A Public Records Request Rabbit Hole in the Study of Nontheatrical Distribution
Finley Freibert / Independent Scholar


newspaper-clipping-police-seize-suspect-homosexual-movies
Clipping from San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12.

In June 2017, as I was researching the history of Californian gay media industries I came across a curious article in a January 1961 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. Entitled “Police Seize Suspect, Homosexual Movies,” the article detailed the arrest of an individual named John Samuel Bridges whose station wagon was loaded with films apparently intended for distribution to gay male consumers.[ (( “Police Seize Suspect, Homosexual Movies.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12. ))] The report noted there was evidence that sailors stationed at Treasure Island appeared in the films, a fascinating historical revelation given the island’s important place in San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history. The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island featured popular amusements on its so-called “Gayway” that pushed the envelope on sexual propriety in the postwar era.[ (( Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson, Citywide Historical Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco, October 2015, Planning Department, City and County of San Francisco, CA, 55. ))] Treasure Island was also the location of a notorious military brig where gay men of the navy were incarcerated and abused before being discharged.[ (( Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 149-50, 221; Joan Crowell, Fort Dix Stockade: Our Prison Camp Next Door (New York: Links, 1974), 137; Susan Stryker and Jim van Buskirk, Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996), 30. ))] According to the Chronicle article, Bridges was involved with both the making and distribution of these movies, and officers allegedly recovered a list of potential gay customers.


Aerial-view-of-Treasure-Island-and-the-Bay-Bridge
Aerial view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, 1959, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

This incident is notable for a number of reasons. Gay nontheatrical distribution is generally an under-researched field that could uniquely contribute to ongoing debates in nontheatrical film history.[ (( “Nontheatrical” is an industry term covering a wide range of production-distribution modes—including educational, private, institutional, nonprofit, adult, and amateur film among others—outside of public-facing for-profit exhibition industries. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Scholarly Interest Group on Nontheatrical Film and Media was founded in 2007. Since the 2000s journal special issues and books have expanded the field internationally. For examples see, Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, eds., Useful Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Allyson Nadia Field, Marsha Gordon, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, eds., Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); Dan Streible, Martina Roepke, and Anke Mebold, eds., Film History Special Issue 19, no. 4 (2007). ))] The date, 1961, precedes the famed advent of West Coast gay theater policies, namely the operations of the Haight in San Francisco starting in 1964 and the Park in Los Angeles commencing in 1968. Given the date and description, Bridges’ movies would have been either physique posing films or hardcore stag films, reproduced on small-gauge and distributed to nontheatrical gay consumers. As Elena Gorfinkel has detailed of the larger industry, small-gauge nontheatrical producers and distributors were industrially at odds with the 35mm theatrical adult film industry, who attempted to distance their work from small-gauge workers and also bar such workers from entry into the adult film trade organization.[ (( Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 89-95. ))] Thomas Waugh estimates that in comparison to the massive gay photography industry, the much smaller international market for gay nontheatrical film “allowed at most a dozen producers in 1960.”[ (( Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 255. ))] This estimate—and the allegation that Bridges’ car was packed with gay films—potentially places Bridges among the ranks of Bob Mizer and Dick Fontaine, the most prolific gay film producer-distributors in the state (and perhaps the country) before 1968. Furthermore, histories of the production and distribution of nontheatrical (and theatrical) gay films in San Francisco often begin with discussions of J. Brian or Hal Call, but include little information on the period before 1967.[ (( Besides Waugh’s important book on the subject, other key histories include Jeffrey Escoffier, Bigger than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2009); Lucas Hilderbrand, “The Uncut Version: The Mattachine Society’s Pornographic Epilogue,” Sexualities 19, no. 4 (2016): 449–64; Ryan Powell, Coming Together: The Cinematic Elaboration of Gay Male Life, 1945-1979 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019). ))] Finally, given the difficulty of recovering distribution history due to gay nontheatrical films’ clandestine circulation, records produced by an in-transit arrest could include significant revelations.

For these reasons,
I was fascinated to know more about this incident. Searches through available
historical newspaper digital archives turned up no other results on either
Bridges or the outcome of his arrest. Because of this scarcity of information,
I decided to file a public records request with the San Francisco Police
Department (SFPD) to see if a police report or other ephemera pertaining to
this incident might still exist. California Government Code §6254 (f) (1) provides that
under certain circumstances law enforcement bodies must make public:

The full name and occupation of every individual arrested by the agency, the individual’s physical description including date of birth, color of eyes and hair, sex, height and weight, the time and date of arrest, the time and date of booking, the location of the arrest, the factual circumstances surrounding the arrest, the amount of bail set, the time and manner of release or the location where the individual is currently being held, and all charges the individual is being held upon, including any outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions and parole or probation holds.[ (( “Cal. Government Code  §6254,” California Legislative Information, accessed November 1, 2018, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=GOV&sectionNum=6254. ))]

On October 9, 2018, I submitted a
request to the SFPD for all the above listed information relating to John
Samuel Bridges’ arrest on January 20, 1961.

On October 10, I received a response from SFPD asserting that the information I requested would not be disclosed because it was criminal history information protected from public disclosure under Penal Code §11105.[ (( Lt. Waaland, letter to author, October 10, 2018, San Francisco, CA to Irvine, CA, Reference # P005835-100918. ))] I found that response confusing because an almost identical request to the Los Angeles Police Department for 1970s records received a response that did not refuse record disclosure, stating that “in order for Records and Identification to even try to search for arrest reports that old, they need the booking numbers.”[ (( LAPD Discovery Section, CPRA Unit, email to author, October 10, 2018. ))] Because of this discrepancy, I decided to look further into the SFPD’s reasoning for refusing to disclose records in the case of Bridges.

After reading the Penal Code section cited by SFPD, I believed the information I saught may have been misunderstood as “criminal history information,” a specific phrase in the Penal Code §11105 defined as a compilation of data from an individual’s overall criminal record.[ (( “Penal Code  §11105,” California Legislative Information, accessed October 11, 2018, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PEN&sectionNum=11105. ))] Because of this possible misunderstanding, I submitted a second request on October 12 specifying that I did not want a compilation of criminal history on Bridges, but only arrest information on the June 20, 1961 incident. The second request for disclosure was denied by SFPD on October 18, with a different rationale. This time the response stated that due to an appellate court decision in 1993, the California Public Records Act “only requires the Department to provide information relating to current or ‘contemporaneous’ police activity.”[ (( Sgt. Sullivan, letter to author, October 18, 2018, San Francisco, CA to Irvine, CA, Reference # P005874-101218, 2. The appellate case cited was County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Kusar) 18 Cal.App.4th 588 (1993). ))] Confused by this second unsuccessful public records request that cited a 25-year-old case, I searched and found a later 2015 appellate court decision that appeared to contradict the “current” argument in the 1993 case cited by the SFPD. The 2015 decision I found stated, “Section 6254, subdivision (f)(2) must be read according to its plain terms, and these terms do not include an express time limitation on production of only ‘contemporaneous’ or ‘current’ records.”[ (( Fredericks v. Superior Court, 233 Cal.App.4th 209 (2015), 531. ))]

With this finding, on November 2, 2018, I submitted a petition for review of my two public records requests to the Supervisor of Records at the San Francisco Office of the City Attorney.[ (( F. Freibert, “Request to Review a CPRA Withholding of Records,” email to B. Russi, November 2, 2018. ))] In my petition I cited the 2015 decision, included copies of my original requests, and attached the SFPD responses. On December 3, 2018, I received a response from the Supervisor of Records that provided an interpretation and detailed legislative history of the “contemporaneous” and “current” §6254 language in the Fredericks and Kusar decisions.[ (( B. Russi, “Re: Petition to Supervisor of Records,” email to author, December 3, 2018, Reference ID: n:\govern\as2018\0100505\01321866.doc. ))] In the response, the Supervisor of Records ultimately affirmed the SFPD’s refusal to disclose records on Bridges.

This process
proved to be a learning experience, but it also speaks to the larger subject of
the viability of accessing public records for historical research. At present,
completing historical research using federal public records requests (via the
Freedom of Information Act) can be feasible. However, my experiences attest to
a current lack of feasibility in using California Public Records Act requests
to research historical arrests by city police departments in Los Angeles and
San Francisco.


sailors-on-treasure-island
Sailors on Treasure Island, 1950, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

In the year following my unsuccessful public records requests, I’ve uncovered additional information that reveals a larger picture of John Bridges’ business operations. Beyond transporting nontheatrical gay movies, the original article noted that Bridges produced several other adult films confiscated the previous day from small-gauge entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs apparently had some business connection with Bridges, but had previously founded a studio for “legitimate” nontheatrical endeavors (one individual later explicitly identified himself as an “educational film maker”).[ (( “S.F. Cops Smash Lewd Film Ring,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 1961, 3; Novella O’Hara, “Question Man,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 1968, 13. ))] However, when the studio went bankrupt they transitioned to the production of nontheatrical adult films. I am hopeful that pursuing further leads will result in developments on this unique case of clandestine gay-oriented nontheatrical distribution. Distribution remains a crucial yet exceptionally difficult sector to investigate, but media industry studies scholars continue to propose and apply creative approaches to researching distribution that emphasize critical, archival, and interview-based methods.[ (( Recent inspiring examples include: Peter Alilunas, Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016); Lynn Comella, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); Kevin Heffernan, “Seen as a Business: Adult Film’s Historical Framework and Foundations,” in New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, ed. Lynn Comella and Shira Tarrant (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2015), 37–56; Alisa Perren, “Rethinking Distribution for the Future of Media Industry Studies,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 3 (2013): 165–71. ))]



Image Credits:

  1. Clipping from San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12.
  2. Aerial view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, 1959, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  3. Sailors on Treasure Island, 1950, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


References:




What is a Soundtrack Album? Or, Spot the Soundtrack Album
Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University

If It Comes with a Soundtrack Album, Is It Innovative? Or Threatening?

Soundtrack albums are having a moment. A member of indie rock royalty has admitted to being a soundtrack album devotee. An article analyzed a 2002 iPod as a time capsule featuring the era’s soundtrack albums. 2017 saw soundtrack albums drive vinyl and cassette sales. The Black Panther soundtrack albums are receiving extensive praise (and some of this mentions Prince’s earlier interventions). Moulin Rouge! (2001) was the sound(track) of Olympic figure skating. Variety has declared a “soundtrack renaissance.” And a media analyst, while noting the robust sales of soundtrack albums, wrote: “Video kills radio stars, but it may well be the film industry that leads the way in preserving the album as an artistic medium.” [ (( Zach Fuller, “With Black Panther: The Album At Number One In The US, Are We Witnessing A Soundtrack Renaissance?” , February 20, 2018. ))]

If the soundtrack album can preserve anything, it is fair to ask: What is a soundtrack album? Last year the sacred definitions of “film” and “television” were under assault from scholars, critics and upstart media providers. SCMS moved to change the name of its journal (causing some bemusement). A TV show was called a (great) film. And a (less-than-great) made-for-TV movie threatened the very idea of cinema. Yet through it all, soundtrack albums continued to refuse to acknowledge any difference between “film” and “TV.”

Second Verse, Same as the First

At the end of 2017, major film journals anointed Twin Peaks: The Return among the best, if not the best, film of the year. [ (( Of course, the Twin Peaks property, long before it was rebooted / revived / picked-up by Showtime, already bridged the porous divide between film and television since it consisted of a TV series and a prequel film. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is also a hybrid text of material made for television and material made for cinema theaters. ))] And there was much gnashing of teeth. Rather than celebrating the text’s ascension to the mountaintop of transmedia [ (( Just when you thought The Matrix texts required homework, welcome to Twin Peaks. To process The Return apparently required reading The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town, screening Fire Walk with Me (1992) and studying that film’s extensive deleted scenes, and of course reading the two new David Frost books (The Secret History and The Final Dossier). The nostalgia for Twin Peaks season 1 is not unlike the nostalgia for the first Matrix film. Neither is an unreasonable response. ))], scholars fought over the text’s “home.” Twin Peakscute marketing wisely taps into the work’s always fascinating internet presence and embraces the era of streaming media. There are also two distinct soundtrack albums (including a Target “exclusive”). Whatever the preferred label—auteur TV, “peak” TV, or film—Twin Peaks pedaled music using conventional methods.

The Netflix movie Bright was also a flashpoint in media circles. The critical drubbing at times felt like a defense of traditional (theater-based) cinema. Bright first entered popular culture through “innovative” marketing, and unsurprisingly, with the release of singles and an album. Netflix clearly regards soundtrack albums as a useful, even essential, tool in their empire. Like Amazon, Netflix is in the music business, but we knew that already. Bright, like Twin Peaks, is an (expensive) advertisement for music.

Spot the Soundtrack (Album)

Soundtrack albums ignore and extend well beyond the film-TV binary. And if soundtrack albums are at, or near, the heart of audio-visual media, the parameters of the category should be defined. We might, therefore, play a brief game of “spot the soundtrack album.”

description of imagedescription of image
Spot the Soundtrack Album #1 (Answer: the left)

I use the term “soundtrack album” here, as in my first Flow column, to designate a grouping of songs, whether collected on a physical medium or not. This phrase risks redundancy because the term “soundtrack” is often used to describe these objects. But “soundtrack” is used just as often to describe the audio portion of audio-visual media.

On the left is (one) soundtrack album for Disney’s Fantasia (1940), a film that strove to bring “classical” music to the masses by turning movie theatres into concert halls (that still showcased Mickey Mouse). On the right is the character “soundtrack” within the film, described as “shy” and at times looking very much like an optical soundtrack. Both of these can be called a soundtrack, but only one is a soundtrack album. The advantage of “soundtrack album” is to formally—but not permanently—separate these texts from the audio address of audio-visual media.

Spot the Soundtrack Album #2 (Answer: the right?)

The 1978 Robert Stigwood production Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and its soundtrack album, directly feed into the belief that the Beatles’ 1967 album of the same name is the first “concept” record, or even itself a soundtrack album, rather than (merely) an intricately produced collection of songs without a unifying idea or sound. An essay accompanying the fiftieth anniversary edition of the album states: “If Revolver is like a photo album—fourteen exquisite, self-contained vignettes showcasing the talents of each Beatle in under three minutes each—Sgt. Pepper is like a film: not a passive record of life, but a moving picture of it.” [ (( Howard Goodall, “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Box Set (2017): 97-98. ))]

The album on the right is clearly a soundtrack album. And a doozy. But might the film retroactively turn the Beatles’ release into a soundtrack album too?

Spot the Soundtrack Album #3 (Answer: both)

On the left is the West Side Story (1961) film soundtrack album, while on the right is the play’s 1957 soundtrack album, more commonly called the “original cast recording.” Both of these are soundtrack albums, and both sold very well. The latter allows us to acknowledge the importance of theatre soundtrack albums and their importance to the growth of the long-playing album as a format. Soundtrack albums helped create the medium they are now asked to preserve.

By some accounts, cast albums—first Oklahoma! (as a set of 78 rpm discs and later an LP) and then My Fair Lady—dominated early album sales. These audio versions of Broadway shows allowed audiences physically and/or temporally separated from the New York City run to experience these works. When South Pacific (1958) and The Sound of Music (1965) each became the top-selling album a few years after release, the film soundtrack album symbolically and economically replaced the Broadway album as the default soundtrack album. Of course, Broadway soundtrack albums continue to deliver sound outside theatres.

The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack (from LaserDisc)

There is one, or two, more variations on the term and concept of soundtrack album that deserve some brief discussion. The phrase “visual album” has seen a recent resurgence, most obviously in connection with work by Beyoncé, JAY-Z and Fergie. Using this term rejects the subordinate position that “soundtrack album” tends to impose on audio material vis-à-vis audio-visual media. This effort to rethink, and reframe, the relationship between these texts is fair and justified (if not exactly new). But “visual album” flirts with redundancy just as much as “soundtrack album” (see above where Revolver is labeled a photo album). And rather than signaling a different relationship between texts, it might simply reverse the hierarchy between audio-visual media and soundtrack album. At least it encourages a conscious address of terminology.

The “visual soundtrack” above is a fascinating iteration. Created for Japanese audiences (the subtitles are a feature and not a bug), the LaserDisc release joins new images with the show’s famous music. It is official but not undertaken by Twin Peaks’ creators. Unlike other “visual albums,” it appeared after, rather than alongside, the audio text. The work (re)visualizes the music, surveys the show’s locations, and functions as TV tourism (even revealing the inside of a certain train car).

What is a Soundtrack Album?

A workable definition of “soundtrack album” must encompass works connected to film, television, streaming content, video games, books, and perhaps even the diverse range of texts circulating as “visual albums.” A soundtrack album is not an adjunct text; a soundtrack album is a text whose relationship to one or more other texts is fluid and where meaning flows in all directions. These relationships are never simple.

For example, there are three Don Johnson texts called “Heartbeat”: a song, an album, and an album-length video. Which is the center? Johnny Thunders would likely vote for the song. [ (( Cheetah Chrome, A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock (Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2010): 307. ))] Others would probably favor whichever text they encountered first (a frequent concern in adaptation studies). [ (( Peter Brooker, “Postmodern Adaptation: Pastiche, Intertextuality and Re-functioning,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, Eds. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2007): 107-120. ))]

Are these texts the soundtrack of Johnson’s career? (Kerouac may have one). Is the video a “visual album” or “visual soundtrack”? And does calling the album a soundtrack stifle Johnson’s vision or restrict our interpretive options? Not if we view soundtrack albums as always the center of their own universe of texts and whose meanings and relationships await consideration.

Image credits:
1. Twin Peaks: The Return soundtrack
2. Bright: The Album
3. Fantasia soundtrack
4. Author’s screengrab
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
6. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack
7. West Side Story soundtrack
8. West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast)
9. Playlist for The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack

Please feel free to comment.




It’s the Political Economy Stupid: The Case for Media Industries Studies in an Era of Fake News
Christopher M. Cox / Georgia State University

cbs-news-infowars-fake-news

The Fake News of InfoWars

Alex Jones describes himself as a “trailblazer of new media.” He is less apt to apply the moniker of “fake news” to his affiliated brands (such as websites InfoWars.com), even though CBS News shows less restraint – it recently counted InfoWars among fake news sites.

Fake news itself isn’t a recent phenomenon. Disingenuous information has long plagued journalistic inquiry and endured despite efforts to instantiate professionalized ethics, institutions, and training related to news reportage. These undertakings seek to curb the deleterious effects of information that has no reliable claim to empiricism yet flourishes as a means of ascertaining truth, as in the case of the recent Pizzagate conspiracy theory that identified Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential campaign chairman John Podesta as participants in a child sex-trafficking ring operating through Comet Ping-Pong Pizza, a Washington D.C. pizzeria.

While these claims have been thoroughly debunked by outlets ranging from The New York Times to Fox News, the widespread dissemination of this fake news led to real material consequences in the form of a gunman who entered the pizzeria with an assault rifle and fired a shot in order to “investigate the claims” made by Pizzagate adherents, including Alex Jones. Even after the incident, the shooter “refused to dismiss outright the claims.”

slate-pizzagate

“Pizzagate” Moral Panic

Indeed, much of the online commentary around fake news focuses on the need for such dismissal, particularly on the importance of developing tools for media consumers to identify fake news, dismiss the underlying claims, and seek out reliable sources. To the extent that these efforts address what constitutes fake news and what to do about it, this essay seeks to widen the lens in order to address how and why fake news originates and the motivating factors as to its inception.

With this in mind, I argue for media industries as a disciplinary and methodological framework highly adept at accounting for the underlying circumstances that shape the production, dissemination, and consumption of fake news. In what follows, I make some brief observations about fake news and suggest some ways in which media industries studies’ indebtedness to political economy paves the way for a more assured assessment of circumstances that make fake news a profitable commodity and venture, circumstances that in turn illuminate how fake news can be distinguished from reliable journalistic enterprises. To the extent that Trump’s election was an economic mandate, political economy is a necessary mandate for scholars and critics as a counterbalance to the forces that enable fake news to shape political and economic realities.

Fake News is Clickbait.

As Melissa Zimdars recently noted after her list of fake news sites received widespread online attention, “fake news is cheap to produce…and profitable.” This profitability stems from a digital ecosystem that enables clickable interaction (searches, shares, likes, etc.) to become part of a broader commodity reflective of consumer interest and therefore attractive to third-party advertisers and marketers. Content, then, is often tailored to what will garner the greatest number of clicks, whether it’s clicking on an article itself or clicking a like or share button. Even though journalistic enterprises undertake internal checks and balances to help ensure informational integrity, professional news reporting on social media competes for clicks with entities that neither internally scrutinize their content nor find themselves subject to scrutiny by the platform in question.

While professional journalism has long wrestled with a tension between profit motivation and pro-social aims, fake news encounters no such tension. In the absence of institutional values, ethics, and gatekeeping mechanisms applied internally or externally, fake news is the neoliberal dream writ large: minimal production costs and practically zero regulatory measures. In this way, economics is the most drastic distinction between journalistic enterprise and its facsimile. Nothing distinguishes the online spread of real news from fake news more than the economics on which they thrive. Tracing economic relations thus not only helps to discern between fake and trustworthy information, but also identify connections and motivations behind emergent industrial actors that have an economic stake in the promulgation of fake news.

Fake News is Vertically Integrated.

InfoWars is more than just a space for Alex Jones to exult his worldview – it’s also a storefront that sells a diverse array of products from coffee to teeth whitening gel to apparel promoting Trump. The diversity and prolificacy of products offered through InfoWars suggests a commercial enterprise undergirded by an economic structure in which mediated content is both product and promotion, a digital commodity form in its own right and a means to advertise more tangible goods.

As one example, the below video dedicates the bulk of its runtime to discussing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, yet opens with Alex Jones himself inducing watchers to visit the InfoWars storefront. It’s also not an isolated incident, as Jones’ YouTube videos regularly promote products for sale on the InfoWars site.


The InfoWars Storefront

On Dec. 7, 2016, the channel posted a 5-minute video dedicated to Jones promoting the InfoWarsLife brand of ingestible supplements, a line of products regularly promoted as breakaway embeds within the Alex Jones Show. The Dec. 8, 2016 show, for instance, breaks away at just over one hour to briefly roll video of InfoWarsLife products. InfoWarsLife is also promoted in the description accompanying the video, as more than 20 InfoWarsLife products are listed with accompanying links to their respective page on the InfoWars store.

The commercialization of news reportage has long troubled the institution of journalism and its critics and remains a locus for critical analysis. But whereas the economics of journalism often place commodities and their promotion at a remove from news content, the InfoWars example demonstrates no such buffer, neither between the commodification of content or commodities promoted within such content. The integration of vertical markets and associated products is therefore a critical means of assessing the motivations to develop tight relays between content and commodity and the economic drivers that make such relays a profitable venture.

Political economy is especially important when such content and commodities situate among technologies that can be gamed to replicate journalistic forms.

Fake News is Code.

Melissa Zimdars’ documentation of misleading and clickbaiting sources includes a caution against URLs that end in “.com.co,” since they are often fake versions of legitimate news sources, advice echoed by FactCheck.org in their guide to spotting fake news. URL suffixes such as “.co” are available to anyone who registers a site name not currently taken, even if a portion of that site name replicates the URL for existing news sites.

A prominent example is ABCNews.com.co, a site created by noted fake news propagator Paul Horner, who typically earns $10,000 a month in advertising sales from the uptake of his fabricated content. The site reproduces the URL, look, and form of ABC News, with only slight variations to the logo and other indicators of institutional affiliation. Its allegation that Trump protestors were paid $3,500 to protest Trump rallies caught the attention of former CNN contributor and Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who (as shown in the below screencap) spread the post via Twitter before later deleting it, but not before it found widespread purchase in the social media ecosystem.

lewandowski-trump-rally

Spreading the Fake News

Given that 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media, the majority of news is not consumed from the source itself but from secondhand aggregators such as Facebook and Google, each of which perform algorithmic generation often agnostic to content that emanates from ABC News or ABCNews.com.co. In the wake of the election, both Facebook and Google have made gestures towards altering their technical configurations to weed out fake news, including Facebook updating the language of its Audience Network Policy to more directly account for fake news.

In their own way, they seem to be taking steps to address their role as informal regulators of aggregated content. What remains to be seen is whether or not – in the spirit of Lawrence Lessig’s admonition that “code is law” – more formal regulation is placed on entities such as domain registry services and third-party hosting services that enable fake news to mimic the URL, form, and function of legitimate news sources.

Going forward, emphasizing media industries approaches that examine the role of regulatory frameworks (both governmental and informal), in conjunction with the economic incentives that underpin digital platforms and their technological affordances, can not only cut through the complications of an increasingly nebulous media ecosystem, but offer tools to better understand relationships among various enterprises (journalistic and otherwise) increasingly bound within an expanding market of commodifiable digital forms.

What I have offered here is by no means exhaustive. It is, however, a means to underscore the fact that understanding the foundations of media industries methodologies runs parallel to the ability to understand and address deleterious effects of fake news.

Image Credits:
1. The Fake News of InfoWars
2. “Pizzagate” Moral Panic
3. Spreading the Fake News

Please feel free to comment.