December 18, 2003

: Shoot from hip, hit foot…

I have posted my analysis of the recent foreign policy speech by Howard Dean–the one with the now famous line: “But the capture of Saddam has not made America safer.” About this line I write:

According to an article in the
Boston Globe
, Dean added this line after his policy analysts had reviewed
the speech. This is exactly the kind of irresponsible behavior I have criticized
Dean for in the past…The problem with the line isn’t its accuracy. I
think an excellent case can be made that it conforms to the realities of the
situation as reasonable observers understand them. The problem with the
line–why it is a rhetorical blunder–is that it plays so well into hands of
sound-bite critics. Lift the line out, quote it out of context, build a fallacious
argument. Such a move as Dean’s merely hands the opposition a whip and invites a
beating. His penchant for such rhetoric may be endearing to a certain segment of
the voting public. But this penchant is also an indication that Dean
misunderstands something fundamental about the presidency: the power of the
office is rhetorical. When the president speaks, policy happens. If the
president speaks ill-advisedly, then ill-advised policy happens…

UPDATE (2:07 p.m.): A new Zogby national poll puts Dean in a comfortable lead over his Democratic rivals. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll puts Bush ahead of Dean.

September 5, 2003

: Are there really nine?…

Americans find televised debates politically useful. This assertion has been proven in studies by the Pew Research Center and various academic studies. The Pew figures are striking. In data collected prior to the 2000 election, 64% of respondents said they wanted to see more debates. And 85% of respondents said they wanted to see more coverage of candidates discussing their positions on issues. (re: “The Media I.” National Journal. vol. 32. Issue 30. 22 July 2000, p. 2412.)

One wonders why it is that print journalists refuse to give more attention to issue reporting during campaigns until one realizes that this is one of the effects of narrative bias (one of the structural biases of journalism). And you thought ideological bias was bad.

With that preface, I now want to briefly discuss my interpretation (“emotional reaction” would be more accurate) of last night’s debate among the Democratic candidates. I did not take notes. I have not read a news article about the debate (yet). I am giving my impressions based on my experience of a televised event. I do this because this is how the average American experienced this event.

Unlike the first big debate earlier this year in which I saw three potential presidents, last night I saw only one: John Kerry. This does not mean I think Kerry “won.” I do not think it is productive, or even very smart, to think in those terms. Instead, I want to think in terms of the intimate, emotional experience television creates. John Kerry looked and sounded like a president.

I’m in a charitable mood, so I’m going to say that Howard Dean almost looked and sounded like a president. I was generally pleased with his performance. But I was having a difficult time picturing him at the presidential podium delivering a speech or a press conference. The man has a problem holding his mouth in a pleasing way. And he’s gruff in a way that puts me off.

I thought Gephardt would rise to the rank of the presidential. At first, I was favorably impressed with his “miserable failure” rhetoric. But long after that horse died he kept beating it until he simply sounded shrill and absurd.

I enjoy listening to Carol Moseley Braun. And I enjoy her grandmotherly smile. I didn’t enjoy much that she had to say. And I can’t forget her problems as Senator. But she makes a pleasing impression: a well-spoken, even-tempered politician. Not a president, however.

Dennis Kucinich and Bob Graham? Yikes! Too oddball. I can hardly get past Graham’s narrow eyes and Kucinich’s Dumbo ears–and did he wash his hair this week?

John Edwards will be fine in the Kennedy mold as soon as he exits puberty.

And Joe Lieberman looked like the jowly leftover of a forgotten generation. His weak voice and lack of fire made him seem inconsequential compared to Edward’s youth, or Dean’s pointedness, or Gephardt’s craziness, or Kerry’s presidential bearing.

Okay, how do I, as a rhetoric scholar, justify all that I just wrote. Academically, I certainly do not justify it. What I wish to illustrate, however, is the kind of experience we have when we (normal people, not pundits or policy wonks) watch television. Yes, I did get the messages–such as they were. And, yes, I found some of the messages on the issues politically useful.

But television delivers other messages, too–messages that have to do with image and not necessarily substance. Television not only affects our experience of the debate (in fact, in creates the experience), it also affects the performance of the candidates who tailor their messages, and the color of their ties, for the visual-soundbite culture of the medium.

Do we really know more about these candidates today than we did yesterday? Do we know more about, say, how Dean’s health care plan differs from Gephardt’s, or how Kerry’s stand on the war differs from Lieberman’s.

The political utility citizens find in the debates comes from a curious combination of image and substance delivered as an intimate and emotional experience. In the absence of cogent reporting on the issues, this may be the best information we’ll get.

Links to Debate Coverage:

July 8, 2003

Beatles, Stones, Guardian…

Of the various British invasions, I think I prefer the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the Guardian–the liberal British daily. Michael Wolff discusses the paper’s plans to publish an American edition, the first issue slated for sometime this winter to begin covering the presidential primary. I found this interesting:

It struck me first that–even given the Guardian’s campus chic-ness–the U.S. has never been less receptive to the European point of view than it is now. By any measure, to be successful in the U.S. news business is to be staunch, patriotic, defensive. It’s Fox or bust. And it struck me even more forcefully that beyond the difficulties of liberalness, the prospects for literate media–the Guardian being a writer’s paper–were, as everybody knew, nil.

The American media landscape is large enough to contain a wide range of thought and ideology. But Wolff suggests the American mind is too small to accept a “literate” contribution. His presumptions of what constitutes literate media are purely ideological and elitist. He offers as evidence his qualitative evaluation that the American Guardian prototype is a writer’s publication, the design is boring, and the type difficult to read (Typography studies long ago demonstrated that sans-serif type gives readers headaches–what are they thinking?).

Sounds like a winner to me.

I have no problem with the Guardian’s ideology (or the Washington Times’ or FOX News’ for that matter). On second thought, I think I’d like to see the Guardian and an overtly conservative national paper rumble in the streets of America.

UPDATE (9:55 a.m.): Let me anticipate this reaction: “But the New York Times is liberal, and so is most of the news media in America.” Spend an hour at the AIM and FAIR web sites, and then ask yourself how each can find evidence of dreaded liberal or conservative bias if the news media is so overwhelmingly one way or the other.

Media bias in America is a local phenomenon: local to a person, place, issue, etc. Anecdotal evidence of real ideological bias is easy to find. And with it, anyone can “prove” any particular bias they wish to criticize. To do so, however, one must ignore a boatload of contending evidence, as AIM and FAIR do on a daily basis. If you haven’t done so already, please read about the very real, and far more dangerous, structural biases of journalism.

July 3, 2003

Rhetorical framing…

Jack Shafer offers free advice to guests of Tim Russert’s Meet the Press about how to beat a tough interview. A set of instructions for constructing something also shows how to deconstruct that something. While Shafer’s advice is certainly cogent, the real value may be found in its critical application.

From Shafer’s perspective, Russert, commonly thought to be TV’s toughest interviewer, appears to be just another TV entertainer.

Allow me to add another bit of advice: Don’t allow Russert (or any TV interviewer) to frame a question without clarification; don’t merely accept a question as valid. Shafer touches on this to some extent. I want to emphasize that questions are never innocent or politically neutral (this does not mean questions are always overtly biased). A question frames an issue by emphasizing some aspects of an issue over others. It’s a rather easy matter to elicit the answer you want by framing the question just so, i.e. overt bias.

Constructing “neutral” questions takes real talent. Academics who employ survey instruments struggle to compose questions that do not lead respondents.

But TV interviewers do not need such talent. Or, rather, they need a different talent–well exposed by Shafer’s take-down of Russert. You’ll also notice that a talent for framing makes TV flame wars (a.k.a. TV news-talk) possible. How do you suppose FOX’s Hannity & Colmes would change if Alan Colmes actually challenged Sean Hannity about the framing of a question.

Hmmmm…that might be even more entertaining.

November 29, 2017

I Bought A Digital Subscription

I just renewed my digital subscription to The New York Times this week.

Last night I added, for the first time, a digital subscription to the Washington Post.

I’m a sucker for that “democracy dies in darkness” tag line. Here’s what I actually think about such things. But this an emotional response, not an intellectual one.

And this is, IMO, dead on:

But such incredulity misses the deeper significance of this stuff. The brazenness of it is the whole point — his utter shamelessness itself is meant to achieve his goal. In any given case, Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power — the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.

(Obvious quibble from my theoretical perspective: rendering reality irrelevant IS a persuasive intention. But never mind.)

In a nutshell, this is one reason the press finds it difficult to cover President Trump. And it hints at the way forward.

My long-standing cure (one of many) remains unchanged: the rhetoric beat.

September 23, 2010

Sez Who?

Politics and the culture wars must scare journalists to death — even those who work for The New York Times. They regularly trade their reporter’s notebooks for stenography pads.

It is in the coverage of politics and the culture wars that we see so much he-said/she-said reporting. Jay Rosen has identified the underlying assumption as the “view from nowhere.”

For example, consider this article by James C. McKinley, Jr. in today’s News York Times (A19 of the national edition): A Claim of Pro-Islam Bias in Textbooks. Some people think that some current textbooks are biased in favor of Muslims to the detriment of Christians. I have no idea if such a claim is grounded in facts or not. And the reason I have no idea: The New York Times didn’t bother to report the facts. McKinley just wrote down what people told him and passed it on to his readers.

That’s stenography, not reporting.

And what about his editors? Why was this incomplete story allowed to run?

To report this story properly (i.e. acting as a custodian of facts with a discipline of verification) would mean actually reading the passages in question and quoting them in full. To report this story properly would mean asking history experts to comment. But it would also mean covering the rhetoric beat — reading the words in the textbooks — the facts of ink on paper — and reporting what you can plainly see.

(One might argue that there’s only so much room in the paper for such a treatment. OK, click the link. There’s no such thing as space limitations on the internet. Where are the links to the books/passages in question?)

But no. Gotta be objective.

August 19, 2010

Something Like Accuracy

The so-called “ground zero mosque” is the subject of a memo by Associated Press Deputy Managing Editor for Standards and Production Tom Kent. The memo is, basically, a study in how a major news organization — one that asserts itself in the basic of definitions of craft and ethics — attempts to create something like an accurate portrayal of a news situation.

For example:

We should continue to avoid the phrase “ground zero mosque” or “mosque at ground zero” on all platforms. (We’ve very rarely used this wording, except in slugs, though we sometimes see other news sources using the term.) The site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque is not at ground zero, but two blocks away in a busy commercial area. We should continue to say it’s “near” ground zero, or two blocks away.

One of hot-button issues is proximity. How far away can a thing be to another thing and still be associated? That question is looking for an opinion about a fact. That is actually the wrong question to ask. The right question is: How close of a connection can a political faction make (and how does it make it) to suit its purposes, and what is our (the press) role in verifying, reporting, and interpreting that connection?

The mistake the AP is making with this memo is assuming that facts are powerful persuaders and that particular representations by the AP constitute accuracy over inaccuracy (hardly a persuasive distinction in politics). The AP makes this mistake because it assumes a very particular communicative role for itself — one that is common to every reasonable expression of the primary purpose of journalism.

What’s left out: The rhetoric beat.

The rhetoric beat suffers from the same communicative assumption I just mentioned. So I’m not claiming that it is some kind of super journalistic hermeneutic. Instead, it allows journalists to examine the rhetorical battleground in a particular way — to be able to point and say “there it is” and “here’s where we stand as players.”

I think it’s a good thing for the AP to stake out its semantic territory in this situation. But I think it needs to be backed up by much more reporting of the rhetorical maneuvers of the contending parties.

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.

December 14, 2007

Reporting Versus Stenography

In my recent post about the is-Obama-a-Muslim story in the Washington Post, I offered quick definitions of reporting and stenography (as applied to journalism):

Stenography = writing down what sources say

Reporting = discovering and writing down the facts

(Yes, it’s a “fact” that sources say things. Among the things they say are assertions of fact. What a good journalist is supposed to do is check a source’s assertions for some kind of correspondence to the facts.) 

I heard Lance Bennett touch on this topic in the podcast of Media Matters with Bob McChesney (scroll down to 25 November). He didn’t mention stenography by name, but he did discuss it in practice by noting that much political reporting today is not a search for facts but a competition to get the best spin, i.e. to write down what political sources say.

I’m trying to think of an “in other words” to make the trouble with that even more plain. Hmmmmm… can’t do it. That’s scary enough as it is.

Among the problems with passing along spin and calling it journalism is that it teaches journalists to think of themselves as political insiders (as opposed to “players,” which is another matter). And that leads to politically useless in-the-know analysis articles such as this one by Katharine Q. Seelye about an apparent apology trend going on in the presidential nomination campaign.

(This could have been an interesting one for the rhetoric beat, but Seeyle doesn’t have the chops to pull it off.) 

Some of the topics discussed in her analysis may certainly be worthy of reporting (check the definition above). But all we get from this reporter for The New York Times (that’s supposed to mean something, IMO) is a cynical point of view from inside a political process that’s largely staged precisely to manipulate journalism.

Because this could have been an interesting story from the rhetoric beat, let’s examine one of the reasons it fails:

On the Republican side, Mr. Huckabee was responding to questions in an article to be published on Sunday in The New York Times Magazine. He was asked if he considered Mormonism a cult or a religion. He said he did not know much about it, adding, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”

The comments could be damaging to Mr. Romney because polls have shown that many voters are suspicious of Mormonism and would not vote for a Mormon for president.

Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, apologized to Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, after the Republican debate on Wednesday.

Thursday morning, he appeared on MSNBC. “It was never my intention to denigrate his faith,” Mr. Huckabee said. “I raised it not to create a story. I thought we were having a simple, casual conversation.” He said he apologized to Mr. Romney because, “I don’t think his Mormon faith should have anything to do with him being elected.”

But then Mr. Huckabee accused Mr. Romney of running a negative campaign. “We run a positive campaign, more so frankly than Mitt, who’s running ads against me and dropping fliers in Iowa,” he said.

Wow. Could that be a red herring fallacy (employed with intention)? A reporter on the rhetoric beat would have some digging to do to see if this is typical of Huckabee.

But note how miserably Seelye’s analysis of political apology fails in the last quoted paragraph. Are we to gather from this that Huckabee’s apology in insincere because he proceeds to criticize Romney on another matter?

(Are these matters related somehow? That’s the implication. I don’t see it. But if it’s true, Seelye should have told us how they are related and how she knows.)

Even the Clinton example in this article is thin.

Now I’m not claiming that non-apology isn’t real or isn’t a tactic being employed in this campaign. I’m not claiming it isn’t important. I am claiming this lightly reported, heavily “stenographed” analysis is politically useless. 



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.

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