About Brian Ott, Ph.D.: Like many scholars in the field of communication, Dr. Ott’s education is closely tied to his involvement in intercollegiate speech and debate. He earned his bachelor’s degree from George Mason University, which he specifically attended to participate in their forensics program. As an undergraduate student, he competed in a wide range of events, but his favorites included dual interpretation of drama, after dinner speaking, and prose interpretation. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in communication in 1991, he returned to his home state of Pennsylvania, earning MA and PhD degrees from The Pennsylvania State University in 1993 and 1997 respectively.
His research concerns the dynamic intersection of rhetoric and media, and his MA thesis explored the televisual coverage and framing of George H.W. Bush’s 1992 State of the Union address. His dissertation was even more explicitly focused on television, looking at how the form of popular, but diverse television programs in the mid to late-nineties such as The Simpsons and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman provided, in the words of Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living” related to the transition to the Information Age.
At the time of this interview, Dr. Ott was the Chair of the Department of Communication at Texas Tech University. The classes he taught were an extension of his research interests and regularly included: Rhetorical Theory, Communication and Popular Culture, Critical Media Studies, and Media, Technology, and Society. Dr. Ott has taught and conducted research at several institutions, including Colorado State University, the University of Colorado Denver, and Texas Tech University. During his time at TTU, he also served as Director of TTU Press where, in addition to managing the budget, he oversaw the Press’s efforts to promote the dissemination of new knowledge through the acquisition, production, and marketing of titles concerned principally with the American southwest.
Recently, Dr. Ott took a position as Head of the Department of Communication at Missouri State University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your extensive scholarship is rooted in rhetorical tradition, a discipline that spans over two millennia and which underpins all forms of communication and media. Could you provide a detailed explanation of the ways in which rhetorical tradition has changed–and in other ways stayed the same–from its inception to the modern day? Why is it crucial for communication scholars of all backgrounds to study rhetorical tradition?
[Dr. Ott] My research concerns the dynamic interplay of rhetoric and media. This does not mean that I simply study rhetorics that are mass mediated. It means that I regard the mediated character of rhetoric as absolutely central to how it functions. The content of a message is inseparable from its form and, consequently, rhetoric is always shaped by its modes of delivery, circulation, and reception. So, while the “same” message can seemingly be communicated across various technologies, the underlying technology of communication fundamentally shapes both what it means and what it does, e.g., how it functions rhetorically.
A film analysis that does not take seriously the unique qualities of film as a medium of communication, for instance, tells us very little about how that film moves viewers. The same is true of the spoken word, printed word, television, digital media, etc. In short, my research, following in the tradition of Ong and McLuhan among others, brings the insights of media ecology in a digital era to bear on the 2000-year-old study of rhetoric. This seems especially important in the current moment as the rise and spread of digital technologies dramatically alter our communication landscape, including what communication is and what it can do.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have more information on your book The Twitter Presidency: Donald J. Trump and the politics of white rage? What role does narrative criticism play in analyzing political discourse such as that of the Trump administration? Why is it important to view presidential narratives/rhetoric through a scholarly lens?
[Dr. Ott] Any instance of rhetoric can profitably be analyzed using a host of critical perspectives and tools. Narrative, genre, feminism, queer theory, critical race theory, and countless others all stand to illuminate messages in useful and productive ways. That having been said, it is important to look to the specific instance of rhetoric one wants to study and to ask what are its most salient features. When I first trained my gaze on Trump’s rhetoric a few years ago, I was immediately struck by its identifiable style. A style is not, contrary to common wisdom, unique to an individual. Rather, it is a broadly shared cultural pattern. So, Trump’s style is not really his per se. Aesthetically speaking, the style Trump enacts is characterized by the traits of authoritarianism, narcissism, and demagoguery. In an effort to try to capture the cultural sentiment that animates this style, my co-author and I refer to it as “white rage.” Further, it is a style especially well suited for the platform of Twitter because it is consistent with the structural biases of that platform.
Every technology of communication is unique, meaning that it privileges some types of messaging over others. Twitter, for instance, privileges simplicity, impulsivity, and incivility. It favors simplicity because its 280-character limitation disallows complex ideas and messages; a person can tweet something clever but not complex. It favors impulsivity because there is no significant barrier to entry; a person can tweet from virtually anywhere about anything at any time. Finally, it favors incivility because negatively-toned messages travel both further and faster on the platform. Since these structural biases closely align with Trump’s natural way of speaking, his messages are especially effective in this context.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have also published several books on the role of television and streaming entertainment in shaping consumer perspectives and habits, including The Small Screen: How Television Equips Us to Live in the Information Age and It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era. What were the principal findings and arguments that you illustrated in these two and other books?
[Dr. Ott] In the late 1990s and early 2000s, television was the primary modality (technology of communication) through which most public discourse was filtered. Consequently, during this time, my scholarship focused heavily on television. I wanted to understand how televisual logics were shaping and influencing our public discourse. In many ways, this work sought to expand Neil Postman’s insights in Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was important work, I believed, because the technology of television was itself undergoing a transformation as a result of the digital revolution.
With the benefit of historical perspective, I now regard television as a transitional technology between the print era and the digital era. In its early iterations, television very much followed the linear logic of print with its strict programming schedules and privileging of narrative. But over time, television has evolved into something else. It has also, and this is crucial, largely been replaced by digital and social media as the primary filter through which public discourse passes. Like Postman, I am very much concerned about what has been lost in this transition, as well as how it is transforming us.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have also examined news media treatment of key social and political issues, such as ESPN’s construction of hypermasculine citizenship in the wake of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, and the reframing of fear and caution post-9/11. What role does narrative play in these constructions and reframings, and what are the political and social implications of these rhetorical actions?
[Dr. Ott] The news media has historically been a narrative-centric enterprise. It is first and foremost about storytelling. As such, narrative has always struck me as an especially profitable way to approach the study of news, and you are quite correct that I have tended to approach it from this perspective. Even in a digital era, the news media continues to be animated by the telling of stories. But the form of those stories has, I would argue, changed over time. In the fluid, fast-changing, hyperlinked environment of the digital world, storytelling – even in the news – is far less linear and rational than it was in the past. This is especially evident, I think, in the stories that emerge from non-traditional news sources, stories that are often complex and labyrinthine if not downright conspiratorial. The rapid rise, spread, and adoption of conspiracy rhetoric is to my mind a side effect of digital storytelling.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What are the overlaps and lines of demarcation between news media and entertainment media as narrative forms? Is news media inherently constructed to entertain on some level, and is that problematic in any way? On the flip side, do all or most forms of entertainment media contain political or social commentary, either intentionally or not, and if so what are the implications of this?
[Dr. Ott] This is an exceedingly important question, and it gets directly at the heart of the most dangerous threat facing democracy in my estimation, namely the conflation of cable news (Fox, MSNBC, CNN) with hard news (The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press). Over the past few decades, we have witnessed what I would call the proliferation of “pseudo-news” in the form of political opinion and commentary programming on Fox and MSNBC, for instance. I refer to this as “pseudo-news” rather than “fake news” to distinguish it from the propagandistic efforts of foreign actors like the Russian government, which ultimately swung the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.
While fake news is a form of propaganda, I would not classify most cable news (i.e., pseudo-news) as propaganda, though it is certainly ideologically driven and slanted. The problem, as I see it, is that most news consumers today do not distinguish between “hard news,” which is fact-based and has gone through a rigorous editorial process, and “pseudo-news” (think: Hannity), which is opinion-based and has not been vetted or verified. The former is designed to inform the public; the latter is designed to affirm/appeal to the ideological biases of its audience. For me, it is not a question of news vs. entertainment, as I do not think those two things are mutually exclusive. It’s a question of fact vs. opinion. The President has done the nation and its citizens a massive disservice by using the label fake news to talk about either of these categories.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Museums and their rhetorical devices are also a subject you have studied and on which you have published extensively. May we have more information on some of your most prominent publications on this subject? What is the connection between historical artifacts, art, memory, and the construction of reality (both past and present) through rhetoric?
[Dr. Ott] My interest in museums was spawned by two factors. The first was related to my general interest in how media or communication technologies alter rhetoric. Basically, I wanted to understand how the changing practices of design and display in history museums (thanks to the adoption and implementation of digital technologies) shaped the nature of their appeals to a shared sense of the past (i.e., public memory).
The second factor was the opportunity to collaborate with two of my best friends, Greg Dickinson and Eric Aoki. The three of us had an opportunity to travel to the Buffalo Bill Center of West (BBCW) in Cody, Wyoming one summer, and that turned into a decades-long effort to understand “the West” as central to the construction of what it means to be American. Together, we have studied and written about all five museums (Buffalo Bill Museum, Plains Indian Museum, Cody Firearms Museum, Draper Museum of Natural History, and Whitney Museum) that comprise the BBCW and we are currently working on a book-length project that synthesizes and extends our research into these spaces of memory.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As a scholar of the diverse ways in which narrative shapes politics, art, culture, and individual and collective consciousness, how do you feel the fields of narrative and rhetorical criticism will evolve in the coming years? What role do you believe communication technology advancements will play in these fields of study?
[Dr. Ott] In some ways, your last question is the very question that animates all of my research. The conventional forms of one age, observed Kenneth Burke, are as resolutely shunned by another. In other words, as humans, we continuously develop new forms and modes of communicating. My research aims at understanding how our endlessly changing communication environment (its emergent forms and new technologies) appeal to and move us. This interest is part of what has led me to try to attend more carefully to the materiality of rhetoric (as well as to affect) in recent work.
As I have noted elsewhere, it is the medium of communication that makes rhetoric material. Only by attending to the medium of a message can we understand the complex ways that rhetoric moves us at a material, bodily level in addition to the ways that it moves us through symbolic appeals. So, as our field continues to study orality, television, film, museums, clothing, and digital platforms, we need to be insistently aware of the complex interplay of rhetoric and media.
Thank you, Dr. Ott, for your insightful discussion of rhetorical tradition and the necessity of analyzing the impact of narrative media in its many forms!