CSI is Effecting Me

Examining a pickle

Examining a pickle on CSI

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Recently, the “CSI effect” has been a popular topic in both print and broadcast media. The phrase has gained international attention, even making it into the English language newspaper here in Hong Kong where all three versions of the CSI franchise are screened on either free to air or pay television. The CSI effect is a term coined by some in the legal community and the media to describe jurors who are influenced by CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to the point where they develop unrealistic expectations about the evidence used in trials. According to this theory, the quality of real evidence, usually more flawed than its television incarnation, fails to meet their standard. As a result, they are allegedly freeing more defendants. While this is the common understanding of the phrase (and an interesting debate for audience studies researchers), the CSI effect has taken on broader notions in public discourse.

For television critic James Poniewozik, the effect of CSI has been to make network drama more homogenous. The show's success has not only created its own spin-offs in the form of CSI:Miami and CSI:New York, but its “crime-science-confession formula” is being repeated in various procedurals that now populate network television. Writing in Time, Poniewozik suggests that while the special effects of the CSI franchise (cameras that “zoom through blood vessels”) produce television that looks “21st century,” the actual outcome is conventional television that does little more than revisit the successful formula found in dramas like Dragnet.

While CSI owes its narrative structure to earlier police procedurals, the special effects of the show, its “21st century” look, also reflect a more recent preoccupation with the body. In her work on the spectacle of bodily trauma in media and social space, Anita Biressi suggests that “the climate of the 1990s onwards has been one in which body management, in all its manifestations, has become a central preoccupation” (“Above the Below”). Jason Jacobs argues that the decade saw “an unprecedented intensification of the medicalization of everyday life” which was characterized by “regular health scares, the theorization of the 'risk society,' [and] the promotion of 'healthy living'…as a moral as much as a medical imperative” (Body Trauma 2001, 12). Television added to the discourse with an increase in hospital dramas where caring and quirky medical professionals attended to the physical and psychological needs of the distressed. For Jacobs, the growth of these dramas is a direct result of the medical seeping into everyday life. While popular science may have scared us in the 1990's, it also gave us answers–to slimming down, preventing disease and keeping safe.

The recent shift from hospital dramas to the fictions of medical investigations reflects a continuing desire for medical science to calm our fears and restore our faith. One of the most successful ways that CSI achieves this is by making science visually accessible. Slick special effects reveal the body's internal response to bullets and blades. Graphics and flashback scenes literally walk us through the crime. Rather than just listening to the complex language of forensics, the CSI audience is witness to powerful images that allow the body to give up its secrets. Dead bodies are not simply recovered from crime scenes; they are crime scenes. Science solves the mystery in part, because seeing is believing.

Grissom gazes into a lightbulb

Grissom gazes into a lightbulb

For some critics, CSI's faith in science as crime solver is a dangerous form of fundamentalism. Writing in the January 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic, ethics professor Patrick McCormick argues that CSI promotes a “forensic fundamentalism” where interpretation and analysis is largely absent and evidence is never incomplete or ambiguous. McCormick sees this as a dangerous disconnect in a world where death sentences are commuted on the basis of faulty evidence and millions of crimes go unreported and unsolved. He suggests that part of the show's appeal lies in our desire for a straightforward moral universe “where the difference between guilt and innocence and right and wrong is a matter of black and white, a question of a negative or positive lab result.”

For me, McCormick's argument is the true essence of the CSI effect and its greatest strength. CSI's unwavering faith in science goes some way toward quieting the climate of fear that media often promotes. In its fictional victories over brutal crimes, we are reassured. Science tracks down the criminal, every time. It does not fail us. It gives us answers. And we want answers. And television wants us to want answers. When Aaron Sorkin wrote “Isaac and Ishmael,” The West Wing's response to 9/11, he had a character ask “why do they hate us?” in reference to terrorists. Sorkin didn't really answer the question but CSI does in the form of everyday crime. On the show, science is often the answer to both the 'how' and 'why' of murder. Each week suspects are faced with the incontrovertible proof of their misdeeds, which typically leads them to reveal their motivations. The crime is solved on all levels and we feel secure in the knowledge that bad things happen for a reason. If CSI effects us, it is because we want to believe that DNA evidence, amazing databases and teams of people in lab coats are able to expose dark secrets. It is satisfying to know that evil has a logical root cause. The opposite is what allows our national leaders to use labels like 'evil-doers' without the need for introspection. The opposite is too easy.

Works Cited
Biressi, Anita. “Above the Below: Body Trauma as Spectacle in Social/Media Space.” Journal for Cultural Research. 8.3 (2004). EBSCO. Lingnan University Digital Library, Hong Kong. Accessed 13 Sept. 2005.

Jacobs, Jason. Body Trauma TV: The New Hospital Dramas. London: BFI, 2003.

McCormick, Patrick. “Science Fiction.” U.S. Catholic. 70.1 (2005). EBSCO. Lingnan University Digital Library, Hong Kong. Accessed 26 Apr. 2006.

Poniewozik, James. “Crimetime Lineup.” Time 8 Nov. 2004. EBSCO. Lingnan University Digital Library, Hong Kong. Accessed 26 Apr. 2006.

Image Credits:

1. CSI's with Pickle

2. Grissom with lightbulb

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The Audience Factor

by: Melissa Crawley / Lingnan University, Hong Kong

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY ONE-TIME COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW.

On The O’Reilly Factor on The Fox News Channel, host Bill O’Reilly introduces topics highlighted by recent news stories and spars with guests who represent each side of the issue. Under the program moniker the ‘no spin zone,’ O’Reilly prides himself on being a tough interviewer who refuses to let guests strategically stray from answering questions. His direct interviewing style and I’m-just-looking-out-for-the-folks attempt at audience bonding has made The Factor the highest rated cable news show. Equally admired and reviled, O’Reilly has earned a celebrity status that is strengthened by his nightly performance as a broadcast journalist.

In his work on television news, Robert Stam (2000) suggests that the work of newscasters entails “a kind of acting” (365). While not a conventional news anchor, O’Reilly makes a claim to representing the ‘truth’ of the news by reporting and investigating contemporary social and political issues. However, rather than the “minimalist” style of news acting that “implies the presence and denial of normal human emotions and responses” (Stam 365-66), O’Reilly is passionately engaged. He argues, he interrupts, he dramatically declares that it’s all ridiculous. In his non-neutrality, he invites the audience to love him or hate him. With this style, he has achieved a level of celebrity surpassing his status as a cable news personality. He appears on talk shows, is parodied in comedy sketches and has public battles with Al Franken. His personal approach to debate is as much the subject of viewers’ emails as the issues that he covers.

O’Reilly’s status as celebrity and broadcast journalist creates a unique position for his audience. He is a commodity for Fox News and a performer who has fans, but he is also a journalist who seeks out the subjects behind the headlines, engages with topical issues and invites dialogue with the public. In the context of daily news, O’Reilly creates an intimacy with the viewer that is seductively interactive. Like a news anchor, he “simulates communication” (Stam 375). On both his show and his website, he engages in dialogue that appears reciprocal. For example, in 2002 he called for Factor viewers to “punish” Pepsi for signing rapper Ludacris as a spokesperson. O’Reilly’s segment on the rapper’s controversial lyrics left little doubt over his position: “I’m calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse and does all the things that hurt the poor in our society” (August 27, 2002). The next day, he reported that Ludacris had been fired “because of pressure by Factor viewers” (August 28, 2002). Pepsi’s reaction was cast as the direct result of O’Reilly’s relationship with his viewers. He personalized an issue and they responded to him.

The ‘dialogue’ between O’Reilly and his audience continues on the internet. On www.billoreilly.com, he sells hats, tote bags, t-shirts and civic engagement. For a monthly or yearly price ‘premium members’ can go to a Petitions section which recognizes that “our society is plagued by a lack of accountability” and wants “to help encourage more effective use of your trust and tax dollars.” Like the show, the website encourages a level of civic involvement that raises important questions about the position of The Factor’s audience. If a viewer boycotts Pepsi and buys O’Reilly’s latest book are they expressing political activism or fandom? Must the two identities remain separate or can you be outraged over consumer spending habits and still buy the ‘no spin zone’ doormat?

The position of The Factor audience becomes more complicated in light of the recent claim against O’Reilly for sexual harassment. In a suit filed October 13, a producer alleges that O’Reilly repeatedly subjected her to phone sex and lewd monologues. In an interesting twist, O’Reilly sued the producer and her lawyer first, claiming that their efforts to extort money were a politically motivated attempt to damage both him and Fox News. While the case raises interesting questions for a news network that is often accused of being biased toward the Republican party yet consistently proclaims to be ‘fair and balanced,’ I am interested in how the revelations over O’Reilly’s personal misconduct highlight his dual role as celebrity/journalist and further complicate the position of his audience.

When the story broke, O’Reilly addressed it in the opening ‘talking points’ segment of his show. With the graphic behind him headlined ‘treacherous times,’ he announced the filing of his lawsuit, called the case “the single most evil thing I have ever experienced” and declared “there comes a time when enough is enough” (October 13, 2004). The day after the allegations surfaced, O’Reilly appeared on Live with Regis and Kelly. Promoting his recent children’s book, he briefly discussed the case, noting that his rising popularity over the last several years had made him a target for lawsuits and threats of bodily harm. He told the hosts: “I’m going to take a stand. I’m a big mouth on the air and I’m a big mouth off the air.”

O’Reilly’s self-characterization suggests an element of non-performance that is an important part of his appeal. In claiming to be the same person on and off the air, he implies an on-screen reality that surpasses representation and reaches ‘truth.’ Because his news analysis largely reflects his personal convictions, this apparent openness assists his credibility and connection with his audience. When O’Reilly equates his public image with his personal image and declares that he is ‘looking out for you,’ his advocacy is personal. His declaration is believable because his media performance seems to be a natural extension of his private self. The exposure of his private life disrupts this balance and exposes the cracks in the performance. Suddenly his moral take on issues such as the sexualized nature of rap lyrics reveals a constructed falseness.

Yet, The Factor’s audience rose 34 percent the day after the sexual harassment story broke (Hoheb 2004). While the temporary increase may be the result of curiosity, the show has maintained its average audience of 2.4 million viewers, suggesting that his media strategy is working. His tough response to a personal crisis is consistent with his brash public image, suggesting that he is somehow authentic in his fall from grace. He is successfully performing himself. Additionally, audiences accustomed to scandalous revelations about public figures might be likely to accept his alleged indiscretions as a temporary disruption to his image rather than a permanent alteration. How they are positioned as active viewers of a news text is more problematic.

Stam argues that part of the pleasure of watching television news is the “sense of visual power” that creates an “all-perceiving” spectator (362). Watching events unfold, the viewer becomes a witness who is both part of a larger collective and separate from it. The O’Reilly Factor gives audiences the choice to transform visual power into civic action, but does his celebrity cloud the discourse? With the scandal surrounding the sexual harassment lawsuit, has O’Reilly damaged his performance enough to affect the potential of his audience? Rather than civic dialogue and debate, the pleasure of The Factor’s audience may now be reduced to searching for the hidden subtext that reveals the ‘true’ Bill in the nightly role play.

Links
Bill O’Reilly’s homepage
Fox News Channel
Random House, Inc. author homepage
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on O’Reilly case
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting index on Fox News Channel & NewsCorp
The Smoking Gun’s archive, copy of letter of intent to sue Fox News

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