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Published on December 11th, 2012 | by Thompson


Gonzo Rhetoric in Television News Broadcasts

In an attempt to help you, the reader, better identify Gonzo rhetoric in television news broadcasts, this blog post examines television shows that use each of the rhetorical canons –  invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory – in a Gonzo fashion. Collin Gifford Brooke would have us believe that “[e]ach of the canons can be described as an ecology, a complex system of people, sites, practices, and objects…the canons occupy a space that overlaps with ecologies of code and theory, but that is nonetheless distinct” (52). Though I agree with Brooke that the canons do overlap, I’m strictly interested in their distinctness, and will present each canon distinctly, in order to simplify my examination and better define Gonzo rhetoric.

Gillian D. M. Ursell’s essay “Dumbing Down or Shaping Up?: New Technologies, New Media, New Journalism” states there is “substantial literature asserting that, since roughly 1970, western liberal societies have witnessed a significant deterioration in journalism performance and output” (175). It’s no coincidence that 1970, the year Gonzo was coined, was the cliff television journalists seemed to jump off.

Mary Bock’s essay “Newspaper Journalism and Video: Motion, Sound, and New Narratives” also examines the effect new media has had on journalism, and she also cites 1970 as a turning point for television journalism. “Two developments in the early 1970s solidified its independent form: one was the discovery by local stations that news could be profitable, and the other was the replacement of the film camera with…video” (606). Profitability, of course, motivates television news conglomerates to entertain rather than inform. “Television reporters worked as performers as well as journalists, and the corporeal element of their work was considered by their brethren in the newspaper business as shallow and superficial” (604). In an interview with a newspaper video journalist, Bock received an affirmation of her suspicions. “‘We argue that television has traditionally not been about stories but the adventures of a reporter'” (611). It wasn’t always like this, however.

Though it can be agreed that Edward R. Murrow was indeed a performer, despite his efforts to hold back that performance, Murrow’s See It Now didn’t become about Murrow directly until he was attacked by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Murrow’s use of declarative narrative set the standard for television news coverage. Looking into the camera gave the reporter authority over the viewer, just as Kress and Van Leeuwen make clear when discussing the “demand” picture in Reading Images. “When represented participants look at the viewer, vectors, formed by participants’ eyelines, connect the participants with the viewer” (122). The context of television news broadcasts “require a sense of connection between the viewers and the authority figures” (126). This connection is really just an authoritative tactic for the reporter to gain control over the viewer, and it may have been a step in the wrong direction, but Murrow was only doing what was expected and accepted by his audience. Carroll C. Arnold mentions in his introduction to Perelman’s The Realm of Rhetoric, “Since we argue for people and not machines, we must recognize that an audience’s choices and judgments are affected not only by their knowledge and experience but by their situations at the time of confronting our arguments” (xii). Murrow’s audience’s familiarity with newsreels handcuffed those in television with ambitions to pursue a more mimetic style of news reporting. “One school of thought favors diegetic narrative in film, placing authority with the recorded speaker, who uses the declarative voice to tell a story. On the other end of the continuum is the more mimetic style, which allows stories to ‘tell themselves’ through image and sound, bypassing the need for a ‘voice of God’ narrator” (605). People were used to being preached to, and this may be due to the impact of radio.

Radio was already being commandeered by politicians to influence public opinion, and television would follow the same path, mostly due to the “financial strain” associated with mimetic news reporting on television. “Newsreels were serialized and produced by large media corporations…they were also quickly seized upon by political leaders as a means of influencing public opinion…The camera’s indexical authority, coupled with ‘voice of God’ narration, served to amplify political messages for those with the power to shape their metaphorical and literal image” (Bock 605). New media has, and always will be, used best by those in power to attain more power. This is ever-apparent in President Obama’s effective use of the Internet and social media to win the 2008 and, perhaps more-so, the 2012 election. Unfortunately, “the general voice of television is declarative, diegetic, and more directly rooted in a narrated script than in the images,” but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an effective weapon against those with power (605).

Pronuntiatio, or Delivery

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen for U.S. Senate
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Stephen Colbert’s use of just one of the canons of rhetoric make him the most exemplary modern-day Gonzo journalist, and for many reasons. Not only does Colbert use first-person narrative (perhaps more than anyone) and obviously makes himself the hero of his stories, like Thompson, Colbert’s television alter-ego is a conscious rhetorical choice that allows him to blend fact and fiction. In the September 17, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone, Stephen Colbert was deservingly dubbed the number one reason to watch television, but he also revealed the real Stephen Colbert – Conservative, Christian family man. And though Colbert pokes fun at Conservatives (and Liberals alike) through his outlandish, politically Right alter-ego on The Colbert Report, he may be appointed to the US Senate through his use of the authoritative, satirical, outlaw journalism that made him popular. And who does Colbert have to thank for his journalistic style?

Elocutio, or Style

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Mitch McConnell’s Self-Filibuster
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

John Stewart was declared the most trusted newsman in America by a Time Magazine poll in 2009 (the Time link has since been deactivated, so refer to this Huffington Post article for more information). Stewart considers himself a comedian, not a newsman, but despite what Stewart thinks, he is an outlaw journalist. His Gonzo rhetorical style, including the use of first-person narrative, profanity and drug references, and the unrelenting bashing of political figures for their gaffes make The Daily Show an ideal representation of modern-day Gonzo rhetoric in television news. Stewart, like Thompson, effectively altered the political landscape through Gonzo rhetoric, and is still doing so. Since 2011, Stewart has drawn more viewers than “fair and balanced” Fox News, and his style has everything to do with this. Speaking of Fox News, Stewart’s friend, Bill O’Reilly, though he’d never admit it, uses Gonzo rhetoric to attract his own viewers.

Memoria, or Memory

The rhetorical canon that epitomizes the Gonzo-ness of Fox News is memory. Collin Gifford Brooke’s Lingua Fracta takes up the issue of memory construction, for which Fox News’ correspondents are most guilty. “Although it may not be particularly controversial to suggest that we construct our memories, construction has not been an emphasis in our considerations of the rhetorical canon of memory” (151). It’s about time we emphasize memory construction when rhetorically analyzing television news broadcasts. The O’Reilly Factor is just one example of many that indicates Fox News’ correspondents have selective memories. If you need another example, on November 24, 2009, Dana Perino, Fox News commentator and former Press Secretary for George W. Bush, said “we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.” Although she did not serve as Press Secretary during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it’s hard to believe she would forget all about them. [Follow this link for the video.]

Like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, O’Reilly’s job is to entertain, not necessarily inform. He is arguably the star of Fox News, and “as Paris Hilton is said to be famous for being famous, reporters have become authoritative celebrities because they are deemed authoritative celebrities” (Grubb 64).  O’Reilly embodies this Hilton-esque celebrity, so Fox News viewers probably find it forgivable that his memory fails him at times. O’Reilly’s selective memory allowed him to believe Christianity was a philosophy and not a religion. Thompson also utilized selective memory at times, like when he wrote Richard Nixon’s obituary for Rolling Stone.

“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin” (June 16, 1994) [full text]

Thompson’s memory of Nixon wouldn’t allow him to mention that Nixon created the EPA, opened diplomatic relations with China, eased things over with the Soviets, and enforced desegregation of Southern schools. Fox News’ correspondents are Gonzo rhetoricians whether they like it or not.

Dispositio, or Arrangement

Not to say The Rachel Maddow Show is the only television news broadcast that utilizes arrangement to persuade audiences. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are masters of the rhetorical canon, and almost any news source relies on arrangement to get their point across. This post-election video is just a perfect example of how Gonzo arrangement can act. Gonzo arrangement is almost a lack of arrangement. Thompson was notorious for rants and tangents, speaking his mind regardless of subject matter, and not worrying about the order of his argument. At times you’ll actually forget what the man’s argument is until he brings you back.

Maddow utilizes rhetorical induction in this clip, or the use of examples to prove a point. As Alan G. Gross tells us in Rhetoric and Science “reasoning from examples, is equally marked by Aristotle as inferior to its scientific counterpart because of its acknowledged inability to guarantee the certainty of its generalizations: examples illustrate rather than prove,” but this tactic works really well on television…and in print (572).

Maddow’s use of short, repetitive, declarative statements in this clip are an example of Gonzo arrangement because the statements are not directly linked to one another, but follow what Jeff Rice calls a “thread.” They have something in common, but to a new viewer that commonality would not be clear until Maddow’s conclusion. The viewer must follow the thread to find the meaning. There is no thesis statement, no introduction, only a path to a conclusion, and along that path are signs pointing in the direction Maddow wants you to go – Left.

Invenire, or Invention

Gonzo rhetoric is not bound by nonfiction, and the use of Gonzo rhetoric is not bound by nonfiction genres. Newsroom, a HBO show that follows the work of fictitious journalists working for a nonexistent news corporation creating broadcasts based on real news stories, is an ideal representation of Gonzo invention. The show’s blending of fact (the news that is the subject matter of each episode) with fiction (the characters and news corporation) embodies Gonzo, but it’s also a perfect example of Gonzo invention. Though the journalists on screen are only actors, the news stories have a direct link to reality, and therefore, have the ability to persuade an audience just as any other news program. It seems television news broadcasts have become so Gonzo it was necessary to create a fictitious news broadcast to bring viewers back to reality.

Not bound by time like “real” news broadcasts, Newsroom has the opportunity to thoroughly investigate the way they present their arguments, so their invention process is longer and, arguably, more effective. The clip above is seemingly an open and shut case because of this invention process, and it’s Gonzo because of Will McAvoy’s (Jeff Daniels) use of first-person narrative, brash condemnation of the Tea Party, and effective use of politically charged language. Also, the use of the antecedent/consequence topic of invention is a common rhetorical move, but it’s pizzazz comes from the Gonzo, rhetorical attacks made by McAvoy, calling the Tea Party “the American Taliban,” and name-calling is something Thompson used in the age of Nixon, advanced in the age of Bush, and perfected during the age of W. Bush.

Hunter S. Thompson changed journalism forever, and altered rhetoric for the worse, but my next blog post in this series, “Gonzo Rhetoric in New Media,” will investigate the effect of the web, including blogs and social media, that are starting to take back some of the power media conglomerates stole with the adoption of Gonzo rhetoric in 1970 and rabid use of it since.

Television Subjectivity Spectrum

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

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