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


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.

November 4, 2002

The origins of spin…

NPR takes a look at the phenomenon of spin. Safire’s New Political Dictionary defines spin as “deliberate shading of news perception; attempted control of political reaction.” By this definition, spin is a combination of propaganda and rhetoric. Lee Atwater may have coined the term, but it found its first use in print–“Spin Doctors”–by Jack Rosenthal of The New York Times in an editorial following the presidential debate in October 1984. The NPR article concludes this way:

Jack Rosenthal says spin started to thrive under the conditions created by CNN and news radio, whose 24-hour updates rendered weekly commentary obsolete. With the news cycle shrinking, he says, “You needed to get effects into play instantly. You couldn’t wait to go to your favorite columnist. It had to be instant, so you created your own columnist. Create your own wave of opinion — your own spin.”

November 3, 2002

Stiff Night Live…

I voted for Al Gore. That said, I think Gore’s personal style, if one can use that word in his case, is a political liability. Will his appearance on Saturday Night Live in December help loosen him up in the eyes of voters? Hmmmm. I thought Sen. John McCain did a remarkably good job last month on SNL. Who knew the guy could read cue cards and act at the same time? (The shower scene of the doting husband skit still cracks me up!) Plus, it’s apparent McCain knows how to laugh at/with himself. Can Gore pull off a similar performance? I have my doubts.

Plus, there’s the whole entertainment-political crossover thing that bugs me terribly. But, you, my loyal readers (yes there are at least two of you) already know how much I dislike entertainment’s intrusion into civic affairs. (via Oliver Willis)

November 3, 2002

Why people hate political ads…

Take a good look at this cartoon by Jack Ohman, and you’ll see why it is the polls say Americans dislike “negative” campaign ads.

While it’s obvious that negative ads do little to raise the level of civic discourse, Ohman clearly points out that “positive” ads are just as idiotic. Voters don’t like being treated as if they’re stupid. And that is about all political advertising seems to accomplish these days.

November 2, 2002

The perfect J-school…

Brent Cunningham is searching for the perfect journalism school. Lee Bollinger suspended the search for a new dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism earlier this year setting off a flurry of comment on the state of journalism education. Check here for background articles. Where’s my thinking on this? Well, I liked this quote by Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University

November 1, 2002

Peggy Noonan, writer…

I admire Peggy Noonan as a stylist. I enjoy her writing as writing. But Peggy Noonan is not as smart as she thinks she is when it comes to the intersection of language and politics. She remains the author of one of the single dumbest lines in modern political history: “Read my lips, no new taxes.”

Today, Noonan has let the writer in her get the better of the political pundit in her. I can see it now–looking for a way to make a powerful comment on the Wellstone memorial-rally, she says to herself: “Paul would have hated it; I’ll write it from his point of view!” But her column should be political punditry, not Creative Writing 101. The problem is we cannot know for sure what Wellstone’s point of view is or would have been. And, because of the differences in the way conservatives and liberals think, it’s for sure that at best Noonan is guessing based on a skewed point of reference. Worse, Noonan indulges in the fiction that she understands the transcendant–a conceit possible only to writers who know how well they command the style of writing if not its political nuances.

November 1, 2002

Bottom of the ninth…

Howard Kurtz considers the meaning of last-minute political clich

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