September 18, 2015

My LOL Moment with Paul Krugman

The Rhetorica grumpiness continues…

I laughed out loud when I reached the conclusion of Paul Krugman’s column today in The New York Times:

I began writing for The Times during the 2000 election campaign, and what I remember above all from that campaign is the way the conventions of “evenhanded” reporting allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to make clearly false assertions — about his tax cuts, about Social Security — without paying any price. As I wrote at the time, if Mr. Bush said the earth was flat, we’d see headlines along the lines of “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”

Now we have presidential candidates who make Mr. Bush look like Abe Lincoln. But who will tell the people?

Just, wow.

You see, there are many people (e.g. bloggers, academics, academic bloggers, rational media critics of all sorts) who have been pointing this out for nearly two decades (confining my time frame to the blogging era and scope to national politics).

Two decades.

If you read Rhetorica regularly back in the day, you know who I’m talking about. Some of them remain linked on my sidebar.

No one in journalism listens. In fact, no one in journalism listens to the advice given in one of the profession’s revered texts: Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. Sometimes I think journalists like this book simply because the words sound good. I mean literally “sound.”

We — a large number of cogent critics — have been pointing out (for nearly two decades) that the business-as-usual, view-from-nowhere, inside-baseball, poll-driven, personality-driven way of covering politics is, in fact, not covering politics in the sense of meeting journalism’s primary purpose: To give people the information they need to be free and self-governing.

That has to mean, among other things, operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification, i.e. reporting not stenography.

Quite frankly there is very little political journalism in the United States of America.

A modest proposal: Actually giving the people the information they need to be free and self-governing might stop journalism’s slide into entertainment and, finally, into oblivion. That, obviously, means journalists have to understand what that kind of information is. So far they show no aptitude.

Senator Numbntuz says X. Senator Blowhard says Y. The polls say Z. And the pundits blather about what it “means.” The current practice of stenography stops there and lets the citizen figure it out. We are reminded daily how well that works.

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.

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?)

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.

September 8, 2010

My (Spun) Opinion Matters

I received a political polling call last night and amused myself by agreeing to participate. The poll was slanted — the work of a political party.

Slanted polls generally rely on the false dichotomy fallacy (aka. either-or) usually set up this way: Would you rather vote for a candidate who wants (some horrible-sounding outcome) or one who wants (some wonderful-sounding outcome)? Just to be a stinker I chose the horrible-sounding outcome each time 🙂

Independent polling companies and their news media partners generally do a better job of crafting questions; it would be nice if journalists did a better job of covering polls. It should go without saying that journalists should not report on factional polls unless writing an article about the role of factional polls in the political process. The information gathered from these polls is the stuff of political propaganda.

But it is unlikely that the poll I took last night will be released. Instead, the candidate(s) involved will more likely use it to craft talking points that — unless something has changed in the last 24 hours and no one has told me — reporters will dutifully record and pass on to the public with nary a follow-up question.

Here’s what I teach my students about questioning the information sources give them. This method of critical reporting is quite opposed to the common practice of political stenography.

March 20, 2009

I Prefer to Look

Facing the future is better than sticking your head in a hole or wishing for a return to the past. Xark! today offers to yank you’re head up and prop open your eyes with an interesting and cogent exercise in predicting the future of news.

The future is always a wait-and-see proposition. And the point of proper prediction is not to be right but to be thinking ahead of the future’s arrival. We get plenty to think about in this list of predictions.

I want to highlight one I find particularly interesting:

Predictive Intelligence. Modern journalism is based on the idea that impartially telling “both sides” of a story is more useful than “taking sides.” This approach has limited value in an information-rich environment where the goal is finding the signal in the noise. Credibility, therefore, is likely to move toward information sources that demonstrate their understanding of events and situations via predictive accuracy rather than claims of non-predictive objectivity.

Notice this folds in on what Dan Conover is doing here. He’s thinking about the future (because he must). He’s making predictions (something any scientist does). And we’ll know soon enough if some of what he’s saying comes to pass (predictive success). He should then reap some reward of credibility for this effort.

Part of what is changing in the current media meltdown is the concept of credibility. The objective stance of journalism (arbiter of the known) evolved in the age of journalism as lecture. That age died. Lecture-based news products are now dying.

The new media have been teaching a generation that they have the right to talk back to and to enter into a conversation with journalism. Further, members of this new generation understand themselves to be content producers. They are, frankly, uninterested in media that do not allow them to talk back, produce, and consume as they please.

News as conversation will operate with radically different understandings of what constitutes credibility. And I’ve gotta tell ya, I think “predictive accuracy” is a damned good standard. What might other standards be? Hmmmm… an interesting area in which to think and make predictions.

Predictive accuracy does not push out “truth” or factual accuracy. It relies on factual accuracy. Try predicting anything without having your facts straight. Good luck with that.

Predictive accuracy will require a greater sense of information, knowledge, and wisdom. It will demand a greater sense of irony, critical theory, and culture. Predictive accuracy will demand we be smarter, i.e. predictive intelligence.

The old MSM (television in particular) is the last bastion of predictive inaccuracy — a place where you can be wrong most of the time (in some cases spectacularly so) and still keep your job. The delicious irony here is that it is exactly the objective stance that protects predictive inaccuracy by privileging the idea that there are “two sides” to every story and reporters should not judge between them. Powerful civic actors and media actors (i.e. pundits) can hide their ideologically-driven nonsense behind claims of “my opinion” because old-school journalists will pass along their nonsense (i.e. stenography), sometimes without the slightest fact-check.

Imagine a world in which some these people (politicians, pundits, journalists, actors, etc.) would actually have to go slinking away when it is demonstrated how wrong they are and how they were wrong.

April 20, 2008

The Wizard Does Not Care

Today’s lead story in The New York Times covers massive craft failure in American journalism. David Barstow shows us just how easy it is to manipulate news organizations–especially television news–when journalists fail to do the simplest of tasks: vet sources and commentators.

I do not fault the administration for manipulating the news media. Spewing propaganda has always been a (legitimate?) function of government. This is one of the reasons we have a First Amendment protecting our freedom to speak and write about public and political affairs.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this has nothing at all to do with a failure to vet. What if journalism is something that television news organizations simply no longer want to practice? Barstow writes:

Some network officials, meanwhile, acknowledged only a limited understanding of their analysts’ interactions with the administration. They said that while they were sensitive to potential conflicts of interest, they did not hold their analysts to the same ethical standards as their news employees regarding outside financial interests. The onus is on their analysts to disclose conflicts, they said. And whatever the contributions of military analysts, they also noted the many network journalists who have covered the war for years in all its complexity.

The key word is “onus.” By putting the onus on the analysts, the oxymoronic institution of television news has simply declared: Journalism is not practiced here.

A couple of day ago I wrote that “every news organization should have a columnist (an opinion journalist who operates as a custodian of fact with a discipline of verification) whose job it is to get in the face of every other news organization in the market.” The example I used was trivial by comparison to Barstow’s reporting. This is a stunning ethical failure of the primary purpose of journalism: to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing. Nothing about that purpose and ethic is served by electronic stenography. There is no possible way to define the uncritical passing along government propaganda into that purpose.

(Note: I need to acknowledge that the NYT crafts a narrative of government manipulation far more than a narrative journalistic malfeasance. You’ll find the TV news reaction at the end.) 

We do not live in a world in which television news organizations are capable of seeing this transgression for what it is. We live in a world in which pretend journalists damage our civic discourse by passing along propaganda as news analysis (and talking-head entertainment).

Do not assume I am surprised by this. Barstow has not reported something new so much as he has pulled back the media curtain. The problem is that the wizard isn’t embarrassed and won’t try to make it right.

Neil Postman knows his stuff.

January 3, 2008

When the Press Fails, part 3

Continuing my as-I-read-it review of Lance Bennett’s new book

At the top of page 14 Bennett writes: “…the absence of much agreement on what the press should be doing makes it all the more difficult for news organizations to navigate an independent course through pressurized political situations.”

I was struck by this assertion because, on one level, I thought what the press should be doing has been clear since at least the end of World War II as cogently expressed by Kovach and Rosenstiel: The primary purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and self-governing. But this is an ethical stance not a description of journalistic procedures. Further, Bennett envisions a different ethic: the press should hold government accountable.

It is clear from chapter 1 that Bennett is uncomfortable, as I am, with the kind of journalism that follows from stenography rather than reporting. Stenography is unlikely to produce the kind of information people need to be self-governing. And, further, it is also clear to me that Bennett’s theory of the role of power in the journalistic narrative could be mitigated by my assertion (of procedure) that journalists should tell a different story.

I think journalists should be custodians of fact operating with a discipline of verification. I believe it’s possible that politically useful information may be gleaned from procedures identified with these stances. And I’m quite well aware that I’m now skirting dangerously close to the mythological understanding of press-politics as described by Herbert Gans in Democracy and the News, i.e. journalism makes democracy work.

Journalism often fails its primary purpose because journalists believe the myth. The reasons for this could fill a book. So I’ll merely attempt one broad example here. The myth helps fuel journalistic arrogance by encouraging journalists to think of themselves and their profession as important in a way they may not be (perhaps, for example, it may be democracy that makes journalism possible). It encourages them to act as players in politics while denying being players at all. It encourages them to think that the First Amendment was written to protect them and their profession for the purpose of holding government “accountable.”

Journalism has had many purposes since the Revolutionary period. It has had many business models. It has had many masters. The citizens and journalists (and citizen journalists) of each era must decide what it is for their moment. But it seems to me that operating as custodians of fact with a discipline of verification for the purpose of giving people the information they need to be self-governing is close to a universal understanding of journalism.

That self-governing thing means that journalism is supposed to help citizens do the job of holding government accountable.


Part 1
Part 2

December 26, 2007

When the Press Fails, by W. Lance Bennett

I’ve begun reading Lance Bennett’s new book, When the Press Fails, and I’ll post my thoughts and reactions as they seem appropriate. You may recall (and I hope you’ve read) Bennett’s famous textbook, News: The Politics of Illusion. It’s part of my required reading list for journalists.

Bennett and co-authors Regina Lawrence and Steven Livingston examine what they believe is the failure of the press to act as an effective government watchdog in the run-up to the war in Iraq. As they say in the introduction:

The story here is that the press has grown too close to the sources of power in this nation, making it largely the communication mechanism of the government, not the people.

Depending upon how the authors mean this, I may agree. We’ll see.

One of the ways they mean this–and I agree–is that journalism is far too dependent upon official sources of information for confirmation of reality. This is an ethical problem that I tackled in my essay (with Doug McGill and Jeremy Iggers) in the current issue of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. Journalists tend to need confirmation–even second hand–of the first-hand experiences of non-official sources. In other words, for journalism, it often ain’t real until someone in power says it’s real.

And if two people in power disagree, then the reality is (the news is) that they disagree–not that one of them might actually be wrong and one of them might actually have the facts.

Political journalism as currently practiced in the United States lives in very strange epistemological territory.

They further state:

The heart of our concern in this book is why information that may challenge and even undermine official accounts of events is so often screened out of the mainstream news unless there is an opposing official to be the champion who brings it into the story.


The ironic result is that the U.S. press system works best when government is already working well–debating alternatives, responding to challenges from citizen interest groups–and when elected opponents publicly hold each other accountable.


…when other officials inside circles of power…fail to speak out against prevailing government claims…there is no engine to drive critical news coverage.

Bold claims. We’ll see.

Journalism is not entirely a failure. But I do think political journalism–arguably the most important kind–is largely a failure today. Bennett is exploring two important reasons: political journalists are too close power and put too much trust in official sources (status quo bias). Although he does characterize it specifically in the introduction, a third reason following from the previous two is the curious invention strategy of the rhetoric of so much political journalism today: stenography.  

December 4, 2007

Much Ado About the Same Ol’ Same Ol’

The Washington Post recently ran an article about ______ that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

Try to fill in the blank with a politically neutral term.

Is it a rumor or a false claim? Perhaps it’s simply a lie. Or a mistake. Or it could be propaganda. Then again, perhaps we’re talking a political tactic. Or even the truth. Is it wishful thinking or a desperate hope?

(You can, however, fill in that blank with a term that meets acceptable truth conditions. More on that below.)

A reader responded this way in an online discussion with Post political reporter Lois Romano:

I object to today’s story in The Post talking about the “rumors” floating around that Obama is Muslim. It is simply inaccurate and poor reporting to call them rumors. They are false claims. Obama is not a Muslim; calling them rumors gives them credence.

Romano had this to say:

These are always very difficult decisions– how to address something that people are talking about, that has clearly become a factor in the race, without taking a position. Part of our job is to acknowledge that there is a discussion going on and to fact check and lay out the facts.

This is truly fascinating. On the one had she’s not supposed to take a position, but on the other hand she’s supposed to “lay out the facts.” (Yo! That’s a position!)

In so much of political journalism today laying out the facts means writing down what “both sides” say. But if you suggest to journalists that perhaps what “both sides” say is data that should be checked against the facts, well–that’s bias!

While there are folks on the political left that dearly want this to be a case of conservative bias, it is no more so than similar treatments of right-wing politicians constitute liberal bias. What this is: A sad case of how political journalism is practiced in America today. Its agency is stenography rather than reporting.

Stenography = writing down what sources say

Reporting = discovering and writing down the facts

I believe this is a legitimate story, i.e. what is Obama’s religious background? There are parts of this article that tell us interesting things about him. There should have been, however, a statement by the reporter, based on gathering the facts (i.e. reporting), that justifies a term to go in that blank space.

(Notice I said “justifies.” That’s because nothing can go in that blank that is politically neutral. My assertion makes no claim about truth conditions. The term could meet acceptable truth conditions and still fail to accurately portray the reality of any given faction. The reason: ideology–a lens used to see the world in particular ways.)

In any case “rumor” should not be the term. A rumor is “a story or statement in general circulation without confirmation or certainty as to facts.” So a rumor is a starting point for a journalism that gathers and reports the facts. Journalism, then, is (or should be) a rumor-destroying practice. Another way to put this: No responsible, legitimate journalism should ever be about rumors.

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