here. My essay is a bit more specific about what I think the press should be doing–argued on ethical grounds.

I look forward to the day when essays such as these begin doing some good. Hmmmmmm… I’m 51 years old… that means… well, one of you younger Rhetorica readers can visit my grave and tell me all about it.

March 25, 2008

What is News?

The Huffington Post has an interesting Q & A with Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. I found this part, from the introduction, particularly interesting (Pincus speaking on the topic of courage in journalism):

A new element of courage in journalism would be for editors and reporters to decide not to cover the president’s statements when he or she–or any public figure–repeats essentially what he or she has said before. Journalistic courage should also include the decision not to publish in a newspaper or carry on a television or radio news show any statements made by government officials that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public.

Here’s the portion of the interview that covers this topic:

PINCUS: Courage to me is not printing what the President says when he has been saying the same thing day after day. And he’s saying it so it will be printed, not because it’s news. It’s not news that the President thinks we’re winning in Iraq, but the fact that you’re printing it every day makes the public at large really sort of believe the President and begin to think maybe we are.

EDSALL: So at that juncture, when the president is simply repeating himself, what is the function of a newspaper?

PINCUS: I guess you don’t print it.

EDSALL: What do you do instead?

PINCUS: You ought to have your own agenda. We had no problem printing Walter Reed [the prize-winning Washington Post expose of substandard conditions for wounded Iraq war veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.] because it was something so outrageous. Walter Reed is a metaphor. Walter Reed is a metaphor to show this administration talks about how important the war is, et cetera, et cetera, but here’s an illustration, at Walter Reed they don’t take care of the people that got hurt. I mean, I’ve got a story going now about refugees. There are four and a half million refugees and the President doesn’t talk about it because it undermines the idea that we’ve freed this country.

I’m uncomfortable with the term “agenda,” but I admire the honesty of it. Journalism has all kinds of agendas–some of them even overtly socio-political. Pincus would be comfortable if the whole enterprise were a bit more open about it. (Be careful not to conclude that his admits a so-called liberal or conservative bias. The press demonstrates all kinds of biases–some of them more harmful to the public than political bias.)

I agree with Pincus. It’s time to stop manufacturing “news” out of promotional statements made by politicians. Much of what we encounter as “news” in journalism today springs from PR efforts by all kinds of groups to create spin. These efforts from politicians, and the journalists who enable them, fill up page upon page of our newspapers and hours of time on our news broadcasts. It makes one wonder if political reporters are able to do much more perform stenographic services.

News is always a manufactured product because news is always a result of looking at the world in particular ways and describing it in particular ways. If journalists were to resist the efforts to spin them (and us), it might clear the way for more examination of policy and governance. It might clear the way for more voices to be heard.

Ah, but you see, that would then mean news corporations would have to spend more money on reporters–good ones, the kind who know how to do something more than write down what people say. That ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

March 24, 2008

Ombudsmen Can Be Important to Journalism

Simon Dumenco thinks the time has come to retire news ombudsmen (not that there are very many of them). He lists five reasons, and I challenge those reasons:

Readers are doing it for themselves. Yes and no. Citizens can certainly keep an eye on journalism these days in a way not possible 20 years ago (see my earlier post today). But I think an intermediary–of a kind that Daniel Okrent was–can go a long way toward helping citizens and journalists understand each other. My essay on Daniel Okrent will be published later this year in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. I’ll have more to say on this at that time.

Chances are, Romenesko has already been there, done that. Certainly Romenesko is the “go-to place for not only journalistic navel-gazing but serious, worthy, in-depth considerations of journalistic issues.” But how does that help a reader of the Podunk Daily Bugle deal with a particular local issue?

Journalists and editors are doing it for themselves. This has nearly always been the case with decidedly mixed results hampered by professional arrogance. The whole point of having an ombudsman should be to create an intermediary not of the paper but who understands what journalists do–again, the Okrent model. That this does not describe the position of many ombudsmen is a failing of imagination on the part of American newspapers.

Ombudsmen are (sorry) boring as hell. This is an evaluation based on personal opinion. I cannot refute it. No one can. Dumenco finds them boring. My question: Who gives a rip?

The money’s better spent elsewhere. Newspapers are being squeezed by corporate owners who care little for journalism and much about profit. In an age when journalism itself is embattled, the ombudsmen can be a mediator of ethical standards and a boost to a news organization’s credibility.


March 24, 2008

What Will Be the Fate of Newspapers?

Eric Alterman, writing in The New Yorker, examines the history and fate of American newspapers. The whole essay is worth your time. I found this bit near the end particularly interesting:

And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly “red” or “blue.” This is not utterly new. Before Adolph Ochs took over the Times, in 1896, and issued his famous “without fear or favor” declaration, the American scene was dominated by brazenly partisan newspapers. And the news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.

I generally agree with this except for the part about losing “a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of ‘facts’ by which to conduct our politics.” No such thing has ever existed, although creating a single narrative and set of “facts” has certainly been an unstated goal of establishment journalism since the early 20th century.

The craft that journalists learn and attempt to practice is founded on a particular epistemology that understands the world as knowable in a particular way. This particular way demands that journalists create a fictional general audience; such an audience does not in fact exist. It is the creation of a fictional audience that is partly responsible for the notion that a single national narrative can and should exist.

In this system: Who gets to say what the narrative is? Why do they get to say? Answers: Journalists. And because the journalism establishment has largely enjoyed, up until the invention of the internet, a communicative monopoly made possible by non-interactive media. The communicative mode is changing, however, from lecture to conversation.

Professional journalism will play a very important role in whatever brave new world is coming. That set of “facts” that Alterman mentions does in fact exist. What facts mean is always open to debate and interpretation. But it offends logic to suppose that any of us get to have our own set of facts. At the moment, journalists enjoy a particular (and somewhat uncomfortable) edge over citizens in gathering facts. There is no governmental sanction or licensing of journalism in America, but just try getting government official to talk to you on the record outside the aegis of a news organization.

(This situation may change somewhat over time. Evidence: Life of Jason in Springfield, Missouri.)

What if professional journalists concentrated on being custodians of fact who operate with a discipline of verification? Might that give all those people tapping away on the internet something worth thinking about, something worth acting upon?

There is no way to scrub narrative from journalism because humans understand the world in terms of narrative. What I have said of journalism is actually true of most human communication: We apply a narrative structure to ambiguous events in order to create a coherent and causal sense of events. To truly understand that assertion is to understand that any given narrative is a human construct that can be re-constructed.

The problem with journalism is that journalists too often create only one narrative per news event, thus they alienate those who do not see themselves in the story or, as is the case now, see themselves as empowered to construct their own narratives.

March 20, 2008

The Medium is the Message

Megan Garber has a few questions:

Why wasn’t the fuller picture of Wright—serviceman, intellectual, community organizer—part of the narrative that spread about him in the mass media? Why didn’t we in the press do a better job of fleshing out Wright as a full, complex person—with the mix of strengths and weaknesses that is in us all—rather than dismissing him as an empty amalgamation of incendiary sound bites? That more humanized picture of Wright wouldn’t have explained away his comments, but it would have, at least, started to explain them—and placed them in the proper human context. It would have rooted them in the complexity of the African-American experience, rather than letting them hover, disembodied, in the ether of the cable news cycle.

The answers are not simple, but they start with Marshall McLuhan. Television is a medium of a certain kind. Therefore journalistic messages relayed by that medium must be of a certain kind. Depth, context, and nuance are not a part of the visual-emotional mix necessary for “good” television.

I think Wright’s comments are a legitimate concern. As are those of Rod Parsley, the man John McCain has called a “spiritual guide.” Perhaps the press also ought to look at the ideas and qualities of these men that might command the respect of Obama and McCain. I have no idea what there might be to respect–if anything–because all we get are the emotional loops.

If we are to get this fuller look a print journalist will have to give it to us.

March 20, 2008

Jon Stewart Smacks Down News Media Again

That’s really a silly headline because I could type it after nearly every episode of The Daily Show. But last night’s performance was particularly biting. And it echoed Jay Rosen’s criticism of cable news coverage of Barack Obama’s speech about race.

Why do we put up with this?

Ah, but we don’t. Not that many people actually watch cable news 🙂

March 19, 2008

Checkers II?

Richard Nixon delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches in American history on 23 September 1952. It has become known as the Checkers speech–after the maudlin moment in which he evokes the name of the family dog. Nixon was accused in the press of benefiting personally from a secret campaign slush fund. To save his place on the Republican ticket, Nixon made the extraordinary move of taking his case to the people through a televised speech.

Yesterday Barack Obama took his case to the American people, this time defending himself against guilt by association. But was this speech (merely) a campaign tactic?

To use television as Nixon did in 1952 was something of a masterstroke. The emotional medium allowed him to make two kinds of cases: 1) propositional answers (logos) to the charges and 2) emotional and ethical appeals (pathos and ethos) regarding himself and his family. The popular name of the speech tells you which of these won the day–pathos.

Was this Obama’s masterstroke? He can’t re-break Nixon’s ground. But, agree with him or not, what he did was talk frankly about race in a speech that relies on a complex employment of ethos. The ancient Greek rhetoricians identified two types of ethical appeal. Invented ethos is an appear that emerges in the text. Situated ethos is an appeal to whom the person is before the text.

We know television is an emotional medium in which skillful employment of pathos can be profoundly persuasive. Will Obama’s moment show us that a speech heavy in the ethical appeal will/can be as persuasive?

The Blogora also took note of Obama’s ethical appeal:

This one exudes so much ethos that the other pisteis are shakin’ in their phronetic boots–and the hermeneuts of suspicion (may they rest in peace) are knockin’ on heaven’s door.

Clint Hendler, at CJR Daily, wonders if we can turn this moment from just another turn in the campaign horse race to something more substantial:

Let’s meet him where’s he’s led us. There’s no reason Clinton and McCain can’t join in, but again, this needn’t—and in some ways shouldn’t—be a campaign-focused conversation. It’s a long overdue national conversation.

If we can make this a national conversation that spills out of the confines of the campaign, then Obama will have his masterstroke no matter what happens in the Democratic nomination campaign and beyond.

March 18, 2008

Check the Facts

Zachary Roth has a radical idea: The New York Times should fact-check op-eds. Let’s not stop there. All news organizations should fact-check every syndicated columnist, local columnist, and op-ed contributor.

Roth has it (almost) exactly right:

The Times presumably wants to avoid factual errors of any kind on its op-ed pages, but especially on controversial campaign issues. An obvious way to do that is to fact-check these pieces. If anything, op-eds cry out for more rigorous fact-checking than ordinary news stories, not less. As in this case, they often deal with provocative topics, and exert a greater influence over the public debate than news stories, thus exacerbating the damage a factual error can cause. And, unlike some breaking news stories, op-eds tend to have a bit more lead time, making fact-checking more plausible.

I would caution him about implying (intended?) in any way whatsoever that news articles can withstand a bit less, or a bit more lax, fact-checking than op-eds. But he has the right idea all the same.

Care to guess what would happen if news organizations decided to the do the right thing (do their jobs!) and edit opinion journalism? 🙂 If these things are not edited and fact-checked, then they are not, technically speaking, journalism at all. Un-checked, un-edited opinion is punditry. I would hope punditry is not what America’s news organizations intend… OK, stop snickering.

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