Thursday, August 27, 2009

Political Identification Games

Democrat Jim Van Slyke has announced his candidacy for a third term as New Baltimore’s representative to the Greene County Legislature at his family’s farm.

Republican Elsie Allan, citing her concern and love for her community, has announced that she will seek the Town of Durham seat on the Greene County legislature this fall.

Democratic Greene County Legislator Forest Cotten has kicked off his re-election campaign at Union Mills Gallery, 361 Main St., Catskill

-----In addition to providing bits of information about candidacies for elective office, those sentences, each the start of a local news story, deliver politically sensitive suggestions. They invite readers to adopt a particular way of seeing the named candidates (and, by extension, all candidates). They suggest, they argue, that the foremost fact about these candidates, the fact that is paramount for making a choice, is party affiliation.

-----Such framing, or slanting, or spinning, is produced by the order, as well as the substance, of terms used to identify a news subject. Other choices and sequences, within the bounds of custom, are feasible. Witness the following cases which, like the previous ones, come from one newspaper during July-August 2009:

James Coe, former vice chairman of the New Baltimore Planning Board and long time resident of Hannacroix, announced his candidacy for New Baltimore Town Board on Thursday.

---Longtime Athens Village trustee Chris Pfister has announced his intention to take a seat as a county legislator representing Athens.

---Susan O'Rorke, a former small business owner and Insurance Marketing Executive, has announced her candidacy for New Baltimore Town Supervisor.

In those cases, candidates are identified initially, and hence primarily, by office-holding or vocational background. Party affiliation does get mentioned in a later paragraph in each of the news stories but, rhetorically and hence psychologically--as a basis for choosing candidates--it is downgraded.


The foregoing analysis dealt with the suggestive thrust of descriptive chronology: the order, as well as the content, of terms used to identify news subjects. Our six sentences from ordinary news stories offer instruction, too, on other patterns of suggestion. Thus, we can infer plausibly that in at least four of the cases, the cited event—announcing a candidacy—did not actually occur. We also can infer plausibly that two of the candidates do not occupy, and have not recently held, public offices.

Those inferences derive their plausibility from reference to conventions of discourse. Awareness of those conventions enables respondents to notice and interpret what is not said as well as what is said. Thus, convention prescribes that description of an event shall include information about when and where it occurred. Accordingly, the omission of temporal or spatial information, or both, can be informative.

In four of the cited cases, a putative event is depicted in the present perfect tense (“has announced”) rather than in the simple past tense (“announced”).To experienced readers that choice sends a signal: the event probably did not actually occur, other than in a news release saying that it occurred.

In the other two cases, no information of that kind is provided. The omission is informative. We can infer confidently that the other two candidates do not currently hold public offices and have not recently done so. In doing so we are noticing and then interpreting what is not reported.


Also instructive on the subject of politically sensitive suggestion is this bit of journalism:

WESTBURY, NY. -- Josh Cooper (D) feels a little bit like the last man standing.

With better-known potential Democratic primary challengers to appointed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) falling by the wayside in rapid succession, Cooper…is ramping up his exploratory efforts.


While…Jonathan Tasini…has entered the race…, Cooper believes he is now the only progressive with a chance to defeat the Senator next September.

----- --Joshua Kurtz, Roll Call, 8/26/09.

In addition to exemplifying a distinctly presumptuous species of journalism, in which the author pretends to recount the beliefs rather than just the words of a news subject, this passage warrants attention on account of the last cited sentence, with its use of the label “progressive.” The writer’s use of that label in context conveys a host of suggestions:

------* The meaning of progressive is clear to most readers. That suggestion stems from using the word without elaboration or hedging. The latter would be signaled, for example, by saying “…believes he is now the only ‘progressive’ with a chance…”

-----* Cooper counts himself as a member of that group.

-----* Cooper is right about his self-identification.

-----* Cooper believes that the progressive/non-progressive difference is the crucial difference with regard to ideological fitness for office, or a least for being a Democratic U.S. Senator from the State of New York.

-----* That belief is plausible.

-----* Gillibrand is not a progressive.


The foregoing discussion draws on journalistic experience and on relevant academic literature. Much of that literature is accessible on Internet search engines. Among key words are invited inference, implicature, pragmatic implication, relevance principle, discourse analysis and rhetorical analysis.

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