September 24, 2009

Nail. Head. Hit.

Jon Stewart: Television news has “time to kill but none to reflect.”

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September 22, 2009

On Calling Bullshit

A few weeks ago I chastised the news media for not calling bullshit sooner on the “death panel” canard, which drew a question from a long-time Rhetorica reader: “How does ‘a poor job of calling bullshit’ and ‘call[ing] bullshit inconsistently’ relate back to a ‘rhetoric beat‘?” Here’s my original post on the concept of a rhetoric beat.

I believe that the rhetorical features of public messages (politics, journalism, education, etc.) are reportable facts. By “rhetorical features” I mean the specific persuasive strategies employed by the communicator to achieve their communicative intention (see: Rhetoric, Ethics, and Intention and The Engine of Bullshit).

Reporting the rhetorical features of public messages helps citizens analyze those messages so they can make informed decisions. The rhetoric beat meets the test of journalism’s primary purpose: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

But there’s an added benefit that also fits that ethical purpose: Covering the rhetoric beat highlights bullshit, so it is possible that it could help persuade powerful civic actors to stop employing so much of it (see: Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit).

Two problems:

1. As I wrote before: “The rhetoric beat would require specific training and reliance on neutral experts. Otherwise this beat could make people dumber by treating rhetoric in the same sloppy way journalism sometimes treats the sciences (and politics, and…well, you know).”

2. Journalism must be willing to call bullshit on itself. While self-awareness is a good thing, I think this attitude could be helped along if news organizations routinely watched, and reported on, the craft and ethics of other news organizations (see: Ripping Them a New One). Journalism treats itself as outside the field of play coaching (watching, criticizing) others but not subject to coaching (watching, criticizing) itself. Combine this attitude with new media interactivity and a failed business model (corporate journalism) and what you get is the current sorry state of the MSM today.

Calling bullshit is also a problem because it disrupts the narrative, status quo, and fairness biases of journalism. So it ain’t happenin’ in that regard either.

When I said that journalism “took entirely too long to call bullshit,” I was guilty of assuming a world (craft, ethic) that doesn’t actually exist.

September 16, 2009

Two Questions

I have two questions re: this situation:

1. Is the President ever “off the record.” (Note: I do not mean to indicate “is” in the sense that Bill Clinton questioned it.)

2. Is it OK for the President to call someone a “jackass”?

An answer to #1: No. President’s must assume every word they speak and write will be subject to dissemination by journalists, pundits, and other information media types who hear or otherwise gather those words. Assume everyone is an open mic.

An answer to #2: Yes. Some people are jackasses.

But why did Obama comment on Kanye West’s boorish behavior? Simple answer: He was asked.

Why was he asked?

Hmmmmm… That’s the question I put to my ethics classes today.

(I’m going to leave this hanging for now.)

Is it common for reporters, even when engaging in friendly banter, to ask Presidents about pop culture trivia? (Compared to health care, the wars, the economy, etc. the West thing is trivia — perhaps even less than trivia.) Perhaps it is common. I wonder why that should be, if it is.

September 9, 2009

The Trouble With B-Roll

My schedule is starting to settle down a bit, so I’ll be finishing these projects soon. While you wait, here’s a bit of funny business that makes an interesting point about journalism practiced on television.

I mentioned in my Introduction to Journalism class last week that a given medium will affect not only how messages may be delivered but will also affect the content of messages. If something cannot be photographed, it’s unlikely to get much attention from television news. And in the event a news situation is important but lacks much of a visual element, then TV reporters will do location stand-ups to create a visual element. It’s funny to note how many of these stand-ups totally unnecessary to the story.

Then there’s B-Roll — the extra stuff news photographers shoot to show during voice-overs.

I think it’s OK sometimes just to let the news anchors tell the story. Sometimes we don’t need to see it.

September 4, 2009

How We Got Here

As long-time readers of Rhetorica know, I get a rather perverse enjoyment out of writing headlines that promise far more than the post beneath them will deliver. There’s a good reason for that.

The headline on the lead story of the Springfield News-Leader this morning declares Obama Speech Shows ‘Polarized’ Society. A secondary story packaged with it discusses the reactions of parents and educators locally. I imagine there will be similar sorts of articles running on the front pages of many local newspapers this week.

Both articles show a lot of reporting effort. But both miss a part of the big “why” in all of this.

Why should a presidential address to children cause such a furor? (And just in case you think I think liberals would act any differently if the circumstances were reversed, think again.)

Neither story bothers to ask. It’s taken as a given that we live in a polarized society. These stories begin with that as an unremarkable premise (although a couple of the sources lament this state of affairs).

Allow me to gently suggest that how we arrived at this state of affairs is partly the fault of American journalists and the choices they have made over the past 40 years. This is partly the fault of journalists failing to come to grips with the narrative bias of journalism (especially combined with status quo bias). They have failed to come to grips with it because, as a lot, American journalists are poor critical thinkers about their own craft.

The enculturation process — it begins in journalism schools — teaches a mythology of the craft (pp. 45-68) that is rarely questioned in any critical way.

This mythology is so engrained, so accepted, so entrenched, so understood as professional common sense, that I am wasting my time  writing these…

September 1, 2009

Rhetorica Update

The second week of school began today. The first week was busy, and the second week will be more of the same — typical fits and starts of getting a new semester under way (plus new service duties now that I have tenure).

Things I’m working on that will appear soon:

1. My answer to this question.

2. More of my series on codes of ethics.

3. Examining a new form of writing.