Saturday, December 1, 2012

Politics Put Plainly

Politics Put Plainly

Political commentator Matt Taibbi’s outward skepticism and apparent bias are refreshing in today’s world of supposedly objective journalism. There are facts and there are lies, and to report on each as if they were both legitimate shows fear of being attacked as “biased”. In his blog at the Rolling Stone magazine website, Taibbi published an article titled “The Vice Presidential Debate: Joe Biden Was Right to Laugh” where he comments on the debate as well as political punditry in general. He makes the argument that debate moderators and journalists have a duty to ask harder questions of political candidates and call them out when they are lying which, in today’s misguided political atmosphere, is somehow seen as unfair, slanted, and even rude. This argument has been made time and time again, but the way that Taibbi makes it brings light to something very important about journalism in general: If journalists stop asking questions, stop drawing attention to falsehoods, stop reporting as if they are actually human, then journalism’s official style will be the doom of the medium as it repeats the things that its subjects say without reporting on the truth or validity of said statements plainly. Before we go there, however, let’s get some background.

For the citizen casually interested in politics, this article is quite accessible and despite its simple style I do not find it to be dumbed down or insulting to the reader. Taibbi does not bother giving us all the details behind every point he makes, which makes readers feel comfortable and because he doesn’t need to for his audience. The people who read this blog get their news elsewhere, and this blog is meant to be a supplement to it (more on that later). Furthermore, since this article is editorial, it goes slightly beyond the ‘plainest’ style as the reader needs to realize that there is an explicit bias present. As far as credibility is concerned, the article draws quotations from the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and nominee Paul Ryan, giving it a solid platform of information to critique. It does slightly distort some information due to the author’s clear political opinions, but this doesn’t detract from credibility — in fact, according to Taibbi’s theory, subjectivity adds credibility. One can imagine sitting across from the author having a discussion that sounds alot like the way that he writes. This authenticity that does not mask meaning is very accessible and, basically, it works in the context of political commentary. Finally, Taibbi’s blog succeeds because he knows his audience and uses that knowledge to make allusions to familiar culture, state his opinion, and, get his point across.

As I’ve mentioned before, Taibblog (the name of Taibbi’s syndicated column in Rolling Stone) is in most cases not a primary news source. Rather, it is an editorial column for the author to express his opinion on current events. His readers will most likely read an article from the New York Times or Washington Post, then move to Taibblog to discover Taibbi’s opinion. In other words, Taibbi answers the “So what?” question that accompanies typical news stories. Furthermore, Taibbi uses his column to call out these other typical news sources for their apparent lack of interest in the stuff they are reporting on. If they really cared, wouldn’t they too laugh in the face of Paul Ryan when he makes claims of a twenty-percent tax cut for everyone? Taibbi’s answer to this question reads, “We all should be doing it. That includes all of us in the media, and not just paid obnoxious-opinion-merchants like me, but so-called "objective" news reporters as well.” Here, Taibbi directly addresses the fact that he is an “obnoxious-opinion-merchant”. In other words, his blog has a bias, and he isn’t afraid to show it. Using the word “obnoxious” to describe himself draws attention to his ample use of sarcasm and keeps the reader from taking him too seriously. This type of meta-discourse would not fly in the official style, which seeks to hide meanings and opinions under the illusion that it is “objective”, but by using the plain style, Taibbi can says what he wants to say and provide a report that is true and meaningful rather than true but dry.

So what makes Taibbi’s blog so stylistically different from others? First of all, it is his colloquial language that brings him closer to the reader and, more specifically, his use of expletive phrases. For example: But man, did he get it right in last night's debate, and not just because he walloped sniveling little Paul Ryan on the facts.” “But man” is an  example of the many expletives that Taibbi uses in his blog.  Later in the article,  we find another example of this technique: “Think about what that means. Mitt Romney is running for president – for president! – promising an across-the-board 20 percent tax cut without offering any details about how that's going to be paid for.” Again, Taibbi uses an expletive phrase to bring himself closer to the audience while also adding emphasis to what is important about his article — his disgust at the lies of the now irrelevant Romney/Ryan presidential ticket. This use of expletive phrases helps the reader imagine sitting down with the author and talking politics, debasing the “top-down” mentality of journalism where the source of news is above a blissfully ignorant audience.

Along with his colloquialisms, Taibbi uses a deep understanding of his audience and purpose to his advantage. Rolling Stone magazine highlights popular culture and liberal politics from its publishing office in New York City. Although it is a national publication, it can be safely assumed that Rolling Stone is read by young, urban, liberal New Yorkers. Taibbi makes use of this knowledge by bringing familiar allusions into his work. For example, he says, “So much of the Romney/Ryan plan is so absurdly junior league, it's so far off-Broadway, it's practically in New Jersey.” Taibbi gets fancy here by using catachresis — mixing a metaphor, often with unusual grammar or syntax. In this case, he mixes a metaphor with both an unusual grammatical structure and allusions to nearby institutions. For the East Coast audience that Taibbi writes for, this metaphor really drives home as it makes reference to baseball, Broadway, and, of course, New Jersey, all things that East Coasters love.

Finally, and most importantly, Taibbi uses irony to drive his points home. For us “post-modern-Generation-Y-types”, irony is practically a second language featured in entertainment of all kinds and even our everyday speech. It isn’t hard to imagine some Milwaukee style hipster sarcastically saying to his friends, “Oh yeah guys, I can’t wait for the Ke$ha concert tonight . . .” Taibbi taps into this cultural phenomena of rampant irony for two reasons: satire and emphasis. Ripping on Romney’s high-headed promises, he says,

“If you're going to offer an across-the-board 20 percent tax cut without explaining how it's getting paid for, hell, why stop there? Why not just offer everyone over 18 a 1965 Mustang? Why not promise every child a Zagnut and an Xbox, or compatible mates for every lonely single person?”
This passage is a perfect example of satire often found on political blogs like Taibbi’s. The author here is obviously not being serious. He is, however, offering a serious perspective on the bold claims made by Paul Ryan by comparing them to other frivolous, optimistic promises that could be made but obviously not kept. By using irony, Taibbi does what other reporters are afraid to do — laugh in the face of politics-as-usual. Even better, he does it all in unambiguous, plain language. Tired of translating the pundits on national networks like Fox and MSNBC? Head over to Taibblog.

~Michael Gibson

Friday, November 30, 2012

Cosmolicious: Career Advice from a Once-Monthly Sex Almanac

Usually, there’s nothing wrong with simplicity.  I myself prefer writing that adheres to a “get to the point” basis, which not only allows you to get through a lot of information in a quicker way, but also gives you a sense of accomplishment, should you choose to read a multiple of similarly written sources.  The particular article that I wish to draw attention to is one that came from the popular and revered women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan (Cosmo for short).  Usually a magazine written for younger adult women and those more inclined to fashion and sexual exploration, the content that can be expected from such a publication can hardly be regarded as trivial.  I don’t mean that in a negative way, but as opposed to other factually based magazines like Time and National Geographic, it is generally understood that Cosmo is sold as a form of scintillating entertainment. 

The one educational gem I was able to glean from Cosmo’s webpage was an online article aptly titled “How to Deal with Difficult People at Work” by Korin Miller.  Though my expectations were not high to begin with, I determined with astounding clarity that this piece was more akin to a child’s picture book than an actual article.  The format and sentences were simple (to its own detriment), thus classifying itself as a perfect example of Plain Style writing.

The first point of interest comes simply from the aesthetic experience the reader gets while breezing through this article.  The formatting and layout is incredibly well done, both pleasing to the eye and easy to navigate.  Where most articles are just one page text blocks with a title, author and maybe a picture, this editorial took sentencing and image arrangement to a whole new level.  The amount of informative content is small... yet somehow stretched out through eight unnecessary pages, complete with “next” buttons and the occasional ad to which viewers are forcibly subjected.  Each page consists of maybe three sentences at most. Illustrating each brief bit of prose is a massive picture that is supposed to reflect on what each small stipend said.  I say “supposed to” because the photos are as unnecessary to the functioning content of the article as an appendix is to a human body.

Here’s a fun example:

The screenshot I included is from the middle of this piece, articulating the importance of listening to coworkers.   The editors obviously must have thought that the brief three sentence blip wasn’t enough to explain what was already so plainly written, including a picture that dwarfs its accompanying literature in size and interest.  Obviously that seductively glamorous woman staring expectantly at you is supposed to demonstrate what effective listening actually looks like, just in case you were confused.  Comparable to a child’s book, there is way more illustration here than actual writing which transforms the article into just a bunch of spaced-out captions.  This format draws attention from the content and suggests that the main point is actually the pictures.  Though this is mostly just a hunch, I’m willing to bet that the magazine layout manager, the model and the photographer probably got paid more than Ms. Miller did for writing the article in the first place.

According to the author’s prelude, it consulted two published professionals on work-related issues, yet the writer could only sparsely fill eight pages worth of content.  It’s so dumbed down that it severely lacks credibility.  Ms. Miller establishes that her information comes from legitimate and published sources, but she hardly does justice to the integrity of those works when she restates them in a flashy slideshow. 

Furthermore, she does herself no favors in regards to reliable source material when she leads off her article with “Rumor has it…” and elaborations on celebrity gossip.  As much as I’m sure everyone wants to hear about Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey’s catfights on American Idol, this inclusion has little to do with the work relationships that a normal person would have at a normal job.  Anyways, since when has gossip ever been considered credible?

The voice Ms. Miller uses when she writes suggests that she writes how she speaks.  She breaks up her sentences in the same way regular people break up their speech, placing in unnecessary words like “um…” to give off the impression of more informal writing.  Here’s some attempts the author makes when she tries to sound relatable to the reader:

How to work with someone who is, um, difficult. By reading this, you can almost hear her know-it-all voice in your head.  “Um” especially has a connotation to it that suggests the speaker is trying to politely downplay what she hasn’t even said yet.  Just that small written sound insinuates that she initially meant to type “bitchy” instead of “difficult,” but decided to show her own self-correction to make a point.  It indicates a certain level of intelligence; she portrays herself as someone who can restrain their usually non-publishable thoughts, and can instantly formulate a more appropriate variation of what was originally intended to be said.  Also here is the recognition of our own social standards and what language is appropriate in print versus what is unacceptable. 

Something about this chick drives you completely nuts, and she's pushing your buttons.”  Just one cliché acceptably denotes unoriginality… but two clichés in one sentence?  There is overemphasis here that (to me) is unnecessary; the title of the piece already indicates that someone at work really makes you, the reader, angry.  Allow me to insert another cliché to comment further on clichés: Ms. Miller’s restatement of two identically-themed idioms beats the proverbial dead horse into one badly bruised, decaying carcass. 

The article’s subtopics start out with some valuable pieces of advice, but the actual suggestions that follow up are so ridiculously flimsy that they cannot possibly expect to be helpful.  It was especially amusing to me that a publication known for headlines like “50 Ways to Own His Orgasm” would really publish career advice.  No person with actual work-related problems would instinctively page through Cosmopolitan for guidance, especially when the content on the very next page caters mostly to sex addicts and fashionistas.  

This piece is the epitome of everything that I would consider Plain Style, as its presence’s only purpose is mostly visual appeal.  There are plenty of beautiful people out there that have nothing going on between their ears; now there is literature that perfectly suits this particular audience.  The fascinating part of all of this is that Cosmopolitan is one of the most popular and highly circulated women's magazine subscriptions in the nation.

By Shelby Phillips 

 The original article can be found here:

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pussy Riot

Flip on the television. Go to your local NBC news channel, and observe the news anchor. Notice how excited they are, how they seem to care about what they are reporting on. Now read an article on NBC’s website, notice the difference? It is plain style journalism at its finest, and its most boring. The punk rock band Pussy Riot were recently sentenced and sent off to prison to serve a two year sentence. Their crime was performing an anti-Putin song in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  The article “Pussy Riot members sent to far-flung prisons, lawyer says,” lacks all of the flare of sensational journalism, but does it also lack its agenda? Could it be that this article exists to reaffirm the American ideal of free speech? Is it condemning the Russian government for trying to muffle our ideal with a black cloth saturated in chloroform? 
Plain style is much more suave than the Official Style, subtle as it conveys its point through construction instead of word choice. The last portion of the article is a statement from one of the members of the band, Pussy Riot. It states: “I don’t like the fact that they did not acquit me and the other girls … and I want to challenge that before the European court. Sadly, the Russian courts have not shown objectivity or fairness.” It is ironic that a crucial last statement is on the subject of objectivity and fairness when this quotation was most likely chosen by editors and carefully placed in its current spot for the greatest effect. But what gives them the right to judge something that is not their own?

The author’s stance is evident in the sentence: “Two members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot convicted of protesting against President Vladimir Putin in a cathedral.” NBC clearly sides with the band, believing they were solely protesting Putin, while the Kremlin believes that it was sparked by religious hatred, seen in the charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”  The states side is only represented in the previous passage and one that shows Putin’s support of the sentence of two years to “protect the feelings of the faithful.” Other than these two admissions of their being another side to this story, the article is all Pussy Riot and possible cruelties of the Russian judicial process.
I would bet that Americans reading this feel much different from the Russians that experienced it. They could have very well been appalled by Pussy Riots antics at one of the Cathedrals, maybe finding it tasteless. Others could possibly have felt the intended effect, disgust with the Putin run government. The band was being disruptive and I do not know many people who like disturbances. A loud punk band shouting an anti-Putin song in a Cathedral probably sits just as well with the general Russian public as the Westboro Baptist Church members picketing a soldier's funeral sits with Americans attending the funeral. However, I digress, I was not in Russia, so these are merely guesses. But, this article does make the American high horse grow even taller as the authors condemn the way the Russian government does things regarding an ideal that is not their own. Should a country be held to other’s standards? American journalists have yet again thrown themselves into others’ contexts and tried to apply their own.
 This style appears just as sterile as the Official Style, its polar opposite. It leaves little room for an authorial voice, most likely because it has to reach a large audience, and thus must be easily understood. Maybe this sterility, this lack of a voice helps to sell what is being said as the Truth. It is easy to see that someone reading an article with no artistic flare, no power words that give off the scent of bias, could think, “well they are just reporting the facts,” and accept it as Truth. The following passage exemplifies this: “The women's lawyers said they had tried to argue they should be allowed to remain in jail in Moscow, saying it would have permitted them to be closer to their small children. They had also cited health and safety concerns at far-flung penal colonies.” It is strictly a summation of a conversation, just the facts, only what was said and no spice. But, and it is a large one, it is also only what was said on one side of the fence. We are raised with another idea and that is that each story has two sides. This piece of journalism, as we all should have known (and they would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you pesky kids), speaks for the one side, the anti-Putin side, only. The way plain style is used in this article reminds me of hypnotic suggestion or subliminal messages. Watch the clock swing back and forth, the plain style, and listen attentively as the journalists whisper, “the Russian government is wrong,” in your ear.

--Chad Nickerson

Sunday, November 25, 2012

London Calling: A Beginner's Guide

With the 2012 Summer Olympics, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, and a burgeoning tourist population, London, England has established itself as one of the most popular cities in the world. Especially in the blogosphere—a virtual universe of interconnecting public opinions—discussion on most any topic is possible, making it simple to access information at a search engine’s notice; with this, blogs on all things British have been created to reach any fans or hopeful travelers to the country. A web developer originally from Belfast and a new London resident, Luke Blaney’s blog: “Living in London: a beginner’s guide” aims to serve as such, sharing tips and advice he believes will be useful to any visitor to London; practically speaking, the blog serves a purpose particularly to new, beginner American travelers, or those specifically searching for a basic guide to London. For the scope of this article, I will be focusing primarily on the blogger’s specific language, and how it functions—or fails to function—within the context of newcomers to London.

With this focus, it is interesting to first note how the author seems to make overall assumptions about the knowledge of the implied readers; that is, the relevant activity systems involved include beginner (or any) travelers visiting London, as well as those interested in moving to London. The blog’s title, for example, claims to be a “beginner’s guide” to London, yet his diction assumes the readers have knowledge of British language and other things that could only function within the context of other British readers and native Londoners. Before I delve into analysis of this “plain style” approach to writing, I will note how the blog’s structure is divided into various sections, each with subtitles for each topic to be discussed; this structure made the blog easier to read and clearer to distinguish one topic from the other, both elements of this “plain style.” Now, let’s analyze this first excerpt, with the subtitle “Dodgy areas”:

“Growing up in Belfast, I learnt the tell-tale signs of a dodgy area: flags, murals, bunting, painted kerbstones, burnt-out cars etc. So far, I’ve only found one area in London with  any such indicators; it’s known to Londoners as “The Mall”. It has a Union Jack on every lamppost, a high army presence, regularly has police road blocks and most of its residents are reliant on state handouts (though some of them are clearly “doing the double” as it’s know in Belfast).”

This excerpt functions as a sort of “warning” to London visitors, sectioning out the seedy areas of the city; note how the overall diction of this excerpt is written with the assumption that the reader knows some elements of British slang. For example, the words “dodgy,” meaning risky or unreliable, and “learnt,” the British spelling of “learned,” may seem foreign to those outside of the United Kingdom. Within the diction, the excerpt “warns” newcomers to London by using sentence combining strategies such as appositives, using a colon to describe the “tell-tale signs of a dodgy area: flags, murals, bunting, painted kerbstones, burnt-out cars etc.” This list fits well within the “plain style” approach to writing, for it is written in an active, linear sentence pattern. Within the context of the article—though the style the excerpt is written in reaches a broad audience in terms of accessibility—it seems to fail to function with beginners to London, those who are foreign to specific British terminology.

Further, though most of this excerpt uses “plain style” elements of active voice, parallelism, and minimal scholarly jargon, the last sentence shifts to a more passive voice, saying how many residents from “The Mall” area “are reliant on state handouts.” This change in tone might reveal the blogger’s personal opinions on those residents or the area, for there are shifts like these throughout the blog. However, since the overarching tone of the blog is rather informal—using “I” to communicate topics and experiences—the tense shifts are understandable. With a reading ease level of 62.1 and a reading grade level of 9.9, this blog excerpt surely indicates a less formal, less scholarly, more accessible approach to writing.

Let’s look at a second excerpt of the blog to explore how Blaney’s language does nearly the same thing in terms of making assumptions to the reader, with the subtitle: “London Underground (aka the Tube)”:

“Getting on the tube is so much fun. You’ve got trains, tunnels, history, strategy and hidden shortcuts. The key to enjoying the tube is simple: don’t use it to commute. Lots of Londoners make this mistake and as a result they hate the tube...[t]alking of last tube trains: these are even more fun than normal because you get to see the men with green torches. Each platform has a person standing on it with a walkie talkie and a green torch. When the last tube arrives, they check with the people upstairs to make sure that noone is running to catch it. When they get the all clear, they shine the green torch at the driver who then knows they’re good to go. Isn't that so cool?”

Though I give Blaney credit for giving the tip that the Underground is called the Tube (helpful for any newcomer to London), the language in this excerpt functions much like the first one—it assumes readers know British terminology, or, at the very least, are interested in knowing it. Still, these assumptions seem risky. Not only does the excerpt seem more of a digression than a guide, but also some of the language might seem unfamiliar. Note how the word “torch” is used a number of times throughout the paragraph—for “beginners” to London, readers (the addressed activity systems of beginner travelers, etc.) may find themselves trying to translate and make sense of the word. While non-native Londoners use the word “torch” as a source of fire, the British form of the word “torch” is what we call a flashlight. Again, Blaney makes some assumptions about his implied readers; the word “noone” is also an unfamiliar spelling of “no one,” which, again, may seem out of place.

Moreover, Blaney discusses how the Tube is “so much fun” particularly because of the last tube trains and the “men with green torches,” but he fails to explain why, or tell the readers (travelers, etc.) how to navigate the Underground if they wish to use it to commute in the city, not just “have fun” in. The blog fails to give specific maps or timetables to guide his readers; it only gives some links to London landmarks’ websites, but nothing “extra.” To its strengths, this excerpt does reach a broad audience and is widely accessible; at a reading ease level of 73.5 and a readability grade level of 7.4, this excerpt accomplishes using “plain style” elements with simpler words and more accessible language. However, because of its muddled messages and unfamiliar language within the context of its readers, Blaney often misses his mark.

Through Luke Blaney’s personal blog, the art of plain language is certainly utilized, though his piece generally fails to function within the context of newcomers to London; still, plain language is still used overwhelmingly in most any blog, and for good reason. This raises the question: was Blaney’s language in his blog wrong? Perhaps not. With any blog, it is a form of communication, a human expression of thoughts and opinions that hope to resonate with readers. Similar blogs like Blaney’s function in the context of their targeted audiences, but Blaney’s piece is still effective, and with this, each individual blog succeeds in creating a virtual blogosphere rich with interconnecting opinions. The overarching idea of self-published blogs, in all their simplicity, are very public and impressionable, read and followed by millions across the world. Plain language, then—in this blog and all others—is very appropriate and successful in this sense, for it is attainable, conversational, and focused.

By: Jessica Haugen

For more information on Luke Blaney’s article, click here.