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Objective Rhetoric

At this point, thirty years after New Journalism and Post-Modernism, you’d think we wouldn’t still need to have this argument, but, here goes: Objectivity isn’t objective. Or, as my friend AKMA puts it, “The only people you can trust to be objective are the ones who know that objectivity can’t be reached.” If you need proof of this, look no further than the lead article in today’s Boston Globe.

I have no quarrel at all with the article. In fact, I read it with interest this morning over breakfast. Glen Johnson does a fine job reporting on the second night of speeches at the Democratic Convention. It is, by the canons of professional journalism, objective and balanced. And it makes perfectly clear what others have said: Objectivity is a form of rhetoric. What’s perhaps especially instructive is that its content is another form of rhetoric: the big-tent political speech.

“Kennedy Leads the Attack: Convention speakers rip Bush in shift of rhetoric,” says the headline. Keeping in mind that reporters don’t get to write their headlines (yet another type of rhetoric), it nevertheless reflects the article’s upshot. It begins:

The second night of the Democratic National Convention featured harsher criticism of the Bush adminstration, with Senator Edward M. Kennedy accusing the president of making the world a more dangerous place for Americans and the son of a Republican icon countering the president’s stand limiting stem cell research. Tereas Heinz Kerry told her own story even as she extolled her husband’s virtues, declaring, “By now, I hope it will come as no surprise that I have something to say.”

Readers can quibble with what Johnson considers to be significant enough to make it into the lead. No mention of Obama, who lit the largest fire under the crowd, going with the current “master narrative” about THK that she is an outspoken woman (ooooh, imagine that!), and falling for the Democrats’ publicity stunt of putting Ron Jr. on stage. But a lead by its nature has to leave out most of the story, so arguments about it are inevitable.

Instead consider this only in terms of the conflict of rhetorical forms. When Ted Kennedy was sitting on his porch in Hyannis putting together his speech, he undoubtedly thought about how to structure it in order to crank the crowd up. His speech doesn’t begin with a lead, any more than mystery stories begin with a declaration of who done it. He thought more like a composer than like a journalist. He used phrases that he thought would pull us forward and up. He had no information to convey; he wanted instead to express the state of the country from his point of view in a way that would move a crowd of 35,000. The result was, in my view, a speech he could be proud of, although not the best in his career.

Now listen to the speech through Johnson’s ears. (Yes, I’m being presumptive.) Johnson’s job was not simply to transcribe events. For that, we could just read the transcript or watch the rerun. He knew that Kennedy wasn’t going to reveal some new fact — “This just in! Osama is W’s godgather!” — so he was looking for significance elsewhere. He noticed a pattern among the speeches that gave him the lens through which to present Kennedy’s speech: The Democratic speakers are being more negative about Bush than they were last night. It’s an interesting, defensible observation. But it’s an artifact of the reporter’s desire to come up with a lead. It was neither the substance nor the intention of the speechmaker (“Fire up a crowd, in part by attacking Bush” is different from “Democrats go negative on second nioght”), and it wasn’t the effect (“We really need Kerry to be president!”) that the night had on the crowd. That’s not a criticism. It’s merely to point out that rhetorical forms, such as objective journalism, make unnatural demands, especially when applied to other forms of rhetoric.

Objectivity is, as Heidegger says, a peculiarly modern mood. It is a form of discourse and, as such, structures thought, frames the questions, determines the content and the rhythm of a piece of writing. It’s a useful form of rhetoric, long may it wave. But it is not what it represents itself as: A privileged way of expressing the truth. The newspaper article about Kennedy’s speech can be accurate or not, fair or not, but it is no more true than the shouts of those in the Fleet Center who found it heartening.

There literally can be no objective account of a political speech, for in every case the account must transform a different rhetorical form, and that requires an act of literary interpretation. And what in human experience escapes all forms of rhetoric? Rhetoric ultimately means the structuring of experience through and in language, whether spoken or not. And even if you can find something we experience outside of language, the imposition of the rhetoric of journalism would be even ruder.

Further confirmation: Compare the Globe’s headline with the Washington Post’s: “Speakers Focus on Healing Divisions: Newcomers Set Themes.” It’s the exact opposite of the Globe’s, emphasizing healing and newcomers. It’s not that one is wrong and the other is right, but neither is objective.

danah boyd in Salon talks about blogging, journalism and objectivity. A snippet: “Properly evaluating the role of bloggers at the convention requires escaping the most obvious framing paradigms.” Go, danah! Bloggers look to the media like home-office media because “media,” “publishing,” “journalism” and “broadcasting” are the framing terms the media naturally brings to public writing. But that frame gets in the way, I believe, of seeing what’s actually going on.

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