October 28, 2002

How smears happen…

Harry Stein offers this account of how smears happen in the press. I would call this a perfect example of narrative bias. That does not mean, however, that this isn’t also an example of ideological bias. (via MediaMinded and Cut on the Bias)

October 28, 2002

Political smack-down…

Nasty political ads are now entertainment. CNN tonight (7:00 EST) is presenting a show called “The Year’s Best Political Ads.” And by “best” we can suppose they do not mean the most cogent examples of civil civic discourse.

A negative ad in the Missouri Senate race, for example, is meaningless to a voter in California. So what could possibly interest that California voter in a Missouri political ad? That’s easy: drama, conflict, and nastiness. The issues be damned; this is good theater. What CNN will do tonight is turn the worst of our political process into entertainment. Is this something a “news organization” would do?

I suppose we can hope that CNN will use this as an opportunity to deconstruct the rhetoric of campaign ads, to enlighten voters about how these ads are conceived and produced, to make voters aware of who pays for these ads and how. Hmmmm…I don’t believe it. I’ll watch and report back.

October 28, 2002

Bushism bushism…

Jacob Weisberg’s “Bushism of the Day” feature on Slate is a nasty little bit of ideological gamesmanship, but it’s also often quite entertaining. Today, he got one wrong. James Taranto, of the Wall Street Journal, called him on the error. Here’s the official transcript of the President’s remarks.

Taranto’s assessment is the correct one: “This [feature] is a cheap gimmick; few people speak in polished sentences and paragraphs, and you could make almost anyone look dumb by employing the Weisberg method.”

We certainly should admire eloquence in public officials. But we are not ancient Greeks for whom eloquence was proof of superior statesmanship. We may certainly decry Bush’s policies, but let’s not chastise him for something which most of us are guilty of much of the time.

There is no link to today’s feature on Slate’s opening page as of 1:20 p.m. CST. No word yet on a correction.

UPDATE: (1:50 p.m.): Slate has published a correction. AP mis-reported the Bush quote. Why did this mistake happen? It seems certain that the reporter mis-read the transcript. We may certainly question how this mis-reading occurred. As for Weisberg, if you’re going to write such a feature about the President you should be 100 percent certain about the veracity of the quotes before you print them.

October 27, 2002

Searching for Jenny…

Jenny McTagarty, Girl Pirate is a popular blogger. She must be because dozens of people have hit Rhetorica searching for her since Thursday. You may recall that Jenny is the fictional blogger created by Garry Trudeau for his Doonesbury strip last week.

It turns out that Jenny is actually Elmont.

I was getting annoyed with the strip late in the week because it seemed aimless. Just what was Trudeau satirizing–bloggers, college students, internet sociology, all of the above? I would prefer he had focused on something more specific.

But I liked Saturday’s cartoon. I liked that Jenny McTagarty turned out to be crazy Elmont. I suppose I liked it because this was a comment on identity. Now exactly what it is Trudeau is trying to say, I don’t know. And I’m not sure I care. What the cartoon points up for me is that those of us who blog are ultimately judged by the quality of our ideas (or the correctness of our ideology). Some of us are famous. Some of us are obscure. A few of us are anonymous. But in the end, you dear reader do not really know us as corporal beings. We are blips on your screen.

The blips hide the physical differences. The blips cannot hide the ideological and intellectual differences.

October 25, 2002

Do we really need 24/7 cable news?…

I have immense respect for The Wall Street Journal. It is, for the most part, a well-reported, well-written, well-edited example of great American journalism. The WSJ editorial page annoys me about half the time, but the news side is solid. Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the editorial page, offers a clear-eyed look at the excesses of cable television news. His commentary demonstrates a stark contrast between what it is newspapers do and what it is cable television does. One could use this column to begin an argument that America does not need 24-hour cable news. America needs more solid newspapers.

UPDATE (5:25 p.m.): The Washington Times has this to say.

UPDATE (5:30 p.m.) MSNBC covers it this way.

October 25, 2002

Dueling compliments…

Here’s a new twist on political attack ads: Needle your opponent with the fact they once praised you in public.

October 25, 2002

Current political definitions…

Tapped takes a look at the definitions of “genocide” and “terrorist.” Politics is a battle over the definitions of words. Just as one can lose a battle of arms by diluting one’s strength, definitions lose political effectiveness when too broadly applied. Is the dogmatic right diluting “terrorist” the way the dogmatic left diluted “genocide”?

October 25, 2002

Orgy of (political) speculation…

TV’s talking heads got it wrong. The beltway snipers turned out to be something far different than most “experts” supposed. That this would happen is no surprise. Error stalks those who speak with little information, knowledge, or wisdom. From the Post’s story today:

The important question is, was the orgy of speculation harmless — or was there a very dangerous undercurrent to it? By saturating the public’s consciousness with phantom images of thirtyish white men, did the media profilers distract attention from a more general and possibly open-minded search for the perpetrators? Did the speculation merely pollute further a well already tainted by faulty eyewitness accounts, such as the elusive (and evidently nonexistent) white van?

If so, the media’s performance raises a chilling possibility: that the suspects might have evaded detection for so long because witnesses were focusing too intently on media-created “profiles” that didn’t come close to the real thing.

This situation makes an easy illustration of the dangers of TV punditry. Not so easy to see are the dangers of such an orgy of speculation in political coverage. Readers of the defunct Brill’s Content may recall the feature in which the magazine held pundits accountable for their blunders and erroneous prognosticating. The blogosphere now handles that important work. I would suggest that, as the Post reporter does today, we begin asking a similar set of questions about the effect of so-called expert commentary on the political process.

UPDATE (4:51 p.m.): Slate takes a look at the profilers.

October 25, 2002

The strange meta-language of attack ads…

I saw plenty of political ads on TV last night while watching News Night with Arron Brown on CNN. From Kansas City I get hit with both barrels: ads for Missouri and Kansas. I’m noticing a strange meta-language in some attack ads: attack language that attacks the opponent by attacking attack language. I find this particularly strange because there is very little credible evidence demonstrating that voters dislike negative campaigning. There is excellent evidence that voters consider it a mistake not to attack back when attacked first. So this strange meta-language seems to me evidence of an unnecessary politeness. For another roundup of negative campaigning, see today’s Media Notes column.

October 25, 2002

Making wise use of the internet…

Yesterday in my rhetoric class we discussed Neil Postman’s take on information theory. He defines “information,” “knowledge,” and “wisdom” in a hierarchy that I find particularly useful for teaching students how to construct persuasive messages and interpret journalistic messages. You’ll find this in chapter five of Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.

Information, according to Postman, is a statement about the world based on fact. Knowledge is organized information that is “embedded in some context” and has a purpose, such as leading one to “to seek further information in order to understand something about the world.” He draws this distinction: “Without organized information, we may know something of the world, but we know very little about it.” Wisdom, then, is the “capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems.” Or, put another way, knowing what questions to ask. The “fundamental requirement” of a knowledge medium is that it explain context and purpose, i.e. make it clear “why we are being given information.” Postman makes the argument that newspapers should be in the knowledge and wisdom business, not the information business.

Television is in the information business. So is the internet according to Postman. But I disagree about the internet. The internet is certainly an efficient information medium, but we can see that newspapers, especially those with reporters and editors who aspire to more than the dissemination of information, help make this a knowledge medium, too. The presence of newspapers on the internet help move it up the hierarchy. And I would say that bloggers create the potential for wisdom in this medium. When well done, blogging organizes information by context and purpose and shows what bodies of knowledge are relevant to solving the problems of the day. In other words, I argue that blogging can be a wise use of the internet.

Will we rise to that standard?

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