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Fwd: Writing Tools - Motto for Journalism -- in Six Words

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Subject: Writing Tools - Motto for Journalism -- in Six Words

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MONDAY, APRIL 21, 2008
Motto for Journalism -- in Six Words
I read a cool interview in the St. Pete Times with Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the quirky classic "Freakonomics." Inspired by several analogies, Dubner and friends created a contest in which people submitted a new motto for the United States of America. Mottos tend to be short, of course, and in this case the contestants were limited to six words.

The entries, predictably, were all over the board: partisan and neutral; clever and serene; somber and humorous. The winner: OUR WORST CRITICS PREFER TO STAY. Slap that baby on the dollar bill.

We at Poynter, always on the lookout for a good gimmick, have decided to glom on to this one. We are looking for a six-word motto on the purpose, mission, genius, tragedy, poverty and general condition of contemporary journalism. The winner will receive an autographed copy of the book: "Writing Tools:  50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer."

The rules:

1. The motto must be about journalism, but does not have to contain the word journalism.
2. The motto must be exactly six words long, not five, not seven.
3. Multiple entries from the same writer are OK.
4. The deadline for entries is: Friday, April 25, at noon EST.
5. Poynter is free to publish, or not, any entry.

Here are a six mottos from me, just to get you started:

--Last one out, turn off lights.
--If it doesn't fit, edit it.
--Need more Knight, but less Ridder.
--All the news no longer fits.
--See no evil, write no story.
--Feed the watchdog, euthanize the lapdog.

You can send your submissions to
Posted at 2:33:57 PM
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FRIDAY, APRIL 11, 2008
Why It Worked: A Rhetorical Analysis of Obama's Speech on Race

More than a century ago, scholar and journalist W.E.B. DuBois wrote a single paragraph about how race is experienced in America. I have learned more from those 112 words than from most book-length studies of the subject:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, -- an American, a Negro;  two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

Much has been said about the power and brilliance of Barack Obama's March 18 speech on race, even by some of his detractors. The focus has been on the orator's willingness to say things in public about race that are rarely spoken at all, even in private, and his expressed desire to move the country to a new and better place. There has also been attention to the immediate purpose of the speech, which was to reassure white voters that they had nothing to fear from the congregant of a fiery African-American pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. 

Amid all the commentary, I have yet to see an X-Ray reading of the text that would make visible the rhetorical strategies that the orator and authors used so effectively. When received in the ear, these effects breeze through us like a harmonious song. When inspected with the eye, these moves become more apparent, like reading a piece of sheet music for a difficult song and finally recognizing the chord changes.

Such analysis, while interesting in itself, might be little more than a scholarly curiosity if we were not so concerned with the language issues of political discourse. The popular opinion is that our current president, though plain spoken, is clumsy with language. Fair or not, this perception has produced a hope that our next president will be a more powerful communicator, a Kennedy or Reagan, perhaps, who can use language less as a way to signal ideology and more as a means to bring the disparate parts of the nation together. Journalists need to pay closer attention to political language than ever before.

Like most memorable pieces of oratory, Obama's speech sounds better than it reads. We have no way of knowing if that was true of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but it is certainly true of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. If you doubt this assertion, test it out. Read the speech and then experience it in its original setting recited by his soulful voice.

The effectiveness of Obama's speech rests upon four related rhetorical strategies:

1.  The power of allusion and its patriotic associations.
2.  The oratorical resonance of parallel constructions.
3.  The "two-ness" of the texture, to use DuBois's useful term.
4.  His ability to include himself as a character in a narrative about race.


Part of what made Dr. King's speech resonate, not just for black people, but for some whites, was its framing of racial equality in familiar patriotic terms: "This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, 'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty of thee I sing.  Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'"  What follows, of course, is King's great litany of iconic topography that carries listeners across the American landscape: "Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!..."

In this tradition, Obama begins with "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union," a quote from the Constitution that becomes a recurring refrain linking the parts of the speech. What comes next is "Two hundred and twenty one years ago," an opening that places him in the tradition of Lincoln at Gettysburg and Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial: "Five score years ago."

On the first page, Obama mentions the words democracy, Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia convention, 1787, the colonies, the founders, the Constitution, liberty, justice, citizenship under the law, parchment, equal, free, prosperous, and the presidency. It is not as well known as it should be that many black leaders, including Dr. King, use two different modes of discourse when addressing white vs. black audiences, an ignorance that has led to some of the hysteria over some of Rev. Wright's comments.

Obama's patriotic lexicon is meant to comfort white ears and soothe white fears. What keeps the speech from falling into a pandering sea of slogans is language that reveals, not the ideals, but the failures of the American experiment: "It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations." And "what would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part ... to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time."

Lest a dark vision of America disillusion potential voters, Obama returns to familiar evocations of national history, ideals, and language:

--"Out of many, we are truly one."
--"survived a Depression."
--"a man who served his country"
--"on a path of a more perfect union"
--"a full measure of justice"
--"the immigrant trying to feed his family"
--"where our union grows stronger"
--"a band of patriots signed that document."


At the risk of calling to mind the worst memories of grammar class, I invoke the wisdom that parallel constructions help authors and orators make meaning memorable. To remember how parallelism works, think of equal terms to express equal ideas. So Dr. King dreamed that one day his four children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." (By the content of their character is parallel to by the color of their skin.)

Back to Obama: "This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign -- to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America." If you are counting, that's five parallel phrases among 43 words. 

And there are many more:

"...we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction."

"So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African America is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."

"...embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past."

I could argue that Obama's speech is a meditation upon DuBois' theory of a dual experience of race in America. There is no mention of DuBois or two-ness, but it is all there in the texture. In fact, once you begin the search, it is remarkable how many examples of two-ness shine through:

--"through protests and struggles"
--"on the streets and in the courts"
--"through civil war and civil disobedience"
--"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas."
--"white and black"
--"black and brown"
--"best schools ... poorest nations"
--"too black or not black enough"
--"the doctor and the welfare mom"
--"the model student and the former gang-banger ..."
--"raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor"
--"political correctness or reverse racism"
--"your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams"

Such language manages to create both tension and balance and, without being excessively messianic, permits Obama to present himself as the bridge builder, the reconciler of America's racial divide.


There is an obnoxious tendency among political candidates to frame their life story as a struggle against poverty or hard circumstances. As satirist Stephen Colbert once noted of presidential candidates, it is not enough to be an average millionaire. To appeal to populist instincts it becomes de rigueur to be descended from "goat turd farmers" in France.

Without dwelling on it, Obama reminds us that his father was black and his mother white, that he came from Kenya, but she came from Kansas: "I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slave and slave owners -- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

The word "story" is revealing one, for it is always the candidate's job (as both responsibility and ploy) to describe himself or herself as a character in a story of his or her own making. In speeches, as in homilies, stories almost always carry the weight of parable, with moral lessons to be drawn.

Most memorable, of course, is the story at the end of the speech -- which is why it appears at the end. It is the story of Ashley Baia, a young, white, Obama volunteer from South Carolina, whose family was so poor she convinced her mother that her favorite meal was a mustard and relish sandwich. 

"Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue.  And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. ... He simply says to everyone in the room, 'I am here because of Ashley.'"

During most of the 20th century, demagogues, especially in the South, gained political traction by pitting working class whites and blacks against each other. How fitting, then, that Obama's story points in the opposite direction through an old black man who feels a young white woman's pain.  

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed the phrase, "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union" to the Declaration of Independence.
Posted at 6:30:13 PM
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The View (after Cataract Surgery) from 60
Youth may be wasted on the young, but wisdom can be wasted on the old.

The culture of news, communications, media and education is experiencing one of the greatest inversions in memory. More and more, the old turn to the young to understand the world, American culture and, most of all, technology.

This is having profound impacts upon individual careers, family dynamics, business hierarchies and life as we know it in the new millennium. With a few crucial exceptions, this movement is a good thing.

The teaching in news organizations now more than ever is going two ways, not just one. Dynamic young experts in Web design, online reporting and multimedia production no longer have to jump through an endless series of hoops -- or pay their dues in the old sense -- in order to advance and influence the tribe.

As journalists from the baby boomer generation retire or take buyouts or heal from burnout, a youth movement rushes in to fill the void and assume the challenges of redefining journalism as a public service. Right now, they'll make less money than their predecessors, but that should change fast, for theirs will be the burden of creating new economic models to pay for quality journalism.

On this, the week after my 60th birthday, I recall that I owe my career to a newspaper editor willing to take an amazing chance on a young teacher. In 1977 I was a 29-year-old assistant professor of English teaching at a small college in Alabama. Although my specialty was medieval literature, I had written newspaper columns that got some attention, so Gene Patterson, then editor of The St. Petersburg Times and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, asked me to join his paper for a year as something that had never before existed: a newspaper writing coach.

Needless to say, I never went back to Alabama. I changed professions in spite of my callow youth because Mr. Patterson saw something in me that no one else could have seen. And he put his authority on the line to help me establish my credibility among a tribe of skeptical journalists. Mr. Patterson, one of the great editors of the 20th century, treated me as a colleague, as someone he could learn from, and that made all the difference.

Years later I met a little girl named Jacky Johnson, who is now a married college student named Jacky Hicks. As a child, Jacky attended many of my summer writing camps and even at the age of 10 could talk about the craft of writing with great skill and insight. When she turned 15, she asked me if she could work at the camp to run errands or make photocopies. I hired her all right -- as a teacher. She worked with a team of 15 professional teachers in a camp with about 50 children. When it came time to work one-on-one with the kids, Jacky was the best. She listened, offered good suggestions, helped young writers see the unrealized potential in a story. Her performance was one of the most gratifying experiences of my teaching career.  

For the last several years, Poynter has been blessed with a series of dynamic young journalists who have served here on our Web site or as part of News University, our distance learning program.  Collectively, they have changed my life and the direction of my career. They have coached me on the use of new technologies, partnered with me on experimental projects, encouraged me to stretch beyond the narrow boundaries of my discipline. I still speak technology with an accent, but at least I'm in the game.

My tenure of 30 years has earned me fancier titles and a bigger salary. But these young journalists are my colleagues, squeezing the best out of me as they develop their own journalism muscles. I've got a few things that they lack: a deep institutional memory, a complicated and nuanced understanding of this community and an intellectual range that comes only with years of study and conversation.  People like me are leaving newsrooms in droves, and their absence will create a hollow feeling in the heart of many communities.

But I have confidence, based on my experiences here with Tran, Ellen, Matt, Robin, Pat, Elizabeth, Jeremy, Meg, Mallary, Ben, Leslie, J.D., Leann and Ellyn that the young guns are up to the challenge. It will be our job to help them compensate for the knowledge and experiences they lack, to give them the gift of helping us energize the final stages of our careers and then to stand back in wonder at the world they are about to create.

[Roy wants to know: What makes a 60-year-old journalist a geezer? And what makes a 60-year-old journalist as 'cool as school'?]
Posted at 3:25:11 PM
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