The 2004 Presidential Election and the Dean Scream

by: Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

What was missing in this campaign in my opinion was the lack of discussion of media industry reform, which is surprising given all the ammunition on the Democratic side to address such issues. Just to mention a few of the issues: the continual selling off of the electromagnetic spectrum under Michael Powell’s leadership at the FCC; the loosening or elimination of laws that restrict media ownership; the erosion of First Amendment rights; the refusal to take seriously the legal mandate to operate and regulate the airwaves in the public interest. The Center for Digital Democracy calls this FCC’s policy a “leave no media monopoly behind policy” or “the big give away,” and if there is not some intervention or media reform soon, those who rely on the Internet for news and information can anticipate surfing an increasingly corporatized cyberspace. In June and July, 2003, the FCC gave away so much spectrum that experts in the field predicted this would have to become a key campaign issue. But it didn’t.

This FCC is much more concerned about moral policing than ensuring citizens receive adequate information to be educated voters. This is manifest, for instance, in the way that Janet Jackson’s breast became more interesting to the FCC than television networks’ coverage of the presidential campaigns. The FCC fined CBS $550,000 for what Michael Powell called a Super Bowl “burlesque” show, but networks’ failure to adequately explain and differentiate the many candidates’ platforms or deliver thorough reporting about the war in Iraq goes on unnoticed. If we want to continue to call the U.S. a democratic society, we need to focus more on the issue of media reform and insist that our elected officials begin to treat the spectrum as public property. According to the Communication Acts of 1927 and 1934, the airwaves are to be operated and regulated in the public interest, however difficult to define “the public interest” may be. The airwaves are the equivalent of a natural resource like the ocean or a forest; some legal scholars have even suggested using public trust doctrine to return this property to its rightful owners – the people – instead of Time Warner, News Corp., or Disney.

While there is reason to be highly critical of television news, many intellectuals, liberals, and leftists never watch it. Most of their critiques are based on the assumption that the commercial ownership of broadcasting necessarily reproduces in its content the ideologies of corporate/political elites. While this may indeed be true, it is too simple a way to treat a medium whose history, uses, and viewers are so complex. Because of this, media literacy and education are more important than ever. But this involves a commitment – to take time to watch television news and to track and critique its contradictory paths of knowledge production.

We could think, for example, about Howard Dean’s scream after the results of the Iowa caucuses came in on January 19, 2004, because this moment tells us a lot about how the TV industry works. The scream became extremely lucrative for the commercial television news networks. So enthralled by its entertainment value, the broadcast and cable networks played the scream 633 times in the four days after his speech. They took it out of its context, isolated it as a brief clip, manipulated the volume, and used it to lampoon Dean and question his competency as a Presidential candidate, in effect sabotaging the campaign by referring to him as “angry,” “too temperamental,” “out of control,” “inappropriate,” “unpresidential,” and so on. TV news content is restricted to certain time slots. Segments will always be interpreted in relation to what precedes and follows them. And some things will always be emphasized over others. And Dean’s voice was cut down to a sound bite, played after other candidates who were speaking calmly, and accentuated because the microphone he used separated the scream from ambient noise making it sound much louder than it actually was heard. As a post on a website called Value Judgement observed: “when the media turns down the sound on the crowd, they are trying to do what they always do – turn down the volume of the American people.” Dean’s scream took on a life of its own online as websites sprouted up to correct what the TV news networks got wrong (with the exception of ABC’s Diane Sawyer who did her own detailed investigation into the issue.) It was sampled in hiphop songs, imitated on late night TV talk shows, and labeled the “I have a Scream” speech.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way this media event revealed something about the perverse political age in which we live. Why would we be so offended by Dean’s scream and not be offended by Bush’s use of an earpiece during the debates? Why would we be offended by the passion of a political candidate and not be offended by an administration that authorizes the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib or the massacre of Iraqis in Fallujah? 1200 have been killed during the past week alone. We can only imagine the screams that must reverberate there because they never make it to our TV screens. What is wrong with a presidential candidate exuberantly expressing himself before a crowd of cheering supporters? Our current president made an illegal declaration of war!! Give me Dean’s scream over Bush’s war cry any day!

But what this event also revealed unfortunately was a lack of vision and verve within the leadership of the Democratic Party, which treated it as an opportunity to edge Dean out of the race and scold him for being out of line. Some even withdrew their endorsements. The irony, of course, is that Dean may now be in contention for the position of chair of the DNC precisely because he was one the only candidates that had a platform based on substantive and meaningful differences from the Republican Party. Another irony is that Dean was one of the only candidates to take a position on media reform, boldly stating, “this government has given away our airwaves to the most powerful corporations, who are misleading the public. That is a dangerous thing for the promulgation of democracy, and that will be undone in a Dean administration.”

So the Dean scream is about much more than a wild howl. It’s a symptom of: the need to invigorate the Democratic Party with meaningful differences rather than centrist stances; the commitment to first amendment rights, which includes the right to express outrage over the current administration’s policies; the need for media industry reforms that treat the airwaves as a public resource instead of a corporate or military battlefield.

Dean Scream Remixes
Dean For America
Democratic Party
Republican Party

Please feel free to comment.


  • I also find coverage of the Dean scream to be particularly disheartening given the fact that so many other far more ridiculous things happened during the election, and continue to happen now. For those of us who had the pleasure to see Howard Dean speak in person, we can tell you that he is extremely charismatic, many things though not unstable, and the breath of fresh air that a viable resurgence from the Left so desperately needs….

  • Thanks for covering this. I am a theater history grad student at UT writing my thesis on the performance of war leadership in the 2004 election. I was present for Dean’s “scream” at the Des Moines dance hall the night of the Iowa caucus and the issue has always been a sore subject for me. It is very refreshing to see academics tackling media issues. It is also heartening to see the FCC’s recent reversal on media ownership. Thanks again and keep up the good work.kevin

  • Dean Scream and NYT

    Thanks, Prof. Parks, for a nice essay. I read it yesterday, right after reading a Sunday New York Times piece titled “Dean Reinvents Himself” by Todd Purdum. Typical of Purdum, the theme of this gossip-and-spin piece is that Dean is supposedly winning the DNC Chair because he has convinced people that he’s no longer going to be the loose-lipped angry radical that he was during the campaign. In my reality, Dean was never any of those things, and he’s not now changing his tone or position one bit; what’s really going on is the continuing slow collapse of the corporate/Clintonite dominance of the Democrats. But the NYT — it’s mostly reporters Purdum, Adam Nagourney, and Jody Wilgoren — take the Clintonite interpretation of the world as reality, a reality in which someone who doesn’t constantly triangulate with the polls and flirt with the journalistic community cannot gain power.

    My question is: what’s the chance that the New York Times will ever adopt an alternate journalistic definition of “reality” in which the Purdum interpretation of the nature of power and journalism’s role in it changes?

  • Dean Scream as Seen on TV

    Perhaps the treatment of Howard Dean’s scream presents an opportune moment for TV, one that frames the scream within the confines of televisual discourse. In this sense, television is able to corral Dean’s political rhetoric into something that renders it intelligible and enjoyable to a perceived audience. It is not as much about politics proper as it is about the survival of what we often take as a neutrality. This does not render the treatment benign, but draws attention to (the television) industry as politics rather than what we perceive to be politics: the rhetorical straw man that obscures the fact that the notion of television itself is not ideologically neutral.

  • The Sound Byte’s Distance

    One of the many interesting and thought-provoking comments in Lisa Parks’ article is the idea of the Dean Scream as a “sound byte.” Television’s reduction of moments and events to decontextualized sound bytes permeates contemporary news reports. It also extends, or possibly stems from, the internet’s use of tickers to provide up-to-the-minute information. These tickers however, become text sound bytes that reduce complex news events to mere phrases. This tendency in both TV and new media technologies seems to perpetuate what Paul Virilio called an “eyeless vision” that further distances and separates spectators from the actual implications of such events. While this formal technique meets the desires of today’s fast-paced society in which people want “real news, real fast” as CNN claims, it seems all the more necessary to question its effects, or lack-there-of.

  • Reductionism and Media Reform

    Interesting essay, Lisa … wish I could see its points articulated on a news program that doesn’t air on Comedy Central (that’s a compliment to the Daily Show, lest the comment be misinterpreted). But the “Dean Scream” and the difficulties it may pose to the Democratic Party as Dean takes over as its chair also bespeaks the reductionism manifest in the majority of telejournalism: the capacity — if not the imperative — to oversimplify complexity, to isolate people and phenomena while eliminating context, to use symbolic shorthand to convey ideas in a manner that eliminates nuance. It harkens back to perhaps the key lesson (for me, anyway) of Todd Gitlin’s “The Whole World is Watching”: strategically isolating one person as the symbol of a movement or idea enables that symbol to be attacked, criticized, contained, etc., far more easily. The increasingly manipulable character of sound and image, especially in the digital age, simply makes this process easier to repeat, more common, and harder to discern.

    So Dean — actually a fairly moderate governor on balance, albeit an imaginative and occasionally daring one who took some progressive stances — becomes the rabid, screaming symbol of the Left. It’s a stigma/honor that (fair or not) will follow him and be attached to his efforts. Martin Luther King becomes the symbol of successful American integration and the end of racism (and a guy who gave a great speech). Michael Dukakis and John Kerry symbolize the ineptitude and lack of decision-making characteristic of the wishy-washy Democratic Party. Saddam Hussein becomes the root of all evil, displacing Osama bin Laden. It’s easy to continue with examples of oversimplification, but the point should be clear.

    OK, so much of this is just a rant & probably little new to anyone reading the comment. But another question emerges from Lisa’s post: while media industry reform might be usefully predicated on turning control of the airwaves back to the people, the 19th century legal principle granting corporations the status of personhood may serve as an effective barrier to much-needed alterations. Granted, I’m not a lawyer, but what’s to prevent Disney or Time Warner from arguing in a court of law that the corporation should have the same free speech rights, the same unfettered access to these natural resources, as anyone else? And if they have a competitive advantage by dint of their greater technological expertise, deeper pockets, etc., well, why are or should they be different from any other private citizen? Given the current makeup of all three branches of government, it’s not difficult to imagine this kind of a case being made and encoded into law as a result of more “free market” reform efforts akin to those pressed by Michael Powell — thwarting the kind of meaningful reform that ought to take place to discourage the reductionism noted above and encourage the airwaves to contain far more diversity and complexity than they currently do. And as long as the majority of media reform efforts are framed by or rise to public consciousness through the very media oligopolies whose power and profitability might be compromised by such efforts, meaningful reform will have a hard time finding purchase. Look at campaign finance reform for an analogous situation; McCain-Feingold really curbed campaign spending in 2004, didn’t it?

  • Dean and the Media

    Many thanks, Prof. Parks, for articulating the extremely salient point overlooked by so many: the fact that the business of news has gotten, and to a certain extent has been for a long time, far off the beaten path. How many Americans passively get their news from one of the readily available or easy-to-reach media outlets, the ones most often dominated by corporate interests? It’s becoming hard to find those that don’t; I know I need to improve in that area. The other related red-flag here should be the insultingly truncated concept of the sound byte, in which viewers get to choose neither the issue tackled nor the portion of they could hear. I realize time is extremely valuable; that’s why the Internet is so important as a media channel of ideas, and also why the people need to keep it as free of corporate muck as possible. Kudos again to the Prof. for mentioning that.

    As for Dean, I was sickened that his fascinating campaign was basically stripped of legitimacy and a future because of his supposed over-exuberance. Nobody’s denying its comic value here, but it’s unfortunate that it opened the door for both respectable comedians and blood-thirsty conservatives to feast on. Thus, his campaign was D.O.A., even considering whatever positive aid he received (it barely cracked the mainstream). Prof. Parks’ well-paced argument, again, gets these points exactly right. As for the victorious Republicans — I won’t even start on my Bush soapbox, there’s just no need.

  • Its not the scream. Its the silence.

    Neither the television industry nor, more generally, our increasingly oligarchical media industry, which has extended its reach from television and radio to newspapers, magazines, books, concert events, and even billboards, wants public discussion of media industry reform. They never have, and McChesney is just one of the folks who have documented the cross agreements between media association that keep television and radio reform out of the newspapers and newspaper cross ownership rules of television and radio.

    We are long past the point where the media industry has picked sides in presidential and other elections based on where candidates stand (at least in private) on media reform. In this regard, candidates have little choice: they won’t be covered, or at least won’t be covered in a positive way, if they talk about media reform.

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