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

FX\'s Over There

FX’s Over There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

Image Credits:
1. FX’s Over There

Links
Over There homepage
Cindy Sheehan website

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The Unwired Side of the Digital Divide

by: Faye Ginsberg / NYU

Today, as I write, the United Nations is inaugurating a long awaited program, a “Digital Solidarity Fund”, that will underwrite initiatives that address “the uneven distribution and use of new information and communication technologies” and “enable excluded people and countries to enter the new era of the information society”. What this might mean in practice – which digital technologies might make a significant difference and for whom and with what resources — is still an open and contentious question. Debates about The Fund at the first meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December 2003, are symptomatic of the complexity of “digital divide” issues that will no doubt be central to second phase of the information summit scheduled for November 2005 in Tunisia.

Terms such as the Digital Age and the Digital Divide, continue to shape our sense of the world and drive markets for ever greater consumption of the latest digital technologies. Yet, according to statistics from the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos, only 12% of the world is currently “wired” and only 16% have access to telephone land lines (though cell phone technology is rapidly spreading). Digerati may see those numbers as opportunities for new markets. But for an anthropologist who has spent a good portion of her career looking at the uptake of media in remote parts of the world, the unexamined First-Worldism that has underwritten assumptions about the digital age and its inequalities is discouraging. I am not suggesting that the massive shifts in communication, sociality, knowledge production, and politics that the internet enables are simply irrelevant to the world’s poor and remote communities. My concern here is with how the language smuggles in a set of assumptions that paper over cultural and economic differences in the way things digital may be taken up, if at all, in radically different contexts, and thus serve to further insulate thinking against recognition of alterity that different kinds of media worlds present.

Some iconic cases might provide counterpoints of hopeful possibilities, in a futuristic nostalgic mode. In an article in the NY Times (1/27/04) entitled Digital Pony Express links up Cambodia, James Brooks, describes the work of MIT’s Media Lab and the American Assistance for Cambodia group in O Siengle, Cambodia, a village of less than 800 people on the edge of the forest, a location that is emblematic of life for millions of Asians. Through the Motoman project, the village connects its new elementary school to the Internet. Since they have no electricity or phones, the system is powered by solar panels. Once a day, a ‘Motoman’ rides his red motorcycle with a Wi-Fi chip, around the school, creating a temporary Internet hot spot, enabling e-mail to be up and downloaded. He then takes the data to the provincial capital where a satellite dish allows bulk e-mail exchange with the outside world.

Tellingly, this story was in the Business Section, suggesting that part of its charm is the possibility of new markets. In such stories, the Digital Divide, even as it wants to call well-intentioned concern to inequities, invokes neo-developmentalist language which assumes that less privileged cultural enclaves with little or no access to digital resources – from the South Bronx to the global south — will simply be “left behind” without such attention from epicenters such as the MIT Media Lab.

Remarkably, there are new and unexpected allies to my concerns. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, once the personification of new media evangelism, had, by 2000, demonstrated a remarkable change of heart, offering a serious critique of the idea of the digital divide and its capacity to blind people to the reality of the conditions of the globe’s poorest people. As he put it in a speech in 2000 at a conference entitled Creating Digital Dividends:

O.K., you want to send computers to Africa, what about food and electricity — those computers aren’t going to be that valuable. The mothers are going to walk right up to that computer and say, “my children are dying, what can you do?” They’re not going to sit there and like, browse eBay or something.

Rather than giving out computers, Gates’ priorities for his Foundation are now with health care, in particular the development and distribution of vaccines which account for two-thirds of the grants made.

In their current cover story, no less an advocate for the spread of free enterprise than The Economist features a rethinking of the term (and terms of) The Real Digital Divide, along with a compelling photo of a young African boy holding an ersatz cell phone made of mud to his ear Its lead opinion piece, states that “the debate over the digital divide is founded on a myth — that plugging poor countries into the internet will help them to become rich rapidly … So even if it were possible to wave a magic wand and cause a computer to appear in every household on earth, it would not achieve very much: a computer is not useful if you have no food or electricity and cannot read.”

Ideas about what the digital age might offer look different from the perspective of people struggling to manage to make ends meet on a daily basis. Some qualitative studies suggest that radio and cell phones may be the forms of digital technology that make the difference, once basic needs are addressed. It seems that terms like the digital divide too easily foreclose discussion about what the stakes are for those who are out of power. Rather than imagining that we know the answers, clearly, we need to keep listening the 88% of the earth’s population that is on the unwired side of the so-called digital divide.

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The Power of Nightmares

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

A recent TV documentary series prompted me to reflect upon the intellectual capacities of television, which are more often than not considered fairly limited. The three parts of The Power of Nightmares were shown on BBC2 last October and November. Because it had been so well received, the programme was repeated very quickly in January. The Power of Nightmares was written, produced and narrated by Adam Curtis, whose other work includes the excellent The Century of the Self, a series also made for the BBC. Unusually for such a programme, The Power of Nightmares was not derived from an already published book, like the recent series based on Yergin and Stanislaw’s The Commanding Heights, nor is there a spin-off book to accompany the series. Curtis insisted that the programme itself was sufficient. This is interesting since The Power of Nightmares puts forward a sophisticated and challenging thesis based on wide-ranging research.

It is often said that television is a poor medium for the exposition of complex argument. Print media — and especially the book — are held to be superior in this regard. Such a commonplace assumption needs to be interrogated. Is television supposed to be inherently lacking in intellectual substance for technical or social reasons? Surely, it must be social, since television is a hybrid medium with the advantage of combining spoken words, music and moving images. Electronic recording for domestic use, moreover, has made it possible to flick to and fro through the audio-visual text, like reading a book. Web-based texts, of course, have these properties plus lengthy written elements and potentially endless link options, but that is beside the point for the present purpose, which is to discuss argumentation in an exceptional television programme. This programme deserves the kind of serious response that a book with an intellectually demanding thesis might merit. It is normally thought impractical for a television programme to carry much writing on screen, quite sensibly so and not at issue here. Such impracticality, however, is social rather than strictly technical. Nobody watches television in order to read lots of words; books are deemed better for that. Anyway, it is a deeply ingrained assumption that television should convey meaning in pictures. The Power of Nightmares uses moving images very well and is accompanied, of necessity, by complex argument that is spoken at length, not written.

Each of The Power of Nightmares’ three episodes begins with a summary of the general argument. According to Curtis, politicians no longer promise to create a better world. Instead, they offer us protection against terrible threats to our safety and well being. This is a post-ideological politics of security management in a terrifying world. Power is established by frightening the wits out of people, telling them stories about dangers that may not actually exist. So far, a fairly routine sound bite: ‘be afraid, be very afraid’.

Politics has become nightmarish due to the efforts of two strangely similar ideological forces, Radical Islam and Neo-Conservatism. The Power of Nightmares traces both of them back to the late-1940s and their original gurus: Saeed Qutb for the Radical Islamists and Leo Strauss for the Neo-Cons. The Egyptian Qutb studied for a brief period in the USA where he became appalled by its liberal culture. To him, the land of the free was crass, corrupt and vulgar. In 1949, Qutb went to a dance and saw the licentious behaviour of young American men and women, dancing cheek to cheek. Here we see black and white footage of such outrageous conduct accompanied by ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, which is also the title of the first episode. At the end of that episode, the number is reprised to accompany young Afghan warriors — exclusively men, of course — dancing. This is just one of several witty juxtapositions throughout the series. Qutb returned to Egypt determined to build an Islamic opposition to American immorality and selfish individualism in the world. Later Qutb fell fowl of Gamel Abdul Nasser, whom Qutb regarded as a corrupt leader and inauthentic Muslim. In 1966, Qutb was tried for treason and executed. He thus became a martyr for Radical Islam.

Leo Strauss, the American political philosopher, led a much quieter life than Qutb. His favourite television programme in the 1950s was Gunsmoke and his hero the strong and relatively silent Marshall Dillon, who stood up for Good against Evil, symbolized by the white hats against the black hats. Strauss also liked Perry Mason with its cunning hero prepared to use what were sometimes questionable means to accomplish good ends. Since the late-’40s, Strauss had, like Qutb, also been complaining about the corrosive effects of liberalism on American culture with its permissiveness and encouragement of selfish desires. He believed it led to nihilism. What was needed was a moral rearmament campaign, the fashioning of political myths with the power of religion to cement the heroic nation together. Strauss influenced a generation of students, including Francis Fukuyama, William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz.

Both Qutb and Strauss sought to form elite cadres to fight the battle of ideas and win over the benighted masses. While the Radical Islamists believed in what they said, however fanatical, the attachment of Neo-Cons to ‘the truth’ was somewhat less than sincere. The Neo-Cons — including the likes of Dick Cheney, Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld in various governmental incarnations — cooked up all sorts of inaccurate horror stories with their backroom boys. They created the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union tooled up to take over the world when, in fact, it was falling apart internally. Even Ronald Reagan was sceptical at first. Henry Kissinger was a wishy-washy liberal in comparison with the Neo-Cons. Once the Soviet Union had been beaten, it was necessary to find a new and equally terrifying enemy. Radical Islam was standing in the wings, though it became difficult, at a much later stage, to draw links between it and the far from fundamentalist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The project – which was to become the Project for the New American Century – did not unfold smoothly. There were ups and downs and setbacks. George Bush the elder, for instance, was reluctant to hunt down Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War; it took another war and his more biddable son in the White House to do so, to complete that part of the grand mission.

The second episode of The Power of Nightmares, ‘The Phantom Victory’, looks at the struggle in Afghanistan to repel the Soviet Union; and, for which both the Neo-Cons and the Radical Islamists claimed the victory, finally ridding the world of communist imperialism. Closely involved, according to the series, was Ayman al-Zawahari, an Egyptian doctor turned leading ideologue for Islamic Jihad in a violent form and mentor to moneybags Osama bin Laden. America supported these ‘freedom fighters’ with military equipment and training when the enemy was mutual and before they turned on the USA itself. Radical Islam became increasingly extreme and indeed terroristic after sending the Russians packing from Afghanistan, in fact, due to the lack of popular support for it in the Middle East. In America in the meantime, the Neo-Cons’ demonization of Bill Clinton and, hence, of ‘liberalism’ went hand-in-hand with the rise of the religious Right, a key feature of the second Bush regime and Dubya’s re-election in 2004.

The third and final episode, ‘The Shadows in the Cave’, deals with 9/11 and all that. Like the other episodes, it uses archive footage and expert interviews, clips from horror and fantasy movies, to drive home the points that make up the series’ thesis. Politics has become thoroughly Bismarckian, dependent upon generating fear and anxiety in the population about external peril in order to legitimize rule in the USA and Britain especially, according to The Power of Nightmares. The series is intellectually impressive and succeeded in attracting larger audiences than is normal for a ‘difficult’ documentary. However, there are problems with it that require critical scrutiny, three in particular to mention briefly: its re-run of the end of ideology thesis; its faulty understanding of modern networks; and, its improper use of the precautionary principle.

First, a politics of fear is said to arise from the end of ideology, in the sense of belief in utopian political dreams. Yet, Neo-Conservatism and Radical Islam are manifestly ideological and both in their scary ways promise a better world for their followers. There is a contradiction in the argument here: either ideology has ceased to be a powerful force or it has not.

Second, the final episode does a very good job in demolishing the myth of Al-Qaeda as a gigantic organized network hostile to and undermining Western civilization as we know it; therefore, requiring authoritarian restrictions on civil liberties at home and maximum violence abroad. The British journalist Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda – The True Story of Radical Islam, is the expert witness on mistaken belief in bin Laden’s command over the world’s terror networks, paralleling the old myth of the Soviet Union’s direction of such networks in the past. Burke argues with considerable justification that there is no central authority co-ordinating a bureaucratic organization of international terrorism run like the Mafia, its headquarters once believed to be located in a James Bond-style villain’s lair in Bora Bora. ‘Shadows in the Cave’ documents several fanciful stories of ‘sleeper cells’ in the USA. For one of which the sole evidence was a tourist video of Disneyland, interpreted ludicrously as casing the joint for blowing it up. Furthermore, bin Laden did not even call his outfit Al-Qaeda until after 9/11 when the Americans did so, which was a shrewd ruse to exploit American hyper anxiety. However, as Manuel Castells has argued, modern networks are distinctively de-centred, not controlled by a central authority. It would be better to conceive of them as rhizomatic, characterized by random eruptions of terrorism, rather than simply noting the absence of old-fashioned bureaucratic and centralized authority.

Third, Curtis claims that the precautionary principle of Green politics has been adopted to justify anti-terrorist measures that destroy civil liberties. This is a serious claim and one that needs to be treated with caution. The precautionary principle is defined in the final programme of the series as the assumption that there is no need for evidence in order to take preventative action. Clearly, that does accurately describe the anti-terrorist operations and pre-emptive military strategy of the Bush regime and its allies, but it is not strictly the Green principle of precaution. In Green politics, it is thought that actions should not be taken that are potentially harmful even if we do not have hard and fast evidence of certain harm. In actual fact, there is plenty of evidence that the actions of the Bush regime are certainly harmful, fuelling rather than assuaging the resentments articulated by Radical Islam.

Links
BBC News
Information Clearing House
Guardian Unlimited

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What the Arab World Should be Watching

by: Nabil Echchaibi / Indiana University

I still cherish the memory of my old shortwave radio tucked underneath my bed when I was in Morocco. I rejoiced over the crackling sound of the Big Ben announcing the latest news bulletin of the BBC in Arabic and relished every news report on Radio France Internationale. If you want foreign news, tune in to Moroccan media; if you want news on Morocco, tune in to foreign media, Moroccans often joked.

These were the pre-Al-Jazeera times when the only international broadcasters had a welcome base in major Western media institutions. Today, the popularity of these once vital news sources is receding dramatically as more regional news operations in the Arab world are reclaiming their own audiences with vengeance. The BBC’s commanding influence in the region in the 1980s and early 1990s has plummeted to a meager 10 percent so much so that the Foreign Office of the British Parliament has asked the BBC to start a news channel in Arabic based in the Middle East. It is still early to determine how such a venture will fare, but one thing is certain: the international news broadcasting war is underway in the Arab world, and it does not bode well for the sanctity of news balance.

This news saga began when Al-Jazeera, a satellite news network in Qatar, best known in the West for airing the controversial tapes of Osama bin Laden, became isolated as an example of dangerous and inflammatory reporting in the aftermath of September 11. The tiny news operation, however, has been hailed in the Arab world since its inception in 1996 for its critical and innovative reporting on social, economic and cultural issues, which other Arab national and satellite media working under tight state control had never dared to cover.

Here is yet another example, so we are told, of a transparent clash of cultures that only reinforces the widely propagated idea that cultural differences between the West and the East are primordial and irreconcilable. Journalistic cultures and differing perspectives of what constitutes news are used symptomatically to draw our attention to a much bigger problem. Consider these sporadic headlines on Al-Jazeera before September 11: “Glasnost In the Gulf”; “Al-Jazeera: CNN Of the Arab World”; “Al-Jazeera TV Leads the New Arab Free Press.” Now compare those with these recent headlines: “Bush’s New War Room”; “News or Propaganda? Courting Controversy”; “What the Muslim world is Watching.”

When Al-Jazeera became international headline news, its popularity was restricted to post September 11 coverage in which the station was pitted against American media and the ideals of Western objective journalism. The controversy about Al-Jazeera should be examined as a result of differing political perspectives and not as an extension of an essentialist conflict of cultures as many critics have so readily concluded. Fouad Ajami, director of the program in Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a frequently consulted source on Arab affairs on American media, is convinced Al-Jazeera has a political and religious agenda that is far from being innocuous. The station’s reporters, he complains, are “a fiercely opinionated group, most are pan-Arabists-nationalists of a leftist bend committed to the idea of a single nation across the many frontiers of the Arab world–or Islamists who draw their inspiration from the primacy of the Muslim faith in political life.” In a 6,000-word article in the New York Times titled: “What the Muslim World Is Watching,” the longest article to have appeared in the newspaper on Al-Jazeera and the most frequently cited as well, Ajami seems to be sounding the drums of doom, granting Al-Jazeera more credit than what it really deserves and using a sensational headline to compound the impact of the station that is limited to only Arabic-speaking viewers. The world Muslim population today is about 1 billion, 200 million, of which Arabs account only for 250 million.

While Al-Jazeera is not a perfect news channel–it is not clear whether such a thing exists or might exist–it has provided a much needed alternative to bland political reporting by state-controlled channels that are notorious among Arabs for their government twaddle and their detached and staid reporting style. Even a channel such as MBC, a satellite network owned by the brother-in-law of the king of Saudi Arabia and on the air since 1989, has failed to offer quality news programming critical of political regimes and popular culture. MBC has recently started a 24-news network to compete with Al-Jazeera, but its ownership already undermines the editorial independence of its reporters. In 1996, Al-Jazeera sprung up out of an aborted deal between the Saudi-owned channel Orbit and the Arabic service of the BBC. Most of Al-Jazeera’s reporters were working for the BBC, and many of them have been trained in England or the United States.

In fact, Al-Jazeera’s news style resembles that of any U.S. news network, including CNN and Fox News. One of its most popular news talk shows, Opposite Direction, is modeled after CNN’s Crossfire where guests with extremely opposite views engage in a heated and sometimes deafening discussion on such issues as religious extremism, polygamy, freedom of expression, women’s rights, Arab politics, Palestinian-Israeli conflict: all taboos on regular Arab television. Critics of Al-Jazeera charge that such programs are used by the station to inflame passions and galvanize anti-American and anti-semitic sentiments, already manifest in the “Arab Street.” While the charge is highly questionable as Al-Jazeera is only reflecting existing realities within the Arab world that are often understood outside of a larger context. The same can be said about some programs on American radio and television that feature guests with disparaging and highly controversial comments, which may or may not reflect the opinions of their audiences. If blame has to be assigned anywhere, then it should be directed at the demented world of 24-hour news networks that feeds on lurid coverage of news and issues to secure profits. Al-Jazeera is just another example of this trend, except that since 1996, the station has been swimming in uncharted waters in the Arab world with no real competition to put pressure on its performance.

Pressure has been coming rather from Arab governments dissatisfied with the station giving voice to political dissidents and digging for social problems. Many of these governments have either closed the Al-Jazeera bureau in their capitals or, as in the case of some Gulf countries, instructed their companies not to use Al-Jazeera for their advertising needs. When the United States joins this list, it puts itself in an incriminating position, which some Arabs might interpret as double standard politics, an already well-established view in the Middle East.

If the Arab world is to modernize and free itself from the social and cultural stagnation it has been mired in, then it needs more channels like, or better than Al-Jazeera. Arabs need to feel there is a public forum for the expression of their views, both extreme and moderate. Demonizing, instead of constructively criticizing, the only attempt to do so, particularly at this important historical juncture, will prove dangerous and counter productive. The recent satellite news explosion in the region is nothing but a deafening cacophony and an all too familiar story. The Saudi Al-Arabiyya and Al-Ekhbariya, the Emirati Abu-Dhabi Television, and the Lebanese Al-Hayat remain constrained by their direct state ownership and editorial control. The U.S. government has joined the melee recently by launching a multi-million dollar news network of which the name, Al-Hurra (‘The Free One’), reveals much about its expected performance in the region.

The old days of shortwave radio, as liberating as they were, are decidedly over, but would the television news alternative from the Arab world prove as vindicating of the old official line which seems to be hiding behind the sleek garb of technology? Al-Jazeera needs a real competitor so it never loses sight of its original mission to expose the other opinion.

Links
Al-Jazeera TV
Al-Jazeera.Com
Al-Jazeera Privatization
More on Al-Jazeera Privatization

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Terrorists Watching TV

by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

What is the problem with the modern world?
— Ramzi bin al Shibh (Omar Berdouni), The Hamburg Cell

When I was offered the role, I didn’t accept it. I refused it. I obviously had my own issues with playing a terrorist.
— Shohreh Agdashloo, Newsday (9 January 2005)

About a half hour into Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell, a group of young Muslims are watching TV. Gathered in a group house, they watch, rapt before chaotic, smoky, siren-laced images of the 1998 U.S. attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan. “Death to America,” they chant, angry at the retaliation for Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. At the same time, however, they’re pleased with the American president’s performance. As he asserts his nation’s clear “mission,” the viewers nod solemnly. “The war has begun.” A visitor is greeted by an enthusiastic believer: “Have you heard the news? Clinton is the best. He’s our personal PR. Every time he mentions Osama, it’s a challenge, he promotes jihad!”

This scene, in which the hijackers appear at once naïve and canny, shows their fervent devotion to an increasingly dreadful cause and awareness of the uses of tv. Sometime later, the group again sits before their television set, absorbing the lessons of their “jihad” tapes, their own faces reflected in the screen that shows various martyrs — armless in a hospital or dead and shown floating above pacific landscapes. Now they don’t cheer what they see, but only watch in silence, sober and knowing. It’s telling that the movie charts their transformation from eager students to committed martyrs in these images as media consumers, as they seek and find their self-images on tv.

Here they are like other viewers, looking for affiliation. But for viewers of the movie, another point is also clear: the men in this cell watch tv differently than you do. That television has become a medium of information and identity. That it appears on tv as a sign of such process is also common. And so here it is, repeated — in The Hamburg Cell (a Channel Four film that never found U.S. distribution, but instead showed up last month on HBO2) and in the terror-focused Fox series 24.

For this second case, terrorists watching tv at first fools 24 viewers into thinking the terrorists are not. The so-called “Terror Family,” that is, Navi (Nestor Serrano), Dina (Shohreh Agdashloo), and their son Behrooz (Jonathan Ahdout) Araz, first appeared this season watching tv. Seated at the kitchen table, their expensive flat screen perched on their pretty white counter, they discuss what seem to be daily details. However, they soon notice a news report of a terrorist attack on a train: raucous, handheld shots of twisted metal, smoke, and bodies strewn about. They settle into their seats and exchange glances, and agree that the “plan” is proceeding as they had hoped it would. And so the episode engineers one of its many big reveals: these folks aren’t just nice Southern Californian suburban Muslims, they’re terrorists, living next door to someone. Using tv to reflect and frame their identities, the series ensures that viewers will be effectively startled and disturbed, but also reassured, imagining that the Arazes’ emotionless reaction to the carnage on tv marks their difference, their utter monstrosity. “What we will accomplish today will change the world,” says dad, “We are fortunate that our family has been chosen to do this. We cannot fail.” (On seeing portions of this first episode, the Council on American-Islamic Relations understandably protested that the depiction “casts a cloud of suspicion over every American-Muslim family out there.”)

The series 24 has gone on from that first conflicted moment — at once so self-conscious and so awkwardly sinister — to complicate the familial interactions and political implications of the Turkish Araz family. Typical of the show in its first three seasons, it again combines intensely domestic melodrama and hi-octane action, perhaps most hysterically figured when the Secretary of Defense (William Devane), kidnapped with his daughter Audrey (Kim Raver), found the wherewithal — with Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) help, of course — to shoot his way out of the compound where they were held for a couple of tense hours. Imagine it: Donald Rumsfeld blasting his way out of a terrorist hideout, rescue choppers whirring, bullets flying, and yes, bodies dropping.

This isn’t Secretary Heller’s most despicable moment, however, only his most Wesley-Snipesian. In fact, his awful parallel to the plainly odious Navi is revealed in their similar attitudes toward their disposable, wrong-doing sons (and this doesn’t even get at the entangling of Jack as stand-in son, as he’s sleeping with Audrey). When the Secretary hears that CTU (the Counter Terrorism Unit) has determined that his long-haired peacenik son, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), might have known something about the kidnapping, he’s only vaguely upset that the agents have tortured him, then gives them permission to do it some more, in case they can get “information” out of him. This seems of a piece with Navi’s decision to order Behrooz’s death for endangering their mission.

The fact that Behrooz’s troublemaking emerged from his affection for a whiny white girl high school classmate only underlines the preposterous soapiness of all this drama (as it also alludes to the intersections of romantic intrigues and parent-child tensions that power nearly every major plot point in the series). Heller and Navi are both bad dads on single-minded missions. (And frankly, though his daughter Kim [Elisha Cuthbert] is absented this season, Jack’s notorious single-mindedness remains an emblem of his own dis-ease, though it is by now expected; when he shoots a suspect in the knee to learn a terrorist plot detail, he’s just being Jack, as he’s been known to kill people to provide useful body parts and turn heroin addict to bring down druglords.) While Navi pursues his end in secret, out of (fictional) camera range, Heller appears on tv repeatedly. And, to jumpstart this season, he quite sensationally becomes an internet broadcast star as well, when his trial for war crimes is not only made available for all the world to see, but also serves as a ruse to set up the real crisis, an attack on multiple nuclear plants.

Television is everywhere in 24 — in CTU, in characters’ homes, in Air Force One, where the new, non-Palmer president, John Keeler (Geoff Pierson) shares ominous glances with his white guy administration minions. Television links Jack, Heller, Navi, and Dina equally but also imprecisely with the day’s events, as they work to push forward diverse agendas. Television is visible as well throughout what might be termed today’s terrorist-themed tv, the BBC movie Dirty War and tv series MI-5, and the U.S. series Medical Investigation and Alias, even the forensics or procedural shows that dip occasionally into terrorism as a “topical” plot device, the CSIs and the Law & Orders. In all cases, tv signifies connection and disconnection. It indicates the terrorist’s devotion to mission as a source and symbol of identity, a cause of outrage and frustration (all the “trash” on tv) and a means to channel emotion into morality.

At the end of The Hamburg Cell, the primary character, Ziad Jarrah (Karim Saleh), has left behind a wife in Florida, Aysel (Agni Tsangaridou), and her final understanding of what he’s been up to all these years appears in her face as she watches the Twin Towers fall on tv. She has struggled to gain his attention, to make him behave like the partner she desires, throughout. And his utter inability to be hers is captured in her face: eyes wide, mouth agape, she reflects the devastation on the screen in her horrified gaze. Television makes her a survivor. It makes her like you.

Links
24
Patterns of Global Terrorism
The 9-11 Commission Report
The FBI
Production Credits for ‘The Hamburg Cell’

Please feel free to comment.




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.

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

Please feel free to comment.




Taming the Global on Italian Television

by: Michela Ardizzoni / Indiana University

The famous Dutch television producer, Endemol, will probably go down in the annals of history as a catalyst of standardized television programming across the globe. Since 2000, some of its innovative reality shows like Big Brother, Fear Factor, Star Academy, and Blind Faith pervade prime-time television in 22 countries, from the most liberal channels of Europe to the most conservative of the Persian Gulf.

The globalization of television programming is not a new phenomenon. Yet, the localized forms current programs take in various national contexts offer interesting insights into accepted boundaries of nationality and the pervasive notion of nation-state. The nationalistic fanfare that characterizes most prime-time television programs in Italy is emblematic of this confluence of global and local trends, which ultimately aims at reinforcing (rather than challenging) cemented visions of Italianness.

Out of a total of seven free-to-air channels, five regularly feature Endemol productions ranging from reality-based to game shows: Ready Steady Cook, Big Brother, Star Academy, and several others have become staples on public and private channels alike. While the irksome convergence of public and private interests in Italian television is luckily unique in its genre, the overwhelming popularity of these shows has colored the television scape of other European countries. France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom are only some of the many who have succumbed to the bewildering power of Endemol productions. Unlike its fellow EU members, Italian television has further demystified the appeal of these shows by donning them with a domesticated version of Italianness that suits well the socio-political climate of these years.

Fundamentally, the images and discourse that reach the viewer depict Italy as a country designed along regional lines that seem more rooted in people’s identity and more appropriate for the identifying processes enacted by television. Consider, for example, Your Business, a prime-time Endemol program aired daily on the main public channel RAI 1. Each episode of the show features a different contestant who attempts to win the largest sum of money by opening the lucky box. Unlike in other European versions where participants and their boxes are labeled by numbers, those in the Italian Your Business are labeled by numbers and regions like Calabria, Sardinia, Tuscany. Every time a contestant chooses a box, a rather folkloric song characteristic of the corresponding region is played. Often, the show’s moderator, who recently has helped RAI 1 recover control of prime-time after years of lagging behind Berlusconi’s private channel, would switch to the region’s dialect or accent in a highly stereotypical fashion. Even in entertainment, television portrays an unrelenting vision of Italianness as a composite of distinct cultural regions.

This emphasis on regionalism as the essence of national identity expands to other global products like Big Brother or Music Farm. Aside from the formulaic characterization of participants, this process elicits a contradictory conception of unified identity that is paradoxically fragmented and potentially divisive. In Italy, the presumed homogenizing impact of globalization is confronted with the permeating awareness of regional differences that are frequently accentuated rather than de-emphasized. As clearly evidenced by current news channels, media globalization — the multi-faceted monster condemned and revered by innumerable sources — has produced a sense of immediacy and simultaneity by making us part of common worlds. Yet, at the local level it has been met with deeply rooted realities that defy most attempts of standardizing sub-national experiences.

The resilience of regional identification in Italy stems from a concerted political campaign that has reached its momentum in the last few years with the ascent of a federalist party, the Northern League (Lega Nord), under the boisterous leadership of Umberto Bossi. This party, the name of which reminisces an obsolete vision of Italy split along the Po river, originally advocated ideological (if not political) separatism, dividing the Northern Padanian region from the rest of Italy. In recent years, the improbable outcome of the ethnocentric logic forced the party to channel its efforts to further empower local governments. This process has led to the creation of a ministry of devolution that has reinforced the autonomy of local governments in the areas of education, health, and law and order. The media have also been affected by the ubiquity of devolution when the second channel of the RAI public network was moved from Rome to Milan, the largest city in the Padanian region, and more airtime was slated for programming featuring an unprecedented parade of localism.

This vengeful localist turn seems an unsurprising reaction to the forces of globalization and the presumed fear of cultural contamination, but the celebration of the local as it encounters the global does not necessarily lead to a reification of unity along nationalistic lines. In a reciprocal mode, Endemol programs are made to fit the localism of national productions, as these tend to mimic the transient nature of foreign game shows and reality-based television. The way global products like Endemol’s are appropriated on Italian television leads one to question not the obvious impact of globalization on national identity, but the extent to which accepted discourses on the nation-state may conceal the primacy of regionalism as a growing constituent of identity in the media. In the case of Italy, regionalism seems to be the tool used to hunt the specter of national and global standardization.

Links

ENDEMOL
Endemol homepage

BACKGROUND ON ITALIAN MEDIA INDUSTRY & HISTORY
Museum of Broadcast Communications archives: Italy
Museo Nazionale del Cinema (English version)

BLOGS AND NEWS ON POLITICAL CONTROVERSY IN ITALIAN MEDIA
Reality TV in Italy
Italian media landscape
Silvio Berlusconi and Italian media

OFFICIAL ITALIAN NEWS AGENCIES
www.rai.it (in Italian)
www.ansa.it (in Italian)

Please feel free to comment.




Funny Politics

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

It is commonplace to observe that television, like everything else, is increasingly global these days. What is happening on the other side of the world is shown and commented upon instantaneously in news programming. There is also a considerable international trade in programmes as well as channels with a world-wide reach and co-productions between countries. The USA, of course, stands at the apex of global television in addition to cinema and much else besides. We are all tutored to some degree in US issues and events seen from an American perspective in addition to its hegemonic entertainment culture. Yet, there is still a great deal of US material that just does not sell abroad. Political satire on television is such an example, although The Simpsons may be, to an extent, a great exception to the general rule. This preamble allows me to move from the American context of Flow to mention an important British television programme that only Britons see, Bremner, Bird and Fortune.

Bremner, Bird and Fortune is the latest manifestation of a great tradition in British television going back to the early sixties with the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was (TW3), political satire. TW3 castigated the Conservative government of the day in comic sketches, parodied news items and cabaret-style routines. It was taken off the air a few months before the 1964 general election so as not to influence the result. Labour won anyway. There were only two TV channels at the time so TW3 had access to a huge audience. This legendary programme may well have contributed to the climate of opinion that voted out the Tories after thirteen years in office. In the 1980s, the puppet caricatures show, ITV’s Spitting Image, poured scorn on Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Labour did not come off lightly either and the Liberal leader, David Steel, amongst other leading politicians and celebrity personalities, was mocked mercilessly. At its height, Spitting Image commanded an audience of over ten million. Channel Four’s Bremner, Bird and Fortune attracts around two million viewers, which in the present multi-channel environment is actually quite good for such a programme.

It would be surprising if Prime Minister Tony Blair likes it, yet Bremner, Bird and Fortune has met with no political censorship, unlike TW3 forty years ago. The show has had trouble over copyright, however, particularly regarding new lyrics for old songs, though Tom Lehrer has been particularly generous in allowing Rory Bremner and his pals to rewrite his work (‘the Sunnis hate the Shias’, etc.). There is enough American material, especially with such obvious targets as George Bush, US economic and military imperialism, voracious corporations and oil-driven policy. When the company that makes Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Vera, put together a compilation of the American material a couple of years back, there were no takers in the USA.

John Bird and John Fortune performed in TW3 all those years ago. When they teamed up with young impressionist Bremner in the late eighties a direct connection was made between the old and the new in British television satire. Bird and Fortune write and perform an interview sketch, as two typically British ruling-class buffoons, for every episode (these are available on disc). The interview is with a character called George Parr, who is played by Bird, on occasion, as a British army general; and, when Fortune plays Parr and Bird takes his turn to do the interviewing, he is usually a governmental or corporate official. Parr gives convoluted and contradictory accounts of policy and practicalities. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bird as General Parr admitted that the British were not well equipped for encountering the enemy since its tanks, for instance, were designed for combat with the Russians in Northern Europe. They didn’t work so well in the sands of the Middle East. Also, British army boots tend to melt in hot climes. In the most recent series (October 2004), Fortune, playing Parr as a minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, explains how relaxing legal restrictions on gambling for American and South African operators of casinos will bring about cultural renewal and urban regeneration in British towns and cities. Bird and Fortune have also played civil servants in the War Office when Britain invaded and occupied Iraq during the 1920s. Under the direction of Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary at the time, Britain used mustard gas against ‘insurgents’ and set up a constitutional monarchy, which was overthrown in the 1950s when the British were finally kicked out. Shortly afterwards, the CIA hired a youthful thug, one Saddam Hussein, to assassinate the new Iraqi Prime Minister. He failed but was looked after in order to return to the fray later on. Saddam’s subsequent association as friend and then foe with the USA (and, indeed, Britain) is also traced in Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Parallels between the British and the American imperial adventures in Iraq are also drawn with chilling humour and to dispel historical amnesia, a striking feature of both American and British politics. Furthermore, all the questions about weapons of mass destruction, regime change, lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq, the ignorance of another culture and effect of Americanism on an Islamic nation, torture and the rest of it are treated with comedy and — as is the case with the best satire — deep seriousness.

The producer and co-writer of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Geoff Atkinson, pointed out to me recently that the comedic impulse comes first; moreover, he believes it must do so. If it’s not funny it simply doesn’t work. Comedy is not to be reduced to a sweetener for otherwise side-lined political information. Bremner’s early work was not especially political at all. He was a remarkably talented impressionist, normally making fun of TV personalities, such as the sports presenter, Des Lynham. Atkinson himself started out writing for The Two Ronnies, which was hardly a satire show. But, as politics became more and more bizarre, the temptation to laugh at it, perhaps in order to avoid crying about it, was to become unavoidably compelling for them.

As well as his portrayal of the creepy fantasist Tony Blair, Bremner does a brilliant impression of George Dubya Bush. Before the invasion of Iraq, there was a special edition of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, entitled Between Iraq and a Hard Place. Shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the official though not actual cessation of hostilities, another special was put out in May 2003, Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place. These editions of the programme represented a significant cultural intervention in the public sphere where issues concerning the reasons for invading Iraq and its consequences were hotly debated; and still are nearly two years later. There was always greater scepticism in Britain than in the USA about the linking of Al Qaeda to the Ba’athist regime, disquiet at belligerent strategy in the Middle East and horror at the British government’s craven support for US policy. Blair’s own reputation will never recover from this historical error in his own country. In Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place, Rory Bremner as himself remarks, ‘The war may be over but the battle for hearts and minds is harder. Let’s face it, it’s a bit difficult to win Iraqi hearts and minds when you leave their hearts in one place and their minds in another’. Then Bush (Bremner) speaks on a television programme beamed into a devastated Iraq, Towards Freedom. He begins, ‘My fellow Iraqis…’ Dubya’s talking head is accompanied on screen by: lists of sponsors (Haliburton, Bechtel, etc); news reports such as George Clooney being signed up to play Saddam Hussein in a forthcoming movie; and a count of ‘Oil Barrels This Hour’. He praises Iraq as, in Condoleezza Rice’s words, ‘the cradle of civilization’ and corrects his praise of the ‘many’ to ‘some historical artefacts’. Apparently, there is no intention to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves ‘any more than is strictly necessary under the normal rules of international trade and shareholder value’. As a Coca-Cola sign revolves beside his head, the President of the United States reassures the Iraqi people: ‘Be assured of one thing. We will not walk away from your country, as others have done before. We will not stay in your country, as others have done before. We will do both…’

The audience figures shot up for these specials on Iraq, reflecting a thirst for the expression of more critical perspectives on the state of the world than those routinely purveyed on mainstream television. Whether right or wrong, the well-founded views articulated by Bremner, Bird and Fortune are usually present only in marginal publications addressing relatively small and strongly left-wing constituencies; and are hardly ever present on television where a much wider audience can be addressed. Nowadays, the place where they are most likely to crop up on television is in satirical comedy shows. Perhaps that is because comedy is not supposed to be serious and, therefore, doesn’t have to be taken seriously. Historically, license has been given to the court jester to say the naughty things for casual and ineffectual entertainment. Bremner, Bird and Fortune is not, however, merely a safety valve. It is extremely funny and politically astute in its carefully researched material. Rory Bremner, the two Johns — Bird and Fortune — and the programme’s producer, Geoff Atkinson, have published a book of their stuff recently, You Are Here – A Dossier. It provides a good idea of how and why Bremner, Bird and Fortune is such a nodal point of the cultural public sphere in Britain.

Links
BBC – Comedy Guide to Bremner, Bird and Fortune

Please feel free to comment.




“Citizen versus Consumer”: Rethinking Core Concepts

by: Michele Hilmes / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Obama for President

Projecting into the future

Every so often a core concept emerges in an historical or theoretical field that serves a purpose at the time of its invention but slowly loses its explanatory power while continuing to crop up as something “everybody knows.” Eventually, it no longer clarifies but actually obscures: everybody knows George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, America is the best democracy in the world, women are more sensitive than men, Saddam Hussein had links to terrorists, etc. Or, in the field of media, Hollywood tried to ignore broadcasting in hopes it would go away; US media produce audiences, not programs; and public service broadcasting serves citizens living in communities while commercial broadcasting addresses itself to consumers living in markets. There are many more (skip to the bottom of this piece to post your own favorites – I hope we can compile a collection.)

It’s the last statement above that I want to address here, with hopes of returning to the second one later. Like the “Hollywood ignored television” myth (which provided me with a dissertation topic some years ago, and my entrée into the world of media scholarship), the “consumers vs. citizens” diad emerged during a period of tension, but drew on a much older and more embedded set of historical assumptions and concepts. The distinction between “citizen” and “consumer” linked to the media can be traced back to the very earliest years of broadcasting, as social forces and groups struggled over how to define and control the myriad “radical potentials” that the new technology and its earliest practitioners offered.

Elites in the industrialized nations most prominent in broadcasting’s development already recognized, by the 1920s, that the influx of increasingly organized market forces in media such as newspapers, magazines, film, and popular music had led to an upsurge of popular – what they called “mass” – culture, which encouraged values that intellectuals and leaders on both the left and the right found disturbing. In Britain, one look at the already highly commercialized radio situation in the United States led to the construction of a public service broadcasting system, the BBC, in which “public service” was defined as first and foremost not commercial and not competitive, and in fact adamantly opposed to marketplace (popular, “mass”) values.

A publicly funded monopoly, aimed at citizens, not consumers, was needed to hold the vulgar forces of marketplace capitalism at bay – even though, as I have argued elsewhere, this stemmed not so much from deeply-held philosophy at the point of its earliest iteration, 1922, than from a desire to resist the “American chaos” that its founders observed abroad.[1]

This context also demonstrates how closely debates over “public” and “citizens” are tied to concepts of national identity construction, and how markets are perceived as threatening to those constructions, both internally (in terms of hierarchies of citizenship) and externally (in terms of preserving national cultures from “foreign” influences).

The BBC model eventually became standard in Europe and in Europe’s colonial possessions. Many groups in the US advocated for it as well, from a variety of perspectives, and indeed its basic precepts can be found in early US broadcast regulation, despite the prevalence of commercial interests. The roots of the “citizen versus consumer” diad can be traced to this nexus, finding articulation on both the left and the right in the 1930s and 40s: from the Frankfurt school’s condemnation of the “culture industries” (though they held no brief for the state-dominated systems of Europe, having seen what happened in Germany), to the Leavisites and their Arnoldian disparagement of market-based culture on the right. Although the word “consumer” was not widely used at this time, it was clear to such observers that markets created a debased culture inimical to the uplift goals of the educated elite, whether progressive or deeply conservative. “Public” intervention was necessary to control such chaotic tendencies and to link broadcasting to the interests of the nation/state.

When Jurgen Habermas wrote his postdoctoral dissertation in the 1950s, tracing the transformation of the mediated public sphere by impinging state and market forces, he drew on this tradition. It should be noted, however, that Habermas (like Chomsky after him), worried as much about the interventions of the state as the market sector (as well he might post-war), in fact created a history in which market-based interests operating at the dawn of democracy built a sphere of citizen discussion and debate outside the machinations of the state. Though more focused on coffee houses than tea parties, Habermas described the world of private, commercial – though not commercialized, a more complicated concept – media and markets as a crucial ingredient in resistance to the overweening state. It was the later intrusion of the state into private life, as well as private interests into affairs of state, that equally worked to create the “refeudalization” of the public sphere that Habermas deplored.

This was not the aspect of Habermas taken up when the “citizens vs. consumers” dichotomy reached its fullest expression, in 1980s Britain, though he was frequently invoked. In 1982 Philip Elliott seminally wrote, “The thesis I wish to advance is that what we are seeing and what we face is a continuation of the shift away from involving people in society as political citizens of nation states towards involving them as consumption units in a corporate world.”[2]

As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pursued deregulatory policies and the 1986 Peacock Report sketched out a more competitive and commercialized future for British Broadcasting, unfavorable comparisons with US broadcasting again became central to defending public service broadcasting via the citizen/consumer diad, exemplified by Graham Murdock’s conclusion in a 1990 article, “American commercial television is about promoting mass consumption not about providing resources for citizenship.”[3]

“Citizen or consumer,” as Duncan H. Brown’s 1994 article was entitled,[4] became the increasingly Manichean choice. In each case, it was the citizen model (ie, European, not American) that was empowered by the comparison – almost without overt argument, since to be a “citizen” is so clearly preferable to being a “consumer” for those arguing in this tradition. As Justin Lewis summarizes, consumption begins to be conceived as opposed to citizenship: “Unlike the citizen, the consumer’s means of expression is limited: while citizens can address every aspect of cultural, social and economic life (operating in what Jurgen Habermas called ‘the public sphere’), consumers find expression only in the marketplace.”[5]

But as Habermas would remind us, both the market and the state work together to define and delimit the public sphere; citizen and consumer are not opposite and contradictory identities but always and inevitably entwined in a capitalist society. Moreover, this dualism’s implications for the definition and construction of the public itself, and the internal social hierarchies it conceals, go unexamined. Most noticeable is the citizen/consumer diad’s hidden referencing of a gendered distinction: the normatively masculine citizen versus consumerism’s normatively feminine subject. Hierarchies of class, race, and ethnicity are also concealed: citizenship has been a privilege initially confined, since the Greeks, to a small minority (masculine, property-owning, native-born) sector of the public and only very recently and imperfectly enlarged to include the majority: women, working classes, and non-native or nationally “othered” groups; it always excludes those residents of a state not legally entitled to citizen rights, such as recent immigrants, sans-papiers, guest workers, and resident aliens.

Other assumptions reveal themselves through closer scrutiny. The concept of “citizen” implies a “nation” whose public exists in a relationship of legal rights and status and whose appropriate activities are defined in terms of his relationship with the state. The “consumer”, on the other hand, is a stateless, rootless subject whose activities consist of acts of selection and purchase in a market where products of all nations jostle for shelf space. Further, by precepts of liberal democratic thinking, all citizens are equal; citizenship is a homogeneous, unified status that ideally makes no distinctions between citizens, who remain undifferentiated and “equal under the law.” Consumption, on the other hand, is usually conceptualized as a highly individualizing activity, by which markets identify and capitalize on – even create, if they can – distinctions of class, gender, age, region, taste, etc. in an address that thrives on differentiation and segmentation. So, conceptually, the public as citizen is masculine, homogeneous, and national; the public as consumer is feminine, differentiated, and hybrid.

It is easy to see, then, why “public service television for citizens” can stifle some forms of expression and marginalize some groups, and why “commercial television for consumers” can be politically and socially empowering under certain circumstances, as with women’s programming in 1930s US radio, television under Franco in Spain, or Asian satellite TV in Britain. It neglects the very real cultural, legal, and economic power that consumers can exercise over the circumstances of their lives, even – especially – if they are disempowered as citizens. We need to rein in the citizen/consumer diad, not to argue for a heroic market model along Rupert Murdoch lines, but to point out that it has roots in a long history that needs re-examination, and to face the fact that avoidance of commercialism via public funding will not always produce inclusive, representational, empowering media any more than the mere presence of commercialism will subvert all public sphere-building activities – and that neither can avert the intervention of the state. It’s much more complicated than that. But we cannot begin to think it through using concepts that conceal more shady assumptions than they provide enlightenment.

Notes
Michele Hilmes, “Who We Are, Who We Are Not: Battle of the Global Paradigms,” in Planet Television. Lisa Parks and Shanti Kumar, eds. New York UP, 2003.
Philip Elliott, “Intellectuals, the “information society,’ and the disappearance of the public sphere,” Media, Culture, and Society 4 (1982): 244.
Graham Murdock, “Television and citizenship: In defence of public broadcasting,” in Consumption, Identity, and Style: Marketing, meanings, and the packaging of pleasure, ed. Alan Tomlinson. London: Routledge, 1990. 99.
Duncan H. Brown, “Citizens or Consumers: U.S. Reactions to the European Communitiy’s Directive on Television,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 8 (1994): 1-12.
Justin Lewis, “Citizens and Consumers,” in The Television History Book ed. Michele Hilmes. London: BFI, 2003.

Links
BBC Online
Jurgen Habermas Resource Page

Image Credits:

Buy American Vote for Barack Obama

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What Can We Still Learn about Television from Raymond Williams?

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

When I was invited to write this column for Flow, I wondered where to start. So, I turned to Alan O’Connor’s edited collection, Raymond Williams on Television – Selected Writings (1989). Williams died in January 1988. One of his last acts of publishing was to write a preface to O’Connor’s collection. Williams dated his signature to the preface, December 1987. The collection is largely made up of short articles from Williams’s monthly column in The Listener between 1968 and 1972. There are a few later pieces as well. The now defunct Listener was a BBC weekly publication of discussions and occasionally transcripts of what was going on in broadcasting. Its demise might suggest that television has become less the focus of urgent public debate now than it used to be. That’s unfortunate.

Williams wrote surprisingly little about television. The first edition of his book Communications, published in 1962, concentrated on the press. Much of the material was drawn from adult evening classes that Williams taught in the 1950s when video tape was only coming into use in television programme-making. Later, of course, domestic video recorders were a huge boon to education about television. In fact, they made it possible from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, Williams must have made notes when watching the uninterrupted flow of TV before the advent of domestic video recording. His observations became copy for The Listener, some of which also appeared in the third edition of Communications, published in 1976.

The Listener column effectively ended in December 1972. A couple of later pieces from The Listener, dated 1974, are included in O’Connor’s collection, but Williams never did resume his column on a regular basis. What had Williams been up to between suspending his column at the end of 1972 and the few afterthoughts he added in 1974? He went to the USA. While at Stanford in California, Williams began work on Television – Technology and Cultural Form, which was published after he had returned to Cambridge in England. Williams watched a lot of American television in a state of bemusement, especially with regard to the incessant advertising’s surreal interruptions of editorial content, and learnt about cutting edge technological developments in the medium at Stanford’s Department of Communications. In his book of thirty years ago, Williams not only commented on the form and content of television but also its developing technologies, including video-cassette recording, satellite transmission, large screen receivers and cable distribution. The cultural critic had become, to an extent, a political economist of televisual technology.

Williams concluded Television – Technology and Cultural Form prophetically. Permit me to quote the key passage, a passage that I am fond of quoting and have done so before:

Over a wide range from general television through commercial advertising to centralised information and data-processing systems, the technology that is now or is becoming available can be used to affect, to alter, and in some cases to control our whole social process. And it is ironic that the uses offer such extreme social choices. We could have inexpensive, locally based yet internationally extended television systems, making possible communication and information-sharing on a scale that not long ago would have seemed utopian. These are the contemporary tools of the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy, and of the recovery of effective communication in complex urban and industrial societies. But they are also the tools of what would be, in context, a short and successful counter-revolution, in which, under cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities (p151).

So, thirty years ago, with trepidation, Williams spotted what was likely to happen. Conventional wisdom tells us that the reason television has developed in this way is due to technological advance. It is indeed to do with technology but not only technology. Instantaneous satellite communications, channel proliferation, digitalisation and convergence of television and computing are all important but their deployment is a matter of decision-making, a matter of politics and economic pressure, as Williams always insisted. Profitability, not social use, is the driving force. This has put enormous pressure on the European tradition of public service broadcasting, a tradition that has barely existed at all in the USA. Even the most illustrious organisation of public service broadcasting – the British Broadcasting Corporation – behaves these days like a business in a competitive market. Yet, the public service aspect has not been entirely obliterated. There is still a debate to be had.

How does the situation differ now from thirty years ago when Williams sought to comment on the ordinary output of British television and theorised the development of the medium? Then, television in Britain was governed by public service principles, including commercial television. The Independent Television (ITV) network was established in the 1950s as a federation of regionally based companies, with regional responsibilities, under the supervision of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which became the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) with the subsequent advent of commercial radio. The regional franchises were once described as ‘a license to print money’ since the ITV companies had a monopoly over broadcast advertising revenue in their regions and could, therefore, sell time and audiences at exorbitant rates. The Wilson Labour government of the 1960s put a cap on ITV profits. The companies were left swimming in money, which could be lavished on production and high wages for staff, technical and administrative, not only managerial and creative. The so-called ‘golden age’ of British television – the 1960s and into the 1970s – was exceptionally well funded by advertising and license fee revenue. This was when Williams was writing about television.

The Thatcher Conservative government of the 1980s seriously considered the introduction of advertising to the BBC, not uncommon in public service broadcasting elsewhere. The ITV companies successfully protested against such competition that would inevitably force down rates. The competition came anyway, from cable operators and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB satellite service, which really took off with satellite sport, especially live Premiership football, in the 1990s. Channel proliferation, then, and segmented audiences. All of which entailed extra payments by the viewing public, in addition to the BBC-funding license fee and the costs of advertising in the shops. Until then, the viewing public had been getting its television on the cheap. Now, they were paying through the nose for it, though with greater ostensible ‘choice’.

In the meantime, labour conditions in the business had changed dramatically, involving a shift from Fordist to Post-Fordist arrangements. Outsourcing product, de-unionisation, casualisation and career insecurity all grew apace. There were still huge rewards but only for the very few. Some young entrants to the business were working for virtually nothing. Making programmes for BBC4, the ‘intellectual’ digital channel, originally named BBC Knowledge, is a form of philanthropy that is, no doubt, appreciated by its viewing public (normally counted in the tens of thousands).

What does all this mean for the programmes? Here, it is necessary to avoid – or, at least, be sceptical – of two tendencies. First, there is the celebration of cornucopia and choice, which simply repeats the industry’s PR and marketing rhetoric. Second, there is the nostalgic comparison of the present and the past when things were supposedly so much better. There is some justification for the latter, particularly in Britain where the public service and market compact of the 1960s and ‘70s was, indeed, a notably successful way of organising TV and enabling creativity to flourish. Williams, however, complained about it at the time. He and other critics attacked the ‘consensus’ TV that suppressed deeply felt differences. Marketisation may well have contributed to opening up representations of difference. Enthusiasts for the present find plenty to praise, most remarkably in terms of changing social mores, such as openness to sexual differences, an openness that was inconceivable, frankly, when Williams was writing about TV. Multiculturalism has had a significant impact too. Nevertheless, let’s be realistic, ultimately the bottom line rules now more so than ever, in a way that would have stifled great innovations of the past at birth.

As an armchair critic, Williams was fascinated by television’s representation of the world in factual and fiction forms. I believe that for him television was a democratising medium in a fundamental sense, already contributing to what he liked to call ‘the long revolution’. The mobile access in a private space to so much that was hitherto unavailable on a daily basis had to be acknowledged by intellectuals who might otherwise write television off as beneath them. In his Listener column, Williams offered an immanent critique of television that is a critique on the grounds of television itself, registering its successes and identifying its failures, in the hope, against the odds, of making it better.

Links of interest:
1950s British Television Nostalgia
TV Resources – British Shows
TV Museum: Raymond Williams
Pop Cultures: Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams

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Media Lag: The TV Revolution in Asia

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

I’ve traveled to Asia many times over the past decade, and if everything works flawlessly, the trip takes roughly 24 hours door-to-door from my home in Madison to a hotel room on the other side of the world. Then it usually takes another 72 hours before my body begins to adjust to the rhythms of Asia. In the semi-hallucinogenic haze of jet lag, one becomes acutely aware that America and Iraq figure little in the daily calculations of citizens in this part of the world. President Bush’s crusade against terrorism pales by comparison to more pressing concerns regarding democracy in East Asia, as citizens in both Hong Kong and Taiwan struggle for political autonomy and rights of free expression. Compared to Bush’s war on terrorism, these battles are just as epic in proportion and may in the long run be equally significant in their implications for the rest of the world.

Little of this registers in American media, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers poured into the streets of this city on four occasions over the past sixteen months demanding democratic reforms that had been promised them during the 1997 handover. Indeed, the largest demonstration drew more than half a million people, most of them educated middle class citizens who are usually touted as the very backbone of this city’s economic success. Recent elections likewise drew a record turnout, despite electoral ground rules that were heavily skewed to benefit Beijing loyalists. Resisting intense pressure from the mainland leadership, almost two-thirds of all votes were cast for democracy candidates, including a Yippiesque pundit known as “Long Hair” who, clad in a Che Guevara tee-shirt, refused to shake hands with the territory’s Chief Executive, choosing instead to recite a protest poem at their first official meeting.

Political passions in Taiwan likewise roil along at a fever pitch as the island emerges from a tumultuous presidential campaign last spring and heads into crucial legislative elections before the end of the year. Political sparring most centrally revolves around the island’s continuing assertion of independence in the face of more than a decade of pressure from Beijing to “reintegrate” with the motherland. As citizens of the Chinese world’s first and only democratic society, most Taiwanese seem willing to risk full-scale attack from the PRC rather than surrender hard-won rights of free expression. In fact, opinion polls show that support for independence has grown significantly over the past five years despite the volatile state of cross-straits relations.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, PRC politics are undergoing significant transformation due to recent maneuvering within the Communist Party prompting the unexpected departure of Jiang Zeming. This has consolidated the influence of a reform faction that is pushing for more institutional transparency and social welfare spending in a society predominantly characterized by crony capitalism and government corruption. Depending on whom one listens to, China is either teetering on the brink of economic greatness or economic ruin. It is at once the most powerful economy in Asia and perhaps the most fragile, with some experts estimating that more than a hundred million of its citizens have taken to the road in search of work, while hundreds of thousands of others have stayed at home to organize demonstrations for economic equity and social justice. Sit-ins, marches, and militant clashes with authorities are now regular (though underreported) occurrences, as government officials scramble to respond to the rising tide of protests.

Such a world is a long way from the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama and others anticipated only a decade ago. At the time, it was suggested that the most momentous decisions in the post-Cold War world would revolve around a set of rather mundane choices: Coke or Pepsi? Sony or Panasonic? MTV or ESPN? Media metaphors flowed easily then. Satellite TV and the dawning of the Worldwide Web seemed to augur a collapsing of boundaries and the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism, leading to an era of global peace and prosperity. Implicit in such speculation were presumptions of the development paradigm that had been so thoroughly discredited by scholarly criticism and practical application only four decades ago. Yet in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary, US leaders during the 1980s and1990s contended that that trade liberalization, new technologies, and Western expertise would unleash the productive power of lesser-developed nations. They likewise resurrected the “end of ideology” as the “end of history,” which played as a companion theme to the “weightless economy” and the “global communication grid.”

Of course the worm turns and now, in the new millennium, cultural and economic difference again seem as intractable as jet lag, as global communication technologies seem to be engendering a disjunctive set of social relations that one might refer to as media lag. That is, rather than fostering spontaneous development, television exposure seems to be exacerbating tensions between global imagery and local experience. So for example, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, it is commonly suggested by scholars, journalists, and government officials that the recent diffusion of television throughout the Middle East has fueled a wave of resentments regarding disparities within the region, as well as between lifestyles East and West. Yet it’s important to note that this phenomenon can also be found in societies to the north, south, and east of Baghdad.

Indeed, television spread throughout Asia at a remarkable pace during the 1990s, adding an estimated two billion new viewers to the global audience. In China alone TV access has risen from virtually zero to some 90% of the population over the past twenty years. A medium that was originally intended to foster economic development, unify the country, and strengthen the bridge between the party and the people, has become a source of significant anxiety among leaders in Beijing, engendering debates over “rising expectations” and subsequent social conflict. A similar trajectory of rapid adoption has taken place in India and the Middle East where policy makers also fret that the rapid diffusion of television exerts intense pressure to deliver the fruits of economic and social development. Just as jet lag challenges one’s physical and mental capacities, so too does rapid diffusion seem to challenge the institutional capacities of Asian societies. In this state of disjuncture, disparities of wealth seem to take on a vivid significance in the lives of viewers. Rather than fostering aspirations for modernization and “development” (a desire to “catch up”), television makes uneven development fantastically apparent to TV’s newest audiences. Put another way, if one looks carefully at a map of the world’s proven oil reserves, it is glaringly obvious that resources in the Middle East dwarf the combined reserves of the rest of the world. Likewise, if one examines the geographic distribution of the world’s manufacturing workforce as a function of labor cost, one quickly is alerted to the significance of places like Guangdong province in China or Andra Pradesh in India. Now compare these global maps of resource distribution to maps of resource consumption, energy use, and per capita income. The disparities are stunning but nevertheless commonly pass without critical comment in the mainstream media. Yet even though television rarely acknowledges these disparities at an explicit level, it prismatically refracts them through the disjunctive delivery of fantasy images of consumption to the shantytowns and cramped quarters of the world’s working poor. Moreover, television’s fixation on female consumerism offers up relentless images of feminine agency that are commonly embraced by young women who leave behind the drudgery of familial servitude for a chance to migrate to the workshops of transnational capital. Social tensions therefore multiply beyond class issues to controversies over gender relations and “family values,” as well. Media lag like jet lag is therefore commonly experienced as intensified sensitivity to difference and change, and regardless of how one responds, all are exposed to social disparities and tensions that seem enduring despite television’s promises to the contrary.

It’s noteworthy then that the “end of ideology” coincided with the rise of development communications during the 1950s and that the “end of history” augured a mistaken revival of faith in the development paradigm since the 1990s. Yet we have neither transcended ideology nor history. The former remains important for its ability to reveal that which is concealed by the everyday operations of power, while the dialectics of history remind us that dramatic disparities of wealth inevitably invite revolutionary responses. It is therefore worth paying attention to the operations of both ideology and history as we reflect upon the recent growth of television viewing around the world. For in one sense, media lag invites ideological awareness despite (or perhaps because of) television’s fixation on abundance and consumerism. In another sense, media lag is an historical phenomenon, for the transformations that accompany new media often take time to register in social relations. Consequently, our preoccupation with broadband Internet and other digital technologies may be obscuring the fact that for much of the world the television revolution is only beginning.

Links of Interest
BBC on Asia-Pacific News
Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”
Global Television

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