January 28, 2010

What the Apple iPad Means

I don’t know. Wait and see.

But a few journalism types speculated yesterday about what the iPad may mean. I found this interesting:

But isn’t it interesting that Apple Senior Vice President Scott Forstall touted the tactile strengths of the device over its technology? “IPad is the best way to browse the Web for the same reasons that it just feels right to hold a book or a magazine or a newspaper as you read them,” he insisted in a video shown as part of the product launch. “It just feels right — to hold the Internet in your hands as you surf it.”

Does this contraption have the charms necessary to drag an ol’ paper hound such as me away from the feel of print? I gotta tell ya, this thing looks seriously cool.

UPDATE: Here’s another guy who thinks he knows what it means before anyone has actually bought the thing.

January 25, 2010

Shades of Gray

I have never read Charles Johnson’s blog Little Green Footballs. I can recall visiting it perhaps two or three times over the past 8+ years I’ve been writing Rhetorica. I’ve merely been aware of it as a prominent blog. I have formed no opinion about Johnson or his blog because it would require my time and attention.

That remains true after having read Right-Wing Flame War! in The New York Times Sunday Magazine yesterday. Part of the reason that remains true is that I just don’t much care about the flame war the article chronicles, nor do I care much about the the early war-blog years. It’s all so 2003.

I’m introducing what I have to say with the above caveat because I think there’s something important in Jonathan Dee’s article that you should think about. That something I’m highlighting isn’t about Johnson or L.G.F. or the specifics mentioned in the paragraph I’m about the quote. I quote the entire paragraph merely to preserve a bit of context and not as a comment on anyone named. Here it is:

Regardless of whether Johnson’s view of Vlaams Belang is correct, it is notable that the party is defined for him entirely by the trail it has left on the Internet. This isn’t necessarily unfair — a speech, say, given by Dewinter isn’t any more or less valuable as evidence of his political positions depending on whether you read it (or watch it) on a screen or listen to it in a crowd — but it does have a certain flattening effect in terms of time: that hypothetical speech exists on the Internet in exactly the same way whether it was delivered in 2007 or 1997. The speaker will never put it behind him. (Just as Johnson, despite his very reasonable contention that he later changed his mind, will never be allowed to consign to the past a blog post he wrote in 2004 criticizing that judicial condemnation of Vlaams Belang as “a victory for European Islamic supremacist groups.”) It may be difficult to travel to Belgium and build the case that Filip Dewinter is not just a hateful character but an actual Nazi (and thus that those who can be linked to him are Nazi sympathizers), but sitting at your keyboard, there is no trick to it at all. Not only can the past never really be erased; it co-exists, in cyberspace, with the present, and an important type of context is destroyed. This is one reason that intellectual inflexibility has become such a hallmark of modern political discourse, and why, so often, no distinction is recognized between hypocrisy and changing your mind.

(One possible) Translation: The internet can make us stupid if we fail to think about context.

I never intended any symbolism by choosing gray as the dominant color for Rhetorica. But allow me to claim it retroactively. I’m liking the gray a lot more this morning. I’m thinking we need more shades of it out there in cyberspace. (I know: Good luck with that.)

The idea of ideas co-existing in time predates the internet. That’s the standard ontology of much of academia in which we discuss past thinkers as if they are still addressing us today in present tense, e.g. Protagoras claims X, but Corbett claims Y. The hope is, however, that academics discussing ideas this way think about thinkers in at least two contexts: 1) in relation to their times, and 2) in relation to their body of work. That second context allows that some thinkers may change their minds — something all good academics are quite comfortable with. Show me I’m right, and that’s cool. Show me I’m wrong and I learn something, which is better (or cooler).

In this sense, good academics make bad political partisans because it ain’t about winning; it’s about understanding. (Note: I use the qualifier “good” for a reason… oh, and “in the sense”).

I think Dee is correct that the hallmark of modern political discourse is “inflexibility.” I wouldn’t, however, call it “intellectual.” Perhaps “anti-intellectual inflexibility” is a better term. Then again, I also like “stupid.”

January 22, 2010


This just seems really dumb to me:

Five journalists will lock themselves away in a French farmhouse with access only to Facebook and Twitter to test the quality of news from the social networking and micro-blogging sites.

Twitter and Facebook’s use as news-breaking tools has been highlighted over the past year, particularly during opposition protests in Iran that many media described as a “twitterised revolution”.

This month, Twitter played a key communications role in quake-hit Haiti, with users sending harrowing personal accounts, heart-rending pictures and cries for help.

But how will the world look if viewed only through the prism of these sites, whose phenomenal growth has been fuelled by smartphones and, for Twitter, online bursts of 140 characters?

Are these social media – which between them have nearly 400 million users – really the serious threat to established media they are often said to be?

OK, this sounds interesting until you get to this part:

They will be relieved of their smartphones and be given mobiles that cannot connect to the internet, and be reminded television, radio and newspapers are banned.

“We will give them five computers with blank hard drives,” said Francoise Dost of the RFP French-language public broadcasters association, which organised the event.

“They have agreed to be linked to the outside world only through Twitter and Facebook. No web surfing is allowed,” Mr Dost said.

I’ll pause while you ROFLMAO.

This “experiment” fundamentally (willfully?) misunderstands how these social media sites work. Let’s agree that, yes, both Facebook and Twitter can and are used by many people for the most trivial nonsense. And that’s OK. But there are people out there (example) publishing interesting and useful information.


None of it means squat without the lowly link. Remember that? It’s the product of something you might have heard of called HTML.

Surely one can report firsthand using both platforms, i.e. “I’m here right now watching this tornado tear apart my town.” But the real value of Twitter is the link that you comment on and share. Facebook allows even more: pictures, sound, and video.

To restrict these journalists to nothing more than Facebook and Twitter — no ability to link out — is to rig the game.

I’ll wait and see, but I’m initially skeptical that much of value will come from this.

January 15, 2010

Journalism Breakdown

You’ll hear journalists claim that bloggers are unreliable sources of information. And, yes, many of them are. One needs to judge carefully. That’s why I’ve argued that bloggers and journalists ought to post blogging policies to help readers judge.

The thing is: Journalism is supposed to come “pre-judged,” i.e. we should all know and understand how journalism is constructed (and how it ought to be constructed). This does not mean that journalism always gets it “right” because there are just too many judges to satisfy. What it means instead is that journalism is supposed to be a consistent product that all interested parties know how to judge for their own purposes whether they like the journalism or not.

Constructing a “pre-judged” product in journalism requires the editorial process identified often on Rhetorica as journalists operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification.

Here’s what happens when journalism fails to follow the process 🙂

Lance Bennett estimates that 75 percent or more of all news you see, read, and hear originates in a public relations effort.

Until that gets corrected (and the editorial process correctly followed), I’m really not in the mood to listen to “journalists” gripe about bloggers.

January 14, 2010

Brain Surgery, Again

My “brain surgery” crack (aka. a quote) last October was meant to indicate that journalism (done well) is a difficult and complex practice because of, among other things, the challenges of interpretation.

Mix those challenges with the ability to publish instantly (and add in a dash of cynicism and — dare I say it? — bias) and you have a (mixed-metaphorically) short walk to Errorville.

So, did Republican senate candidate Scott Brown actually mean to indicate that he was unfamiliar with the Tea Party?

Probably not (given, in part, because such an assertion would really be dumb, which, then, is a clue to the reporter to keep asking questions instead of, say, getting all excited — cynically — that one now has interesting dirt — but I’m assuming).

How about we declare a holiday from cynicism so we may worship the custodians of fact who operate with a discipline of verification.

Or, how about this as a rule of thumb: If a politician makes statement A that sounds like a lie or bullshit or stupidity, then reporter asks question B to seek clarification in the interest of accurately (as possible) capturing what the politician means to say.

This rule of thumb, however, requires that the journalist be humble regarding a difficult and complex task.

Here’s the paragraph in question from the Boston Globe:

He also claimed that he was unfamiliar with the “Tea Party movement,” when asked by a reporter. When told that different people labeled him a conservative, moderate and a liberal Republican, he responded “I’m a Scott Brown Republican.”

Claimed? Who is editing this newspaper? That’s a loaded attributive verb. In my opinion, the audio does not back up the reporter’s characterization of this moment in the interview.

Too bad Talking Points Memo pulled the trigger so fast. Josh Marshall asks: “Sheesh, what has the world come to if you can’t trust the Boston Globe?”

You gotta be kiddin’ me.

January 13, 2010

ExplainThis Beta Is Live

Check out Jay Rosen’s ExplainThis project.

I found this idea particularly interesting when first proposed because it opens up an avenue of rhetorical inquiry regarding journalistic questions.

The site offers this advice for asking a good question:

Explainthis.org is about making journalism more responsive to the public, and to users of the news system. So our first advice is to consult your curiosity. Ask the sort of question a really good journalist should be able to answer for you by doing the reporting necessary to find out. A “good question” for explainthis.org reaches beyond what is easily known by checking the web.

  • » It cannot be answered by Googling the key terms or finding the relevant entries at Wikipedia. It isn’t simple a matter of historical record. (Example: “Did the 9/11 commission have subpoena power?”)
  • » It isn’t loaded with so much subjectivity or emotion as to make all possible answers subject to endless argument. (Example: “Is the United States still a Christian nation?”)
  • » It doesn’t suggest an answer in the form of a question. (Example: “Is racism the reason so many urban school systems are failing?”)

A good question comes from following the news closely and paying attention to public debate. It likely to be of interest to many of your fellow citizens (though not all, of course.) The answer isn’t obvious, and finding an answer isn’t impossible. An example we’ve used to explain explainthis.org is… Why is it that eight years after the September 11th attacks, there’s still no memorial at Ground Zero?

Chances are a lot of people would like to know the answer to that. The Wikipedia entries on the September 11 attacks and the World Trade Center site don’t tell us. Putting the question “why is there no memorial at ground zero?” into Google is a start but it does not give us an answer. The most likely way of getting a decent answer is for a journalist or team of journalists to review the history, dig in, ask questions, put together the relevant facts and venture some explanations. That’s what we’re looking for. The questions you have that require good journalism to answer.

Here’s what I said about “journalistic questions” and “journalistic answers”:

A “journalistic question” is one that seeks knowledge (organized information embedded in a context) that will eventually lead to wisdom (the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems).

A “journalistic answer” is knowledge delivered in a politically, socially, and/or economically useful form.

January 3, 2010

Define Ethics, Control Ethics

I spent about 10 years as a magazine freelancer after my stint in the newspaper business. I had many “rules” that guided how I conducted my business. Two of them (somewhat related): Never work for publications that want to buy all rights (work for hire), and never work for publications that want to control how you conduct your business when working for other publications.

I never worked for The New York Times. I never tried. And I never would try today. Not worth the hassle. Clark Hoyt’s column today explains why.

I’m a big Hoyt fan. I think the Times has done an excellent job choosing public editors.

I have one nitpick about Hoyt’s column today. Here’s the e-mail I sent to him:

Hello Mr. Hoyt…

I found your column today about freelancers fascinating. I’ll be using it in my media ethics class this semester.

While I generally agree with your conclusions and approach, I do have one concern: I do not think you did enough to assert that the NYT code of ethics is specific to the Times and is not an expression of what journalism ethics are or should be. By not making this clear, you leave the reader to infer that Tripsas and Albo are unethical people — clearly not true, IMO, given the evidence of your column. They merely ran afoul of Times policy (for reasons that are partly the Times’ fault, as you note). They did not act unethically. I think this is especially so for Albo. The Times treatment of him is, IMO, outrageous. I generally agree with Postrel in this regard.

The Times does not define journalistic ethics. The journalists and managers at the Times may define ethics for the organization in any way they please. But readers should never be left to infer that freelancers who run afoul of the more idiosyncratic rules are unethical. Despite your obvious efforts to report these situations in a fair and balanced manner, I believe your column still leaves the false impression that Tripsas and Albo are unethical people.

I think it is clear that Robinson acted unethically by long-agreed standards in journalism.

That said, I remain impressed by, and appreciative of, your efforts as Public Editor of The New York Times.

Best regards,

Andy Cline

Andrew R. Cline, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Journalism

Robinson is clearly guilty of violating a long-standing ethical standard of journalism: Don’t misrepresent yourself. His actions are clearly unethical and ought to be condemned in harsh terms.

But what of Tripsas and Albo? Do they deserve to be in the same company — the same column — with Robinson? I think not. Given the evidence of the column, they are not bad people. And so I wonder about making them “disappear.” I wonder if transparently working with them, instead of casting them off (with all that implies), would have been the more humane and ethical policy.

January 1, 2010

Why Opinion Journalism Matters

Recently I blistered my local newspaper (and quit subscribing) because I think it has become toxic to our civic discourse. In other words (and in my opinion), the paper is actually harming the natural give-and-take of working out our civic issues with passion tempered by facts and reason. Rather than fostering a dynamic agora, it actively divides the community by daring citizens to take sides based on a simplistic understanding of political experience — right v. left.

The News-Leader’s most damaging transgression: Firing the last opinion journalist in Springfield (Sarah Overstreet) and filling its Voices section with amateur punditry.

I’m sure those amateur pundits are saving the News-Leader a lot of money. But at what cost to its credibility?

Opinion journalism matters. It matters because the columnists who produce it can be among the most effective journalists in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Like reporters, opinion journalists operate as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. Like reporters, opinion journalists tell stories about citizens in their communities. Unlike reporters, however, opinion journalists use what they’ve learned from their reporting to, among other things, promote agendas and suggest solutions to civic problems. Here’s what I said in an oft-quoted posting of mine examining the difference between analysis and opinion journalism:

The key for me is good reporting in both analysis and opinion writing. The difference is one of intention: opinion should be about changing hearts and minds with knowledge and wisdom; analysis should be about knowledge and wisdom (i.e. organized information embedded in a context and the capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems). Analysis, therefore, should not promote specific agendas; it should examine agendas.

Pundits need not report. They may certainly think. And they may even be well informed. Their opinions may even be valuable. But without acts of reporting that build a foundation of information and knowledge, punditry is 1) not journalism, and 2) of questionable utility in fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism.

The letters-to-the-editor section is the place for local, amateur punditry, i.e. the spouting of opinion. Letters (and online comments) are a necessary and valuable service newspapers provide to the agora. The balance of the precious space in an editorial section is just too important to turn over to what amounts to glorified letters to the editor.

The News-Leader has essentially been allowing a few members of the community to blog in print without the benefit of fact-checking or an understanding of the conventions of journalism. Their contributions are rarely valuable or useful because their contributions are rarely based on anything more than their opinions.

This stuff doesn’t pass the “who cares?” test.

Exactly why should we give a rip about any particular person’s opinion — published in the paper — if not based on reporting or recognized expertise? I would ask the same question of my own commentary on Rhetorica? Why should you give a rip? Well, agree or not, I have demonstrated expertise — no guarantee of value, but at least my opinions are based on something. (You’ll notice I stick to a limited set of issues based on my education and experience. I have nothing of value to tell you about, say, abortion or deficit spending.)

Opinion journalism well done is all about caring about the community. It is all about being connected to the community. It is all about well-worn shoe leather and familiar faces. It’s all about visibility and transparency. The good opinion journalist is the person you meet for coffee to discuss her latest column. The opinion journalist is the one who listens (when reporters and editors too often do not). In other words, opinion journalism well done is all about the very things that are apparently important in the new media environment.

Yes, I realize I’m painting an ideal portrait. Opinion journalism is subject to the same communicative challenges, biases, and errors as so-called objective journalism. I believe the difference, however, is that good opinion journalism presents not only a informed opinion but an informed personality — one you can come to know and deal with whether you love ’em or hate ’em.

January 1, 2010

Time Marches On