August 15, 2016

An Amusing Aside

I’m finishing an essay — due today — for the American Political Science Association conference in Philadelphia. The title is “Race, Poverty, and Police: A Conversation.” Here’s what it’s about:

How might we understand #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter in terms of #allmenarecreatedequal?

It’s about memes and hashtags and the conversation we’re not having because we cannot have it.

August 11, 2016

When Stenography Matters

So I’ve spent a lot time here grousing about stenography.

But the candidacy of Donald Trump is changing the game of journalism a bit — including my game. It’s been easy to point out examples of the lazy reporting I call stenography. But with Trump, I now find it necessary to put a finer point on my grousing.

Let’s use this article in The New York Times as an example. Trump said about President Obama: “He’s the founder of ISIS.” And he said that ISIS “honors” Obama.

OK, so what’s a reporter to do with that?

It’s news. It’s news because a candidate for President of the United States said such a ridiculous thing. But there’s very little you can ask in follow up.

What question can you ask?

I suppose you could ask for specifics about how/why Obama founded ISIS (and risk sounding like a reporter for The Daily Show), but you’re as likely to get a cogent answer as you are to get a invitation to Trump’s next wedding.

And there you have an important distinction between stenography that is reporting the news and stenography that hides the news.

It isn’t stenography to quote the outrageous and let it hang in the air like a fart.

August 10, 2016

Where I’m Coming From

Back in the day, I wrote this:

As I learned early in my journalistic career before becoming an academic, there is no such thing as an objective point of view. And the ideal of fairness is almost as elusive. But I will always attempt to be fair according to standards that I will try to make plain. I will try to reveal my biases when I think they intrude on my critiques.

Yesterday I wrote a scathing and snarky critique of Donald Trump’s latest outrage. I did not publish it, and I will not publish it because I need to change a few things regarding the quote above.

You can use the following to decide if you think Rhetorica is worth your time during the remaining weeks of the 2016 election.

I consider Donald Trump to be a dangerous amateur, and I despair for the Republican Party that it chose this person. His candidacy is so alarming that I am unable to maintain the fiction of academic detachment. He must be stopped.

I will hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. She’s just another centrist Democrat. I am sick to death of centrist Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

My track record here over the years, and the tools that I have published for your use, may be employed to determine if anything I write here in the next few weeks is worthwhile.

I will try to maintain focus on press coverage, especially regarding the glaring differences between reporting and stenography.

But I may not be able to let another scathing snark-fest go unpublished.

Just so you know.

August 8, 2016

Covering a “Major Policy Address”

Jay Rosen has been wondering about the “interpretive challenge” the Trump campaign presents for journalists. How do you use the tools of reporting to cover a person who won’t follow the general master narratives that journalists have come to expect about how presidential candidates should speak and behave?

I contend that this interpretive challenge is made even more challenging because much of the old reporting playbook was not a playbook about reporting. Instead, it is a blank stenographers pad waiting to be filled with quotes that will not be examined as long as they fit the general master narrative.

Today I just want to call attention to coverage of a Trump campaign speech (characterized as a “major policy address”) by The New York Times:

But the economic agenda Mr. Trump described included many traditionally Republican policies that offer little to no direct benefit to working-class Americans, while giving a considerable financial boost to the wealthiest.

Now that paragraph is likely to set aflutter the hearts of those who fight liberal bias in the news media.

Is that opinion or fact?

I’m going to sidestep that question for now (I’ll get back to it in the days to come) and say that, no matter what is is, it is certainly reporting. In other words, rather than simply pass along quotes — stenography — the Times has bothered to compare what Trump said with the public and/or historical record.

It happens several more times in this article:

For example, Mr. Trump called for ending what Republicans label the “death tax.” He did not mention that the estate tax currently exempts the first $5.45 million for an individual and $10.9 million for a married couple — meaning that only the very wealthy pay even a dime. If Mr. Trump’s net worth is as large as he has says, his heirs would have a great deal to gain from eliminating the estate tax; the typical displaced steelworker or coal miner, or even a relatively prosperous retiree, would have nothing to gain.

Mr. Trump advocated reducing the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from its current 35 percent. That proposal comes after a decade in which after-tax corporate profits have risen sharply as a share of national income and compensation for workers has fallen.

He advocated “allowing parents to fully deduct the average cost of child-care spending from their taxes.” That might sound like a boost for average workers, but the way the tax code works, it would confer the greatest advantage to upper middle-class and wealthier families, and little to no benefit for vast numbers of low-income families.

For expenses of $10,000 a year on child care, the tax deduction would be worth about $3,960 for a family in the top marginal tax bracket making more than $467,000 a year, but only $1,500 to a family making between roughly $19,000 and $75,000. And many lower and lower-middle income families pay little or no federal income tax, so a tax deduction wouldn’t help them.

A bit later in the article, the Times has this to say about other policies:

Other elements of Mr. Trump’s economic agenda lack details that would make similar analysis possible. His proposed moratorium on new regulations would certainly warm the hearts of business interests that have complained of excessive regulation in the Obama era, but it is hard to know how much of a factor regulation has been in the sluggish economic growth of the last several years.

And on energy policy, Mr. Trump reiterated his pledge to tear up the Paris climate agreement and halt the United States’ payments to United Nations for programs to reduce global warming. He said energy regulations were killing manufacturing jobs.

Good journalism unfolds over time. What we see here could be meta-reporting (I’m not actually optimistic about that): reporting about reporting that still needs to be done. The Times should consider these two paragraphs as the starting points for news assignments that will become the context in which these policies are understood the next time Trump mentions them.

August 6, 2016

Setting the Hook on a Juicy Quote

“If Hillary Clinton becomes president you will have terrorism, you will have problems, you will have really, in my opinion, the destruction of this country from within,” Trump said. “Believe me.”

Juicy quote, right?

But what does it mean?

Let’s start with a simple binary: This quote is either true to some extent or mistaken to some extent. We won’t know for sure until the “if” plays out. Seeing that the “if” doesn’t play out is a reasonable interpretation of the speaker’s rhetorical intention.

I could spend a lot more time running this quote through the rhetorical interpretation wringer, but there’s really no point because the reasons why this is a juicy quote are plain to see. Boiled down: OMFG, a presidential candidate said THAT? It’s news!!! No, it’s not news. This is bait for journalists — a big, juicy worm wiggling on a hook. It should be questioned and/or examined, or it should be ignored.

If the reporter is unable to question the speaker for whatever reason, then good reporting demands examining the rhetoric and reporting the facts discovered rather than simply writing it down and passing it along.

I’ve called this the rhetoric beat.

Politicians certainly make news when they speak. But just writing it down and passing it along — stenography — is not reporting.

August 5, 2016

Unanswered Questions

There are plenty of jobs for stenographers in American political journalism. It’s the safest — and easiest — job in the business. American political stenography thrives in the new multimedia/social media context. It is perfectly suited for the clickbait headline, the vacuous soundbite, the hashtag thinking, and the (apparently) declining attention span of the audience.

I’m waking Rhetorica up for the 2016 election.

Unlike years past when I covered a wide range of rhetorical issues in the press and politics, this time I’m focusing on political stenography in journalism. It occurs at all levels. I’ll be particularly focused on its practice in prestigious newspapers and self-aggrandizing cable/network news programs.

You can click that link and read some of what I’ve written about stenography in the past. But in case you don’t want to work quite that hard, what I’m talking about is the near universal practice among American political journalists not to ask — or get answers for — painfully obvious questions when politicians speak in hashtags and soundbites as if it were all so much common sense.

Here’s another way to understand it:

Stenography = writing down what sources say

Reporting = discovering and writing down the facts (about what sources say)

Here’s a short list of problems stenography causes that I published in 2009:

1. Sounds bites get substituted for facts and rational argument.

2. Mere partisan contention becomes news pushing out context (series: part 1, part 2, part 2 supplemental) and proportion (bad kairos).

3. Intentional falsehoods achieve a cultural force equal to facts and (something like) the truth.

Let’s see what happens this time 🙂