Carnegie Mellon University

A Medium-Based Rhetorical Analysis of Newspaper Coverage of the Brooklyn Museum Controversy

Author: Peter Cramer
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2005

This dissertation analyzes the newspaper coverage of the Brooklyn Museum controversy. The object of controversy was Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting that appeared in the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in the Fall of 1999. In the painting, Ofili used elephant dung along with other more traditional art and craft materials. It was the dung that led New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to take offense to the painting and to the exhibit generally. This project focuses on the role of media in controversy by asking how newspapers depict the Brooklyn Museum controversy as they report it. In order to answer this question, the project examines an archive of newspaper texts about the controversy from the top three circulating newspapers in New York City, The New York Post, The Daily News, and The New York Times. It performs three analyses: a rhetorical analysis of serial coverage, a computer-aided style analysis, and an analysis of news actors' direct quotations. The analysis of serial coverage narrates the unfolding news event and draws conclusions about journalists' definition of the event, its topical and temporal boundaries, and its role as a precedent for other news events. The computer-aided style analysis draws comparisons across the three newspapers represented in the archive, revealing a number of differences in the way that the language of newspapers represents the controversy to readers. One of the central conclusions of this analysis is that the newspapers differ in their treatments of citation and quotation in controversy coverage. The analysis of news actors' direct quotation is an effort to build on this finding by showing who is quoted by each newspaper and how often they are quoted. It draws conclusions about how the differences in direct quotation among the newspapers affect reader experience of the controversy coverage. This project contributes to existing work in rhetorical studies and argumentation research, both of which address controversy as a key concept but neither of which have fully centered on the value of medium and reader effects in their analyses. In order to develop its approach to the study of controversy, the project draws on research in rhetoric of controversy, analyses of news media, and computer-aided rhetorical analysis. It leverages this research to articulate its medium-based and reader-focused analysis.