April 23, 2013

Journalism Needs More Dicks

I think we have reached a new low in journalism.

During the past few big news events, I’ve found myself wondering, as I watch and read, just how badly the various news organizations are screwing it up. I’m defining “screwing it up” as failing to act as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification. I’m going to over-generalize from that and assert that news now appears to be partly about the entertainment value of watching journalists get it wrong long before they get it right.

I base that over-generalization on this assumption and prediction (really stepping in it now): No one will lose their jobs over any of this. And no one will lose their jobs the next time. Which ensures there  will be a next time. And a next. And a next…

Let’s check in with Jon Stewart.

He starts off the sketch by asserting that The Daily Show is hard on the news media because “we are dicks.” I’ll agree if part of the definition of being a dick is doing the necessary work of critiquing the performance of the news media and holding it to standards that ought to define it.

Journalism needs more dicks.

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April 16, 2013

Really? Again? … Well, Yes.

So, yeah, Rhetorica is changing a bit … again.

My grumpy phase appears at an end, so the whole Doom Files thing is a non-starter for me. I’m an optimistic person with an annoyingly enthusiastic personality. So  gloom-and-doom was always a bit of a stretch.

You’ll notice the blog portion of the site no longer has a separate title. The blog will now simply be Rhetorica, and all of my media empire will remain under the banner of The Rhetorica Network.

I’m now going to be casting a much wider net over the culture with the focus remaining rhetoric.

Let’s see how this goes :-)

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April 7, 2013

Social Media And The Damage Done

I like social media as much as anyone else. I use Facebook and Twitter. I consider them excellent professional tools. And these services offer much entertainment. Facebook, Twitter, and other such services are natural products of the interactivity made possible by the internet and multimedia devices.

Plus, it’s hard to beat being able to easily stay in touch with people you enjoy. I tell my students about reuniting with two old friends from college a few years back. We’d lost track of each other because it was easy to lose track back in the day. All it took was one lost phone number or one move with no forwarding address. They can hardly believe such a thing was possible. Today, you can hardly shake someone even if you want to.

One of the fun things we do with social media is share interesting stuff we find on the internet. This desire to share interesting stuff is exactly the urge that gave birth to blogging. And cat memes.

I’ll continue stating the obvious by noting that all this interactivity and sharing also carries an ideological trap — getting suckered into sharing hoaxes that either have the ring of truth or that you fervently wish to be true. That ring is a function of the content conforming to ideology, not conforming to discernible facts. Two recent examples from Facebook:

ScreenHunter_08 Apr. 07 09.52

ScreenHunter_09 Apr. 07 09.54

Both of these are nonsense and utterly false. Checking with Google took seconds. And checking the links for the telltale signs of bullshit took only a few more seconds (biggest clue among many for both: no primary source links). I suspect the one about the Pope was an April Fool’s joke (tip: never share anything on 1 April). And yet these were shared as if true.

Who doesn’t enjoy a funny website? Here’s one you should check out: Literally Unbelievable — a site dedicated to highlighting posts on Facebook that take stories from The Onion seriously.

Har dee har har, right? Well, wrong. Such credulity — enabled by the refusal to do even minimum checking — is a hallmark of the our failing culture’s canon of invention. We have drawn cultural, political, social, economic, and religious battle lines and refuse to seek stasis, i.e. common ground where we agree about the content of disagreement.

I have no doubt there are people in this country today who believe these two false stories. The damage done is clear.

How do we stop it? Step one: Pass along nothing in social media until you’ve spent at least a moment checking it out. And don’t be enamored of the source. Credible news organizations and learned people have been suckered, too. I’m guilty, too. I’ve passed along nonsense, too. I’m embarrassed, too.

I’m now arguing that the discipline of verification is more than an essential practice of journalism. It must now be an essential practice of citizenship in the social media age.

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March 22, 2013

Rhetoric And The War Ten Years On

I had to go back and read what I had written ten years ago at the beginning of the war with Iraq.

If you had asked me just a day ago what my position on the war was at the time, I would have told you that I was against it, largely because I did not think a case had made on anything more than emotions. I was also wondering how the whole “keep spending while we cut taxes” thing was going to work.

Few of my concerns showed up on Rhetorica. I was too busy doing my rhetorical analysis thing. A post I wrote on 3 February 2003 — Making A Case For War — was typical. I was continuing to respond to the State of the Union address and various criticisms of it. At the time I wrote:

Should we be fired up for war? Should we fight Iraq? I do not know. I leave such questions to the war bloggers. My interest in this is the rhetoric of war as it appears in the Bush 2003 SOTU [broken link]. If his goal is to prepare us for war, if his goal is to persuade us that war is right, then he is doing the time-honored thing to make that case: appealing to our emotions.

But part of what I was doing in this post was wondering about what kind of appeal the American public really wanted — not that such a thing is easy to determine. Here’s how I concluded:

The thinking seems to be–and I agree–that Bush needed to use facts to outline his argument for war. If this sentiment is indeed pervasive, it may indicate an as yet unarticulated rejection of war. If no facts are forthcoming, then all that’s left are emotional appeals. And if we are crying for facts, then we may be crying for peace.

And that, Rhetorica readers, is about as close as I came to taking a stand on one of the most important issues of the 21st century.

While it has never been difficult to determine my politics — I have been transparent about it in various ways — it was a rare thing for me to make political stands in the course of examining and criticizing the rhetoric of the press-politics relationship. The name of this blog used to be Press-Politics Journal, not The Doom Files.

Much has changed in ten years.

Many people are revisiting their relationship to the start of war recently given the grim anniversary of our unprovoked attack on Iraq. I was alerted to Peggy Noonan’s retrospective by a tweet from Jay Rosen:

She laments the damage done to the Republican Party by our rush to war. I think she may be right.

What we’re reading here is simply more shallow punditry — one of the primary currencies of the  rhetoric of a failing culture. Compared to damage done to our state, our nation, and our economy, the damage done to any particular political party is nothing. She pays only the slightest of lip service to the damage done to all of us as she pretends to be offering cogent commentary about politics. I’m reminded of fiddles and burning cities.

Given the damage, I think all of us who spoke publicly — journalists, bloggers, pundits, politicians — about the run-up to war owe our society an apology to the extent that we did not deal in facts and reality as we allowed ourselves to be swept along by emotion. Many of us on the left and right allowed ourselves to be cowed by those who questioned the patriotism of anyone with the nerve to ask tough questions or point out inconvenient facts. We over-reacted to 9/11. We attacked a country without provocation. We tortured people. We killed so many that the count may never be known. We destroyed our reputation in the world. We ruined our economy.

I am sorry.

I wrote about rhetoric — certainly a worthy project. But I did not say enough about what I think the rhetoric really indicated.

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February 6, 2013

How to Talk About Journalism

Jay Rosen offers an interesting post on Press Think that is kinda sorta like a prose poem that attempts to create stasis between newsroom traditionalists and the promoters of the brave new world of journalism in the internet age. We can see in this an emerging rhetoric of the new new new journalism.

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January 17, 2013

Linking And Verification

I’ll never stop harping on the discipline of verification — the essential practice of anything we would hope to call journalism.

And, once again, we see what happens when journalists fail to do the most essential and basic thing the practice of journalism demands.

Steve Buttry has much to say, and cogent advice, about the role of linking in verification.

As I tell my multimedia journalism students: “Always be linking.” I’ll also be assigning them to read everything about this current mess (including my media ethics students).

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January 15, 2013

Crisis Actors in the Twilight Zone

In a post-fact world, all you have to do to stir up the rubes is suggest conspiracy. The conspiracy doesn’t have to make any sense at all; it simply needs to conform to ideology. It now appears that the rhetoric of conspiracy today demands a high level of pathetic outrageousness to get attention.

Take the whole “crisis actor” thing as an example. Gene Rosen is caught up in this now because many anti-government gun nuts so want the Sandy Hook massacre to be something other than what it actually is that they are willing to point fingers at parents and other residents. The claim: they are actors working for the government.

You can scratch your head until it bleeds. There’s no making any sense of that.

Here’s what would happen if the government actually tried to use actors to deal with the press: Even in the current sorry state of American reporting (stenography, actually), the press would find out and have a gleefully good time pointing it out after much huffing and puffing about being hoodwinked.

But, obviously, to the anti-government gun nuts, the press is a liberal tool of our socialist president. Nothing — not even a list of biases worse than partisan bias — will change fevered minds.

Crisis actors do exist, but they are far more likely to be employed by public relations firms than government. The case of Nayirah — a person acting as a young nurse giving testimony to the non-governmental Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990 — provides an excellent example.

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December 19, 2012

Rhetorica Update

I’ll be busy with other things over the holidays — the kinds of things we ought to be busy with — so I won’t be posting on the rhetoric of our failing culture until the new semester begins. But I’m sure the recent shootings in Connecticut will play a large role in my first post of the new year.

I hope your holiday season is joyous and unmarred by violence and stupidity.

Good luck with that.

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November 13, 2012

The Whole Content Thing

I’ve written many times on Rhetorica about the differences between stenography and reporting. The essential difference is that stenography (the thing reporters do too often) is the mere passing along of statements made by others, and reporting is the digging into the issues of civic importance to discover the information people need to be free and self-governing.

In a recent blog post about the questionable future of journalism, Robert G. Picard describes the usual stenography:

Most journalists spend the majority of their time reporting what a mayor said in a prepared statement, writing stories about how parents can save money for university tuition, covering the release of the latest versions of popular electronic devices, or finding out if a sports figure’s injury will affect performance in the next match.

Most cover news in a fairly formulaic way, reformatting information released by others: the agenda for the next town council meeting, the half dozen most interesting items from the daily police reports, what performances will take place this weekend, and the quarterly financial results of a local employer. These standard stories are merely aggregations of information supplied by others.

Almost any of my students — people between 18 and 24 years old — can spot the problem immediately. And I’m not talking stenography (although that’s a problem). The problem here is that the kind of information gathered by stenography is, today, easily gathered and disseminated by almost anyone with a bit of gumption and an internet connection.

What Picard suggests — and it’s important — is really just a new way of understanding the traditional job of journalism we call reporting:

To survive, news organizations need to move away from information that is readily available elsewhere; they need to use journalists’ time to seek out the kinds of information less available and to spend time writing stories that put events into context, explain how and why they happened, and prepare the public for future developments.  These value-added journalism approaches are critical to the economic future of news organizations and journalists themselves.

Unfortunately, many journalists do not evidence the skills, critical analytical capacity, or inclination to carry out value-added journalism. News organizations have to start asking themselves whether it is because are hiring the wrong journalists or whether their company practices are inhibiting journalists’ abilities to do so.

Value-added journalism. That should be redundant, but it isn’t because he’s right.

Our culture can no longer afford the luxury of news organizations paying journalists to pass along their stenography. Our culture needs good journalism; it needs good reporting. So by all means let’s be redundant: We need value-added journalism.

(Note: Critical journalism? Where have you heard that before?)

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November 5, 2012

Re-elect Obama

This is a Rhetorica first — my endorsement of a presidential candidate.

With the new focus of this blog on the rhetoric of a failing culture, I no longer feel the need to avoid dealing openly (although I have always been transparent) with my political desires. I still intend to adhere to the promises I’ve made in my blogging policy. You’ll get the best analysis I am able to muster, but I no longer feel the need to act as if it doesn’t matter to me what the political outcomes are.

I am writing about doom, but I am also fighting it.

I am not necessarily happy about voting for President Obama. I am a liberal. He is not — clearly not. I wanted Guantanamo Bay closed. I wanted a credible, single-payer health care system. I wanted Wall Street held accountable for its behavior. I wanted the rich among us — including my family — to pay more taxes. I wanted out of these two disastrous wars. I wanted real movement on the environment, sustainability, and climate change.

Mitt Romney is not a choice. A credible Green Party candidate might be. But given the realities of this election cycle, I’ll cast a vote for President Obama and then hope that, given the freedom of a lame-duck term, he’ll wake up and do the hopey-changey thing.

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