As the turmoil of Trump’s firing of James Comey grows daily, political commentators are eager to try to explain their own beliefs on the incident. In times of such strife, it is easy to get caught up in the story and look past any significant rhetorical aspects of the many articles released. However, it is in times like this that we must pay attention not only to the content of a story, but to writers’ language as well. By performing rhetorical analysis of a piece, we can gain advanced knowledge of a given author’s position, thus revealing their true intentions.
The first article I chose comes from The Hill, which is known to be a neutral reporting service; however, this is an opinion piece from one of their contributors, Chris Barron, who is quite conservative. In his piece, Barron attempts to explain what he considers “the only three things you need to know about Comey’s firing,” which he believes should shape the way this action is discussed politically. He talks about the fact that there is no concrete proof of any illegal action by President Trump, or of any Russian influence on the election in November, as well as the fact that the president may fire the FBI director at any time, for any reason. He brings up these issues in order to highlight his main point, that the administration should not allow the media to shape public opinion of the issue, but instead highlight the fact that the president did nothing wrong.
Firstly, I think it is useful to examine the piece in terms of the Ancient Greek canons: invention, arrangement, and style. As far as gathering already existing arguments (invention), Barron provides examples of senators’ interviews which back up his beliefs, as well as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who states “In firing Comey, President Trump did exactly the right thing.” These testimonies are effective in emphasizing Barron’s point that Trump should not let the media bully him, because they back up his claim that Trump did nothing wrong. In terms of arrangement, Barron shapes his argument by outlining his argument in the beginning, and then explaining each point with a paragraph of its own. This is a useful structure because it allows Barron to take each point and explain it in full to readers, without being too wordy or going on about any one thing for too long. Furthermore, he concludes his piece by elaborating on his earlier assertion that the media and Democrats are simply trying to make Trump look bad. By adding to what is essentially his thesis at the end of his article, Barron is able to leave a stronger impression on readers. Finally, it is very important to look at the way Barron chooses his language in the piece, because his tone and voice are equally important in conveying his message. Utilizing the analysis of voyant-tools.org, we can see that Barron uses the words “evidence” and “irrelevant” quite frequently throughout the article, indicating his major distrust of the media’s speculations. This is important because it shows a possible bias against Democratic or liberal ideas.
Another important aspect to analyze is the pathos of Barron’s argument. This article is incredibly emotionally charged, and it is quite apparent that it is designed to make conservatives angry with liberals over their alleged mistreatment of Trump. Right out of the gate, Barron uses terms such as “hysteria” and “astounding,” and even paraphrases Shakespeare, calling the whole ordeal “a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Statements like this are useful to political commentators because they set the tone for the rest of the piece by inciting feelings of disdain for liberals, and raising doubts about the nature of the claims against Trump. Further along in the article, Barron posits that the whole controversy is the result of “tin foil hat” conspiracies, essentially saying that there would be no scandal if liberals hadn’t made one out of it. He closes the article by discrediting the “faux hysteria” of the Democrats as a means of disrupting the president’s agenda. All of these are examples of appeals to emotion which polarize readers against one another: liberal readers feel attacked and persecuted, while conservative readers feel reassured in the president’s ability to lead.
The third part of Barron’s article to pay attention to revolves around the ideas of stasis theory; Barron utilizes conjecture and policy points to form his argument. By asserting that there is no evidence to prove Trump guilty of any crime, Barron provides conjecture. Additionally, he refers back to allegations of Russian interference in the election, which he also claims there is no evidence of. These example are important because while it is true that there is no concrete evidence, the circumstantial evidence is piling up every day. It is not wrong for Barron to write the article the way he did, (i.e. not mentioning any circumstantial evidence), but it is important to realize that by leaving it out, Barron is making a point. As far as his policy point, he recommends that the White House should remind the media of this lack of evidence, and of the fact that the president has the right to fire the director of the FBI whenever he wants. He also believes the administration needs to ignore the media’s portrayal of him and try to move on. This is crucial to understanding Barron’s point: he feels that the president should pay no mind to what he believes are false claims against him.
The second article I’m analyzing is from Fox News, a conservative news outlet, and is written by veteran reporter Greg Jarrett. In the article, Jarrett argues that any action Comey might be trying to take now may end up being irrelevant based on his previous actions, or lack thereof rather. Essentially, Jarrett believes that if Comey had any evidence against Trump, it would have been revealed before Comey was fired because of the reporting policies of the Department of Justice. He goes on to state that those in the media calling for impeachment “don’t know the first thing about the law,” and that this all adds up to a missed opportunity for Comey to out Trump.
Just like the Hill article, one of the best ways to analyze this piece is through the lens of the ancient canons. While Jarrett’s piece is not so much about invention, as Barron’s was, the arrangement and style of it are almost more important anyways. He arranges his argument in a way that appeals to both emotion and reason, which is a crucial step towards convincing readers of his position. By opening the piece with more emotional language (“James Comey was lying in wait. His gun was cocked, he took aim and fired. But his weapon was empty.”), Jarrett draws readers in, almost as if he were about to tell a story. However, instead of a story he dives into the facts of the case, essentially laying out the timeline of events, before going right back into more emotional appeals. By weaving together factual statements and his inflammatory language, Jarrett forces the reader to ask the questions he wants answered, without having to ask them himself. This rhetoric is very effective because it gives the reader a sense of ownership over the ideas, as opposed to feeling them forced onto them (even though the exact opposite is true). Jarrett is also very adept at choosing when to say what, and his style and voice are perfectly in tune with what he is arguing. He uses words like “alleged” and “peddling” in reference to media reports of criminal actions by Trump, which convey his feelings of doubt about the story. He also raises the point that if Trump had committed a crime, Comey should have brought it up previously. He ends the piece with fiery assertions that Comey will “come out a loser,” because the story only gained traction because it was “better than the truth.” This final appeal to readers’ emotions is an important line because it acts as a punctuation for the article, and by ending on that note, Jarrett leaves readers with his most convincing line stuck in their heads.
As I discussed in the first paragraph, Jarrett uses emotional appeals to his advantage very well, which is a prime example of pathos. The opening lines really do read like the beginning of a thriller novel, and the sense of anxiety I got as a reader was impressive. He goes on to talk about the memo Comey wrote, which supposedly incriminates Trump, as having magically appeared after Comey was fired. This language serves to downplay the memo before we even know what it says, which is a strategy often used by the president himself. By convincing readers the memo is not important ahead of time, its impact is greatly reduced later, even if it is a real blow to Trump. Later in the piece he describes the “smoking gun” memo as being peddled by the media under the direction of Comey. This statement gives readers justification for distrusting Comey, even though it is merely speculation. Finally, by closing the way he does, Jarrett leaves a lasting impression on readers by calling Comey a loser, regardless of the outcome of the memo incident, and essentially calls the story flat out false. This is really incendiary because it polarizes readers, much like Barron’s article, into thinking that Comey may be the one lying, again with no evidence of this.
When taken as a conglomerate, these articles really exemplify the way political discourse runs in this country: writers and commentators use provocative language in places where their argument may fall short in order to convince readers of their beliefs. That is not to say that these articles, or any other, is weak for doing this. I merely want to point out that often times the language used is more important than the content of a piece. Both of these articles use emotions to shape their readers’ thoughts about the issue very effectively, and are very convincing because of it. This is not necessarily an immediate sign of excellence, though. It takes a balance of emotion and logic to form a good argument, and it is important to be aware of this when following the news.