November 27, 2008

Over the River, Through the Woods

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

November 24, 2008

Sailing to Arcadia

Deborah Howell, ombudsman for the Washington Post, writes about what makes a good reporter:

Good reporters are the heart of news gathering. If it’s news, they have to know it. Without them, the public wouldn’t have the news and information essential to running a democracy — or our lives. Whether the story is local, national or foreign, it has to be gathered on the ground by a reporter.

This is romanticism. But journalists have been prone to seeing themselves and their mission in such terms for much of the last 100 years. I’m not sure it’s a good thing to speak about journalists this way. What does it say about reporters and editors, then, when they fail to live up to this ideal? And it’s for sure they fail sometimes. Upon such failure do we hear the kind of contrition that we might expect to follow from what amounts to letting down an “essential” component of our democracy — our very lives even?

The romanticism continues:

Retired Post executive editor Ben Bradlee thinks a reporter’s most important quality is energy: “They’ve got to love what they’re doing; they’ve got to be serious about turning over rocks, opening doors. The story drives you. It’s part of your soul.”

So why do news organizations work so hard to crush the souls of their reporters with shrinking budgets (caused mainly by obscene profit margins), Draconian layoffs, faster and faster deadlines, and a constant parade of faddish band aids for the whole sorry mess?

But not to worry. A good reporter is able to overcome such things and patiently, doggedly uncover the story:

Bob Woodward, The Post’s most renowned reporter, believes that good reporters do not let speed and impatience hinder them. They have the discipline to go to multiple sources at all levels of a story and get meticulous documentation — notes, calendars, memos. “You go down lots of holes that don’t lead anywhere,” but “in the end, what always matters is information that is authentic and can be analyzed and documented.”

The reward, of course, is in doing one’s duty to journalism’s primary purpose — even at a cost to one’s personal life. This sounds like a movie treatment:

A reporter’s first commitment is getting the story for readers; it trumps almost everything. That’s the reason they sometimes miss their wedding anniversaries or their children’s birthday parties and keep on reporting until they are wheeled into surgery (see Shadid) or delivery rooms.

Reporting is a calling. If reporters didn’t have it (along with good editors), how would you know what was going on in your communities, the nation and the world?

Is this a (sick) joke?

I ask that question because I want to believe all this romantic nonsense (except the absurd part about how only journalists know what’s going on in the world — geez). But when you look at the working conditions under which most news is produced, it’s a wonder anything good at all comes from it.

On top of everything else, Howell lays what amounts to a guilt trip on America’s reporters.

Let me suggest another focus for this column: A good reporter is a person who acts as a custodian of facts and operates with a discipline of verification despite working for news organizations that, as profit making businesses, all too often fail the primary purpose of journalism. A good reporter doesn’t let the MSM news organization strangle his good work and then sit on his ethical shoulders to take the credit for it. He finds a job in the new media instead.

November 18, 2008

Quick Read or Quick Death?

It’s called a “quick-read edition.” The News Sentinel, of Knoxville, Tenn., will now publish a 2-section Monday paper. Here’s what Editor Jack McElroy says bout it:

Over the next week, readers will see several changes in the News Sentinel.

Some, frankly, are intended to reduce costs. Like other newspapers, we have been affected by sharply rising expenses, altered advertising patterns and the overall slowdown in the economy. During this time of transition, we want to do everything we can to produce a newspaper that is affordable as well as readable.

We believe that many of the changes, though, will make the News Sentinel more engaging and easier to use, too.

The biggest change will be in Monday’s paper. The start of the week will feature a quick-read edition in two sections, News and Sports, as well as classified advertising.

This is the next step along the path to oblivion.

Here’s the thing: The older folks who want it fast and visual have already moved to television. The younger folks who want it fast, visual, and interactive have moved to the internet.

So what is it that print can provide?

Print is about propositional content and “newspaper journalism.” I’ll let Buzz Merritt explain:

  • Its content is not shaped by a limiting technology…
  • Its usefulness is based far more on completeness and clarity than immediacy.
  • Its claim on credibility is based on it length and depth, which allow readers to judge the facts behind the story’s headline and opening summary paragraph and then look for internal contradictions.
  • It has intrinsic value and relevance to people rather than merely amusing or entertaining them.

That Monday edition may indeed be cheaper to produce and that may indeed temporarily help the bottom line. It most certainly will not be more engaging. That requires what Merritt called “newspaper journalism.”

How long until McElroy, or his successor, announces the new and extra-engaging 2-section Tuesday edition?

It’s not his fault. The blame goes in large part (but not entirely) to the vampiric profit margins of the corporate owners.

November 14, 2008

Secrets of How Radio Persuades

Dan Shelley, a former program director for a right-wing, talk radio show reveals the “secrets” of the what makes a good talk radio show and host.

How can anything that is right out there in the open be a secret? i.e. the tricks of persuasive chattering. And, obviously, there is nothing secret about it, nor are there any secrets worth learning. Shelley’s column is about the banal and the painfully obvious (left-wing radio, what little there is, is no better):

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.

I’m really not criticizing his column because I assume that Shelley intends to be banal — just as banal as talk radio for the purpose of exposing it as banal. The column is full of head-slap and well-duh moments because nothing he discusses should be even the slightest surprise to any person who has ever listened to one of these shows.


The stereotyped liberal view of the talk radio audience is that it’s a lot of angry, uneducated white men. In fact, the audience is far more diverse. Many are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, or soccer moms and dads. Talk show fans are not stupid. They will detect an obvious phony. The best hosts sincerely believe everything they say. Their passion is real. Their arguments have been carefully crafted in a manner they know will be meaningful to the audience, and that validates the views these folks were already thinking.

Yet while talk show audiences aren’t being led like lemmings to a certain conclusion, they can be carefully prodded into agreement with the Republican views of the day.

This is interesting. And while he does spend some time dissecting how/why talk show hosts craft arguments in particular ways, Shelley doesn’t spend nearly enough time debunking the stereotypes. Gimme more. How is it that professional people buy into, say, a red herring argument? It can’t be merely because they’ve been persuaded they are victims can it? Here’s what Shelley says:

But the key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners. And they feel victimized because many liberals and moderates have ignored or trivialized their concerns and have stereotyped these Americans as uncaring curmudgeons.

He’s stereotyping the stereotyping of the stereotypers and the stereotyped. So why doesn’t liberal talk radio succeed with the same formula and stereotyping (ideologically translated): Enraging a large swath of liberal-leaning listeners who feel victimized by being stereotyped as unpatriotic, godless, terrorist-loving baby-killers.

I want to write this sentence: “Perhaps we may see the beginning of the demise of talk radio following…” You can see where that’s going. But I can’t write it because radio has always been a uniquely persuasive medium. What I want to know is to what extent these feelings of rage, victimization or whatever exist in the the body politics before talk radio. Hmmmmmm…

November 13, 2008

Easiest Thing in the World

I told my students yesterday: If you operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification, then you will be able to avoid many of the problems journalists create for themselves. It’s the easiest thing in the world.

Yes, I’m well aware of all the time and financial pressures on journalists today to feed the 24-hour news beast. I don’t care. Do the job right anyway. No excuses.

Yesterday we saw another example of what happens when journalists fail to do the easiest thing in the world. That whole thing about Sarah Palin not understanding that Africa is a continent and not a country (that all thinking people knew had to be utter bull)? Turns out it was a hoax.

Welcome back Heywood Jablome.

I have no sympathy for those fooled. So this just makes me laugh:

An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, explained the network’s misstep by saying someone in the newsroom received the Palin item in an e-mail message from a colleague and assumed it had been checked out. “It had not been vetted,” he said. “It should not have made air.”

Let’s be clear: A journalist’s job is to report, not assume.

November 11, 2008

My Best Student

It’s Veterans’ Day, and there’s one particular soldier now serving in Iraq who I wish had already achieved the title “veteran,” i.e. his service to his country has been completed. Jess Rollins is serving his second tour of duty. For the second time he’s put his college career on hold.

The Springfield News-Leader is now publishing his columns from Iraq. He has a new one this morning. So on this Veterans’ Day, I hope Rhetorica readers will read his column. It has nothing to do with today’s honoring of our soldiers who have served. It has everything to do with what it means to be serving now and what we’ll honor in the future.

November 10, 2008

How to Win a Political Campaign

I wrote about the rhetoric of fear a few days before the election and noted that the “fear card” 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.

Long-time Rhetorica reader Tim S., author of Jig’s Old Saws, wrote in the comments to my last post on election day that “the best campaigner won. I also think the best campaigner has won the Presidential campaign in the past.” I think he’s right about that. But what exactly does it mean to be the best campaigner?

(Also from his comment: A question of how/if campaign quality maps to governance. Be watching for more on that as the weeks unfold. Please send any thoughts you may have by e-mail. I’ll be happy to post them.)

My post on the rhetoric of fear begins to the answer the question of what it means to be the best campaigner. I don’t want to make this sound uncomplicated, but I would begin to answer by arguing that kairos, pathos, and ethos play the most important roles in creating a persuasive (i.e. winning) campaign.

In a nutshell (i.e. certainly not complete or exhaustive), here’s how I see Obama’s win and McCain’s loss working:

Pathos (the appeal to emotion): What do voters actually fear? It’s not what you think they ought to fear. Advantage Obama.

Ethos (the appeal to character): Who is the candidate in fact (situated ethos)? Who does the candidate say he is (invented ethos)? I think invented and situated ethos need to match in order to create a unified and persuasive sense of the candidate. I call it a tie between the two campaigns in this regard. But I give the advantage to Obama in another sense: The McCain campaign spent entirely too much time talking about Obama.

Kairos (timing and proportion): Presidential campaigns are nasty affairs. Always have been and probably always will be. Was this one the nastiest in recent memory? I’m not sure. I’d prefer to take a sober look at it a few months from now. One thing, however, does appear to accurately describe what occurred (a hypothesis): Obama’s message (i.e. his typical stump speech and talking points) seemed to remain consistent in tone and timing throughout the campaign. McCain’s tone and timing changed during and following the Republican Convention. I think he got the “fear card” wrong and failed to tell his story by spending too much time trying to whip up the wrong fears. Advantage Obama.

Now: How will all this (and other rhetorical maneuvers I’ve not mentioned) map to quality governance?

November 6, 2008

Rhetorica Update: Moving Forward

In the next few days I’ll be publishing an election wrap-up. There’s much to talk about.

Rhetorica has been a huge success in a number of ways. Primary among these is that it has attracted a loyal readership across the political spectrum, and we have enjoyed a frank and constructive discussion of press-politics. I have learned quite a bit from my readers, especially those who have challenged me. I hope that never changes. Rhetorica has also been a success in that it has attracted the attention of the news media seeking my “expertise” (the quotes represent my discomfort and amusement with that term). And, even more satisfying, Rhetorica has brought me several academic and professional opportunities to publish.

Two of those publishing opportunities are going to keep me very busy until the spring semester begins. I’m not announcing a blogging holiday, Instead, I’m letting you know that things will continue to be a bit slow around here. They’ve been slow for awhile because I’ve recently been focused on my tenure application (now turned in) and two research projects.

Further, you my be aware that I started a second blog called Carbon Trace — something very different from Rhetorica. I’ve been putting a lot of energy into it lately. And now it has lead to a publishing opportunity! One of the reasons that I’ve put so much effort into Carbon Trace is that it is allowing me to do two very important things: 1) advocate for an issue that’s important to me, and 2) connect and contribute to my local community.

Going forward: I’m planning to write less frequent but more in-depth essays for Rhetorica. My focus will remain on the rhetoric of press-politics. It’s sometimes difficult to stick to plans in the blogging world. I’m stating this plan knowing full well that I could change my mind in a few weeks — especially after I finish these publishing projects, which I will then crow about here because they all concern topics of interest to Rhetorica’s readers (especially you media bias junkies).

Rest assured Rhetorica is here to stay. In more than six years of publishing this blog, I have tweaked and adjusted to suit my interests and my circumstances. Rhetorica has been the common thread through all that I have done since graduating UMKC with my Ph.D. in the spring of 2002. To bring Rhetorica to a close is simply unthinkable.

Thanks for reading!

November 4, 2008

CNN Calls it for Obama


November 4, 2008

Let the Blogging Begin (soon)

I’ve arrived at the Patton Alley Pub — about 40 minutes early. I’ve ordered dinner and found a good spot for the Springfield Bloggers to sit (near electricity). How many will show up? Not a clue.

I’m not planning on posting a lot this evening. Maybe just a couple of things. It depends entirely upon who shows up and what we talk about.

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