Even messier…

An addendum to last week’s post.  As the media was increasingly unable to attribute the Tucson massacre to “our vitriolic discourse” due to a complete dearth of evidence, news outlets nevertheless insisted upon devoting significant coverage to the topic of “over-heated rhetoric.”  The manner in which they justified this coverage validates the point that I was making last week.

Immediately after the shooting, the mediated discourse about our discourse was justified on the grounds that right-wing rhetoric had pushed Loughner over the edge.  Major media outlets then had to eat some crow and admit that their initial narrative was inaccurate.  Of course, they stopped short of admitting that it was hasty and unethical.  These outlets needed a new justification for why they were still discussing our over-heated rhetoric.  Usually this justification (implicitly or often explicitly) took the following form:

“Although there is no evidence to link the shooting with the vitriolic nature of our political discourse, the shooting opened up a dialogue on this topic that is worth having, so we will continue to cover it.”

This justification is duplicitous, consciously misleading, and instantiates yet another instance of precisely the type of discourse the media claims is such a threat: the shooting DID NOT open up a dialogue on “our” (read: “the right wing’s”) overheated rhetoric.  RATHER, it was the media, in its erroneous rush to judgment that falsely connected the event to this phenomenon and in so doing constructed a false impetus for a dialogue on this topic.  In other words, the media wanted to have a discussion of this topic, it found a way to force that dialogue (which, of course, is only a “public” dialogue insofar as media discourse is a discourse that is accessible to the public), then admitted that its initiation of that dialogue was unwarranted, but then said that it’s still a worthy topic of conversation and continued on down a road of its own creation. Why?

Opportunism.  These media outlets had their hopes crushed when they realized that their convenient (and unfortunately bloody) fantasy had not come true: a member of the Tea Party had not assassinated a Democratic politician over health care and immigration.  Attempt 1 to score gain some ideological high-ground had backfired, but in regaining their bearings, they remembered a key rhetorical lesson that is central to corporate media’s daily operation: the truth doesn’t really matter.

And this brings us to a whole other can of worms: the mass media’s troubled relation to the very concept of truth since 1965. Does it matter?  That’s a question that the media answers in different ways at different times.  In some ways that vacillation is a very principled stance, but in other ways it’s a cheat and a dodge — one that makes it very hard for the media to advance ethical claims on any issue, a practice that media-types are increasingly fond of doing.  But all of this is the subject of another post…

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One Response to Even messier…

  1. Mike Duncan says:

    This blog often deals with this issue of objectivity and the media: http://rhetorica.net/

    I don’t expect much objectivity from any media outlet. I read the NYT every day, but I understand at its core are the values of people with second homes in upstate New York and the Hamptons, who think eighty thousand a year is a pittance for urban living, and hold liberal values as much for their fashionable benefits as genuine ethical concerns, if unconsciously – because that’s the audience. That said, there are some journalists whose ethics I approve of, but they’re few and far between, probably because I am demanding.

    One of the special topics, i.e. assumptions, of teaching rhetoric is that it empowers students to sift through media narratives and construct their own through the art of rhetorical analysis. But there’s other, necessary parts of that – reading enormous amounts of text, knowing history and principles of logic, having a highly developed and nuanced ethical sensibility honed by experience and contact with many different cultures – that I’m not sure teaching rhetoric traditionally addresses. We only provide a hammer when they need the whole toolbox. This was part of Plato’s compliant, but he went farther than a toolbox and skipped straight to pure, concentrated power – meet the new boss.

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