03 November 2007

Rhetoric Beat: Cunningham Frames the Need for Anti-Frame Reporting

You have to appreciate the framing Brent Cunningham uses in CJR to argue for a "rhetoric beat". This essay screams for a fisking by an intellectually honest rhetoric professor.

The rhetoric beat would require specific training and reliance on neutral experts. Otherwise this beat could make people dumber by treating rhetoric in the same sloppy way journalism sometimes treats the sciences (and politics, and...well, you know).
Unfortunately, I'm not him and this ain't a fisking. It is, however, my view of Cunningham's framing.

Cunningham spends the first three paragraphs trying to make the case that rhetoric in the aftermath of 9/11 had future consequences only to determine in the fourth paragraph that a rhetoric beat would have made no difference!
Could such a journalistic effort have possibly changed something significant about the U.S. response?

It’s unlikely. There was something in the nature of those attacks—the magnitude, perhaps, or the audacity—that immediately made parallels to Pearl Harbor and the war that followed impossible to ignore. As Montgomery demonstrates, the press was writing the first lines of a war narrative based on little more than what we all were witnessing firsthand, and so it is difficult to argue that journalists were simply transcribing the White House’s response.

Undeterred, Cunningham uses the 5th paragraph to transition back to his questionable frame that "language—its uses and abuses—has emerged as a central issue in our political culture."

Feh. I agree that after the Democrats lost the 2004 election, "language" became a talking point for the political Left. I don't agree that language emerged as a central issue for "our political culture." You'd think Cunningham had never heard of the "permanent campaign":
... [Clinton] developed what I call the "permanent campaign," which was essentially to go around the established media, the newspapers and television, and, as you're pushing your legislative agenda, use your own public relations apparatus to sell your agenda. It's something that Clinton did from then on, to use polling constantly, not just to find out what the people were thinking about an issue but how they would respond specifically to rhetoric. Clinton loved that.
I really enjoyed this part of Cunningham's essay:
Simply put, framing involves choosing the right words to activate a desired mental "frame" or perception—"private" Social Security accounts instead of "personal" accounts, or "sectarian violence" in Iraq rather than a "civil war," or the role of "personal responsibility" when it comes to the breadth and depth of our social safety net. The right has had considerable success at framing controversial issues for years—think "liberal media," or those "founding fathers" in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Now the left has launched a counteroffensive.
Iraq's "civil war" versus "sectarian violence"? Quacking political ducks. Why "personal" instead of "private" Social Security accounts? Polls.

Why did Cunningham write, "the role of 'personal responsibility' when it comes to the breadth and depth of our social safety net" and why is "personal responsibility" in quotes but not "social safety net"?

Why not write about the role of "personal responsibility" versus the "welfare state" or "individualism," "collectivism," "laissez faire" and "socialism"? He's framing.

Want to read something more useful on the Social Security debate? Framing the Social Security Debate: Values, Politics, and Economics (1998):
Competing reform proposals reflect contrasting views about the nature of the Social Security problem and how to solve it. This book examines issues about privatization, national savings and economic growth, the political risks and realities in reforms, lessons from private pension developments in the United States, and the efforts of other advanced industrial countries to adapt their old-age pensions to an aging population. It also poses philosophical arguments about collective versus individual responsibility and the implications of market risks and political risks for stable and secure retirement income policy.
Both the Right and the Left have had considerable success at framing controversial issues in domestic and foreign policy for years with good results and bad. Cunningham frames this point as well.

One of the best examples of Cunningham using "corrupt information" to support his questionable framing is when he writes about the term “achievement gap.” Cunningham sources Crawford and writes, "... [Crawford] traces the insinuation of 'achievement gap' into the national discourse on education to the late 1990s...."

How convenient, but wrong.

The "achievement gap" has been in our national discourse for many years and can easily be traced to the early 1990s. The "achievement gap" enters our national discourse with every release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Report (The Nation's Report Card). The "achievement gap" has been referred to regularly over the decades by supporters of "equal opportunity," "outcome-based," "performance-based," or "standards-based" education depending on your rhetorical preference. The "achievement gap" was hardly the insinuation of then-Govenor/now-President Bush.

Personally, I view Cunningham's essay as a good demonstration of why the "mainstream press" (his term, not mine) should not have a rhetoric beat.

UPDATE: Also note that there isn't a single link in Cunningham's online essay. NOT ONE! When will CJR realize that not linking online is a rhetorical choice.

UPDATE: More on the Rhetoric Beat
Reporters, who should be ever mindful that no terms are politically neutral, can cover a rhetoric beat if they cover the right thing: the structure of argument, not vocabulary.
1999: President Ties Program’s Future to Stocks
2002: Democrats’ Ad Has Bush Mistreating Elderly
2004: Kerry Falsely Claims Bush Plans To Cut Social Security Benefits
2005: Washington Post > POLITICS > Social Security
2006: Social Security Enters Elections
2008: Obama’s Social Security Whopper

Straight Talk on Social Security

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