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Friday, September 5, 2008

The war on culture seems to be going well

South Dakota War College was miffed and confused when an editor from the Argus Leader chided PP for posting a video from the newspaper's web site on his blog. The video was of the Argus Leader's editorial board interviewing Sen. Tim Johnson. A note from the editor said, "During election years, we ask that our election-related materials not be repurposed." And he asked that the video be removed, which it was. PP asks, "Repurposed?" Which well he might, because every time I type the word here, the red dictionary-check line appears under it. It is not listed as a legitimate verb in many dictionaries (it is in my stand-by, the big American Heritage Dictionary, because it is a descriptive, not a prescriptive, dictionary). But it is a piece of specialized jargon that has gained wide currency with the advent of blogs.

PP's attitude is that by linking the video on his blog, he is giving it wider circulation, and that is what the newspaper wants, isn't it? His headline asks if the traditional media will ever reconcile with the new media, meaning largely blogs. And the answer of people who value the essentials of literacy is, "My god, I hope not."

As blogs keep pointing out, newspapers are in a period of decline. Young people tend to go to the Internet for news, if they seek news at all. Newspaper revenues and circulation are declining. I am so damned old, I have been through this before. The last time was when television began to eat away at the newspaper audience. Newspapers rebounded, when readers and advertisers realized that the television format was not suited to in-depth reporting, community reporting, and advertising that benefited local businesses.

When I was a newspaper editor many years ago, the editorial management instructed us to go for the fully verified, comprehensive story, rather that the fastest story. While we still went for the scoop, our guiding principle was thoroughness and accuracy. We realized that television news was providing "teasers" for the complete news stories, and we capitalized on that. People learned to turn to the newspapers for comprehensive accounts of what was taking place. However, to accomplish that goal of comprehensive and finely written news, the newspapers had to recruit the most accomplished reporters, writers, and editors, and the payroll costs went up significantly for those newspapers that followed this line of development. Of course, there was an audience for thorough and reliable reporting at the time.

It also meant that newspapers maintained a very stringent line between news reporting and editorial opinions. People might not agree with or like the editorial stance expressed on the editorial pages, but they trusted that the news reports stuck to the facts and that news coverage and presentation reflected facts, not the mindsets of reporters and writers. It worked.

No doubt that some newspapers will be shaken out in the competition for news. The problem is that many are cutting expenses by cutting news staffs. Newspapers are making the mistake of trying to compete with the popular media--the incessant chatter on cable news, radio talk shows, and "reality" television. They think that conflict, contention, and human debasement is what their "audience" wants.

Cable news has destroyed the distinction between news and the degraded forms of entertainment. The pattern on 24-hour news media is to report on a snippet and then have panels of "experts" from various viewpoints chatter and bicker incessantly over their viewpoints. The facts that are supposed to be elucidated are buried in a swamp of partisan rancor and contending egos. The expository function of news presentation is all but forgotten.

The decline of the news business in general has taken examples of good, competent reporting out of the picture for much of the public. People do not value well documented and well written news accounts because so few of them have not experienced them in a context in which accuracy and thoroughness have any value. People tend to go to sources of information that confirm their prejudices, not present facts without processing them through a partisan spin cycle. Some blogs make a careful delineation between the facts and the viewpoint through which they perceive them. but the vast majority of blogs shape the facts to fit their partisan, often malicious purpose.

When the Tim Johnson interview was posted on the South Dakota War College, it was, indeed, repurposed. Four factors govern the interpretation of a news communication:
  • Pretext
  • Text
  • Context
  • Subtext

The pretext of the Argus Leader interview was to provide information on a matter of current concerns. The purpose of the text of that interview dealt with Sen. Johnson's campaign decisions. A written text of the interview was supplied if the video was not clear to viewers. The context was the reporting of news. There was no subtext or ulterior motive apparent.

The pretext of the War College posting was clear from its many postings which persistently suggested that Sen. Johnson's declining to debate is evidence of an unfitness to serve another term in the Senate. The text of the video seen in this context--and without the written transcript of the interview--was clearly to focus on any difficulties of speech that might be apparent. The context on the War College is a very negative and disparaging purpose to discredit Sen. Johnson's abilities. The mean and nasty comments posted by War College partisans further define the context and the pretext The subtext is the same as the pretext: to use any hesitation and difficulty with pronunciation to call into question the Senator's ability to perform Senatorial duties. War College clearly posted the video with the intention that its gaggle and a few hapless viewers would fix on the Senator's speech patterns and come to the conclusion directed by the pretext, the context, and the subtext. In so posting, an honest piece of journalism was repurposed into a partisan agenda.

Sen. Johnson has a clear command of information and the words to convey it, as demonstrated by his public appearances. His difficulty at this point is a muscular one. When a person is regaining muscular control, he must think about what he wants his muscles to do before acting. When the muscles of speech are involved, the person must think of how to position the muscles to articulate words. Eventually instantaneous control returns. The video showed some slowness in forming words. And given the previous performance of War College, it would be evident to a fully literate person that the posting was suspect. However, in our time the literacy of many people has been stunted by the false practices of cable news and Internet blogs. Our education system is reducing reading to a matter of word recognition, not the comprehensive act of decoding and interpreting language.

War College has joined Sibson Online, South Dakota Politics, Dakota Voice, to name a few, in the monomanical purpose of discrediting those who hold opposing views. The Republican Party and its allies conceive of political debate as the demolishment of personhood and personality, not the delineation of contending viewpoints.

Ultimately, it is a cultural matter: a traditional culture which believes that viewpoints should be formed upon a thorough examination of the facts versus a culture which believes that facts should be shaped to fit prejudices and purposes shaped by those prejudices.

Increasingly, it is apparent that an Orwellian distortion and repurposing of language to gain political power is at war with a concept of literacy developed over the centuries. Blogs are not news organizations. The best ones present a clearly formulated viewpoint. The worst are devoted to the discrediting, diminishing, and libeling of opponents without regard to accurate facts or good purpose.

We are at war--not just in Iraq and Afghanistan.


PP said...

David, did you ever get around to removing the false story you wrote about Brock Greenfield?

Or were you too busy being pious?

David Newquist said...

Are you trying to engage me in a pioussing duel?

The two campaign workers gave independent accounts of the incident before a group of campaign officials. Two citizens of Clark identified the convenience store attendant as owner Greenfield.

If someone comes up with evidence otherwise, I'll retract and apologize.

Unknown said...

Typical Republican strategist response PP: Find some flaw in your opponent (perceived or real makes no difference), characterize him as unfit to offer whatever observation he has made, then dismiss the observation. You're a pro...sort of.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States