War, “Incendiary Media,” and International Law (Part III)

Newspapers

Newspapers

[Read Part 1]
[Read Part 2]

This third Part of my comments focuses on media intervention and re-development in post-conflict Iraq, examining the legal environment with which post-war Iraqi newspapers, television, and radio are being created and regulated. I will limit my observations on the media intervention activities conducted by the interim government before the more recent establishment of the permanent constitution.

Rebuilding the Media Space in Post-Invasion Iraq: New Dilemmas

Shortly after Bush declared victory in Iraq, a transitional government was set up (the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)). As a governing body headed by L. Paul Bremer, the CPA helped establish the Governing Council of Iraq on 13 July 2003, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1483. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council also established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) through Resolution 1500 (adopted on 14 August 2003). A foundation for legal governance was thus erected in Iraq. As with former interim governing bodies and UN-authorized assistance missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the like, the media field was very much on the agenda of reform. The CPA was particularly sensitive about media activities; this was understandable given the unrelenting violence that continued to threaten basic stability and safety in the country. In May 2003, the CPA established the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) to replace the defunct Iraqi Information Ministry. The IMN included a TV channel, two radio stations and the newspaper Al-Sabah. The television network reached about two-thirds of Iraqi homes.

As Occupying Power, the US-led governing body utilized the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to protect civilians and suppress any public activities that were deemed to incite violence. On June 5 and June 10 of 2003, the CPA issued ‘Public Notice Regarding Public Incitement to Violence and Disorder’ and ‘Public Notice: Towards a Responsible Iraqi Media’ respectively. The first public notice prohibits any individual making a ‘prohibited pronouncement in a public place or distributing or attempting to distribute any prohibited material in whatever form’. The second public notice reiterates the concern for inciting violence but targets media broadcasting. It is noted that this second notice was issued in the context of a feverish boom of the media in the country. However, the journalistic quality and political independence of the newspapers that mushroomed during that period were highly questionable. The end of repressive rule meant that the Iraqi media space was left without regulation. It was alleged that anyone with US$1,000 could publish his/her own newspaper, assign him/herself the job of the editor-in-chief, prominently display his/her photo on the front cover, and run the newspaper without any prior knowledge of journalism. As a result, in this unregulated space, benign bad journalism was mixed with a more sinister journalism manipulated by various political factions to create misinformation and even incite disturbance.

The CPA’s public notice regarding public incitement to violence and disorder authorized the security forces to ‘immediate detention’ of any one found to violate the notice’s order, the detained being held as a security internee under the Fourth Geneva Convention. This was so even though the CPA defined public notices as ‘hav[ing] no penal consequence’ (as opposed to Orders and Regulations). As for the public notice regarding the conduct of the media, a violation would result in the withdrawal of license, closing of operation, confiscating the property, and sealing the premises of the media organization. This was done even though Iraq’s media commission would not be formally established until a year after the issuance of the public notice. But even with the establishment of such a commission, the question of whether it would be vetted with legal authority to prosecute media organizations was itself an open question. The problem of the CPA’s self-expanded legal power was becoming more apparent as time went by.

It was soon discovered that the CPA’s administration of Iraq was alienating the Iraqi public. While it continued to fail to keep the country’s security situation under control – it was reported that Bremer’s top priority was economics, not security – it also failed to tackle basic problems of daily life. Meanwhile, over 2003-2004, the Governing Council and then the elected Prime Minister exercised censorship of the media in contradiction to the Constitution. The banning of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite-transmitted programmes in Iraq in 2003, the closing down of Al-Jazeera‘s Baghdad office in 2004, and the arrest of around 60 journalists at gunpoint from a hotel in Najaf, including reporters from the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Time and Telegraph, were a few high-profiled acts of aggression against media organizations and personnel who were not part of the media sector controlled by the post-war government. In sum, as the professional and ethical conduct of Iraqi journalists were uneven, to say the least, in an environment of free-wheeling publication and broadcast, and as the interim government was bent on outright censorship and intimidation of journalists, how could public interest be served? And how was this situation different from the repressive era?

Man With Camera

Man With Camera

Formal Decrees and Proposals for Media Reform

On 20th March 2004, the CPA issued formal Order 65 for the establishment of the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission (NCMC) and Order 66 for regulating Iraqi Public Service Broadcasting. Formal Orders, unlike the Public Notices mentioned above, were binding instructions or directives that carried penal consequences or had a direct bearing on the way Iraqis are regulated, including changes to Iraqi law. Order 66 was a fairly standard media standards document aimed at creating a public platform for broadcasting that covered political, economic, health, cultural, educational, scientific, religious, ecological, sporting and other developments in Iraq. As for Order 65, a more detailed discussion is needed.

Order 65

Order 65 was not only a blueprint for developing a democratic media space in Iraq, it also served to promote a capitalistic media space in the country. The stated purpose of establishing the NCMC was to balance the interest of creating a pluralistic media environment with commercial and investment interests in telecommunications. In other words, the NCMC would double as a regulatory agent and a free speech promulgator. In Section 9 of Order 65, the NCMC was empowered to enforce sanctions, including: (a) issuing warnings; (b) requiring publication of an apology; (c) requiring mitigation or repair of harm to consumers; (d) imposing financial penalties and placing liens on relevant bank accounts, if the penalties are not paid on time; (e) suspending licenses; (f) seizing equipment for which access into the licensee’s premises is granted hereby; (g) suspending operations; (h) closing operations; and (i) terminating or withdrawing licenses. In addition, Section 9(2) empowered the NCMC to enlist police and coalition forces support when carrying out its mandate. It must be noted that the power to enforce the sanctions listed above and the power to enlist law enforcement and military forces, essentially positioned the NCMC as an adjudicating body in civil and criminal proceedings. The constitutionality of this positioning of the NCMC, as well as the legality of other regulatory provisions proposed by the NCMC, has been questioned by critics.

The London-based independent organization promoting freedom of speech rights, ARTICLE 19, has examined the various codes of practice proposed by Iraq’s NCMC. These include a Code for Media during Elections; an interim Broadcasting Programme Code of Practice; and an Interim Media Law. In their report, ARTICLE 19 expresses a number of detailed concerns regarding the specific content and other rules in the interim media law and the broadcasting and election codes. There are concerns, for instance, about the vagueness of the documents, in which phrases like ‘standards of decency’, ‘exercise care and consideration’, or ‘incitement to violence’ are not defined at all. The draft code of practice also gives little concrete details about standards that would be useful for practical daily operations.

More troubling is the restriction on free speech proposed in the Interim Media Law. Section 2.1 states the ground for restriction:

It shall be an offense for the Media Outlet to publish, broadcast or otherwise disseminate any material that, by its content or tone:

(a)Carries the clear and immediate risk of inciting imminent violence, ethnic or religious hatred, civil disorder or rioting among the people of Iraq or advocates terrorism, crime or criminal activities (particular care is required where a programme carries the views or transmits the messages of people or organizations who use or advocate terrorism or the use of violence or other criminal activity in Iraq); or

(b) Carries a clear and immediate risk of causing public harm, such harm being defined as death, injury, damage to property or other violence, or the diversion of police, medical services or other forces of public order from their normal duties.

While Section 2.1 realistically referenced the kinds of everyday terror experienced by ordinary Iraqis, and while it might even be appropriate to link the media to these types of unrest, it had not complied with international law since it exceeded the exceptions to freedom of speech provided by Article 19 of the ICCPR. Subsection (b), for instance, made ‘diversion of police, medical services or other forces of public order from their normal duties’ a ground for restriction of speech. It clearly exceeded the ‘legitimate aims’ stated in Article 19(2). Moreover, the principle of proportionality was not observed in subsection (a), whereby the media’s carrying or transmitting of violence-inciting views belonging to others was considered an equal offence as the media’s advocating the subversive view. The European Court of Human Rights has indeed ruled, in Jersild v. Denmark, that the prosecution of journalists who merely relay others’ hate speech violates the journalists’ freedom of expression: ‘The punishment of a journalist for assisting in the dissemination of statements made by another person in an interview would seriously hamper the contribution of the press to discussion of matters of public interest’.

The NCMC’s Interim Media Law was most troubling when it accorded the NCMC itself the role of judicial enforcement. ARTICLE 19 states that the NCMC was not appropriately constituted to act as a ‘court’, for to recognize it as acting as judicial body violates both Article 14 of the ICCPR and Iraq’s own transitional constitution (the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period, or TAL). Article 14 of the ICCPR designates that a fair and public hearing be conducted by ‘a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law’. This means a lawful appointment of judges, and matters of substantial judicial qualifications and duration of judicial experience. Unless safeguards are made as to the careful and legal appointment of members of the NCMC according to strong evidence of judicial experiences and qualifications, the regulatory body does not qualify to adjudicate cases. Besides, the TAL also states in Article 43 that ‘[t]he judiciary shall enjoy exclusive competence to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused pursuant to law…’ This effectively rules out a regulatory agency as an enforcement body.

In fact, the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly warned against excessive use of national security laws to restrict freedom of expression. It considers that states ‘cannot, with reference to the protection of territorial integrity or national security or the prevention of crime or disorder, restrict the right of the public to be informed by bringing the weight of the criminal law to bear on the media’.

Just when those in the media field were working to adapt to professional codes transplanted from outside, they were met with an interim administration that does not appear to be more egalitarian or less draconian in its policies than those in the Hussein era. The interim authority’s heavy-handedness was ironically preserving the old culture of totalitarianism. Concepts of freedom, fairness, pluralism, and even human rights might be perceived as empty promises, or worse, as codes of neo-colonialism. The interpretation of neo-colonialism must be taken seriously, as Iraq’s history demonstrates a collective misgiving toward, and mistrust of, the very notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ underlined by western capitalism. In the context of a media boom in Iraq after the invasion, and more importantly in the context of continued daily terror in the country, a delicate balance between the promotion of a free and independent press in line with human rights norms and an appropriate intervention into the media space to halt
rampant spread of misinformation and of incendiary speech, is not easy to achieve.


Notes

See CPA-Iraq.org. Due to the dissolution of the CPA, the site for the CPA-Iraq Coalition is no longer being updated. It will remain available for historical purposes until June 30, 2006.

By mid-2003, it was estimated that in Baghdad alone newsstands held about 90 newspapers between the daily, bi-weekly, and weekly ones. In the rest of the country the number of publications had also mushroomed, with small radio and TV stations joining in. Meanwhile, the main
political groups within Iraq have set up or revived publications, such as Al-Adala of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Al-Manar (which was very critical of the occupying power). In addition, Al-Ittihad, organ of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Taakhi(Brotherhood), of the Kurdish Democratic party of Massoud Barzani, were the two Arabic-language Kurdish papers distributed in Baghdad. In the field of print news, the most credible as well as the biggest in size was Azzaman (The Times), founded in London by an exiled journalist formerly working under Hussein, selling 30,000 copies in Baghdad. Countless shops were selling TV satellite dishes, receiving foreign all-news stations as well as Arab stations such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabyia and LBC-Al Hayat. The TV station set up by the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) broadcast soap operas, Iraqi folk songs, and football matches. Programmes were interspersed with announcements by the Coalition authorities and the UN. While the IMN had a virtual monopoly of non-satellite TV in Baghdad, radio broadcasting in Baghdad was more diverse; the IMN station had an AM and an FM station broadcasting around the clock. But the BBC, Radio Sawa and RMC-Moyen-Orient (RMC-MO) were the most listened-to stations.

See, e.g., Arab Press Freedom Watch Final Report of its Fact Finding Mission to Iraq, ‘Working with Iraqi journalists: Towards a free and independent media’, available at AFPW; Khalid Serhan Hurrat, Lisa Isabel Leidig, ‘Iraq’, in Mass Media in the Middle East: a comprehensive handbook 96-108 (Yahya R. Kamalipour and Hamid Mowlana eds., 1994); Richard Keeble, ‘The myth of Saddam Hussein: new militarism and the propaganda function of the human interest story’, in Media Ethics 66-81 (Matthew Kieran ed., 1998).

Luke Harding, ‘Iraq extends Al-Jazeera ban and raids offices’, The Guardian, September 6, 2004.

See CPA-Iraq.org.

See ARTICLE 19, Memorandum on Draft Iraqi Media Laws, November 2004.

Jersild v. Denmark, 25 September 1994, Application No. 15890/89, para. 35.

Erdogdu and Ince v. Rurkey, 8 July 1999, Application Nos. 25067/94 and 25068/94, para. 54.

Image Credits

1. Newspapers

2. Man With Camera

Please feel free to comment.




We Are So Screwed: Invasion TV

Invasion

Invasion

Fall network television schedules are among the most revelatory features of industrial cultural production. While they don’t provide a mirror to society, they do offer significant evidence of the industry’s conceptualization of society, or at least of the demographic and psychographic bits of society that it aims to attract. Accordingly, they’re not as much reflection as caricature. Even so, they do provide significant clues about the economic state of the industry and its players, the reputations of particular genres and producers, and, not inconsequentially, the state of televisual art. Well before actual episodes materialize in September, much can be gleaned.

By these standards, the most fascinating trend of the current season, starting when it was unveiled last spring, has been the plethora of series focusing on the supernatural. No less than five new dramas, on four of the six networks, center on episodic encounters with mysterious beings and forces; one of them is actually called Supernatural. Keeping in mind that the network track record of the supernatural, and science fiction in particular, has been generally dismal (despite recent successes like Smallville, Charmed, and Lost), the sudden presence of so many genre series certainly raises a few Vulcan eyebrows. As unlikely as this is, however, the fact that three of these shows represent an even more specific genre, alien invasion, is downright weird.

The critical and popular success of Lost and Desperate Housewives last season has been largely credited with the sudden interest in mystery-laden serials. While these series general influence on network executives and series developers is certainly clear, the question remains: three alien invasion series? The Hanso Foundation notwithstanding, the answer to that question actually owes more to two earlier breakout series, 24 and The X-Files, and their common thematic of apocalyptic threat.

Each of these shows presented dense worlds of secrets and threats, in which our protagonists are seemingly the only barrier between everyday life and Armageddon. Moreover, each also centered on a complex, dark federal government which functioned (often unpredictably) as both guardian and enemy. Aesthetically, each show offered a grim, doom-laden atmosphere of darkened rooms and grisly deaths. The X-Files, at its sparkling best a decade ago, balanced this otherwise unrelenting gravity with a buoyant joie de vivre, variously expressed through comedy, graphic horror, or both simultaneously. Conversely, 24 literally has no time for such side trips, and instead barrels along at white-knuckle speed, mesmerizing viewers with unrelenting action and suspense. While each has been highly regarded by critics and viewers for years, their impact on scheduling and production decisions has arguably never been greater than now. The missing factor until now in developing similar series, aside from the bolstering effect of the successes of the otherwise atypical Lost and Desperate Housewives, is the rising perception of national insecurity.

Insecurity is different than vulnerability. The latter implies blissful ignorance, while the former suggests grim resignation to fate. The national security theme of the past few years has (finally) been revealed as a political prop, albeit one with grave consequences. The Iraq War is a bloody stalemate, and its ramifications are felt across the globe in terrorist acts and military involvement. At the same time, evidence of government incompetence and corruption mounts (not only in the US), and innocents are routinely destroyed, with no remaining logic nor end in sight. Welcome to the post-post-9/11 world, where nothing is safe, and there’s not much you can do about it.

The manifestation of zeitgeist (to the extent that such a thing exists) on television is never quite straightforward, but it can be effective. Even if the timing is often a bit off (24 actually premiered just before 9/11, just as Invasion, despite the centrality of a hurricane to its plot, was produced before the impact of Katrina), it is still possible to connect the dots, to see how particular programming trends emerge, and occasionally, as is the case this year, erupt. Each of the three new alien invasion series — ABC’s Invasion, CBS’s Threshold, and NBC’s Surface — follows this thematic tunnel of national insecurity, upon which characters are pulled along by events well beyond their control, with no apparent light at the end.

The core of insecurity is the idea that nowhere is absolutely safe, that nobody is absolutely trustworthy. While this theme is certainly present in Surface, it is central in Invasion and Threshold. Accordingly, the alien menaces in these series are practically invisible. In Threshold, the aliens cleverly invade through telecommunications, wielding a broadcast signal that rewires human DNA, thus saving them the hassle of actually getting to Earth. The tell-tale clues about alien infection in Threshold are under the surface, as otherwise normal human beings dream about glass forests and have bursts of superhuman strength. In Invasion, the aliens don’t even give this much away. Aside from an odd fascination with water and the occasional paranoid glance, they look and act just like humans. The point in both of these shows is that the outside threat could come from within, just as in Cold War forebears like The Invaders, various episodes of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, and, most famously, the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Body Snatchers’ protagonist Miles Bennell’s direct-address scream of they’re already here! would easily fit within either of these new series.

Threshold

Threshold

Importantly, these aliens aren’t simply a pastiche of familiar SF cliche they’re calculated to tap in to the zeitgeist. Once upon a time, the aliens of 1980s and 1990s space operas like Babylon 5, Farscape, and the Star Trek franchise, all bore their differences prominently in costuming and makeup in gaudy, yet genuine, attempts to convey multiculturalism (e.g., the standard varieties of head bumps on Trek aliens). The Narn, the Delvians, and the Cardassians were all different and difficult, but the idea was to figure out how to get along. In stark contrast, today’s aliens are hidden and secretive, and we’re no longer boldly going into the final frontier, but fearfully cocooned back at home, wondering where they are, and when (not if, as we’re often reminded) they’re coming to get us.

Moreover, even the idea of home is highly suspect in these series. All three (even the relatively lighter Surface) are set among dysfunctional families and militaristic governments, where military bases, schools, hospitals, and homes are as much trap as haven. In Invasion, the broken marriage of Russell and Mariel serves as the backdrop for an ongoing drama of awkward encounters, petty jealousies, and betrayals between their children, new spouses, and in-laws. The broken family here facilitates alien infiltration, infestation easily dovetailing into pre-existing suspicions. Meanwhile, the protagonists of Threshold have been forcibly removed from their families not by aliens, but by the US government, drafted into a secret war against a viral alien menace. The series highly secretive government agency is a neo-con War on Terror techno-fantasy, replete with scowling, no-nonsense operatives and a situation room eerily (and probably not ironically) reminiscent of the one in Dr. Strangelove. The government is ostensibly on our side, investigating alleged alien sightings and protecting us at all costs, even if that means trivialities like the law and civil rights must be pushed aside. The reluctant draftees sometimes raise questions of the legality and morality of their actions, only to have them dismissed with brazen cynicism.

Each series consistently applies its particular anxieties through appropriate aesthetics: Invasion gives us cramped close-ups and scenes of domestic destruction, Threshold provides jagged dream sequences and stealth technology, and Surface competently channels early 90s Spielberg and Cameron (and, oddly enough, the Star Trek film with the whales). However, they each also lack the key element that the best of their forebears had: reasons to keep watching. While many find 24‘s politics problematic (to say the least), they may still regularly watch for its sheer caffeine-rush energy. Similarly, even once you tired of The X-Files convoluted mythology, you could always relish its wit (if there’s a better episode of any 1990s hour-long series than “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’,” I’ve yet to see it). Even more recent series that plumb similar anxieties have done so with considerably more panache. Lost’s dense jigsaw puzzle experiment in serial narration, as is well-documented even here on Flow, continues to dazzle and perplex. Meanwhile, the must-see remake of Battlestar Galactica has singularly reinvented SF television with aesthetic verve, a continuously destabilizing narrative, and genuinely disturbing philosophical questions. In contrast, and unlike their respective alien invaders, Invasion and Threshold are exactly what they appear to be: formulaic concoctions with little energy. The formula may be new, and only now meaningful (or at least comprehensible), but it feels stale. Part of the problem in each is the unrelentingly dour atmosphere, which facilitates particularly wooden acting from most of the regulars. Indeed, Threshold is only marginally redeemed in this capacity by the performances of Peter Dinklage and Brent Spiner, whose grouchy scientists present the only apparent signs of life in the joyless government team, while Invasion is livened by Tyler Labine’s tinfoil-hat blogger Dave, who seemingly wandered in from My Name Is Earl.

Finally, in looking back on the merger of zeitgeist and programming strategy over the past several years, it’s worth noting the near disappearance of TV’s ultimate security blanket genre: the four-camera, studio-audience sitcom. Network television was filled with them as recently as the late 90s, but their only representatives now are well past their prime, unremarkable, or marginal. In a landscape of endless procedural crime dramas, cutthroat reality competitions, vengeful ghosts, and, yes, alien invasions, the idea of watching a half-dozen people hanging out and cracking jokes in the same living room, diner, or TV newsroom seems like a distant memory.

In other words, if the schedules are to be believed, insecurity is security.

Image Credits:

1. Invasion

2. Threshold

Please feel free to comment.




Irony Irony: The Mission (Accomplished) of The Daily Show

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

“For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon–laughter…. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
— Mark Twain, The Chronicle of Young Satan, Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts

Over forty years ago American novelist Philip Roth observed (in “Writing American Fiction” [1960]) that “American reality” “stupefies, …sickens, …infuriates, …and finally…is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Even the “daily newspapers,” he writes, “fill us with wonder and awe (is it possible, is it happening?), also with sickness and despair.”

Now, in the 21st Century, postmodern American unreality has inspired the proliferation of “fake news,” parody journalism. In venues like the online journal The Onion, the website The Borowitz Report, the NPR news quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and especially Comedy Central’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning The Daily Show, anything-but-meager imagination battles an increasingly stupefying, sickening, and infuriating political and cultural scene, and fake news, exhibiting perhaps more “truthiness” (as they call it on The Colbert Report) than that offered by legitimate journalism, has become an important component in our cultural discourse, an antidote, however temporary, to sickness and despair. As America’s greatest humorist once reminded us, laughter is our secret weapon. It’s a quote that often comes to mind when I watch my ultra-Republican, immune-to-irony next door neighbor stare in puzzlement at my “Republicans for Voldemort” bumper sticker.

On October 17th, 2005, the night Comedy Central would debut its “grippy” Daily Show spin-off The Colbert Report (pronounced “The Col-bear Ra-poor“), Jon Stewart’s guest on the mother ship was Fox’s bullying blowhard Bill O’Reilly, an especially appropriate booking since the network’s new “all spin zone” (Havrilesky) was intended to be a parody of celebrity pundit shows like The O’Reilly Factor. In their colloquy, which included O’Reilly’s perhaps clueless protest against that program “with some French guy making fun of me,” Stewart’s guest would call him a “pinhead” and accuse him of a lack of seriousness — of laughing, “playing it for giggles,” at everything. Laughing heartily, Stewart would accept the charge that he (and The Daily Show) do “add insult to injury.” “But,” he would add, a finger pointing at O’Reilly, “you add injury.”

Reviewing The Daily Show in PopMatters early in the Jon Stewart era (1999- ), Dan French would, like O’Reilly, find it pointless, frivolous: “masturbatory, nearly apolitical, only barely satirical, and without larger purpose.” Since I was not watching back then, I cannot judge the accuracy of his harsh indictment — similar charges, after all, have been leveled against satirists throughout history, including Jonathan Swift — but I will suggest that The Daily Show in the Bush Era has become an absolutely essential source of sanity, a comic healing of our injuries.

The Daily Show is never better than when engaged in decidedly postmodern metacommentary on its own method. After playing a clip of the ever-scowling Condoleezza Rice (seeking to rationalize the faulty intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq), insisting that “When you’re dealing with secret regimes that want to deceive you’re never going to be able to be positive,” Stewart would observe:

“‘Secret regimes that want to deceive’ — if she’s not going to see the irony in that statement, I’m sorry. I’m not going to point it out to her. That’s not my job here. Oh, but there’s irony in that statement, and not the fly in your Chardonnay kind. The real kind. Not the rain on your wedding day kind. This is irony irony.”

Irony is, of course, the very essence of Stewart’s job. The Daily Show is all about “irony irony.” When Colbert (on the night in question “Senior Nuclear & Biochemical Weapons Analyst”), examining the “nonsmoking gun” of the Kay Report (on Iraq’s WMD), wonders “What kind of madman refuses to produce evidence that he doesn’t have what he said he didn’t? Saddam had to be taken out or who knows what else he might not have done. It’s imaginable” — that’s irony irony at work. In Colbert’s patalogic we discern a kind of discourse capable of challenging the proliferating absurdity of world events in a way the paradox-free language of network and 24-hour cable news cannot possibly match.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

In November of 2003, President Bush would make a surprise visit to the troops in Iraq. The major television newscasts covered his dramatic arrival with exactly the credulity Bush’s handlers had no doubt envisioned, playing up W’s generosity in giving up his own Thanksgiving, stressing the soldiers’ happiness in breaking bread with their commander-in-chief. The Daily Show, of course, would cover it a bit differently. Colbert, that night Senior White House Correspondent, pretending to have accompanied Bush on his trip, would report that “this [the secrecy of Bush’s trip] just proves that we journalists shouldn’t even try, and we don’t.” Still, he would go on to report, the success of the mission did suggest some important, if ironic, lessons for the White House:

“When it comes to planning, do some. This Thanksgiving trip has shown the President that a lot of the best preparation is done in advance. Unfortunately with regard to our occupation of Iraq we did all of our preparation afterward, and now it’s a seething cauldron of death and rage….”

A second ironic insight was likewise apparent, this time concerning exit strategy: “Have one. What we saw last Thursday was a President with a clear idea of when and how to leave Iraq, specifically at noon and full of giblets.”

When “Media Analyst” Rob Corddry, investigating negative coverage of the Iraq war, insisted that “Facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda,” that, too, is irony irony at work, deconstructing White House spin. When Corddry, this time “Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst,” heeded the President’s insistence that the incidents at Abu Ghraib did not represent “the America I know,” suddenly realizing “We invaded Iraq with the wrong America” and insisting that “Just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn’t mean it’s something we would do”–his irony irony, delivered by one of a host of Daily Show correspondents seemingly oblivious to their own non-sequiturs, succeeded once again in identifying the Catch-22 mess we find ourselves in.

When, in March 2004, it was discovered that the White House had been coercing local television affiliates to run its planted, self-produced, pro-Bush policy pieces as if they were real journalism, “Senior Media Ethicist” Corddry would be appalled, not by the egregious duplicity of such postmodern manipulation but because he is jealous of the high caliber (better production values, better guests) of the “infoganda” in question. “They are kicking our ass,” Corddry lamented to Stewart in a moment of irony irony irony. “As a fake, we are a sham.”

In October 2005, in the wake of the unplanned revelation of the fakery behind a scripted conversation between Bush and American soldiers in Iraq, Corddry would treat the story of the Bush White House as if it actually were an episodic television series. As an avid, “living and dying with the show” fanboy, a “Whitey” (so to speak), he would take the airing of the rehearsal as a “gesture to the fans” (like a behind-the-scenes video on a DVD), denounce ABC’s Commander in Chief as a “total rip-off” of his own favorite show, wonder if that preposterous social security “B story” (in which the President weekly “stumbled onto a community of androids”) might be an indication that The Bush Years: The Series could be about to “jump the shark,” and question what happened to the never-wrapped-up Bin Laden story line (“that’s just bad writing”). And what, Corddry wanted to know, were the writers thinking when they turned that Dick Cheney character from “plausibly evil to cartooney evil.” That’s irony irony irony irony.

Sham or not, The Daily Show remains deeply committed to its mission. Covering in 2004 a make-believe, and hence meaningless, peace agreement in the Middle East signed by prominent out-of-power figures on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli clash, in the hope of showing the way to a cessation of hostilities, Stewart made a solemn, this time sincere, promise: “And I vow, that as long as there are imaginary treaties signed by pretend delegates to create hypothetical peace this fake news show will be there to cover it.”

Bibliography
French, Dan. “And Your Point Is…?” PopMatters.

Havrilesky, Heather. “The All Spin Zone.” Salon.com.

Roth, Philip. “Writing American Fiction.” Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Stewart, Jon, Ben Karlin, and David Javerbaum. America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. New York: Warner Books, 2004.

Twain, Mark. “The Chronicle of Young Satan.” Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. Ed. William M. Gibson. Berkeley: U California P, 1969.

Related Websites
Daily Show Website
The Colbert Report Website
Colbert Nation Website
The Borowitz Report
Jump the Shark Website
The Onion
Wait…Wait! Don’t Tell Me Website

Image Credits:

1. Mark Twain

2. Stephen Colbert

Please feel free to comment.




War, “Incendiary Media,” and International Law (Part II)

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“Incendiary Media”

In Part 1 of this article that appeared in Volume 3, Issue 2, I introduced to critical media studies practitioners a human rights legal mode of examining the problem of media intervention in post-conflict societies. Media intervention refers to the means of getting involved in a humanitarian crisis where there is evidence that the media space has been manipulated to incite hatred and violence. In post-war times, as in present-day Iraq, the intervention switches to a focus on the redevelopment and democratization of the damaged media space. In this second part of a three-part exploration, I turn to international human rights norms that justify the legality of media intervention practices. In the next and final part, I will examine the problems faced by Iraq regarding the media intervention projects conducted by the interim government before the current moment of constitution legislation.

In international law, the primacy given to the jus cogens principle of non-interventionism presents a serious legal challenge to the media intervention model. The same principle also tends to underline international telecommunications law governing territorial sovereignty with respect to the protection of airwaves and the flow of information. The principle of non-intervention has clearly appeared since the creation of the League of Nations. Explicitly, Article 2(7) of the UN Charter states that “[n]othing in the present charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Some United Nations General Assembly declarations have also enshrined this principle, such as that on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (G.A. Res. 2625 (XXV), 24 Oct. 1970). Although not legally binding, these Declarations establish that every state is sovereign and equal in law vis-a-vis every other state.

If the veneer of humanitarian intervention has been demystified and hence its legal basis denied, how can media or information intervention campaigns be executed legally? For those who endeavor to advance media intervention as a human rights practice, the UN Charter has indeed provided an inspiring source of legal support. The Charter can authorize Security Council resolutions in order to extend humanitarian aid to conflict-ridden zones. Yet there is a stronger ground for the Charter to exert authority into sovereign states, and that is through the very concept of constitutionalism. Insofar as governance and self-determination within a state rests on constitutionalism, at least two legal consequences follow. Besides the obligation to protect “the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society,” the state’s constitution is at the same time bound to international legal obligations through the UN Charter and other international treaty norms. In the relationship between national constitutionally derived obligations and international norms, a given state and its sovereignty is rendered not an absolute or exclusive sovereignty. Under Article 41 in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council may decide measures to maintain peace and security, including “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.” As such, a UN-authorized information intervention campaign aimed at restoring peace and security (or aimed at thwarting media outlets that threaten peace and security, or impede the effect of prior Security Council resolutions) appears to be prima facie legal.

Jamie Metzl

Jamie Metzl

One form of aid that the Security Council can authorize in the area of information intervention is the facilitation of “peace broadcasting.” Jamie Metzl defines peace broadcasting as “any non-incendiary transmissions broadcast from an intervening state directly into a target state as part of the intervening state’s attempt to prevent or stop a human rights crisis.” Aided by the vast technical capability of media broadcasting across national territories today (e.g. through Direct Broadcasting Satellites), non-incendiary transmissions broadcast can therefore be presumed to be a legal practice as long as it satisfies humanitarian obligations. Further, peace broadcasting can be seen as a pre-emptive action that does not necessarily violate the non-intervention principle.

Further legal justifications can be found in international treaties. Article 19(2) of the ICCPR provides for the right to freely receive information regardless of frontiers. Even more broadly, media intervention aimed at preventing mass suffering can be justified legally by applying Article 20 of the ICCPR. Article 20(1) states that “[a]ny propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law,” while section (2) states that “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Moreover, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination condemns all dissemination of ideas of racial superiority by individuals or organizations that incite racial discrimination. In still broader terms, the American Convention on Human Rights prohibits any advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitements to lawless violence “on any grounds including those of race, color, religion, language, or national origin.” Further, the European Convention on Human Rights also puts restriction on freedom of expression should speech or any other activities are aimed at the destruction of other rights and freedoms set forth in the Convention (Article 17). Undoubtedly, it is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that provides the strongest and clearest statement allowing media interventions. Article III (c) makes explicit a punishable crime to the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide.” Formerly appearing under the name of “crime against humanity” used in the Nuremberg trials, the crime of “incitement” to commit genocide has been identified today largely with media outlets and practitioners, as seen in the high-profiled ICTR trials and convictions of media personalities responsible for spreading hate speech that led to the Rwandan genocide. This and other legal precedents can be cited to lend support the need for preventive, pre-emptive, and proactive measures to predict and intervene in potential mass suffering due in part to the role of incendiary media.

In sum, it may be instructive to briefly contrast the “freedom of speech model” underpinning general civil and political rights and the customary principle of non-intervention, with the “media intervention model” that requires the restriction of speech rights and the exception to the non-intervention principle.


Freedom of Media Model (underpinned by Non-intervention Principle)

Information / Media Intervention Model

1 Protection of freedom of expression as a high standard Restriction of freedom of expression in crisis conditions
2 Media are conceptualized as diverse and free-flowing, i.e. “marketplace of ideas” Media are seen as political tools subject to nationalistic and regime-controlled manipulation
3 Rooted in classic liberalism Highlights the virtue of interventionism and humanitarianism
4 Rests upon constitutional legal foundation in the national and international contexts Emphasizes compliance with international humanitarian principles at the inter-governmental level
5 Based on normative provisions Based on pre-emptive and/or restorative actions
6 Promotes indigenous use of media and dissemination of information Promotes Western model of democratic information flow
7 Reliance on power and trust of local media and national government Reliance on credibility of international legal norms and institutions (e.g. UN, donor governments)
8 Permits space for all speech types and forms Empowers voices of moderation, stability and peace
9 Supported by major international conventions, treaties, and customary norms Ambiguous legal authority (although may be authorized by the UN Charter); May be driven less by law than by politics
10 Tends to retreat from responding to situation of human rights abuse by rogue media Tends to over-exert influence, potentially crossing the line into new forms of media censorship and hegemonic control

Notes
Jamie F. Metzl, “Information intervention: When switching channels isn’t enough,” 76(6) Foreign Affairs, 15-21 (1997).
See, for instance, Hussein Amin, “Social Engineering: Transnational Broadcasting and Its Impact on Peace in the Middle East”, available at http://lass.calumet.purdue.edu/.
Unfortunately, the Rwanda tragedy was partly the result of a total lack of political will in the international community to intervene. Likewise, the Bosnian war led to the Dayton Peace Accord that contained next to no provisions about the media. Weak international intervention prolonged these wars. See Alison Des Forges, “Silencing the voices of hate in Rwanda,” in Forging Peace (eds. Peter Krug and Monroe Price. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), at 236-256. See also Mark Thompson and Dan de Luce, “Media intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” in Forging Peace, at 201-235.

Image Credits:

1. “Incendiary Media”

2. Jamie Metzl

Please feel free to comment.




The Worst Happened

American Soldier

American Soldier

This here is a ’76 Chevy and somehow or other, it got stuck over here in Iraq, like the rest of us.
— Sergeant Ronald Jackson, Off to War

I’m giving up my whole life by being here.
— Sergeant Joe Betts, Off to War

On 26 October, U.S. military fatalities in Iraq reached the much-remarked “grim milestone” of 2,000. Television and other media commentaries noted the number’s historical significance and tried to situate it in a larger context, some noting the U.S. administration’s tone-deaf resolve concerning the country President Bush continues to call “the central front in our war on terror.” Just about a week later, FX decided “not to renew” the series Over There, citing its poor ratings performance, and, according to FX general manager John Landgraf, “our belief that the numbers were reflective of what the show is about, rather than its quality or entertainment value.”

If only the war could be cancelled for the same reasons.

But if the war goes on in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and any number of “secret” prisons around the globe, its tv representations remain underwhelming. Typically, the war appears as “numbers” — casualties from car bombs or IEDs, comparisons between months’ accumulations (October 2005 was the “fourth deadliest month” since the war’s start), troops moved from one location to another — graphics that skirt experience that might actually be horrifying for viewers or mobilize resistance to the war. As much as Cindy Sheehan or high school students or even Senate Democrats calling for closed door sessions find ways to make their protests visible on tv, the war itself remains strangely unseen.

This despite the fact that the Iraq war, even more than the Vietnam war or the Gulf war, is the tv war. The fundamental capacity for representing the “personal” and “intimate” experiences of this war is frankly remarkable, given the technologies available to troops and journalists. From blogs to cell phones to videophones, the war in Iraq is represented repeatedly, but for a relatively small, heavily invested audience: families keep in touch through email and internet discussion groups, reporters publish their work online or on non-U.S. outlets — Australian tv, the BBC, Al-Jazeera — so that those seeking data or images might find them.

Given all the potential venues, the lack of imagery — mainstream, incessant, harrowing — might seem surprising. Yes, the war is represented in any number of metaphorical and/or fictional ways: Afghanistan ground battles in E-Ring, the trauma of surviving veterans in Medium, the difficulties of “executive decisions” touched on in Commander in Chief, the fear of a relentlessly threatening environment and incompetent or malevolent authorities in Invasion, Lost, or Surface, and utterly brutal violence relegated to forensics series, from Bones and the CSIs to Killer Instinct and, in its way, Threshold. Meantime, the war as news, the war as tv in any explicit and so-named form, is rendered in brief, unspectacular, “daily installments.”

If few viewers will feel moved to mourning or outrage over the passing of Over There (whose soapy excesses were, as Landgraf suggests, “entertaining,” if nothing else), even fewer notice the war is appearing in a more or less coherent format in Off to War, on the cable network Discovery Times. Following the experiences of the Arkansas National Guard’s 39th Brigade, from Clarksville (pop. 7.719) to Iraq, the series, shot and directed by the brothers Craig and Brent Renoud, first emerged as what seemed a one-off documentary in April 2004. Released theatrically at the Tribeca Film Festival in May 2005, this first part — following only the brigade’s six months of training and first month in Iraq — earned generally positive reviews, specifically regarding its “raw” and “painful” images of troops in dangerous limbo, unsure of their mission and anxious about the disarray in which they leave their families (who are, in turn, unsupported by the military, the federal government or their private sector employers).

The next installments, airing under mainstream radar on Discovery Times beginning this October, are at once extraordinary and banal. The lives revealed are recognizable, sympathetic, even unspectacular. Except, of course, when the troops are fired on in Baghdad, or engage in their own shooting, shot in night vision, and muted black and white. Watching the presidential debates of 2004, the exceedingly young-seeming Specialist Tommy Erp, home on leave, can’t help himself. When President Bush insists that “the world is safer without Saddam Hussein,” Erp speaks to the documentary camera, as his mother sits quietly, her eyes resolutely trained on the television, not her son or the camera. “We’ve got no army that we’re fighting, we’ve got no causes that we’re fighting, we’re just getting killed for no reason.”

Off to War presents such exclamations of frustration as a matter of course, without sensational framing and alongside the declaration that everyone’s better off that Kerry has not been elected. But the expressions of irritation increasing as the series goes on — from October 2003, when the Renaud brothers arrived to film the unit’s training at Fort Hood in Texas (where the Army employs Iraqi and Kurdish American actors to simulate “actual war conditions”), through November 2004, when the bulk of the 39th remains in Iraq for Thanksgiving — as the mission becomes more unknowable, as the terms of deployment are extended, and as the local resentment of the U.S. occupation becomes unavoidably clear. Initially assigned to Camp Taji, renamed Camp Cook, the troops are at first both philosophical and understandably worried. “If the tables were turned and they invaded Arkansas,” goes the prevailing logic, the guys would be just as resentful as the Iraqis appear. And so, the Guardsmen make valiant efforts to show patience, as the local kids offer to sell them “sex movies” and cds and the camera moves in close on the troops’ exasperated faces.

Soldier in Iraq

Soldier in Iraq

The “characters” of the 39th are as compelling as any reality game show participant. This has mostly to do with their diurnal routines, that is, staying alive: “We’re getting mortared twice a day,” says Sergeant Joe Betts, gazing out into a dusty nowhere. Sergeant First Class David Short, framed in tight closeup even as his uniform and helmet make him nearly unrecognizable, instructs his men to wear their body armor, “24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whatever it takes to keep you guys alive, I’m willing to do. All hell has broken loose and it’s right outside that gate.”

Some subjects perform themselves knowingly, as wise guy observers. Specialist Matt Hertlein observes Iraqis at work: “Today is a good day because the National Guard doesn’t have to fill sandbags today.” Tommy Erp takes his digital camcorder around to make a tape to send home, pointing out “our home,” a trailer park that makes everyone feel like they’re back in Arkansas. Here we are, he narrates, engaging in typical activities to make them feel at home, “cigar-smoking and joking.”

Hertlein sits down to eat in the mess hall, assuring his presumed audience, “Mom, I know these potatoes aren’t gonna be as good as yours because they’re instant.” He instructs his little sister Megan never to join the Army: “Stay in school,” he says as the image cuts back to the family watching the tape back home, Megan laughing when Matt calls her name, “We’ll pay for you to stay in school.” And here, says Matt, holding up a carton of cigarettes for his camera, are his “Haji smokes.” He explains that a Haji is “a person who makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, but we kinda use it as a racist term.”

Such self-awareness and cynicism seem almost odd voiced by this sunburned kid, but this is the sort of conflicted, resilient self-understanding that Off to War reveals repeatedly. While the soldiers note their injunction not to speak about “anything political” in public (say, during an appearance at the local high school), in country they tend to say what’s on their minds. “What we’re supposed to be doing here is Security and Stability Operations,” says one sergeant. “But we basically have just tossed that right out the window. There’s no security here and no stability here. It’s basically a full-fledged very hot combat zone.” They argue over Abu Ghraib (“This is exactly why the Iraqi people stay pissed off at us”), they complain about being spit at. When they learn another unit has opened fire on a boy who pulled out a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun, leaving three Iraqis dead, the response is practical and weary. “People are gonna be pissed off,” notes a soldier. “It’s unfortunate, but they gotta know that we’re serious about this.” That is, you can’t be pulling out lighters at troops and thinking you’ll survive the encounter.

Sergeant David Short explains his own attitude to the camera, hunkered down in his helmet and goggles:

“I’m not into going out and meeting the people, you know, pressing the flesh, you know, trying to help ’em out and see what their needs are. They haven’t given me time to see what their needs are, because they won’t quit attacking me long enough for me to find out what their needs are. I really wish we’d a trained more for combat operations: train for the worst, expect the worst. Well, we trained for the best and the worst happened.”

Back home, Off to War’s subjects seem more constrained to appear “upbeat, despite the fact that their troubles are profound — bills unpaid, kids depressed, women lonely and fretful. As Amy Betts puts it, rather perfectly, “The hardest part was when he actually got in Iraq. I quit watching the news completely because I just can’t handle it.” An injured vet is hospitalized for repeated surgeries, his wife noting his “new jaw,” and the rods needed to hold his legs together. When Betts — an ordained pastor — is sent home for three months owing to a back injury, he observes that it probably saved his marriage, which has indeed appeared rocky during phone calls with Amy. The series shows Hertlein’s sister Megan playing softball, his grandmother in attendance. She smiles gently, sits deep in her lawn chair. “We can’t help but be proud of Matt,” she says slowly, “We don’t want him over there, we don’t exactly understand why they’re over there, but we’re proud of him.”

What’s most striking, perhaps, is the way the troops make connections between home and the war, make sense of their new lives because they must. Hertlein jokes, sort of, that he’s about to go out an “interact wit the locals. Hopefully, they won’t throw any rocks at me because if they do, I brought plenty of ammo,” at which point the camera cocks down to show his handful of stones. As a truck load of Iraqis drives by, all yelling and gesturing, Hertlein sighs, “It’s like being in Clarksville where all the Mexicans live at… You can’t understand a word they’re saying.” And with that, he resituates himself and his fellows: “Invading a foreign country and threatening its people: what could be better?”

Unheralded, largely unseen, Off to War shows the war in and against Iraq as a function of images and preconceptions, as the troops bring their prejudices, desires, and hopes. But it also shows, in a more nuanced and disquieting way — for those paying attention — the ways that war is waged by repression and reframing as much as it is by aggression. Engaging and disturbing, Off to War is hardly a whole story, for anyone. But it is one of the many ways that the war is represented and contained.

Image Credits:

1. American Soldier

2. Soldier in Iraq

Please feel free to comment.




Editorial: Mommy, Where do Presidents Come From?

Commander in Chief

Commander in Chief

ABC promised that this fall, a woman would be President — if, that is, we would be so kind as to tune in on Tuesday nights. Commander in Chief has been alternately praised for and accused of being a dry-run for Clinton: Part Deux, but the series pointedly takes several stabs at Hillary with as much force as its self-congratulatory feminist framework can sustain. Sure, C in C‘s concept allows for the pleasurable mobilization of a lot of “what ifs?” (What if an Independent were to take office? What if the First Lady were a he? What if the President’s children happen to be unusually good looking?), but few of these map convincingly onto Hillary ’08.

All of which is not to say that Commander in Chief suffers from any lack of self-awareness or self-importance; the first few episodes should dare not operate heavy machinery under such heady intoxication of “making History” — the first Independent President! the first female President! maybe the first black Vice President! (whoa, too much history, back up!). But the show isn’t as interesting for the questions it answers as the questions it poses — intentionally or not. Scrape off the generous slathering of Velveeta and Commander in Chief reveals itself to be less about who we want the president to be than what we want them to be.

In The Paradoxes of the American Presidency, Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese identify numerous competing and conflicting demands and expectations that are placed on the office of the president. The book questions what kind of Commander-in-Chief Americans want: “strong and innovative leader or someone who primarily listens to the will of the people? A programmatic party leader or a pragmatic bipartisan coalition-builder? A president who exercises power forcefully or someone who establishes consensus before doing anything?” Not surprisingly, the answer is, rather problematically, C) All of the above.

The navigation of such binary demands structures both Commander in Chief and The West Wing, that other “I wish this was my President” show, but the relative nuance of the latter often obscures these tensions at work. For TWW‘s President Bartlett, this conflict is embodied and resolved in a continuous internal moral struggle. Where Bartlett simply is his Presidency, C in C‘s Mackenzie Allen must craft one from scratch, and the show doesn’t hide (or is less capable of hiding) the scaffolding of this construction from us.

Allen’s bumpy presidential journey finds no mirrored internal existence, but rather is externally grafted directly onto her navigation of the travails of motherhood. It is in the show’s collision of west wing and east wing that the two jobs are brought into mutual relief; the conflicting demands on the presidency are positioned as comparable to those on mothers. Both require the unending oscillation between soothing and stern, lenient and restrictive, active and reactive, and most importantly, the instinctive knowledge of when to be which. While surveying hurricane damage in Florida, President Allen is interrupted with news of a major national threat while reading a book to a group of children; she ends story time immediately, her transition decisive and innate (hmmm, and the non-partisan gloves come off…NOW).

In a veiled summation of Commander in Chief‘s “Rules for Parenting/Presidenting,” a Secret Service agent is reprimanded for allowing the Allen’s eldest daughter to sneak off with a boy: “Do you have kids? They’re always asking for things you can’t give them. Not because you can’t or you don’t want to, but because you know better!” According to C in C‘s internal logic, the president, like your mother, should be that person who just knows better — when the country should be allowed stay up past its bedtime, and when we should be sent to our room without dessert.

Comments welcome!

Image Credits:

1. Commander in Chief




Feeling Blue: Katrina, The South, and The Nation

A little over a year ago, following the heartbreaking outcome of the 2004 presidential election, those of us on the left coast were feeling pretty smug about our difference from Bush country, and, in particular, the South. Buying into the us/them logic of network media coverage, Californians took some perverse comfort in feeling blue. The maps circulating on television and in newspapers fixed state boundaries in inviolate shades of red and blue. If we Angelenos were disappointed in the election results, we could at least feel confident that our state had been true blue.

red vs. blue election map

A typical red vs. blue post-election map in November 2004. The solid sea of red does powerful ideological work.

Of course, a more careful analysis of this red-blue binary revealed its limits. Much less-publicized maps appeared on the internet, including maps that analyzed the country by county and by population, revealing as much red in California as in Georgia. But the dominant red/blue logic largely held sway, in part prompted by the simplistic visual field of network news, a signifying economy more than willing to trade in easy-to-read, lowest-denominator graphics. Furthermore, the ease with which this logic took hold across the country (and across party lines) had everything to do with much older cultural narratives that relentlessly fix the South into precise roles in the national imaginary. The United States has long had a bipolar fixation on all things southern, alternately figuring the region as the hotbed of family values and lost grandeur or as the locus of American shame, poverty, and trauma.

election map by county

An election map broken down into county by county results. This detailed analysis reveals the limits of a red vs. blue analysis.

The recent coverage of the Katrina disaster largely runs along these well-worn grooves of national memory and amnesia. Soon after (and even before) word of the New Orleans’ levee break circulated, national news programs began offering up maps and images of the historic city, speculating on the damage to the French Quarter and other tourist areas. The nation appeared to breathe a collective sigh of relief when it was revealed that these “historic landmarks” had been spared a watery fate. President Bush even felt free to wax nostalgic about his youthful partying on Bourbon Street, asserting that the South would rise again. Folks seemed more concerned about the fate of Preservation Hall, filled as it is with iconic images of a (now) nostalgic, former blackness, than with the Black bodies trapped in rapidly rising water, losing life as time ran out for rescues.

The packaged images of historic New Orleans — so tied up in blackness of another era — operated as a kind of disavowal for the racism that elsewhere was writ large across our screens (and, of course, our social and economic policies.) The images of African Americans “looting” or, alternately, as bereft, tragic, and displaced, should have knocked roughly against the more sentimental portraits of New Orleans’ history as an “unique American melting pot,” but these contradictory images are familiar from many years of southern representation. We are all too capable of holding them in separate frames through the fragmentary, if not binary, logics supported by electronic media, partitioned logics that neatly dovetail with our modes of representing the South.

Typical prejudice in Katrina coverage

A typical image from the Katrina coverage. These representations of tragic blackness (or, alternately, of “looting,” chaotic blackness) have long histories in American visual cultural, particularly when imaging the South. In a southern context, they work to locate American racism “elsewhere.”

This national schizophrenia about the South is possible precisely because America has refused to come to terms with our racial and racist pasts, cordoning them off as a kind of regional problem always located elsewhere. Such a partitioned mode of thinking characterizes post-World War II, post-Civil Rights discourse, proliferating binaries of rural/urban, red/blue, white/black, and us/them. It allows us to forget that the disaster in New Orleans and along the Gulf was possible precisely because the nation has abandoned its domestic infrastructure, neglected the poor, and failed to realize the hopes and possibilities of the Civil Rights era (not to mention the Emancipation era.) This failure affects the South and also the nation. As I watched, spellbound by television as portions of my home state flowed into the Gulf, I knew that, despite the red/blue binary, the problems of New Orleans are also the problems of Los Angeles. Those detailed election maps remind us that our voting patterns aren’t that different either.

During the past several weeks, alternative scripts have sometimes surfaced, particularly given the media’s imperative to give us chaos coverage 24/7. Local reports here in LA noted that many displaced African Americans headed west to Los Angeles to reunite with family members, inadvertently highlighting the diasporic patterns of southern blacks across the history of 20th-century America. Of course, coverage of natural disasters (or of urban rebellions) hits close to home for Californians, living as we do on multiple fault lines, both real and imagined. Various local media streams came close to sketching the possibility of sameness or reunion in imagining La. and LA as somehow similar, even if these images were largely fleeting ones. Nonetheless, I take these as hopeful signs, a kind of implicit recognition that regions travel in unexpected ways and that commonality might be found in the least predictable of places. It’s a mapping I vastly prefer to last year’s red and blue one. Still, we’ll be hard pressed to gain from these moments of possible union if we continue to repress the knowledge that the South is dispersed across the nation and that its racial histories overdetermine every aspect of this American life.

See Also:
Douglas Kellner — “Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency”
Tara McPherson — “Re-Imagining the Red States”

Image Credits:

1. A typical red vs. blue post-election map in November 2004

2. An election map broken down into county by county results

3. A typical image from the Katrina coverage

Please feel free to comment.




Desperate Citizens

The Cast of Extreme Makeover Home Edition

The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

In the family hour timeslot proceeding ABC’s guilty pleasure Desperate Housewives, over 15 million viewers regularly tune in for the Sunday evening’s feel-good reality hit Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EMHE). Premiering in December 2003 as a spin-off of ABC’s primetime surgical expose Extreme Makeover, each week the peppy EMHE design team surprises a needy family with a good morning wake-up call, then sends them away for a week’s vacation while their home is completely transformed. Unlike its predecessor and dozens of other makeover programs which train their subjects to better govern themselves through buying the right clothes, cooking the proper foods, shedding weight, surgically altering their faces and bodies and changing a number of consumption patterns to attaining individual health and happiness through upward class/taste mobility, the contestants on EMHE are presented as model citizens and deserving families whose problems are not the result of deficient self-management but rather of misfortunes that are no fault of their own. Many of these families have suffered severe health issues such as a daughter with leukemia, a parent recently diagnosed with adult epilepsy, a child with brittle bone disease, a baby that required a heart transplant, and perhaps most heartrending, a deaf couple with a blind, autistic child. Other families have lost loved ones due to car accidents and gun shootings while some have suffered property damage from flooding and fires. The families are often large (several have 8 or more children) including many who have adopted children and live with extended family members. In struggling to meet healthcare and housing costs many parents work multiple jobs and most work in the moderate to low-wage service sector from retail (hardware, toys, electronics) to social workers, teachers, youth counselors, nurses, postal workers, cafeteria workers, insurance agents, firefighters, national guardspersons and bank loan officers. For example, in one episode a single father worked as a firefighter and barber to support his five kids, two of which were adopted. The families are more racially and ethnically diverse than most network primetime programs (more than a third are African American or Latina/o). The series received a nomination for an Imagen Award which recognizes Latina/o accomplishments in TV — two of the rotating design team are Latina/o.

While the problems of many of these families seem exceptional, these Sunday evening glimpses into the lives of struggling families give exposure to the daily situations many of us face under the policies of centrist Democrats and Republicans who have transformed welfare as we know it through a consensual distaste for government sponsorship and an embrace of market liberalism. As Mark Robert Rank has elaborated in his recent book One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All, at any given time one fifth of the US population is either in poverty or on the brink and most Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lifetimes. While Rank argues that the social sciences have largely framed poverty as the result of individual inadequacies, this is far from the case on EMHE as these struggling families are embraced as model citizens — hard working, family oriented and community minded. In exposing the inadequacies of individual hard work and family values as avenues to prosperity and happiness in the land of opportunity, each week on EMHE the door is opened to exposing the structural sources (inadequate healthcare, unaffordable housing and unlivable wages) which produce our underprivileged nation.

However, it is no surprise that this commercially sponsored series makes every attempt to mask these structural sources of inequality by suggesting that the heroic efforts of its program sponsors can solve these problems via corporate benevolence and volunteerism. Indeed, in a digital TV era of time-shifting and multichannel audience fragmentation EMHE serves as a model for financing programs through product placement and corporate sponsorship. The housing construction, finance and design industries line up to pitch their products and services under a veneer of corporate good will. Ironically (or tragically) it is this housing industry, in-part, which has supported the real estate boom that has made it so difficult for the show’s recipients of this corporate goodwill to get by. Sears, the main sponsor, pitches its line of appliances and other moderately priced home furnishings designed by the hyper-energetic EMHE host Ty Pennington. The corporate synergies of Disney/ABC are on display as families are often sent to Disney’s theme parks while their homes are renovated. In one episode the Disney imaginers helped with designs and in another Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs helped renovate. During a time when the FCC and advocacy groups such as the Parent Television Council (who endorses EMHE) are scrutinizing the networks for indecency, the sanitary EMHE helps buffer the arrival of the decidedly more saucy Desperate Housewives (which the PTC does not endorse). And when a young child who suffers from Leukemia looks into the camera and thanks ABC for building her family a new house and redesigning the children’s hospital cancer ward, the corporate good will for ABC is priceless while the gruesome commodification of a child’s suffering is glaring. Meanwhile the series often vilifies social welfare workers for threatening to take children away from their loving families.

This corporate good will is indeed powerful as we cannot help but be moved by these powerful narratives of family rescue. (After long discussions with my students about the structural origins of inequality and the marginal effects that this corporate benevolence has in addressing it, they are often still appreciative that ABC/Sears are at least doing something to help out). Still, there are moments when these thousand points of corporate light do not always convince that they are enough to solve otherwise structural social problems. When the design team rolls into Watts (accompanied by the typical collage of barbed wire fences, garbage filled vacant lots and graffiti covered walls) to help a woman known for her community involvement recover from a flood, the design team is faced with the larger problem of improving the entire neighborhood for which “Sweet Alice” has so tirelessly dedicated her life to improving. When Sears distributes mattresses and bedding to a dozen residents on the block and the construction workers build front-yard fences, the inadequacy of their efforts to renovate the neighborhood is stark. In another episode, the design team comes to the aid of two families who were living in temporary housing. The father of one family of four lost a well-paying manufacturing job and couldn’t find work while a mother of two who worked two jobs at 80 hours per week could not afford her rent when she separated from her boyfriend. The design team added a duplex to the Colorado Homeless Families complex, but when confronted with a more systemic issue of homelessness, one designer said, “I think we should be able to pull together as a culture and a society to eradicate homelessness altogether, and most especially for kids.” When a corporate sponsor gave one of the homeless men a job as a security guard another designer said that this was the greatest thing the show has ever done. Meanwhile, the hedge fund that orchestrated the $11 billion merger between Sears and Kmart in the preceding year that resulted in 850 lost jobs made a 23% return for the year (much of this coming from its 39% stake in the new Sears Holdings) and the fund manager who led the merger made more than $1 billion that year. Also, corporate benevolence is undermined when families sue ABC for shoddy construction or hold them responsible when families breakup over disputes on how to share the loot.

UKTV Style

UKTV Style

While these moments of contradiction at times destabilize the commercial ideologies of corporate benevolence that EMHE strives to maintain, Thomas Streeter’s suggestion to focus our critique of TV on advertising and commercial sponsorship is particularly relevant for understanding how programs such as EMHE frame the range of causes and solutions to structural inequalities. In addition, when discussing alternatives we should take seriously the representational modes through which EMHE engages large audiences (and winning the 2004 People’s Choice Award for best reality show and the 2005 Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program) in stories of hard working, community-minded families that struggle to attain even the basics of the American dream. Fan chat is filled with empathy for the families with warnings such as “don’t watch this episode if you don’t want to cry,” and the feel-good moments when these deserving families receive the surprise bounty during the dramatic reveal. There is also a “how did they do that” fascination in watching a hundred workers tear down and rebuild a home in only a week, and the suspense of “will they actually finish it in time.” The made over homes seem to grow increasingly enormous and the designers mostly share the normative metrosexual taste cultures of other makeover shows, favoring elegant clean lines, “sophisticated” looks and designing around style themes referred to as Serengeti, Tuscany, or Island Escape. There is more fun in watching the design team construct high-concept rooms for the children such as a spy room replete with a fingerprint-activated door lock: gender norms are often codified as girls get princess and ballerina rooms while boys get dinosaurs and race cars. Sometimes high-concept landscapes undermine otherwise status-conscious decor such as a backyard scaled-down replica of Yankee’s Stadium and a pirate ship. The designers’ tastes sometimes clash with the families’ — in one of the how-are-they-doing-now follow-ups viewers might have noticed that the beige siding and chocolate front door had been repainted ocean blue and violet. Pleasures also come from sex appeal — in 2004 People magazine chose host Ty Pennington as “one of the sexiest men alive.”

In evaluating British makeover television Charlotte Brunsdon argues that realist modes which lack dramatic reveals and are more explicitly instructive should be valued over “showbiz”melodramatic modes. In thinking about non-commercial alternative reality TV in the US context I wonder if this evaluative criterion holds. Consider an upcoming episode of EMHE. When George W’s handlers got wind that EMHE would shoot a show in Biloxi they volunteered Laura Bush to come help out. Her spokeswoman said Mrs. Bush shared the conservative values of the show that support the private sector’s corporate benevolence over the slow-to-react federal government. But with federal recovery dollars dwarfing corporate or individual donations how might a public television-sponsored reality show depict this extreme gulf-coast makeover? Imagine the dramatic before and after reveals of new schools, entire neighborhoods, town halls and hospitals all made possible by government provisions and our collective social insurance programs. There would be narrative suspense in wondering if that high school football stadium sod would be laid in time for the opening game and feel-good stories of seeing deserving residents who had endured hardship and the loss of loved ones find new jobs and careers thanks to the public and private partnerships that made rebuilding communities possible. There would be sex appeal when Kayne West hosts a special edition on replacing Trent Lott’s million dollar ocean-front estate with community planned and developed affordable housing and a public promenade. While ABC, Sears, Laura Bush and their fellow corporate PR philanthropists help to rebuild the lives of a few in one tiny corner of Biloxi, imagine how a vibrant public television service could cover hundreds of extreme community makeovers, replete with suspense, melodrama and sex appeal, all made possible not only by the voluntary contributions of individual viewers like you, but through the billions of tax dollars, social service programs, housing subsidy initiatives, city council efforts, urban planning coalitions, state healthcare boards and local chambers of commerce. As a new genre of commercially sponsored good Samaritan TV propagates notions that corporate benevolence can solve structural inequality (think of The Scholar sponsored by Wal-Mart on ABC, Mobile Home Disasters on the WB, Trailer Fabulous and Pimp My Ride on MTV, and the upcoming Three Wishes on NBC), let’s imagine the possibilities that an extreme makeover of public television could have if it developed melodramatic, suspenseful and sexy reality TV programs that accounted for the necessary public and private partnerships needed to address the structural origins of our underprivileged nation.

Bibliography

Brunsdon, Charlotte. “Lifestyling Britain: The 8-9 Slot on British Television.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 6.5 (2003): 5-23.

Rank, Mark Robert. One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Image Credits:

1. The Cast of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

2. UKTV Style

Please feel free to comment.




Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency

Terra Daily

Terra Daily

IN ADDITION TO OUR REGULAR COLUMNISTS AND GUEST COLUMNS, FLOW IS ALSO COMMITTED TO PUBLISHING TIMELY ONE-TIME COLUMNS, SUCH AS THE ONE BELOW. THE EDITORS OF FLOW ARE TAKING SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS SECTION. PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CHECK OUT OUR LATEST SUGGESTED CALLS FOR CONTACT INFORMATION.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath exhibited one of the most astonishing media spectacles in US history. Houses and towns along the Gulf coast in Louisiana and Mississippi were destroyed and flood surges wreaked havoc miles inland. New Orleans was buried in water and for several days, the crowds in the Superdome and Convention Center were not given food, water, or evacuation and there were reports of fighting, rape, robbery, and death. Indeed, no federal or state troops were sent to the city in the early days of the disaster, and thousands were trapped in their homes as the flood waters rose and there were widespread images of looting and crime.

Just as President Bush remained transfixed reading “My Pet Goat” to a Florida audience of schoolchildren after 9/11, a spectacle preserved on the Internet and memorialized by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, so too was the president invisible in the aftermath of Katrina (as he had been after the Asian Tsunami). Bush remained on a five-week vacation during the first days of the disaster punctuated by a visit to a private event in Arizona where he bragged about how well things were going in Iraq, comparing the war there that he initiated to World War II, inferring that he was FDR. The next day Bush was shown clowning at a fundraiser in San Diego, smiling and strumming a guitar, and again bragging about Iraq and touting his failed domestic policies.

During Bush’s first visit to the disaster area, he made inappropriate jokes about how he knew New Orleans during his party days all too well and joked that he hoped to visit Republican Senator Trent Lott’s new house upon hearing that his beachfront estate was destroyed. In a fateful comment, Bush told his hapless FEMA director Michael Brown on camera: “You are doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” Bush’s first visit to the area kept him away from New Orleans and isolated from angry people who would confront him. His visit to the heavily damaged city of Biloxi, Mississippi was preceded by a team that cleared rubble and corpses from the route that the president would take, leaving the rest of the city in ruin. The same day, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, Bush remarked, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” at a time when the media had circulated copious reports of previous warnings by scientists, journalists, and government officials concerning dangers of the levees breaching and catastrophic flooding in the city of New Orleans, much of which was dangerously below sea level.

Bush’s response to the catastrophe revealed all the weaknesses of the Bush presidency: immature frat-boy, good-old boy behavior and banter; political cronyism; a bubble of isolation by sycophantic advisors; an arrogant out-of-touchness with the realities of the sufferings his policies had unleashed; a general incompetence; and belief that image-making can compensate for the lack of public policy.

But the media spectacle of the hurricane, which dominated the US cable news channels and was heavily covered on the US network news, showed images of unbelievable suffering and destruction, depicting thousands of people without food and water, and images of unimaginable loss and death in a city that had descended into anarchy and looked like a Third World disaster area with no relief in sight. Images of the poor, sick, and largely black population left behind provide rare media images of what Michael Harrington described as “the other America,” and the media engaged in rare serious discussions of race and class as they tried to describe and make sense of the disaster. As John Powers put it:

“Suddenly, the Others were right in front of our noses, and the major media — predominantly white and pretty well-off — were talking about race and class. Newspapers ran front-page articles noting that nearly six million people have fallen into poverty since President Bush took office — a nifty 20 percent increase to accompany the greatest tax cuts in world history. Feisty columnists rightly fulminated that, even as tens of thousands suffered in hellish conditions, the buses first rescued people inside the Hyatt Hotel. Of course, such bigotry was already inscribed in the very layout of New Orleans. One reason the Superdome became a de facto island is that, like the city’s prosperous business district, it was carefully constructed so it would be easy to protect from the disenfranchised (30 percent of New Orleans lives below the poverty line).”

Usually the media exaggerate the danger of hurricanes, put their talking heads on the scene, and then exploit human suffering by showing images of destruction and death. While there was an exploitative dimension to the Katrina coverage, it was clear that this was a major story and disaster and media figures and crews did risk their lives to cover the story. Moreover, many reporters and talking heads were genuinely indignant when federal relief failed to come day after day, and for the first time in recent memory seriously criticized the Bush administration and Bush himself, while sharply questioning officials of the administration when they tried to minimize the damage or deflect blame. As Mick Farren put it:

“In the disaster that was New Orleans, TV news and Harry Connick were the first responders. It may well have been a news generation’s finest hour. Reporters who had been spun or embedded for most of their careers faced towering disaster and intimacy with death, and told the tale with a horrified honesty. When anchors like Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper waded in the water, dirty and soaked in sweat, it transcended showboating. It was the story getting out. Okay, so Geraldo Rivera made an asshole of himself, but I will never forget the eloquent shell shock of NBC cameraman Tony Zumbado after he discovered the horror at the Convention Center.

“That CNN could function where FEMA feared to tread undercut most federal excuses and potential perjuries. Journalists who could see the bodies refused to accept ‘factuality’ from Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, or even George Bush. Ted Koppel and Paula Zahn all but screamed ‘bullshit!’ at them on camera.”

The rightwing Republican attack machine first blamed the New Orleans poor for not leaving and then descending into barbarism, but it came out quickly that there were tens of thousands who were so poor they had no transportation, money, or anyplace to go, and many had to care for sick and infirm friends, relatives, or beloved pets. Moreover, the poor were abandoned for days without any food, water, or public assistance. The rightwing attack machine then targeted local officials for the crisis, but intense media focus soon attached major blame for the criminally inadequate public response on Bush administration FEMA Director Michael Brown. It was revealed that Brown, who had no real experience with disaster management, had received his job because he was college roommate of Joe Allbaugh, the first FEMA director and one of the major Texas architects of Bush’s election successes, known as the “enforcer” because of his fierce loyalty to Bush and tough Texas behavior and demeanor.

FEMA Director Michael Brown

FEMA Director Michael Brown

Meanwhile, Internet sources and Time magazine revealed that Brown had fudged his vita, claiming in testimony to Congress that he had been a manager of local emergency services when he had only had a low-level position. He had claimed he was a professor at a college where he was a student and generally had padded his c.v. Stories also circulated that in his previous job he had helped run Arabian horse shows, but had been dismissed for incompetence. After these reports, it was a matter of time until Bush first sent him back to Washington, relieving him of his duties, and allowing him to resign a couple of days later.

The media then had a field day scapegoating the hapless Brown who admittedly was a poster boy for Bush administration incompetent political appointees. But the top echelons of FEMA were full of Bush appointees who had fumbled and stumbled during the first crucial days of disaster relief and who were unqualified to deal with the tremendous challenges confronting the country. Moreover, Brown was blamed for a statement that he did not know there were tens of thousands of refugees stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center without food, water, or protection after pictures of their plight had circulated through the media. In fact, Michael Chertoff, head of the cabinet level Department of Homeland Security, also made such statements and the federal non-response could easily be blamed on his ineptness and failure to coordinate disaster response efforts.

Media images of the refugees left on their own in New Orleans and the surrounding area were largely poor and black, leading to charges that the Bush administration were blind to the suffering of the poor and people of color. While there was a fierce debate as to whether the federal response would or would not have been more vigorous if the victims were largely white or middle class people, readers of Yahoo news recognized that racism was blatantly obvious in captions to two pictures circulating, one of whites wading through water and described as “carrying food,” while another picture showing blacks with armloads of food described as “looters.” During NBC’s Concert for Hurricane Relief Rapper Kanye West declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and asserted that America is set up “to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible.” West sharply criticized Bush’s domestic priorities and Iraq policy before NBC was able to cut away to a smiling Chris Tucker.

Bush’s presidential ratings continued to plunge as day after day there were pictures of incredible suffering, devastation, and death, and discussions of the utterly inadequate federal, local, and state response. While the U.S. corporate media had failed to critically discuss the failings of George W. Bush in either the 2000 or 2004 elections and had white-washed his failed presidency, for the first time one saw sustained criticism of the Bush administration on the U.S. cable TV news networks. The network correspondents on the ground were appalled by the magnitude of the devastation and paucity of the federal response and presented images of the horrific spectacle day after day, including voices from the area critical of the Bush administration. Even media correspondents who had been completely supportive of Bush’s policies began to express doubts and intense public interest in the tragedy ensured maximum coverage and continued critical discussion.

The Bush administration went on an offensive, sending Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and other high officials to the disaster area, but the stark spectacle of suffering undercut whatever rhetoric the Bush team produced. It was widely reported that Condoleezza Rice was on a shopping spree in New York buying $5000 plus pairs of shoes when the spectacle unfolded on TV and her first press conference during the disaster showed her giddy and bubbly, impervious to the suffering; to improve her image, she was sent to her home-state Alabama where photographers dutifully snapped her helping organize relief packages for flood victims.

While the Bush administration tried to emphasize positive features of the relief effort, the images of continued devastation and the slow initial response undercut efforts to convey an image that the Bushites were in charge and dealing with the problem. It remains to be seen how the politics of hurricane spectacles will be played out and whether Bush will weather the storms of criticism unleashed, what the role of the media will be, and how the public will respond to the disasters and Bush’s response. The spectacles of Iraq, inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina and the specter of crony capitalism in its aftermath, and on-going Republican party scandals involving leaders of the House and Senate and key figures in Bush’s and Cheney’s staff may raise the specter of impeachment–or once again, the Bush administration may survive the ever-erupting media spectacles of scandal that have characterized the regime.

Notes

W. David Jenkins III, “Georgie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job,” September 17, 2005, at www.smirkingchimp.com.

John Powers, “Week of the Living Death,” LA Weekly, September 9-15, 2005, at www.laweekly.com.

Mick Farren, “Post-Storm Watch,” Citybeat, September 22-28, 2005, at www.lacitybeat.com.

Mark Benjamin, “The crony who prospered. Joe Allbaugh was George W. Bush’s good ol’ boy in Texas. He hired his good friend Mike Brown to run FEMA. Now Brownie’s gone and Allbaugh is living large.” Salon, September 16, 2005, at www.salon.com.

Allbaugh was known as Bush’s enforcer during his stint as Texas governor, allegedly being in charge of sanitizing the records of Bush’s National Guard service that suggested he had gone AWOL and not completely his military service; see Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Col.: Paradigm, 2005.

Mark Benjamin, “Brownout!” Salon, September 11, 2005, at www.salon.com.

See Jonathan S. Landay, Alison Young, and Shannon McCaffrey, “Chertoff Delayed Federal Response, Memo Shows,” Knight-Ridder News Service, September 13, 2005. The report indicates that Chertoff, not FEMA Director Michael Brown, was in charge of disaster response and delayed federal action. Chertoff was a lawyer and Republican partisan who participated in the Whitewater crusade against Bill Clinton and had no experience in either national security or disaster response when Bush made him head of the Department of Homeland Security.

On the issue of race and the history of New Orleans, see Mike Davis, “The Struggle Over the Future of New Orleans,” Socialist Worker, September 21, 2005, collected online at www.zmag.org.

NBC circulated a disclaimer after the show saying that West did not speak for the network and departed from his prepared speech, and also cut the clip from a West coast broadcast three hours later, but the video circulated over the Internet and was immediately incorporated into rap songs and anti-Bush websites; see the video clip at politicalhumor.about.com/ (accessed September 23, 2005) and see Chris Lee, “Playback Time. Two Rappers Use Kanye West’s Anti-Bush Quote to Launch a Mashed-up Web Smash,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2005: E1.

On the specter of impeachment, see Bernard Weiner, ”’Suppose…’: Arguments for an Impeachment Resolution,” September 28, 2005 at www.smirkingchimp.com and Robert Parry, “Can Bush Be Ousted?”, October 1, 2005, at consortiumnews.com.

Links
U.S. Census
FEMA
Public Enemy

Image Credits:

1. Terra Daily

2. FEMA Director Michael Brown

Please feel free to comment.




Reality TV

CBS Newsroom

CBS Newsroom

The banality of standard television news narratives is both frustrating and oddly reassuring. The ritualized litanies of political posturing, consumer panics, lifestyle trends, celebrity scandals, and missing upscale white women lull us into La-Z-Boys of comfort, cynicism, or cynical comfort. To be charitable, these formulas paint a distorted picture of actual contemporary American life; that said, at least it’s a dependable picture, an ongoing theater of the absurd, though without as much self-awareness.

On the last weekend in August, those standard media narratives, and their attendant comforts, were destroyed.

Given the rapid clip of news cycles, it has already become a cliche to talk of how Hurricane Katrina “blew away” the veneers of security, institutional trust, and social equality in this country. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge and try to come to terms with the massive, complex, impact of this disaster not only on the US Gulf Coast (the actual, long-term dimensions of which are only beginning to be understood) and on our relationships with our government, but also on our most immediate forms of media (radio, television, and the internet).

As I indicated above, there are many, many problems with television journalism. Its usual schizoid handling of past horrors (through trivialization, exploitation, or sheer neglect) has left us largely unable or unwilling to socially process the consequences of actions and inactions. Its tendency to exaggerate small events (e.g., Natalee Holloway, Michael Jackson) at the expense of deeper coverage of larger, more significant ones (e.g., Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, global warming) has fostered the perception of an ahistorical world of assumed middle-class privilege threatened by seemingly random dangers, “evildoers,” and a few “bad apples,” rather than an understanding of a changing, complex world that might benefit from engaged citizenship. This pattern has long extended to weather coverage, though after Katrina, TV’s usual hurricane montage of windblown reporters and downed telephone poles, ruthlessly mocked on The Daily Show mere weeks ago, was revealed to be an empty ritual in spectacle and broadcast flow.

The aftermath of Katrina shattered this standard framing, as the images of the desperation, tears, anger, and horror in New Orleans and elsewhere dominated television. The contrast between the actual fate of hundreds of thousands of people and the federal government’s delayed and disorganized response became the story, as the sounds and images from the Gulf Coast clashed with those of Washington officials far divorced from reality (and long used to being so, apparently). The people, technology, and discursive apparati of broadcast news were at the nexus of these realities, and, for the first time in quite a while, did not retreat to safety and convention. The same broadcast reporters and studio anchors who had played well within Washington’s unwritten rules for years were now compelled to show, to actually reveal what was happening, most notoriously at the New Orleans Convention Center, and tell, to point fingers directly at federal officials and their ideological defenders. Many could scarcely conceal their disappointment at the President’s transparently scripted events, and reported openly on the contrast between the Administration’s words and actions. Shockingly, several reports even offered up the kind of media critique usually found in academic media criticism, as seen, for example, in ABC Primetime’s exploration of the news media’s culpability in the racial dimensions of this disaster. The sights of ABC’s Ted Koppel, NBC’s Brian Williams, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and even Fox’s Shepard Smith, losing their composure to anger and exasperation were almost as shocking as the events they conveyed.

An Upset Anderson Cooper

An Upset Anderson Cooper

Perhaps more importantly, the coverage also clearly conveyed how this disaster was compounded by our collective neglect of poverty and racism. Whether in the Superdome, on the rooftops of the Ninth Ward, abandoned in the nursing homes, or trapped on the bridge to Gretna, the vast majority of Katrina’s victims were clearly black and poor, people who had long been invisible in standard news narratives. Unfortunately, the news media’s grave concern over “looting” during that week dealt in the most basic racist assumptions, but even that perspective was mitigated somewhat by the more humanitarian concern of the majority of the coverage. Again, it is a sad testament to our expectations that it takes a deadly disaster, a literal disruption of the standard media universe, to raise awareness about so basic a problem as poverty.

While the television coverage of Katrina certainly dominates our understanding of the event, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of other media forms. The role of the internet in this regard, and in events such as these, cannot be overstated. Gulf coast radio and television stations (most notably New Orleans’ WWL) maintained continuous coverage via the web as much as possible, offering up local perspectives to global audiences. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s desperate plea for federal help during a September 1 WWL radio interview was widely replayed and disseminated across the web. Local bloggers conveyed as much information as possible from the area, presenting important alternative eyewitness perspectives. Other blog communities rapidly gathered together audio, video, textual transcripts, and timelines, documenting this event in more detail and depth than even the revived mainstream news media could muster. The blog-based spread of key official documents (including Louisiana Governor Blanco’s August 26 call for federal aid, and Homeland Security’s own National Response Plan) helped contradict Bush Administration “blame game” spin.

Katrina seemingly revived the long-dormant power of an independent American television journalism, which had been mostly missing in action for decades (and was notoriously absent during last year’s election). At the same time, it affirmed the growing power of the blogospheres as critical information sources and centers for action. In short, the kind of national media citizenship that we scholars have hoped for (despite knowing the contrary evidence all too well) seemed to finally emerge, if only briefly. Now, the big question remains: if this is a genuine opportunity to transform the news media, then how are we to build upon this moment? How can we keep it from slipping back to its standard narratives?

Moreover, how can we take on this challenge, and take television journalism — and television “reality,” in the most basic sense of the word — seriously as media critics, rather than let our opinions slide back into resigned cynicism? My own disgust with TV journalism’s obsequiousness, shallowness, and distortion runs deep and I know I’m not alone. Like most TV scholars I know, I rate entertainment television much higher for its complexity, verve, and (ironically enough) honesty. Similarly, I, along with much of Television Studies, have given reality television much more intellectual scrutiny than the ostensible televising of reality, i.e., the “news.” Revaluing, or at least redeveloping a relationship with, information television (and, for that matter, journalism education) will take a great deal of commitment.

Our interests in the mediated universes of ironic images and fantasy narratives are certainly important, but in an era of rising social tensions, deep-rooted political crises, and an uncertain economy (all balanced on a looming, perhaps catastrophic energy crisis), a better engagement with television journalism seems like the least we could do.

Meanwhile, of course, while the images and sounds left in Katrina’s wake continue to haunt and challenge our critical minds, it’s the displaced people and demolished places that still need our political will and collective and individual actions. As I write this, Rita, now a Category 5 hurricane, is making its way across the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually right through to Houston and east Texas, where a few hundred thousand Katrina refugees are struggling to put their lives back together. This weekend will give us an early indication of whether the news media maintains its newfound scrutiny of our government. . . or goes right back to pretty images of windblown reporters and downed telephone lines.

Image Credits:

1. CBS Newsroom

2. An Upset Anderson Cooper

Please feel free to comment.




War, Incendiary Media, and International Law (Part I)

War Protesters In Iraq

War Protesters in Iraq

In numerous major military conflicts of the past twenty years, of which the Iraqi war was/is the most recent, there has been an increased focus for observers in international law on the abuse of the media to engender violence, ethnic hatred, and even genocide. The media, particularly radio and the internet, have been identified as significant political tools for mass manipulation by dictatorial governments to drive deep seated animosity between social and ethnic groups, resulting in an intense atmosphere of mistrust, misinformation, and devastating killings. Nationalistic and propagandistic constructions of ethnophobia in the media helped shape wars and justify mass violence, through pitching Serbs against Croats, Hutus against Tutsis, Muslims against Roman Catholics, the Iraqis against the Kurds. What these media-influenced atrocities have made clear is that critical media studies must be reconfigured to respond to these and other crisis conditions.

The pre-conflict abuse of the media to inflame inter-ethnic differences is seen as the catalyst for war. Once warfare breaks out, the media can become a centerpiece of the struggle between factions that want to utilize the media to escalate hatred and spread fear against one another. In post-conflict times, with the media infrastructures possibly destroyed, journalists killed or fled, and the entire media space quickly becoming a site of renewed struggle between the interim authority and remaining factions, there are critical questions that urgently concern critical media studies from the perspective of international human rights law: To what extent should foreign agencies such as the EU, UN, USAID, etc. intervene in the post-conflict reconstruction of the media space in order to prevent it from being abused again as well as to help produce and maintain public order? What is the legal basis in human rights law for such an intervention? How do different forms of intervention stand the legal scrutiny for managing’ and even restricting the freedom of the press in the post-conflict state? How is the line drawn between a “media intervention” aimed at achieving urgent military goals of stabilization and peace-keeping, and a media intervention aimed at longer-term development of a civil and human-rights respecting society? In what ways are the perspectives different among inter-governmental agencies, donor nations, and non-government organizations (e.g. journalist associations) regarding the legality of, and the actual protocol for, media intervention? What perspectives do they share, especially as benchmarked against international legal norms? This is the first of a three-part analysis that attempts to open up these questions and introduce to critical media studies practitioners a legal mode of analyzing media and warfare from a human rights perspective. This first piece outlines what media/information intervention is.

The most pressing legal and humanitarian consideration about the mass media, to which the whole question of media intervention is directed, is the profound problem of “hate speech.” The discussion of hate speech in human rights law has indeed moved beyond the confines of racial discrimination in community settings. It has moved into the contexts of inter-ethnic violence, armed conflict, and genocide. Indeed, underpinning a part of the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is the explicit association of the media and genocidal violence as well as the prosecution of media-generated hate speech. The legal definition of hate speech has been most clearly articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Article 20(2) of the ICCPR prohibits “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” Article 4 of the ICERD defines racist speech as “ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination” and “propaganda activities, which promote and incite racial discrimination.” In addition, “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” is punishable pursuant to Article 3 of Genocide Convention.

“We need to explore what can be done between the impossible everything and the unacceptable nothing. The political cost of doing everything is usually prohibitive. The moral cost of doing nothing is astronomical. If we accept that we are not going to do everything possible to stem a given conflict, what can we do to have as much impact as we are willing to have?” (Thompson, 2002a, 41-42). Jamie Metzl, a key proponent of information intervention, describes in the above the need for intervention as a moral obligation exercised in the context of limited influence. Media/information intervention refers to the means of getting involved in a humanitarian crisis where there is evidence that the mass media have been manipulated for inciting hatred and violence. Where there is humanitarian intervention taken to avert mass suffering, media intervention campaigns are designed to supplement such an action. But where there is weak or even no political will to take action in crisis situations, media intervention campaigns are to compel an ideological force in the international community to confront the crises. Such campaigns are supposed to adhere to human rights norms.

Regarding methods, information intervention can take place in pre-conflict, mid-conflict, and post-conflict times. Strategies such as broadcasting counter-information, dropping leaflets, and the most controversial of all, jamming broadcasting signals from the target state, are best applied in pre-conflict and mid-conflict times. As for after the conflict, reconstruction work typically calls for a robust “media development” program, which can include

  • human rights training and education of journalists
  • enhancement of independent local media outlets
  • setting up interim media commissions
  • establishing licensing mechanisms linked to hate speech laws and other codes of conduct to ensure quality balanced programming
  • creating programmes that promote inter-ethnic conversation
  • protecting safety of journalists from intimidation and other violent threats
  • forging a monitoring role for the media during the transition to a stable government through election
  • other democratizing activities of the media sphere.

However, while the ultimate legality of such intervention methods created in the name of reconstruction will continue to be debated, the legal ground for more aggressive measures taken in times of imminent or present conflict appears to be tenuous, such as in jamming broadcasting signals, techniques of information manipulation (such as cyberwar), seizure of transmitters, or even bombing broadcasting towers. These aggressive actions resemble the “use of force,” which is prohibited by the UN Charter and other long-standing international norms. Peter Krug and Monroe Price (2002) warn: “[T]he human rights rationale for what might be called ‘aggressive peacemaking’ and the intrusiveness into the zone of freedom of expression is a precarious one. [Moreover][w]hen an international governmental organization engages in regulation of the press, its actions may affect the nature of the political system that follows. How a regulatory rule is shaped, how it is presented in the society, how those who will be subject to a seemingly censorial rule react and accept that rule–all these are part of the difficult process of democracy development in a conflict zone” (164). Certainly, it is one thing to prevent violence, it is another for the information intervention program to intrude upon the target state’s autonomous public sphere and even to exert influence and authority in the target state.

Not surprisingly, Jamie Metzl has been criticized for promoting “a more adroit spinning of United States foreign policy represent[ing] a fashionable means of enhancing United States predominance within the international system, using information technology”(Thompson, 2002, 56). It has been argued that the entire effort smacks of hegemonic intention under the guise of humanitarian intervention. In Part II, I will examine in closer detail the legal framework for scrutinizing media intervention according to international human rights norms.

Note
This list is compiled from several media development experiences in post-conflict Bosnia and Kosovo. See, among others, Pech (1999/2000) and Price (2000).

Sources

Krug, Peter, and Monroe Price. “A Module for Media Intervention.” Monroe E. Price and Mark Thompson, eds. Forging Peace: Intervention, Human Rights and the Management of Media Space. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2002. 148-74.

Pech, Laurent. “Is Dayton Falling? Reforming Media in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” International Journal of Communication Law and Policy 4 (1999/2000): 1-28.

Price, Monroe. “Intervention: Bosnia, the Dayton Accords, and the Seizure of Broadcasting Transmitters.” Cornell International Law Journal 33 (2000): 67-112.

Thompson, Mark. “Defining Information Intervention: An Interview with Jamie Metzl.” Forging Peace. 2002. 41-68.

Image Credits:

1. War Protesters in Iraq

Links:
Ferdinand Nahimana page on Trial Watch website
International Crime Tribunal for Rwanda
Media Development in Post-war Iraq

Please feel free to comment.




Bring the War Home: Iraq War Stories from Steven Bochco and Cindy Sheehan

FX\'s Over There

FX’s Over There

American television has been telling two separate but interestingly related stories about the war in Iraq this past month. One is Over There, producer Steven Bochco’s highly touted new series for the FX cable channel which purports to be the first dramatic television series depicting a war while the country is still engaged in combat. The other is the non fictional story the cable and broadcast news shows have been telling about Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain American soldier who has been protesting outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas during his rather long summer vacation. Both these stories are instructive for what they suggest about how this war is being made sense of right now. They also provide instructive comparisons to the way U.S. television handled the last war-as-quagmire into which Americans found themselves sinking.

Publicity and commentary about Over There have made much of the fact that the series depicts fictional US soldiers while their real-life counterparts are still fighting and dying. Let’s remember that M*A*S*H also debuted while the war in Vietnam raged. Of course M*A*S*H wasn’t actually about Vietnam, even though, of course, it was. However, as I’ve written about elsewhere, prime time TV, especially during the so-called “season of social relevance” of 1970/71, but to a lesser extent before that as well, did acknowledge and represent versions of the conflict, albeit largely about the “war at home” (Bodroghkozy, 2001). It took the entertainment divisions of the networks a significant number of years before they decided that they needed to take notice. Nevertheless, Over There is not as remarkable a moment in TV programming history as many observers seem to think. What is novel about the series is its attempt to portray ripped-from-the-headlines combat, and to do it without the cover of comedy or without displacing the events into an easier-to-manage past.

As sentiment about the Iraq war have been getting increasingly polarized of late, it is interesting to look at the debates that have gathered steam about whether the show is fundamentally pro or anti war in its portrayal of the conflict.

Commentary is all over the map: The show is antiwar. The show is pro war. The show is inaccurate. These conflicted and clashing readings may be exacerbated by Bochco’s insistence over and over again that the series does not take a political position about the war. Larry Gelbart, M*A*S*H’s producer, was similarly reluctant to admit that his show had a political stance about the specific situation in Vietnam (Gitlin, 1983, p. 217). In both cases, we have classic cases of the “polysemic” text, although the preferred anti-war encoding of M*A*S*H seems hard to miss, even though some viewers apparently negotiated readings that were positive about military service (Gitlin, p.217). Bochco’s series is in some ways not unlike Gelbart’s show in its representation of war and its personnel (whether soldiers or doctors). Both shows focus on daily life and “muddling through.” The grunts of Sargeant Scream’s unit do so grimly, doggedly, and humourlessly. The doctors and nurses of the 4077th did so with jokes, wild antics, sex, and an appreciation for the absurd. In both cases, the reasons for the war are largely unexplored. By focusing so closely on the “grunts’ eye view,” Over There gives us a war that is mostly about staying alive and seeing enemies everywhere since there is no defined battlefield. All Iraqis could be terrorists, much like all Vietnamese could be VC. The show’s representational strategies owe a great deal to the visual codification of the Vietnam war, especially in cinema. More generally, it’s a war with no articulated purpose, rationale, or definition of victory. A conversation between two characters (one Arab American) let’s us know that both enlisted because of 9/11; episode three gives us a jihadist terrorist to hate. But are these troops in Iraq to fight a war on terrorism? The show doesn’t tell us. In the interests on avoiding “politics” Bochco and his team have managed to give us a Vietnam-esque war, both visually and thematically. It isn’t absurdist the way that M*A*S*H’s “Vietnam” was (war on godless communism — yeah, right!), but it certainly isn’t heroic.

The series’ inability or unwillingness to posit a clear purpose for the war connects it neatly to the other major Iraq story that television and other media outlets have been following intently this summer. The Cindy Sheehan story is a narrative of the home front and one that is probably easier for television to tell than the one Steve Bochco wants to tell. (Ratings for Over There, which started very strong for a cable offering, have sagged since the premier.) The costs of the war are effectively personalized in the figure of the grieving, but strong mother. Soap opera-ish drama gets injected into the story by the continuing question of whether an emotionally callous president will meet with this lone embodiment of suffering motherhood. The story also produces great visuals of emotional impact such as the tiny crosses representing dead soldiers that Sheehan’s supporters at the Camp Casey encampment erected. The dramatic visuals were only enhanced when the crosses were mowed down by opponents of the protest. The melodramatic qualities of this story are then further enhanced with the failed attempt to “swift-boat” Sheehan. Our heroine must suffer, and suffer, and suffer some more. That Sheehan needed to attend briefly to her own mother’s medical crisis and that her husband filed divorce proceedings against her only solidifies her status as a quintessential melodrama heroine.

This is the kind of war story that television knows how to tell. This is the kind of war story that audiences may find more compelling. Like Over There, the Cindy Sheehan story begins with the premise that there is no clear rationale for the war. The problem with Bochco’s series is that it takes this as given and then proceeds with the assumption that the narrative doesn’t need to grapple further with this matter. Sheehan’s story is a “successful” one because it doesn’t accept the “muddle through” theme. Sheehan’ story is a quest to find meaning and truth: why did her son die? That her quest galvanizes large numbers of supporters who either join her vigil or who support her with candle lit vigils from afar only increases the poignancy of the story. Over There just cannot compete with the legible “moral occult” Sheehan’s Iraq story constructs.

The Bochco series and the Sheehan story share another similarity: both focus entirely on the Iraq war as a story about military personnel: soldiers and their families. American civilians and those not in some way connected to military life are irrelevant to the story. Over There‘s major home front story involves a member of the squad whose leg was blown off by a roadside bomb. In episodes to date, we see him struggling with the VA hospital and his diminished sense of masculinity, while his loving and supportive wife provides nurturance. Other home front stories also concern themselves exclusively with the loved ones (faithful and not) of the troops overseas. Sheehan’s story is remarkable for the emphasis on “Gold Star Families” as the representatives and activists of this new antiwar movement. Those who have joined Cindy at Camp Casey and make the news are mostly other military moms. Those who are trotted out to provide a counterbalance to Cindy’s arguments are also mothers of soldiers.

These narratives suggest that both the fighting of this war and the protesting against it are jobs for non-civilians and their loved ones. The role of civilians (either those who may support the war or those who oppose it) is a vicarious one: you can watch.

The war in Iraq has been an odd kind of non-event for most Americans. Unlike World War II, the Iraq war has not resulted in total war mobilization by the entire population. Unlike Vietnam, all able-bodied young men (and their families, girlfriends, and wives) don’t need to confront the prospects that they may be drafted to fight this war. The war is already rather fictitious to most Americans. Aside from news coverage (which one can avoid and which gets easily knocked off the headlines by natural disasters like the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina or by human disasters like Michael Jackson), little in Americans’ daily lives forces them to confront, engage with, or acknowledge that there’s a war going on. I suspect that there may be a certain amount of unease about that. Shouldn’t we be sacrificing something for the war? Aren’t we supposed to be doing something? If we support it, shouldn’t we be participating? If we oppose it, shouldn’t we be protesting in the streets?

To some extent Over There and Cindy Sheehan’s narratives provide a simulated way by which Americans can use their TVs to pretend to be involved with this war. Consider the audiences for the Bochco series. Why would anyone want to watch a relentless, graphically violent fictionalization of a war that, especially recently, has generated significant up ticks in the number of U.S. casualties? I’m wondering to what extent watching this show allows some viewers to experience emotionally and viscerally a war that otherwise is largely a nonevent in most Americans’ experience. Bochco’s series gives audiences something to do: they can go to Iraq vicariously with the troops. They can identify and empathize with these fictional stand-ins for the real troops and feel patriotic doing so. In a hyperreal war fought on television (although not cleanly and according to a predetermined script, a Baudrillard’s Gulf War), and fought by a professionalized military not needed a civilian population to assist, what else can the folks back home do to feel involved?

And what about those who oppose this war? Considering how quickly the war has become unpopular and considering how widespread the dismay and disillusionment has spread about both the reasons for the war and its winnability, the lack of an activated grassroots protest movement seems odd. However, if the war, for the majority of Americans, is a hyperreal conflict fought on television, then perhaps it makes sense that when antiwar activity finally does erupt, it does so as a made-for-TV soap opera. And because the majority of Americans really aren’t involved, our antiwar activists could only be those connected to the institutions of militarism. Those of us who hate the war, but really aren’t affected by it, align ourselves with Cindy and turn her into our heroine. She and the other grieving Gold Star mothers become our televisual surrogates. They organize a hyperreal antiwar movement made up largely of military families, the only Americans actually impacted by the growing carnage in Iraq.

Will this hyperreal antiwar movement centered around one melodramatic heroine develop into an actual movement with grassroots mobilization among citizens not directly connected to the military? Or will it remain a media event like the professionalized war it protests? I suspect we will mostly remain spectators, voyeurs, tricking ourselves into believing that we are actually engaged with and involved in this awful drama of human slaughter.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Bodroghkozy, Aniko. Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion. Durham, NC. Duke UP, 2001.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Image Credits:
1. FX’s Over There

Links
Over There homepage
Cindy Sheehan website

Please feel free to comment.