In a post for the New York Times blog Public Editor’s Journal, Margaret Sullivan discusses a question that she uses for her post’s title: “How Well Has The Times Advanced a Story That It Didn’t Break?” Her answer is essentially “Not bad, but not great”–an answer that seems designed to carefully respond to her rhetorical situation. As becomes clear in her post, Sullivan is responding to the many people who are angry at the way the Times covered the NSA wiretap story. Her whole piece is carefully attenuated to this situation, as she tries to give credence to the complainers without giving in to them completely, like a politician admitting he broke an ethical guideline while insisting that it wasn’t really all that bad. Specifically, she uses the strategies of organization and links to outside authorities to strengthen her ethos and defend her position.
Before I describe the details of these strategies, I’ll briefly explain the situation Sullivan is responding to. As I mentioned, she is clearly assuaging an angry audience. Specifically, the NSA story was first written about in The Guardian and the Washington Post, papers that compete with the Times. From Sullivan’s piece, it seems that some have held that the Times got petulant, like a tantrum-throwing child, and didn’t give the story its due coverage specifically because they felt scooped by the other papers. This is a situation where facts can clearly be discovered: either the Times covered the story or it didn’t, and it either gave it places of importance in its print and digital publications or it didn’t. Therefore Sullivan’s post needs to walk a line more subtle than just “What happened?” Instead, this text needs to answer the more subtle question of, “Did the Times act incorrectly, unfairly, or in an unethically biased way in its decision of how to cover the story?”
Sullivan’s organization is her chief strategy to help her answer this question. She knows that if she comes out and defends the Times right away, her angry opposition will simply be more angry. But she knows that if she gives in right away, she’ll look like she’s giving in to the opposition and ignoring her own employer. So she strategically saves her answer for the end of her piece. At the top of the piece she simply asks questions: “But how well has The Times done in covering or advancing that story since it first appeared in The Guardian and The Washington Post? Is The Times holding its own, gaining or losing ground, and how hard is the paper of record pushing, on this extremely important story?” Instead of immediately answering these questions, she then structures her piece with four numbered parts of her answer, allowing her to stretch her answer out in a way that will assuage both sides. It is only in the final paragraph that she finally gives a single sentence with her entire viewpoint clearly stated: “But like many readers, I would like to see a greater and more consistent sense of urgency reflected on The Times’s news pages in dealing with this subject, which has such profound implications for civil liberties, for press freedom, for the privacy of American citizens and for democracy.” In other words, she is unhappy with the lack of “urgency” in the way the story was covered, but she is happy with other parts of the story. She’s having it both ways.
That organizational strategy is also reflected in the way her post builds from point to point. The first of her four points carefully points out multiple examples of what she calls “good analysis” of the story, despite the fact that other papers broke the story. This point rebuts the possible complaints of those who might make broad statements like “The Times has avoided this topic completely!” Clearly, they haven’t–she even provides links. But after establishing this positive note, she knows that some might distrust her if she is too positive about her own paper, so she strategically uses point number two to admit problems. She writes, “Less positively, The Times sometimes has played down the importance of other papers’ reporting on this subject.” Here too she links to a story that she admits was buried on page A12 of the Times. But notice how she only includes one link to an example when pointing out the Times‘s deficiences, while she included five links to examples of things it had done well. The message is clear: even though she admits some guilt on the part of her publication, the balance of good is clearly on her side. Buttressing this point even further, points three and four continue to advance her own side, further strengthening her argument.
It’s worth noting that this use of organization and outside links has the side-effect of making Sullivan look the way she wants to look: fair, willing to take criticism, but also knowledgeable and able to defend herself. It’s a stance that we often say we want in politicians, who we hope will be both strong on their own positions and open to hearing opposing sides. In other words, her use of organization and links affected her ethos positively. They’re all related.
It’s also worth noting that Sullivan’s defense of the Times was designed very carefully for this online space, allowing her to use links to defend herself. In print, her post would simply be less convincing without the ability of readers to see the proof for themselves, right away, by clicking the links. (I found myself not wanting to bother clicking any of the links, yet their presence reassured me. I trusted that she wasn’t lying by linking to false stories.) Her digital medium also allowed her to add an update on the following day, another brief passage at the bottom of the post. It’s mostly a quote about how the Times will work in the future with the Guardian as they continue to cover the case, a move that buttresses Sullivan’s basic claim: that the Times made some mistakes, but they aren’t all that bad. Still, the post noticeably lacks a comment section, a puzzling move that may reflect a desire for the Times to silence conversation about this issue. Perhaps Sullivan’s post is meant to be the “final statement” of the paper, and the lack of comments asks readers to please move on and pay attention to something else now, thank you very much.
In the end, there is much that is both old and new about Sullivan’s post. Rhetors have structured their texts this way for thousands of years, delaying their final claim as a strategy to avoid alienating potentially hostile listeners. But until now, they have never been able to include the ethos-building instant gratification of links to support one’s point of view, or able to signal an end to a conversation simply by turning off the comment feature. Sullivan’s post, then, suggests to me that texts in digital spaces are indeed worthy of study with traditional rhetorical analysis, though we need to keep our eyes open for changing possibilities these spaces afford.
Sullivan, Margaret. “How Well Has the Times Advanced a Story That It Didn’t Break?” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 22 Aug. 2013. Web. 23 Aug. 2013.