May 29, 2008

Scott McClellan: Professional Weasel

I’ll have more to say about McClellan’s book, or, rather what he’s saying about his book, when I return home (although my headline is sort of a big clue to where my head is on this).

Until then, you might visit Rhetorica in April of 2006 for a rundown of events. Plus, Jay Rosen is, and has been, on the McClellan beat. From 2006: The Jerk at the Podium. And his historical perspective offered today.

I’m liking what The New York Times had to say about it in today’s editorial:

There are several kinds of Washington memoirs: “I Reveal the Honest Truth,” a kiss-up-and-tell designed to settle scores (nod to honesty optional). “I Was There at the Start,” designed to make the author appear to be the linchpin of history. And, most tedious: “I Knew It Was a Terrible Mistake, but I Didn’t Mention It Until I Got a Book Contract.”

Scott McClellan’s memoir is the latest entry in the latter genre.

He was a weasel for hire–and a damned good one. He got the job done. President Bush had every right to have McClellan do the job he did. I don’t think it was a good choice, but that’s merely my opinion. Presidents answer to history, not college professors at state schools.

Are we to suppose McClellan is now telling us the whole truth? Or might he be playing weasel for another master (truth be told or not)?

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May 29, 2008

New York State of Mind

I’ve been in New York City this week. I’ll be returning home tomorrow. I came prepared to blog my experiences, but I’ve been far too busy enjoying myself to do much more than make quick comments on Facebook. (Reminder to Rhetorica readers: Please add me to your friends list.)

I met Jay Rosen for happy hour yesterday. We had a long, rambling conversation that I’m sure came to many excellent conclusions about how to fix the problems of journalism. Unfortunately, we didn’t record anything 🙂 One thing I think we’re clear on: This exciting moment in the history of journalism has no clear end game. Random observations and assertions:

1. The internet has taught people to expect to talk back to media and to expect to produce media. There is no turning back this reality.

2. What’s the business model for online journalism and/or citizen journalism? Sorry, that’s the wrong question. A better question: What is, or should be, the source(s) of journalistic credibility (no matter who is producing it) as the craft evolves?

3. The standard model of reporting may always have a place in the larger practice of journalism, but new models are emerging that make use of partnerships between…between what? Professionals and amateurs? That’s not quite right. You can get a glimpse of a potential reportorial future at Talking Points Memo.

4. Considering #3, will journalism return to (something like) its 19th century partisan roots? Almost surely–but not simply partisan in the political sense. The larger narrative of industrial journalism is dead, i.e. we produce a common product for a general audience, thus creating a shared sense of events with which to run a nation. Such news organizations may still have a place in the new paradigm, but increasingly common will be collaboratively-produced news products that spring from a wide range of narratives (not simply simplistic partisan divisions).

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May 26, 2008

Thank You

On this Memorial Day: I support the troops, not the war in Iraq. The troops do not equal the war. If they did equal the war, then blunders and failure would be their fault. And we know that’s not true. As we learned, or should have, in Vietnam, politicians can make disastrous choices. Soldiers do their duty despite political bungling. 

I believe in the pride, loyalty, initiative, and skill of the American soldier. I believe in his/her call to duty and admire his/her courage in battle. And given a proper task (one with a military solution) with proper support (political, social, economic), I know the American soldier can succeed at any task. Some will pay the ultimate price. And I admire the willingness of the American soldier to pay that price to defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

May 23, 2008

Go Invent the Future

Here’s the money quote from Nicholas Lemann’s commencement address to the Columbia University School of Journalism:

Our job was to improve on the old model. Your job is to create a new model. You shouldn’t be daunted by this: newspapers in particular, and news in general, have been changing in non-incremental ways for three centuries. Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World (the profits from which endowed this school) had almost nothing in common except that they were printed on cheap paper and distributed in cities, and neither had much in common with a big-city newspaper today. On your watch, newspapers will be primarily digital, but the primary task for you is not to switch delivery media, it’s to invent a new social compact with a community around the gathering and presentation of information.

I suppose that qualifies as a man bites dog story—but it’s still contained within a dog bites man story, which is that you are leaders who hold the future of journalism in your hands. Sorry, it’s unavoidable. Have fun with it.

Yes, have fun with it. And take it seriously. We are living through one of those evolutionary and revolutionary moments in journalism. The Pennsylvania Gazette is different from the New York World because of a similar moment. Ditto the difference between the World and CNN. And ditto today’s MSM from what is coming next.

But the thing is: What’s coming next? Lemann can’t say. Neither can I. He’s exactly right to tell these students: Go invent it. (I would add: Don’t forget to include the public; they are, in some ways, ahead of you in the re-inventing process.)

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May 22, 2008

Social Networking and Rhetorical Purpose

I’ve recently begun using Facebook. I opened an account a long time ago–years–but never did anything with it until last week. I invite Rhetorica readers to add me as a friend.

Now, how should one use this social networking site? I’ve done the typical thing so far–contacting friends and posting little bits of fluff about my days. I publish notes from Rhetorica’s feed (gotta keep up the marketing!). But I haven’t done anything with it yet–“done” in the sense J. L. Austin would understand, or “done” in the sense of accomplishing something more that mere contact (but is that ever mere?).

Along comes a little Facebook update from Jay Rosen saying: “Jay Rosen wonders why no one is talking about re-inventing punditry, especiallly on air punditry.”

My last update read: “Andy is going home to practice guitar– The Clash.”

So you see the difference. Rosen’s update attempts to “do” something. Well, I suppose mine does to. Perhaps it attempts to convince you I’m one totally cool dude. But methinks Rosen’s update is doing something more important.

So what has Rosen “done”? For starters, prompted this entry on Rhetorica. I’m fixin’ to address his wondering (not fixin’ to accomplish anything complete–just taking a stab to get the conversation rolling).

Here’s what I wrote about “how to be a pundit” a few years ago (this post prompted Jeffrey Zaslow to interview me on the topic for the Wall Street Journal a while back):

  1. Never be dull. This is entertainment, not analysis or reasoned civic discourse. Never employ a tightly reasoned argument where a flaming soundbite will do. Argument, of the academic sort, is dull, but a good pissing match is fun to watch!
  2. Embrace willfully ignorant simplicity. There are only two positions in the world: yours and wrong. To admit anything more complicated than this is to invite the suggestion that YOU may be wrong, and that can NEVER be.
  3. Counter all opposition vociferously. They’re wrong, so you must point it out in the most vigorous terms, including using time-honored tactics such as name-calling, red-herring fallacies, and outright lies.
  4. Use fallacy as the cornerstone of your “arguments,” and scream bloody murder when the opposition does the same thing (assuming you can recognize a logical fallacy).
  5. Always ignore facts and the public record when it is convenient to do so. Reality is what YOU say it is. Besides, you’re trying to win political battles here (impose YOUR view on the world), not accurately describe events so that democratic citizens may make informed choices. Or, for the more cynical among you (those ready for big-time media jobs), you’re trying to get a better job by being more provocative (entertaining). Facts just get in the way of a prosperous future.
  6. The opposition is always: stupid, retarded, immoral, hypocritical, disingenuous, dishonest, and devious. Well, duh! They’re wrong.
  7. The American public is stupid; treat them that way. [sic]
  8. Know your spin points, and use them often. Original thinking is off-topic thinking.

I’m quite serious. This is what punditry is. And in these eight points we can begin to see why no one is talking about re-thinking punditry (no one except people such as Rosen and myself). I can boil it down to this: It would require thinking.

Punditry is not about thinking; it is about the appearance of thinking for the entertainment of an audience.

Here’s another question: Why is no one talking about re-invigorating opinion journalism (i.e. an opinion practice that operates with a discipline of verification and as a custodian of facts)?

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May 22, 2008

Fun New Toy For Blogging

I have a new remote machine (notice I didn’t say “laptop”). It’s the Asus Eee PC–a tiny little thing that runs on a flash drive and is powered by the Linux operating system. I’m using it right now.

What I like about it:

1. Small– the size of a book.
2. Tough– no moving parts.
3. Works well because it’s packed with just about all the software (open source) that I need.

Drawbacks:

1. Small– they keyboard takes some getting used to.
2. Linux interface is set to easy mode for kids. But you can, with a little trouble, implement a full Linux desktop.
3. Linux takes some getting used to, although it is robust and seems to have all the software titles–or open-source equivalents–that I need.

May 21, 2008

Just Say No (Part 42)

Dan Balz delivered the Henry J. Pringle Lecture, on Journalism Day 2008 at Columbia University. While he expressed general optimism about journalism as a career and the state of political reporting in America, he voiced these two concerns (among others):

My first concern is that we talk more and more about less and less. We seize on trivial developments rather than big ideas. We obsess over process and but not over policy. We over-cover a snide remark by David Geffen about the Clintons and under-cover a major speech. We spend too much time speculating about the future and not enough examining and understanding the present and the past. We write for one another and talk too much to one another. In other words, we are in danger of reducing to an insider’s game the most important set of decisions people are making about the future of our country.

My second concern is that we do less reporting than we used to do. We engage in non-stop commentary, sometimes without the information to make the discussion informative. Harold Ross of the New Yorker told Janet Flanner when he sent her off to Paris in the 1920s: “Don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what they think.” That is still useful advice for anyone covering politics in 2008. Political reporting should begin with reporting.

So stop. Just stop. Just tell your editor you refuse. If you know these things are bad (i.e. fail to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) then stop.

Let me put it this way: What Balz is describing here is unethical behavior. To report politics this way is unethical because it fails the primary purpose of journalism.

But the problem (one of them, anyway) is that practicing effective, ethical political journalism is hard, and the status quo is easy. That and, apparently, a shocking number of reporters must think Balz’s concerns represent good journalism.

(There is fine political journalism practiced in America. And I do not spend nearly enough any time pointing it out and specifically praising it. I plan to change that as the general election begins. Let’s call it a study in comparative journalistic rhetoric. I figure if I’m getting sick of my grumpiness then you, dear reader, probably are too 🙂

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May 21, 2008

Audience and the Rhetorical Situation

Alissa Quart divides the world of journalism into two parts: lost media and found media. My first thought: OK, this might be a useful, if typical, way of thinking about the (overly) general camps in which journalists (and journalism educators) find themselves today. But then I reached this moment in her essay and recognized something familiar:

Beneath the immediate professional anxiety, what profoundly troubles the people of Lost Media is that we feel as if we are on the brink of losing our “imagined communities,” the term Benedict Anderson used to describe publics that came to be through the common, general, circulation-enhancing “national print-languages.”

Found Media, on the other hand, tends to be unafraid and assured. Its avatars believe in creative destruction and distributed networks.

One thing I have never done–and it seems odd that I haven’t done so–is attempt a comprehensive description of the “general” rhetorical situation of journalism. I’ve written about it many times in bits and pieces on Rhetorica, but I have yet to pull it together.

Quickly and simplistically, “rhetorical situation” is the term for all the discussable aspects of the exigence, delivery, and reception of a message.

Who is the audience for journalism, and what exigence prompts journalists to attempt to communicate with that audience? I would urge journalists to resist a common-sense answer, e.g. “We cover news for citizens because they need it to be self-governing,” or “We communicate with a general or national audience in order to facilitate a common national discussion of events.” There are many others. What I want to know is: What do these answers mean in terms of actual individuals and/or groups who would use journalism for some purpose?

There is no general audience; that’s always been a convenient fiction. It is a fiction that used to work (financially more than communicatively I suspect)–at least for a period of time, roughly the most of the 20th century.

While the tradition and myth of individualism is strong in America, individuals tend to identify with (multiple) groups. Groups help provide a context of experience within which we may understand the events of the world. Ideology is group created and individually experienced. This is why no general audience exists.

The so-called found media (e.g. network news and large circulation newspapers) could thrive speaking to a general audience largely because these businesses made enough money to produce comprehensive products. As corporate owners began demanding 20-plus percent profit margins, the money and time to reach a general or national audience disappeared (i.e. no money to produce a comprehensive product). That’s just one part of it. And I’m not suggesting the problems of the MSM can be reduced to high profit margins.

Now, enter a new medium. This new medium allows something never before possible on a grand scale: The internet allows the audience to talk back and, more importantly, to talk to each other. This technology is teaching Americans to expect to be able to talk back and talk to each other. And it’s cheap, even free. Homeless people have blogs.

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie.
Drove my chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’, “this’ll be the day that I die.
“this’ll be the day that I die.”

The day interactivity was born was the day the general audience died. The rhetoric scholar part of me is entirely comfortable with this. But the journalist part of me is hanging on, knuckles white-hot, as this ride goes screaming down the tracks. It’s exciting precisely because it’s new, fun, and scary.

The question the found media need to answer is: Who am I talking to, and why am I trying to talk to them? No common-sense answers allowed.

May 19, 2008

Your Morning Chuckle

When I called for news organizations to keep tabs on media ethics (“get in the face” is the language I used), this isn’t exactly what I meant:

Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News star, is mounting an extraordinary televised assault on the chief executive of General Electric, calling him a “pinhead” and a “despicable human being” who bears responsibility for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq.

On the surface, O’Reilly’s charges revolve around GE’s history of doing business with Iran. But the attacks grow out of an increasingly bitter feud between O’Reilly and the company’s high-profile subsidiary, NBC, one that has triggered back-channel discussions involving News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker and General Electric’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt.

But it sure is entertaining.

I think news organizations should question GE about doing business in Iran–that is, any news organization employing journalism to do the job. Pundit rants that rely on name-calling hardly count as more than entertainment.

In case you don’t know what the feud is really about, here’s a small taste:

Minus the unnecessary, yet entertaining, pathos, this segment is closer to what I’m talking about.

[Ed. Note: Just a reminder– When I use any form of the word “entertainment” referring to some act journalism, I’m never being complimentary.]

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May 16, 2008

Another Rhetorica Update

My office is moving to downtown Springfield. I’ll be in the Park Central Office Building on the southeast corner of the square. I toured the space yesterday; it’s going to be great! I enjoy hanging out downtown, so I may want to stay there 🙂 Renovation of Siceluff Hall prompts the move, although I’ve been occupying an office in Craig Hall this year. So what all of that means to you, dear reader, is that it’ll be another day or two before I get back to regular blogging.

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