Column: Making Sushi of Obama’s Speech

Obama: "... media tends to play up every hint of conflict"

Last weekend, President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan’s  spring commencement to an audience of more than 90,000 people, including more than 8,000 graduates.

The event also included national, regional, and local media organizations, who were eventually allowed into Michigan Stadium. But I don’t think most members of the media really listened to his address.

New York Times Headlines

The online New York Times ran at least four different headlines for the Obama speech. In this collage of screen shots, from the upper left, going clockwise: (1) "At a Graduation, Obama Defends Government"; (2) "President's Plea to Graduates: Be Civil"; (3) "At a Graduation, Obama Urges Openness and Defends Government"; (4) "Obama Assails Antigovernment Rhetoric." (Image links to higher resolution file.)

For example, I didn’t see any of these headlines, which could have been attached to an accurate account of Obama’s speech:

Obama Lambastes Media for Sound-Byte Coverage

Obama Takes Aim at Media for Stoking Conflicts

Obama Puts Blame for Coarse Discourse on Media

Obama Erupts But Does Not Confirm Ties to Volcano

The fourth alternative is based on a kindergartner’s question to the president, which Obama reported as part of his speech. That one is admittedly a stretch. It’s included for the benefit of an audience of two, perhaps three, local Ann Arbor readers who might crack a smile when they read it. [For those of you who don't know, Ann Arbor is building a "volcano" in the center of its downtown.]

The other three, however, are legitimate candidates for a headline that summarizes what the president’s speech was “about.” The venerable New York Times tried out at least four different headlines for a single online story on the Obama speech. But none of the NYT alternatives – nor those of any other media coverage I saw – identified as a significant theme of Obama’s speech the culpability of the media in the kind of “over the top” public debates that Obama said “coarsens our culture.”

That’s because I don’t think media organizations were paying attention to all of Obama’s speech the way they would have if they’d approached it like they were cutting up fish.

Slicing, Serving Obama’s Speech

Here’s an outline of Obama’s speech, which The Chronicle overlaid on its annotated version  of his transcribed remarks:

I. Introduction

II. America’s Voices

A. How Obama Keeps in Touch

B. Kindergartners

C. Niceness

III. Contentious Discourse

A. Origins in Current Crisis

B. Historical Context

C. The Nature of American Politics

IV. How to Preserve Democracy

A. Adapt Role of Government to Changing World

B. Maintain Civility

C. Participate In It

V. Conclusion: Calling Graduates to Action

Obama’s speechwriters probably worked from a different outline. But those are some slices that I thought would allow readers to chew easily through the material of the speech. So that’s the way The Chronicle served up the president’s address. The Chronicle’s headline: “Obama’s Michigan Commencement Speech.”

The Chronicle thus served it up relatively raw, and uncooked over the flame of analysis of what Obama was using the occasion to do. In this regard we took an approach to the commencement coverage similar to the approach a sushi chef takes to serving fish. The skill of the chef is not in the cooking but in the cutting.

I first encountered this kind of analogy in a 1989 essay by Japanese biologist Tatsuo Motokawa: “Sushi Science and Hamburger Science.” In that essay, Motokawa applies the comparison of Eastern and Western cuisines to the practice of science, but I think it’s applicable to the presentation of news as well:

A lot of skills are hidden behind the no-cook. This is really an art, and definitely a different kind of art than that found in Western cooking. Some Western cuisines are great: we taste the skills of chefs. Sushi is also great: we taste the materials themselves.

So Motokawa isn’t arguing for the superiority of Eastern cuisine over Western cuisine. He was simply pointing out the specific ways they’re different. Extending the analogy to scientific cultures, he describes the difference this way:

Western science is hypothesis oriented. A hypothesis is a personal interpretation using words about how universal rule works in a particular matter of interest. The hypothesis should be big: the final rule should be one, and therefore the biggest and most general hypothesis is the best one. This drives the hypothesis to become abstract. [...]

Eastern science is fact oriented. It tries to communicate with the truth, not through generality and abstraction as Western science does, but through specificity and objectivity.

So in presenting the text of Obama’s speech – sliced into an outline and lightly garnished with annotations – we took an “Eastern” approach. It was centered on the actual words of the speech, left intact.

It wasn’t perfectly “intact” – that is, we didn’t teleport the physical being of Obama through computers to re-deliver the speech right in front of Chronicle readers – that would be like offering a live fish and asking readers to bite into it. And it would taste terrible, unless you are a grizzly bear.

What Obama’s Speech Was About

Based on the outline, Obama’s speech was a standard graduation speech in theme, and fairly unremarkable and workmanlike in its organizational structure. It can be seen as a longer version of the standard five-paragraph essay that most of UM’s graduating seniors learned to write four years ago – in whatever class corresponds to freshman composition. Obama certainly introduced the three sub-sections under “How to Preserve Democracy,” with a strategy straight out of freshman comp – simple enumeration: “First of all, …” “Now the second way …” and “Which brings me to the last …”

But what was the meat on those bones of an outline?

Focusing just on the fourth section, the one we labeled “How to Preserve Democracy,” Obama talked first about how one key to preserving our democracy is to allow the proper role of government to change to fit the needs of the time. Rhetorically, the strategy for that first point was to emphasize the role historically of Republican presidents in “big government” philosophies: Abraham Lincoln (intercontinental railroad, land-grant colleges), Teddy Roosevelt (national parks), Lyndon Johnson (Great Society), and Dwight Eisenhower (national highway system).

The second crucial ingredient Obama identified to preserve democracy was civil discourse. He called for the debate to center on a common set of facts and for the debate to be civil. And he called on graduates to seek out a diversity of opinion among the various choices in the media that are available to them.

And finally, Obama called on graduates to participate in public life. That was the section that concluded with the one passage from the speech that has a chance of enduring for the ages, the one that likely gave goosebumps to the staunchest Obama supporters:

What is certain, what has always been certain, is the ability to shape the destiny. That is what makes us different. That is what sets us apart. That is what makes us Americans. Our ability at the end of the day to look past all our differences and all of our disagreements, and still forge a common future.

So if we analyze the significance of that “How to Preserve Democracy” section and try to identify the one salient theme there that’s headline-worthy, the possibilities produced by the New York Times for the same online story are, I think, reasonable candidates:

  1. At a Graduation, Obama Defends Government
  2. President’s Plea to Graduates: Be Civil
  3. At a Graduation, Obama Urges Openness and Defends Government
  4. Obama Assails Antigovernment Rhetoric

But there was more than one section to the speech.

What the Speech Was Not About

I think it’s fair to conclude that what Obama wanted the speech to be about was the fourth section. One clue, I think, is the presentational strategy of “First of all, …” “Now the second way …” and “Which brings me to the last …”

So the fourth section is what the author of the text wanted the speech to be about. But why should we trust the author of the text to tell us what it’s about?

Maybe it was about something else, too. Was it about U.S. Senators beating the crap out of each other? Well, no, although in the section on “Contentious Discourse” Obama alluded to a physical attack by Congressman Preston Brooks on Senator Charles Sumner in 1856. That came in response to a speech that Sumner had delivered against the Fugitive Slave Act. The speech had insulted one of the authors of the act, Andrew Butler, who was a relative of Brooks.

Was the speech about volcanoes? Not really. In the section on “America’s Voices” one of the questions Obama reported receiving from a kindergartner was, Do you live next to a volcano? But that was there clearly for comedic effect – Obama himself seemed tickled enough that he paused to work through a chuckle.

What Else the Speech Was About

But in that same section with the volcanoes, Obama reported another question: Are people being nice? And Obama’s remarks on that question went like this:

The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story, which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible.

But that came right on the heals and in the same section clearly intended mostly to lighten the mood – it’s only kindergartners and their cute little funny questions, right? That’s not the “news” out of the speech, is it?

But the thread was continued in the meat-and-potatoes section that most the the media seemed to think the speech was about. Right there in the “Preserving Democracy Section”:

Today’s 24/7 echo chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before.

So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to conclude that Obama’s speech was also about the role of the free press in our democracy, and that the press in general might think a little more deeply about whether they’re “writing for the fight” or “writing for the right.”

In Defense of Occasional Journalistic Sushi

It’s certainly possible that I missed other journalists’ presentation of the media’s culpability in the coarsening of the public discourse as a significant theme of Obama’s speech.

If I did, then it’s likely because I was distracted by trying to practice the art of “journalistic sushi.” The hours after the president spoke I spent transcribing the speech as delivered and tracking down the various allusions in the speech that warranted some kind of annotation.

Part of the task of transcribing the actual speech would not, I’m fairly certain, seem very much like journalism to most conventional Western journalists. That’s the part where you determine whether the line I rendered as “Some of these letters tell stories …”  should have been transcribed instead as “Some of these st- letters tell stories.” Obama began with the hint of the /st/ for “stories,” saved it smoothly, and delivered “letters.”

It’s also the part where you determine whether to include the Obama trademark hesitation vocalization that seems to live somewhere in the glottal area and could be transcribed as “erm,” “ehh,” “aah” or the like. For Saturday’s speech that might have looked something like: “And so may I say, ehh, Go Blue!”

I opted against that, reasoning that most readers would be baffled.

I’m not suggesting that in general the “journalistic sushi” approach we used for coverage of the Obama commencement address is always the right call. In this case, the attention to detail gave enough time for reflection to include the annotated material as well as the in-line commentary.

But I’m content that someone who reads along might reasonably feel like a reader is supposed to feel when they read Chronicle material – as expressed in this publication’s tagline: “It’s like being there.”


  1. May 3, 2010 at 10:24 pm | permalink

    Fun column, Dave, but I don’t know if I’d quite trust you to cut up my blowfish: Johnson was a Democrat.

    I look forward to some other commenter carrying the sushi/hamburger metaphor into the realm of American political culture. (“Do you like sushi?” “No.” “Have you ever tried it?” …)

  2. By Daniel Rubenstein
    May 4, 2010 at 8:54 pm | permalink

    It’s interesting to consider what Obama “really” thinks, but I don’t find the NYT headlines to be off the mark. The media is one factor, and it amplifies conflict. But it doesn’t force politicians to play to it; they choose to do that. And I think that’s what Obama was trying to convey to the graduates — you are in control of yourselves, you have to take responsibility for how you act, what you say, how you think. Be mature. A good message for everyone.

  3. By quotidian
    May 5, 2010 at 9:02 am | permalink

    Obama’s speech notwithstanding, I have no idea what this piece is about; it is almost incomprehensible.

  4. By Peter
    May 5, 2010 at 9:51 am | permalink

    A proper analysis also would have included a discussion of the president’s hypocrisy in criticizing coarseness despite his own use of the pejorative “tea-bagger” insult.

  5. By RPMcDonough
    May 5, 2010 at 1:34 pm | permalink

    Should he have treated the addled tea bag people with more generous language? He is not the pleaser in chief, Peter, he is a rational human being.

  6. By Sam A
    May 5, 2010 at 4:53 pm | permalink

    The untold story is the rise of the conservative media and the role it has played in the decline of civility. To make a profitable place for themselves, they had to discredit other media by labeling it “liberal”; promote itself as the only “objective” source of news; and then produce the most slanted and opinionated objective news in the history of journalism.

    Mainstream media is culpable to the extent that it has been running scared from its conservative critics and allowing them to frame the conversation around objectivity rather than intellectual honesty.

    We are all biased storytellers. The difference is what individuals and organizations do to curb that bias. The latest batch of media outlets nurtured by cable TV and the Internet seem to have almost no standards of fairness. To them, it’s a zero sum game. We win. You lose.

  7. By Mark Wynn
    May 5, 2010 at 5:53 pm | permalink

    Pardon me, but I do not recall any conciliation in the steamroller approach of Obama/Pelosi/Reed majority. Why is it that those citizens who are concerned about the direction of this juggernaut are anti-government foes of democracy??

  8. By Tricia
    May 5, 2010 at 10:47 pm | permalink

    But that came right on the heals – shouldn’t it be heels? Although healing would be apt…

  9. By Sam A
    May 6, 2010 at 2:18 pm | permalink

    Conservatives had no problem during the Bush years when the Republican Party was shoving bad policy down our throats and kicking moderates out of their own ranks. Those policies led to financial disaster, which led to the appropriate voter response.

    As near as I can tell, the policies passed by this so-called Obama/Pelosi/Reed juggernaut (I can barely use the term in this contaxt without laughing) have only stabilized an economy that conservatives singlehandedly ruined.

    If you are so concerned about a single party passing legislation over the objections of another, you should have spoken up during the Bush years. But who are you kidding? The real problem is you don’t like the shoe being on the other foot, so you are trying to demonize your opponent. Fox News has taught you well.

  10. By Barbara Carr
    May 9, 2010 at 2:41 pm | permalink

    Thank you Dave Askins! First, I read the commencement speech only in the Chronicle (because I chose to go to the opera Saturday afternoon) and appreciated the way it was presented. Second, I find your current column discussing journalistic methods and the basic message of Obama’s speech very interesting.