#TrumpIsRight: The Paradox of Digital Database Histories and Collective Memory
Eric Hahn / New York University


Donald Trump, the man of the hour

The Internet has served as a catalyst for the development of interactive and shared historical archives. Websites and databases like Immigrant Nation and CNN’s iReport, have approached what can arguably be understood as the democratization not only of access to historical archives but, and more significantly, to the very creation and curation of history itself. These seemingly open databases where users can effectively craft and post their own historical fragments (be it news or life stories) from unique perspectives calls into question any cohesive, teleological readings of history. While this fragmented and personalized approach to history is seemingly effective in the destabilization and questioning of dominant and often problematic historical narratives, the promise of purely democratic and multifaceted database approaches to history raises alternative and significant questions. This brief article intends to explore the progress and limitations of this digital database approach not merely in its ability to offer central spaces for collective and personal histories, but additionally in regards to the possibility or impossibility of generating “believable” and “substantial” histories. By analyzing the aforementioned sites/databases, one can begin to deconstruct and question the often over-sentimentalized prospect of participatory and democratic constructions of history and collective memory via new and emerging media.

Both iReport and Immigrant Nation function as repositories of “lived” experience. By providing basic information (e.g. name, email address, etc.) or simply linking to a source via hashtag (#CNNiReport) users are invited to post newsworthy items in the case of iReport or personal accounts of emigrating to the United States in the case of Immigrant Nation. While these two sites differ dramatically in terms of business structure (iReport being a for-profit endeavor) this difference ultimately factors little into the nature of the material stocking the databases. Indeed, a quick review of current CNN iReport stories reveals contentious and clearly unmoderated headlines at odds with the traditional fare offered by “the most trusted name in news” such as, “Will Black Lives Matter Team Up with Isis to Stop the Republican National Convention?” and a short, clearly doctored, video titled “Unexpected Jihad” in which a child on a playground explodes. While this lack of moderation seems contradictory, Devon Bissonette rightly suggests, “As long as advertising is linked to user views, media companies have a vested interest in pushing users to generate inflammatory versus informative content, as long as the former proves more salable” (394). [ (( Bissonette, Devan. “A Digital Democracy or Twenty-First-Century Tyranny? CNN’s iReport and the Future of Citizenship in Virtual Spaces.” DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media. Ed. Matt Ratto and Megan Boler. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014. 385-401. ))]


“Unexpected Jihad,” a CNN iReport video with clearly doctored content

In essence, both for-profit and not-for-profit models can be understood as utilizing fairly loose modes of moderation (of course this varies by website) albeit based on fundamentally different motives: for-profit to generate views, not-for-profits to allow for as many disparate voices to be heard as possible. Hidden within this seemingly revolutionary model in which moderation is limited or non-existent, lies a problematic paradox. In analyzing approaches to database histories that are wholly user moderated, or not moderated at all, any conception of historical “truth” is itself an impossibility. Admittedly, one could argue that historiography is a process of negotiated and mediated readings of reality therefore “truth” is inherently a problematic word. But, such an understanding ignores the fact that traditionally generated histories can theoretically be deconstructed through questioning and contextualizing the source(s) of specific histories. In essence, even problematic historical narratives can be traced (some more effectively than others) and through this process of investigation, inverted, reformulated, or challenged. Conversely, the allowable anonymity of the Internet acts as both a cloaking device for the source of the historical fragment thus problematizing deconstruction and simultaneously a means of separating the creator of a historical narrative from the consequences of such a narrative. Such an approach to wholly democratic databases can be dismissed as too pessimistic, but in briefly pointing to a seemingly innocent post on Immigrant Nation (see below), one can begin to understand the grounds for this critique.

An Immigrant Nation post: complication or experimentation?

In a post titled, “bjfdbj” by Edgar, we learn of someone who emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. to escape civil war. Interestingly, the post itself has a picture of a carrot, followed by a seemingly random string of text. While this is certainly nothing alarming or offensive it does pose some important questions. Are the incoherent aspects of this post simply a result of a genuine user having difficulties manipulating the interface or is this perhaps a user who is simply testing or playing with the interface itself? This of course would precede the question: if this is a user simply testing or playing with the interface, can the history documented be given any credence? Again, one can assert that history is fundamentally polylogical and relative but, the anonymity afforded through digital mediation negates any possibility of tracing contextual threads that might allow for the deconstruction of the specific historical discourse. This argument points to a paradox. The Internet has allowed for disparate groups or individuals to connect and share personal or collective histories effectively questioning and destabilizing dominant historical narratives, but, the very medium that enables such a connection fundamentally problematizes the histories generated by its users. As such, the pluralization of the archives’ nomos — the law of the archive and the authority to archive [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] — fractures any tenuous points of contact between truth and history even as it allows for a more diverse and inclusive approach to historiographical practice.

What is significant when analyzing this paradox is not necessarily the loss of grand historical narratives as such, but rather the reverberations of this destabilization. In “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History,” Steve Anderson argues that beyond the possibility of total and encyclopedic approaches to history, the significance of the digital and collective approach is the existence of “recombinant histories.” [ (( Anderson, Steve. “Past Indiscretions: Digital Archives and Recombinant History.” Transmedia Frictions: The Digital, the Arts, and the Humanities. Ed. Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. 100-114. ))] Anderson suggests, “A more provocative historiographical argument is posited in the premise of the apparatus that encourages audience members to lie—to pose as someone other than themselves—in order to generate alternative histories” (110). Anderson expounds the democratic possibility of challenging dominant histories but what is at stake here is not simply the existence of dominant historical narratives — which should indeed be questioned — but additionally the very notion of historical “truth” as relevant at all. One need only turn to contemporary political discourse to witness this (post)modern, Baudrillardian mode of existence. Specifically, presidential hopeful Donald Trump fairly recently claimed, “Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey where thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.” [ (( Taibbi, Matt. “America is Too Dumb for TV News.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone Magazine, 25 Nov. 2015. ))] Vehemently argued as a fictional account by most accredited media and news outlets, this alternative history has no doubt generated concurrent reports even leading to the creation of the hashtag #TrumpIsRight. The pseudo-news website InfoWars dedicated a page to scrolling user generated histories — much like iReport’s “database” — detailing these “celebratory displays” in agreement with Trump’s arguably false historical narrative. [ (( Watson, Steve. “I Live in Jersey and Trump is Right: Muslims Did Celebrate on 9/11 in NJ… We Saw It!” InfoWars. Free Speech Systems, LLC. 24 Nov. 2015. ))] As such, Trump’s account, although largely contested, is also forcefully supported through digital “eyewitness” channels whose users fundamentally disavow contrary reports as biased or false.


Eyewitness testimonies reported via Twitter

In essence, the digital archive functions in an interesting way. Rather than envisioning it as a Foucauldian heterotopic paradigm where “time is accumulated but not lived,” we can begin to conceive of this digital approach as “an eminently social practice, a veritable living memory” (254). [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] It is in this vein that Pinchevski argues that this process of digital and user generated historical archives returns the notion of “collective memory” to a kind of pure existence as “the remembering community and the collective will to remember” (256). [ (( Pinchevski, Amit. “Archive, Media, Trauma.” On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age. Ed. Motti Neiger, Oran Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2011. 253-264. ))] While one can indeed approach these digital databases as forms of unmediated collective memory, Pinchevski ignores or misinterprets the results of these newly generated mass histories (collective memories). Specifically, collective memory and history itself has reached a stage of pure simulacra. No longer do grand historical narratives exist to be deconstructed and analyzed, but rather, the digital database, in all its democratic potentiality, has indeed served to destabilize and democratize collective memory and history. In this new egalitarian model, all history exists in a dual state: unquestionably true and absolutely false with no room in between.

Image Credits:

1. Donald Trump
2. “Unexpected Jihad” from CNN iReport
3. “bfjdbj” from Immigrant Nation
4. Eyewitness testimonies reported via Twitter

Please feel free to comment.

The Rhetoric of the Loop: Animated GIFs and Documentary Film
Colin Beckett / Independent Critic


It’s Pronounced Shut Up Nerd, via WiffleGif

If the question of the loop, as such, is an urgent and central one in considering contemporary moving image documentary, it is because of the animated GIF. The animated GIF has become one of the most significant forms of media in our present moment. And while the nature and extent of that significance is open to debate, we can definitively say they are the type of visual media that we most frequently see looping.


Grmpy Cat GIF, on a loop

An animated GIF does not, by definition, have to loop, but almost all of them we encounter online do. Designed to present digital, color images with a remarkably efficient kind of lossless compression, the Graphics Interchange Format quickly became a pervasive component of the World Wide Web after they were introduced by CompuServe in 1987 — and, for a little while, after a second, enhanced version of the file format was released in 1989, the only common source of moving images on the web.

Early animated GIFs were mostly composed of primitive, clip-art style drawings that, from the vantage of the present, only underline the early web’s comparative technological austerity. As computing speeds have increased, bandwidth become cheaper, and the internet transformed into a major venue of accumulation, animated GIFs have grown far more elaborate, coming to more closely resemble video. We now even see “full movie” GIFs.


Example of an early, animated GIF

The affinity between animated GIFs and cinema is obvious, if somewhat complicated in its details, and they have already begun to exert an influence on the way that movies and television shows are made and used. But while the great majority of animated GIFs function as non-fiction of one kind or another, deployed to directly describe or intervene in the world shared by audience and maker, they bear no obvious relevance to the tradition of documentary. To consider the animated GIF in this context, then, we must find our coordinates with three related points of reference: news journalism and online media; early cinema; and the visual art world.


GIF’s designed to intervene in the world

Animated GIFs have been widely adopted by journalists and other internet media professionals, not unselfconsciously. We can turn to them for news bites, sports highlights, and human interest micro-stories. They are used to illustrate scientific phenomena, and to teach simple tasks. Beyond the online editions of more traditional news sources, the animated GIF has been a central tool by which sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed have fabricated a new set of quasi-journalistic practices and clichés.


GIF’s as news bites

The GIFs produced or deployed by major media organizations are only responsible for a small percentage of the ones we see — and GIFs that serve primarily informational purposes not a much larger one. There is only a limited range of human activity about which animated GIFs can effectively inform us. And even when an individual GIF does depict some noteworthy thing in the world, it only does so for a short period of time before passing into other uses, suggesting that even at their most instructive, GIFs are consumed primarily as diverting spectacle — a sort of worst-case scenario from the perspective of sober documentary.

The animated GIFf’s tendency toward the spectacular calls to mind, like much else in postcinematic moving image culture, the pre-1906 mode of filmmaking that Tom Gunning called the “cinema of attractions”. Like the early cinema that Gunning surveys, many animated GIFs bombastically perform simple technological tricks that, while somewhat flimsy in illusion, carry the immense power of the young medium’s exhilarating possibilities — offering, as Gunning wrote, “exhibitionistic confrontation rather than diegetic absorption.”


The spectacular and the “cinema of attractions” in GIF’s and early cinema

“It was,” Gunning writes, “precisely the exhibitionist quality of early cinema that made it attractive to the avant-garde — its freedom from the creation of a diegesis, its its accent on direct stimulation.” And we find something similar with the animated GIF, which was picked up and celebrated by visual artists for its affective immediacy and its vulgar populism long before it became a fixture of mainstream cultural expression.

Like informational GIFs, artist’s GIFs typically to operate on the terms of the spectacular — here in the service, theoretically at least, of novel modes of seeing and feeling. Owing partly to this tendency, and partly to trends in media studies, this affective dimension of GIFs has been seized upon by an ever-growing number of commentators on GIF art.


GIF by artist Lorna Mills, 2015

Whether uploaded anonymously to imgur or produced by a media team at a major newspaper, popular animated GIFs travel across spaces that are heterogenous in both form and social composition, like the vaudeville houses that were the most common home for the cinema of attractions. Their meaning is made in circulation rather than in their construction; it is a medium to be deployed rather than consumed. The effort to reverse this process and fix authorship and context is what distinguishes an artist’s GIF from the rest.


Dolly Parton GIF

References to early cinema, however, quickly confront their own limitations in explaining the animated GIF. Gunning argued that the cinema of attractions was rooted in a celebration of film’s then-awesome “ability to show something.” Circulating in an ecology overrun with moving images, the animated GIF draws no charge from its ability to simulate the world in motion.

Rather, the force from which animated GIFs take their power is the explosion of communicative styles made possible on the social web. Mostly shared between individuals against the backdrop of some larger audience, the kind of animated GIFs that have drawn the most attention are reaction GIFs, those used conversationally, or in direct response to some other image or text. The essential innovation the medium represents happens not on the level of information or aesthetics, but on that of rhetoric.


Example of a “happy” reaction GIF

With limited power to persuade or demonstrate, the animated GIF’s rhetoric is primarily epideictic. GIFs form the primary figures for the encomia of signal boosting and the vituperations of call-out culture. Reaction GIFs and their relatives overwhelmingly function as glib dismissals, enthusiastic assents, or loud expressions of incomprehension, designed to appeal to audience presumed to already agree with the GIF user’s premises and prejudices.

In this light, the emphasis commentators have placed on the affect of animated GIFs obscures more than it reveals. Affect is understood as precognitive and non-discursive. As Brian Massumi has put it: “the primacy of the affective is marked by a gap between content and effect.” But the most frequently used animated GIFs are those whose content and effect are almost perfectly contiguous, the form doggedly telegraphing its discursive content. More often than not, the affect of the animated GIF is an unmysterious, instrumentalized one.

The loop is the primary source of both the animated GIF’s affective power and its rhetorical limitations. With the exception of artisanal elaborations on the form, like seamless GIFs and so-called cinemagrams, the animated GIF loops in a crude, jerky manner, foregrounding the act of repetition itself, producing an insistent, stupefying effect. This type of ceaseless repetition is not intended to produce the transcendent states we associate with other kinds of minimalist aesthetic repetition, but acts as a cudgel, underlining and infinitely extending the already straightforward message the GIF carries. It is no accident that many of the most recognizable reaction GIFs enact a kind of self-demonstrating nihilism.


Nihilism in GIF’s

This kind of tribal, snarky, and renunciatory rhetoric predominates throughout a great deal of the web’s discursive spheres, in countless forms, both visual and textual. The reasons for this are complex and contested, but one worth dwelling on here is the “theory of pundit war” sketched by Gavin Mueller in a recent blog post, which locates some of the character of social media feuding in the ongoing deprofessionalization of journalism.

A 2013 New York Times profile gives us a particularly extreme portrait of the demands made by the effort to maintain some kind of career in online media, in the form of a full-time GIF producer: Deadspin contributor Tim Burke:

He works from home here, in what his colleagues call the “Burke-puter,” for its seamless integration of man and machine. It is less an office than an organism: a flashing, beeping, glowing, thrumming assault of screens, wires, remotes, tuners, phones, receivers, computers and general electronic effluvia wrapped around a person (“the monitor situation up there is insane,” said Burke’s wife, Lynn Hurtak.). Burke sits here alone in the dark day after day, for about 100 hours a week, watching dozens of sports events simultaneously…“I am not able to do many other things,” Burke said of his life in general.

Burke is something of an oddity as a GIF professional. Most GIFs, even the ones generating profit (or at least investment) for Giphy and Buzzfeed, are the vernacular creations of hobbyists. But most of those hobbyists have jobs too, many of which increasingly make the kinds of practical and psychic demands of Burke’s and offer far less compensatory satisfaction or acclaim.

The situation that Mueller describes does not apply only to those who have or seek careers in media, but to anyone who uses the social networks where discourses and information flows are guided by such people. As quotidian self-presentation becomes more widely public — searchable and permanent — people come more and more to comport themselves like media professionals. After all, their self-fashioning is creating surplus value for the owners of media networks.

More than a singular medium, the animated GIF is one of the tools by which social media users seek tribes and distinguish themselves. It loops endlessly because of a series of contingent technological decisions made at different corporations in the 1980s and 90s. But it is not technology that made the signal medium of our time one that repeats endlessly, never changing, telling us the same thing again and again and demanding a response it will neither heed nor acknowledge.


Lenin says “Deal with it,” endlessly

*This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
1. Shut Up Nerd
2. Grumpy Cat
3. Early Animated gif
4. Intervene Racist
5. News Bite
6. Early Cinema
7. Lorna Mills
8. Infinite Dolly
9. Reaction: Happy
10. LOL Nothing Matters
11. Lenin says Deal with It

Señal 3 La Victoria: Communication in Service of the People
Kate Cronin / University of Texas at Austin

“If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep. Communication in service of the people.”

“If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep. Communication in service of the people.”

Inside the small house behind this banner sits Chile’s first community television station, Señal 3 La Victoria. For two weeks last May, media preservation students from NYU, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of Texas at Austin, came together as members of NYU’s 2016 Audiovisual Preservation Exchange program (APEX). Together, we traveled to Santiago, Chile and teamed up with the founders of Señal 3 to inventory 20 years worth of Umatic, VHS, and Hi8 videotape and to build a fully functioning video transfer station. [ (( For a more in-depth description of our work at Señal 3 and the National Library of Chile visit the APEX Santiago 2016 blog. As a member of the APEX team I spent most of my time working to inspect, clean, repair, and digitize several collections of small gauge films housed at the National Library. Luckily, I was able to participate in a community archiving workshop at Señal 3 on May 28, 2016, where I was able to speak with both the founders of Señal 3 and my amazing APEX colleagues about their experiences organizing and implementing the inventory and a video transfer station. ))]

From the outset, the founding members of Señal 3 made it clear that their primary objective for the exchange was to increase community access to their audiovisual archive. This fervent commitment to the democratizing potential of community television stemmed from their desire to counter what they perceived as the continued exclusion of La Victoria, and other working-class Chilean communities, from meaningful participation in the public sphere. First repressed by a dictatorship, then denied access to the necessary resources to broadcast legitimately by the democratically elected governments that followed, the founding members of Señal 3 felt twice silenced by the Chilean government. For this reason, in the wake of Chile’s overlapping transitions to both a democratic government and digital broadcasting system, Señal 3 embraced their position as media pirates, emerging as a dynamic agenda-setter within their community. In the process, they became the custodians of an immense archive of human rights documentation, a distinctly undervalued contribution to the historical memory of a country still publicly reckoning with its past.

A view of the Andes from the streets of La Victoria.

A view of the Andes from the streets of La Victoria.

La Victoria has historically been a hotbed of leftist political resistance and activism in Santiago, Chile. In 1970, the neighborhood threw their support behind the socialist, democratically elected President Salvador Allende, who was ousted by a US-backed coup in September of 1973 and replaced by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Over the course of 17 years, Pinochet’s government forced over 200,000 Chileans into exile, tortured 28,000 in secret, executed 2,279, and disappeared 1,248. [ (( These were the figures reported by The National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. ))] During Pinochet’s presidency, residents of La Victoria vehemently protested against (and were consistently repressed by) the government.

The Wall of the Disappeared in Santiago's Mueseo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Museum)

The Wall of the Disappeared in Santiago’s Mueseo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Museum)

Despite La Victoria’s history of political resistance, Señal Tres did not begin broadcasting until 1997, seven years after Chile’s return to democracy. The founders, most of whom grew up during Pinochet’s presidency, are self-taught journalists, cinematographers, and editors with day jobs as plumbers, electricians, and builders. They devote their weekends to Señal 3 and pay the station’s massive electric bill out-of-pocket. They started out with donated equipment and funding from international NGOs, community television partners in Europe, and even a ska band from Madrid. Señal 3 has since helped to establish several other community television stations including Canal 3-Pichilemu, a Mapuche community station. They have never sought or received state funding; instead, over the past 20 years they have developed an extensive international support network of community television practitioners. They’ve also started a local communications school where they teach community members to produce, edit, and broadcast television programs, which they then air as part of their Saturday broadcasts.

All of their production work is done in-house, using pirated software and VHS tape decks to edit their broadcasts. They air everything from protest footage, educational programming on women’s health and sexual education, segments on popular video games produced and created by local children, pirated sports broadcasts, and bootleg copies of mainstream Hollywood films. [ (( A limited sampling of some of Señal 3’s more recent programming is available on their YouTube channel. ))] They broadcast to a 9 km radius on Saturdays, reaching approximately 350,000 homes and 800,000 residents. [ (( These statistics are taken from the Señal 3 website. ))] For the better part of two decades, they have broadcast without the support or permission of the state, effectively rendering them broadcast pirates.

The walls of Señal 3, covered from floor to ceiling with posters.

The walls of Señal 3, covered from floor to ceiling with posters.

Jennifer Ashley has traced Señal 3’s pirate roots back to the years of Pinochet in which clandestine media was a key tool of resistance against the dictatorship, representing both the freedom of expression and the democratization of information. Although Pinochet was voted out of office in 1990, the neoliberal communication policies of his government remained firmly in place, resulting in the privatization and globalization of Chilean media, a high concentration of media-ownership, and a limitation of the electromagnetic spectrum, something the Señal 3 station members see as a public resource. [ (( For a more in depth consideration of the neoliberal reforms of Pinochet’s presidency in the context of the Digital Television Legislation in Chile, see, Etcheverry, Sergio Godoy. “Regulatory Implications of the Adoption of Digital Television in Chile.” Communication Research Trends 29 no 2 (2010): 2-25. ))] Ashley, who spent over a year working with the Señal 3 team and living in La Victoria for her doctoral research, describes Señal 3’s relationship with the government before the transition to digital television as a form of “open secret piracy . . . a way for the Chilean state to defer, but not refuse, demands for greater media democratization” [ ((Ashley, Jennifer. “‘Honorable Piracy’ and Chile’s Digital Transition.” Popular Communications 13, no 1 (2015): 11 ))]. For this reason, Señal 3 and other community television activists organized around the national shift to digital television (beginning in 2009) as an opportunity for the state to re-distribute the electromagnetic spectrum more democratically and to legitimate their participation in public discourse. However, 2014’s Digital Television Legislation neither stipulated a significant redistribution of the electromagnetic spectrum nor allocated support for community television stations to help with the expensive transition from analog to digital broadcasting infrastructure and equipment. For community television activists, this legislation represented the continuation of a long history of excluding alternative voices and media practices from the Chilean public sphere. [ ((Ibid.(14-15) ))]

A mural down the street from Señal 3.

A mural down the street from Señal 3.

Señal 3 adjusted to their position within the emerging digital landscape by continuing to clandestinely broadcast an analog signal for their (many) community members who could not yet afford to make the transition to digital television. They also began to stream some of their broadcasts online. For this reason, when the APEX team arrived in La Victoria in May of 2016, our preservation efforts straddled Chile’s analog past and digital future. The founders of Señal 3 made it clear from day one that their media archive belongs first and foremost to their community. They saw the digitization and digital preservation of their archive as both a practical and a democratic imperative: videotape is an unstable storage medium with a finite life cycle, and digitization presented them with the opportunity to make 20 years of audiovisual documentation of their community, by their community, available on-demand to their community. Now in possession of an inventory of their archive and a fully functioning digitization station, the team at Señal 3 is one step closer to their goal of making the archive widely accessible to the people of La Victoria. While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, Senal 3 still faces many obstacles: technological obsolescence, the steep cost of digital storage, and the lack of standardization among digital formats, just to name a few. With neither state support nor permission, they must work with their international network of community television operators to address these challenges.

APEX and Señal 3 team members troubleshoot over the video transfer station.

APEX and Señal 3 team members troubleshoot at the video transfer station.

Much has been written about the media’s role in Chile’s transition to democracy and public reckoning with (or denial of) the human rights violations committed during Pinochet’s dictatorship. [ (( See Kristin Sorensen’s Media, Memory, and Human Rights in Chile and Claudia Bucciferro’s For-get: identity, media, and democracy in Chile. ))] However, few have acknowledged community television stations as active – albeit unsanctioned – participants in the necessary human rights discourses that have taken place throughout Chile and abroad since the country’s return to democracy in 1990. For television scholars interested in alternative media and communications policy, historians interested in historical memory, and archivists invested in human rights documentation, cultural patrimony, and community archiving practices, the longevity and wide-reaching activism of Señal 3 serves as a powerful reminder to consider the potential local, national, and transnational impact of broadcast media practitioners who operate outside the legal framework of the electromagnetic spectrum.

APEX Santiago 2016 – Señal 3 Community Archiving Workshop from Michael Pazmino on Vimeo.

Image Credits:

1. “If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep,” Author’s personal collection.
2. A view of the Andes, Author’s personal collection.
3. The Wall of the Disappeared, Author’s personal collection.
4. The walls of Señal 3, Author’s personal collection.
5. A mural, Author’s personal collection.
6. APEX and Señal 3 team, Author’s personal collection.

Please feel free to comment.

Satellite TV Smackdown: Viacom vs. DirecTV
Stephen Tropiano / Ithaca College

description of image
Viacom channels

On Tuesday, July 10, 2012, at approximately 11:45pm (ET), something unexpected happened in 20 million living rooms across America. DirecTV customers (myself included) no longer had access to 17 Viacom channels, including such favorites as Comedy Central, MTV, and the #1 most watched cable channel on DirecTV, Nickelodeon. A single flick of a switch–and it was so long Stewart & Colbert, au revoir Spongebob & Dora, and good riddance Snooki and JWOWW.

description of image
DirecTV’s notice to customers

The blackout was due to a financial dispute over an increase in the subscription fees Viacom was charging DirecTV to carry their channels, a list that also includes VH1, BET, TVLand, Spike and Nickelodeon’s siblings, NickToons, Nick Jr., and Teen Nick. According to an online video message from DirecTV CEO Mike White, Viacom was demanding DirecTV “pay over 30% more. That’s an extra billion dollars for the exact same channels you already receive.” ((“Mike White’s Message to Customers.” Lybio.net. n.d. Web. 27 July 2012. http://lybio.net/mike-white-message-to-customers-directv-ceo/people/.)) Viacom accused DirecTV of misleading their customers and set the record straight: “Here’s the truth: Viacom is asking DirecTV for an increase of a couple of pennies per day per subscriber. That’s far less than DirecTV pays other programmers with fewer viewers than Viacom.” (( As quoted in Brian Anthony Hernandez, “DireTV Removes Viacom Channels Amid Battle on Social Media.” Mashable.com. Mashable, 10 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://mashable.com/2012/07/10/viacom-directv-social-media/))

The phrase “a couple of pennies a day” makes me nervous. Exactly how many pennies are we talking about? Let’s do the math: $1 billion dollars (the additional cost per year) divided by 20 million subscribers = 5,000 pennies or $50 dollars per year per subscriber. In this economy, that’s a substantial increase, especially when, as White points out, we will be receiving the same channels.

Channel blackouts are no longer a rare occurrence. Over the past two years they have risen significantly in number, from 4 in 2010, to 15 in 2011, to 22 in the first half of 2012. According to the Associated Press, cable and satellite providers are less willing to pay higher fees because their profits have decreased due to the decline in the number new households in the current economic climate. At the same time, entertainment companies like Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, AMC, and Viacom “have kept expanding their profit share.” ((“TV Channel Blackouts Becoming More Common as Profits Stall.” www.usatoday.com. USA Today, 16 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/story/2012-07-15/television-blackouts/56236886/1.)) On July 20, 2012, the same day DirecTV and Viacom reached an agreement, Time Warner Cable and the Hearst Corporation ended their financial standoff, restoring nearly half of Hearst’s twenty-nine local television stations. ((Chelsea Stevenson, “Time Warner Agrees to Restore 15 Local Hearst TV Stations.” Online.wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20120720-706219.html)) A heated contract dispute over licensing fees between AMC Networks and the DISH Network resulted in the second-largest satellite TV provider eventually dropping American Movie Classics, WEtv, and Independent Film Channel (IFC) from its line-up on July 1, 2012. ((William Launder, “AMC in Deal to Keep Channels on AT&T.” online.wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304299704577500853046352874.html)) Knowing DISH customers were outraged over missing the highly anticipated season premiere of Breaking Bad, AMC decided to live stream the episode (which they never do) in order to give Dish customers “an extra week to switch providers so they can enjoy the rest of the season.” ((Amanda Kondolojy, “AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ Season 5 Premiere is Most-Watched Episode Ever.” TVbythenumbers.zap2it.com. 16 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2012/07/16/amcs-breaking-bad-season-5-premiere-is-most-watched-episode-ever/141710/))

In the case of DirecTV vs. Viacom, their seven-year contract was up on June 30th but Viacom allowed DirecTV to continue to air their channels until negotiations stalled. Then a mini-modern day Game of Thrones (minus the sexposition) erupted with both sides engaging in some very intense finger pointing via on-screen messages, TV commercials, and social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr). DirecTV’s campaign was more corporate and subdued compared to Viacom’s, which, like the programming on MTV and Nickelodeon, was overstated, in-your-face, and a tad cartoonish.

The more adult of the two companies, DirecTV appealed to their customers by presenting “the facts” (or at least their version of them). An on-screen message on the blacked out channels and on their website, DIRECTVpromise.com, made it clear that Viacom is the guilty party. On their website, DirecTV also explained the correct number of blacked out channels is 17, not 26, the number Viacom was using in their campaign: “Viacom’s double-counting both high definition and standard definition versions of the same service to overly inflate its totals and add more unnecessary drama to what should have always remained private business discussions.” ((The 17 Viacom channels, 9 of which are available in HD (designated by an *asterisk): BET*, CMT* (Country Music Television), Centric, Comedy Central*, Logo, MTV*, MTV2, Nickelodeon*, Nick Jr., Nicktoons, Palladia, Spike*, Teen Nick, TR3s, TV Land, VH1*, VH1 Classic. ))

There was plenty of “unnecessary drama” in Viacom’s campaign urging customers to call DirecTV to stop them from “taking away 26 of your channels.” Their website, whendirectvdrops.com, featured a search engine DirecTV customers could use to find another cable or satellite service provider that carries Viacom’s channels and make the switch. DirecTV explained on their website that changing providers would not matter because “no TV provider is immune to unfair fee increases” (to prove their point they even provide a list of “current and recent industry disputes”). Still, DirecTV was no doubt concerned about losing customers (who would be charged a pro-rated early cancellation fee of up to $20 a month!) (( When a close friend called DirecTV while the blackout was going on to find out where to send an old box she had been holding on to, she inquired if they would be offering some credit since they were no longer carrying Comedy Central – she’s a Daily Show fan. Before she could say anything else they offered her 6 months of free Showtime, Starz and Encore and $10 off her bill for the next six months. )).

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Viacom’s notice to DirecTV customers

Team Viacom also encouraged customers to participate in the fun via Twitter (#whendirectvdrops.com), which also sent tweets from MTV and reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi encouraging their fans to call DirecTV and demand their channels back. DirecTV also had their own Twitter account that encouraged customers to express their support, though some chose to express their anger at both sides, accusing them of caring more about profits than their customers.

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Twitter message from Nicole Polizzi “Snooki”

Viacom even attempted to scare DirecTV customers with a shameless video montage that incorporated clips from popular shows on Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon shows that give the impression that Jersey Shore‘s The Situation, Stephen Colbert, Daniel Tosh, iCarly‘s Miranda Cosgrove, the South Park kids, and Spongebob Squarepants are reacting to DirecTV’s decision to get rid of “26 of your favorite channels” (Viacom’s name is, of course, never mentioned). The final image is a definite low point: Dora the Explorer saying, “We need your help!” (a request she often makes to her young fans). DirecTV was no doubt aware that the loss of Nickelodeon was devastating for many kids, so they added Disney Junior to their line-up.   ((Andrew Wallenstein, “DirecTV Adds Channel Amid Viacom Dispute.” Variety.com. Variety, 13 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118056546)) In fact, the Disney Channel’s viewership rose during the blackout while Nickelodeon’s steadily dropped. ((Brian Stelter, “Denied Nickelodeon, DirecTV’s Youngest Clients Find Substitutes.” nytimes.com. New York Times, 18 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/19/business/media/dispute-with-directv-aids-viacoms-rivals-in-childrens-programming.html))

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Viacom’s video message to DirecTV customers

Viacom also tried to show whose boss by stopping the online streaming of complete episodes of popular shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Viacom restored the public’s access within a week after being lambasted by critics, including their own Jon Stewart, who asked, “Viacom, where are you, China?”

On July 10, 2012, an agreement was reached and order was restored in ViacomLand. A seven-year agreement was reached to the tune of $5 billion (a 20% increase instead of the initial 30% Viacom was demanding). ((Andrew Wallenstein, “DirecTV, Viacom Reach Agreement.” Variety.com. Variety, 20 July 2012. Web. 27 July 2012. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118056833))

As for DirecTV’s subscribers, it’s still not clear what if anything we got out of this deal. Viacom and DirecTV had no qualms about sending their customers into battle, yet it is only a matter of time before we will be footing the bill for their war. In the meantime, all I know is I had access to 17 (or 26) Viacom channels, suddenly I didn’t, and then I got them back. And I am not expecting to get a rebate anytime soon from DirecTV for those Snooki-less summer days of 2012.

Image Credits
1. Collage by author.
2. Screen shot by author
3. whendirectvdrops.com, screen shot by author
4. Screen shot by author
5. Screen shot by author

War, “Incendiary Media,” and International Law (Part III)



[Read Part 1]
[Read Part 2]

This third Part of my comments focuses on media intervention and re-development in post-conflict Iraq, examining the legal environment with which post-war Iraqi newspapers, television, and radio are being created and regulated. I will limit my observations on the media intervention activities conducted by the interim government before the more recent establishment of the permanent constitution.

Rebuilding the Media Space in Post-Invasion Iraq: New Dilemmas

Shortly after Bush declared victory in Iraq, a transitional government was set up (the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)). As a governing body headed by L. Paul Bremer, the CPA helped establish the Governing Council of Iraq on 13 July 2003, pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1483. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council also established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) through Resolution 1500 (adopted on 14 August 2003). A foundation for legal governance was thus erected in Iraq. As with former interim governing bodies and UN-authorized assistance missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the like, the media field was very much on the agenda of reform. The CPA was particularly sensitive about media activities; this was understandable given the unrelenting violence that continued to threaten basic stability and safety in the country. In May 2003, the CPA established the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) to replace the defunct Iraqi Information Ministry. The IMN included a TV channel, two radio stations and the newspaper Al-Sabah. The television network reached about two-thirds of Iraqi homes.

As Occupying Power, the US-led governing body utilized the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to protect civilians and suppress any public activities that were deemed to incite violence. On June 5 and June 10 of 2003, the CPA issued ‘Public Notice Regarding Public Incitement to Violence and Disorder’ and ‘Public Notice: Towards a Responsible Iraqi Media’ respectively. The first public notice prohibits any individual making a ‘prohibited pronouncement in a public place or distributing or attempting to distribute any prohibited material in whatever form’. The second public notice reiterates the concern for inciting violence but targets media broadcasting. It is noted that this second notice was issued in the context of a feverish boom of the media in the country. However, the journalistic quality and political independence of the newspapers that mushroomed during that period were highly questionable. The end of repressive rule meant that the Iraqi media space was left without regulation. It was alleged that anyone with US$1,000 could publish his/her own newspaper, assign him/herself the job of the editor-in-chief, prominently display his/her photo on the front cover, and run the newspaper without any prior knowledge of journalism. As a result, in this unregulated space, benign bad journalism was mixed with a more sinister journalism manipulated by various political factions to create misinformation and even incite disturbance.

The CPA’s public notice regarding public incitement to violence and disorder authorized the security forces to ‘immediate detention’ of any one found to violate the notice’s order, the detained being held as a security internee under the Fourth Geneva Convention. This was so even though the CPA defined public notices as ‘hav[ing] no penal consequence’ (as opposed to Orders and Regulations). As for the public notice regarding the conduct of the media, a violation would result in the withdrawal of license, closing of operation, confiscating the property, and sealing the premises of the media organization. This was done even though Iraq’s media commission would not be formally established until a year after the issuance of the public notice. But even with the establishment of such a commission, the question of whether it would be vetted with legal authority to prosecute media organizations was itself an open question. The problem of the CPA’s self-expanded legal power was becoming more apparent as time went by.

It was soon discovered that the CPA’s administration of Iraq was alienating the Iraqi public. While it continued to fail to keep the country’s security situation under control – it was reported that Bremer’s top priority was economics, not security – it also failed to tackle basic problems of daily life. Meanwhile, over 2003-2004, the Governing Council and then the elected Prime Minister exercised censorship of the media in contradiction to the Constitution. The banning of Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite-transmitted programmes in Iraq in 2003, the closing down of Al-Jazeera‘s Baghdad office in 2004, and the arrest of around 60 journalists at gunpoint from a hotel in Najaf, including reporters from the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Time and Telegraph, were a few high-profiled acts of aggression against media organizations and personnel who were not part of the media sector controlled by the post-war government. In sum, as the professional and ethical conduct of Iraqi journalists were uneven, to say the least, in an environment of free-wheeling publication and broadcast, and as the interim government was bent on outright censorship and intimidation of journalists, how could public interest be served? And how was this situation different from the repressive era?

Man With Camera

Man With Camera

Formal Decrees and Proposals for Media Reform

On 20th March 2004, the CPA issued formal Order 65 for the establishment of the Iraqi National Communications and Media Commission (NCMC) and Order 66 for regulating Iraqi Public Service Broadcasting. Formal Orders, unlike the Public Notices mentioned above, were binding instructions or directives that carried penal consequences or had a direct bearing on the way Iraqis are regulated, including changes to Iraqi law. Order 66 was a fairly standard media standards document aimed at creating a public platform for broadcasting that covered political, economic, health, cultural, educational, scientific, religious, ecological, sporting and other developments in Iraq. As for Order 65, a more detailed discussion is needed.

Order 65

Order 65 was not only a blueprint for developing a democratic media space in Iraq, it also served to promote a capitalistic media space in the country. The stated purpose of establishing the NCMC was to balance the interest of creating a pluralistic media environment with commercial and investment interests in telecommunications. In other words, the NCMC would double as a regulatory agent and a free speech promulgator. In Section 9 of Order 65, the NCMC was empowered to enforce sanctions, including: (a) issuing warnings; (b) requiring publication of an apology; (c) requiring mitigation or repair of harm to consumers; (d) imposing financial penalties and placing liens on relevant bank accounts, if the penalties are not paid on time; (e) suspending licenses; (f) seizing equipment for which access into the licensee’s premises is granted hereby; (g) suspending operations; (h) closing operations; and (i) terminating or withdrawing licenses. In addition, Section 9(2) empowered the NCMC to enlist police and coalition forces support when carrying out its mandate. It must be noted that the power to enforce the sanctions listed above and the power to enlist law enforcement and military forces, essentially positioned the NCMC as an adjudicating body in civil and criminal proceedings. The constitutionality of this positioning of the NCMC, as well as the legality of other regulatory provisions proposed by the NCMC, has been questioned by critics.

The London-based independent organization promoting freedom of speech rights, ARTICLE 19, has examined the various codes of practice proposed by Iraq’s NCMC. These include a Code for Media during Elections; an interim Broadcasting Programme Code of Practice; and an Interim Media Law. In their report, ARTICLE 19 expresses a number of detailed concerns regarding the specific content and other rules in the interim media law and the broadcasting and election codes. There are concerns, for instance, about the vagueness of the documents, in which phrases like ‘standards of decency’, ‘exercise care and consideration’, or ‘incitement to violence’ are not defined at all. The draft code of practice also gives little concrete details about standards that would be useful for practical daily operations.

More troubling is the restriction on free speech proposed in the Interim Media Law. Section 2.1 states the ground for restriction:

It shall be an offense for the Media Outlet to publish, broadcast or otherwise disseminate any material that, by its content or tone:

(a)Carries the clear and immediate risk of inciting imminent violence, ethnic or religious hatred, civil disorder or rioting among the people of Iraq or advocates terrorism, crime or criminal activities (particular care is required where a programme carries the views or transmits the messages of people or organizations who use or advocate terrorism or the use of violence or other criminal activity in Iraq); or

(b) Carries a clear and immediate risk of causing public harm, such harm being defined as death, injury, damage to property or other violence, or the diversion of police, medical services or other forces of public order from their normal duties.

While Section 2.1 realistically referenced the kinds of everyday terror experienced by ordinary Iraqis, and while it might even be appropriate to link the media to these types of unrest, it had not complied with international law since it exceeded the exceptions to freedom of speech provided by Article 19 of the ICCPR. Subsection (b), for instance, made ‘diversion of police, medical services or other forces of public order from their normal duties’ a ground for restriction of speech. It clearly exceeded the ‘legitimate aims’ stated in Article 19(2). Moreover, the principle of proportionality was not observed in subsection (a), whereby the media’s carrying or transmitting of violence-inciting views belonging to others was considered an equal offence as the media’s advocating the subversive view. The European Court of Human Rights has indeed ruled, in Jersild v. Denmark, that the prosecution of journalists who merely relay others’ hate speech violates the journalists’ freedom of expression: ‘The punishment of a journalist for assisting in the dissemination of statements made by another person in an interview would seriously hamper the contribution of the press to discussion of matters of public interest’.

The NCMC’s Interim Media Law was most troubling when it accorded the NCMC itself the role of judicial enforcement. ARTICLE 19 states that the NCMC was not appropriately constituted to act as a ‘court’, for to recognize it as acting as judicial body violates both Article 14 of the ICCPR and Iraq’s own transitional constitution (the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period, or TAL). Article 14 of the ICCPR designates that a fair and public hearing be conducted by ‘a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law’. This means a lawful appointment of judges, and matters of substantial judicial qualifications and duration of judicial experience. Unless safeguards are made as to the careful and legal appointment of members of the NCMC according to strong evidence of judicial experiences and qualifications, the regulatory body does not qualify to adjudicate cases. Besides, the TAL also states in Article 43 that ‘[t]he judiciary shall enjoy exclusive competence to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused pursuant to law…’ This effectively rules out a regulatory agency as an enforcement body.

In fact, the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly warned against excessive use of national security laws to restrict freedom of expression. It considers that states ‘cannot, with reference to the protection of territorial integrity or national security or the prevention of crime or disorder, restrict the right of the public to be informed by bringing the weight of the criminal law to bear on the media’.

Just when those in the media field were working to adapt to professional codes transplanted from outside, they were met with an interim administration that does not appear to be more egalitarian or less draconian in its policies than those in the Hussein era. The interim authority’s heavy-handedness was ironically preserving the old culture of totalitarianism. Concepts of freedom, fairness, pluralism, and even human rights might be perceived as empty promises, or worse, as codes of neo-colonialism. The interpretation of neo-colonialism must be taken seriously, as Iraq’s history demonstrates a collective misgiving toward, and mistrust of, the very notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ underlined by western capitalism. In the context of a media boom in Iraq after the invasion, and more importantly in the context of continued daily terror in the country, a delicate balance between the promotion of a free and independent press in line with human rights norms and an appropriate intervention into the media space to halt
rampant spread of misinformation and of incendiary speech, is not easy to achieve.


See CPA-Iraq.org. Due to the dissolution of the CPA, the site for the CPA-Iraq Coalition is no longer being updated. It will remain available for historical purposes until June 30, 2006.

By mid-2003, it was estimated that in Baghdad alone newsstands held about 90 newspapers between the daily, bi-weekly, and weekly ones. In the rest of the country the number of publications had also mushroomed, with small radio and TV stations joining in. Meanwhile, the main
political groups within Iraq have set up or revived publications, such as Al-Adala of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Al-Manar (which was very critical of the occupying power). In addition, Al-Ittihad, organ of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Taakhi(Brotherhood), of the Kurdish Democratic party of Massoud Barzani, were the two Arabic-language Kurdish papers distributed in Baghdad. In the field of print news, the most credible as well as the biggest in size was Azzaman (The Times), founded in London by an exiled journalist formerly working under Hussein, selling 30,000 copies in Baghdad. Countless shops were selling TV satellite dishes, receiving foreign all-news stations as well as Arab stations such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabyia and LBC-Al Hayat. The TV station set up by the Iraqi Media Network (IMN) broadcast soap operas, Iraqi folk songs, and football matches. Programmes were interspersed with announcements by the Coalition authorities and the UN. While the IMN had a virtual monopoly of non-satellite TV in Baghdad, radio broadcasting in Baghdad was more diverse; the IMN station had an AM and an FM station broadcasting around the clock. But the BBC, Radio Sawa and RMC-Moyen-Orient (RMC-MO) were the most listened-to stations.

See, e.g., Arab Press Freedom Watch Final Report of its Fact Finding Mission to Iraq, ‘Working with Iraqi journalists: Towards a free and independent media’, available at AFPW; Khalid Serhan Hurrat, Lisa Isabel Leidig, ‘Iraq’, in Mass Media in the Middle East: a comprehensive handbook 96-108 (Yahya R. Kamalipour and Hamid Mowlana eds., 1994); Richard Keeble, ‘The myth of Saddam Hussein: new militarism and the propaganda function of the human interest story’, in Media Ethics 66-81 (Matthew Kieran ed., 1998).

Luke Harding, ‘Iraq extends Al-Jazeera ban and raids offices’, The Guardian, September 6, 2004.

See CPA-Iraq.org.

See ARTICLE 19, Memorandum on Draft Iraqi Media Laws, November 2004.

Jersild v. Denmark, 25 September 1994, Application No. 15890/89, para. 35.

Erdogdu and Ince v. Rurkey, 8 July 1999, Application Nos. 25067/94 and 25068/94, para. 54.

Image Credits

1. Newspapers

2. Man With Camera

Please feel free to comment.


Edward R. Murrow

“I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of culture and our defense.” –Edward R Murrow (1958)

“It is all in the grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words. And it very much serves the purposes of the present administration. Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last 11 September was too horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words — that words could not possibly do justice to our grief and indignation — our leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in borrowed words of contempt.” –Susan Sontag (2002)

Outside the pedagogical tasks of babysitting (high school), transitioning (college), re-infantilizing (graduate school), and hegemonizing (professional training for business, the law, and medicine), intellectuals have two roles in US public life. The first is to be technocrats, providing solutions to problems that will make money or allow governments to achieve policy targets. The second is to offer cultural critique and political intelligence to the élite, both inside and outside the state. Sometimes it appears as though critical public intellectuals in the US are, in the words of the Economist, ‘a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities’ (“Susan” 2005).

Neoliberals and conservatives utilize the media spectacularly. Policy proposals are left up to their corporate masters, because right-wing media discourse does not undertake rational analyses aimed at technocratic outcomes. Instead, it works via a blend of grass-roots religious superstition and public outreach that stresses column inches and shouted seconds, not professional expertise (Kallick 2002). Funded by some of the wealthiest US foundations and families, such as Olin, Scaife, Koch, Castle Rock, and Smith Richardson, there are over three hundred right-wing ‘coin-operated’ think-tanks in Washington, dealing with topics from sexuality to foreign policy. They hire ghost-writers to make their resident intellectuals’ prose attractive — a project to market opinion, rather than to conduct research. Each “study” they fund is essentially the alibi for an op-ed piece. The corollary numbers for media coverage are striking. Progressive think-tanks had a sixth share of media quotation compared to reactionary institutions during the 1990s. In the decade to 2005, reactionaries averaged 51% of citations and progressives 14%; journalists even call the supposedly independent Heritage Foundation when the White House has no-one available. If we believe in market-based rhetoric, then the people who appear on the major three TV networks’ newscasts as experts should be indices of consumer desire; in which case, the public “wants” 92% of these mavens to be white, 90% born between 1945 and 1960, 85% male, and 75% Republican. That might expose us to the cohort that is responsible for our troubles, but not to disinterested critique (Karr 2005; Alterman 2003: 85; Dolny 2003 and 2005; Hart 2005: 52; Claussen 2004: 56; Love 2003: 246; Cohen 2005).

Media attention does not correlate with scholarly esteem or achievement, and the academics most likely to be interviewed have worked in government. These public intellectuals are general rather than specific in their remarks, and disdainful of both theory and fact — an unusual combination. They have displaced expertise and journalism with position-taking. It can be no accident that Fox News Channel, which employs few journalists and foreign bureaux, has the most pundits on its payroll of any US network — over fifty in 2003 (Tugend 2003). Margaret Carlson, a correspondent for Time and one of CNN’s vocalists, explained the key qualifications for her television work in these damning words: ‘The less you know about something, the better off you are … sound learned without confusing the matter with too much knowledge’ (quoted in Alterman 2003: 32).

The system bespeaks the right’s success at culture capture. This taps into a rich vein of anti-intellectualism that derives from creepy Christianity, populism, and instrumentalism. It dates back to newspaper assaults on John Quincy Adams for ‘book learning’ and Adlai Stevenson as effeminate (Claussen 2004: 18-21, 40-41). There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities. So few if any professional academicians appear on air to explain the history of US foreign policy, despite the country’s relationships with oil interests, arms manufacturers, and despots to keep oil prices low; its complex twists and turns supporting and undermining various brands of Islam and Arab rule; and its bizarre insistence on an ethical reputation, while essentially rejecting international law other than over copyright. Nor do we see consistently competent contextualization of the hypocrisies and horrors of its opponents. Instead, a jingoistic and spiritual message comes through, juxtaposing freedom and decency with repression and fanaticism in a way that always seems to break down the binary rather disturbingly, and heightens a sense of risk without explaining it other than via the clash twins. E pluribus unum is part of the networks’ discourse, but it is applied as a loyalty test, where talking in a way that is counter to the Administration is equated with lack of professional objectivity, and the unity of the nation is embodied in military action, seemingly the last legitimate government arena.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi was unusual — a critical Arab intellectual able to enter the lists of such discussions. He was ushered in because his work had been plagiarized by a British intelligence dossier that Colin Powell formally presented to the Security Council in 2003. Al-Marashi (2004) hoped to use this as a platform to differentiate himself from on-air Iraqi-Americans, who were calling for invasion and destruction. But of the hundreds of interviews he gave, virtually none presented the opportunity for commentary on the war. He was restricted to the discourse of secreted weaponry. Not surprisingly, my search through Lexis-Nexis found that Edward Said’s by-line did not appear in any US newspaper in the 18 months after September 11, finally reemerging in July 2003 (Said 2003). By contrast, subscribers to the Independent, El País, the Guardian, the Observer, Rebelión.org, and the Weekend Australian had the opportunity to read him during this period.

Academics are sometimes excluded through direct political action rather than deregulatory pressures, popular-cultural obsessions, ignorance, or jingoism. For example, the right-wing think-tanks that dominate Washington policy on the Middle East have sought to discredit area studies across US universities, especially Middle-Eastern programs. The Washington Institute for Near East Studies is the key front organization for the Republican Party, while institutions like the American Jewish Congress, Campus Watch, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (run by the Vice-President’s wife) warn against ‘Middle Eastern Arabs’ in universities, and place conservatives in vital opinion-making fora that feed into TV current affairs, such as the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times (Beinin 2003 135; Whitaker 2002; Brynen 2002; Davidson 2002; Abrahamian 2003; Merriman 2004).

Away from the live media, the Arab world has been chided for being closed to ideas from the outside, as measured by the fact that only 330 books are translated from foreign languages annually. But the US, with an almost equal population and a vastly bigger book trade, translates the same number! The comparison of these two regions with the rest of the world is highly unflattering on this score. Still, with books can come knowledge, and something must be done about that. Attorney-General John Ashcroft recognized their importance when he interpreted the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) to permit FBI scrutiny of book-buying and borrowing — but not fire-arm purchase (Dilday 2003; Grieve 2003).

Meanwhile, the government establishes front organizations to select, train, and promote apparently independent figures. The State Department financed the Iraq Public Diplomacy Group, which coached Iraqis to appear on US television in support of positions prepared for them, on the grounds that they would be more effective than Yanquis. The Iraqi National Congress was the creation and creature of the CIA, via the Agency’s public-relations consultant, the Rendon Group, whose motto reads ‘information as an element of power.’ Its advertised services run the gamut from generating ‘a favorable environment before privatization begins’ to providing alibis for state violence. It coordinated propaganda for the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1991 Gulf War, and has received more than US$100 million from the CIA (Alterman 2003: 82-83; Rampton and Stauber 2003: 55, 43; Downing and Husband 2005: 73; Chatterjee, 2004).

The press should be interviewing intellectuals trained in area studies, military strategy, international law, business ethics, and battlefield medicine. But that would provide media coverage that was multi-perspectival. Instead, the paranoid form of reporting favored by US networks militates against journalistic autonomy, other than when the information comes directly from battlefields and is a “soldier’s story” — or derives from the Pentagon or the Israeli government (Fisk, 2003). The prevailing doctrines of regulation favor a small number of large entities that appeal to anti-intellectualism, regardless of their niches. Scott Adams’ comic-strip Dilbert (Los Angeles Times, August 21 2005) parodies this beautifully via the fictitious ‘Dogbert Easy News Channel.’ Easy News provides ‘all the news that’s easy to gather’ and features ‘a debate between two middle-aged white guys’ about why ‘[p]eople in other countries want to kill us.’ One of the guests says it’s because ‘we are so wonderful.’ The other warns ‘[b]uy my book or you will all die.’

I have some limited experience of these tendencies. I worked for many years in Australian radio, and later as an academic commentator on popular culture. On coming to the US, I was interviewed fairly regularly across the media, I suppose because I was at NYU and had a plausibly English accent. Just days before September 11, I appeared on CNN International to talk about a crisis involving Afghan refugees in peril off the Australian coast. At the time, CNN had 23 satellites, 42 bureaux, and 150 foreign correspondents. But you’d never know it from watching the network’s parochial domestic stations, with their blinking, winking, walking-dead presenters, for all the world propped up by formaldehyde and dedicated to eastern-seaboard storms, missing white children, and entertainment news. The day I was interviewed, most of the workers at CNN in New York were tuned to CNN International, which actually covers news stories, as opposed to the network’s laughable domestic programs. Even so, during the interview, the anchorman looked at me disbelievingly as I listed the history of racialization by successive Australian administrations. He asked incredulously ‘So are you telling us that the Australian Government is racist?’ — another sign of the deluded faith in official sources that dogs contemporary Yanqui journalism’s ‘stenographic reporting’ (Moeller 2004: 71).

When I appeared on New York 1, a local cable news channel, shortly after the attacks on the US, I was asked to comment on the psychology of terrorists in a trans-historical way: What makes people do these things? Are they maladjusted? I endeavored to direct the conversation towards US foreign policy and its support of totalitarian regimes in the Middle East that restricted access to politics, hence turning religion into a zone of resistance. And I spoke of US TV journalists’ sparse and prejudicial narrative frames and background knowledge. The production staff later told me that the board lit up with supportive reaction when the program accepted phone calls from the public, and those I spoke with thanked me for saying the non dit. The staff said I would be invited back (but they may say that to all the boys). I was not. Station management eventually acknowledged that most of its coverage at the height of the crisis had not been ‘analytical,’ because the attack was ‘an open, gaping wound’ (quoted in Boehlert, 2002). By contrast, when Radio Scotland came to town and interviewed a stand-up-comedy venue owner, a media consultant, and myself about cultural reactions to these events, we were not dealing with overdetermined presuppositions from our questioners. There was time for me to draw on theory and history to complement their approaches. The same thing happened when I was interviewed on All-India Radio in Delhi. But when CBS News contacted me in 2005 to discuss George Bush Minor’s admission that he had instructed the National Security Agency to spy on US citizens sans judicial review, contra the law, something quite different occurred. The producer first asked me if I could contextualize this in terms of the history of the media during wartime. I replied that I could. He then asked me about the limits to publicizing information, and I indicated that whilst most critics would agree that the precise timing and location of an event such as D-Day could legitimately be kept secret, extra-juridical contravention of civil liberties would generally be considered another matter. The producer thanked me for my time, and noted that my services would not be required. He already had a lawyer to support the revelation, and needed someone who would attack the New York Times for having broken the story and forced Bush to tell the truth. He had not wanted the history of the media during wartime. He had wanted a nationalist, opposed to civil liberties.


Abrahamian, Ervand. (2003). “The US Media, Huntington and September 11.” Third World Quarterly 24, no. 3: 529-44.

Al-Marashi, Ibrahim. (2004). “An Insider’s Assessment of Media Punditry and “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.” Transnational Broadcasting Studies 12.

Alterman, Eric. (2003). What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News. New York: Basic Books.

Beinin, Joel. (2003). “The Israelization of American Middle East Policy Discourse.” Social Text 75: 125-39.

Boehlert, Eric. (2002, August 26). “Too Hot to Handle.” AlterNet.org.

Brynen, Rex. (2002). “Cluster-Bombs and Sandcastles: Kramer on the Future of Middle East Studies in America.” Middle East Journal 56, no. 2: 323-28.

Chatterjee, Pratap. (2004, August 4). “Information Warriors.” Corpwatch.org.

Claussen, Dane S. (2004). Anti-Intellectualism in American Media: Magazines & Higher Education. New York: Peter Lang.

Cohen, Mark Francis. (2005, April/May). “The Quote Machines.” American Journalism Review.

Davidson, Lawrence. (2002). “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.” Middle East Policy 9, no. 3: 148-52.

Dilday, K. A. (2003, May 1). “Lost in Translation: The Narrowing of the American Mind.” openDemocracy.net.

Dolny, Michael. (2003, July/August). “Spectrum Narrows Further in 2002: Progressive, Domestic Think Tanks see Drop.” EXTRA!Update.

Dolny, Michael. (2005, May/June). “Right, Center Think Tanks Still Most Quoted.” EXTRA!: 28-29.

Downing, John and Charles Husband. (2005). Representing ‘Race’: Racisms, Ethnicities and Media. London: Sage.

Fisk, Robert. (2003, February 25). “How the News will be Censored in the War.” Independent.

Grieve, Tim. (2003, March 25). “”Shut your Mouth”.” Salon.com.

Hart, Peter. (2005, February 4). “Struggling MSNBC Attempts to Out-Fox Fox.” EXTRA!Update.

Kallick, David Dyssegaard. (2002). Progressive Think Tanks: What Exists, What’s Missing? Report for the Program on Governance and Public Policy. Open Society Institute.

Karr, Timothy. (2005, April 12). “Is Cheap Broadband Un-American?” Media Citizen.

Love, Maryann Cusimano. (2003). “Global Media and Foreign Policy.” Media Power, Media Politics. Ed. Mark J. Rozell. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 235-64.

Merriman, Rima. (2004, March 11). “Middle Eastern Studies Seen as Against American Interests.” Jordan Times.

Moeller, Susan D. (2004). “A Moral Imagination: The Media’s Response to the War on Terrorism.” Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime. Ed. Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer. London: Routledge. 59-76.

Murrow, Edward R. (1958, October 15). Speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association, Chicago.

Rampton, Sheldon and John Stauber. (2003). Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq. New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin.

Said, Edward. (2003, July 20). “Blind Imperial Arrogance: Vile Stereotyping of Arabs by the U. S. Ensures Years of Turmoil.” Los Angeles Times.

Sontag, Susan. (2002, September 16). “How Grief Turned into Humbug.” New Statesman.

“Susan Sontag.” (2005, January 8). Economist: 77.

Tugend, Alina. (2003, May). “Pundits for Hire.” American Journalism Review.

Whitaker, Brian. (2002, August 19). “US Thinktanks Give Lessons in Foreign Policy.” Guardian.

Image Credits:

1. Edward R. Murrow

Please feel free to comment.

Reflections on Katrina in Brazil

I think I know where I am. To my university, I am in the Amazon, land of myth and enchanted Edens, in the words of Candace Slater. To Brazilians, I am in Manaus, home to the eighth largest city nationally and the largest free trade zone in the Americas. To residents, called Manuaras, I spend my time in the peripheries of the city, Jorge Teixeira, Sao Jose Operario, and Compensa. Here, I am interviewing workers, mostly women, who work for television set factories. Outsiders to these neighborhoods cannot imagine where I am aside from the usual stereotypes of jungles and Indians or slums and criminals. When Hurricane Katrina flooded my city of New Orleans and occupied the news media here for more than a week, however, insiders no longer understood where I was from.

old world map

Old World Map

I see the satellite image at the cyber-cafe cross the street from the hotel I have called home for the previous month. The swirls of red and green are moving towards a dislocated peninsula somewhere in the United States. The map seems as foreign to me at that moment as the culture of the city I was calling my temporary home.

There’s a hurricane coming, I tell a group of women casually at a sewing collective for unemployed factory workers. It is the Friday pre-Katrina.

Quizzical responses. You get those a lot, no? That’s just a lot of rain, right? They shrug, reminding me of the way longtime New Orleanians have done the same every rainy season.

I try to punctuate the words. No but it’s so big it could destroy the entire city. More shrugs and perhaps an attempt to sympathize. We get a lot of rain too. You should be here from December to June.

“What did she say?” another asks the room.

Some kind of earthquake in her city, responds the first.


Monday I am at the offices for a local newspaper looking at archive photos for my project. In my selections, workers smile through empty TV cabinets on the assembly line. They will reproduce well, I think to myself. Images seem to cajole us into thinking that we can understand a context anonymously. A journalist asks if he can do a short article on me and Katrina.

“What is a levee?” the novice writer asks.

“It’s like a dam, but it looks like a big hill that protects the city from water.” I don’t know how to translate this word.

Sounds very advanced.

“I’m afraid it won’t work and people will die.”

Are you sure that people will die or just afraid people will die? He is trying to clarify my meaning, but he can’t understand. He faces the computer screen as he types and retypes my words. “But you have no family there.”

“But I have my friends, my work, my house,” I justify.

I went back to the cyber-cafe. Two more levees broke and the city has been filling with water all day.

Tuesday morning the newspaper story takes about one-fifth of a page inside. There is a profile shot of me, tan and smiling, like the women behind the TV cabinets. The article read, “She had no family here.” His notes meant that I was not really from there.


The beginning of the week and New Orleans news now dominates Brazilian media over reports of widespread government corruption. Our hurricanes are different, repeat several observers to me. Despite the lack of all communications in the city, Brazilians become completely fluent in the details of Furacao Katreeennaa. The cyber-cafe owner explains the topography of New Orleans to me and the problems with budgetary funding for the levee system. The sewing group recites to me the differences between a Category 4 and a Category 5 storm. Meanwhile it has not rained in the Amazon for months, causing the most dire drought there in 60 years.

In contrast, I continue to be hopelessly ignorant. Four nights and counting, I’m watching CNN (I can’t watch this in Portuguese). I gasp at what I think I recognize. I know that intersection, that building, that neighborhood. But what about my street? My apartment? I have to struggle not to fill the void in my head with the reports of looting, mayhem, and death. This happens every hour as the same images are re-broadcast. I want to save the outdated satellite images of my building from Google Earth as a momento.


Still Brazilians “know” that the U.S. is rich.

“How are you doing?” asks a concerned university professor here at the federal campus.

“I think we may have lost everything,” I sigh.

“Oh but the insurance will pay.”

“I don’t have insurance.”

“Then the government will just give it all back to you.”

The prime-time telenovela passing on the television now is America. Set in against a colorful yet gleaming Miami skyline, the Americans that Brazilians imagine continue to be blessed with easy fame and fortune. Even when the furacao came into the storyline, it brought gentle rain and a light breeze.


Thursday I go to a city-sponsored fair where the sewing group sells their crafts. They have not sold anything today and middle-class people sniff at the prices. The woman that everyone refers to as the happy one, talks to me for the first time since I met her three weeks ago.

“I lost my house last April. We were sleeping when the rains eroded the wall holding it. I’ll never forget the noise. Pieces of the house started falling down the hill. I left with the kids but my husband was trapped in a part where the roof collapsed. The room was filling with water. When my cousin came, he broke through the metal and gashed his foot. When we got to my husband, the water was up to his neck. We survived.”

“And your house?” I ask.

“We lost everything. We live with my mother.”

I take inventory of the luxuries I have in my hotel room: hot water, cable television, and an air conditioning unit. I am not from Miami, nor from Manaus.


New Orleans Under Water

New Orleans Under Water

For me, news bytes become ironic ways of seeing similarities and differences between two cultures that misunderstand each other. On Friday both Manaus and New Orleans are 36-degrees Celsius with over 80 percent humidity. In the former, 80 percent of the city was without water after a power generator that fed the water company had to be shut off. In the latter, 80 percent of the city was under water according to the Mayor. This means that in both cities, bodies are dirty and thirsty. I roll the blue anti-malarial pills around in my hand after a CNN reporter cites the possibility of malaria in Louisiana. Here, the papers cite the highest incidences of malarial deaths in eight years. And I have not even been bitten.

Before the hurricane, I made a class presentation to a university extension class in the periphery. In the question period, a returning student asked what it was like to come from a developed country to an underdeveloped country.

“I don’t like those terms,” I parried in my best professorial voice. Some have called Brazil “Belinda,” part-Belgium, part-India. I think that in some ways Manaus is very developed. To demonstrate, I asked them how many of them owned cell phones. All hands in the classroom of working class people rose affirmatively.

A week later, though, I get the response that the student was expecting. The continuous blog for the New Orleans newspaper reports that my city has lost all modern communications, electricity, and potable water. New Orleans has become a Third World city.

Image Credits:

1. Old World Map

2. New Orleans Under Water

Please feel free to comment.

Irony Irony: The Mission (Accomplished) of The Daily Show

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

“For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon–laughter…. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
— Mark Twain, The Chronicle of Young Satan, Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts

Over forty years ago American novelist Philip Roth observed (in “Writing American Fiction” [1960]) that “American reality” “stupefies, …sickens, …infuriates, …and finally…is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Even the “daily newspapers,” he writes, “fill us with wonder and awe (is it possible, is it happening?), also with sickness and despair.”

Now, in the 21st Century, postmodern American unreality has inspired the proliferation of “fake news,” parody journalism. In venues like the online journal The Onion, the website The Borowitz Report, the NPR news quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and especially Comedy Central’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning The Daily Show, anything-but-meager imagination battles an increasingly stupefying, sickening, and infuriating political and cultural scene, and fake news, exhibiting perhaps more “truthiness” (as they call it on The Colbert Report) than that offered by legitimate journalism, has become an important component in our cultural discourse, an antidote, however temporary, to sickness and despair. As America’s greatest humorist once reminded us, laughter is our secret weapon. It’s a quote that often comes to mind when I watch my ultra-Republican, immune-to-irony next door neighbor stare in puzzlement at my “Republicans for Voldemort” bumper sticker.

On October 17th, 2005, the night Comedy Central would debut its “grippy” Daily Show spin-off The Colbert Report (pronounced “The Col-bear Ra-poor“), Jon Stewart’s guest on the mother ship was Fox’s bullying blowhard Bill O’Reilly, an especially appropriate booking since the network’s new “all spin zone” (Havrilesky) was intended to be a parody of celebrity pundit shows like The O’Reilly Factor. In their colloquy, which included O’Reilly’s perhaps clueless protest against that program “with some French guy making fun of me,” Stewart’s guest would call him a “pinhead” and accuse him of a lack of seriousness — of laughing, “playing it for giggles,” at everything. Laughing heartily, Stewart would accept the charge that he (and The Daily Show) do “add insult to injury.” “But,” he would add, a finger pointing at O’Reilly, “you add injury.”

Reviewing The Daily Show in PopMatters early in the Jon Stewart era (1999- ), Dan French would, like O’Reilly, find it pointless, frivolous: “masturbatory, nearly apolitical, only barely satirical, and without larger purpose.” Since I was not watching back then, I cannot judge the accuracy of his harsh indictment — similar charges, after all, have been leveled against satirists throughout history, including Jonathan Swift — but I will suggest that The Daily Show in the Bush Era has become an absolutely essential source of sanity, a comic healing of our injuries.

The Daily Show is never better than when engaged in decidedly postmodern metacommentary on its own method. After playing a clip of the ever-scowling Condoleezza Rice (seeking to rationalize the faulty intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq), insisting that “When you’re dealing with secret regimes that want to deceive you’re never going to be able to be positive,” Stewart would observe:

“‘Secret regimes that want to deceive’ — if she’s not going to see the irony in that statement, I’m sorry. I’m not going to point it out to her. That’s not my job here. Oh, but there’s irony in that statement, and not the fly in your Chardonnay kind. The real kind. Not the rain on your wedding day kind. This is irony irony.”

Irony is, of course, the very essence of Stewart’s job. The Daily Show is all about “irony irony.” When Colbert (on the night in question “Senior Nuclear & Biochemical Weapons Analyst”), examining the “nonsmoking gun” of the Kay Report (on Iraq’s WMD), wonders “What kind of madman refuses to produce evidence that he doesn’t have what he said he didn’t? Saddam had to be taken out or who knows what else he might not have done. It’s imaginable” — that’s irony irony at work. In Colbert’s patalogic we discern a kind of discourse capable of challenging the proliferating absurdity of world events in a way the paradox-free language of network and 24-hour cable news cannot possibly match.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

In November of 2003, President Bush would make a surprise visit to the troops in Iraq. The major television newscasts covered his dramatic arrival with exactly the credulity Bush’s handlers had no doubt envisioned, playing up W’s generosity in giving up his own Thanksgiving, stressing the soldiers’ happiness in breaking bread with their commander-in-chief. The Daily Show, of course, would cover it a bit differently. Colbert, that night Senior White House Correspondent, pretending to have accompanied Bush on his trip, would report that “this [the secrecy of Bush’s trip] just proves that we journalists shouldn’t even try, and we don’t.” Still, he would go on to report, the success of the mission did suggest some important, if ironic, lessons for the White House:

“When it comes to planning, do some. This Thanksgiving trip has shown the President that a lot of the best preparation is done in advance. Unfortunately with regard to our occupation of Iraq we did all of our preparation afterward, and now it’s a seething cauldron of death and rage….”

A second ironic insight was likewise apparent, this time concerning exit strategy: “Have one. What we saw last Thursday was a President with a clear idea of when and how to leave Iraq, specifically at noon and full of giblets.”

When “Media Analyst” Rob Corddry, investigating negative coverage of the Iraq war, insisted that “Facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda,” that, too, is irony irony at work, deconstructing White House spin. When Corddry, this time “Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst,” heeded the President’s insistence that the incidents at Abu Ghraib did not represent “the America I know,” suddenly realizing “We invaded Iraq with the wrong America” and insisting that “Just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn’t mean it’s something we would do”–his irony irony, delivered by one of a host of Daily Show correspondents seemingly oblivious to their own non-sequiturs, succeeded once again in identifying the Catch-22 mess we find ourselves in.

When, in March 2004, it was discovered that the White House had been coercing local television affiliates to run its planted, self-produced, pro-Bush policy pieces as if they were real journalism, “Senior Media Ethicist” Corddry would be appalled, not by the egregious duplicity of such postmodern manipulation but because he is jealous of the high caliber (better production values, better guests) of the “infoganda” in question. “They are kicking our ass,” Corddry lamented to Stewart in a moment of irony irony irony. “As a fake, we are a sham.”

In October 2005, in the wake of the unplanned revelation of the fakery behind a scripted conversation between Bush and American soldiers in Iraq, Corddry would treat the story of the Bush White House as if it actually were an episodic television series. As an avid, “living and dying with the show” fanboy, a “Whitey” (so to speak), he would take the airing of the rehearsal as a “gesture to the fans” (like a behind-the-scenes video on a DVD), denounce ABC’s Commander in Chief as a “total rip-off” of his own favorite show, wonder if that preposterous social security “B story” (in which the President weekly “stumbled onto a community of androids”) might be an indication that The Bush Years: The Series could be about to “jump the shark,” and question what happened to the never-wrapped-up Bin Laden story line (“that’s just bad writing”). And what, Corddry wanted to know, were the writers thinking when they turned that Dick Cheney character from “plausibly evil to cartooney evil.” That’s irony irony irony irony.

Sham or not, The Daily Show remains deeply committed to its mission. Covering in 2004 a make-believe, and hence meaningless, peace agreement in the Middle East signed by prominent out-of-power figures on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli clash, in the hope of showing the way to a cessation of hostilities, Stewart made a solemn, this time sincere, promise: “And I vow, that as long as there are imaginary treaties signed by pretend delegates to create hypothetical peace this fake news show will be there to cover it.”

French, Dan. “And Your Point Is…?” PopMatters.

Havrilesky, Heather. “The All Spin Zone.” Salon.com.

Roth, Philip. “Writing American Fiction.” Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.

Stewart, Jon, Ben Karlin, and David Javerbaum. America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction. New York: Warner Books, 2004.

Twain, Mark. “The Chronicle of Young Satan.” Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. Ed. William M. Gibson. Berkeley: U California P, 1969.

Related Websites
Daily Show Website
The Colbert Report Website
Colbert Nation Website
The Borowitz Report
Jump the Shark Website
The Onion
Wait…Wait! Don’t Tell Me Website

Image Credits:

1. Mark Twain

2. Stephen Colbert

Please feel free to comment.

War, “Incendiary Media,” and International Law (Part II)


“Incendiary Media”

In Part 1 of this article that appeared in Volume 3, Issue 2, I introduced to critical media studies practitioners a human rights legal mode of examining the problem of media intervention in post-conflict societies. Media intervention refers to the means of getting involved in a humanitarian crisis where there is evidence that the media space has been manipulated to incite hatred and violence. In post-war times, as in present-day Iraq, the intervention switches to a focus on the redevelopment and democratization of the damaged media space. In this second part of a three-part exploration, I turn to international human rights norms that justify the legality of media intervention practices. In the next and final part, I will examine the problems faced by Iraq regarding the media intervention projects conducted by the interim government before the current moment of constitution legislation.

In international law, the primacy given to the jus cogens principle of non-interventionism presents a serious legal challenge to the media intervention model. The same principle also tends to underline international telecommunications law governing territorial sovereignty with respect to the protection of airwaves and the flow of information. The principle of non-intervention has clearly appeared since the creation of the League of Nations. Explicitly, Article 2(7) of the UN Charter states that “[n]othing in the present charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Some United Nations General Assembly declarations have also enshrined this principle, such as that on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (G.A. Res. 2625 (XXV), 24 Oct. 1970). Although not legally binding, these Declarations establish that every state is sovereign and equal in law vis-a-vis every other state.

If the veneer of humanitarian intervention has been demystified and hence its legal basis denied, how can media or information intervention campaigns be executed legally? For those who endeavor to advance media intervention as a human rights practice, the UN Charter has indeed provided an inspiring source of legal support. The Charter can authorize Security Council resolutions in order to extend humanitarian aid to conflict-ridden zones. Yet there is a stronger ground for the Charter to exert authority into sovereign states, and that is through the very concept of constitutionalism. Insofar as governance and self-determination within a state rests on constitutionalism, at least two legal consequences follow. Besides the obligation to protect “the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society,” the state’s constitution is at the same time bound to international legal obligations through the UN Charter and other international treaty norms. In the relationship between national constitutionally derived obligations and international norms, a given state and its sovereignty is rendered not an absolute or exclusive sovereignty. Under Article 41 in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council may decide measures to maintain peace and security, including “complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.” As such, a UN-authorized information intervention campaign aimed at restoring peace and security (or aimed at thwarting media outlets that threaten peace and security, or impede the effect of prior Security Council resolutions) appears to be prima facie legal.

Jamie Metzl

Jamie Metzl

One form of aid that the Security Council can authorize in the area of information intervention is the facilitation of “peace broadcasting.” Jamie Metzl defines peace broadcasting as “any non-incendiary transmissions broadcast from an intervening state directly into a target state as part of the intervening state’s attempt to prevent or stop a human rights crisis.” Aided by the vast technical capability of media broadcasting across national territories today (e.g. through Direct Broadcasting Satellites), non-incendiary transmissions broadcast can therefore be presumed to be a legal practice as long as it satisfies humanitarian obligations. Further, peace broadcasting can be seen as a pre-emptive action that does not necessarily violate the non-intervention principle.

Further legal justifications can be found in international treaties. Article 19(2) of the ICCPR provides for the right to freely receive information regardless of frontiers. Even more broadly, media intervention aimed at preventing mass suffering can be justified legally by applying Article 20 of the ICCPR. Article 20(1) states that “[a]ny propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law,” while section (2) states that “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” Moreover, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination condemns all dissemination of ideas of racial superiority by individuals or organizations that incite racial discrimination. In still broader terms, the American Convention on Human Rights prohibits any advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitements to lawless violence “on any grounds including those of race, color, religion, language, or national origin.” Further, the European Convention on Human Rights also puts restriction on freedom of expression should speech or any other activities are aimed at the destruction of other rights and freedoms set forth in the Convention (Article 17). Undoubtedly, it is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that provides the strongest and clearest statement allowing media interventions. Article III (c) makes explicit a punishable crime to the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide.” Formerly appearing under the name of “crime against humanity” used in the Nuremberg trials, the crime of “incitement” to commit genocide has been identified today largely with media outlets and practitioners, as seen in the high-profiled ICTR trials and convictions of media personalities responsible for spreading hate speech that led to the Rwandan genocide. This and other legal precedents can be cited to lend support the need for preventive, pre-emptive, and proactive measures to predict and intervene in potential mass suffering due in part to the role of incendiary media.

In sum, it may be instructive to briefly contrast the “freedom of speech model” underpinning general civil and political rights and the customary principle of non-intervention, with the “media intervention model” that requires the restriction of speech rights and the exception to the non-intervention principle.

Freedom of Media Model (underpinned by Non-intervention Principle)

Information / Media Intervention Model

1 Protection of freedom of expression as a high standard Restriction of freedom of expression in crisis conditions
2 Media are conceptualized as diverse and free-flowing, i.e. “marketplace of ideas” Media are seen as political tools subject to nationalistic and regime-controlled manipulation
3 Rooted in classic liberalism Highlights the virtue of interventionism and humanitarianism
4 Rests upon constitutional legal foundation in the national and international contexts Emphasizes compliance with international humanitarian principles at the inter-governmental level
5 Based on normative provisions Based on pre-emptive and/or restorative actions
6 Promotes indigenous use of media and dissemination of information Promotes Western model of democratic information flow
7 Reliance on power and trust of local media and national government Reliance on credibility of international legal norms and institutions (e.g. UN, donor governments)
8 Permits space for all speech types and forms Empowers voices of moderation, stability and peace
9 Supported by major international conventions, treaties, and customary norms Ambiguous legal authority (although may be authorized by the UN Charter); May be driven less by law than by politics
10 Tends to retreat from responding to situation of human rights abuse by rogue media Tends to over-exert influence, potentially crossing the line into new forms of media censorship and hegemonic control

Jamie F. Metzl, “Information intervention: When switching channels isn’t enough,” 76(6) Foreign Affairs, 15-21 (1997).
See, for instance, Hussein Amin, “Social Engineering: Transnational Broadcasting and Its Impact on Peace in the Middle East”, available at http://lass.calumet.purdue.edu/.
Unfortunately, the Rwanda tragedy was partly the result of a total lack of political will in the international community to intervene. Likewise, the Bosnian war led to the Dayton Peace Accord that contained next to no provisions about the media. Weak international intervention prolonged these wars. See Alison Des Forges, “Silencing the voices of hate in Rwanda,” in Forging Peace (eds. Peter Krug and Monroe Price. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), at 236-256. See also Mark Thompson and Dan de Luce, “Media intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” in Forging Peace, at 201-235.

Image Credits:

1. “Incendiary Media”

2. Jamie Metzl

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Reality TV

CBS Newsroom

CBS Newsroom

The banality of standard television news narratives is both frustrating and oddly reassuring. The ritualized litanies of political posturing, consumer panics, lifestyle trends, celebrity scandals, and missing upscale white women lull us into La-Z-Boys of comfort, cynicism, or cynical comfort. To be charitable, these formulas paint a distorted picture of actual contemporary American life; that said, at least it’s a dependable picture, an ongoing theater of the absurd, though without as much self-awareness.

On the last weekend in August, those standard media narratives, and their attendant comforts, were destroyed.

Given the rapid clip of news cycles, it has already become a cliche to talk of how Hurricane Katrina “blew away” the veneers of security, institutional trust, and social equality in this country. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge and try to come to terms with the massive, complex, impact of this disaster not only on the US Gulf Coast (the actual, long-term dimensions of which are only beginning to be understood) and on our relationships with our government, but also on our most immediate forms of media (radio, television, and the internet).

As I indicated above, there are many, many problems with television journalism. Its usual schizoid handling of past horrors (through trivialization, exploitation, or sheer neglect) has left us largely unable or unwilling to socially process the consequences of actions and inactions. Its tendency to exaggerate small events (e.g., Natalee Holloway, Michael Jackson) at the expense of deeper coverage of larger, more significant ones (e.g., Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, global warming) has fostered the perception of an ahistorical world of assumed middle-class privilege threatened by seemingly random dangers, “evildoers,” and a few “bad apples,” rather than an understanding of a changing, complex world that might benefit from engaged citizenship. This pattern has long extended to weather coverage, though after Katrina, TV’s usual hurricane montage of windblown reporters and downed telephone poles, ruthlessly mocked on The Daily Show mere weeks ago, was revealed to be an empty ritual in spectacle and broadcast flow.

The aftermath of Katrina shattered this standard framing, as the images of the desperation, tears, anger, and horror in New Orleans and elsewhere dominated television. The contrast between the actual fate of hundreds of thousands of people and the federal government’s delayed and disorganized response became the story, as the sounds and images from the Gulf Coast clashed with those of Washington officials far divorced from reality (and long used to being so, apparently). The people, technology, and discursive apparati of broadcast news were at the nexus of these realities, and, for the first time in quite a while, did not retreat to safety and convention. The same broadcast reporters and studio anchors who had played well within Washington’s unwritten rules for years were now compelled to show, to actually reveal what was happening, most notoriously at the New Orleans Convention Center, and tell, to point fingers directly at federal officials and their ideological defenders. Many could scarcely conceal their disappointment at the President’s transparently scripted events, and reported openly on the contrast between the Administration’s words and actions. Shockingly, several reports even offered up the kind of media critique usually found in academic media criticism, as seen, for example, in ABC Primetime’s exploration of the news media’s culpability in the racial dimensions of this disaster. The sights of ABC’s Ted Koppel, NBC’s Brian Williams, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and even Fox’s Shepard Smith, losing their composure to anger and exasperation were almost as shocking as the events they conveyed.

An Upset Anderson Cooper

An Upset Anderson Cooper

Perhaps more importantly, the coverage also clearly conveyed how this disaster was compounded by our collective neglect of poverty and racism. Whether in the Superdome, on the rooftops of the Ninth Ward, abandoned in the nursing homes, or trapped on the bridge to Gretna, the vast majority of Katrina’s victims were clearly black and poor, people who had long been invisible in standard news narratives. Unfortunately, the news media’s grave concern over “looting” during that week dealt in the most basic racist assumptions, but even that perspective was mitigated somewhat by the more humanitarian concern of the majority of the coverage. Again, it is a sad testament to our expectations that it takes a deadly disaster, a literal disruption of the standard media universe, to raise awareness about so basic a problem as poverty.

While the television coverage of Katrina certainly dominates our understanding of the event, it is important to acknowledge the contributions of other media forms. The role of the internet in this regard, and in events such as these, cannot be overstated. Gulf coast radio and television stations (most notably New Orleans’ WWL) maintained continuous coverage via the web as much as possible, offering up local perspectives to global audiences. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s desperate plea for federal help during a September 1 WWL radio interview was widely replayed and disseminated across the web. Local bloggers conveyed as much information as possible from the area, presenting important alternative eyewitness perspectives. Other blog communities rapidly gathered together audio, video, textual transcripts, and timelines, documenting this event in more detail and depth than even the revived mainstream news media could muster. The blog-based spread of key official documents (including Louisiana Governor Blanco’s August 26 call for federal aid, and Homeland Security’s own National Response Plan) helped contradict Bush Administration “blame game” spin.

Katrina seemingly revived the long-dormant power of an independent American television journalism, which had been mostly missing in action for decades (and was notoriously absent during last year’s election). At the same time, it affirmed the growing power of the blogospheres as critical information sources and centers for action. In short, the kind of national media citizenship that we scholars have hoped for (despite knowing the contrary evidence all too well) seemed to finally emerge, if only briefly. Now, the big question remains: if this is a genuine opportunity to transform the news media, then how are we to build upon this moment? How can we keep it from slipping back to its standard narratives?

Moreover, how can we take on this challenge, and take television journalism — and television “reality,” in the most basic sense of the word — seriously as media critics, rather than let our opinions slide back into resigned cynicism? My own disgust with TV journalism’s obsequiousness, shallowness, and distortion runs deep and I know I’m not alone. Like most TV scholars I know, I rate entertainment television much higher for its complexity, verve, and (ironically enough) honesty. Similarly, I, along with much of Television Studies, have given reality television much more intellectual scrutiny than the ostensible televising of reality, i.e., the “news.” Revaluing, or at least redeveloping a relationship with, information television (and, for that matter, journalism education) will take a great deal of commitment.

Our interests in the mediated universes of ironic images and fantasy narratives are certainly important, but in an era of rising social tensions, deep-rooted political crises, and an uncertain economy (all balanced on a looming, perhaps catastrophic energy crisis), a better engagement with television journalism seems like the least we could do.

Meanwhile, of course, while the images and sounds left in Katrina’s wake continue to haunt and challenge our critical minds, it’s the displaced people and demolished places that still need our political will and collective and individual actions. As I write this, Rita, now a Category 5 hurricane, is making its way across the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually right through to Houston and east Texas, where a few hundred thousand Katrina refugees are struggling to put their lives back together. This weekend will give us an early indication of whether the news media maintains its newfound scrutiny of our government. . . or goes right back to pretty images of windblown reporters and downed telephone lines.

Image Credits:

1. CBS Newsroom

2. An Upset Anderson Cooper

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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

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“Roswell! Roswell! The People Have a Right to Know!”: The State of Fluff, part 2.

by: Eileen Meehan / Louisiana State University

Roswell autopsy
Roswell autopsy

In The X-Files’ episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” these words are spoken by Blaine, an UFO enthusiast, as he grapples with a police detective trying to keep him out of the morgue where Scully will autopsy an alien. Mulder stops the altercation, inviting Blaine to tape the proceeding. When released, the tape has been edited to show the autopsy but without Scully’s interesting finding: the air force pilot inside the alien suit. Once more, the media has ill-served the public’s right to know.

My interest here is in Roswell, the people’s right to know, and how news and good fluff uphold that right while newslessness and bad fluff deny it. Last time, I argued that “Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing Is Believing” was bad fluff because it erased two sources of priming discourses about UFOs: the carefully mainstream National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena and the flamboyantly eccentric contactees of the 1950s and 1960s. Here, I turn to the documentary’s treatment of Roswell to further illustrate how “Seeing” oversimplifies Roswell’s stories and the people who argue about them.

For “Seeing,” Major Jesse Marcel Sr. is the hero in this Roswell story. Stationed at Roswell Army Air Force Base, Marcel responded to a phone call from Mack Brazel, who had found strange debris in a remote pasture of his ranch. On 7 July 1947, Marcel drove to the ranch and gathered up the materials. Impressed by their odd appearance and properties, Marcel believed them to be extraterrestrial. He drove home and woke up his wife and son, Jesse Jr., to show them the debris. The next morning, Marcel delivered the materials to the base. By noon, base commander Colonel William Blanchard approved a press release: a UFO had been recovered and would be shipped to Wright Field, Ohio, for further examination. On 9 July, General Roger Ramey’s press conference rescinded that announcement. Newspapers ran headlines like “General Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer,” often accompanied by a photo of Marcel handling a damaged weather balloon. This tale emerges through clips and voice-overs featuring Peter Jennings, Jesse Jr in late middle-age, conspiracy historian Professor Robert Goldberg, and the Roswell-debunking UFOlogist Karl Pflock. The Marcel/Roswell story is not the only version of the Roswell Incident. In UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth, Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore deftly analyze Roswell’s basic story and its many permutations. Several Roswell stories make Brazel the hero including stories from sites maintained by David Rudiak and the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell.

Rudiak’s site includes a section titled Newspaper Stories About Mack Brazel’s Interview, Roswell Daily Record, July 9, 1947 (Afternoon), “Harassed Rancher Who Located ‘Saucer’ Sorry He Told About It.” In this story, a thunderstorm blew through on the evening of 13 June. The next day, Brazel and his son Vernon found the wreckage while checking their sheep, which grazed on the leased J.B. Foster Ranch. Brazel saw a “large area of bright wreckage made up on rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks” with “no sign of any metal in the area.” Brazel mentioned the debris that evening to his wife and daughter, Betty. On 4 July, the family brought some debris back to the ranch house. Three days later, Brazel went to Roswell to sell wool and mentioned his find to Sheriff George Wilcox, who contacted the base. Marcel and a man in plainclothes responded, accompanying Brazel to the ranch, where they tried unsuccessfully to reassemble the wreckage. Marcel took possession of it; later Brazel heard about the press release and its recantation. Brazel is quoted thus: “”I am sure that what I found was not any weather observation balloon.”

The IUFOMRC offers two versions. The first has Brazel accompanied by the son of Floyd and Loretta Proctor, who leased their ranch to Brazel. Brazel noticed “unusual pieces of what seemed to be metal debris, scattered over a large area. Upon further inspection, Brazel saw that a shallow trench, several hundred feet long, had been gouged into the land.” Noting the “unusual properties of the debris” and “after dragging a large piece of it to a shed,” Brazel decided to tell the Proctors. They urged him to contact Wilcox, believing the debris was either extraterrestrial or top secret. After a day or two, Brazel did and Wilcox informed Marcel, who commandeered the site. Removing the wreckage took several days. On 8 July, at 11 a.m., the base’s public information officer, Lt. Walter G. Haut, issued the historic press release with Blanchard’s approval. Hours later another statement rescinded the UFO claim.

The IUFOMRC also summarizes an account from Don Schmitt and Kevin Randle’s A History of UFO Crashes. This time the UFO crashed on 4 July and was witnessed from afar by William Woody and his father. By the 5th, military had cordoned off the area. Next day, Wilcox contacted Marcel, who drove to Brazel’s ranch with intelligence officer Captain Sheridan Cavitt. Arriving that evening, they stayed at the ranch house and examined a “large piece of debris that Brazel had dragged from the pasture.” The next morning, they surveyed the debris, which covered three-quarters of a mile and included pieces of indestructible metal and short I-beams marked with symbols. Impressed, Marcel took some debris and, before delivering it to the base, showed it to his wife and son. Later, Haut issued the press release; Blanchard sent Marcel to show the debris to Ramey. Ramey had Marcel leave the material in Ramey’s office while they went to the map room. Returning they found the debris gone, replaced by a wrecked weather balloon. Ramey had Marcel photographed while handling that debris.

Disregarding contradictions within and across stories, Saler et al.’s point should be clear: people proliferate Roswell stories, shifting emphases and adding details along the way. All storytellers have reasons for their particular selections from the dozens of Roswell stories circulating. After telling the Marcel/Roswell story, “Seeing” debunks it, revealing the truth about the military cover-up: Ramey wasn’t covering up a UFO crash but the crash of a 650 foot long assemblage of plastic pipe and weather balloons launched by the top secret Project Mogul to monitor Soviet bomb tests. Ironically, Marcel outed the wrong cover-up, setting the stage for Roswell-mania with folks producing increasingly sensationalized accounts which In Search of …, Unsolved Mysteries, Larry King Live, Alien Autopsy, and The X-Files exploited.

Jennings states: “Jesse Marcel’s unproven story was now primetime mythology.” Referring to hard-core Roswell believers, he closes the section on Roswell: “They cling to a myth, a myth that here outside Roswell in 1947, the question of are we alone was finally answered. It was not.” Ironically, Marcel’s misunderstanding became enshrined as mythology; sadly, he never learned the truth about the real cover-up.

Thus “Seeing” lays to rest the Marcel/Roswell version. But the sad irony surrounding Marcel depends on his credibility, which has been questioned by the same Karl Pflock who helped “Seeing” construct its Marcel/Roswell story. In “Roswell in Perspective” and in “Karl Pflock’s Real Roswell Views”, Pflock claims that the elderly Marcel lied about his educational record, civilian accomplishments, and military record. Since the Marcel/Roswell story depends on Marcel’s veracity, Pflock’s charges deserve some screen time. But that would have destroyed the poignancy of the Marcel/Roswell story as told by “Seeing.” By oversimplifying the story and going for pathos, “Seeing” essentially fictionalizes Marcel. By papering over the controversy, it similarly fictionalizes the UFO community. This treatment of Roswell targets our ability to feel, not our right to know. To know, we need the facts in all of their complexity as people discover and develop them through time via research, argumentation, and narrativization. In the end, the facts do matter to the public’s right to know even when that right addresses fluff.

Next time: abductees.

Image Credits:
1. Roswell autopsy

A critical evaluation of abduction experiences

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