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.
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