Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric

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Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric. By Douglas Walton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007; pp. vii + 386. $80.00; paper $28.99.

Before the primary election of 2008, I was inundated with up to five mailings a day trying to influence my vote on citizen initiatives. In some cases, multiple mailings arrived from identical sources. Advocacy groups were using varied argument strategies, constructing multiple audiences committed to different premises, in order to persuade others. State agencies posted web sites on the same issues to inform and shape public opinion; and opinion polls were released to reveal what we were willing to commit to. All the while, 18-25 year olds were busily organizing Facebook sites to promote their own causes. Few can doubt that the volume and pace of arguments circulated through mass media channels are increasing dramatically as we move further into the 21st century, and our most recent Presidential election season underscored this fact.

In sum, the processes of decision-making in our democracy have become intimately networked. Evolving arguments, on issues civic, political, legal, and scientific, will continue to spread through mass media channels. Lacking a centralized, official source of reliable information, mass audiences will be challenged to make rational judgments, and will often need to judge incomplete and competing arguments. Will audiences fall prey to propaganda, emotional appeals, push-polling, or fallacious reasoning? Could this be the end of democracy, or perhaps the beginning of a rejuvenated deliberative democracy?

Within this networked communication environment, Douglas Walton's Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric (2007) seeks to nurture the quality of values-based practical reasoning by developing a theory and methods for identifying, analyzing, and evaluating argumentation in mass media contexts:

If deliberative democracy is to work as a useful and reasoned method of arriving at prudent conclusions on how to act under conditions of uncertainty and disagreement, the mass media audience must also learn how to use argumentation skills to deal with the information and argumentation explosion due to both traditional mass media and the Internet, by learning to judge what kind of information is reliable and what kind of persuasion is fallacious (p. 359).

Walton's work clearly extends the aspirations of The New Rhetoric Project (NRP), initiated by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, and participates in a commitment to rational agents who are capable of engaging in dialectical-rhetorical argumentation to make collaborative decisions. As the subtitle suggests, neither dialectic nor rhetoric alone will suffice to meet the challenges of informed argument evaluation. Like the NRP, Walton pursues a rapprochement of dialectic and rhetoric; like the NRP, he develops his method with contextualized case studies; and like the NRP, he envisions the fundamental speech act of persuasion as one that begins in agreement with premises both sides will commit to publicly. In his review of where the NRP is headed in the future, Frank described the project as a "blueprint for civil society," one that appreciates the plurality of human values and that fosters empathy in understanding the dissent of others (2004, p. 270). Walton transports that civil project into a more complex, networked media environment and places his investigation alongside new developments in artificial intelligence, which is likewise moving toward a social model of argumentation that conceives of rationality as a dialogue.

Taken as a whole, Walton's theory of mass media argumentation characterizes audience and arguer as part of a multi-agent system sharing common knowledge upon which they base their dialogues. The cognitive capacity for simulative reasoning is the answer to a persistent problem of audience that recurs throughout the book, what Walton refers to as the response-to-dialogue or RTD problem. …