Hey, Klaatu! Call Peter!: The State of Fluff, part 1

by: Eileen Meehan / Louisiana State University

When Frank Rich nails media wastrels, they stay nailed. In his recent meditation on the life of Hunter S. Thompson and journalistic venality in the 1970s and now, Rich noted:

“What’s missing from News is the news. On ABC, Peter Jennings devotes two hours of prime time playing peek-a-boo with U.F.O. fanatics, a whorish stunt crafted to deliver ratings, not information.”[1]

Rich then savages Brian Williams’ relentless self-promotion and mainstream journalism’s current enthusiasm for Newslessness. Using Thompson’s work, Rich contextualizes this phenomenon in terms of the co-dependency of Washington reporters and politicians, which fosters an unwillingness to investigate political scandals from Watergate to ‘Gannongate.’[2] With Rich having nailed Newslessness, I thought I’d lost my angle on the two hour special Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing Is Believing (24 February 2005; PJ Productions and Springs Media). Then I realized that Seeing deserved consideration on its own terms as a piece of fluff.

Given Jennings’ status as a veteran journalist and anchor for ABC World News Tonight, I expected Seeing to present serious fluff: a reasonably accurate and revelatory account of some aspect of UFOs. This expectation was reinforced by Jennings’ statement on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (repeated in promotional interviews and appearances) that the project took a year to complete, suggesting that Seeing would surpass the quickie-UFO shows so common on FOX and cable.

Of course, Jennings is not solely responsible. From ‘Rathergate,’ we understand that much of Seeing‘s content depended on executive producers Mark Obenhaus and Tom Yellin and staff. Further, February is a sweeps month for Nielsen ratings — a time when networks commonly run sensational programs. Within these contexts, Seeing‘s script and Jennings performance were low-key and sympathetic towards individuals reporting anomalous experiences. Besides experiences, the show featured professional believers, professional skeptics, scientists, computer animations, and videotape. The usual mix but with gravitas.

That said, Seeing failed to meet my criteria for good fluff. Based on my viewing of the broadcast and the transcript available via Lexis-Nexis,[3] the program is divided into three parts: people who see UFOs, the reported UFO crash at Roswell, and abductees. I’ll start by summarizing the section on sightings and then delve into each of these areas separately in order to argue that Seeing doesn’t qualify as good fluff. This is the argument’s first installment.

Since businessman Kenneth Arnold saw the first flying saucers over Washintgon’s Cascade Mountains in 1947, solid citizens and ‘first responders’ have seen things in the sky which some believe to be extraterrestrial craft. Nowadays, the government doesn’t investigate these reports. President Truman instructed the CIA to determine how the Air Force should handle UFO reports; the CIA convened a panel of scientists (called the Robertson panel after its chairman), which decided that the Air Force should downplay and debunk any sightings. The Air Force created a PR unit (Project Bluebook) and hired one civilian scientist, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, to do that. Eventually, Hynek came to believe that UFOs were extraterrestrial, resigned as a debunker, and launched the Center for UFO Studies. Given the low reliability of eye-witness testimony, other scientists were loathe to join him. Contemporary scientists — even those at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — agree.

This version of UFO history fits well into Seeing‘s format of alternating positions: first the people who saw and believe, then the people who haven’t and don’t, next more people who did and do, etc. The resulting history of UFO sightings is peopled with solid civilians, honest police officers, and stalwart military men seeing UFOs that the government first debunks and then ignores. The validity of their sightings is reinforced by Hynek’s resignation. This steady line of level-headed observers across the generations lends credibility to the sightings and to the notion of UFOs as extraterrestrial. That, however, ignores a good chunk of UFOlogy’s early history.

Early UFOlogy was not simply a matter of individual people being in the right place at the right time, seeing the right light, and trying to report a UFO. Early on, sighters and believers coalesced into interpretive communities. Some communities fit Seeing‘s solid citizen mold. Based in such a community was the National Investigative Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), founded by retired Marine Major Donald Keyhoe, which had a national office, board, and dues-paying members. NICAP argued that UFOs were physical craft of extraterrestrial origin — dubbed the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ position — and lobbied for a full-blown governmental investigation. NICAP fits Seeing‘s mold but is referenced indirectly in a brief image of one of Keyhoe’s books.

By erasing NICAP, Seeing erased that organization’s informational campaign which included press releases, books, speeches, appearances on radio and television, etc., by Keyhoe and others. That campaign earned NICAP coverage in mainstream media including Life magazine and CBS Reports. NICAP’s discourse was echoed in films like The Day the Earth Stood Still or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which Seeing mentions. Thus NICAP’s campaign became a priming discourse: it prepared people to interpet unidentified flying objects as alien spacecraft.

NICAP represented only one community. Others existed in UFOlogy in the 1950s-60s, including one that NICAP abhorred: the contactees. These folks maintained telepathic communication with Nordic-looking aliens, went for rides aboard UFOs, and returned with philosophical messages from the ‘Space Brothers.’[4] Among the contactees were George Adamski, George Van Tassel, and Orfeo Angelucci.[5]

Adamski claimed to have visited Mars, Venus, and Saturn; photographed UFOs in the Mojave Desert; and took plaster casts of footprints left by his initial contact, Orthon from Venus. Van Tassel was building a Venusian-style rejuvenation/time machine and hosted the annual Spacecraft Convention (1954-1977) at Giant Rock. The event attracted thousands of people as well as the occasional journalist or camera crew from a ‘reality’ television program.[6] For academics, the most interesting contactee may be Orfeo Angelucci, on whom Carl Jung spent an appendix in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (1958). Similarly well traveled, Angelucci was more self-effacing than Adamski or Van Tassel. These contactees and others like them claimed to communicate with a steady stream of extraterrestrials.

Contactees provided a second discourse for UFO-media and mainstream media, though the latter generally ran these materials with a smirk. To the degree that contactee discourse reiterated nuts-and-bolts discourse by identifiying UFOs as alien spacecraft, the two primed sighters to see the same thing.

None of this is covered in Seeing. The simplification of UFO history creates an impression that people perceived and interpreted independently — without cultural frames. Seeing erases the priming discourses, thereby decontextualizing the phenomena, the sighters, and their interpretations. Also erased are the contactees — the historical progenitors of the abductees — whose flamboyant presence would undercut the implicit claim that all witnesses were solid citizens.

Seeing‘s first section fails as good fluff because it oversimplifies. It ignores the delicious contradictions that put the ex-Marine Keyhoe and the scamp Adamski in the same cultural territory. By failing to take the contactees seriously, Seeing reproduces NICAP’s judgment about whose sightings count and whose don’t. The resulting history of UFOlogy is not reasonably accurate. Because Seeing does not engage the conflict between nuts-and-boltsers and contactees, it provides no insight into that conflict and no context for subsequent developments. Further, oversimplification sets up Seeing‘s next problem: confusing what happened in Roswell with the Roswell Incident. More about that next time.

Notes:
Rich, Frank. (6 March 2005). “Gonzo Gone, Rather Going, Watergate Still Here,” New York Times, Arts & Leisure, section 2, page 1.
This contrasts with the overwhelming coverage of pseudo-crises like the Clinton Administration’s ‘Travelgate’ and ‘Monicagate.’
Show: Special Report (08 PM ET) – ABC, ABC News Transcripts, American Broadcasting Companies, 2005.
Although Space Sisters appeared in contactee stories, the community generally referred to the aliens as Space Brothers.
Full disclosure: Orfeo Angelucci’s nephew, Dominic Angelucci, and my husband, Alfred Babbitt, were boyhood friends. Dominic remains our friend and has no interest in UFOs.
The reality show You Asked for It (1950-1959) ran a segment on the convention in response to a letter from a viewer.

Links:
Frank Rich’s article (requires signing up for NY Times website)
ABC’s official page for Seeing
NICAP homepage

Please feel free to comment.




Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past?

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

The launch of FLOW — an innovative project designed to engage scholars, students, and citizens in conversation about television and media culture — provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the current state of television criticism. Thus, in this essay, I pose the critical question, “Is contemporary television criticism state of the art or stuck in the past?” My bias is probably already evident. The wording of the question supposes an affirmation of the latter, otherwise why pose the question? If I thought contemporary TV criticism was state of the art, then this would be a very short essay. In fact, I’d be done. Everything is wonderful, and you should go back to whatever you were doing. But, as the question suggests, I am at least concerned that the “state” of the art may not be so “state of the art.” So, posing the question was just a thinly veiled attempt to appear “objective” as I highlight some growing concerns I have about contemporary television criticism. Specifically, I examine what I take to be two questionable practices and assumptions that widely (though certainly not universally) animate contemporary television studies.

Practice 1: The analysis of individual television programs in isolation. Much of the academic and popular TV criticism generated today concerns itself with individual programs. Indeed, entire scholarly books are published about individual television programs. I find this practice flawed on two counts. It both ignores the specific character of television today and the specific practices of viewers today. To analyze a single TV program (in isolation) is to tear it from the very fabric of its context! I take the decision to name this forum FLOW as evidence that the editors and creators of this site recognize that contemporary television and media culture is a powerful, unending torrent of images and information (see Gitlin, 2001). It is a steady stream, in which particulates swirl and mix indiscriminately without beginning and end. There was a time, of course, in television’s history when “programming” entailed providing a limited menu of predetermined (and some would say, predigested) options. One watched television like dining out at a restaurant. Choose something off the menu (no substitutions please!), consume it, and leave when the restaurant closes, or in the case of television, go to bed when the networks stop broadcasting. But that was the now bygone era of broadcast television, three dominant networks, and limited programming.

In the information-saturated culture of cable and digital television, multiple networks and content providers, 24-hour programming, technological convergence, interactivity, and Internet fandom, television critics ought probably remove the term “program” from their vocabularies. Programs no longer exist. Rather, as “the postmodern medium par excellence” (Sim, 1999, p. 112), “Television’s regular daily and night-time flows of images and information, bring together bits and pieces from elsewhere, constructing its sequences … on the basis of collage techniques and surface simulations” (Strinati, 1995, p. 231). Television’s already fragmented flow of images is further enhanced by ancillary technologies such as the VCR, TiVo, and remote control, which allow for time-shifting, channel surfing, and even watching several shows simultaneously (see Connor 1989, p. 168; Fiske, 1992, pp. 58-60; Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 217). Television viewers no longer consume programs; they produce Texts. Reading, in the traditional sense, is about consumption, about following the path prescribed by an author. One does not regularly pick up a book, turn to a random page and begin reading backwards. But many television viewers think nothing of tuning into a so-called “program” already in progress, and then channel surfing (in either direction) as they continue to watch. Television criticism needs to attend more carefully to both televisual flow and the culture of fragmentation. How precisely do viewers construct meaningful experiences out of the shards of televisual flow? What difference does it make to claim that television viewers produce or write Texts (in the Barthesian sense of intertextuality), rather than consume or read products? As critics take up these questions, I would urge them to stop treating the “Author” as the privileged site of meaning. Like web surfers, television viewers increasingly furnish the “form” — the start, movement, pace, direction, and end point — of their own viewing experiences.

Practice 2: The obsessive ideological critique of television and the assumption that it will make television “better.” Ok, I’m likely to ruffle some feathers here, but I take up this subject because I’m concerned by what I see as the increasing (ideological) homogeneity of television criticism. Since the interpretive turn in the 1970s, TV critics have produced a massive (and some would say, obese) body of scholarship on the hegemonic ideology conveyed by television. My concern is not over whether or not television is hegemonic. Of course it is! My concern is over whether or not the obsessive repetition of ideological critique has done anything to make television less hegemonic and more democratic? After nearly 40 years of ideological critique, we get The Man Show (1999-2004)? How can this be? Why has the production of oppositional codes not transformed television and, more importantly, can it? I want to propose that ideological criticism, as it currently is practiced, is ill equipped to bring about progressive social change for two reasons. First, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional codes destroys the dominant pleasures of television viewing — what Barthes (1975) terms plaisir — without providing a language for the pleasure that derives from breaking with culture — what Barthes terms jouissance. Without developing an alternative pleasure, viewers have a powerful disincentive to read oppositionally (at least after they earn a grade in our classrooms), particularly since oppositional reading destroys the only type of pleasure (plaisir) they know (see Mulvey, 1988, p. 59). We need to begin to develop modes of criticism rooted in pleasure, what Susan Sontag (2001) calls an “erotics of art” (p. 14), so that viewers have an incentive and desire to read transgressively. We’ve also got to teach students to generate their own codes for viewing television, rather than simply urging them to adopt the oppositional codes developed by critics. Oppositional codes have become so identified with a Leftist ideology that they risk shifting the site of ideological domination from television to teachers. Replacing one ideology with another is still hegemony. We need to fragment ideology, to break up it.

Second, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional reading does little to alter the underlying relations of production. As Walter Benjamin (1986) noted in 1934, the way to change social conditions is not simply to critique the attitudes or ideologies of messages, it is to alter their position within relations of production (pp. 142-143). The problem with ideological criticism and oppositional reading in particular is that it protects and preserves the existing conditions of production by both treating television as a set of unified, holistic products (e.g., programs) and treating viewers as consumers. We need a critical practice that helps transform consumers into producers. Ironically, the very technologies associated with television are poised to assist in this practice. For Benjamin, a progressive intelligentsia is not defined by its opinions, attitudes, or dispositions, and its mission is not merely to “report” ideological domination. Rather, a progressive intelligentsia is interventionist; it seeks to disrupt, to transform the forms and instruments of production by dissolving the conventional distinction between author and reader (Benjamin, 1986, pp. 223, 225, 228). I offer these observations because only by regularly examining and interrogating our current practices and assumptions can television criticism become and remain state of the art.

References

Barthes, R. (1975). The pleasure of the text (R. Miller, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1973).

Benjamin, W. (1986). “The author as producer.” In W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings (E. Jephcott, Trans., pp. 220-238). New York: Schocken Books. (Original work published 1966).

Conner, S. (1989). Postmodern culture: An introduction to theories of the contemporary. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Fiske, J. (1992). “Postmodernism and television.” In J. Curran & M. Gurevitch (Eds.), Mass media and society (pp. 55-67). New York: Edward Arnold.

Flitterman-Lewis, S. (1992). “Psychoanalysis, film, and television.” In R. Allen (Ed.), Channels of discourse, reassembled: Television and contemporary criticism (2nd ed., pp. 203-246). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Gitlin, T. (2001). Media unlimited: How the torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Mulvey, L. (1988). “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” In C. Penley (Ed.), Feminism and film theory (pp. 57-68). New York: Routledge.

Sim, S. (1999). The Routledge critical dictionary of postmodern thought. New York: Routledge.

Sontag, S. (2001). Against interpretation and other essays. New York: Picador USA.

Strinati, D. (1995). Introduction to theories of popular culture. New York: Routledge.

Links
The PoMo Page
What TV Ratings Really Mean
Are National Television Systems Obsolete?
Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited
Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

Please feel free to comment.