The Worst Happened

American Soldier

American Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soldier in Iraq

Soldier in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

1. American Soldier

2. Soldier in Iraq

Please feel free to comment.

TV in the Season of Compassion Fatigue

The Astrodome

The Astrodome

On the fateful Monday that Hurricane Katrina was passing through New Orleans (before the levees broke, when the biggest question seemed to be whether the Superdome’s roof would blow off) some friends and I were in a Marriott Hotel in the Florida panhandle. Like thousands of other evacuees, we were tracking Katrina’s progress via television through the city we had left behind. The storm was so large that even in Florida it was very rainy and windy and groups of people spent the whole day more or less watching the large screen tv in the hotel lounge. In mid-afternoon a cable television meteorologist reporting live from a semi-sheltered Canal Street doorway dramatically announced that he was going to make his way to a mailbox out on the street. His announcement drew mixed cries of “No!” and “Yes!” from my viewing cohort as people set aside their drinks to devote their full attention to the screen. The meteorologist-stuntman combat crawled his way out to the edge of the sidewalk and gripped the mailbox, bits of which were blowing away, and it looked as if he might join them at any moment. He made a few observations to the camera then attempted to regain the safety of the doorway — nearly there, a fierce gust suddenly blew him off his feet leading him to perform an impromptu somersault into a wall, and with that it was back to the studio. As conversation resumed and a collectively held breath released in front of the tv, a teenage boy stood up to leave but as he did so he momentarily blocked the screen, turning to face our assembled group. “That,” he informed us, “was awesome!”

I had intended to cite this anecdote of spectacle and spectatorship as a reminder of how we used to watch cable news and weather broadcasts before the terrible aftermath of Katrina, supposing that things may be a little different now. Then again, perhaps they are not as different as we would think. In a year that began with the Asian tsunami and marked its midpoint with the London bombings, mainstream television’s coverage of disaster has intensified this season with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the earthquake in Pakistan. As I write, Wilma, another major storm, is massing in the gulf, a wooden dam in Taunton, Massachusetts is threatening to give way after record-setting rainfall and all the networks are hyping avian flu as an imminent pandemic. I suspect I am in the majority when I turn on the news in the morning, wondering what new disaster I will learn about.

Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Television’s narratives of spectacular environmental disaster this season invite attention to climate change, car culture, overdevelopment and the perils of neglecting an underfunded and aging public infrastructure. They also provide a particular opportunity to examine our own emotional relationship to the medium and to reflect on the ways in which (non-fiction) television disaster narratives constitute epistemological evidence to a wide variety of social constituencies. Fringe groups interpreted the satellite shape of Hurricane Katrina’s vortex to resemble that of a giant fetus, a swirling reproach to a post Roe v. Wade America. Others with a residual investment in the Cold War saw significance in the names Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Katrina while anti-semitic groups claimed that Israel’s designs on the port of New Orleans for weapons smuggling had instigated a divine retribution. Many of these interpretations build an ideological barrier between the storm’s victims and other Americans, imagining a punishment of various causes but always with the same real-world consequence delivered against the predominantly black, urban underclass of a singular American city.

Watching television this autumn has made me wonder if it might be the right time to revisit the notion of “compassion fatigue,” a term explored by Susan Moeller in her eponymous 1999 book. Moeller largely focuses upon crises and catastrophes outside the U.S. and the factors in play that work to mute American public response, particularly as wars, famine, disease, etc. are represented in terms suggesting these problems are intractable and inevitable in societies other than our own. Yet her claims retain much of their currency in a season when the rapidity with which one disaster has displaced another in the public imagination is so great and threatens to overextend our attention span and emotional limits. Moeller’s arguments might also be re-cast for a time when the “elsewhere” of foreign disaster coverage is situated domestically — Katrina put terms previously associated with foreign disaster (“refugee” and “evacuee”) into the vocabulary of American experience.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century domestic disasters are emerging as staples of U.S. media coverage and some of the factors cited by Moeller are inapplicable to these news stories. However it is clear that sustained and systemic coverage of post-spectacle catastrophe is still deemed “difficult” within the broadcast media and the chicken and egg problem of whether audiences reject such reporting or news organizations reject it on our behalf remains largely unaddressed. Many of the neighborhoods in post-hurricane New Orleans are quiet places with vast areas of destroyed and damaged residential property, closed stores, and no electricity. In a sensationalist media culture they are perhaps particularly unrepresentable. It is significant, no doubt, that the most high-profile New Orleans story in October involved the on-camera beating of a black man by police in the French Quarter — not only did this story have clear precedents tracking back to Rodney King, it was also in compliance with the representational codes of sensation and violence that drive the news media. The case affectively substituted anger for despair and also matched our affinity for blunt problems of law and order rather than the more composite concerns of resource management and reconstruction.

Of course, it might be pointed out that the issue is less one of compassion fatigue than of simple compassion and there would be various elements in the reporting of Katrina to support that view. One might think of the desperate attempts of rooftop-bound hurricane victims using the U.S. flag to signal for attention from passing helicopters (thus effectively claiming their own citizenship status and symbolic integration with a nation that has reinforced its connections between citizenship and patriotic iconography since 9/11). At those moments, it seemed, the victims acted from the belief that a demonstration of their ideological worth would enhance their chance of rescue. One might also recall Barbara Bush’s comments at the Astrodome suggesting that many of those being sheltered there were probably content to be housed in a sports stadium since they lived impoverished lives anyway.

The regularization of catastrophe this autumn challenges us to sustain a compassionate relation to disaster even when television maintains an exploitative relationship to it. While several cable news outlets have slightly expanded their follow-up coverage of Hurricane Katrina and a few have produced hard-hitting investigative pieces, the focus this season remains on the terrible thrill of disasters in progress.

See Also:
Tara McPherson — “Feeling Blue: Katrina, The South and The Nation”
Douglas Kellner — “Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency”

Image Credits:

1. The Astrodome

2. Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Please feel free to comment.

When Mullahs Ride the Airwaves: Muslim Televangelists and the Saudi Connection

Dishes and Mosque

Dishes and Mosque


“Soccer is not an illicit form of entertainment, but when practiced in violation of shariah, then it is as abhorrent as any other sin…. When we fanatically love non-Muslim players who perform the sign of the cross upon entering or leaving the field…or when Muslim players imitate the pagan dance of famous infidel players when they score, or put forbidden things on their chests, that’s not acceptable.” The author of this soccer fatwa is Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid on a set of Islam’s powerful spokeschannel, Iqra’ TV.

Until recently sheikhs like Al-Munajid were only able to reach their audience through audio and video recordings sold on Arab black street markets. Those who preached a rigorous interpretation of Islam had a minimal impact among fringe groups of Arab populations, but as satellite technology becomes greatly appealing to the religious and the secular alike, television channels with a strict religious message as Iqra’ are quickly setting shop. Inaugurated in 1998, Iqra’ is Saudi Arabia’s most recent and probably most effective campaign of spreading its Wahhabi doctrine, which the channel’s producers temper by saying on their website that their mission is to bring “the teachings of Islam into the homes and hearts of Arabs worldwide.” The Saudis take issue with the Wahhabi label because it makes them look less as the real Islam and more like a sect that is highly disputed in some respectable religious circles. But the systematic indoctrination of imams and financing of religious schools and mosques around the world reveal a rigid reading of Islam which forbids close interaction with non-Muslims and calls for the literal application of shariah laws across the region, including hand amputation for theft, sword beheading for capital crimes, and denying women any role in public life.

For years, Saudi Arabia had to flaunt its generosity towards poor Muslim countries by building hospitals, schools, universities and mosques even in Western Europe and the United States. According to Saudi officials, between 1975 and 2002, the Riyadh government spent more than $70 billion on Islamic projects around the world, excluding the millions of dollars volunteered by Saudi charity foundations and unidentified philanthropists. An estimated 80 percent of mosques in the U.S. are funded by Saudi Arabia, according to Sheik Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, head of the Islamic Supreme Council of America. While the funding of mosques and the ideological direction of those who frequent them do not necessarily correlate, the influence of the Saudis over the content of the sermons, the training of imams, and the substance of Islamic schools’ curricula is undeniable.

Religious spending per se is not the problem here, but it is the extremist ideology promoted thanks to this cash availability that is disturbing. The voices of intransigent Islam are featured frequently on the airwaves of Iqra’, and their edicts are often consistent with the Wahhabi attempt to purge Islam of what is perceived as foreign threat disguised as societal change. In fact, some of the messages on the channel can be extreme like Saudi cleric Aed Al-Qarni’s recent on-the-air endorsement of suicide bombing. “Houses and young men must be sacrificed,” he says, “Throats must be slit and skulls must be shattered. This is the road to victory and to shahada (sacrifice). Oh brothers, the idolatrous Vietnamese, Cambodians, and South Africans….Nations with no calling or divine law make sacrifices–sacrificing people, blood, and souls. All the more so should we, the nation of Islam.” And some show moderators often appear as enlightened by their guests’ revelations as when Egyptian historian, Zaynab Abdel Aziz tells a show host that the “Vatican delegated the US to carry out 9/11.”

While religious platforms such as Iqra’ do not call for jihad bluntly, theycontribute to an increasingly radicalized religious culture in the Arab world, making every facet of social, cultural, and economic life a religious issue in need of a fatwa. Fatwas range from Muslim women needing to comply with their husbands’ desire in bed even if they don’t want to, to why hands of stealers should be chopped, to whether Muslims should shake hands with Jews. Iqra’ (literally: “recite” or “read in an
intelligent way”), has found a fertile ground in a region still lacking basic political reforms and jaded with repetitious autocratic and corrupt regimes. For years, religious groups–mostly underground–in the Arab world have become the only viable alternative: when the health
system fails customarily in these countries, Islamic groups with disposable cash can intervene with their own doctors for free; when schools educate poorly, the same groups offer their own teachers for free. In the wake of natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, religious groups often respond quickly and more efficiently than governments to help the victims and alleviate their losses, as was the case in the earthquakes of Algeria and last year’s floods of northeastern Morocco. The failure of secular regimes to provide minimum social welfare and secure political freedom in the region has steadily nurtured a new perception whereby the state benefits the elite while religion benefits the masses.

This is why the world of Arab media seems swamped with religious messages, but by now, Arabs have evolved since the state-owned, everything-is-fine, and dull television channels. So, in order to appeal to a more media saturated audience, the producers of Iqra’ are taunting their skills by making religious preaching less shabby and threatening. The on-screen graphics and studio sets are comparable to entertainment television, but nothing is more alluring than the new look of Islamic scholars and sheikhs who do not always conform to the conventional image of a preacher in a mosque. In fact, many of these preachers and scholars wear suits and use softer tones than usual. Some of them are young and do not claim to be a religious authority like the channel’s superstar preacher, Amr Khaled, a 38-year-old who hosts one of the most popular programs on Arab television, Sunaa al Hayat (Life Makers).

Khaled, who has become a household name across the Arab world, is seemingly an anomaly in the Saudi quest to popularize Wahhabism: he is young, a business accountant not a religious scholar, and with a somewhat liberal and tolerant approach to Islamic preaching. Khaled’s fame at Iqra’ was preceded by a long showdown with Egyptian authorities who expelled him from Egypt after his religious lectures had become spiritual revelations for thousands of well-to-do women and youth in the country. His age, modern look (wearing jeans or a suit and clean-shaven), and the use of colloquial Arabic make him accessible to a young Arab audience extremely tired of the staid, disconnected sheikhs of Islam. But what made Khaled’s message appealing to the Saudi channel Iqra’; is that it is liberal only in style and quite conservative in substance. During his lectures and discussions on the hijab, Khaled is rarely original in citing the reasons why Muslim women should be veiled. Women are the pillars of Islamic education and wearing the veil, he says, is a selfless gesture to protect the sanctity of the faith itself: “I think that the primary purpose of legislating hijab, other than preservation of virtue, is…to remind people in the street about Islam; there will be no way better than hijab.” Islam’s integrity, he says on his show, depends on the virtue of its women and since their responsibility in the temptation of men is inevitable, veiling is a must, even if you don’t understand. While Khaled’s message lacks in originality and critical quality, his highly emotional, talk-show style provides an innovative and soothing statement that you can be pious and still remain modern and cool. And the Amr Khaled phenomenon has just begun despite some already unprecedented television ratings for his show: five million viewers tune in to his weekly show and his web site records millions of hits daily.

By putting Khaled next to the old and conventional sheikhs, Iqra’s producers are hoping to change the moral path of young Arabs who are still deeply influenced by Western popular culture. Major Internet chat rooms in the region are teeming with testimonies, particularly of young women thanking Khaled for convincing them to put on the veil. Programming this year included not only talk shows and lectures, but dramas and cartoons. It is hard to quantify the impact of Khaled’s hip preaching and Iqra’s religious broadcasting, but religion has never been this popular from Cairo to Casablanca. At a time when political regimes in the region continuously fail their constituency and Islam is the subject of humiliating headlines, Khaled and a wave of young preachers seem not only innovative, but also vengeful in a let’s-go-back-to-the-roots fashion. It is therefore not a surprise to find Saudi Arabia at the helm of this religious survival in disguise. Though Wahhabism may never become a preferred doctrine of Muslim Arabs, its signature of uncritical, exclusionary spirituality is quickly infiltrating Arab living rooms and delaying badly needed reforms both in religious interpretations and political rule.

The 30-year-old executive manager of Iqra’, Mohammad Hammam, likes to think of his channel as serving a double mission: counter the post-September 11 image of Islam and guide Muslims to understand better their own religion. Many of the ideas propagated from the sets of the channel, however, belie the core of this mission. If there is one, it seems to be to flood the airwaves with a fatigued interpretation of religion simply refurbished with funky jingles and beardless preachers.

Iqra’ TV

Image Credits

1. Dishes and Mosque

Please feel free to comment.

Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency

Terra Daily

Terra Daily


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FEMA Director Michael Brown

FEMA Director Michael Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Mick Farren, “Post-Storm Watch,” Citybeat, September 22-28, 2005, at

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

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

Mark Benjamin, “Brownout!” Salon, September 11, 2005, at

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

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

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

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

U.S. Census
Public Enemy

Image Credits:

1. Terra Daily

2. FEMA Director Michael Brown

Please feel free to comment.

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

War Protesters In Iraq

War Protesters in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

1. War Protesters in Iraq

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

Please feel free to comment.

Teen Choice Awards: Better Than The Emmys?

Teen Choice Awards 2005

Teen Choice Awards 2005

I admit it: I am a TV Award Show junkie. I throw parties, accompanied by my annual rant on the horrible results — quickly followed (after a bit of champagne) with a follow-up rant on what was not nominated that should have been. One show that I haven’t paid as much attention to has been The Teen Choice Awards, and this summer I found myself wondering why this has been the case. I love teen television, whatever that may be, and I am routinely disappointed at how many “legitimate” award shows leave out some of the best programming we have in the U.S.

This year, I paid attention — and I suggest that as TV scholars we all start paying attention (to these awards, and more broadly, to the shows that fall into the ever-expanding category of “Teen TV”). The Teen Choice Awards are similar in nature to shows often dismissed (People’s Choice, MTV): nominations emerge and “real people” vote online for their favorites. This summer, as I tracked the nominations and then the winners, I found myself thinking: “Hey! I’m more pleased with these than the Emmys!” And I really am in no way exaggerating. In particular, these awards surpass the Emmys in four key ways that we should heed: 1) forward-thinking in terms of technology, 2) range, 3) diversity, and 4) quality.

This year, The Teen Choice Awards added a new category: The V-Cast Award. While admittedly mired in commercialism (the award emerged from Verizon Wireless), this category recognizes that TV is expanding beyond the set to include short video content available by cell phone. Short-form content for the small(er) screen is a rapidly developing area of television that is quickly becoming as integral to viewing for many teens as going online to read and talk about their favorite shows. (Note: many of the series nominated for regular categories have avid online fan bases.) The fact that the show recognizes this significant trend suggests that the Teen Choice Awards are seeing (and pursuing) a future element of “TV” that others are not — something to consider, at the very least, in terms of how we ourselves teach and write about TV.

I was also impressed by the range of the shows that were nominated. Compared to the Emmys, there was, quite simply, a lot more going on; these awards gave me a much better sense of not only what teens might be watching, but of what TV is offering to viewers in general. If one looks at the Emmy nominations, one could surmise that only a few shows (and networks) capture viewers’ hearts, minds, and spirit as they watch: we see the same series appearing on a regular basis, with some programs receiving multiple nominations in the same category. The Teen Choice Awards spread the wealth a bit (at least with their nominations). There are shows you might expect (One Tree Hill, That 70s Show) but quite a few that you might not — such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, Alias, and House. I could see Nickelodeon, WB, UPN — in addition to the “usual suspects.” At the very least, this range is worth paying attention to if only to open our minds to preconceptions we may have about what constitutes “Teen TV”; it is also worth heeding because the range of nominations to a degree is honest about what people watch and enjoy and find worthwhile. I often feel that other award shows, in their rush to define excellence and quality, forget about the social, cultural, and psychological value of entertainment.

In line with range of programming, there also exists a much greater sense of cultural diversity in the nominations I saw for The Teen Choice Awards. The viewers who voted clearly represent a much more accurate sense of the diversity that exists in this country; and one can only hope TV executives are paying attention and taking notes — because in a very short amount of time, these viewers will be in that magic demographic of 18-49. I have often suspected that one reason reality TV does so well with younger viewers is the diversity of casting that exists in this genre — stereotyped though it may be. In the nominations for comedy and drama this year, I saw the names of shows and actors that many outside the world of Teen TV might not recognize — several of whom I think should have been included in the Emmy nominations (such as Donald Faison of Scrubs, Jorge Garcia of Lost, and winner of Female Breakout Performance — Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria). Especially pleasing was the inclusion of winner DeGrassi: The Next Generation (Summer Series), a show from Canada featuring one of the most racially and ethnically diverse casts available on TV — and that also happens to address teen concerns in a socially realistic way (i.e., it doesn’t shy away from what occurs in the world of teens, and manages to do so without talking down to its viewers). Would that our “legitimate” awards had such diversity.

The final variation I note — that of quality — is sure to raise some debate, but so be it. To be sure, many of the nominations offered for the Emmys are deserving of it — but, as Jason Mittell as argued for so eloquently in his past columns for FLOW, there is something to be said for making distinctions (especially since awards are supposed to be about exactly that). A few overlaps exist between the Teen Choice nominations and the Emmys (Zach Braff of Scrubs, Jennifer Garner of Alias, Sean Hayes of Will & Grace for actors; Scrubs, Desperate Housewives, Lost, Family Guy, and The Simpsons for series). More noticeable, in my opinion, is that several series and actors emerged in the Teen Choice lists that truly should have been there in the Emmy list. I had to turn to the Teen Choice Awards to see Gilmore Girls and its cast finally given their due (winner of Best Comedy, Actress for comedy [Alexis Bledel], and “Parental Unit” [Lorelai Gilmore, a single mother of a college-aged daughter])… Here I saw House, Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, What I Like About You, and Everwood. These series might not be top Emmy picks for me (although I am still steaming mad that Gilmore Girls has been ignored, after a stunning season), but could certainly replace some of what got nominated this year. (I’ll leave that for another column, post Emmy wins.)

I will still watch the Emmys on September 19th (take note — that’s a Monday, so that it can avoid being beat in the ratings by Desperate Housewives), and I will still offer my rants to those who are unfortunate enough to accept the invitation to my party. This year, however, the rants will be informed by The Teen Choice Awards. I am a faculty member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, but I don’t have voting power. I can only hope hypothetically that if teachers in the field of television were permitted voting, we might see some of what emerged when teens did the voting this past summer: forward-thinking, range, diversity, and quality.

Image Credits:
1. Teen Choice Awards 2005

2005 Teen Choice Award Winners
Gilmore Girls Official Site
Degrassi: The Next Generation Official Site
Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

Please feel free to comment.

Pass the Remote: Catch and Release

by: Chris Terry and Cory Maclauchlin

Catch and Release

Welcome to Flow’s latest experiment in academic discourse, Pass the Remote. Over the course of each bi-weekly issue of Flow, three or more scholars will exchange open letters on a topic of shared interest. Check back to see the discussion’s progress, and feel free to comment below. If you are interested in contributing to Pass the Remote contact Christopher Lucas at

Dear Cate and Cory,

Away from my graduate studies and my radio career, I still manage to cobble together a bit of a personal life and one of my favorite “free time” activities is to go fishing. Living in Wisconsin, fishing season is only a few months long, so I pass the winter months by watching lots of fishing shows on the cable networks.

I find these shows fascinating despite their poor production value, obvious staging and cheesy dialogue. I’m a self-confessed news junkie, but throw in some edited hot fishing action by a guy who is as, if not more, overweight than me, and each episode is like a half-hour of pure mindless ecstasy. I often wish I could be that guy on the screen, living his full-size pickup truck dreams.

I’ve never quite been able to figure out why I am drawn to such low-brow entertainment. After all the characters in these shows are little more than caricatures. However, after some late night, third-shift thinking, I have come to the conclusion that fishing shows are just like pornography.

Think about it. Both porn and fishing shows portray something I’d rather be doing myself, done to a remarkable standard, by professionals in a staged setting. Both feature a “you are there” approach to the camera work that gets a viewer close enough to the action to appreciate what’s happening. And just for good measure, they both add in some barely audible grunts and a touch of bad theme music. In the end, you just have a matching pair of male-dominated fantasies. If you wanted to get down to the base level, one could even throw in a joke or two about “rods” or “mounting trophies.”

Therefore I’m compelled to pose the question, are fishing shows really just a form of clean pornography? Do these shows, by appealing to a masculine fantasy, serve as some sort of proxy testosterone? Are these shows appealing because they are simply about subjects/hobbies that men enjoy? Or is there something else about this programming that draws me in week after week?

Chris Terry
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Dear Chris and Cory,

Wow, I did not see that topic coming…
Well, I don’t watch porn and I don’t watch fishing shows. So, where does that leave me to respond to your argument?

Part of me shrugs my shoulders and says, “Okay, I guess.” And it ends there.

Part of me wants to look past my immediate reader response shrug and put on my theoretical Lacanian lens and ask, “What is the objet petit a that we ­ meaning you ­ search for, desire in these shows?” But I think that is pretty obvious ­ we desire what we can’t ever have

Part of me wants to say, “Well, if you are going to compare those two, then you need to continue on and make that same observation of any sort of visual entertainment.” As a reader already astutely commented in her post, we watch, not just makeover shows, cooking shows, and painting shows, but The OC and everything else.

I am here in NYC for a few days and in my social rounds yesterday, I asked a variety of gentlemen what they thought about your post, Chris, and asked (pleaded) for suggestions for possible responses. I got no suggestions and two responses. One: “You’re not going to find many guys in Manhattan who watch fishing shows.” The other, from a gentleman who resides in Vermont: “A friend who is a professional fly fisherman just gave me a fly fishing tape to watch. He called it ‘salmon porn.'” So, at least I had some verification of your argument there.

Now, I guess I will ask you, Cory: what about the people who don’t watch any of these shows? Are they living a fuller, richer life than the rest of us? Are they out there doing it, painting it, fishing it, sexing it while we are inside, sitting on our sofas, dreaming about it? ­ Chris watching yet another hour of Bass Fishing with Phil, me watching back-to-back episodes of Ambush Makeover?


Dear Chris and Cate,

I am convinced that most people, especially those who spend their days cultivating their minds, have their moments of decompression, when the intellect takes a break. I know English professors who confess (only after a few drinks) to having a substantial collection of Harlequin novels; a fellow student recently admitted to me he was addicted to Dr. Phil; and my brother, while getting his PhD, regularly retreated to Fear Factor. For me, I need my regular dose of XMC, on SpikeTV, especially during exams. For those of you who don’t know XMC, it is an old Japanese game show where contestants undergo physical challenges that usually result in painful falls. The American version has comical English overdubs, reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 2000.

Much like Chris with his fishing shows, I usually watch it alone with much enjoyment. When my fiancée joins me she shakes her head in confusion as I laugh so hard I cry. I suppose I could use the same Freudian steps to analyze my attraction to the show. Perhaps it provides me with a masochistic outlet. But then what? What do we do with sexual undertones or overtones that we identify in media, other than calling them sexual? Does it enrich the experience? Does it detract from the experience? Does it ever lead us to meaning?

In answer to your question Cate, I’m not sure how to identify full or rich lives. We who watch television shows certainly want to indulge in a fantasy. And I suppose I would qualify fantasy as a factor in a full or rich life. From fishing to exercising, activities look better on television. But this holds true in other forms of entertainment: books, theatre, film, even our own imaginations.

I suppose the danger in every fantasy is actually construing it as a reality: the Don Quixote complex. If one accepts the experience of watching as doing then deficiencies take hold. Chris, if you completely stopped fishing so you could stay inside to watch your fishing shows that would indeed be sad. But whether you find it erotically titillating or blissfully mindless it seems it serves the same function. I pose a broader question in terms of television and fantasy: does the array of media output lead Americans to the Don Quixote condition? As a culture inundated with information and images, are the lines between fantasy and reality becoming blurred in the minds of Americans?


Dear Cory and Cate,

I apologize for my tardy response. Cory’s response has taken this discussion to a new level from its tongue in cheek approach.

In media, I believe the concept of reality itself is suspect. I have never quite understood this term “reality television.” If a bunch of backbiting, oversexed teenagers engaging in fiery challenges of physical skill is reality, I must have missed the train at some point.

Perhaps my questions about reality television are quite similar to my original comparison. The programming, be it fishing, pornography, or scantily dressed 20 somethings eating road kill, offers an escape that allows us to live beyond our abilities. At its most basic level, isn’t this what fantasy is?

As a long time radio producer, I find reality comes in two forms. The first is the public face; the one seen heard or read by the public. In my specific case, this involves a conservative talk radio station whose hosts represent the archetype of kool-aid drinking true believers. The other side of reality is the one I see that happens behind the microphone, the one where the loudmouth afternoon drivetime host is geeky, quiet and introverted.

But, I digress from the issue Cory passed to me. Has the line between reality and fantasy become blurred? I would argue, at least in the case of the media, there is no line to blur. Everything is a fantasy. Programs which are presented as reality are scripted and edited; even shows like Cops are cut to fit a mold. I myself haven’t abandoned reality for fantasy; I still go fishing as much as I can. But if Cory is right, and the line is blurring, two questions come to mind. Is the blurring of the fantasy and reality a bad thing? And if so, what do we need to do about it?

Chris Terry

Dear Chris and Cory,

What can we do about it? Well, for one thing, I think we can do what we are doing here – talk, critique, question. And while we, ensconced in our graduate programs, can easily and willingly realize the blurring of the lines in visual entertainment between reality, staged reality, and fantasy, I think of my high school students that cannot and will not. Again, what can we do? Specifically, what can I do? As I move from my graduate programs at the university and into the high school classroom, I can introduce to this next generation of scholars to theory and to concepts of critical studies. I can show my students that popular culture is worthy of analysis and deconstruction. I can, in fact, introduce them to forums like this one as a model and mimic its format in class discussion and writings.

In Clueless in Academe (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2003), Gerald Graff notes that college and high school students (and perhaps some readers of this particular post) will voice reluctance when asked to critique popular culture: “Hey, it’s just a movie.” (Or, more to the point, “Hey, it’s just a fishing show.”) Graff elaborates: “The view that popular culture products either have no meaning or none that is worth discussing is pervasive among academics as well as journalists, who periodically issue derisive editorials whenever an academic is caught attributing gender attitudes, say, to a performance of […] Madonna or an episode of […] Friends. To be sure, the elaborate allegories academic critics claim to find in popular or high culture do sometimes stretch the reasonable limits of credibility.

Nevertheless, analysts of popular culture seem to me right that such works influence our beliefs and behavior all the more powerfully because they come embedded in seemingly innocuous entertainment that is not thought worthy of close scrutiny” (51).

Again, I think we continue to do what we are doing here; we take another look at that “seemingly innocuous entertainment” and we discuss, analyze, and write angry letters to John Stossel. (Yes, I’ve done that. You haven’t?)

Yours truly,


I agree with you Cate.

As a society I think we have an obligation to discuss, question, and critique the facets of our culture, be it opera or fishing shows. But while I agree that popular culture is a valuable topic to discuss, I hesitate to give it too much credence. How much cultural value do we place on the latest television shows? Coming from a literary perspective I despair at the corporate shadow that looms over most of the creative work that most Americans consume. They tend to impose a formula of sound bytes or plot twists regurgitated until the consumer gets bored. Does every episode of the OC have to include a posh soiree where someone publicly humiliates themselves? You bet it does!

I question at what point does media output become a part of our cultural fabric? Because the Fox Network executive decides to air a show does it become a cultural artifact? Or does the moment that we start discussing it make it a cultural artifact?

On this last posting I should not pose so many questions, but I can’t say I’m ready to offer answers either. Hopefully, as you point out Cate, discussion will make us more active as discriminating consumers. I think once we start questioning cultural value we start identifying the things we actually do value. Whether it is Porno fishing or Pavarotti, a questioning of “why do we like it” seems a beneficial exercise for the entire culture. But I say this hoping that we might not dwell too long on analyzing the sexual undertones or overtones of the hundreds of 30-minute cable shows currently airing. If anything, I think this questioning should be an exercise for tackling the more prevalent cultural artifacts, those that will last. However, maybe “Sport Fishing on the Fly” will prove one of our lasting cultural gems.

Cory Maclauchlin

The Remote Passed:
April 1-15, 2005 Carnivale
April 15-29, 2005 Adult Swim

Image Credits:
1. Catch and Release

Please feel free to comment.

Move over Marshall McLuhan! Live from the Arctic!

by: Faye Ginsburg / NYU

Igloolik crew

Igloolik crew

Despite Canada’s longstanding concern that it is on the periphery of the U.S., it seems to be in the avant garde of certain kinds of media theory and practice that have much to teach us. Canadian media scholars such as Marshall McLuhan addressed the sensory, temporal, and spatial regimes elaborated by various media forms, while the political economist Harold Innis cautioned us to be wary of the speed of electronic communication and its capacity to centralize cultural and political power. The development of projects at the National Film Board of Canada such as Challenge for Change in the late 1960s, shifted the paradigm, recognizing the possibilities of small format, easy-to-use portable video (then in its early years) to put cameras into the hands of Canada’s marginalized others. Over the 1970s, as satellite-based television made its way into the Canadian Arctic, Inuit people began exploring the possibilities that these combinations of media forms offered for local productions that could be distributed over the vast expanses of Canada’s north. Zacharias Kunuk, a young Inuit man at that time, had the vision to turn these technologies into vehicles for cultural expression of Inuktitut lives and histories, forming a media production group called Igloolik Isuma, turning his friends and family members into a remarkable team of non-professional actors who recreated the stories of the transformations of their own lives over the last century, starting with works such as Qaggig in 1988, and quickly moving on to create the remarkable series entitled Nunavut, which is also the name of the recently formed Inuit-controlled territory where Zach’s home settlement is located. The series Nunavut was a staple not only of TV Northern Canada (the pan-Arctic satellite station that preceded the current first national indigenous cable television station, Aboriginal People’s Television Network) but which also screened at MoMA in New York and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Fast forward to 2001, and the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival of Kunuk’s first feature, the epic recreation of a well-known Inuit legend, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner at the Cannes Film Festival; there, this first film ever made in the Inuit language of Inuktitut, received the coveted Camera D’Or award for best first feature, and went on to stunning critical and theatrical success, picking up many more awards along the way. Now Kunuk and his crew are busy shooting their second feature, a Danish co-production entitled, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, based on the writings of the famous Inuit-Danish explorer who traveled throughout the Arctic in the 1920s exploring the transformations of Inuit life that were occurring in the early 20th century, when Inuit shamans first encountered Christian missionaries. The journals provide the story line for a film that provides an Inuit perspective on that fateful historical encounter. But never content to think conventionally, Kunuk and company have established an incredible web site from the film’s production location, that allows us to follow what’s happening on the film set on a daily basis, while also sending us back to Rasmussen’s journals, and the key characters he met in his journeys through the Arctic. Daily blogs by an “embedded” journalist and (of course) their own anthropologist, provide different perspectives, while quick time movies show us how multiple languages (English, French, Inuktitut, Danish) are negotiated, as well as how props and food are managed in this remote Arctic locale. Pop ups offer a linked glossary for foreign or more arcane words. Background bios on key personnel – on and off screen – illuminate the community-based approach to filmmaking that Kunuk and his partner Norman Cohn have perfected. (My personal favorite is the interview with the lead sled dog, Tooguyuk who “describes” the trials of learning commands in both “Greenlandic” and “Igloolik”, and talks about looking forward to his “girlfriend having puppies so I’m excited to be a daddy”)

The site is beautifully designed in every sense, and presents a remarkable demonstration of how this technology can be successfully “indigenized” (to pick up a theme from the last column I wrote) to help Inuit school kids, college students in New York, Maori colleagues in New Zealand, and many others, learn about their filmmaking, the Arctic, indigenous lives, missionization, and new ways of “understanding media” and its possibilities in the 21st century.

I recently interviewed Katarina Soukup, website producer, about the project and its origins.

Isuma has wanted for a long, long time to use the Internet to connect the remote Arctic with people around the world, a way to bring people to Igloolik without the extreme expense and inconvenience of traveling here, as well as to allow Inuit to remain in their communities and out on the land without losing touch with the 21st century. One dream is a nomadic media lab/TV station out on the land connected to the Internet. It just has not been technically possible until now. When we go to the remote outpost camp this weekend to shoot exterior scenes, we will still be uploading reports to the website, thanks to a high-speed data satellite phone. And when wireless broadband is launched in Nunavut (anticipated next month), this kind of remote, nomadic computing will be much less expensive.

What are the project’s goals?
The goals with the educational website are to connect people to Inuit culture through the Internet and our films. We have been creating materials for the educational market for about 2 or 3 years (e.g. the Isuma Inuit Culture Kit), and the site is another step in this direction. The Rasmussen micro site and the live from the set are building blocks of a large site that will be launched in fall 2005. The website targets youth ages 12 and up, as well as their teachers and parents. The project employs an innovative technical infrastructure to deliver to the world priceless Inuit cultural content, such as interactive e-learning activities, video-on-demand, customizable teacher resources, and Inuktitut language lessons. It will be a platform for North-South communication and collaboration. In addition to educating the public about Inuit culture, another goal of the site is to develop a youth and educational market for our films.

When Atanarjuat came out, so many people asked us “how did you make this film in the Arctic?!”. So, for the LIVE FROM THE SET component, we wanted to invite the world to be our “virtual” on-set guest and experience (as much as possible) the process of making a film in the high Arctic with an Inuit production collective.

Who funds this work?
The website is financially supported by Telefilm Canada’s New Media Fund, Government of Nunavut (Dept of Sustainable Development), Nunavut Community Economic Development, Heritage Canada (Canadian Studies Program), National Research Council (Industrial Research Assistance Program). NITV (Nunavut Independent Television Network) is a collaborating partner. We also have sponsorships from Ardicom Digital Communications, SSI Micro, and Stratos Global Corporation.

Who are the producers of the site?
We have a team in Igloolik and Montreal. In Montreal, our production manager Natalie Melançon is coordinating our graphic designers, programmers, and integration specialists. In Igloolik, I’m coordinating the team of reporters, which does the daily coverage. In Igloolik, the team is made up of about 9 members: 3 videographers, 1 audio reporter, 1 photographer, and 3 writers who do the daily blogs. Most of our team is from Igloolik, including 8 youth trainees from the community who are learning about media production while we make this website and feature film.

Note: Atanarjuat and other 23 feature films by indigenous directors will be part of First Nations/First Features: A Showcase of World Indigenous Film, a groundbreaking showcase at MoMA in New York City and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. beginning May 12, 2005. For schedules and further information please visit First Nations First Features.

Image credit
1. Igloolik crew

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
First Nations First Features
Igloolik Isuma
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen: Live From the Set!

Please feel free to comment.

Fans of Lesbians on TV: The L Word’s Generations

by Jill Dolan / University of Texas at Austin

The L Word
Showtime’s The L Word

Now in its second season, Showtime’s The L Word premiered January 18, 2004, to a certain amount of fanfare, given its status as the first television series to address lesbian lives and loves (as its tag-line boasts). Media critics speculated about its appeal, underlining the eye candy of its ensemble of young, thin, fashionably hip, mostly (though not exclusively) white stars. Feminist and lesbian viewers and critics worried over its demographics, bemoaning the lack of flannel shirts, of women of size, of women of color, of any lesbians who didn’t appear to be financially well off (demonstrated by cavorting in cool clothes and nice houses), porcelain-skinned, and physically flawless.

I’m a feminist and lesbian scholar and spectator who’s also hungry for eye candy. My own interest in the series, and the fact that it’s become the occasion for my first ever expression of passionate fandom, stems from how it flirts with subcultural references somehow grounded in my own history of lesbian identifications while maintaining an accessible surface style. I look for subcultural signs and find them in unexpected places, such as the music choices that graced particularly the first season’s episodes — Joan Armatrading, the Murmurs, Rufus Wainwright, among others — or the credits, which boast a proud genealogy of lesbian and feminist artists — including Lisa Chodolenko, Rose Troche, and Guinevere Turner — working as directors and producers. I listen for the shout outs on The L Word that signal to me — a 48-year-old first introduced to lesbian culture in 1977 — common memories of particular peccadilloes in American lesbian practices, like falling in love with unavailable straight women, or dancing and drinking as the initiation rites of a queer lifestyle. When those references connect, I feel the simple pleasures of watching a public representation of something I think I know.

Lesbian author Sarah Schulman has said that her (our) generation is the last that came of age without any cultural representations against which to judge our experiences. Representations generated from “women’s culture” in the 70s and 80s were rigorously, resolutely feminist, “woman-identified” rather than overtly sexualized, although those of us who were baby dykes at the time certainly used them for how they incited our lust and our passions. Mainstream culture, if it engaged lesbian narratives at all, did so with disdain and disgust. If I remember correctly, the first lesbians I ever saw on television appeared on an episode of Medical Center, the series that starred Chad Everett; one woman was older and desperately in love with the one who was much younger and of course “really” straight. The episode traced their relationship’s dissolution as the younger woman took up with a man, and ended with the older woman’s physical isolation and emotional betrayal. I can palpably recall my own attraction to the scene, surreptitiously peering into the television, trying to cloak my own anxious interest in something that reminded me of myself. At the same time, I knew the moral of this story was that being one of these women — especially the one left behind — was a degraded, despicable thing, not a subject position to which I should aspire.

But whose identifications with television are ever about noble aspirations? I clung to every image of a lesbian I stumbled across, and can remember in the cells of my body the shame that accompanied my attachment to all of them. I can recall the horror of the people who watched with me, and how the lesbian scenes or characters were used by producers and spectators (my family, my friends) to make moral judgments, to set off the good women from the bad, from the fallen. I didn’t have words like “heteronormative” with which to redeem myself; I couldn’t protect my own nascent desire with theories that critiqued the way I was being taught to see myself.

Cast of The L Word
The cast of The L Word

How could I not, then, become a fan of The L Word, whose producer is a 48-year-old Jewish woman (two identity vectors that match my own) who clearly came of age in a universe parallel to mine? How could I not find myself cathecting with stories whose narrative arcs take interesting, funny, graceful leaps of faith straight into the messy center of lesbian relationships? The show communicates something of what it means to have a sustaining kinship network separate from families of origin that winds into and out of sexual and emotional attachments not necessarily defined by domesticity. Couples form and dissolve on the show, but the friendships among these women sustain them through their entanglements with others who can never quite claim them, at least in the first season’s trajectory. Their birth families judge them, mooch from them, or avoid them, but their slights prove incidental to the characters. They gather in public places — in this case, The Planet, which was a coffee bar in the first season and has expanded to a full-fledged restaurant and nightclub in the second — to define and debate their lives, just as in my generation, we created who we were by meeting up in bars just as regularly. The show represents lesbians forming each other through their interactions, looking out at the rest of their world through the support of their own circle of influence and understanding.

When the show ventures out of the confines of the characters’ West Hollywood neighborhood, it captures even larger lesbian public gatherings, like the notorious debauchery in Palm Springs at the annual Dinah Shore Golf Tournament and, on last week’s episode, a women-only Olivia cruise. These scenes complicate our heroines’ relationship to a wider, more diverse lesbian culture, which is often positioned as exotic in their realm, or made the butt of some of the show’s harsher jokes (like the reference to the “100-footers” in the Dinah Shore episode — that is, lesbians you can spot a 100 feet away — or the large, older women promoting spiritual sexual practices when the girls board the boat for the cruise). But at the same time, the large public queer scenes capture the spirit of pride and abandon and utter freedom that these events promote, and instead of judging them, the show revels in them. The characters love them; they roam through these social scenes in many ways as spectators, as the viewers’ substitutes, who anchor the pleasures of our own voyeurism. On this week’s Olivia cruise, many of the passengers attended a panel about “women and leadership” featuring Dana, the guileless, self-deprecating tennis star, and a wolfish, suave sex expert no doubt modeled after the prolific lesbian writer and lecturer Susie Bright. In another scene, they gathered in the evening in the ship’s cabaret, sitting with their arms draped around each other, dreamily watching Shawn Colvin perform. These references to the pleasures of women’s culture (although in 1970s and 80s women’s culture, Holly Near or Cris Williamson would have been performing) honor a part of history that’s rarely represented on television.

Even in its self-conscious goofiness and its necessarily melodramatic excesses, The L Word manages to get a lot of things right about certain kinds of lesbian lives. It boldly tangles with the insistence of desire, and our inability to refuse it, even when its consequences are chaotic and hurtful. Jenny’s coming out story in the first season was a complicated representation of a woman whose world is tilted by her first instance of sweet, shocking, irresistible same sex. Kit’s hesitant relationship with Ivan, the transgendered crooner who tickled Kit’s fancy with his pasted on mustache and goatee, caught at the edges of drag king culture. Bette and Tina’s determination to have a child and their disagreements over the race of their sperm donor referenced and critiqued the lesbian baby boom and its assimilationist tendencies. Bette’s affair with an African-American carpenter challenged the boundaries of monogamy and offered a way to question what fidelity means, along with complicating Bette’s biracial identity and her racial affiliations. The addition of the initially reprehensible Mark, Shane and Jenny’s videomaker roommate in the second season, might textualize the kind of straight male voyeurism to which critics accuse the show of pandering, but over the course of the last several episodes, he comes to be shamed by his own presumption that his lesbian friends are available for him to exploit and objectify. If the show is shouting out to straight male viewers, it simultaneously intends to teach them a thing or two.

In its combination of subcultural references that ground an older generation of lesbians’ experience while parading and parodying the lifestyles of a new generation of queer dykes, the series, for me, marks a place of affective connection. I feel, weekly, intense identification with a story that is and isn’t my own, embodied by young women actors who don’t look anything like me, yet provide screens for the projection of bits of my own desires and excesses, my own past and perhaps my future. The L Word allows me to revel in the inchoate history of my own identifications with versions of my own and other lesbians’ stories that I haven’t lived, that I might have lived, that other queer dyke lesbians might remember or invent. How could I not be a fan?

Image Credits:
1. Showtime’s The L Word
2. The cast of The L Word

The L Word on Showtime – The L Word Official Site
LWord Fansite

Please feel free to commment.

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

by: Douglas Kellner / UCLA

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Schiavo
Terry Schiavo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1. Pope John Paul II
2. Terry Schiavo

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

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Nanny TV

by: Laurie Ouellette / Queens College


Supernanny on ABC

Are your kids a handful? Are you exhausted? Is your house a “zoo?” Do you need help juggling the demands of work and family? Me too. The recent birth of my son catapulted me into the ranks of harried parents everywhere. So when Supernanny (ABC) promised relief, I paid attention. This reality program dispatches a “top” British nanny to U.S. families who’ve answered “yes” to the above questions (The format was developed in the United Kingdom; when ABC won the bidding war over the United States version, Fox developed a virtual clone called Nanny 911). Reversing the power dynamics of domestic servitude, the nanny surveills everyday life inside the home, corrects faulty parenting and implements new household management techniques. She doesn’t stay long, for the goal is to swiftly educate before moving on to “save” the next stressed out family. Like so much popular instruction on television today, Supernanny does make ordinary difficulties more visible–but it ultimately ignores material conditions (daycare crisis anyone?) and places the impetus to improve and reform on individuals.

The program opens with Jo Frost in a posh English cab, watching video footage of the week’s needy family on her laptop computer. With her British accent, authoritative demeanor and nostalgic Mary Poppins-like appearance (matronly dress suit, tight bun, umbrella), she’s marked as clearly “different” from the masses of female childcare workers, shamefully devalued as they are in the United States. That’s important, because after observing “family dynamics” and taking mental notes for a brief period, Frost establishes tyrannical rule over the household. After explaining where the adults have gone wrong, she introduces a “tried-and-true” approach to domestic science based on the principles of order and discipline. No matter how large trouble looms, it can be eradicated with a Household Routine, a list of Household Rules, and a methodical approach to handling the children’s misbehavior. Of course, achieving domestic nirvana does take effort: “It’s a tough lesson for a parent to retrain themselves,” explains one frazzled mother.

The episodes are highly redundant, with a revolving cast of exhausted mothers, peripheral fathers, and preschool children who commit such unpardonable misdemeanors as bickering with siblings, talking back to parents, snacking between meals and throwing the occasional temper tantrum. While its hard to watch Supernanny cast these kids as deviants (more on that later), I do appreciate the chance to see overworked mothers with eyebags the size of mine on television. Since the double shift is still deeply gendered, Frost pitches her lessons in domestic time-management to the women. On one episode, Mom manages the family plumbing business from home, while also doing the housework and caring for two youngsters. She’s wiped out to the point of tears, but the program promises to “fix her broken spirit” in less than two weeks. Toward that end, Frost systematizes her workday with a color-coded, wall-sized schedule, allowing several hours “off” from the business to focus exclusively on the misbehavior-prone children (the time is made up in the evening when they are in bed).

On another episode, Mom works full-time as a telemarketer, while also keeping house and tending for preschool twins and a nine-year old. She thought working from home would facilitate more “mommy time” (and reduce childcare costs), but her “flexible” job has become a living nightmare. We see her perched at the living room computer taking calls on a headset while the children run amok; when the inevitable squabbles and mishaps force her to abandon her work station, she worries out loud that her boss will fire her. At the end of the day, she’s so tired she falls asleep with the children, leaving her husband feeling abandoned and single (“unacceptable,” according to Frost, who fails to suggest that he help out more). While it remains unclear exactly how an improved Household Routine can help this woman, there’s no mention of hiring a babysitter, let alone corporate reforms like subsidized on-site daycare. Like many of the makeover/advice programs now populating television, as in James Hay’s latest Flow article, Supernanny values self-reliance over “dependency” and social upheaval.

While household routines are important, domestic harmony also requires compliant children. At least one child per episode is branded as trouble, and the problem is blamed on faulty parenting. Occasionally parents are lectured for shouting and/or using force, but most of the time they’re charged with softness and leniency. To “prevent bad habits” from breeding and show kids that the “adults are in charge,” Frost establishes a non-negotiable set of Household Rules (no sassing, no aggressive play, no picky eating) and shows how to enforce them rationally. Each week, she demonstrates the same step-by-step approach to discipline, beginning with a “warning in a low tone” and culminating with a punitive trip to the “naughty mat” (the information also appears in captions, extending the lesson to TV viewers at home). She also demonstrates “tried and tested” methods for regularizing bedtime. To ensure the techniques will be properly implemented in her absence, Frost monitors the home via surveillance cameras for a few days; if Mom forgets a disciplinary step or Junior decides to climb out of bed, it’s all caught on camera. In the final review session, these mistakes are duly noted and the process is fine-tuned.

Supernanny is not entirely unhelpful, but it does reduce the complex and subjective practice of parenting to a rote behavioral science. It’s worth noting as well that the docile, predictable, routinized and (eventually) self-disciplined children it teaches parents to help produce, are precisely the sort of citizens-in-training that late capitalism depends upon. Perhaps someday television will address the many challenges of contemporary parenting (particularly for working mothers) with more substance. Until then, Supernanny is casting . . .

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Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Douglas Kellner’s Home Page
Republican National Committee
The New York Times
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