Rhetoric 2.0?

In reading the advance galleys of a forthcoming book I came across a quip that set me to wondering whether journalism may be the new rhetoric, that is to say the discipline of persuasive and factual communication. That’s what rhetoric used to be, grouses Richard Lanham, emeritus professor of English at UCLA in “The Economics of Attention” (May 2006, University of Chicago Press), before it became “a synonym for humbug.”

This is not a review of Lanham’s book — which has the interesting premise that in an age of info-overload attention is in short supply — because I only began it this weekend.

Instead I am suggesting that the style, value, ethics and approaches of journalism may be ideally suited to helping people express themselves in this media age. Terms like “citizen journalism” or “citizen media” are often used to describe the current flowing of self-expression via blogs, wikis and social networking sites. I think “journalism” only applies to a fraction of what it being thrown up on the Web. When people trade recipes, or flirt, or share pictures that is clearly self-expression. But it seems to me that journalism applies only to communications that are intended to persuade or inform. Conveniently, the norms of journalism transcend written media. Journalism aspires to be fair, factual and concise in any media, or combination of media types.

I say “aspires” because journalism has no shortage of critics. Some abhor “liberal journalism.” Others sneer at “corporate journalism” or use “mainstream journalism” as a perjorative. So it may be that journalism is following rhetoric on the road to humbuggery. But I think not because all of these criticisms imply that journalism has gone astray — not that it should go away. And that implies a presumption of usefulness, which is a good starting point.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media