October 31, 2008

Down Home in Greene County

Greene County in Missouri is the most important place in the United States.

(I’ll let that sink in a moment.)

(OK, I’m only semi-serious. Just bear with me a minute.)

Here’s why: Barack Obama and John McCain need to win Missouri to win the election. Missouri’s 11 electoral votes are modest in number. But the state has a habit of picking winners.

Obama will win in the counties around Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia, and Jefferson City. But to win the state of Missouri he has to keep it close in Greene County, which is the location of the third largest “city” in Missouri. That would be Springfield. The place I’m in right now reporting to you from my office downtown on the square. It’s a politically conservative place. And you can add a big dose of the Christian right into that mix.

Guess who’s coming to town on Saturday. Both campaigns will be working Missouri hard in the final hours of this campaign.

Just in case you’re wondering why I haven’t been writing more about the campaign: I’ll get to that after the campaign.

October 29, 2008

The Politics of Fear

John Oliver beat me to the punch. That’s what I get for procrastinating. Nearly everything you need to know about the politics of fear — and the different ways the two major parties use fear — can be seen in his report from The Daily Show:

Democrats: Oh, yikes! Palin isn’t ready, and McCain will usher in four more years of Bush.

Republicans: Oh, yikes! Obama is a terrorist dupe and a socialist.

What we see here is how well each campaign has played the fear card — a card, by the way, that has always been played in American politics. It is part of the spectacle of politics. The rhetorical situation dictates the timing and proportion of this appeal. Get the timing and proportion (kairos) right for the political moment and you win.

We’ll know more on election day, but is appears the Democrats have done a better job of fear-mongering than the Republicans. Here’s what I mean by that: The Democrats have done a better job of accentuating things that most voters (i.e. largely centrist) actually fear. The Republicans apparently think centrist voters fear socialism and terrorists. What they apparently actually fear is continued war, a failing economy, and loss of health care.

What if the McCain campaign had focused on applying conservative spin to those fear points? Well, we might have had a very different campaign.

In other news, it is now obvious that Campbell Brown reads Rhetorica 🙂

October 27, 2008

Giving it Away Free

You can actually attend pundit school.

(I’ll pause while you snicker.)

Look, save yourself time and money. Just read read my advice on how to be a pundit. Since I’m giving it away free, I’ll just quote it for you:

Rules for modern American pundits (TV, radio, or print):

  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.

You may have also seen this mentioned by Jeffrey Zaslow of the Wall Street Journal.

If you want to be a pundit, this is the script you must follow. Now, obviously, I’ve written from the perspective of someone who loathes punditry. But you can translate this into pundit-speak easily enough. And once you do I think you’ll find I’ve covered the gist of it.

And it’s all yours. For free.

Go and sin more.

October 26, 2008

Journalism Happens Over Time

It’s easy to be a press critic (if quality isn’t an issue). It’s hard to be a journalist (if quality is an issue). In my role as a press critic I have always made this rather unremarkable contention: Good journalism happens over time.

What that means is that journalism is more than today’s news stories. Today’s news stories are simply the result of an industrial process aimed at delivering information of a certain kind to those who want it. Two of the essentials of journalism are that this process happens everyday (i.e. sustained) and that those who make it happen try to serve journalism’s primary purpose. That purpose was cogently stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel: to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

What often isn’t discussed is the citizen’s role in this. Usually it is merely assumed that citizens will go looking for the information they need — especially since the internet makes this easy. If citizens actually did check things out for themselves it wouldn’t be possible, for example, to claim that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim socialist who pals around with terrorists (plural) and plans to raise everyone’s taxes and take away everyone’s guns. GOP mailers arriving at my home this week have made all these claims in shockingly specific terms. The facts simply don’t back up these claims. If people went looking for facts on their own, then political mudslinging would never work.

Enter journalism. It’s job (in fulfillment of its primary purpose) is to place the best available version of the truth before you every day. But here’s the hitch in that system: Today’s news is gone tomorrow; news organizations move relentlessly forward.

The New York Times today does something every news organization should do regularly regarding many important civic news situations: It made finding its campaign coverage easy. In the Week in Review section, the Times gives you a run-down of all its major coverage of the candidates — including urging you to go to the web for the full stories (where the links have been placed to make it easy).

October 22, 2008

Out of Touch and Tone Deaf?

I’ve been a big fan of Doonesbury for decades. I don’t always agree with Garry Trudeau’s point of view, but I do enjoy the cartoon most of the time and find it insightful. I especially like his send-ups of academia.

But when it comes to blogging, Trudeau is tone deaf and out of touch. Robert Niles points out that Trudeau hasn’t handled the end of Rick Redfern’s reporting career the way a real (and presumably savvy) Redfern would have. He lists three mistakes Redfern has made moving to the world of blogging:

1. Start your blog before you leave the newspaper. Well, duh. Reporters should be using the web in various ways including blogging. The future has arrived people.

2. Don’t change your game. Well, duh. If you’re known for a particular thing, stick with it. Exception: Judy Miller.

3. It’s the “net” — so network. Well, duh. The whole thing works on the idea of connectivity and interactivity. No one is just going to flock to you because you’re you.

Of course, having Redfern do the right things would be, well, dull and unfunny. But it seems to me he needs to find another way to accomplish this. Unless, of course, Trudeau has an entirely different target or purpose in mind. Hmmmmmm…

October 22, 2008

The Al-Qaida Endorsement

It’s difficult to imagine anyone taking this seriously:

Al-Qaida supporters suggested in a Web site message this week they would welcome a pre-election terror attack on the U.S. as a way to usher in a McCain presidency.

The message, posted Monday on the password-protected al-Hesbah Web site, said if al-Qaida wants to exhaust the United States militarily and economically, “impetuous” Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain is the better choice because he is more likely to continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What can we reasonably understand to be true? First, al-Qaida has attacked us and would like to continue to do so to further its goals. Second, it’s not at all surprising that al-Qaida terrorists take glee in any financial or military troubles we’re having.

But I think it’s far more likely that the next president is a matter of indifference to them. McCain would be a boon for exactly the reasons stated above. But Obama could offer them a vulnerable Iraq with which to use as an oil-rich staging ground for continued war on western civilization.

I’m sure there must be people in our intelligence community who can make something of this situation. But voters? Seems to me one would be making a big mistake basing a vote on something as shadowy as this web-based, password-protected, watchdog-group-translated “endorsement.”

The AP is operating here at the total mercy of SITE Intelligence Group. I know nothing about this group. It would have been nice if this article had given us a fuller understanding of what this group does and who runs it. And what about verification? We get the quote from the web site, a quote from a senior McCain adviser, and a quote from a SITE senior analyst. That’s it.

I’m thinking this article falls into the categories of sensationalist crap and unnecessary distraction.

October 19, 2008

My Bias re: (my understanding of) Media Bias

One of the first things I wrote for The Rhetorica Network in the spring of 2002 was my Media/Political Bias page. It draws more readers than any other part of the site except for the main weblog. It is the basis for my chapter in 21st Century Communications to be published by Sage Publications in early 2009. And that chapter will be the springboard to another project that I will announce by the end of this semester.

I think a theory of structural bias explains journalistic behavior better than simplistic charges of political bias, many of which are strategic maneuvers in the game of politics rather than cogent analysis.

Long-time Rhetorica readers already know this history. I’m mentioning it this morning because Clark Hoyt, Public Editor for The New York Times, quoted me this morning in his examination of charges of bias in Times’ political reporting. Here’s my bit of it:

“Journalism is not brain surgery; it’s more difficult than that,” said Andrew Cline, an assistant professor of journalism at Missouri State University, who has written on the perception of bias in news coverage. He said it was impossible for a reporter, in a single article, “to cover a situation in a way that everyone involved sees themselves the way they understand themselves.” News coverage has to be judged for fairness over a period of time, he said.

In political coverage, the accusations are always that the reporter or publication has ideological or party bias. But Cline has written that journalists have a whole set of professional biases that have nothing to do with politics. Journalists are biased toward conflict, toward bad news because it is more exciting than good news, and, obviously, toward what is new. When Obama was the new candidate on the presidential scene, The Times did some tough reporting on his background and record. But that was a long time ago, and memories fade. Palin was new much more recently, so the tough reporting on her happened closer to the general election, leading her supporters to complain that The Times was picking on her and giving Obama a pass.

Journalism is a craft not a profession, which is a good thing. My joke (or crack) about brain surgery should not be taken literally. Instead it highlights what is terribly difficult about journalism as a form of public expression that would assert for itself the ethic of providing citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing. That’s difficult to do when the very form of your discourse encourages you to create the fiction of a general audience and then serve that audience as if all its members understand and experience reality in the same way.

Hoyt told me he plans to write more on bias during his tenure as public editor. This column is a good start. But then I may be biased because I see myself as I understand myself in his column.

October 16, 2008

Bob Gets it Done (sort of)

Yes, I could quibble– but I won’t. I think Bob Schieffer did a good job moderating the final presidential debate. I thought most of the questions encouraged the candidates to step out of their stumpy comfort zones. And Schieffer did, on a few occasions, ask good follow-up questions based on what was actually being said rather than a script.

The limited number of questions Schieffer asked also played a role in making the debate a worthwhile exchange between the candidates. We actually saw moments of real discussion last night.

I also like this sitting-at-a-desk format. Physical proximity forces the issue of engagement.

So why not use this format more? Because the campaigns get to negotiate the details. And the campaigns will avoid, as much as possible, any debate format that presents the possibility of leaving the spin zone.

Who won? Ask an undecided voter. Are there any left?

Neither man made a gaffe. They continued to dodge the snake-pit question: With the economy in the tank, what of your many promised programs will you have to scale back or abandon? This is a great question. A fully truthful answer would mean political death. But I thought both men handled it as truthfully as possible given the danger it presents.

A suggestion (that no one involved in the debates will ever follow): We heard a lot of contradictory charges and counter charges last night. Schieffer did a reasonably good job of probing for the truth. But, really, outting the truth is not entirely possible unless the facts are at hand. So I propose that moderators use a laptop to pull up the facts. In other words, have a database prepared for them that contains the relevant data for the questions the moderator will ask. So when Senator Numnutz claims that Senator Blowhard’s plan will do such and such, the moderator can check the facts and bring those instantly to bear in the debate.

I make this suggestion because this morning we the people are left to sort out the contradictions. The press won’t sort them out. That would mean practicing journalism, which is difficult and time consuming. And — oh my! — we sure don’t want to appear biased.

How much sorting do you think the average voter is going to do?

So it comes down to style.

UPDATE: A reader e-mailed to say that some papers are running fact-check columns following the debates. Yes, that’s true. But it also obviously isn’t enough. I’m talking about the kind of reporting that would make it impossible for a candidate to keep making false or misleading claims.

October 15, 2008

Will a Journalist Show Up Tonight?

The last debate. Finally.

Would it be too much to ask for a journalist show up to moderate the damned thing?

So far the three moderators have completely let the public down by, for the most part, allowing McCain and Obama to spin their usual stumpiness without either 1) insisting they answer the questions asked, or 2) asking tough, pointed follow-up questions.

Bob Schieffer is tonight’s moderator. From the Associated Press:

NEW YORK (AP) — The debate season that has chewed up its moderators comes to a close Wednesday when John McCain and Barack Obama meet for the third time, with CBS News’ Bob Schieffer directing the discussion.

The veteran “Face the Nation” host won’t telegraph what he will ask. But he said he will be seeking more details about their potential presidencies than have been evident so far.

“By now we’ve all heard their talking points,” he said. “We’ve heard the general outlines of what they are talking about. The time has come to be a little more specific.”

What can Schieffer do to encourage specificity? How about taking no shit from these guys. How about setting aside false respect for these two men and replacing it with profound respect for the voter?

I’m not optimistic.

I’ll have a chance at instant punditry and pontification tonight 🙂 I’ll be a panel member at a debate-watch event being held this evening at the Gillioz Theatre. It is sponsored by Missouri State University and the College of Arts & Letters. The doors open at 6:30. The panel discussion precedes the debate, and a Q & A follows. You’ll find more details at the News-Leader.

You may find this video amusing (or frightening):

October 13, 2008

Reporting the Issues (out of context)

Clark Hoyt concludes his Sunday Public Editor column this way:

In such a momentous election — with two wars, a financial meltdown and a stalling economy — The Times owes readers much more help than it has given them to understand what the candidates propose to do and how that squares with reality.

What has the Times given readers? The same thing most news organizations give readers (ouch!): horse race coverage and “inside baseball” features. Yes, coverage of the issues does get in there. And as I have said many times before, good journalism unfolds over time. No single story should ever be thought of as complete.

But no single story about politics should ever be published without the background and context necessary to understand it or make full use of it to be free and self-governing. Reporting on issues as part of campaign coverage cannot be confined to single articles or series of articles. Each time the issue is raised again — in such a way that it becomes news — then reporters must bring to bear on the new article the context and the background from previous reporting.

Journalism just doesn’t make much sense without this effort to provide context and background. Ooooops. Cat outta the bag there.

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