February 24, 2003

Weapons (words) of war…

We understand rhetoric and argument primarily through war metaphors. Test this for yourself: Try to make a positive statement about argument without relying on one. You can do it, but it’s not easy. We understand argument as a war or a battle. We marshal arguments. We defend positions. We attack assertions. We re-group. We deflect. We win and lose.

And, in fact, we can use language as a (non-metaphorical) weapon, as this article in The New York Times demonstrates.

February 23, 2003

Gephardt announcement added…

I have posted my analysis of Richard Gephardt’s announcement of candidacy to my Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004 site. I am working on analyses of three speeches by Howard Dean and plan to have them posted this week. I will also be adding pages for Bob Graham and Carol Moseley-Braun.

February 21, 2003

What did the man say?…

MediaMinded found an interesting item about Aaron McGruder, the cartoonist who writes Boondocks. He gave a keynote address for Black History Month at Indiana University and, apparently, said some inflammatory things. Apparently he said the Republicans killed Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Now, I agree that extremists of all sorts say extreme things when given a microphone. That’s one of the things that makes them extremists. So I’m making no apologies. My question is this: where’s the quote?

Neither a story by the Bloomington Herald-Times nor the IU Daily Student quote McGruder directly. Both reporters, instead, assert that he said such a thing.

Hello? It’s called news. And you need to quote such news directly if it is serious. If it is not serious, then we need to know that. Is this an example of extraordinary incompetence or, perhaps, political bias? Or something else? (i.e. “I tell jokes for people who like leftist political humor.”)

I’m trying to run down a transcript. If this guy is seriously claiming political murder, we ought to know EXACTLY what he said.

February 21, 2003


Neal Pollack says:

Shut up, antiwar people. Shut up, pro-war people. Shut down your computers and shut your goddamn pieholes. No one gives a shit what you write, so stop writing about the war. Shut up, all of you.

Interesting reading.

February 21, 2003

The mythic hero-journey…

Bruce Kluger is the kind of newspaper columnist I like: He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the story. In this case, he’s willing to subject himself to The O’Reilly Factor.

Despite his wife’s cogent reaction (“You’re nuts!”), Kluger entered the pathetic world of talk TV ready to…what? Well, he wanted to see how he would fare in the “hot seat”–a cathartic test of personal fortitude. So, apparently, TV can offer print journalists the opportunity to embark on a mythic hero-journey, slay the demon, and return with boons:

Still, the question remains: Did I win my face-off with the dean of mean? Hard to tell. The most I got from my friends was, “You held your own,” “You looked good” and “Hey, at least you didn’t cry.”

But I do know I got under the guy’s skin. After the taping, when most hosts drop the showbiz artifice and extend a hand to thank their guests, O’Reilly kept his head down, pretending to study his notes. The silence was embarrassing, so I left.

I suppose the lesson is: Listen to your wife.

February 21, 2003

Ad hominem fallacy…

You never know where a good idea might come from. It is because of this simple truism that every person who runs for the presidency should be taken seriously in the sense that their ideas should be given due consideration.

If one’s ideas prove unworthy, then we should remove that person from serious consideration. To remove someone from consideration prior to the articulation of their platform, based on past transgressions, is a form of the ad hominem fallacy. Even someone such as Carol Moseley-Braun might come up with something good.

Howard Kurtz considers her campaign for President in light of her troubled political past. Yes, her past should give us pause. Yes, she has no chance of being elected. But, also yes, the press should take her seriously (as defined above) until such time that her current articulation of the issues proves that she is unworthy.

So, does this mean that any objectionable person should be taken seriously each time they embark on a new political venture? Good question. And I’m not sure I have a good answer. Rather, I am asserting an admittedly idealistic principle that I would hope might be adopted by the press in regard to candidates: Listen carefully to what candidates propose because a good idea can spring from unlikely sources. The converse of this principle is interesting to think about in light of our current situations.

This does not suggest that Moseley-Braun deserves the same level of coverage afforded to candidates such as Kerry, Dean, Edwards, and Lieberman. She most certainly does not deserve a pass.

February 21, 2003

Pundits and pejoratives…

It seems that “pundit” has become a pejorative term for me, re: my post yesterday regarding Chris Matthews and the public record of his commentary. The word denotes a learned person or one learned in a particular field, a source of opinion, or a critic.

A source of opinion or a critic may be odious, but the connotation of the primary definition is certainly positive. How should we apply this term?

I think my contention yesterday that “Pundits = Entertainers” comes from my opinion that the structure of our media environment demands that TV pundits be entertaining first and learned second. And, predictably, I would say that a William Safire (in print) is doing something far different from a Chris Matthews (on TV).

I can confidently assert that entertainment is a primary value of television by pointing to the structural biases of that medium. But should it be a primary value, or a primary weapon, in the rough-and-tumble of civic discourse? This is the question the proposed liberal talk-radio network brings up for me.

Media critic Richard Blow seems completely comfortable with the idea of entertainment, specifically humor and satire, as primary tools of civic discourse. Of talk radio he says:

It’s hard to make it in talk radio without a decent sense of humor, and yet that doesn’t seem to stop well-meaning, earnest liberals from thinking that they were born to sit behind a mike. Could there be anything more excruciating than listening to Mario Cuomo pontificate for four hours every day? Perhaps the idea of sitting through a dinner with Daniel Schorr — yet that’s exactly what National Public Radio has been offering its contributors lately. That ought to rake in the donations.

And, perhaps, this is the awful truth–the thing that I know yet cannot fully accept: Electronic media just cannot deliver the kind of propositional content necessary to sustain important civic discourse. Only print can do that. So my earlier disgust at the idea of Al Franken yucking it up for Democrats is misplaced. And my condemnation that this radio idea cannot fly without serious commentary is, perhaps, sadly in error.

So, let me revise my equation of punditry and entertainment. Perhaps we should reserve the use of that word for learned men and women who work in print (the internet counts as print for me). I should not chastise Chris Matthews for a lack of intellectual consistency. He is an entertainer. He is not a pundit. Why should we expect him to challenge the very structure of the medium that pays his salary for a job he does very well?

The rub: Our culture takes television seriously.

February 20, 2003

The public record…

In our technological age it’s possible to trace a person’s public statements across the years and compare them as they evolve. One might think that such comparison might lead to accountability. In politics, that may be so under certain circumstances, with certain people, and certain types of statements and issues. Sen. Trent Lott’s recent troubles provide a good example.

Pundits, on the other hand, seem to be able to say just about anything without such accountability. They appear to be completely free to change their minds, and history, as they so choose to meet the demands of the moment.

Bob Somerby makes it his job to point out such transgressions. Today’s installment of The Daily Howler is enlightening reading regarding Chris Matthew’s opinion of media bias as it allegedly played out in the commentary about the third Bush-Gore debate in 2000.

I do not highlight this as an example of conservative transgressions. Liberal pundits can be just as guilty. Instead, this is an example of the shifting realities of punditland where the theme song appears to be Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.

A thought occurs: It seems to me that, in order to hold someone accountable, their words must matter in some way to the civic discourse. Certainly, a senator’s words matter. So what does it say about the value of punditry in this country when, as in this example, Matthews can re-write the history of his own “expert commentary” and no one seems to care (i.e. he still has a job).

Pundits = Entertainers. Is this the sorry truth?

February 20, 2003

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming…

It’s a meta kind of day. I’ve tried several times to say something about a column in today’s New York Times. It’s about the effect of corporate consolidation of radio stations on content.

I started this way:

Brent Staples says you can’t hear protest music, of a kind we heard during the Vietnam War, on the radio anymore. He ascribes this problem to “a conservative corporate structure that controls thousands of stations.”

Then I tried to write about his use of the word “conservative” because I thought it idiosyncratic in light of this column’s apparent intent. It’s not overtly political–yet the politics is certainly there between the lines.

I scrapped that idea and tried this angle:

This is an interesting column because Staples’ purpose is not entirely clear–perhaps exactly the point.

He weaves back and forth across a faint line between political and commercial critique: Big, money-making conglomerates are killing protest (he equates it to popular) music by controlling what radio stations play. They do this to make money. But between the lines we get the idea they do this to control thought, too.

I didn’t like this, either. Geez…is this an example of blogger’s block? We discussed this the other night at our KC blogger’s get-together. The consensus was that exactly the opposite appears to be the problem most of the time–something we called “bloggeria,” writing too much.


Take a few moments to read Staples’ column. If you have any thoughts, please let me know. I’m stuck.

February 20, 2003

Rhetorica updates…

Over the next few days, I’ll be updating Presidential Campaign Rhetoric 2004 with analyses of Richard Gephardt’s announcement speech and three recent addresses from Howard Dean. There are also a few more names to add to the list as this field of Democrats continues to grow.

On the left sidebar you’ll notice that a new feature is coming soon: The Rhetorica Primer–a short rhetoric textbook for students and professional communicators. This online book will survey the principles of classical rhetoric as an art of civic discourse and an art of criticism. The Rhetorica Critical Meter will remain a source of critical techniques for considering political and journalistic messages. So, yes, there will be a little overlap.

Lastly, you may have noticed that I added a list of my current reading to the left sidebar. I’ve seen others do this and found it interesting. The links take you to Amazon.com. I am not a member of their affiliate program.

Thanks for your continued interest in The Rhetorica Network!

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