March 25, 2003

Sweeps week…

War is hell if you aren’t getting the ratings you want. NBC executives hope war coverage will boost ratings for the floundering MSNBC. But poll numbers indicate viewers are tuning into other networks to watch the biggest show on earth. (via Romanesko and PoliticalWire)

March 25, 2003

No kidding…

Whoever thought up the idea of “embedding” is a propaganda genius. Embedding plus the press’ status quo bias equals the largely uncritical expectations for war with Iraq. This is supposed to be a cake-walk.

Howard Kurtz has this to say:

War, it turns out, is a lot messier than the ambitious plans laid out in crisp briefings and background leaks. Helicopters get shot down, enemy soldiers fake surrendering, POWs get captured, and friendly fire claims its victims, as in the Patriot missile downing of a British plane.

No kidding.

UPDATE (10:55 a.m.): From an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (via Romanesko):

Some Americans were angry Monday, feeling that in the days running up to the war CNN and the other networks had misled them with overoptimistic, almost boosterish coverage of American military might. Then after the war started, the networks reported that Basra and Umm Qasr had been taken, only to later report that they had not.

But war is always like this. It is confusing and full of contradictory reports and rumors; it contains risks of losses to friendly fire, combat deaths and the capture of POWs. If you listened closely, the retired military officers who work for the networks were continuously cautioning that interim reports must be taken with a grain of salt, and that the reporters and anchors needed to let the dust settle a bit before they reported information that later might prove premature or downright false.

March 25, 2003

War is its own argument…

So, you’re a Democrat and a candidate for President of the United States. The country is fighting a war under the leadership of a popular Republican president. How do you campaign in that environment?

According to this article in The New York Times: very carefully.

I think it is unreasonable to suppose that the Democrats should suspend their campaign. I agree with Joe Lieberman’s assertion that it would “…be kind of a victory for our enemies if we suppressed our political process in response to a war…” There are certainly lots of issues to discuss that have little to do with the war but a great deal to do with the daily lives of all Americans. It’s still the economy, stupid.

There’s also an important practical consideration:

Nowhere is the question of what is appropriate more pressing than on the subject of fund-raising, which has been proceeding at an energetic pace. Next Monday is the cutoff for donations that presidential candidates can include in their fund-raising reports with the Federal Election Commission for the first quarter of the year. The amount each raises is an early measure of candidates’ political viability.

That last statement is true only because that’s how the press covers the political process, and successful early candidates promote that coverage out of political advantage. Early money equals viability. Early viability equals increased, serious coverage. In this regard, the candidate who suspends campaigning would be foolish indeed.

So we have a conundrum: How does one campaign and not appear to be criticizing the President it a way that might turn off voters? Interestingly, this question is related to last week’s rhetoric quiz.

In the end, the war will be its own argument. I don’t think it’s even necessary for the candidates to discuss it except to express solidarity with the troops and general hopes for a positive resolution.

March 25, 2003

KC Bloggers growing…

The Kansas City Bloggers met for pizza at Uno’s on The Plaza last night. Who knew there we so many bloggers in a medium-sized city. The running list (see the logo link on the right sidebar) stands at near 70. We had about 20 people attend. I’m happy to report that war talk did not dominate the conversation.

Sorry, no picture. I forgot my camera. But a few people remembered, so I’ll post something here as soon as they’re passed around (assuming that’s today…otherwise, it’s old news.)

UPDATE (3:55 p.m.): You’ll find a bunch of pics and links on Functional Journal.

March 24, 2003

The saga continues…

David Shaw weighs in again on bias in the news media, this time with more commentary on Eric Alterman’s recent book, What Liberal Media? This column is mostly a rehash of recent thought and events, but I do find Shaw’s conclusion worth highlighting:

But I think it’s the demonstrable presence of so many liberals in the big-city news media–and their coverage of antiwar activities and the civil rights, feminist, gay rights, consumer and environmental movements–that has enabled the conservatives to make their case for liberal bias.

To many conservatives, the very fact that the media covered these movements means the media were sympathetic to them and the coverage was, ipso facto, tainted by a liberal bias.

Moreover, journalists are skeptical, confrontational and iconoclastic, which means they challenge the establishment, while conservatives want to conserve it.

So the better journalists do their job, the more likely conservatives are to see them as liberal.

As I have said before, the very function of a free press–that sees itself as a check on power and the champion of the underdog–is a (classically) liberal enterprise. This, however, is quite different from overt, ideological bias. Overt bias is a local event, i.e. confined to an outlet, a journalist, an issue, or a local situation.

UPDATE (10:50 a.m.): In regard to the comment by Barney Gumble, let me clarify the last sentence of my post. By “local event” I mean a clearly identifiable rhetorical situation as opposed to a broad or general reality. Many of the examples he identifies qualify as such, in my opinion.

For further commentary, I recommend checking out today’s posts by MediaMinded: here and here.

March 24, 2003

Weapons of mass altercation…

Howard Kurtz notices that the patriotism litmus test is getting more difficult to pass. Conservatives are now accusing other conservatives of hating America in regard to their opinions about the war.

UPDATE (12:35 p.m.): The Daily Howler has much to say about this.

UPDATE (25 March 6:15 p.m.): I broke two of my own rules: 1) Always check out the source documents, and 2) Always make sure you understand the nomenclature. I pointed out this item because I think Frum’s charging other conservatives with hating America an extreme red herring and ad hominem attack. I still believe that. But, I failed to read his original column to fully understand the context, and I posted before I had an adaquate understanding of the “paleo” prefix. By breaking these two rules, I seriously damaged any chance I had to make a cogent comment.

March 23, 2003

Rhetoric quiz results…

Several days ago, in a post about Sen. Tom Daschle’s reaction to war and House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s response to Daschle, I presented this rhetoric “quiz”:

You must make a statement against a particular policy or action. Your opposition, however, may claim your statement gives comfort to a common enemy. How do you make your statement and avoid such criticism?

Part of my purpose in that entry was to criticize Hastert for nearly calling a U.S. Senator (and veteran) a traitor. No one should assume or believe that Hastert literally meant such a thing. Instead, his remark–like all such red herrings by any political faction–was calculated as an emotional response to Daschle’s equally emotional remarks. Such remarks make for good TV soundbites (and good quotes, too, because print reporters all to often allow themselves to be spoon-fed such remarks).

The entry drew much interesting discussion. And, as I mentioned, I gave this “quiz” to one of my rhetoric classes. It is important to note that the “quiz” is somewhat absurd because there is no way to say much of anything important without drawing criticism. And the “quiz” ignores the fact that Hastert’s response is just as calculated as Daschle’s remarks. But, in another important way, this “quiz” helped my students understand exactly the process of crafting political soundbites with a proper anticipation of likely opposition response.

Some Rhetorica readers offered their thoughts (see the comments). Here’s what some of my students came up with:

“War has always had winners and losers, but in the end we all have lost–a life, a loved one, and sometimes our souls. May we all find peace in the end.” –Jewell Phillips

“It is a tragic event that the final outcome of this debate is to be war. However, when all other diplomatic attempts have come to no avail, it is often the only method left to the madness.” –Beth Fraley

“In the spirit of the liberty we love, I am grieved that we seem to have no choice in this conflict; that those in whose power resolution lies have not done enough in the face of so solemn a responsibility as the maintenance of peace. –Ben Gardner

“I can only wonder that if our Founding Fathers were alive today, would they agree with the actions we are taking. And would they believe that this is the will of the great citizens of America? –Christian Stallings

March 21, 2003

And now for something really important…

It seems a flip of the switch sent video of President Bush primping for his Oval Office address streaming out to millions of viewers. He’s seen being combed, sprayed, and fussed over as he fidgets in his chair.

There’s nothing unusual about this except that we mere citizens rarely every see such preparations. And, to be brutally accurate, such preparations are necessary. Richard Nixon, far too concerned with his masculine appearance, made the mistake of eschewing the green make up, necessary to make skin look “normal” on black & white TV, prior to his debate with JFK. He paid a terrible price for his lack of vanity (he looked awful next to the trim, tall, and “tan” Kennedy).

Okay, so it’s embarrassing. Did someone do it on purpose? Who knows? The White House reaction:

Henceforth, the official said, the White House–not the networks–will throw the switches that make pool feeds available to broadcast outlets. “There have been too many incidents,” the official said, listing various presidential speeches allegedly marred by pool-feed glitches. “We have to make sure we are comfortable with the situation.”

To which I ask: Do the Republicans not have competent media professionals? Why hasn’t this always been the policy? This sad and comic incident is 100 percent the fault of the White House communications staff.

March 21, 2003

Shocking and awesome…

I’m used to being interviewed by mainstream media on issues of rhetoric regarding presidential politics and campaigns. My earlier post on “shock and awe” caught the eye of a reporter for the National Post. And this quote caught the eye of a producer for CKNW radio in Vancouver. I’ve just finished giving them an interview on wartime propaganda and my take on “shock and awe.”

Click here to hear the interview. From the drop-down menu, choose 21 March 9 a.m. My interview is about 5 minutes into the broadcast.

In other Rhetorica news, there’s been a spirited exchange of ideas on the comments section of my post on the Daschle-Hastert snit. I gave my students the same “quiz” with the proviso that such an exercise is a bit absurd. But they managed to come up with some interesting takes on how to criticize the war and not draw criticism for giving comfort to the enemy. We discussed the tactics of both men and how they might, or might not, further various political goals. I’ll post a sample of their work later today.

UPDATE (12:40 p.m.): Tim Porter has a thoughtful post on the language of war–a must-read for journalists and news consumers alike.

March 21, 2003

Mother of all TV spectaculars…

Walter Shapiro thinks we’re at beginning of the Mother of All TV Spectaculars; reality TV ain’t got nuthin’ on war. But such a spectacle does not aggrandize, it trivializes. As Shapiro says:

Television, by its very nature, diminishes vivid real-life events into something comforting and commonplace. We are automatically lulled by the familiar rituals of TV covering a major crisis–the split screens showing a Donald Rumsfeld briefing and the streets of Baghdad; the quick cuts first to a breathless correspondent on the White House lawn then to a famous reporter in fatigues near the Iraqi border.

Not to mention running news tickers, logos, theme music.

As I said earlier, what TV does best is point cameras at events as they happen. But Shapiro points out that even this can be corrupted by the hype, fluff, and the trivializing nature–the structural bias–of the medium itself. Of this, Shapiro says:

The true ideology of television is not conservative or liberal, pro-war or anti-war. Rather than being political at all, it is self-obsessed. TV’s unstated belief system is Marshall McLuhan’s old-time doctrine that the medium is the message. Despite the best intentions of most correspondents and producers, television overwhelms everything it covers, even war.

Like all of you, I ran to my TV as the 48-hour clock ticked down. I sat there waiting for a war to happen. President Bush and TV did not disappoint. But I did notice last night that news began to drag. How many times can one look at a helicopter graphic and listen to stumbling words about its make, age, and lifting capacity, before becoming bored and forgetting that 19 allied soldiers lost their lives yesterday?

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