January 29, 2009

Brave New World, circa 1981

January 27, 2009

The Speech, part 2

Much of the analysis of Obama’s inaugural address that I read and heard over the last week seemed to boiled down to this:

President Obama did not offer his patented poetry in his Inaugural Address. He did not add to his cache of quotations in Bartlett’s. He did not recreate J.F.K.’s inaugural, or Lincoln’s second, or F.D.R.’s first. The great orator was mainly at his best when taking shots at Bush and Cheney, who, in black hat and wheelchair, looked like the misbegotten spawn of the evil Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Lines. Apparently pop rhetorical analysis is all about poetic-sounding lines.

The funny thing is: This speech is full of them. But they are presented as parts of a wholediscourse that require the reader or listener to digest more than simply Bartlett bait. That makes this speech a bit different from other inaugurals, in which many presidents try to hit these ill-defined rhetorical heights with memorable, stand-alone lines based on culturally-approved images.

Let’s examine one part of the speech that illustrates what I mean:

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

This entire section of the speech is built on the “we will” anaphora. The last line of the preceding paragraph sets up the idea with an image still currently powerful in American Liberalism: the idea of individual, never-say-die industry and initiative. The anaphora focuses us on the goals using the verbs of industry and initiative: build, harness, create, restore,  transform. Obama ends the paragraph with two short, eloquent lines.

That these lines are not Bartlett bait is obvious. They are not self-contained in the way Kennedy’s “ask not” quote is (although that line is usually quoted out of context). To understand the eloquence of this speech requires one to reject the notion that eloquence is a matter of crafting memorable lines and embrace the idea that the entire speech is one 2,400-word “line.”

January 20, 2009

The Speech, part 1

I will have two reactions to Presidient Barack Obama’s first inaugural address. The second reaction will take some time to develop as I think about what I saw, heard, and read. It is my academic response. I’ll share it with you before the end of the week.

My first response is personal and emotional. Despite my training and intellectual interest in political and journalistic communication, I can still be moved as a citizen, as a civic person.

I wanted to be called to rebuild America. Obama called me. I intend to answer.

I currently intend to answer that call in two ways (beyond what ought to be a civic minimum — being a man of goodwill and an active and thinking participant in civic affairs).

The first way is to reinvigorate my efforts to educate a new generation of journalists and to be a clear-eyed and respectful critic of the current practice of journalism. My goal beyond trying to understand this important communicative behavior is to try to make it better, i.e. to help journalism fulfill its primary purpose. Kovach & Rosenstiel said it best: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Journalism is a civic art. It belongs to all of us. Today we do more than receive it. We use it. We respond to it. We talk back to it. We criticize it. We fight with it. We (I hope still) love it.

And, most important, we — all of us — can and should do it. I’ll be working especially hard on this idea.

My second way to answer the call: I intend to step up my efforts to create a better, sustainable transportation system for the United States, one that brings walking, cycling, and public transportation into parity with the automobile. This is obviously not work you’ll be reading about here on Rhetorica. For that you’ll need to visit Carbon Trace.

Hmmmmm… I didn’t say much about the speech. Or perhaps I did.

January 20, 2009

Pre-speech Coverage

I’m watching CNN and checking in on MSNBC, FOX and C-SPAN. Coverage this morning reminds me of so much sports commentary: too much talk about the obvious. I do like hearing about tradition and history regarding the inaugural. It’s also good to hear about how the whole inaugural process works. I’d like more of this civic education and less of the “red carpet” fawning over celebrities or typical political blathering.

Right now the motorcade is leaving the White House. Right now would be a good time for Wolf Blitzer, for example, to just shut up and let viewers enjoy the show. He and his cohort should speak only if they have something of value to add to the scene. But what we get is constant yammering from communications professionals.

C-SPAN is doing a better job — letting the sounds of the crowd be the “commentary.”

What is it, then, that CNN et. al. is communicating? Are they merely providing the comfort of a human voice?

January 20, 2009

This Land

January 17, 2009

Rhetorica Update Re: Inaugural

Tuesday I’ll be planted in front of my TV and my laptop to “cover” the inaugural. Be sure to keep Rhetorica in mind as you’re surfing for news and commentary.

I’ll also be posting about the inaugural at Carbon Trace, my bicycle-commuting blog. Check there if you’re interested in issues such as active transportation and public transportation.

January 15, 2009

Scraping the Bone

What does it mean for journalism that Gannett will furlough employees without pay?

One knee-jerk reaction is to see this as a problem (and it certainly is for the individuals involved) for newspapers and journalism. The cuts have apparently reached the bone.

But I’m going to indulge in another (knee-jerk) reaction: This is the beginning of the end, which means a new beginning is coming — a good thing.

All of us who yammer about the news media have been yammering for years about what’s next for journalism given that the MSM is struggling and the internet has yet to fully ascend (to what?).

The next business model? Who knows?

It has long been fashionable to poo-poo all those loser bloggers in their pajamas banging out screeds when they should be out finding girl friends and boy friends. Thing is: These folks may be the ones who get us through the coming dark times. The light will appear again when we: 1) rediscover the purpose and value of journalism, and 2) figure out a way produce it that is not dependent upon a corporate structure that turns journalism into the kind of mush no one wants to pay for.

I’ve heard from several grumpy readers over the years who claim that bloggers and other citizen journalists simply cannot do what it is “real” journalists do because they have neither the talent/training nor the institutional support. And there is some truth in both claims (some). The problem is, however, that the seed of truth in those claims is not going to stop the plane crash. The wings are off. The fuselage is burning. And while some of the crew are tugging at the controls, others have bailed out (or been forced out). When it hits, bloggers and cit-js and the pros who have migrated to the new media will be all we have.

We had better be thinking of ways to make that work.

Oh, yeah… I mean there will still be television. But com’on. If I used Twitter at all (I do have an account), I might write something like this: “Any medium that can’t do international monetary policy can’t do journalism.” That’s harsh. Partly wrong. But you see what I’m getting at: Television is a difficult medium in which to practice journalism (although a lot of good people give a heroic effort everyday). It can’t replace the propositional content of print.

January 13, 2009

The Yummy Donut of Status Quo Bias

Jay Rosen is back in the saddle at Press Think. And he’s returned with a bang. His essay posted yesterday deals in part with the status quo bias of journalism (although he does not use that term). Following an explanation of David Hallin’s diagram of the Spheres of Consensus, Controversy, and Deviance, Rosen says:

Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.

Rosen is examining the role of interactive technology in overcoming “audience atomization.” Which is very cool. I’m going to use what he wrote to veer off in another direction.

The status quo bias of journalism:

The news media believe “the system works.” During the “fiasco in Florida,” recall that the news media were compelled to remind us that the Constitution was safe, the process was working, and all would be well. The mainstream news media never question the structure of the political system. The American way is the only way, politically and socially. In fact, the American way is news. The press spends vast amounts of time in unquestioning coverage of the process of political campaigns (but less so on the process of governance). This bias ensures that alternate points of view about how government might run and what government might do are effectively ignored.

The press ignores other things that intersect in interesting ways with the the status quo bias. For example, I recently discussed Dick Cheney’s odd justification for telling a U.S. Senator to go fuck himself. Tim Schmoyer, of Jig’s Old Saws, and I had a brief discussion in the comments about what constitutes news because, really — is one politician cussing at another news? Another way to put it: Is this something journalists should see or see in a particular way? I replied in part:

How it happens is particularly interesting considering that there are no cogent definitions of “news.” What is going on in the herd mind? Gans got a glimpse of it in his book Deciding What’s News. What he saw was a particular culture that is effective in socializing its members. But a definition remains elusive. That’s a problem because you and I might decide a thing is not news, but if the news media cover it then it must be news. And if you complain, well, you’ll be told you don’t know what news is.

That donut diagram is, as Rosen claims, particularly illustrative of journalistic behavior. I think it is especially illustrative regarding the status quo bias and what that bias says news is and is not. What I find interesting is that the lack of a cogent definition of news plays a big role in status quo bias and the Hallin diagram.

I’m not suggesting a cogent definition of news exists or that we must stop what we’re doing and find/create one now. Reason: Not possible, i.e. we cannot agree on a definition that looks the same to all of us equally. In other words, what news is is a judgment call made by people with the power to do so. These people appear to be partly unaware of their decision-making process, of their terministic screens, their structural biases, their professional culture, and their received cultural values. Most of us are not aware of these things most of the time. But I contend that a journalist can’t have that luxury because of that all-important primary purpose.

What can/should be done about this? (Defining the “this” and why it’s bad (if it is) isn’t easy considering what we’re talking about here is human beings acting and communicating in the ways that human beings do. There is no ground-state, unbiased communication from a person in contact with some objective reality to a person able to understand that reality as experienced and the message as intended. The epistemology of journalism, however, argues that this is exactly what can/does happen.)

I like the word “transparency” to identify what I think the “solution” is. And I have promoted the idea of practicing “meta-reporting” as a way to be transparent. But Tim Schmoyer gave me a much better description — simple and cogent: “show your work” journalism.

We all remember that phrase from math classes in elementary school. Getting the right answer was only part of the task. Showing your work demonstrated that you understood how you arrived at an answer (correct or otherwise). The quality of understanding we’re talking about in journalism, however, is a bit different. In math we want to show we understand the underlying concepts of a rational process. Certainly we want to understand underlying concepts in the news we cover (as irrational as it often is). Journalism, however, must also show that it understands the subjective — the post-modern condition — i.e. that not all of us experience the world in the same way.

How do we accomplish this?

Good question. I do not have a good answer yet.

But here’s something I think I do know: Meta-reporting cannot be practiced well using the news discourse of the last 100 years, mired as it is in a failed and false modernist epistemology.

January 10, 2009

What Will I Tell Them?

On Monday morning I’ll face a new class of students in JRN270 Introduction to Journalism. What will I tell them?

I’ll start by having them read Michael Hirschorn’s recent essay in The Atlantic:

Regardless of what happens over the next few months, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon—sooner than most of us think—the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist. And it will likely have plenty of company. In December, the Fitch Ratings service, which monitors the health of media companies, predicted a widespread newspaper die-off: “Fitch believes more newspapers and news­paper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”

The collapse of daily print journalism will mean many things. For those of us old enough to still care about going out on a Sunday morning for our doorstop edition of The Times, it will mean the end of a certain kind of civilized ritual that has defined most of our adult lives. It will also mean the end of a certain kind of quasi-bohemian urban existence for the thousands of smart middle-class writers, journalists, and public intellectuals who have, until now, lived semi-charmed kinds of lives of the mind. And it will seriously damage the press’s ability to serve as a bulwark of democracy. Internet purists may maintain that the Web will throw up a new pro-am class of citizen journalists to fill the void, but for now, at least, there’s no online substitute for institutions that can marshal years of well-developed sourcing and reporting experience—not to mention the resources to, say, send journalists leapfrogging between Mumbai and Islamabad to decode the complexities of the India-Pakistan conflict.

There are two problems as I see it: First, the old business model of corporate ownership does not work, i.e. it cannot promote and sustain good journalism. It can only promote and  partially sustain entertainment. But newsprint is not such a good medium for entertainment. Second, journalism has allowed itself to become entertainment — especially on television — in such a way that it largely fails its primary purpose: to give citizens the information they need to be self-governing.

I don’t buy arguments that say no one reads anymore (duh! you read the internet) or that our attention spans are too short. Such things sound like a lot of hooey to me. I’m far more convinced by some demographic arguments, but these are not my subject today.

I’ll stick my neck out and say it simply: Newspapers are failing largely because corporate ownership produces bad journalism that fewer and fewer people wish to waste their time reading, and journalists are partly to blame for allowing this to happen. Television “news” continues to have a bright future, I think, because television does entertainment well.

As print dies before our eyes we must realize that “newspaper journalism” does not have to die along with it. And that’s what I’ll tell my students on Monday morning.

I’ll also tell them something else that I think students need to hear: The people who read the Podunk Weekly Bugle (and/or its website) in Nowheresville, Missouri deserve good journalism, too. One doesn’t have to work for The New York Times to fulfill the primary purpose of journalism, which, by the way, is one damned important purpose. The closer the community, the more important it is. No more Podunk this and Nowheres that.

Further, the First Amendment right to freedom of the press belongs to all of us equally. Journalists have a First Amendment right to freedom of the press because they are citizens, not because they are journalists. So it’s important that I tell my students this: Journalism is a liberal art. It is a civic art. It is an important set of  skills of citizenship — to be able to read it, discuss it, act upon it, criticize it, produce it.

I’ll cry like a baby on last day The New York Times publishes a print edition. But only for a minute or two. There’s a lot of work to be done — right now! — to midwife the rebirth of newspaper journalism.

January 4, 2009

Contributing to Political Campaigns

The Springfield-News Leader has gathered data on who contributed money to the candidates for governor of Missouri in the recent campaign. In a blog sidebar, political reporter Chad Livengood discusses his discovery that some contributors were journalists, and they gave disproportionately to the Democratic candidate.

The good news is that Livengood found no current political reporters had made contributions. The bad news is that some who did give should not have. And his reporting points out the need for newspapers to have codes of ethics that include freelance contributors, which is exactly the point I made, and Livengood quoted, when he talked to me about this yesterday.

Journalists are citizens, too. They should vote just like the rest of us. I’ve always considered those journalists who refuse to vote for reasons of professional ethics to be a bit silly — taking a good attitude way too far. But this should be a no-brainer: No editorial employee of a newspaper (of any size) that would hope to have journalistic credibility should allow any editorial staff member to contribute money to political campaigns.

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