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.


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

Over There homepage
Cindy Sheehan website

Please feel free to comment.

Extreme Health Care

by: Vicki Mayer / Tulane University

Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover examples

Cramming into the middle seat on a hurried morning flight from Sacramento to L.A., I didn’t know I would sit next to a potentially famous TV star — and a first-time flier.

“I’m nervous,” she confessed. Her bag didn’t fit in the overhead. “I’ve never been in a plane before,” she added, continuing, “I’ve never been to L.A.” Peeved and pre-caffeinated, I stared down the SkyMall catalog as she climbed over me to reach the window. I only began to wonder about her mid-take-off, her hand fastened in a death-grip on my armrest, when she revealed, “But it’s already worth it, even if I don’t get picked.”

“Sue Ellen” was a semi-finalist for ABC’s Extreme Makeover. Like its rivals The Swan (Fox) and I Want a Famous Face (MTV), Extreme Makeover‘s website promises to make every woman’s “fairy-tale fantasies come true.”

For Sue Ellen, this was basic health care.

In the age of primary coverage cutbacks, medical mismanagements, and shrinking access to specialists in rural America, Extreme Makeover was her last hope. “I got to do this show now or I’m going to lose them,” she explained. “I don’t want to lose my teeth. I like to smile at people when I meet them and be friendly. I don’t think I could do that without teeth.” Listening, I couldn’t help but glance down from her brown saucer eyes. Sue Ellen’s cracked upper lip didn’t quite cover her incisors. Dry and yellowed, her teeth added a decade to an otherwise youthful 43-year-old’s face.

She always had bad teeth. Diagnosed with a protein deficiency and weak gums, she needed braces early on to prevent the horizontal growth in her mouth, but her parents couldn’t afford it. “They fought about the price,” she lamented. “I was supposed to be a mother not a model.”

Sue Ellen became a mother, and a janitor, but she could never save enough money for the dentist. Her daughter got pneumonia and her husband, a tree climber and pruner, had heart problems. “He had to get a stint in his heart, which was $15,000, so we’re paying that off.” Health insurance did not cover that bill, and she suspected he would need another stint soon. Most recently, he broke his knee cap on the job, making him homebound. Dental surgery, another uncovered procedure, had to wait.

She pushed around the free but inedible airline peanuts on her tray before unwrapping the foil on her own pre-cut sandwich morsels.

Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover

“If I don’t get dentures soon, they’ll have to pull everything because my gums won’t hold anything anymore.” She licked her teeth as she talked, an effect of constant air exposure. “I thought you get dentures when you’re old, but now they say I’m almost too old.” Her condition led to frequent infections and several trips to a health clinic where she owed $500 for each of the five root canals she had. Dentures would cost $125,000, more than she could afford even with another mortgage on their home. “But I don’t want to be toothless,” she fretted.

Enter Extreme Makeover: the show that has offered their guests implants, lipo, facial peels, Lasik eyes, and a new tan to boot. Sue Ellen’s daughter sent a postcard to the reality show recruiters. Out of 10,000 applicants from Northern California alone, Sue Ellen was one of six to go to L.A. “They told me one of the doctors saw something they liked, and now they have to shop me around so they can sell me to the other doctors.” Already she found out that, along with the dentures, she would be a likely candidate for a nose and boob job, eye tucks, and a face peel — “the one where they scrub your skin off.” She said she didn’t care about all the rest. “As long as my teeth get done, they can do whatever.”

ABC told her she could get up to $200,000 in free health and beauty care, but she said she already felt like a winner. She was flying. For the next three days, she would ride in a limousine, stay in a Beverly Hills hotel, eat on a $40 per diem, and visit a dozen doctors to assess if her needs were extreme enough. She also hoped she would see the Hollywood sign.

As the plane touched down, she shared her biggest worry about the competition. “They took a video of me already and said I have to elaborate my answers more. But that would mean showing my teeth more and I don’t even smile anymore.”

Dumbly, I smiled.

My middle-class friends grin when they inform me that people who go on make-over shows are superficial and just want celebrity status. The Extreme Makeover website supports this storyline, featuring a fashion tips list as “News You Can Use” and a bevy of plastic surgery propaganda.

Yet the infrequent flier may have been closer to the truth, when she said, “If I had good health insurance, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Image Credits:
1. Extreme Makeover examples
2. Extreme Makeover

Extreme Makeover
Cosmetic surgery message board
Cosmetic Surgery, Physiognomy, and the Erasure of Visual Differences

Please feel free to comment.

The Media and Death: The Case of Terri Schiavo and the Pope

by: Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

Usually death is an extremely private and intimate affair, taboo to scrutiny by the broadcast media. To be sure, television pays homage to the death of important figures, especially those in the entertainment industry, that gives it an opportunity for self-promotion. But rarely before March 2005 did television go on a death watch and trace intimate medical, personal, and social details of an individual person’s final days and death until the very opposite cases of Terri Schiavo and the Pope.[1]

For fifteen years, Schiavo had been in a deep coma following a stroke, and after much litigation between the husband and the family, doctors and the courts agreed that Terri had no chance of recovery, was in a “persistently vegetative state” with severe brain damage, and that her husband had the right to take her off of life-support systems according to her stated expression that she would not want to live hooked up to machines. Schiavo’s family battled the husband and, twice, got the courts and, in 2003, Jeb Bush to return her to feeding-tube machines after judicial decisions ruled that she could be taken off.

When the Florida judiciary ruled on February 25, 2005 that Schiavo could be taken off of life support, once again her parents appealed and after being turned down by all courts up to the Supremes, Congress passed an emergency bill that would allow Schiavo’s parents to petition the federal courts to reinstate her feeding tube, and George W. Bush rushed back to Washington from vacation on his Texas ranch to sign the bill. This extraordinary measure in effect asserted the authority of the state over private affairs such as medical care and decisions about life and death, as well as putting the federal government over the judiciary.

But the courts again immediately ruled against this intervention, including the Supreme Court that denied the parents’ appeal, judging that Florida law dictated that the appropriate court had ruled in support of the husband’s right to terminate his wife in accordance with her wishes. The hypocrisy of George W. Bush and the Republican establishment on the Terry Schiavo case was truly incredible: although he claims to be “pro-life,” Bush carried out a record 152 executions when Governor of Texas, barely bothering to review the cases because he “trusted the courts.” He signed a bill as Texas Governor in 1999 that gave hospitals the right to pre-emptively take patients off of life-support systems when they could not pay their bills.[2] Further, the Texas Congressman Tom Delay who was most militant in attacking the courts and assailing the “murder” of Terri Schiavo had pulled the plug on his own father when he was seriously injured and faced a life on a medical-support machine.[3]

Although the Schiavo case was probably the most reviewed case in recent history by doctors and the courts, the Republican right and their Christian evangelical allies jumped in to exploit the issue with many fanatic “right to life” advocates spreading false medical information, defaming the husband carrying out his wife’s wishes, and creating a quasi-fascist mob scene, fuelled by intense media coverage, that caused multiple threats against the husband’s life and the judge who ruled in his favor. On Fox television, there were fake medical experts who said that they had personally observed “life” in Schiavo and that she had responded to her parents; the Senate majority leader, medical doctor Bill Frist, declared that upon watching a video tape he was convinced she was conscious and might recover; an assorted array of ideologues and quacks were marched out to the approving Fox news hosts, including psychic John Edwards whose TV show had failed, intoning that Schiavo was conscious, did not want to be taken off of life support, and that doing so was murder; and her parents claimed that Terri had communicated to them “I want to live.”

The dissemination of pure falsehoods about the Terry Schiavo case provides another example of how the rightwing and their media apparatus spread untruths with impunity in a new post-factual situation.[4] Another bevy of commentators vilified the husband who ordered the termination of her life-support system and judges who ruled that this was his legal right and the rational thing to do after the intense medical scrutiny and multiple court hearings.[5] As critic Sam Parry indicated, it was truly frightening to see the rightwing media machine on cable television, Talk Radio, the Internet, and the press use the Schiavo case to push their rightwing antiabortion and anti-right to die “Culture of Life” agenda, while attacking “liberal” judges, politicians, and values.[6] The case showed the power of the right to dominate the media agenda and relentlessly use it to promote its agenda.

But polls indicated that up to 80% of those queried reacted against the Republican intervention and Bush’s approval record dropped a record seven points in one week to an all-time low of 45% and the Republican establishment backed off of the case. This example provides another case of what I call reversal of the spectacle where a media spectacle concocted to push through a specific agenda flip-flops into its opposite as did the rightwing attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, or Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” spectacle to prematurely declare victory in Iraq.[7] Of course, the spectacle itself is always subject to contestation and reversal and in the long-run the right may well be able to exploit the Terri Schiavo case to promote its “Culture of Life” agenda but for the moment there appears to be a backlash against rightwing extremism and attempts of the religious right to promote their agenda.

Yet while reaction against the rightwing mob and Bush manipulation of crucial matters of life and death has been encouraging, the wave of irrationalism, hypocrisy, mob thuggery, and constant noise of the rightwing Republican media echo chamber has been highly disturbing. The spectacle of Schiavo slowly dying was extremely gruesome and macabre, while the constant media exposure of this event showed the ghoulish extremes that the media would go to in order to attract audiences and the ways that small groups of rightwing fanatics are able to drive the media agenda.

While dying is the most personal of all individual and family events, and people caught up in the drama should have their privacy, the media spectacle relentlessly focused on every twist and turn of the Schiavo case, at the same time when the Pope was in a terminal condition and the media also engaged in an intense death watch over his condition until his death shortly after Schiavo died on March 31.

Although the Terri Schiavo spectacle was horrific, it had the positive consequences of raising important issues of life and death, including what constitutes a life worth living, what are the conditions of a dignified death, how does one deal with intense suffering and hopeless medical conditions, and who has power over life and death decisions. Many people reflected on these issues and were educated on the importance of families and doctors discussing the need for a living will to document one’s personal decision. Yet crucial issues of life and death were rarely debated on network television and the gruesome Terri Schiavo spectacle showed the corporate media at their worst sending hordes of reporters on a death watch in Florida after the courts ruled that she should be taken off life-support systems. Until her death at the end of March, there were hours of daily coverage of the ordeal and numerous pictures of the poor woman on life support, being visited by her parents who were complicit in the media spectacle, and allied with rightwing extremists like antiabortion fanatic Randall Terry who was an official spokesperson for the family. Randall Terry had for years threatened women going into clinics getting abortions, and organized mobs to picket and sometimes assault abortion clinics and doctors. This extremist had been frequently arrested and jailed for his fanaticism, his followers had bombed and burned abortion clinics and killed doctors who performed abortion and yet there he was, everyday on mainstream television, spouting his extremist views and exploiting the grief of a tragic case of a young woman dying.[8]

In fact, there were only a small number of protestors actually at the hospice where Schiavo was dying, but the media intensely focused on the demonstrations and privileged the voices and messages of the demonstrators and Schiavo family. Protests, by contrast, against Bush administration Iraq policies were ignored by the mainstream media. Corporate television also failed to note that many of the same rightwing extremists, who railed against “judicially-sanctioned murders” and denied the hard fought struggles for a right to end one’s life with dignity and according to conditions of one’s own choosing, does not care about state executions, the killing of over 100,000 civilians in Iraq, or other government-sponsored torture and murder. Yet they went into hysteria over a poor hopelessly vegetative and dying woman and continued to threaten those who sanctioned the act, with Tom DeLay railing that “the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.”

The invasion of Terry Schiavo’s privacy and dignity by the rapacious media and exploitative politicians was astonishing. While there was a gender issue involved in the case with the old Southern ideology of saving innocent white girls from vile forces, male politicians and the media were exploiting Schiavo for their own ends. Tom DeLay and rightwing Congressman debated summoning Schiavo to Washington and bringing her to Congress to “save” her from the doctors and the courts. There were reports that Jeb Bush had ordered Florida state troopers to seize her and carry her away a la Elian Gonzalez, but that this had been prevented by local law enforcement officials who refused them entry.[9] It’s also symptomatic that in his intervention in the case, George W. Bush said that the government should help the weakest and least powerful members of society. This is highly paternalistic, as it advocates acting on behalf of the “victim,” rather than empowering the oppressed and is also hypocritical since the Bush administration has cut back in its budget on programs that help the poor, children, the elderly, women, and various oppressed groups.

Terry Schiavo
Terry Schiavo

Thus the highly personal and complex question of rights for life and death were hi-jacked by extremist and opportunistic politicians who poisoned a serious debate with their venom and hypocrisy since DeLay had ordered the termination of his own father’s life and Bush had signed a bill legislating that the state could take patients off of life support systems if you could not pay for further life support (this is state-sanctioned murder!). The media allowed rightwing extremists to define the terms of debate and to advocate their fanatic positions, making a vulgar spectacle of the whole sad affair.

While the Schiavo death watch was gruesome and exploitative, the Pope’s death was presented by the mainstream media as ennobling and celebatory, in the most sustained advertisement for conservative Catholic religious ideology in memory. The Pope’s decision to leave the hospital for his Papal Chambers was praised as a choice of a dignified death of his own choosing. During his last days, every medical announcement was accompanied by a theological message: the Pope was greatly suffering, as Jesus did; the suffering Pope was pleased to hear read documents of the stages of Christ’s Passion, thus equating the Pope with Jesus, as Catholic doctrine propagated; a Vatican spokesman announced that the “Pope’s faith is so strong and full, and the experience of God so intensively lived, that he, in these hours of suffering already sees and already touches Christ”; and just before John Paul II died, the Vatican announced that the Pope was serene in the face of death knowing that he was soon going to join his Heavenly Father, propagating the Christian myth of the afterlife. Finally, when he died on April 2, 2005, the Pope was said to have exhibited great courage in the face of death and showed how to die a good death, having served his Church faithfully, he was ready to pass on with dignity to the next stage.

The Pope’s death was a major media spectacle and great P.R. for a beleaguered and declining Catholic Church. Thousands rushed into Vatican Square to mourn the Pope’s death and celebrate his life. The US TV networks had their anchors and top reporters on the scene and ran repeatedly prepared footage on the Pope’s exemplary life. Catholic officials were interviewed in-depth on the Pope’s life and significance, and ordinary people were brought on camera to testify of their love for the Pope.

On his Sunday morning ABC Talk show, George Stephanopoulos intoned that John Paul was “the most famous Pope the world has ever seen” and many programs featured George W. Bush’s praise of the Pope as a champion of the “march of freedom” and “Word of God,” covertly identifying the Pope with his own self-image. On CBS’s 60 Minutes there were homages to the Pope and one official said that only two Popes, Leo and Gregory in the fifth and sixth centuries, were deemed “the Great” and that there was talk of bestowing this honor on Pope John Paul; many programs discussed the probability of a fast-track to Sainthood for the deceased Pope. There were repeated references on all the networks concerning the great “charisma” of Pope John Paul, but the accompanying footage showed him tonelessly reading precanned speeches in a barely understandable English and I rarely saw any TV footage of John Paul speaking spontaneously. But despite the absence of confirming TV footage, commentators repeatedly extolled John Paul’s eloquence, charisma, and greatness.

Hence, just as rightwing religious extremists used the mainstream corporate media to promote their “Culture of Life” ideology during the Terri Schiavo affair, so too did the media allow the Catholic Church to promote a conservative version of its theology and elevate its spokesperson to Divinity and Greatness. Although George Stephanopoulos had the temerity to question Boston archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law concerning whether or not the Pope was quick and decisive enough concerning the Church sexual abuse scandal, Cardinal Law quickly brushed off the question and few commentators raised the embarrassing issue in their discussions of John Paul’s Papacy.[10] Likewise, while there were copious references to his theological conservativism and general anti-modernity stance, there were few discussions of how many Catholics neglected his teaching on the prohibition of birth control and abortion, his polemics against homosexuality, or the role of women in the Church.[11]

On the other hand, while there was much praise of Pope John Paul’s admirable concern for the oppressed and marginalized, poverty, and world peace, there was little on his strong opposition to the death penalty or his principled opposition to Bush Senior and Junior’s Iraq interventions. In fact, the term “culture of life” was introduced by Pope John Paul II in a 1995 text “The Gospel of Life” which included polemics against capital punishment, gun culture, and war, as well as against abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and genetic engineering of humans. The Bush administration and religious right have appropriated the latter part of John Paul’s teaching, but not the first part that conflicts with their rightwing political agenda.

Bush’s conservative project was to enlist Catholic support in alliance with part of the Pope’s agenda and he used the notion “culture of life” as a political mantra to appeal to Catholics as well his evangelical Christian base. It worked in the 2004 election as Bush received 54% of the Catholic vote, the first time that a majority of Catholics voted against Democrats and a Catholic candidate. The mainstream corporate media aided the Bush agenda in the Schiavo spectacle and presentation of the Pope’s last days, death, and funeral by failing to note contradictions between John Paul’s concept of the “culture of life” and the Bush administration and US conservative position. Thus, both the Schiavo and Pope’s death coverage were driven by the ideological conservativism that is emerging as the hegemonic discourse of the corporate media, especially television.


[1] Media representations of the massive Asian Tsunami of December 2004 broke a taboo against the depiction of dead bodies. While US corporate media coverage of Iraq rarely depicted dead bodies of either Iraqis or US soldiers, and when they did there was massive rightwing protest, the Tsunami coverage showed masses of dead bodies, floating in water, heaped up on land, or buried in mass graves. Yet most of these victims were anonymous, so I am arguing that the Schiavo and Pope John Paul II cases broke taboos against showing intimate processes of death and dying.

[2] During the period of the intense Schiavo death watch, a young African American boy of six months was taken off of his life support system when a hospital and court ruled that despite the mother’s wish to keep the boy alive, the hospital had the right to pull the plug according to the Advance Directives Act signed into law in 1999 by then governor George W. Bush which said that hospitals could take patients off of life support systems if they could not pay and their condition was deemed hopeless. Young Sun Hudson suffered from dwarfism and underdeveloped lungs and his mother hoped that his lungs might develop. See Leonard Pitts Jr., “‘No One Noticed when Little Sun Died,” Hearld News, April 9, 2005.

[3] Walter F. Roche Jr. and Sam Howe Verhovek, “DeLay’s Own Tragic Crossroads. Family of the lawmaker involved in the Schiavo case decided in ’88 to let his comatose father die.” March 27, 2005 at The LA Times.

[4] On Bushspeak and the institutionalization by the rightwing of the politics of lying, see Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2005 discussed in a previous Flow column.

[5] While mainstream television was dominated by the rightwing “Culture of Life” discourse and often the vehicle of outright lies on the Schiavo case, the Internet documented her medical and personal history in detail. While there were, of course, websites spreading the rightwing spin, promoted by her parents (see [The Foundation Site]), there were also well-documented sites detailing her case history and containing key medical documents; see Schiavo Timeline; Tale-of-Two-Scans; & Abstract Appeal. Time magazine also had a good detailed analysis in their April 4, 2005 of Schiavo’s hopeless medical condition.

[6] Sam Parry, “Terri Schiavo and the right-wing machine”, April 1, 2005. Parry also notes the hypocrisy of Bush’s active involvement in the Schiavo case and failure to comment on the March Red Lake Inadian reservation “Minnesota school shooting that claimed the lives of 10 people, the worst such incident since the Columbine massacre in 1999. The apparent logic behind Bush’s differing reactions was that the Schiavo case was a cause celebre for Bush’s Christian conservative base, while the Minnesota school shooting carried the risk of reviving demands for tighter gun control, which might offend another powerful Bush constituency, the gun lobby.”

[7] See Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 and Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy, op. cit.

[8] On extremist Randall Terry’s bizarre life and return to media prominence in the Schiavo case, see Tina Susman, “Crusading Once Again,” Newsday, April 3, 2005.

[9] See Carol Marbin Miller, Police showdown over Shiavo averted,” Miami Herald, March 25, 2005.

[10] American Politics Journal 4/5/03 — Papal Pap noted that Cardinal Law did “as much as he inhumanly could to sweep hundreds of instances of crime by pedophile priests in his diocese under the rug. Remember the notorious child abuser Father John Geoghan? Geoghan operated in Law’s diocese — and some of Geoghan’s victims have accused Law of having known he was a child abuser as early as 1984 (Boston Phoenix). Cardinal Law later presided over one of the major funeral masses for the Pope leading to sharp critique by members of the Survivor Network of Those Abused by Priests and Catholic liberals; see Larry B. Stmmer, “Bernard Law Given Prominent Funeral Role,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2005: A13 and “Advocacy Group Leaders to Protest Cardinal Law,” The Associated Press, April 9, 2005.

[11] For critiques of Pope John Paul II’s Papacy of the sort absent in the mainstream media, see Barry Healey, “Pope John Paul II, a reactionary in shepherd’s clothing” and Terry Eagleton, “A British Obituary of Pope John Paul II. The Pope has blood on his hands”.

Image Credits:
1. Pope John Paul II
2. Terry Schiavo

Culture of Life Homepage
Terry Schiavo – Official Web Site
Make Them Accountable – Terri Schiavo

Please feel free to comment.

The West Wing–A Hyperreal, Not a Reality Show

by: Trudy L. Hanson / West Texas A&M University

The West Wing
The cast of The West Wing

“And the nominee is . . . Matt Santos!” NBC’s The West Wing‘s sixth season concluded with the hoopla of a fictional Democratic National Convention (much more interesting than the actual one held in 2004) as the Representative from Texas and the former White House Chief of Staff raised arms in a victory salute. Through the fictional world of The West Wing as Henry Jenkins noted (Flow, Volume 2, Issue 1), the “shadow presidency” addresses conservative and moderate objections to the Democratic Party. One of the strategies that has become more prevalent in the 2005/2006 season is the use of hyperreal images. Although as viewers we already know we are watching a fictional story unfold, the story has increasingly been told through manufactured images of news media. Jean Baudrillard would probably call this the Disney-fying of American Politics. Rather than deal with real world images of the Presidency, we take comfort in the fictional ones created for us. However, the effects of this Disney-fication are not necessarily negative.

For example, in the final episode of Season 6, the contending Democratic candidates Matt Santos (portrayed by Jimmy Smits) and Bob Russell (portrayed by Gary Cole) find out that they are being challenged at the last minute by Pennsylvania Governor Baker (portrayed by Ed O’Neill) by watching TV sound bites of the Governor’s answers to reporters’ questions on the convention floor. Rather than the camera focusing on a scene that unfolds for us, we see a mediated scene of a mediated story line.

Perhaps the best example of hyperreality occurred in Season Five, Episode 18. The episode begins with typical footage associated with a public television documentary, focusing on a day in the life of White House Press Secretary C. J. Cregg. Throughout the episode, the camera focus keeps changing from watching a film crew shooting the documentary about C.J. to shots of a TV screen where CNN is supposedly broadcasting updates on a hostage crisis in Shaw Island, which in turn references file footage of a similar FBI raid in Casey Creek, Kentucky, three years earlier which ended badly. In this case, reality is layered through three levels. The viewer sees clips of Eisenhower’s press secretary, and a clip of Nixon shoving a staff member. These documentary images add credibility to the story, as does the home movie footage of C.J. as a child that is edited into the presentation. This plot device gives the viewer a different perspective of how the press shapes the image of the President and his cabinet, particularly the role of the press secretary. Viewer expectations of the fictional President Bartlet become more complicated as the realization is hammered home that what is shown on television is a montage of what has happened in the past, seen through the lens of the present, and then filtered by the press secretary whose job is “to articulate the President’s message.”

Martin Sheen who portrays President Jed Bartlet explained to an interviewer: “The key word about The West Wing is show. It is not a reality show. It has nothing to do with reality. We have a phrase we use sometime: present issues of great importance, and hope this will cause some measure of public debate, because the issues are so important.”

To stimulate debate, The West Wing blurs the line between fact and fiction. Shawn Parry-Giles and Trevor Parry-Giles in their analysis of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, Constructing Clinton: Hyperreality and Presidential Image-Making in Postmodern Politics, identify five axioms of postmodern presidential politics. They discuss how postmodern presidential politics both fragments and unifies the public, stressing that this empowers the public as a redemptive agent. One can argue that the current storyline is dictated by economic factors more so than artistic or political agendas. E-Online reports with the renewal of The West Wing for 2006/2007, the per episode cost is expected to be less as Martin Sheen’s character (President Bartlet) and other higher salaried regulars are not featured in every episode.

However, the national civics lesson which began with The West Wing‘s initial season in 1999/2000 continues. Trevor and Shawn Parry-Giles coined the term presidentiality to describe the ideological rhetoric that shapes the meaning of the presidency. The West Wing more than any documentary or news programming continues to teach Americans about what it means to be President. As we watch the fictional campaign of Republican candidate Arnold Vinick (portrayed by Alan Alda) and Democratic candidate (Matt Santos) unfold in Season Seven, there’s a strong possibility that young viewers will learn more about the political process. Lance Holbert’s research has established the positive effect of watching The West Wing on viewers’ perceptions of past and current Presidents. Even though the audience viewing The West Wing has declined to 11.3 million viewers per episode from its all time high of 17 million viewers in its initial season, the potential for positive impact on its viewers remains. What other entertainment series website has Hot Links to such topics as the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, Project Vote Smart and a Step by Step Campaign Guide?

Current research continues to show that college age voters gain the majority of their information about political campaigns from television programming–entertainment programming, that is (e.g., The Daily Show, MTV’s Rock the Vote). With the blurring of fact and fiction, The West Wing not only entertains but also provokes discussion. Jeffrey Jones in his book, Entertaining Politics, suggests that television currently demonstrates a willingness to entertain politics in creative ways from dramatic narratives to parodies, as well as exploring politics in imaginative ways. In so doing, The West Wing may be engaging college age viewers in ways that make politics meaningful. So, is the Disney-fication of politics such a bad thing?

Image Credits:
1. The cast of The West Wing

“Votes” (Season Finale)
The West Wing as Endorsement of the U.S. Presidency
The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism. forthcoming.

Please feel free to comment.

Television For Swing States

by: Henry Jenkins / Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dixie Chicks Controversy

Dixie Chicks Controversy

It is now six months after the November 2004 elections and outraged Democrats have perhaps finally begun to accept the harsh reality that — and I’ll slide us into this slowly — John Kerry got more votes than any presidential candidate in American history — with the exception of George W. Bush. We aren’t talking about a defeat on the scale of Mondale or McGovern; the election turned out to be what we had anticipated all along — a squeaker. Both sides experimented with alternative media strategies; both sides tapped the power of popular culture and explored the potential of new media in an all out effort to mobilize their base, recruit new voters, and win over the undecideds. We can summarize the two campaigns through contrasting cultural reference points:

Dixie Chick’s outrage over the Iraq War The FCC’s outrage over Janet Jackson’s Nipple
“Bush in Sixty Seconds” Swift Boat Captains for Truth
Michael Moore Mel Gibson
“Deanie Babies” Republican Bloggers
The Daily Show

Fox News
“Vote or Die” Direct appeals to church groups
Air America Clear Channel

In each case, the Republicans added just a few more voters to their tally and that’s all it took.

Democrats saw popular culture as a way of reaching the “hearts and minds” of voters, yet their perspective was limited in so far as they understood democracy in terms of a special event, putting all of their effort behind defeating Bush and then feeling devastated when they failed to achieve that goal. Instead, we need to see citizenship as a lifestyle; the real change will come when progressives reframe the terms of the debate and construct compelling narratives which change the way we think about the micropolitics of everyday life.

George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! offers a compelling analysis of how progressives might recover from the 2004 defeat. Lakoff argues that the Democrats had the facts on their side but the Republicans framed the debate. To turn this around, the Democrats need to reinvent themselves — not by shifting their positions but by altering the frame. As Lakoff explains, “Reframing is social change…. Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense.”

In a simple yet suggestive analysis, Lakoff characterizes progressive and reactionary politics in terms of what he calls the Nurturing Parent and the Strict Father frames. According to the Strict Father model, Lakoff writes, “the world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. …Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right.” The strict father “dares to discipline” his family and supports a president who will discipline the nation and ultimately, the world. According to the progressive “nurturing parent” scenario, “Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. …The parents’ job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.” Swing voters share aspects of both world views. The goal of politics, Lakoff suggests, is to “activate your model in the people in the middle” without pushing them into the other camp.

While Lakoff’s emphasis is on political rhetoric, his focus on the family is highly suggestive for television scholars given the medium’s relentless production of family melodramas and domestic sitcoms. We can see individual programs as tapping — and reinforcing — these frames, though television most often aims for a commercial sweet spot — one occupied by Lakoff’s “people in the middle.” Niche media outlets can and do focus their attention on red or blue America, but the broadcast channels must go purple.

We can see these pressures at work in a liberal show like The West Wing, which many have described as a “shadow presidency,” constantly framing a progressive response to the policies of the Bush administration. When the writers let Bartlett be Bartlett, the “POTUS” does what many of us hoped Howard Dean might do — represent the “democratic wing of the Democratic party,” addressing head on conservative and moderate objections. To do this, the series must acknowledge and rewrite more conservative perspectives, especially if it is going to attract and convince the “people in the middle.” Sometimes, it does so through the introduction of thoughtful conservative characters such as Ainsley Hayes or Clifford Calley who often argue against, more often compromise with the liberal protagonists. Other times, we see the pull of the program’s core content towards a more conservative framing of the issues (especially in the 2003-2004 season) where episodes seemed to embrace the Bush agenda whole-cloth. Perhaps, most spectacularly, the current season centers around the political campaign to determine what kind of leader will replace Josiah Bartlett. When the dust settles, it looks likely that both parties will have selected candidates that in reality neither party could nominate — Jimmy Smitt’s Matt Santos is a thoughtful Democrat who refuses to play the race card and Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick is a principled and independent-minded Republican who refuses to play the gotcha game. Both are men who have strong appeals across party lines because they represent a balance between Lakoff’s strict father and nurturing parent models.

On the other end of the spectrum, 24 might be seen as the archtypial example of reactionary television, governed by the ongoing recognition that the world is a dangerous place and that the strong protagonist must do things that even his own government refuses to sanction. Week after week, 24 justifies the use of torture and the circumvention of civil liberties because there just isn’t enough time to do anything else. Yet, as reactionary as 24 can be, there are still hints of the nurturing parent frame which comes through at those moments when people place their personal loyalties — inside and outside of families — above everything else or conversely, when we see evil parents or duplicitous spouses who put their ideological commitments above the need to nurture and support their family members.

Lakoff uses the consumption of popular culture to discuss how these competing frames may interact within any given voter: “Progressives can see a John Wayne movie or an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and they can understand it….They have a strict father model, at least passively. And if you are conservative and you understand The Cosby Show, you have a nurturing parent model, at least passively.” Popular culture allows us to entertain alternative framings in part because the stakes are lower, because our viewing commitments don’t carry the same weight as our choices at the ballot box. A progressive viewer may watch 24 without guilt while deciding to vote for John McCain might be a much bigger step.

And that brings us to what I am calling here television for swing states — programs like Jack and Bobby and Lost which consciously mix and match conservative and progressive signifiers. My father used to say that people who stand in the middle of the road get hit by cars going in both directions. Yet, I think we would be wrong to see these series as simply wishy-washy. Instead, such programs are doing important political work; they provide a common cultural context within which conservatives and progressives can debate values and within which independents or swing voters can play around with competing ideological visions. Such shows construct and test market hybrid political identities.

Jack and Bobby does this cultural work on two levels: through its critique of contemporary family life (as represented through the contemporary storyline) and through its construction of an alternative political future (through its representations of the McCallister presidency some decades later). Our awareness of Bobby’s political future ups the stakes in what is otherwise a fairly typical WB youth drama, transforming adolescent delimmas into world-changing events. Through a drama about a broken home, where Bobby must find his way between the competing demands of an overly-indulgent but subtly coercive mother and a tough love brother, we see a search for a coherent set of values which will guide the next generation of political leaders. The pot-smoking mother needs to be taught discipline; she is too quick to jump to politically correct conclusions; she can’t keep her mouth shut in social situations, which call upon her to be a mother first and an ideologue second. The brother’s punishing gaze often comes across as misogynistic; he needs to stop judging people; he needs to be taught to nurture. In short, the program finds both the strict father and the nurturing parent paradigms lacking. At the same time, Bobby is simultaneously depicted as innately good (as in the nurturing parent scenario) and as undergoing a moral education (as in the strict father paradigm).

Emerging at the other end of this contradictory child rearing process, we see a candidate who is decisively purple — “the Great Believer.” President McCalister is a complex balance of his brother’s self-discipline and his mother’s passion and principles, an independent who beats both Democrats and Republicans in a closely contested election, a minister who speaks about core values but respects everyone’s right to choose and holds nondenominational services at the White House. (West Wing fans will recall that the whole concept of “nondenominational services” was a flashpoint for Bartlett.) Each week, we get a new revelation about the person Bobby will become, revelations which sometimes swing to the right, sometimes to the left. Despite the series’s title, Bobby McCalister is no Kennedy but he may be a white boy version of Barack Obama.

If Jack and Bobby’s political subtext is often inescapable, Lost remains more implicit — and this may help to explain why the latter is more commercially successful. As Susan Sontag suggested long ago in the “Imagination of Disaster,” cataclysmic narratives often provide a context for sorting through core values. The shipwrecked characters have been cut off from civilization and need to form a new community, work through competing bids for leadership, learn to respect and trust each other. The series protagonist, also named Jack, represents another political hybrid — sometimes the strict father who must lay down the law, sometimes the nurturing parent who needs to understand where a character has been in order to help them to adjust to their present circumstances. If Jack and Bobby allows us to imagine a future where current political battle lines can be blurred, Lost invites us to imagine a world where we can rethink our political culture from the ground up. The allegorical quality of the series invites us to read it in terms of spiritual values but Lost never fully commits itself to a religious interpretation. Call it”nondenominational.”

Why should we care about television for swing states? As long as the overarching narrative of American political life is that of the culture war, our leaders will govern through a winner take all perspective. As long as the Republicans keep winning elections, Democrats can have little or no active role in shaping social policies — though, as we are seeing in the current social security debate, they can do a lot of damage along the way. Every issue gets settled through bloody partisan warfare when in fact, on any given issue, there is a consensus issue which unites Red and Blue America and on most of those issues, the consensus ends up looking more progressive than not. We agree on much; we trust each other little.

In such a world, nobody can govern and nobody can compromise. There is literally no common ground. Shows like Jack and Bobby and Lost create common ground from which we may construct and debate our fantasies about America’s future. Such shows are politically important because they generate dialogue between groups which, all too often, aren’t even speaking with each other. It is through such dialogue that a new political culture can emerge. And as I have suggested, such shows construct hybrid candidates who show how one can reframe progressive politics in ways that speaks to the “people in the middle.” If progressives study such shows, they may well learn to do what Lakoff is advocating — reframe the debate.

Image Credits
1. Dixie Chicks Controversy

Rockridge Institute Interview with George Lakoff
George Lakoff Home
The West Wing
Swing State Project: Swing States and TV Advertising

Please feel free to comment.

Watching Westerns in Old Europe

by: Patrick J. Walsh / Universität Passau

Americans are rich and they use the Western to explain why. So said one of my students in a class on the Western at the University of Passau in southern Germany. Inspired by Jane Tompkins’ wonderful book, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, I had planned to guide my students toward a consideration of American manhood. And to some extent, that happened. But at the very first meeting of the class, someone linked the word “cowboy” with President Bush and from then on the idea of American self-sanctioned violence never seemed far from the surface of our conversations.

Perhaps my students’ overwhelming dislike for the current president, and the fact that I asked them to think about what these movies suggested about the US, influenced their take on the films we watched. They seemed displeased by the Manichean logic of screen heroes like Shane and the Ringo Kid, men who were willing to kill without remorse, their vengeful, hateful violence cloaked in moral rectitude, courtesy to women and, a show of religious feeling. Both reminded my students of American politicians claiming the moral high ground as they allowed the killing of innocents in the name of “freedom.” There was also little appeal in the anti-heroes of films such as Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969). These men simply used violence to attain their goals, like a “classic” cowboy, but without the varnish of justification. (Watch clip: Fistful of Dollars [real player])

By far the two most popular films with my students were Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952). Saddles appealed, I think, because in between fart jokes it looked directly at the destructive myths of the Western. High Noon was popular because its violence was truly in self-defense and, I think, because of its rejection of religion as a simple way of making moral choices. It is also a great flick: one student wrote movingly about how the tension in the film plays across Gary Cooper’s face, his body, even his hands. (Watch clip: High Noon [avi])

Despite the fact that I pleaded with them to find John Wayne cool, even replaying his walk through a herd of cattle in Red River (1948) for them so they could appreciate his amazing physical presence, I think it was the thoughtful Cooper (and, in Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little) who really appealed to them. Given the timing of my students’ upbringing, at the end of forty-five years of national division and during the wrenching process of reintegrating the economically devastated East after 1989, it doesn’t surprise me that most prefer a variety of manhood and manly heroism quite different from those in Westerns.

Solving problems with a sanctifying burst of violence — although they have seen enough American movies to be more than familiar with the pattern — just doesn’t seem to be in my students’ cultural vocabulary. My wife and I are amused by the amount of dialogue on cop shows (and all programs) here and how rarely the detective draws his gun. A wonderful example of this is Der Kommisario, a German production based on the novels of an American, Donna Leon, who now lives in Italy. Long on conversation and short on action, Der Kommisario is, in the words of a friend, in the “firm German tradition of uneventful and relatively boring crime series.” Such deliberate shows seem more interested in the interaction and development of the characters than in the inevitable triumph of the criminal justice system.


Westerns are not about people so much as about a people. For a century, Americans have used them as ways of explaining to themselves who they are. But, one student objected, Westerns turn history upside down, claiming that Americans had to defend themselves from hostile Indians and other forces arrayed against their innate goodness. Thus, seemingly every hero is beaten or loses his family, anything that will rationalize the coming bloodbath. (This is not limited to Westerns: think Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Die Hard, Patriot Games, and so on.)

In a surprising way, many Germans are more forward-looking than Americans. Are there such German myths? No, say my students. As an observer, it seems to me, that without national myths like the classic Western or stories of 1776, Germans have reason to see the past, present, and future in a much more whiggish manner than do Americans. The story of the Western, whether it be Stagecoach or The Wild Bunch, often looks at “American progress” with a jaundiced eye: the coming of civilization means the end of heroism, these legends tell us. The future belongs to merchants, ministers, and women. Americans must be reassured: in the debates last fall, both Bush and Kerry passionately stated their belief that America’s best days are ahead. One of our great national myths suggests otherwise, however, and my students thought it telling that the heroes of so many Westerns — like Shane, Ringo, Ethan Edwards (played by Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers of 1956) — end up alone.

Is George Bush a cowboy, I asked? Many were convinced he carefully uses the dress and speech of this icon to his advantage. If he is the sheriff and bin Laden is the outlaw, then, given the logic of the classical Western, any violence is justified to bring the “bad guy” in. Then a student said something very interesting: to Germans, “the term ‘cowboy’ has a neutral meaning.” So does “Indian.” Germans are not invested in the historical need to valorize one and damn the other. Either can be a hero or a bloodthirsty killer. Bush tries to swing the image one way, but, despite recent fence mending, most Germans interpret his use of the rhetoric as that of the kind of cowboy who will let nothing stand between him and his goal, more like the maniacal Ethan Edwards of The Searchers than High Noon‘s sheriff Will Kane.

Most Germans are critical of the present administration as well as many aspects of American culture–what they perceive as needless violence, materialism, and environmental carelessness–in a fashion that is known here as “Amerikakritik,” a word carefully separate from anti-Americanism (“Anti-amerikanismus”). Germans are able to differentiate between a people and its government. My students did so regularly. And they are able to admire the United States even as they are critical of some of its dominant ideals. After watching a semester’s worth of Westerns, one student wrote that, “I regard the American society as a ‘Hau-drauf-Gesellschaft’ [a get-out-of-my-way society, in which] use your power, strength, elbows and violence to get what you want. In the end success will justify just about everything.” Even so, my students told me that they love American culture, like Americans, and do not define themselves in opposition to the US. Yet in times like these many Germans feel it’s clear that the American Dream “needs more than elbows.”

Image Credits:

Western Films

Please feel free to comment.

Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy

On March 10, 2004, when speaking to AFL-CIO union workers in Chicago, John Kerry said in what he thought was an off-mike comment: “Let me tell you — we’re just beginning to fight here. These guys are the most crooked, lying group of people I’ve ever seen.” Although Kerry was savaged by the Republican attack apparatus for this comment, in retrospect, he was quite correct. It is well documented that the Bush-Cheney administration has governed with lies and deception (Conason 2003; Corn 2003; Dean 2004; Waldman 2004). As I indicate in Kellner 2005 (Chapters 5 and 6), ‘Big, Bold, and Brazen Lies’ characterized the distinctive discourse and strategy of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign.1

In a New York Times op-ed piece, “The Dishonesty Thing,” Paul Krugman wrote that the key election issue was a “pattern of lies… on policy issues, from global warming to the war in Iraq.” Krugman recounts how years ago when he began questioning Bush administration figures on tax cuts, the deficit, and other economic issues, he and other critics were denounced as “shrill.” Citing a variety of establishment economic figures and reports, Krugman says that these documents reveal that he and other Bush critics were right and that the Bush administration was lying about their economic policies, using “fuzzy math” and fake figures to clothe the dubious results of their policies. Worrying that Bush’s economic policies might create a disaster and that, so far, the Bush administration has not begun to indicate solutions for economic problems they’ve created, such as the skyrocketing deficit, Krugman concluded: “Some not usually shrill people think that Mr. Bush will simply refuse to face reality until it comes crashing in: Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, says there’s a 75 percent chance of a financial crisis in the next five years. Nobody knows what Mr. Bush would really do about taxes and spending in a second term. What we do know is that on this, as on many matters, he won’t tell the truth.”2

For Bob Herbert of the New York Times, Bush’s Big Lie was the war on Iraq, a disastrous policy that has now killed more than 1,000 young Americans and placed the United States in a Vietnamesque quagmire. Seething with anger, Herbert cited the previous day’s Times, which published photos of the first 1,000 who died: “They were sent off by a president who ran and hid when he was a young man and his country was at war. They fought bravely and died honorably. But as in Vietnam, no amount of valor or heroism can conceal the fact that they were sent off under false pretenses to fight a war that is unwinnable. How many thousands more will have to die before we acknowledge that President Bush’s obsession with Iraq and Saddam Hussein has been a catastrophe for the United States?”3

In retrospect, the smears on Kerry by the Republican attack apparatus and Bush-Cheney’s systematic lying throughout the campaign represent a low point in U.S. electoral politics. The studies in Kellner 2005 suggest that the conjuncture of corporate media which privilege entertainment and spectacle, the rise of a rightwing Republican media attack apparatus, and the systematic deployment of a politics of lying by the Bush administration has produced a crisis of democracy in the United States. I suggest that three convergent trends have seriously undermined U.S. democracy: the corporate control of mainstream media, which biases dominant media toward conservativism and profit; an implosion of information and entertainment and rise of a culture of media spectacle, which makes politics a form of entertainment and spectacle; and the rise of a right-wing Republican media propaganda and attack apparatus, which systematically deploys lies and deception to advance the agenda of conservative groups and interests.

An ever-growing right-wing Republican media machine, ranging from the Wall Street Journal and the conservative press to the Rupert Murdoch–owned Fox TV, talk radio, and the extreme right sector on the Internet, all disseminate propaganda of a scope and virulence never before seen in U.S. history.4 Expanding significantly since the 1980s, the Republican propaganda machine has cultivated a group of ideological storm troopers who loudly support Bush-Cheney policies and attack those who criticize them. These extremists are impervious to argument, ignore facts and analysis, and demonize as unpatriotic anyone who challenges Bush-Cheney policies. Groomed on Fox TV and right-wing talk radio, they verbally assault anyone who does not march in lockstep with the administration and wage ideological war against the heathens, liberals, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other dissenters. These rightwing ideological warriors allow no disparagement of Bush and Cheney and refuse civil dialogue, preferring denunciation and invective.

Although the mainstream corporate media are vilified as “liberal” by the right-wing attack machine, in fact, mainstream journalists are easily intimidated when the right-wing army e-mails, calls, writes, and harasses any corporate media source that goes too far in criticizing the Bush-Cheney regime. The mainstream corporate media are largely subservient to corporate interests, follow the sensation of the moment, and rarely engage in the sort of investigative journalism that was once the ideal and that now takes place largely in the alternative sphere. Corporate media increasingly promote entertainment over news and information, like the tabloids framed by codes of media spectacle (Kellner 2003).

As an example of Bush administration intimidation of corporate media, Ryan Lizza dissected the Bush-Cheney closing strategy and how they targeted for attack specific media that strongly criticized them:

The White House has always relied on the press to convey Bush’s message to readers and viewers in a relatively unmediated fashion. That has proved more difficult this year due to a surge in coverage that fact-checks what the candidates are saying. This development has hurt Bush more than Kerry because the president’s strategy is to destroy his opponent’s credibility, a tactic that, ironically enough, has relied disproportionately on false statements. The Bushies have become so frustrated by the fact-checking of the president’s statements that a spokesman told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, “The Bush campaign should be able to make an argument without having it reflexively dismissed as distorted or inaccurate by the biggest papers in the country.”

In response to the media’s new obsession with truth-squading the candidates, the Republican National Committee’s opposition research department has started to do something remarkable: going negative on the press. “RNC Research Briefings,” e-mailed to hundreds of reporters, now regularly target members of the media. On October 6, the RNC put Hardball host Chris Matthews, a former staffer for House Speaker Tip O’Neill, in its sights. “Democrat Chris Matthews’ Selective ‘Analysis,'” read the headline on a three-page press release that accused Matthews of erroneously claiming Cheney had contradicted himself during the debate when he denied tying September 11 to Saddam Hussein. Accompanying the release, the RNC posted a video online attacking Matthews. A few days later, Republicans took issue with the New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller’s accurate statement that, despite Bush’s claims, Kerry “essentially voted for one large tax increase, the Clinton tax bill of 1993.” “The New York Times Shades the Truth,” read the headline of a press release the RNC quickly put out. Next up was Ron Suskind, who wrote a critical piece in the New York Times Magazine. “Liberal Democrat Suskind Has Creativity but Not Facts,” the RNC noted. A few days later Paul Krugman became the RNC’s target. In Suskind’s and Krugman’s cases, the oppo was unusually personal and included unflattering pictures of the men, the kind that candidates dig up of their opponents, not of journalists.

The fact that the RNC is now devoting a good deal of its time to attacking reporters speaks volumes about how much Bush is relying on negative, unchecked distortions to secure a second term. And that means that, in its own way, the Ashley Faulkner ad — with its warm and fuzzy image of Bush — ultimately leaves voters with as false an impression as the Willie Horton ad did in 1988.5

The Bush administration had indeed been ruthless throughout their reign against media voices who had spoken out against them. Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, and other Bush operatives had relentlessly browbeat any reporter who dared criticize the Bush administration. Few critics noticed that the Bush administration had carried through a paradigm shift in presidential and media politics. Previously, the media and the administration in power had engaged in a complex courtship ritual with both sides trying to seduce and manipulate the other. The mainstream media needed sources and material, and the administration needed the media to get across its messages.

All this had changed with the Bush administration, which viciously attacked any reporters who contested its statements or positions. If a media institution broadcast or published material deemed hostile by the Bush team, their shock troops bombarded the offending institution with e-mails, phones call, and letters, attacking them for exhibiting “bias” against Bush. This helps explain why the mainstream corporate media were so reluctant to contradict Bush campaign distortions and lies and why they did not do more serious investigative reporting into the scandalous backgrounds of Bush and Cheney and the striking failures of their administration. The cowardly mainstream media, for the most part concerned with reputation and profits, mainly submitted to the Bush-Cheney-Rove Gang coercion, and sacrificed their journalistic integrity by rarely refuting their lies except in the mildest possible terms. As a result, few administrations had ever so successfully controlled the media.

In addition to cultivating right-wing media that broadcast their messages of the day and intimidating the mainstream corporate media, the Bush administration has created fake media and bought conservative commentators to push their policies. During the 2004 debate on Medicare, the Bush administration created simulated video news releases (VNRs) featuring Karen Ryan “reporting” on Medicare; it later came out that Ryan was a U.S. government employee simulating a television reporter. The U.S. General Accounting Office ruled that the VNRs violated bans on government-funded “publicity and propaganda.”6

In 2005, it was revealed that the Bush administration paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to promote its No Child Left Behind Act, and had paid two conservative commentators to promote its family policy.

But most astonishing of all, the Bush administration provided press credentials to a fake journalist who worked for Talon News service that was barely a front for conservative propaganda. The Bush White House provided a press pass to avowed conservative partisan “Jeff Gannon” who was a regular in the White House Briefing Room, where he was frequently called upon by Bush administration press secretary Scott McClellan whenever the questions from the press corps got too hot for comfort. After he manufactured quotes by Senators Clinton and Reid in White House press conferences, bloggers found out that his real name was “James Guckert” and that he also ran gay porn sites and worked as a gay escort. As another example of the collapse of the investigative functions of the mainstream media, although “Gannon” was a frequent presence lobbing softball questions in the White House briefing room, his press colleagues never questioned his credentials, leaving investigative reporting to bloggers that the mainstream media was apparently to lazy and incompetent to do themselves.

Over the past decade or more, the investigative function of traditional journalism has largely fallen to alternative media and the Internet. The only way that a democratic social order can be maintained is for the mainstream media to assume their democratic function of critically discussing all issues of public concern and social problems from a variety of viewpoints and fostering spirited public debate, accompanied by the development of vigorous and competent investigative and alternative media. The democratic imperative that the mainstream corporate press and broadcasting provide a variety of views on issues of public interest and controversy has been increasingly sacrificed, as has their responsibility to serve as a check against excessive government or corporate power and corruption.

Democracy, however, requires informed citizens and access to information and thus the viability of democracy is dependent on citizens seeking out crucial information, having the ability to access and appraise it, and to engage in public conversations about issues of importance. Democratic media reform and alternative media are thus crucial to revitalizing and even preserving the democratic project in the face of powerful corporate and political forces. How media can be democratized and what alternative media can be developed will of course be different in various parts of the world, but without democratic media politics and alternative media, democracy itself cannot survive in a vigorous form, nor will a wide range of social problems be engaged or even addressed.

This text is excerpted from Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy just published by Paradigm Press.
Paul Krugman, “The Dishonesty Thing,” New York Times 10 September 2004.
Bob Herbert, “How Many Deaths Will It Take?” New York Times 10 September 2004.
The rise and growing influence of a right-wing Republican media propaganda and attack apparatus has been well documented in Alterman (2000 and 2003); Brock (2004); Conason (2003); Miller (2004); and Waldman (2004). In Kellner 2005, I update and expand my critique of right-wing and corporate media and show how they have relentlessly promoted the agenda of the Bush administration.
Ryan Lizza, “Backward,” New Republic 01 November 1 2004.
See Laura Miller, “The 2004 Falsies Awards,” AlterNet, 30 December 2004.


Alterman, Eric. Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2000.

—. What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: BasicBooks, 2003.

Brock, David. The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. New York: Crown, 2004.

Conason, Joe. Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003.

Corn, David. The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. New York: Crown, 2003.

Dean, John. Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. Boston: Little, Brown, 2004.

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

—. Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm, 2005.

—. Television and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder: Westview, 1990.

Miller, Mark Crispin. Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order. New York: Norton, 2004.

Waldman, Paul. Fraud. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2004.

Douglas Kellner’s Home Page
Republican National Committee
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Fox News

Please feel free to comment.

Can the Social History of Audiences Contribute to Media Reform?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Zephyr Teachout, formerly a staffer for Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, recently published an open memo to the Democratic Party about using the internet to help rejuvenate the Party at the grassroots. Teachout is intervening in a revival of an old argument: we are once again hearing that technology will save us. In recent years, the Dean campaign used the internet to overturn all the rules for political fundraising, internet bloggers have repeatedly made fools out of professional journalists, and internet downloads have been keeping media moguls awake at night. And so, some suggest, the two-way internet will triumph over one-way TV after all, the new media technology will turn us into a nation of active citizens instead of passive couch potatoes. The argument on the table is this: don’t just try to break up media monopolies or pass fairness doctrine regulations, or otherwise try to change the behavior of the mainstream media institutions in the hopes of forcing them to better serve democracy. No, go straight to the newest technologies and find your democracy there. The internet is the solution.

Many FlowTV readers will be aware of how familiar and generally disappointing the tradition of the technical fix has been: the telegraph was going to unite the peoples of the world, the airplane was going to end war (who would attack a country you could easily fly to?), cable television was going to end alienation and rejuvenate democracy (as was the CB radio), and of course we’ve already watched utopian hopes for the internet soar and crash once before, with the stock bubble.

Teachout’s version of the technical fix, however, is both more nuanced and has a twist: her argument is that the internet should be used to organize local, face-to-face Democratic groups, to create local organizations. Use the internet, not to disintermediate, but to reconnect, not to circumvent the local, but to facilitate local meetings of the like-minded, to find those in your community with whom you share a common interest.

This is the model, which perhaps represents the one true internet innovation of the last several years. Blogs are just a variation on the personal web page, and political discussion lists are as old as email. The “Dean For America” meetups that occurred across the US were something new, however, and to the surprise of both the Dean staff and the rest of the world, they became a crucial part of the campaign. They provided strategic value, like fund-raising, and quick coordination of local with national efforts, but just as importantly they provided people with a uniquely intense, emotional connection to the campaign. There are now tens of thousands of Americans who will remember their experience of the Dean meetups of 2004 for the rest of their lives.

Teachout references Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, but thankfully also Theda Skocpol’s less nostalgic work on the historical twists and turns of the relations of local community formation to political movements. Local groups, Teachout argues, amplify individuals’ sense of power; non-staffed local community building, she points out, has been central to the successes of the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association.

So what’s this have to do with the internet? “The internet,” she writes, “lowers the barrier to finding places to host public events, and telling people about them. If political . . . organizations with incentive and opportunity exploit this lowered barrier, the Internet could power a resurgence of a new version of the great American voluntary association.”

Perhaps. One wonders how much the internet can be the locus of much passion outside what Teachout acknowledges are “the prominent political blogs and sites that attract a primarily upper class white audience,” i.e., groups of people who already spend much of their day at the computer keyboard.

Part of what’s wrong with many instances of the technical fix is its naive view of media audiences: Americans, it is assumed, eagerly await clear access to information, and when new technologies give it to them, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will suddenly behave rationally, at the ballot box and elsewhere. The stereotype of the citizen yearning for enlightenment through information is American liberalism’s equivalent of the heroic worker of socialist realist orthodoxy.

This is where students of media and cultural studies have something to contribute: Fiskean simplicities about active audiences aside, a number of sophisticated ethnographic and, particularly, historical studies of audiences-as-communities have appeared in recent years. Focused on the complex relations of TV to communities and social conflicts, all point to a richer way of thinking about the relation of media to publics, polities, and social groupings. To mention just a few: Lynn Spigel, in her study of the introduction of the television set into suburban homes in the 1950s, argued that trends like the suburb or television should be seen not as the decline of community, but contexts for the formation of new types of communities; these new modes of life have their own distinct pressures and structures, but they are communities nonetheless. Kathleen Newman’s history of the intersections of radio with consumer actions like organized boycotts in the 1940s adds to the picture of the ways that media and new social movements can interact. And Steve Classen’s rich study of the relations of TV to Southern civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s provides a vivid example of how legal and political struggles over the control of TV can become a galvanizing part of local organizing.

This work demonstrates neither naive optimism about audiences nor the sugar-coated cynicism of much marketing research. The TV set in the living room, the neighborhood Church, the hunting club, and yes, the internet-connected personal computer all can become, for various people at various times, not just a backdrop for and tools within the rhythms of our everyday lives, but tools that on occasion help crystallize groups into passionate political action. But the occasion for politically positive action is always complicated, involving a rich stew of struggles, cultural trends, and both self- and public-interests.

Michael Curtin, in his last column for Flow, argued that we need to emphasize “the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy.” A public commons, though, is perhaps neither just a place nor a technology; it is a social event, a collective passion, something that bubbles up out of the complexities of social life, not a location or structure that is somehow shielded from those complexities. In the heat of the moment, both romances and revolutions seem like their own driving force and explanation. But years later, when we look back on them, we can recognize all the multiple things that came together to create the conditions for the passion. Making sense of the role of media in understanding how communities do and do not become politically energized, I think, is something our field can offer those working to create a more democratic world.


James W. Carey with John Quirk: “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” and “The History of the Future,” in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 113-141 and pp. 173-200.

Steven Douglas Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi Television, 1955-1969. Duke UP, 2004.

Kathleen M. Newman, Radio Active : Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947. U of California P, 2004.

Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Tom Streeter on Media Left Out?
Michael Curtin on Murdoch
Frederick Wasser on the Fairness Doctrine
Toby Miller on Fox News
Howard Dean’s Democracy for America

Please feel free to comment.

Overhaulin’ TV and Government (Thoughts on the Political Campaign to Pimp Your Ride)

by: James Hay / University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign

Pimp My Ride

Pimp My Ride on MTV

These days, the expression “overhauling” is in the air (and “on the air.”) Among journalists’ and politicians’ accounts of what the United States can expect from George W. Bush’s second term as president, “overhauling” has become the term du jour for his and fellow Republicans’ plans to achieve a broad array of reforms that will reinvent the role of government (and the role of citizens) under the banners of various slogans: Ownership Society, the Conservative New Deal, or the New New Deal. Some of the most prominent programs targeted for overhauling–for cultivating an Ownership Society — include Social Security, federal taxes, and federal and corporate-sponsored health insurance. This particular vision of reinventing government and citizenship is not necessarily new, having developed out of the “supply-side economics” or “trickle-down economics” of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution,” and the “welfare reform” of the Clinton administration’s second term — all of which considered decades-old national programs of social welfare to be impediments to localizing, privatizing, or personalizing the administration of social welfare in the U.S.

“Overhaul,” however, has become the operative program and plan — the key word for making sense of the circular reasoning of W’s claim in his recent inaugural speech that “in America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character [and that] self government relies on the governing of the self.” Indeed overhaul, make-over, radical surgery, and the reinvention of government all involve not only our primarily cutting back on services previously administered through federal programs, but redefining the responsibilities of government as well as the responsibilities of citizens — and (following Bush’s mantra over the last four years) “advancing freedom” in this way. In the U.S., particularly in these times, the advancement of individual rights and liberties is predicated upon the advancement of personal responsibilities — upon refining the techniques of independence, as a means to overcoming states of dependence.

Today, what exactly are, and where do we find, the techniques, technologies, and guidelines of self-government and of freedom as a private (or personal) responsibility, as a measure of good citizenship to which we are expected to “own up” in an Ownership Society? In the past weeks, several contributors to Flow have offered thoughtful accounts of the recent array of make-over programs on television. In this article, I suggest that the various political programs promising to reinvent government have had something to do with the reinvention of television (and the reivention of the “TV program”) as techniques, regimens, and technologies for self-government — for looking after and taking care of oneself, for maximizing personal responsibility, for becoming as self-directed as possible, and thus for becoming a good citizen within the current reasoning about government.

Make-over TV (the television make-over and TV’s own reinvention) is not simply about the idea of freedom, citizenship, and self-governance, it is about demonstrating the specific techniques and technologies for acting and behaving as independent, self-governing citizens, about the performance of citizenship by applying these techniques in daily life, about recognizing our entrepreneurial skills and resources, and about empowering citizens in these ways. Granted, there are significant differences between series such as The Swan, America’s Next Top Model, Nanny 911, Extreme Makeover (and its Home Edition), Queer Eye For the Straight Guy (and Girl), Renovate My Family, Judge Joe Brown, Curb Appeal or Mission Organization, Fit TV (a channel for physical fitness), Suzie Orman’s financial advice, the Food Channel’s Molto Mario, and things learned on the Learning Channel. But that is the point. We have a lot to work on, a lot to be responsible for in these times. We are asked to maximize our flexibility as workers, citizens, and viewers of TV. TV, meanwhile, has been reinvented to demonstrate the multiplicity of little challenges, the little techniques for taking care of ourselves, and the big results of making ourselves over — and in this way, to make the televisual programs of self-help relevant and matter within the political programs for reinventing government.

Providing for and taking care of ourselves (preparing citizens to be managers of their own security, welfare, health, and happiness, “freeing ourselves” from a “cycle of dependency” associated with older and purportedly broken vehicles of state-sponsored welfare) requires regimens, programs, and technologies designed for the body, personal finance, work habits, home organization and improvement, and entire towns (as in Town Haul) — endless retraining to enable us to lead fulfilling lives within the new reasoning about work, leisure, and self-management. The car-overhaul is one of the most important of these programs because the automobile has long been the technology, the vehicle, that liberal democracy in the U.S. has valued most–automobility as the self-reliant, self-directed, fully transported (free) self, and the fully transportable TV viewer. Tele-vision, after all, has developed through technologies of transport, portability, and automobility.

For the population that Bush’s overhaul of Social Security is most supposed to empower, Pimp My Ride has become over the last year one of the most successful programs on MTV, and has become a template for car and motorcycle make-over programs on other networks (including The Learning Channel’s Overhaulin.) In the MTV series, a young man or woman wins a competition to have a Los Angeles-based custom body shop not just rehabilitate her or his car but address her or his personal requirements for becoming self-sufficient and self-directed by enhancing the synergy between driver and her/his mode of self-transport (i.e., by having her or his “ride pimped.”) In many cases, the cars’ owners justify their need for an overhaul in terms not only of how their social mobility (their ability to find a job or to work effectively, their ability to perform routine tasks for themselves, friends or family, their ability to socialize or date), but also of how their ability to help themselves, have been impaired by the pathetic condition of their car. A primary objective of car enhancement, therefore, is providing a set of technologies for managing the everyday tasks associated with professional and social mobility in an environment that requires young workers, revelers, consumers, and citizens (viewers of MTV) to have and display the means of self-sufficiency as automobility.

In an episode from the spring of 2004 and regularly repeated, Logan, a young, African-American man, wins an opportunity to have his 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme overhauled. The first part of the episode tracks various problems with the car’s appearance (its lack of paint, its dents, its having become a trash can for wrappers, soiled clothes, and uneaten food) and its functioning (a malfunctioning radio and an inoperable driver’s-side window that forces him to retrieve fast-food from drive-throughs by stepping out of his car). Not only is the condition of his car preventing him from achieving his goal of becoming a business man and of starting his own company, but he fears that travelers on L.A.’s freeways wrongly will perceive him as dangerous, “as up to no good — a drug-dealer or a gangster.” The Cutlass, he surmises, is the model of and for a 1980’s generation of entrepreneurs, and its restoration would bring him closer to that path of taking control of many facets of his life: “Back in 1986, Hugh Hefner and all the pimps were rollin in this car; it’s an American legend.” A young African-American man’s valorizing (and rehabilitating) the successful White entrepreneur as pimp is now no more strange or contradictory than the largely White consumers of MTV being instructed on the arts of self-help and social mobility by the predominantly African-American customizers and body-experts of Pimp My Ride.

Although Pimp My Ride involves an identity transformation (of driver and car), the refashioning of the car involves not simply designing but customizing and personalizing the technological vehicle for self-realization. Logan’s life may require the intervention of experts, but the TV experts’ design respects and encourages Logan’s individual requirements for self-actualization.

Of all the make-over programs, the car overhaul as a televisual program for self-realization (auto-mobility as the technology of the fully mobile self) recognizes the current technological link between driver and TV viewer/listener, between car, communication technology, and TV. Having one’s ride pimped — technologically reassembled or reconditioned — acknowledges the current requirements of video and audio in and from the car. Logan’s car is outfitted with a new CD-player/radio, dual video monitors in the backseat for video-gaming and DVDs, a karaoke system (and pop-up video screen) in the trunk, and a speaker-system that, after the car in Knight Rider (a TV series from the same era as his Cutlass), allows the driver to speak to pedestrians. And Pimp My Ride regularly features even more elaborate (though always personalized) video and audio accoutrements than Logan apparently required. Pimp My Ride puts on display and demonstrates that the practice of freedom and that the road to self-actualization (taking control of and more effectively directing one’s life) is not simply about watching TV anymore, but about applying oneself through a synergy between communication and transportation technologies, through the transformation of the car and audio-video systems into a more mobile and flexible vehicle of self-realization and self-government. Fashioning a “smart car” (a well-designed and pleasing car, as well as an assemblage of intelligent media/communication technologies) becomes a multi-media vehicle for getting where you want to go.

While The Learning Channel’s Overhaulin is more cautious (demure perhaps) about representing car-makeover as “pimping,” the two titles collectively underscore one of the important strategies of instruction and demonstration in the current reasoning about government and citizenship — a lesson not lost on Logan when he invokes a Cutlass-driving Hugh Hefner as a vital model of entrepreneurial citizenship. As I write this article while Bush delivers his State of the Union speech, I wonder whether my students are watching the speech, Pimp My Ride, or Overhaulin, whether (or how) one program matters more than the other, and whether (or how) it matters where they are watching or listening to it — in their car or their apartment. Bush concludes the State of the Union speech referring to the uncertainties and risks along “the road of providence” that leads (where else?) “to freedom”. The current State of the Union affirms predictably that overhauling is tantamount to mobilizing (or auto-mobilizing) a TV citizenry, tantamount to social mobility in a Society of (Auto-)Ownership (of citizen-drivers rather than passengers), and tantamount to “advancing liberty” along the “free”-way of televisual citizenship, even as the president’s cocky smile, and the glint in his eye, suggest that he wants to pimp my ride.

(Thanks in particular to Laurie Ouellette and Jeremy Packer for our on-going conversations about these matters.)

Further Reading

James Hay, “Unaided Virtues: The (Neo-)Liberalization of the Domestic Sphere and the New Architecture of Community,” Foucault, Cultural Studies, Governmentality, ed., Jack Bratich, Jeremy Packer, & Cameron McCarthy, SUNY Press, 2003.

James Hay & Jeremy Packer, “Crossing the Media(-n): Auto-mobility, the Transported Self, and Technologies of Freedom,” Media/Space, ed. Nick Couldry & Anna McCarthy, Routledge, 2004.

James Hay, “Toward a Spatial Materialism of the ‘Moving Image’: Locating Screen Media within Changing Regimes of Transport,” Cinema & Cie, November 2004.

Laurie Ouellette, “‘Take Responsibility for Yourself’: Judge Judy & the Neoliberal Citizen,” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, ed. Susan Murray & Laurie Ouellette, NYU Press, 2004.

Image Credits:

Pimp My Ride

Please feel free to comment.

The 2004 Presidential Election and the Dean Scream

by: Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean Scream Remixes
Dean For America
Democratic Party
Republican Party

Please feel free to comment.

Interview: Jason Reich, writer on The Daily Show

by: Chris Lucas / FLOW Staff

The Daily Show

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Why do you think The Daily Show has achieved such widespread success? And more importantly, how do you think it is that a comedic commentary on the news could persuade so many to believe that what is said is the truth?

I think The Daily Show owes its success to that fact that we fill a rather unique niche in the media and comedy landscape. Nobody else out there is doing exactly what we do. While other comedy shows might touch on current events or poke fun at the news media, I can’t think of another show that combines parody and analysis in quite the same way. Of course, it’s taken the show a long time to find this exact voice, and I think the way the show’s popularity has exploded in the past couple of years is a testament to the fact that, particularly during that time, we’ve really been doing something all our own. As for “persuasion,” we’re not trying to persuade anybody to think anything. We’re merely offering our own commentary on the news. Read the papers and decide for yourself what the truth is. At the end of the day, we’re just telling jokes.

Can you describe the process of putting together a show? How many writers are there? How much creative freedom do writers have and how much is directed by the show’s producers? What role does the on-screen talent (Stewart, et al) play in the writing of the show? Are certain topics taboo and, if so, why?

Our day begins at 9:30 am when our team of ten writers meets with our head writer and several researchers. We skim the papers, review the footage we’ve received, and decide which stories are dominating the news ? those become our “Headlines.” The meeting is also a chance for any writers to pitch ideas for correspondent standups or other segments (“This Week In God,” etc.). The day’s assignments are divided up among the writing staff, and we all go back to our offices and write, usually alone or in pairs, for most of the morning. Mid-afternoon, the material we’ve written goes to head writer DJ Javerbaum, executive producer Ben Karlin, and of course, Jon Stewart. Together they select the best material for the show and edit any correspondent pieces that have been submitted. The rest of the day is devoted to re-writing or working ahead for shows later in the week. At 5:15 we rehearse, and then the audience comes in and we tape the show.

The correspondents, when they’re in the office and not on a field shoot, do contribute a lot to the writing. We’ll frequently sit down and work with them on pieces. And we get a lot of freedom in terms of the ideas and jokes we can submit. We are certainly encouraged to be creative and experiment ? better to pitch a crazy idea that doesn’t work than keep a great idea to yourself. We’re not too concerned about taboos, either. We try to avoid death and tragedy, but beyond that, if it’s happening, it’s pretty much fair game.

Do TDS producers/writers/talent organize or write material based on a presumed target audience? Are guest bookings similarly scheduled with a demographic appeal in mind? Guests seem to vary from celebs hocking their latest product to Senators and ex-presidents discussing the political climate, how is this disparity managed?

We’re writing and producing a show for a relatively young audience, so that does play a role in how we approach the material, but we’ve got an extremely smart viewership, too, so we never feel we have to dumb anything down. I think that’s also why we can get a tremendous variety of guests. Jon and our guest producer Hilary Kun are well aware of what’s happening in the worlds of both politics and entertainment, so when booking interviews they try to cover a wide range of interests. I don’t see it so much as a “disparity” as merely an attempt to keep the show fresh, interesting and topical.

Regarding you and/or the rest of the staff: what writing jobs have you had before TDS? Does the staff mostly come from late-night comedy? What is the average age of the writing team? How long have most of you been with the show?

Our writing staff, which ranges in age from mid-20s to 40-ish, comes from a fairly wide range of backgrounds. We have several people with experience in comedy, be it television writing or standup. Quite a few of our writers have journalism backgrounds, and others have done time in fields like advertising or graphic design, but have always had a talent and ambition for writing TV comedy. All of the ten writers currently on staff have been with the show for at least a year; most have two to five years experience with the show, and one has been around since the very first Daily Show ever aired. I, personally, did a lot of writing with comedy groups both in college and after graduating in New York, and I got television experience as a production assistant for an NBC sitcom and then as the writers’ assistant on The Daily Show, but getting staffed on the show was the first paying writing gig of my career.

What do you think about a large portion of today’s opinion being based off satire rather than traditional means of journalism? Is this a concern or inspiration when you write?

I think satire is a much more effective way to make a point than than just hitting your audience over the head with heavy-handed opinion. First of all, it’s more artful. Instead of coming out directly and saying, “such-and-such is a problem,” we have more leeway in finding creative ways to get our point across. I think even if a joke has serious undertones to it, comedy is a lot less preachy and lot more accessible than finger pointing and lecturing. And of course, we’re also giving our viewers something to laugh at. Our show certainly has a point of view, but you can also watch it without having to worry about what its “message” is. Hopefully, The Daily Show works on both levels for our audience.

Do you think there could ever be a political satire program with a conservative bend? Or are conservatives??just not funny?

Sure, I think conservative political satire can exist. I think that part of the reason what we do is so frequently perceived as “liberal” is because we’re talking about the news, and these days, the people making the news are, by and large, conservatives. When one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, they’re going to be the target of the lion’s share of our punchlines, but that doesn’t mean the left isn’t deserving of scorn, either. Conservatives are definitely funny. Have you read anything by Ann Coulter lately? Hysterical. Seriously, she’s hysterical.

I remember a joke on the show after the Emmy about the writers’ “diversity” (while showing a picture of a staff of white male writers). How much is this still (or was it ever really) the case? How does this relate to issues of target audience? Does the demographic makeup of the writing crew matter as far as writing for a specific audience?

We get asked questions like this a lot, and I firmly believe that the demographic makeup of our writing staff plays little to no part in issues of target audience. Yes, there may be a bunch of white men on our writing staff, but it doesn’t follow at all to say that that’s also the target audience we’re going for. Similar to the way we don’t book guests targeted for a specific audience segment, I don’t think there’s a specific “target demographic” in our mind when we’re writing the show’s material. We’re just trying to put together the funniest, most interesting, most insightful show possible, hopefully one that appeals to a wide range of people.

I’m an avid watcher of The Daily Show and enjoy almost everything Jon Stewart and his minions do. It does seem that the writers rely on gay jokes for many of your pieces. Why is that?

I wouldn’t necessarily say we “rely on” gay jokes for a lot of pieces, but I do think that jokes about sexuality or other “dangerous” topics are a good way to ease the tension when talking about already delicate topics. While we do like our material to have something to say, we’re not above mixing things up a little bit by approaching something from a sillier angle. We can only do so many weighty jokes about how bad things are in Iraq until we feel the need to toss in a poop joke and lighten things up a bit.

In an NPR interview on Sunday, Art Spiegelman claimed that comic writers and satirists (including himself and The Daily Show) are only permitted to speak because they are “castrated,” like medieval fools. How far is the TDS enabled or diminished by disclaimers like, “We only do fake news”?

I don’t think we’re hindered by that at all. After all, we’re not the news. I think it’s great that people see us as a valuable source of commentary, but watching The Daily Show should be a supplement to whatever other news sources you use, not a substitute. We’ve never claimed to be anything other than a comedy show, and I think if we were to claim some sort of legitimacy as a “real news” outlet, it would diminish what we’re able to get away with ? we wouldn’t be able to comment on the news media, which we do almost as often as we comment on current events. I’m glad that people respond to us, and I’m glad that Jon is taken seriously when he does speak on topics that are important to him, but we’d never claim to be more than “the fake news.” We just don’t want that kind of actual responsibility.

Are conservative media groups trying to get TDS off the air? Do you receive hate mail? Intimidating letters? Threats to boycott sponsors? In other words, how do conservative media groups respond to The Daily Show and how seriously are they taken?

As far as I know, there are no crusades being mounted to get us off the air. I think even staunch conservatives see the folly in trying to portray a basic cable comedy show as some sort of enemy of the people. We’re the little guy. Sure, every so often we’ll get a letter from someone who was upset by something we said, but no more often than any other comedy program or TV show gets those same kind of letters. We’ve had plenty of conservative guests on, and I think for the most part, they understand what we’re doing and they appreciate the humor. We’re really not out to make anybody mad. We just want to keep quietly doing our thing, albeit on the higher end of your cable dial.

Bear Left Link Library
The Daily Show Site
Warner Books
Footnotes for The Daily Show Feature: The Daily Show
PopMatters Review: The Daily Show
The Daily Show Forum
The Online Gadfly
Ann Coulter’s Website

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The Daily Show

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Global Advertising Data SOX-ed up

by: John Sinclair / Victoria University, Melbourne

Those of us with an orientation towards political economy and an interest in how the advertising industry propels media development have lost a lot of wind from our sails with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that was passed by U.S. Congress in July, 2002. The purpose of the Act is to protect investors from financial scams in the wake of Enron, Worldcom and other scandals, by considerably tightening the rules regarding the disclosure and verification of financial information (and especially claims of revenues or profitability) by publicly-listed companies.

In particular, the Act requires the CEO and CFO of such companies to prepare a statement accompanying their audit report to certify the ‘appropriateness of the financial statements and disclosures contained in the periodic report, and that those financial statements and disclosures fairly present, in all material respects, the operations and financial condition of the issuer’. In other words, the company’s principal executives personally have to verify declared figures.

The implications this has had for the advertising industry is that it has put an end to the various annual rankings which, until Sarbanes-Oxley, or ‘SOX’ as it has been dubbed, would be published by trade journals and professional bodies, not just in the US, but internationally. In the US, the annual league tables would be compiled and made widely available, most notably in Advertising Age; in Australia, it was done by AdNews and B&T Weekly; in the UK, income tables were produced by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA); and in Europe, by the Research Reports on Agency Media Networks service (RECMA).

For once, critical political economists and large corporate advertisers have found an interest in common that has been affected by the new law, as neither group has a comprehensive league table of advertising agencies’ annual performance any more. Not that anyone in the past took the rankings as an accurate measure. Advertising agency income is made up of ‘billings’, the amount of their clients’ money that agencies spend on buying advertising time and space in the media, as well as fee-for-service activities. Billings figures always were rubbery, because they would necessarily include estimates from shared accounts and from subsidiaries, as well as income earned but not yet secured. Therefore they could easily be inflated to give the impression an agency was doing better than it actually was. So, they always had to be taken with a grain of salt anyhow.

However, since SOX, agency principals do not dare to put their name to a dubious set of figures, and some CEOs even seem to be relieved to be able to shelter behind the new law, after having risked exposure for so many years. As one senior advertising executive in Australia commented, ‘Once upon a time, the release of the rankings was the great event of the year. It was quite good sport and everyone treated it with the humour it deserved. It’s a shame it got abused’.

OK, so the game’s over. But how is it that the effects of a US Act of Congress are being felt in Australia, the UK, Europe and elsewhere? Because of the globalization of the advertising industry, and the integration of US-based agencies within the largest agencies of all the major nations that have a commercial mass media system. Although some US agencies had already opened up offices outside of the US before World War II, the 1960s saw a wave of expansion into Europe, Australia and other former British dominions, and also the newly independent developing nations. The agencies were following the prior expansion of their clients to a large extent, the new ‘transnational corporations’, but also the dynamics of an emergent international manufacturing–marketing–media complex. They had enjoyed growth in the US, thanks to the first decade of television, and this gave them expertise (‘American know-how’ is a phrase of the era) that was advantageous in other national markets where television was more recently introduced. The bulk of the Australian advertising business was taken over in the 1960s by US agencies, that either set up their own subsidiaries or entered into various arrangements with Australian agencies.

Thus began the present era, in which the largest advertisers, mainly transnational, or more accurately now, global corporations, do their business with the largest agencies, and television takes an ever greater share of revenue. The largest agencies are also global, though US ownership and control has been greatly attenuated, not just in Australia but in comparable markets, by significant participation from UK, French, and to a lesser extent now, Japanese agencies.

One crucially important global trend of recent decades has been that in which several large international agencies — transnational corporations in their own right — form what the trade press calls ‘supergroups’ or ‘megagroups’. These groups do not operate as unified advertising agencies, but as holding companies which have a management and financial coordination function at a stratospheric level around the planet: this integrates the activities of the group’s member companies in marketing communications (such as market research and public relations) with the advertising agencies and their clients on a global basis.

A notable case is the British group WPP, which in the last decade has acquired agencies that had long been identified with the US, notably Young & Rubicam and J. Walter Thompson. Similarly, the French-based Publicis Groupe has Leo Burnett from the US as well as one-time British star agency Saatchi & Saatchi in its stable. The largest three agencies in Australia are all Australian-controlled, but they all have some minority ownership from the US or UK, so they cannot be said to be Australian-owned. The point is not so much that US capital is being replaced by British and French in the advertising industry, but rather, as in most truly global industries, the nation of origin is becoming irrelevant.

The passage of SOX will make global trends so much harder to track. As well as the WPP and Publicis agencies mentioned above, other major agencies in Australia which no longer cooperate with the trade journals’ annual rankings include Grey Global Group and those in the US-based Omnicom Group (e.g. DDB) and Interpublic Group (McCann-Erickson). So, while SOX might give protection to US investors, this has been achieved at the expense of the public interest on a global scale.

Guide to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act
Latest on trial of former Worldcom chief executive Bernie Ebbers
The Sarbanes-Oxley compliance kit

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