April 30, 2009

Press Criticism

This is “Everybody’s a Press Critic” week in my Introduction to Journalism class. One effective way to teach anything is to provide good models for students to emulate. I showed the following two videos in class on Wednesday because I think they provide a good model:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Snoutbreak ’09 – The Last 100 Days
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis First 100 Days

The first video is, obviously, satire — a very particular kind of criticism. It’s not a kind that many people can make a living doing because, frankly, Jon Stewart has that gig locked up. But we can learn something of what Stewart believes proper news coverage and media ethics ought to be from this recent clip.

(There’s a whole big can of ethical worms to get into re: swine flu coverage. I’m thinking about getting into it right after the semester ends.)

The second video is not satire. I think the genre here is best termed an “abject butt-kicking.” Well-deserved, I might add. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Let’s take a look at what Stewart said to Carlson and Begala. I have abstracted from his comments these propositions about the news media and civic discourse:

  1. Partisan fighting is not debate.
  2. Actual debate would be good for citizens.
  3. Shows such as Crossfire exploit political sound bites for dramatic gain at the expense of civic understanding.
  4. Partisan ranting in the guise of journalism, and presented on a news network that appears to take journalism seriously, hurts America.
  5. Journalists, even opinion journalists, should “work for America,” i.e. their first loyalty should be to the people.
  6. Many opinion journalists (and revolving-door pretenders) have allowed themselves to become part of the information strategies of politicians, i.e. many opinion journalists can no longer be thought of as independent of faction.
  7. Partisan ranting on shows such as Crossfire do not qualify as civilized discourse.
  8. The news media have a responsibility to encourage civil, civic discourse.

I wonder what would happen if the news media started taking some of Stewart’s criticisms seriously? Hmmmmm… it would probably make for lousy TV.

April 28, 2009

Rhetorica Update

The semester is almost over. And that means I’m busy with all the usual end-‘o-the-semester stuff. Posting here will be light for another two weeks.

This summer I’m going to be thinking a lot about the various entanglements between rhetoric and ethics as a way to begin pushing forward a new research project. Stay tuned for that.

Apparently I’ve been busy enough to completely miss Rhetorica’s 7th anniversary, which occurred on 23 April. Check out that first entry here. It has been a long, strange, and wonderful trip so far. Thanks for reading!

April 20, 2009

Allow Non-profit Status

Can or should government help save newspapers? The question is interesting to me because I think government would kill journalism by sticking its fingers into that pie. Government cannot do journalism because it cannot fulfill the primary purpose: to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing. You cannot govern yourself if the major source of information about government is the government itself.

So government should not help save newspapers because it cannot save newspapers.

What it can do, however, is allow them to operate as non-profits:

The Newspaper Revitalization Act would allow newspapers to operate as non-profits, if they choose, under 501(c)(3) status for educational purposes, similar to public broadcasting. Under this arrangement, newspapers would not be allowed to make political endorsements, but would be allowed to freely report on all issues, including political campaigns. Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt and contributions to support coverage or operations could be tax deductible.

The measure is targeted to preserve local newspapers serving communities and not large newspaper conglomerates. Because newspaper profits have been falling in recent years, no substantial loss of federal revenue is expected.<

This may not address the biggest concern in the decline of the newspaper business: what to do about newspapers published by large corporations. That business model has failed. I’d go so far as to say that, like government, corporations cannot do journalism.

April 13, 2009

The Rhetoric of “Said”

Like most of my posts that begin with “rhetoric of” headlines, this one will deliver far less than the headline suggests (or far more in terms of questions). That statement, BTW, is a rhetorical maneuver.

One other maneuver: I’m about to get all traditional on you.

The rhetorical maneuvers of mainstream journalism are well-known to anyone who bothers to either study the craft or pays even modest attention to how journalists write or speak. There are many ways to classify, and thus understand, these maneuvers. For example (and just to name two), we can understand them in terms of classical rhetoric, and/or we can understand them in terms of structural bias.

A student sent me e-mail today asking about a headline he saw on the CNN website: “Woody Harrelson claims he mistook photographer for zombie.” I have no idea what this is about. Nor do I particularly care (because it’s not information I need to be free and self-governing unless the government is failing to fight zombies). My student was asking the question because I asked his class to write blog posts in which they examine the intersection of journalistic craft and journalistic ethics. I’ve told them that journalism conflates craft and ethics in such a way that practicing the craft as understood by journalists is damned near the same as practicing it ethically from the perspective of mainstream journalism.

(I’m well aware of the boat-load of qualifications that need to accopmany an assertion of that sort.)

I wrote back to the student: “I don’t like it. I say he ‘said’ it.”

I don’t need to know what the story is about to dislike the attributive verb “claim.” The verb claim, like others such as “admit,” is an opinion on the part of the reporter. The vast majority of reporters, IMO, are not qualified to make such assessments. For the most part they lack both the training in an appropriate field and the criteria to back up saying that someone “claimed” something rather than “said” it. If the words came out of Harrelson’s mouth, then he “said” it. That’s it. That’s all you need. That’s all you know. (!!!)

The rhetorical maneuver that “said” represents is rather important to journalism of a particular kind. What “said” says is: This is a record of what a person said, and you, dear audience member, can make up your own mind about what the content of said statement means.

Assuming the journalists involved in the news story have done their jobs properly (e.g. provided information and knowledge), the reader probably can make an assessment about Harrelson and zombies (or whatever other news situation). But using the attributive verb “claim,” the journalists involved (i.e. reporter and his/her editors) have decided for you what to think. Do you know absolutely for sure that Harrelson didn’t think he was seeing a zombie? (Must… stop… here.  Must… not… google… story…)

Using “claim” is an unjustified and unsupportable opinion. It is,  therefore, poor craft and poor ethics.

I believe there are three acceptable attributive verbs for news reporting: said, asked, and according to (used mostly for paper sources, e.g. reports). Everything else is an opinion (just like this entire entry).

April 6, 2009

The Rhetoric of Open Letters

Let’s suppose you want make the public aware of a particular situation. And let’s further suppose you think the local newspaper is the proper venue for creating that awareness. You have limited choices: write a letter to the editor or write a longer “voice of the day” type column.

But there is a third option that might entice a reporter to treat your missive as news, e.g. write an open letter to a particular individual. To be most effective, the individual to whom you write needs to be very important, e.g. the President of the United States.

The audience for an open letter is the public (or some sub-set of the public) and rarely the person addressed. Open letters rely on the scheme of apostrophe, in which a speaker switches the audience addressed — most often directly addressing a person not present or an abstract quality. The person addressed may never even read the open letter, which is no problem at all since the person addressed is usually not the real audience.

Let’s suppose you are the superintendent of a large metropolitan school district frustrated by the lack of stimulus money flowing to your “shovel ready” projects, e.g. Norm Ridder of Springfield, Missouri. Writing an open letter to the Governor of the State of Missouri or the state legislature might be a good choice if your purpose is to directly persuade the folks who are actually making many of the decisions about where and how to spend the stimulus money. I’ll let Ridder tell you what his purpose is: “‘We felt the public needed to know about our situation,’ Ridder said, explaining why he wrote the letter.”

Addressing the governor or the legislature in this situation may be shooting too low — bad kairos. If you address the President of the United States, well, you may actually persuade a journalist to write a news article about you — a much better way to generate public awareness than a letter to the editor or local column.

For this to work, however, requires, I would think, a slow news day or an economically-stressed news organization. I mean there’s no way Ridder is dumb enough to think President Obama has any control over how much money the Springfield public schools will get and when they will get it (i.e. it’s an obvious PR stunt). And if he were that dumb, well, that might be your news story.

What we have here is a legitimate story about how the stimulus money will apparently be used: “to offset cuts in the budget — not for school modernization projects.” And Ridder apparently knows when the money is coming: “The district has been told it would receive the money on July 1, Ridder said.”

So this open letter business is simply a (PR-provided) peg on which hang the real story.

I’m fascinated by two things: 1) the successful rhetorical choice of writing an open letter to get the attention of the news media, and 2) the choice of the News-Leader not only pay attention to it but to make it the lead story. There is much important reporting that can and should be done regarding the stimulus and the school district. So perhaps this overplay of a PR effort is, I hope, just the beginning of a thorough examination of the topic by the News-Leader.

Perhaps newspapers need to include open letters on their advertising rate cards. That could have two beneficial effects: people might be discouraged from writing them, and journalists might be discouraged from making news out of them.