April 30, 2008

CNN, MSNBC, FOX Did Not Do It

Our cable “news” organizations did not do it. But The Daily Show did. Is it journalism? It is useful information. From the Washington Post:

So here’s Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq four years ago, describing the situation in a TV interview in September 2003: “We’re not in a quagmire,” he’s saying confidently. “The progress is unbelievable.”

So what about that progress, general? Because here’s Sanchez, now retired, talking about Iraq in a video clip from last October: “There has been a glaring, unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders. . . . There’s no question that America is living a nightmare with no end in sight.”

The before-and-after videos didn’t air on CNN or MSNBC or ABC. Instead, the revealing sound bites ran back to back on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” The satiric Comedy Central program regularly unearths telling footage ignored or overlooked by the real news guys.

You see, the fact this this guy said one thing then and other thing now may be news.

Also important to the context is why he might have said what he said when he said it. That requires an act of journalism to uncover.

Sanchez qualifies as an important source by almost any journalistic standard. And it is an entirely fair and important reportorial function to point out this discrepancy and ask why.

Now, The Daily Show does not ask why or place much of its fodder into greater or more complex context. It plays for a laugh (cheap at that), but the satire of it encourages the audience to ask why. This is not journalism. Satire can be, however, an important contribution to civic discussion as criticism of the news media and politics.

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April 29, 2008

Just Say No (News)

Zachary Roth’s latest at CJR Daily demonstrates the difference between print (in which I include the internet) and television as news media. Print is a medium of propositional content and television is not. Television is a medium of sound and images.

The L. A. Times has ten questions for the candidates. These are not the kind of questions you typically hear from reporters working for television (although the best among them try). The reason is simple: Television cannot handle the answers. Television demands sound bites and moving pictures. Answers to these questions demand that the candidate deal with the normal complexities and contradictions of politics and policy. Only print can handle these kinds of questions and elicit the kinds of answers necessary to understanding the candidates’ policies (or lack thereof).

Roth quotes Adam Nagourney, of The New York Times, questioning what has become the conventional wisdom (the master narrative) of the last Democratic debate:

For all the concern voiced about the lack of discussion about issues like Iraq and health care, it seems fair to say that even the most slightly attuned Democratic voters already have a well-formed sense of the views of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. Further, one of the central dynamics of this campaign — and why things have seemed so strained as the candidates have sought areas of difference — is that these are two Democrats with fairly similar views of the world.

I think he’s wrong about what people know about the candidates (largely because substantive reporting about policy and governance is sparse compared to the horse race). But let’s suppose he’s right about something else. What a wonderful argument this is for sending all those reporters home to their families. What he’s saying here — perhaps without knowing it — is that no news happens regularly on the campaign trail. I know that’s true.

But when you fill the campaign bus with reporters —especially those who struggle to make TV work — and give them a 24-hour beast to feed, nonsense and trivia are what you’re going get. The debacle of the last debate is exactly what we all should expect.

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April 28, 2008

Grumpy? You bet!

You may have detected a bit a grumpiness in yesterday’s post on the Edward’s column in the NYT. The news about newspapers just keeps getting worse. Contemporary journalism’s inability to cover politics seriously is one small reason, I believe, for the decline. The focus on trivia slops over into other important civic coverage as well. Correcting this situation will not lead to a rebound in circulation or viewers (although turning off cable news is a good idea for protecting one’s ability to think). Taking journalism’s primary purpose seriously–especially regarding politics–would at least give news organizations something on which to hang the business of news (in any medium). Look at the circulation decline. Fluff ain’t getting the job done.

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April 27, 2008

Two Jobs, Both Important

Elizabeth Edwards wants journalists to do their jobs. As she writes in the Week in Review section of The New York Times:

If voters want a vibrant, vigorous press, apparently we will have to demand it. Not by screaming out our windows as in the movie “Network” but by talking calmly, repeatedly, constantly in the ears of those in whom we have entrusted this enormous responsibility. Do your job, so we can — as voters — do ours.

Edwards cogently points out how — and a bit of why — the press today fails its primary purpose: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. She is “talking calmly.” But no one is listening. They can’t hear you talk. They can’t hear you scream. They don’t want to hear. They want to keep doing what they are doing until the business of news drives “newspaper” journalism into the ground. Once it crashes and burns we may discover there is little left to replace it.

Yes, I’m a big proponent of citizen journalism–as an adjunct to the so-called MSM (but that assumes a  MSM that fulfills the primary purpose of journalism). Citizens can do a lot of journalism for themselves. But can we cover such things as a presidential campaign? I wonder.

Political journalism today is about the trivial not the important. Why? There are many reasons. For starters, covering the trivial is cheaper than covering the important. It takes fewer reporter-hours to cover, say, Barack Obama’s bowling score than to examine any particular policy and report it in a way that helps citizens understand. It’s cheaper to put cartoonish blowhards in front of a camera and have them fuss like children in a sandbox than to take cameras into the lives of real people affected by governance. Sourcing is easy. Flacks are standing by to comment. Any nitwit can get 15 inches of copy out of 37 pins.

One would think journalists might be embarrassed. But no. The profession teaches them to be arrogant. And if you work at one of the big national news organizations, arrogance becomes the shining armor of absolutely knowing that you know sooooo much more about how the world works than all the rubes in fly-over land.

If you stop for a moment and listen you can hear voices crying the the wilderness. But can they be heard above the roar of tit-for-tat trivia?

No.

I have ideas about what journalists should do. But saving journalism from the business that’s killing it? No clue. I think the current business model has to collapse first. Then we can start over. Citizens will have to carry the load, i.e. do their jobs and journalism’s job too. I hope we’re ready when the time comes.

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April 24, 2008

Rhetorica: Six Years On

I’ve been writing this blog for six years.

I opened The Rhetorica Network on 5 March 2002. I posted the first blog entry on 23 April.

The Rhetorica Network grew out of a project I did for a graduate course on the American presidency at UMKC. The site was called Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2000, and it included a protoblog called Timeline.

I have nothing profound to say about Rhetorica. I continue to enjoy it. And it certainly has been a boon for my career. I’ve been handed many opportunities that I’m sure I would have missed had I chosen some other time-waster.

I give my hearty thanks to all of my loyal readers and to those who have come and gone unnoticed. My server logs and hundreds of links to blogs and course syllabi tell me that many people find value in my work here. That keeps me interested.

Six years on and I can hardly imagine why I would stop writing Rhetorica. I can imagine no future that doesn’t include Rhetorica.

Thank you for reading.

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April 23, 2008

The Big Yawn

The LA Times demonstrates that the Barstow article about ________ (government propaganda or journalistic corruption–take your pick) suffered from bad kairos. But even good timing wouldn’t have overcome two important reasons why this story failed to sprout legs: 1) apparently, Americans expect such nonsense, and 2) TV news ain’t going to criticize itself in any fundamental way (tends to point out how poorly it serves the public interest).

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April 21, 2008

Fallout Begins

Romenesko has a round-up of reaction to David Barstow’s article about the government’s propaganda stooges and their journalistic enablers. My assessment is here.

Glenn Greenwald says:

At the same time, though, in light of questions on this very topic raised even by the NYT back in 2003, it is difficult to take the article’s underlying points seriously as though they are some kind of new revelation. And ultimately, to the extent there are new revelations here, they are a far greater indictment of our leading news organizations than the government officials on whom it focuses.

Yes.

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April 20, 2008

The Wizard Does Not Care

Today’s lead story in The New York Times covers massive craft failure in American journalism. David Barstow shows us just how easy it is to manipulate news organizations–especially television news–when journalists fail to do the simplest of tasks: vet sources and commentators.

I do not fault the administration for manipulating the news media. Spewing propaganda has always been a (legitimate?) function of government. This is one of the reasons we have a First Amendment protecting our freedom to speak and write about public and political affairs.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this has nothing at all to do with a failure to vet. What if journalism is something that television news organizations simply no longer want to practice? Barstow writes:

Some network officials, meanwhile, acknowledged only a limited understanding of their analysts’ interactions with the administration. They said that while they were sensitive to potential conflicts of interest, they did not hold their analysts to the same ethical standards as their news employees regarding outside financial interests. The onus is on their analysts to disclose conflicts, they said. And whatever the contributions of military analysts, they also noted the many network journalists who have covered the war for years in all its complexity.

The key word is “onus.” By putting the onus on the analysts, the oxymoronic institution of television news has simply declared: Journalism is not practiced here.

A couple of day ago I wrote that “every news organization should have a columnist (an opinion journalist who operates as a custodian of fact with a discipline of verification) whose job it is to get in the face of every other news organization in the market.” The example I used was trivial by comparison to Barstow’s reporting. This is a stunning ethical failure of the primary purpose of journalism: to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. Nothing about that purpose and ethic is served by electronic stenography. There is no possible way to define the uncritical passing along government propaganda into that purpose.

(Note: I need to acknowledge that the NYT crafts a narrative of government manipulation far more than a narrative journalistic malfeasance. You’ll find the TV news reaction at the end.) 

We do not live in a world in which television news organizations are capable of seeing this transgression for what it is. We live in a world in which pretend journalists damage our civic discourse by passing along propaganda as news analysis (and talking-head entertainment).

Do not assume I am surprised by this. Barstow has not reported something new so much as he has pulled back the media curtain. The problem is that the wizard isn’t embarrassed and won’t try to make it right.

Neil Postman knows his stuff.



April 17, 2008

Ripping Them A New One

I firmly believe that every news organization should have a columnist (an opinion journalist who operates as a custodian of fact with a discipline of verification) whose job it is to get in the face of every other news organization in the market. I think news orgs need to be critiquing the competition regularly in regard to news values, editorial judgment, and ethics.

I have two reasons for this:

1. News organizations are culturally, politically, and economically important institutions that should never be above scrutiny by journalism. (Note: I do not equate the two because the former is one potential producer of the latter.)

2. Such coverage can be smashing good copy that informs and–dare I say it?–entertains. Oh, and perhaps this smashing good copy might do some real good.

Here’s an interesting example of exactly what I mean. The keisters of Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos should be right properly smarting today. Now, we know that these guys are unlikely to change much of anything following Shales’ withering critique. But just think what could happen if it were Shales’ job to keep this up. Think what could happen if the Post backed this up with an editorial about the news values, editorial judgment, and ethics of ABC News.

(Yes, there are many media columnists. Howard Kurtz for example. But I’m not talking about general media criticism. I’m talking about focused and sustained coverage of specific news orgs by competing news orgs and backed up by the voice of the news org.)

I’m not a big fan of news competition for stories. That era is really dead now thanks to television and the internet. But I think news organizations could, and ought to, compete over news values, editorial judgment, and ethics. Rub the competition’s nose in its mistakes. Rip them a new one. And do a better job yourself.



April 16, 2008

Whither Opinion Journalism?

Clark Hoyt examined the issue of analysis versus opinion writing in his Sunday column. I think his conclusion gets it right:

News reporters should provide context. They should challenge false assertions by authority. They should write articles giving their expert analysis. But it may be one step too far to have the same reporter write a column with voice and opinion–explicit or implicit–and news articles that are supposed to be completely impartial. That is taking a big risk with the trust of readers already inclined to believe that the news media, including The Times, are biased.

Hoyt, and others represented in the column, struggle with the differences, if any, between analysis and opinion. I think a line exists, but it can be very difficult to see sometimes.

The key for me is good reporting in both analysis and opinion writing. The difference is one of intention: opinion should be about changing hearts and minds with knowledge and wisdom; analysis should be about knowledge and wisdom (i.e. organized information embedded in a context and the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems). Analysis, therefore, should not promote specific agendas; it should examine agendas.

I don’t want to suggest that a Golden Age of opinion journalism has ever existed, but it does seem to me that the state of opinion journalism today is very poor. Columnists have apparently lost the desire or ability to report as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. They apparently intend to change hearts and minds with mere blather. What we have today (with a few notable exceptions across the political spectrum) is a legion of pundits. Pundits are not journalists.



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