That Was 'The Week' that Was

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In the Opinion section of the Yahoo! News page on November 21, there is a piece of writing entitled “Should Obama decline to run for re-election?” It is signed by “The Week’s Editorial staff.” So why do I refer to it as a “piece of writing” instead of an “op-ed?” My choice of a vague descriptor was deliberate, because my purpose here is not to offer an opinion about the upcoming presidential election but to provide a semiotic analysis of a peculiar trend within popular journalism. This is the tendency, in online publications like The Week, to present what is in actuality an aggregate of existing op-ed pieces (duly linked) within a text that takes no stand of its own. In this case, The Week links to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Patrick Caddell and Douglas Schoen that calls for President Obama to step aside and let Hillary Clinton run in 2012. But rather than take a position, in the next three paragraphs the text links to consecutive opinions by Andrew Malcolm, Bryan Preston, and Andrew Sullivan, each with its own take on the matter, and leaves it at that. This is a fairly typical format for The Week’s op-ed manques. It can be quite disconcerting to read if one is not accustomed to this sort of thing; it can take the reader a minute or two to realize that the text is simply providing a roundup of opinions and not actually presenting an opinion of its own. That this is an example of a new kind of “aggregative” journalism that is appearing in the popular media (especially online media) is clear enough. What isn’t clear is what that signifies. It does indicate that a new form of rhetoric is on the rise, a rhetoric that refers to arguments but does not make an argument. A digest rather than an opinion, such a text fits into a hurry-up journalistic world whereby publications like The Week offer their readers a quick overview of existing punditry on a given news story or topic, saving them the trouble of exploring the subject for themselves. It is the op-ed version of fast food. But like fast food, does this sort of anti-rhetorical rhetoric represent a “blanding” of political opinion, a polite refusal to take a stand in order to service its customers without disturbing or surprising them? I really don’t know yet; the whole thing is still quite new and its effects are yet to be clear or conclusive. But somehow I can’t help hearing in the back of my mind a “yeah, well, whatever” approach to the news, something to surf while listening to a personal musical playlist and text messaging a friend. Is this the outcome of a symbiosis between digital multitasking and journalism? Frankly (and to avoid failing to produce an argument of my own), I think it is.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.