November 6, 2002

To the victors go the media spoils…

If there were ever a time for liberal bias in the news media, this is it. But, as I have long argued, such ideological bias is largely a fiction. Instead, certain structural biases of journalistic practice create the illusion of ideological bias (that is NOT to say that there are no local instances of ideological bias). Steven Rosenfeld predicts an interesting phenomenon: a second media honeymoon for President Bush and the new Republican Congress. Rosenfeld did not use the term “honeymoon,” but his prediction that the press will give Bush and the Republicans plenty of leeway in the coming weeks is a sound one. Here’s how it happens:

Political reporting often works like this: A top legislator makes some pronouncement. The fact that the president or a senator or congressman speaks out needs to be reported, journalists will say, to establish ‘the record.’ That’s the top half of a typical wire-service story, which is what most Americans read in newspapers, or see as headlines on CNN or Internet Web sites flashing the latest developments.

But this also is how the ‘reporting-as-stenography’ cycle begins, because the quoted politician has just dictated the topic of the article. Most reporters, seeking ‘balance’ and working on deadline, will then look for an opposing quote, find a quick retort, and then write it all up.

That’s the way most political reporting is done. Analysis or actually checking the facts behind spins, or historical contextualization, is often left for subsequent pieces, or the editorial pages

November 6, 2002

You’ll find this amusing…

November 6, 2002

Quick start…

President Bush is off to a quick start in winning re-election in 2004. His vigorous campaigning during the mid-term elections, and his raising a record $141 million, put the Republicans in a position to achieve their domestic and international agenda. The margins are slim, so achieving the Bush agenda will not be easy. And lurking in the background is the specter of failure. If Bush and the Republicans crow too much about yesterday’s victories, they will create clear expectations of performance. Moderate success may lead to an easy Bush victory in 2004. But, if the economy continues to stumble along, and if we are bogged down in a mess in Iraq, expect Bush to continue the one-term family tradition.

UPDATE (12:45 p.m.): Here’s an example of crowing from Trent Lott:

“We had the issues with us. The war against terrorism, security at home, strong national defense and dealing honestly with the economy,” said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. “That’s hard to match, and that is why I think we won — the combination of those things.”

This sounds innocent enough until you realize that he’s set up a series of dichotomies–as if Democrats are against the war on terrorism, against security at home, against strong defense, and against honestly dealing with the economy.

On the other hand, statements like this one from Rep. Richard Gephardt certainly don’t help the Democrats:

“We ran as good a campaign as we knew how and could…The president’s popularity is very high and that undoubtedly was a factor in some of these elections.”

In other words, we had no ideas or policies that might excite the electorate; we were at the mercy of popularity. It is exactly this attitude that allows Lott to speak his dichotomies unchallenged.

UPDATE (1:00 p.m.): Professor David R. Jones offers his assessment of why the Republicans won. One of the big reasons has now become very clear: George W. Bush marshaled his political capital and played the role of “Campaigner-in-Chief” to near perfection.

UPDATE (5:15 p.m.): Bush continues to play his cards well by not crowing in public. From The New York Times:

Mr. Bush planned no public statements today on the election results. His reserve was meant to inject “a touch of graciousness,” as Mr. Fleischer put it, into the postelection euphoria that Republicans are feeling. Privately, White House aides said the president did not want to appear to be gloating.

November 6, 2002

Morning after numbers…

Gallup has some interesting data collected just before the election. The headline stresses that Americans were not in a mood to “throw the bums out.” The most interesting data for me involves voters’ perceptions of political parties. It seems many Americans are unconcerned about which party controls Congress. Further, this lack of concern appears most acute in young voters, citizens with incomes of less that $30,000, and citizens with moderate levels of education (high school and some college). I do not have data handy, but it seems to me that this general demographic corresponds to the type of citizen that does not read newspapers. Hmmm…

November 5, 2002

The answer to declining readership…

I do not know what the answer is to the problem of declining newspaper readership. But I think this review of the Boston Globe’s Ideas section by Jack Shafer presents one good possibility. Shafer says the Ideas section is written for people who like to read and assumes “that you’ve done your current events homework during the week and that you’ve set aside time to read and to think about the important stuff that the news obscured.” He contrasts this new effort with new products by the Chicago papers (Red Eye and Red Streak) that appear to be aimed at people who don’t like to read. I was a little surprised at Shafer’s conclusion:

“Ideas” isn’t the answer to the newspaper industry’s problem of declining readership, but it’s high time editors started whoring after smart people who want to read.

Well, okay, maybe it’s not the answer, but I would argue it is certainly an answer. If this catches on, perhaps newspapers could begin acting like text-based media again instead of imitating TV, which began in earnest with the appearance of USA Today.

November 5, 2002

Let campaign 2004 begin!…

Today is election day. Tomorrow begins the big show for me: the 2004 campaign for President of the United States. While I am interested in the rhetoric, propaganda, and spin of politics and journalism in general, my political focus is on the presidency.

In The Rhetorica Network links to the left you will see Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004. This is the second installment of an effort that began in the summer of 1999 as Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2000. I built that site on the sever of the University of Missouri – Kansas City (you’ll find a .pdf archive of that site here). I was finishing my doctorate at the time. I began the site (which included an early blog) as part of an independent study class in presidential campaign politics. To my great surprise, the site quickly became popular–especially with education sites and home-schoolers. The publicity from that site led to three local television appearances as a talking head “expert” on presidential campaign rhetoric. Two newspapers and an online news service interviewed me about campaign advertising and rhetoric.

I began The Rhetorica Network on a new server last March with the intention of making PCR2004 the premier page. But, because there hasn’t been much election 2004 action to speak of, the Rhetorica: Press-Politics Journal quickly became the focus of this site and my efforts. That won’t change. I will, however, begin a concerted effort to rebuild the current PCR page into the top-notch campaign site that it was by the end of the last election. To that end, tomorrow I will debut a new design that will make finding information about the candidates and their speeches easier. And, of course, the site will feature my analyses of campaign speeches as they occur.

This web log will continue to cover press-politics issues in general. I will, however, slowly begin to focus more on presidential politics and the 2004 election.

The campaign for the presidency is one of the great American spectacles–and that is both good and bad. My goal will be to help readers understand the persuasive tactics of the campaign as mediated by the press in the hopes that such understanding leads to better decisions in the voting booth. As I promised in 1999, I will always try to keep my biases in check by openly admitting when I think they intrude on my critiques. I will expect my readers to hold me to that promise.

November 4, 2002

The one accurate prediction…

No matter who wins or loses tomorrow, one prediction appears to be rock solid: Very few Americans will vote–perhaps fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters.

Where have the voters gone? asks Thomas E. Patterson in a column for The Christian Science Monitor. Patterson has studied the issue of the vanishing voter as the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is also the author of “The Vanishing Voter.” He spreads the blame around rather evenly. Of the press, he says:

When journalists deign to cover elections, they magnify the very things they rail against. Candidates are ignored or portrayed as boring if they run issue-based campaigns. Attack sound bites get airtime; positive statements land on the cutting-room floor. As for trivial issues, why did candidate Bush’s 1970s drunk-driving arrest get more time on the network newscasts in the final days of the 2000 election than Gore’s foreign policy statements got in the entire general election?

It’s not surprising voters are disenchanted with campaigns. During the 2000 election, as part of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, we interviewed 100,000 Americans to discover why they’re disengaging from elections. Their responses tell the story: 81 percent believe “most political candidates will say almost anything to get themselves elected”; 75 percent feel “political candidates are more concerned with fighting each other than with solving the nation’s problems.”

This interesting moment in the column highlights two important points for me about American politics: 1) The press mediates the political experience. What citizens know of politics–who’s involved and how it works–comes mostly through the press; and 2) For most people, and apparently Patterson as well, the press is TV. Note that the citizens’ complaints in the second quoted paragraph map quite well to the structural biases of journalism as applied to television.

November 4, 2002

The good, the bad, and the ugly…

I just watched a segment on MSNBC about political ads. The talking head was a political science professor. The anchor asked if negative ads “work.” Quite cogently, the professor said that’s really a 2-part question: 1) Do the ads work, i.e. get voters to make decisions? and 2) Are negative ads bad for American democracy? He answered “yes” to #1 and “no” to #2. I respectfully disagree. Yes, negative ads work. But, also yes, the typical negative ad is bad for democracy because it lowers the level of political discourse to often-inaccurate, sound-bite blathering. Our social, economic, and political problems require deeper thought and greater participation to overcome. Sorry, no links.

November 4, 2002

Jon Stewart, press critic…

Jon Stewart, the “anchor” for The Daily Show on Comedy Central, knows a thing or two about real TV journalists (and, I suspect, like me, he considers that job title a bit of an oxymoron). He appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources and demonstrated how satire can be an effective rhetorical and critical technique. And that means, necessarily, that entertainment of a certain kind can play an effective and responsible role in civic discourse. Good satire, however, is not the kind of common denominator schlock Stewart decries here–joking with host Howard Kurtz about who between them is the real journalist:

STEWART: Well, yes, you could host “CROSSFIRE.” What’s that got to do with journalism? I mean, that’s just a couple of knuckleheads. I mean, the promo for that is Bob Novak in a boxing outfit. I mean, for God’s sakes, somehow I don’t imagine Edward R. Murrow ever putting on the satin robe and going, “I’ll destroy you.”

Stewart’s making biting jokes about political coverage is entertainment with a message (perhaps because I like the message). Robert Novak in a boxing outfit is simply embarassing. Worse, such stunts suggest a lack of seriousness unbecoming to a news organization.

November 4, 2002

Nostrapunditomos…

Howard Kurtz takes a look at political prognostication. Seems like everyone in media land, including the blogosphere, is making predictions about the outcome of tomorrow’s election. Here are Rhetorica’s predictions:

1- Citizens will vote.
2- Someone will win in each race.
3- No one will know what it all means.

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