September 30, 2008

The Expectations Game

A student journalist (not a student of mine), interviewed me for a story about the recent presidential debate. Nothing surprising. I simply gave her an expanded version of what I wrote after the debate.

The student asked me what I expected to happen in the rest of the debates. Oh, goody– a chance to prognosticate. Or, rather, a chance for me to play the expectations game.

It’s no secret that the formats and moderators are agreed to ahead of time by the campaigns. The last thing any of them want is a real debate. That word is simply the noun/verb used to identify the act of presidential candidates standing on the same stage spinning like crazy with as little interference as possible and as much advantage as possible (e.g. McCain preferring the town-hall style because it suits his perceived strengths).

So I expect more of the same.

But… What if… Really, it all boils down to the moderator. What is this person willing to do to get the candidates off message with tough, pointed questions about policy (not talking about tough, pointed questions about stuff like pregnant teens or troublesome preachers)?

If a real journalist shows up armed with good questions, then we may really learn something. The beautiful thing is this works for viewers seeking substance and viewers seeking image. It’s win-win-lose.

Long-time Rhetorica reader Tim S. suggested in the comments to my earlier debate post: “Maybe Bill O’Reilly should moderate the next debate?” He was needling me a bit. But, yes– Not Bill but someone who, like Bill, isn’t afraid to put these guys on the hot seat.

Maybe Stepehen Colbert 🙂

September 29, 2008

Not a Clue

I ran across something called Zigzag Magazine in my blog stats. They mention me by name with links here.

Any clue what this means?

And why is the picture of Adolph Hitler associated with the same paragraphs as Rhetorica?

If anyone has an idea, please let me know.

September 27, 2008


It’s not hard to find “where is Sarah Palin” commentary today. Fareed Zakaria knows where she is. Kathleen Parker spotted her, too. Ed Schultz catches a glimpse of her.

September 27, 2008


Was there a presidential debate last night? I searched the networks and cable news channels. All I found was two mediocre extemporaneous speakers blathering their usual talking points.

I suppose a debate also requires a moderator ready and willing to ask tough, pointed questions that challenge candidates to think on their feet. No one like that showed up last night. The moderator asked mostly open-ended, predictable questions and then encouraged the candidates to do his job, i.e. challenge each other.

Winner? You have to have a contest–a debate in this case–to have a winner. Inviting two guys to do their usual routine on a common stage is not a debate. So the winner will obviously be which ever one you liked best before the waste of time began.

This “debate” wasn’t even good entertainment.

UPDATE: If you just can’t get enough of this scintillating debate, take a look at the Debate Decoder hosted by the Washington Post.

September 26, 2008

Rhetorica is Back!

Thanks to the great people at CodingSquad, Rhetorica now runs on WordPress. They took 6-years of entries written on three different blogging platforms and recreated the site in full–including every comment. If you’re thinking of a move to WordPress, I highly recommend them–excellent work, on time, for a fair price.

Now, moving forward: I’m still in a time crunch as I work on my tenure application. But I’ve been on the job so that I don’t have to disappear until the 10 October deadline. I’m back on the blogging job as of now.

I’m not going to try to catch up with what I’ve missed in the past two weeks. I’m focused on tonight’s debate. I’m not planning a live blogging session because I’m having a debate-watching party. I do plan to post my thoughts either late tonight or first thing in the morning.

September 25, 2008

Rhetorica Will Return Soon Better Than Ever

The process of switching from MovableType to WordPress is almost complete thanks to the good folks at CodingSquad. Everything seems to be working. And you’ll see a new style soon.

The RSS and ATOM feeds are different now. So you’ll want to make that change. I understand the CodingSquard folks are trying to make some of those changes automatic.

I’m itching to get back to business. It seems like lots of interesting things happen all at once when I’m not blogging.

September 23, 2008

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

September 15, 2008

Rhetorica Update

I have two important announcements that will affect my blogging over the next two weeks:

1. My tenure application is due in early October. I still have a lot of work to do to finish it. My goal is 30 September so that I can begin paying closer attention to the presidential race.

2. In the next few days, I’m having Rhetorica switched from MovableType to WordPress. This process will take a few days, and it’s likely there will need to be some tweaking in the days that follow.

I may post a few things over the next couple of weeks. Just don’t expect too much until around 1 October.

September 12, 2008

Spotting the Spin in SpinSpotter

The Firefox plug-in called SpinSpotter was just introduced this week, and it’s already creating a stir. Can software “de-spin the news, expose the slant and bias, separate the facts from axe-grinding opinion”?

I think the answer is clearly no. At least software cannot do such a thing until someone figures out a way to make software think–in this case, make software understand meaning and intention.

I just watched a presentation on SpinSpotter by founder Todd Herman at a “technology summit” that is part of the Missouri School of Journalism Centennial. There will be Q&A time later today. I plan to ask Herman about the specific criticisms made by the writers of Language Log.

For example, Mark Lieberman wrote:

This might be an unusual type of demoware …, one that is released for general use in the hope that enough people will submit their proposed spin-spots to give the company enough free training data to actually develop some of the technology that they pretended to have in the first place.

It turns out he is correct. One of the first things Herman said this morning was that SpinSpotter is “very very beta” and “we want people to teach the technology.” His video (not live) demonstration clearly showed that the software really can’t do anything until people start using it, i.e. start flagging spin themselves.

What is not clear at all is what SpinSpotter will do with the data it collects. It looks like just a glorified word/phrase flagger. What a word/phrase means in the context of a particular article is something no software can determine. But the social networking aspect of the software is being used to convince users that it can be determined.

Users mark news articles and readers of the same articles will apparently be able to use the input of other users in real time. For example, user A says story X contains spin point Y so other readers of the same article will see spin point Y flagged. What happens when reader B reads story Z with spin point Y used in a different context?

As I said before, flagging words/phrases can certainly be useful to the extent that flagging helps one find what one is looking for. That’s just the first step. The crucial step is the act of interpretation. That requires a human mind.

The trouble here is that Herman is making claims about what SpinSpotter can do that are clearly not possible. Consider this example from the rules of spin (in this case the rule of “Reporter’s Voice”) offered to guide users’ flagging:

The reporter employs language (in the form of adjectives, adverbs, verbs, or superlatives) that conveys meaning beyond the supporting evidence provided in the article, and begs the question: In who’s opinion and by what objective standard?

Flagging words is one thing. No software, however, can determine if the “evidence” supports the use of a particular adjective. Software can’t do this because software doesn’t know…anything.

SpinSpotter is really social-networking / cooperating software. To the extent that users flag and interpret the same article in real time it may be entertaining if not actually useful in combating spin.

UPDATE: I guess it’s official. There is no spin to be found anywhere in the opinion section of The New York Times! 🙂 I’m “testing” SpinSpotter for myself. And, just as Mark Lieberman said, it doesn’t do anything. No spin will be spotted until users spot the spin first. If users can already spot the spin for themselves, then what need do they have for SpinSpotter?

UPDATE: My day did not work out as planned. I was unable to attend the Q&A session.

UPDATE: After more playtime with the software, and actually finding tags on a story about SpinSpotter, it is now (somewhat) clear to me that the SpinSpotter folks simply need to do a better job of explaining what the software does and how the software works. From what I can tell at this point, it only works on (and is only intended to work on) articles that have been flagged by a user. All this talk of algorithms makes it sound like the software is going to be making the judgments. I’m not at all sure this is what the SpinSpotter folks intend to convey.

Here’s an example statement from the SpinSpotter: “The neat thing about the adaptive SpinSpotter technology is the ability to filter and identify the presence of spin in any news article, web site, press release, or thinly disguised political talk sheet.” This seems to suggest that the software is going to do something I believe is impossible. Herman needs to take his own advice (from the rules of spin) and be clear about agency: It ain’t the software that’s going to “filter and identify the presence of spin in any news article.” The users are going to do it with the help of the software.

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September 11, 2008

MU J-school Centennial

I’m attending the Missouri School of Journalism Centennial and dedication of the Reynolds Journalism Institute. I’ll be here through tomorrow afternoon. The program includes many interesting panel discussions about the future of journalism. I’ll write a full report when I return.

This morning I attended a presentation on Newspaper Next 2.0 — an attempt at understanding a new business model for newspapers.

I’m waiting now to hear a panel on First Amendment issues.

Tomorrow I’ll be attending the technology summit. It’s offered in three tracks: digital story telling, disruptive innovations, and economics of the future. I’ll be attending the disruptive track 🙂

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