“Captive TV:” A New Reality Format

by: John Corner / University of Liverpool

The deep involvement of television in the conduct of war and conflict, not just as an agency of relay but as a constituent factor in the construction of political and military “reality,” is well documented in the literature of international research. However, a new marker of its defining impact would appear to have been reached with the coverage given last month to the Royal Navy’s 15 “hostages” detained in Iran for some 13 days after their seizure in the Persian Gulf while on patrol, allegedly for straying into Iranian waters. This coverage, initially for Iranian television but broadcast selectively across the world, got eerily close to a Big Brother-style reality show in aspects of its portrayal, although how far this was by conscious design remains unclear. The implications of the styling, and of the performances that were required for its “successful” projection, continue to be a major factor in the debate about the whole incident and its aftermath.

Of course images of captives, and of hostages, have a history, one which goes back to forms of triumphal exhibition well before the availability of the symbolic currency of photography, film and television, which so crucially extends the terms and modes of display. More recently, these terms have increasingly shifted towards strategic use – the photo or video sequence as a counter in a game of pressure and sometimes negotiation often played-off in relation to a watching “public” placed by the media in the role of bystander, as well in relation to specific political and military authorities.

What was so different about this affair, this use of “display,” however, was the way in which the whole “theatre of captivity” constructed by Iranian television drew so strongly (and to a degree, persuasively) on benign framings, on the idea of the prisoners as “guests.” The open indication of subjugated status (blindfolds, signs of physical violence, ragged appearance or prison clothing) which has accompanied previous imagery was exchanged for a bizarre range of more affirmatory signs. These included performances not only of “admission” (carried out briskly in confident lecture style, accompanied by maps and pointers), but also of sociability (eating together, smiling and joking, playing chess and table tennis, watching television and reading).

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

British navy personnel on Iranian TV

Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the theatricalization extended to a final performance of gratitude at release, including handshakes with the Iranian president, much open celebration among the group, interview comments into reporters’ microphones, acceptance and opening of presents and a seemingly cheerful group waving of farewell (dressed not in uniform but in civilian suits).

Not surprisingly, this all presented the British media with some challenges as to how precisely to handle the story in relation to expectation and dominant values. These challenges to tone and to reported detail affected both coverage at the geopolitical level and its routine pitching at the level of the individuals and their families. Uncertainties were latent in nearly all the reporting and explicit in some of it. Even before the captives’ release, media accounts criticising their behaviour and comparing it unfavourably with more conventional notions of prisoner-of-war “refusal” to cooperate were widespread, some issuing from journalists and some from former military personnel and not all from Britain. With the further “performance” of their release in Iran, accompanied by scenes that could, indeed, have come straight from a reality series, the talk of “humiliation” and of “embarrassment” increased.

This caused noticeable tensions in the reporting of their return, where a strong early move to emphasise the need for privacy and to respect personal feelings outside of the limited accounts offered at the press conference was quickly thrown into crisis (indeed contradicted) by the news that those involved would be allowed to sell their stories to the media, in some cases for six figure sums. Such an open commodification of the captivity experience, an experience whose public representation had already been the subject of massive, strategic styling by the Iranians, opened up further lines of public opposition and dispute. However, the continuity of media logic was clear. Having been made against their will into kinds of reality show performer, the sailors and marines were being transformed into what in many ways is a now familiar kind of transient celebrity – their temporary but intensive tele-presence as “news” generating further audience “attraction,” the economic justification for a little longer in the mediasphere. Once again, established ideas of “proper behaviour” were initially no match for the volatile dynamics of mediation and the belief, by at least some senior navy officers and their political managers, that to risk playing directly into the media appetite for the story was worth it in order quickly to counter the Iranian-generated version. This phase lasted only two days, after which the earlier decision about allowing stories to be sold was reversed by the Government as a result of a huge political backlash, partly fuelled by the continuingly unflattering portrayal of events coming through from even the captives’ own accounts.

The tensions at work in media and public engagement with the incident were both political and cultural. In both cases what had been seen on television was an absolutely central reference point, even if different interpretations of its status were also part of what was being contested. That levels of duress had been applied to obtain the “performances” was hardly ever in question (although pointed reference to the established record of treatment at Guantánamo was made a comparative marker by some). However, the issue of precisely what degree of co-operation was justified in the circumstances remained in play, however mutedly or with whatever qualification.

British sailors waving goodbye

British sailors waving goodbye

How can we summarise television’s involvement in this incident, the political implications of which are still reverberating? Clearly, the main emphasis must be placed on the way in which the Iranian version of events offered a developing narrative of apparent well-being and co-operation rather than the isolated or at least sharply episodic moments of hardship, suffering and the possibility of imminent death which most previous exercises in captive or hostage images have entailed. This version was certainly not believed “straight” by most of the British audience who watched the sequences, and it is certainly possible that it was not believed (and nor, therefore, was the authenticity of the “confessions”) by many in the Iranian audience either. However, as a performance whose precise conditions of fabrication were unknown, it achieved a sufficient legitimacy of reference beyond that of the complete and obvious “fake.” It was this interweaving of doubtfulness and plausibility which connected it, if only indirectly and by disturbing parody, with the performances of mainstream reality television and which, for many viewers, made the experience of watching it, right through to the handshakes, presents and farewells, so much a matter of conflicting and perhaps alternating frameworks of interpretation and assessment.

Such a strong core of visual portrayal, watched by millions (and often used in loop format by the channels to extend its durational impact) was always going to be central to any subsequent expansion of the range of accounts. This included those short statements issuing from the press conference and follow-up interviews back in the UK (the BBC rolling news channel actually ran the Iranian-sourced “captive” footage on a split screen alongside images of the same person talking live at the British press conference).

Finally, we can note how this whole project of strategic mediatization only worked effectively within the terms of global television, its technology of trans-national relay and its dedicated news channels being quite central to the impact (varied though this is likely to have been) on distant publics.

At the UK press conference on the day following their release one of the marines remarked that the whole thing had been a “media circus.” He would not have known then quite how apt this metaphor would continue to be as the focus of managing, and attemptedly re-working, the depiction of “what had happened” shifted from Iran to Britain.

Image Credits:
1. British navy personnel on Iranian TV
2. British sailors waving goodbye

Please feel free to comment.




Watching TV Poker

Watching TV Poker

a TV poker table

You may win, you may lose, but there’s always something you can learn.

— Former World Series of Poker Champion Greg Raymer, promoting pokerstars.net

The current moment seems an appropriate one for the much-hyped mainstreaming of poker as popular pastime, endorsed by the electronic embrace of TV and the Internet. Gambling and the risk society make a natural pair. Our president wants us to bet our social security pensions on the stock market while legal gambling has become a redevelopment tool of choice, state lotteries rake in regressive taxes, and casino gambling lies at the heart of the latest political lobbying scandal.

The trade-off of the zero-sum wager: vicarious pleasure in the prospect of a large payoff for the few in exchange for the willing sacrifices of the many fits neatly with the current administration’s fiscal policy, its western swagger, and its bluff-and-guts political tactics.

While the pundits continue to ponder the question of whether poker counts as a legitimate sport or not, there is a reasonable case to be made for situating it within the recent reality TV trend. It features the unscripted interactions of real people – some of whom were only recently recruited from the viewer ranks – along with the unfolding of (admittedly truncated) interpersonal dramas, and the promise that a lucky random fan might capture a piece of the multi-million dollar prize pool.

By way of contrast, football and baseball fans don’t, for the most part, watch the games for tips that might help them join the NFL. Poker shows, on the other hand, lay claim to the zeitgeist of interactivity by highlighting the participatory character of the revamped poker tours and offering how-to instructions sandwiched between advertisements for Internet sites where viewers can practice what they’ve learned.

As the publisher of one poker magazine put it, “One of the reasons why poker has become so popular is that anyone can be a poker player, anyone might be the next millionaire…I’m never going to play right field for the San Francisco Giants, but I might be one tournament away” (King, 2005).

A recent episode of the World Poker Tour cited the New York Times claim that some 50 million people in the US play poker regularly, and the televised tournaments are reportedly the third most watched “sport” on cable TV after car racing and football.

“Lipstick” Cam Monitors

“Lipstick” Cam Monitors

The recent success of TV poker shows has been attributed to two developments: the “lipstick” spy-cams that provide behind-the-scenes access to players’ cards, and the proliferation of satellite games both online and off that offer amateurs and unknowns an inexpensive, long-shot bid for a tournament seat.

A recent episode of the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, for example, featured a segment about poker fans who parlayed their satellite buy-ins into lottery-sized cash prizes, prompting host Shana Hiatt to observe that, “Playing poker can be a dream come true for anyone.”

One of the staple narratives of the World Poker Tour is the back story of the amateur made good or the rags-to-riches pro. In this respect the show combines the appeal of big-prize game-docs like Survivor with the bootstrap narratives featured on celebrity reality shows like MTV’s Cribs.

Between edited segments of play, the World Poker Tour includes interview highlights with both amateurs and pro-players like Scotty Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant from an impoverished family who, as co-host Vince Van Patten put it, “went to help his family in the only way he knew how: he played poker in the street,” before coming to the United States and working his way up from busboy to poker pro with more than $2 million in winnings.

Poker shows hype the instant version of the American Dream even as its more prosaic version confronts the reality of increasing economic inequality and politicians hacking away at the social safety net. In this respect, the popularity of the spectacle of instant wealth continues the trend that saw the state lotteries work their way back into legality in the late 1960s and early 70s alongside the erosion of the post-war settlement and its attendant run of prosperity.

The current poker boom is also unmistakably a creature of its cultural moment – that of a generalized, reflexive savviness and a passion for debunkery that reduces every discursive claim to a ruse of power. The poker shows cater to the skepticism of those who seek to master the art of visceral literacy – ostensibly bypassing the manipulations of discourse to read the signs of the body. An instinctive “read” takes precedence over deliberation when everyone is assumed to be lying – and when the truth operates as one more ruse. The oft-repeated mantra that in poker “you play the people, not the cards” frames the commentators’ extemporaneous tutorials in mutual monitoring, detection and people-reading.

TV final table

TV final table

As in the case of many reality formats, the poker shows promise to entertain the viewer while educating them. Home viewers are schooled in the art of “the tell.” Slamming your chips into the pot aggressively, for example, is a tell. Leaning back is a tell, as is leaning forward; a show of strength means weakness, and vice versa. As Celebrity Poker Showdown host Phil Gordon, put it, “looking directly at your opponent is a sign of weakness. You’re trying to look at your opponent to look strong; but if I have a good hand, why would I want to intimidate my opponent?”

The goal is to learn the significance of signals that are supposedly harder to control than words – to believe only your own eyes, never the other players’ words.

“This is a lesson for the players at home,” is the repeated refrain of the show’s hosts, who understand that the TV episodes double as advertising for a booming ancillary market in learn-to-play products, and for the tournaments whose jackpots increase in proportion to the number of participants they draw from the audience ranks.

The promise of participation in this context serves the opposite function of that associated with risk sharing. Rather than cushioning the effects of misfortune, it pools loss to generate a large payoff for those who finish “in the money.” Its alibi for regressive wealth redistribution is the democratic character of chance: the fact that no amount of skill or training can dictate the fall of the cards – and even the longest shot sometimes defies the most carefully calculated odds.

Despite this irreducible uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), the message is not the irrelevance of training and preparedness, but rather the need for their cultivation.

The credo of the well-tempered poker player, invoked by World Poker Tour co-host Mike Sexton is “In poker, as in life, you make your own breaks.”

The absence of any guarantee serves as incitement to ongoing training – and helps to displace an undermined faith in communication and risk sharing onto the blind justice of chance.

References:
King, Peter (2005) “Everyone’s a Player in Poker’s New Deal. The Los Angeles Times, July 17.

Image Credits:
1. TV Poker Table
2. “Lipstick” Cam Monitors
3. TV Final Table




Truth and Beauty

Medical Visuals

Medical Visuals

Over the past decade I have become a most reluctant television star. The camera, as they say, is drawn to me. I only wish I could say that I’ve enjoyed the attention. If you’ve seen my work, you may be surprised to know that I’m actually extremely shy, and still uncomfortable in front of a camera. In fact, judging by the latest round of auditions for American Idol, I’ve come to think that I may be the last surviving American who can imagine living a full life without once appearing on television. And yet it seems to be my destiny to be hounded by people who will go to any lengths — sparing no expense — to see me appear on their TV screens.

Perhaps you’ve seen my work. I don’t like to boast, but I’ve appeared on TV screens from coast to coast, and I’ve been responsible for some truly memorable on-screen moments. It all began with the MRI scan of my lower abdomen in the mid-’90s — an immature work, I’ll admit, but it was early in my career. In fact, I hadn’t really pursued a career at all; like Lana Turner, I was plucked from obscurity by an eagle-eyed talent scout who spotted me slumped on a plastic chair in a San Francisco emergency room. How was I to guess that one day I would be recognized as the most accomplished medical imaging performer of my generation?

I gained confidence slowly — a CT scan of my skull, a couple chest X-rays, a few more casual MRIs. Sure, I was flattered when doctors and technicians praised these early efforts — who wouldn’t be? But I was something of a dilettante, a dabbler in the world of medical imaging. I didn’t really begin to sense my gift until my first encounter with nuclear medical imaging, when I was asked to swallow a “contrast media.” I enjoyed the vaguely Videodrome-esque possibilities in being allowed to eat the media, but quickly learned that barium and radioactive isotopes are not my medium. Still, it wasn’t long until the cameras were inside my body, instead of hovering around me, and I had discovered my calling. In the past ten years my internal organs have logged more screen time than Dr. Phil.

I don’t know what the object of television studies is these days, but my experience with the profession of medical imaging has brought me into contact with an entire world of digital video technology and imagery that is barely mentioned in the literature of television and media studies. Of course, this apparently invisible screen culture hides in plain sight, where it is taken for granted by millions upon millions of people who encounter it every day. Perhaps it’s time to focus a bit more of our attention on the technology, industry, and visualization strategies of medical imaging.

The NBC television network is the most visible face of General Electric, and, like all television networks, its principal task is to create wealth for the company by making and circulating images to a public with an apparently insatiable appetite for images. But NBC is not the only business in the GE corporate empire that trades in images, nor is it even the most valuable. The GE Healthcare division generates twice the annual revenue of NBC, largely by facilitating the production of images that circulate only within the halls and computer networks of the health care industry, where GE is the industry leader in diagnostic medical imaging.

Inside the body, on your TV

Inside the body, on your TV

Medical imaging doesn’t hold the glamour of network TV, but its images are vastly more profitable. Since many of these technologies employ proprietary high-tech hardware and software under exclusive patent to GE, the images carry a hefty price tag even though they have no value in an economy of images recognized by the general public. Instead, images made by scanning and fluoroscopic technologies have a singular, functional value for medical practitioners. When interpreted by a trained specialist, they serve as evidence in an investigation; their value increases along with their proven accuracy. The expense of creating and interpreting these images, while contributing to the skyrocketing cost of health care, makes this a lucrative business for GE, which hopes to maintain its dominance in an industry that appears to be poised for limitless growth, particularly considering the future health care needs of aging, relatively affluent populations.

A recent television commercial in GE’s “imagination at work” campaign portrays GE medical imaging technology not only as one of the company’s many innovative products, but also as an essential contribution to the history of western civilization. The commercial takes just thirty seconds to present a sweeping history of human techniques for making images. The rapidly-edited sequence mixes images of instantly recognizable icons with the technologies used to record them: paintings from a prehistoric cave and an ancient Egyptian tomb, a Renaissance portrait, an image produced by a camera obscura, galloping horses frozen in stride by Edweard Muybridge, an early motion picture camera and the Edison company’s famous filmed “Kiss,” an x-ray of a human hand, a shot of the Earth as seen from the Moon’s surface, ultra-slow-motion footage of a hummingbird in flight, time-lapse footage of a flower in bloom, and a distant galaxy revealed by the Hubble space telescope.

As the images cascade, a narrator makes the case for GE: “To the list of the most extraordinary images ever captured, GE humbly submits … the beating human heart.” The screen fills with a startling, lovely image: a living human heart isolated against a black background, rendered in real-time as a three-dimensional image. Unlike an x-ray or a conventional MRI, this scanned image doesn’t require a leap of imagination or a consultation with a specialist to be legible to the untrained eye; it has the precision and clarity of a motion picture, but also an undeniable beauty – a hint of poetic hyperrealism in the emotionally and symbolically resonant image of a beating heart.

Science fiction has promised a chance to peer inside the human body without the need to penetrate flesh, and in this advertisement GE fulfils the promise. In the commercial for GE imaging technology, the physical characteristics of the body — the flesh and bone that are seen as obstacles to diagnosis and treatment — disappear before the penetrating gaze of GE technology. By transforming the body into an image, technology facilitates treatment. What’s striking about the GE commercial, however, is not the instrumental argument in favor of imaging technologies, but that fact that GE makes an essentially aesthetic claim for its new technology: GE has transformed a real human heart into a beautiful image. The question is: why? Why promote diagnostic medical technology by insisting that beauty is truth?

Image Credits:

1. Medical Visuals

2. Inside the body, on your TV

Please feel free to comment.




Public Radio Redux

NPR DJs

NPR DJs

Someone once described the period between completion of an academic book and its publication as “the calm before the calm.” In late 1999, my first book was published with the less-than-felicitous title of Conflicting Communication Interests in America: The Case of National Public Radio. The book was an institutional analysis of National Public Radio, focusing specifically on how NPR had configured the “public” throughout its history. Writing the book was like cutting stone; after publication, it promptly sank like a rock from sight. I posted a notice to the public radio listserv with a link to the first chapter, and the only comment came from the fundraising director of a public radio station in New Hampshire: “Jeez, I couldn’t get past the tortured fire metaphor on the first page.” One of the three published reviews referred to it as a “rant.” Subsequent books about NPR ignored it altogether. So much for fortune and fame.

So I left the study of public radio for other endeavors. However, recent rumblings in the popular press regarding flat station revenues and audience growth, political machinations and listener discontent (as well as deadline pressures) have led me to re-examine my predictions for National Public Radio and its affiliated stations. On the whole, my predictions were fairly accurate. NPR’s occasionally tenuous finances were stabilized when it received a $236 million windfall from the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in 2003, as well as a recent $7.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation. Yet NPR has been extremely hesitant to share its good fortune with stations. Instead, the network has been pouring more and more money into its news operations, and news continues to trump cultural programming at the local level. Classical music, the traditional mainstay of local station schedules, continues to slide in importance. Washington’s WETA went all-news in 2005 and Detroit’s WDET followed in 2006 (the latter move triggered a class-action suit from listeners against the station).

Predictions for regional consolidation have been borne out. Iowa public radio now operates as an umbrella, rather than as separate stations; other regional powerhouses, such as San Francisco’s KQED and Austin’s KUT, have engaged in aggressive land grabs by acquiring additional stations. Minnesota Public Radio, which introduced winner-take-all economics into public radio, split off from the distributor it co-founded, NPR’s arch-rival Public Radio International (PRI), and, true to form, began jacking up rates for its programming. Overall, the rich got richer, and the poor simply vanished. NPR currently operates two channels on Sirius satellite radio, but the “tent poles” of Morning Edition and All Things Considered remain firmly staked to terrestrial broadcasting. Stations, which purchase programming from NPR and other suppliers, would never allow their two chief moneymakers to bypass them. Local programming is largely an afterthought at the station level (and NPR, to its eternal shame, worked in conjunction with the NAB to hobble the low-power FM movement). NPR also offers streams of canned programming to stations for rebroadcast on their web sites, but the results, as far as I can tell, have been underwhelming in terms of both carriage and listenership.

NPR Ipod

NPR Ipod

The wild card, which virtually no one could have predicted seven years ago, was the advent and popularity of podcasting. The audience research gurus who essentially set NPR and station policies throughout the ’80s and ’90s based their embrace of commercial programming strategies on the belief that listeners approach radio passively, listening to stations rather than discrete programs. However, a director at Boston’s WGBH found that Morning Edition was downloaded approximately 14,000 times a week in December, 2005 despite no promotion whatsoever. In contrast, the program’s RealAudio stream drew less than 50 listeners a week. Yet podcasting is no panacea, either. A micropayment system, implemented for station non-members, may discourage use, and producers may provide their programs through other venues. The economics also are problematic, since stations must add server capacity as they draw new listeners. The existence of a “digital divide” ensures that substantial portions of the population will lack access to broadband technology in the foreseeable future (although NPR historically has had little use for the folks on the other side of the tracks). Most importantly, the local stations that form the core of the public radio system do little more than vend the programs – they don’t create them.

Blaming NPR for the malaise that afflicts public radio is akin to blaming the victim, since it is a membership organization that must follow the directives of its affiliates. And that is where the principal problem lies – at the station level. I’m still convinced that locally produced radio programming remains the key way to reach the “public” NPR was chartered to serve. In 1999, discussing the adaption of “seamless” formats and syndicated program advocated by consultants, I wrote, “Given the development of diverse delivery systems . . . local stations will not be able to survive if they continue their present practices.” In fiscal year 2003, nearly half of all public radio stations in the U.S. operated in the red. A year later, the New York Times noted that “To remain viable, many managers say that their local stations must gain more leverage vis a vis NPR by producing and promoting more of the kind of distinctive, localized programs and segments that help shape public radio’s eclectic character.” Radio is uniquely suited to fill the role of a public medium. Its low cost and mobility afford a sense of immediacy and flexibility that make it ideal for reflecting a community’s history and constructing a community’s possibilities. At the risk of invoking another tortured metaphor, public radio must go back to the future if it is to survive.

Mike Janssen, “Jacking Into Podcasts.” Current, January 31, 2005, p. 1
Lynette Clemetson, “All Things Considered, NPR’s Growing Clout Alarms Member Stations.” The New York Times, August 30, 2004, p. E1.

Image Credits:
1. NPR DJs

2. NPR Ipod

Please feel free to comment.




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

Newspapers

Newspapers

[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.


Notes

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

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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

Notes
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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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.

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

Sources

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

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

Please feel free to comment.




Reinventing Public Media

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

PBS Logo

PBS Logo

Previous columns on media reform have generated a good deal of comment, as well as some thoughtful and even playful criticisms of reform advocates as a ponderous crowd of self-interested mandarins who simply hate what everyone else loves — television. Quite correctly, John Hartley describes the medium as curious, mischievous, adventurous, licentious, and more. Its sheer unruliness is one of its great attractions, and John is right to contend that this unruly aspect more than any other is what makes TV a popular medium.

On the other hand, television is also serious business, offering up its audiences for exchange in the marketplace. Whether those audiences can in fact be enumerated, graded, and delivered to advertisers is the subject of much debate, but nevertheless the organization of television as a meaning-making institution is very much influenced by this second aspect of television. As a result, we get to see some things, but not others, and what we do get to see is presented to us as if it sprouted from the earth barely tainted by commercial calculation. Most viewers understand the games being played, but their influence over the institution remains limited.

Which brings me to a third aspect of television: politics. Although I’m well aware that as good postmodern critics we must acknowledge the personal as political, it’s nevertheless important to recall another rather old-fashioned notion of politics as an arena of contest and deliberation over the disposition of social resources. So even though I agree with John that political pugilism on TV talks shows and news coverage of the US politics is largely comic opera, I nevertheless think it important to hold television responsible for this second notion of politics as much as the first.

Why, for example, has the debate over Social Security spiraled into a predictable cycle of tired sound bites and political one-upsmanship, when in fact this is an issue of epochal importance? Is it due to the cold calculation of political operatives or is it due to the fact even well-intentioned politicians and activists realize they can’t get a fair hearing for effective alternatives, since it would require discussing interlinked issues regarding Medicaid, private medicine, and our regressive tax structure? The current media system would simply melt down in the face of such complexity, and consequently we’re likely to muddle along with comic opera when in fact the fate of the social welfare system is at stake.

So even though one might agree that television is an unruly and popular medium, it is also a medium of exclusions. It excludes deliberation on important social issues and it marginalizes activists whose ideas are hard to capture in six-second sound bites. It furthermore excludes programs for audiences that fall outside of its key demographics, preferring to speak to viewers with significant purchasing power. The exclusions built into US broadcasting operate in the realm of entertainment as well as information, as network executives slavishly follow programming trends in pursuit of relatively similar audiences, so that police procedurals and reality programs now saturate the airwaves, making a program like Desperate Housewives seem like a daring departure from the norm, at least for the moment. Cable programming is likewise redundant with only occasional exceptions. This is not to say that all or even most commercial broadcasting is bad, but it is undeniable that American television demands very specific styles of creativity, so that it is all too common to hear people like Dave Chapelle, Ben Karlin, or Steven Bochco fantasizing about other media venues where they might ply their trade. Thus, it’s not simply audiences that deserve alternatives; it’s the creative community as well.

As one considers television reform, it therefore makes sense to think across genres and to imagine multiple channels that might serve diverse audiences and artists. One of PBS’ great shortcomings has been its status as a lightning rod for criticism because it is assumed that any single program it telecasts is common property, an expression and/or representation of the people. As we consider prospects for reform, why not advocate four or five public TV channels and a similar number of radio channels, so that we might shed the illusion of a people in favor of a country with many voices?

Although such an agenda seems ambitious, Allison Perlman suggests that reformers go even further, pressing for reform of commercial television, and Anna McCarthy urges us to consider the appalling condition of print journalism as well. While I sympathize with both positions, I worry that debates regarding the former would become entangled with capitalist ownership issues and that the latter would invariably get bogged down in free speech issues. Public broadcasting seems a practical place to begin, in large part because it is an undeniably underdeveloped resource with tremendous potential. Moreover, it’s a propitious moment for genuine reform, since over the next decade, the transition to digital television will yield a windfall of tens of billions of dollars as the federal government auctions off spectrum space that used to belong to analogue broadcast stations. Many dreams are being hatched about how the money might be used, yet it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that this windfall should be applied to improvements of the very medium from which it derives. Combine this with a modest tax on broadcasters and one could establish an array of public channels with substantial and ongoing funding that would be relatively insulated from political pressure groups. Public media reform therefore seems a practical objective, and given widespread discontent with commercial television, it might have political legs, but it will only have legs if it is a truly popular alternative, as Laurie Ouellette and Justin Lewis have insightfully argued.[1] That will require breaking beyond the cultural and class biases of the current public system and transcending the exclusions of the commercial broadcasting, so that we might begin to invent new approaches to diverse genres and audiences.

Note
Laurie Ouellette and Justin Lewis. “Moving Beyond the ‘Vast Wasteland’: Cultural Policy and Television in the United States.” Television and New Media 1.1 (2000): 95-115.

Image Credits:
1. PBS Logo

Links
Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Free Press… media is the issue
“Turning Back the Tidycans,” a previous Flow article from Volume I, Issue 9.

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Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links
Douglas Kellner’s Home Page
Republican National Committee
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Fox News

Please feel free to comment.




Can the Social History of Audiences Contribute to Media Reform?

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Zephyr Teachout, formerly a staffer for Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign, recently published an open memo to the Democratic Party about using the internet to help rejuvenate the Party at the grassroots. Teachout is intervening in a revival of an old argument: we are once again hearing that technology will save us. In recent years, the Dean campaign used the internet to overturn all the rules for political fundraising, internet bloggers have repeatedly made fools out of professional journalists, and internet downloads have been keeping media moguls awake at night. And so, some suggest, the two-way internet will triumph over one-way TV after all, the new media technology will turn us into a nation of active citizens instead of passive couch potatoes. The argument on the table is this: don’t just try to break up media monopolies or pass fairness doctrine regulations, or otherwise try to change the behavior of the mainstream media institutions in the hopes of forcing them to better serve democracy. No, go straight to the newest technologies and find your democracy there. The internet is the solution.

Many FlowTV readers will be aware of how familiar and generally disappointing the tradition of the technical fix has been: the telegraph was going to unite the peoples of the world, the airplane was going to end war (who would attack a country you could easily fly to?), cable television was going to end alienation and rejuvenate democracy (as was the CB radio), and of course we’ve already watched utopian hopes for the internet soar and crash once before, with the stock bubble.

Teachout’s version of the technical fix, however, is both more nuanced and has a twist: her argument is that the internet should be used to organize local, face-to-face Democratic groups, to create local organizations. Use the internet, not to disintermediate, but to reconnect, not to circumvent the local, but to facilitate local meetings of the like-minded, to find those in your community with whom you share a common interest.

This is the meetup.com model, which perhaps represents the one true internet innovation of the last several years. Blogs are just a variation on the personal web page, and political discussion lists are as old as email. The “Dean For America” meetups that occurred across the US were something new, however, and to the surprise of both the Dean staff and the rest of the world, they became a crucial part of the campaign. They provided strategic value, like fund-raising, and quick coordination of local with national efforts, but just as importantly they provided people with a uniquely intense, emotional connection to the campaign. There are now tens of thousands of Americans who will remember their experience of the Dean meetups of 2004 for the rest of their lives.

Teachout references Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, but thankfully also Theda Skocpol’s less nostalgic work on the historical twists and turns of the relations of local community formation to political movements. Local groups, Teachout argues, amplify individuals’ sense of power; non-staffed local community building, she points out, has been central to the successes of the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association.

So what’s this have to do with the internet? “The internet,” she writes, “lowers the barrier to finding places to host public events, and telling people about them. If political . . . organizations with incentive and opportunity exploit this lowered barrier, the Internet could power a resurgence of a new version of the great American voluntary association.”

Perhaps. One wonders how much the internet can be the locus of much passion outside what Teachout acknowledges are “the prominent political blogs and sites that attract a primarily upper class white audience,” i.e., groups of people who already spend much of their day at the computer keyboard.

Part of what’s wrong with many instances of the technical fix is its naive view of media audiences: Americans, it is assumed, eagerly await clear access to information, and when new technologies give it to them, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will suddenly behave rationally, at the ballot box and elsewhere. The stereotype of the citizen yearning for enlightenment through information is American liberalism’s equivalent of the heroic worker of socialist realist orthodoxy.

This is where students of media and cultural studies have something to contribute: Fiskean simplicities about active audiences aside, a number of sophisticated ethnographic and, particularly, historical studies of audiences-as-communities have appeared in recent years. Focused on the complex relations of TV to communities and social conflicts, all point to a richer way of thinking about the relation of media to publics, polities, and social groupings. To mention just a few: Lynn Spigel, in her study of the introduction of the television set into suburban homes in the 1950s, argued that trends like the suburb or television should be seen not as the decline of community, but contexts for the formation of new types of communities; these new modes of life have their own distinct pressures and structures, but they are communities nonetheless. Kathleen Newman’s history of the intersections of radio with consumer actions like organized boycotts in the 1940s adds to the picture of the ways that media and new social movements can interact. And Steve Classen’s rich study of the relations of TV to Southern civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s provides a vivid example of how legal and political struggles over the control of TV can become a galvanizing part of local organizing.

This work demonstrates neither naive optimism about audiences nor the sugar-coated cynicism of much marketing research. The TV set in the living room, the neighborhood Church, the hunting club, and yes, the internet-connected personal computer all can become, for various people at various times, not just a backdrop for and tools within the rhythms of our everyday lives, but tools that on occasion help crystallize groups into passionate political action. But the occasion for politically positive action is always complicated, involving a rich stew of struggles, cultural trends, and both self- and public-interests.

Michael Curtin, in his last column for Flow, argued that we need to emphasize “the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy.” A public commons, though, is perhaps neither just a place nor a technology; it is a social event, a collective passion, something that bubbles up out of the complexities of social life, not a location or structure that is somehow shielded from those complexities. In the heat of the moment, both romances and revolutions seem like their own driving force and explanation. But years later, when we look back on them, we can recognize all the multiple things that came together to create the conditions for the passion. Making sense of the role of media in understanding how communities do and do not become politically energized, I think, is something our field can offer those working to create a more democratic world.

References

James W. Carey with John Quirk: “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution,” and “The History of the Future,” in Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 113-141 and pp. 173-200.

Steven Douglas Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi Television, 1955-1969. Duke UP, 2004.

Kathleen M. Newman, Radio Active : Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947. U of California P, 2004.

Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Links
Tom Streeter on Media Left Out?
Michael Curtin on Murdoch
Frederick Wasser on the Fairness Doctrine
Toby Miller on Fox News
Howard Dean’s Democracy for America

Please feel free to comment.




Turning Back the Tidycans

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Most evenings my octogenarian, cigar-chomping, father-in-law likes to crank up the TV to full volume, pour a tall one, and settle into his easy chair where he methodically scans the news and talk channels, riding herd on the world from his perch in coastal Georgia. Sometimes he comments upon topics and pundits, while other times he immerses himself in Spanish-language newspapers from Miami or more recently in weighty tomes about Islamic history, culture, and politics. Yet whenever George Bush swaggers onscreen he casts a steely glance at the tube and unleashes a hailstorm of expletives at America’s worst nightmare — an evangelical, right-to-life President who at once seems oblivious to budgetary discipline and complicit with corrupt corporados. My father-in-law, Bob, is not a happy camper these days. Indeed, for the very first time in his life, he contemplated the loathsome prospect of voting for a Democratic Presidential candidate… but then John Kerry was nominated and that was the last we heard of that.

Like other conservatives, Bob is unhappy with American media, politics, and the Republican Party, and he is not alone. Speaking for the liberal wing of the Republican Party, Christine Todd Whitman, in It’s My Party Too, laments the hijacking of the GOP by a small circle of interests who frame politics with a narrow “either/or” logic. This is perhaps what Jon Stewart so clumsily tried to challenge on Crossfire with his seemingly innocent appeal for an end to the pugilistic political talk shows. “You’re huuurting us,” Stewart intoned repeatedly. You’re squandering an opportunity, he implied. But an opportunity for what?

Tom Streeter in an earlier issue of Flow, pushed the question further, asking what specifically might improve television and politics in the US? Truth-based reporting? Stricter regulation of media conglomerates? A structural reform of the media industry? While each of these has merit, Streeter suggested that media reformers must be more explicit in their critique of ideology — that is, little “i” ideology, as in a cultural studies approach to the interrogation of the structures of feeling and knowing at work in American politics.

To that I would add another layer, since as Streeter points out, corporate media tends to obscure the workings of ideology so successfully. I would suggest that strategically, media reform should be organized around a central aspiration that seems to transcend ideological difference, an aspiration that has long festered among viewers across the political spectrum, but which now seems ever so urgent. Put simply, we aspire to be treated like adults — by the media and by our politicians.

Instead, our experience for more than fifty years has been that the paedocratic regime of television, as John Hartley refers to it, tends to treat audiences like children by withholding the explicit and the sexual along with the explicitly political and intellectual. In other words, US television institutions prefer to present the world to audiences in tidy “either/or” packages because they assume it’s all we can handle. This presumption was furthermore exploited by the Reagan administration and has been even more zealously embraced by the current administration. Yet with the Reaganauts tidiness was a political tactic, whereas the Bushies have turned it into an ideological screening device that both shapes the nature of political discourse and swaddles the public in a false sense of solipsistic security. The tidycans organize the political universe like bad television programs organize the moral universe — if it doesn’t fit, it’s simply not there. (And why bother to look for it?)

In contrast, Streeter yearns for a more honest engagement with political and cultural difference on screen. “I prefer, say, the conservative columnist George Will’s avuncular musings to NPR’s Cokie Roberts’ inside-the-beltway gossip dressed up as news. I’d rather read The Economist making the case that globalization brings people better lives than any other mode of development — at least that’s an argument — than watch thirty seconds of coverage on CNN that presents anti-globalization protestors as colorfully clueless, as if there was no argument to make. I recently stumbled on an episode of “Faith Under Fire,” a program on the conservative Christian entertainment network PAX TV, that featured a conservative Israeli Jew arguing with an articulate representative of the Nation of Islam on the question of whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion; give me that debate over a typical PBS Newshour‘s talking suits any day. Clear disagreement is preferable to obfuscation.”

One could hardly disagree, but even more, I think we — right, left, and center — yearn for media that seem genuinely engaged with ideas and curious about the world. In part, that may mean, as Toby Miller suggests, journalists and news organizations need to slap their ideologies on the table and get on with the business of actual reporting, rather than endless commentating. But it furthermore seems important to make the case for curiosity, complexity, serendipity, and generosity. It seems important to valorize the hard-won wisdom of maturity, a wisdom that is accepting of one’s limitations and therefore more willing to listen and explore. In essence we need media that don’t deliver ideas and events in tidy packages, media that instead blur boundaries and paint issues in shades of gray rather than black and white. Such a turn would require the expansion and reinvention of public media, creating new services, formats, and protocols that proceed from the assumption that audiences and citizens deserve to be treated as adults. It might furthermore exempt these non-commercial media from copyright and censorship restrictions, establishing intellectual free zones, where quotation, critique, and satire might flourish.

Such a suggestion is not based on a utopian ideal, but rather on the cold calculation that reforming commercial media is a heroic, but ultimately ill-fated venture. Instead reformers should promote the potential of a public commons as a basic condition for modern democracy. For the only way to encourage genuine political dialog, avoid political gridlock, and turn back the tidycans is to find common ground for John and Bob and Chris and Tom. Where might that ground be? In public media shaped by the same spirit as critical and reflexive scholarship: “I begin here, but if I don’t end up somewhere else, then the journey wasn’t worth it.”

Links
Media Reform Information Center
Free Press
MediaChannel

Please feel free to comment.




The 2004 Presidential Election and the Dean Scream

by: Lisa Parks / UC Santa Barbara

What was missing in this campaign in my opinion was the lack of discussion of media industry reform, which is surprising given all the ammunition on the Democratic side to address such issues. Just to mention a few of the issues: the continual selling off of the electromagnetic spectrum under Michael Powell’s leadership at the FCC; the loosening or elimination of laws that restrict media ownership; the erosion of First Amendment rights; the refusal to take seriously the legal mandate to operate and regulate the airwaves in the public interest. The Center for Digital Democracy calls this FCC’s policy a “leave no media monopoly behind policy” or “the big give away,” and if there is not some intervention or media reform soon, those who rely on the Internet for news and information can anticipate surfing an increasingly corporatized cyberspace. In June and July, 2003, the FCC gave away so much spectrum that experts in the field predicted this would have to become a key campaign issue. But it didn’t.

This FCC is much more concerned about moral policing than ensuring citizens receive adequate information to be educated voters. This is manifest, for instance, in the way that Janet Jackson’s breast became more interesting to the FCC than television networks’ coverage of the presidential campaigns. The FCC fined CBS $550,000 for what Michael Powell called a Super Bowl “burlesque” show, but networks’ failure to adequately explain and differentiate the many candidates’ platforms or deliver thorough reporting about the war in Iraq goes on unnoticed. If we want to continue to call the U.S. a democratic society, we need to focus more on the issue of media reform and insist that our elected officials begin to treat the spectrum as public property. According to the Communication Acts of 1927 and 1934, the airwaves are to be operated and regulated in the public interest, however difficult to define “the public interest” may be. The airwaves are the equivalent of a natural resource like the ocean or a forest; some legal scholars have even suggested using public trust doctrine to return this property to its rightful owners – the people – instead of Time Warner, News Corp., or Disney.

While there is reason to be highly critical of television news, many intellectuals, liberals, and leftists never watch it. Most of their critiques are based on the assumption that the commercial ownership of broadcasting necessarily reproduces in its content the ideologies of corporate/political elites. While this may indeed be true, it is too simple a way to treat a medium whose history, uses, and viewers are so complex. Because of this, media literacy and education are more important than ever. But this involves a commitment – to take time to watch television news and to track and critique its contradictory paths of knowledge production.

We could think, for example, about Howard Dean’s scream after the results of the Iowa caucuses came in on January 19, 2004, because this moment tells us a lot about how the TV industry works. The scream became extremely lucrative for the commercial television news networks. So enthralled by its entertainment value, the broadcast and cable networks played the scream 633 times in the four days after his speech. They took it out of its context, isolated it as a brief clip, manipulated the volume, and used it to lampoon Dean and question his competency as a Presidential candidate, in effect sabotaging the campaign by referring to him as “angry,” “too temperamental,” “out of control,” “inappropriate,” “unpresidential,” and so on. TV news content is restricted to certain time slots. Segments will always be interpreted in relation to what precedes and follows them. And some things will always be emphasized over others. And Dean’s voice was cut down to a sound bite, played after other candidates who were speaking calmly, and accentuated because the microphone he used separated the scream from ambient noise making it sound much louder than it actually was heard. As a post on a website called Value Judgement observed: “when the media turns down the sound on the crowd, they are trying to do what they always do – turn down the volume of the American people.” Dean’s scream took on a life of its own online as websites sprouted up to correct what the TV news networks got wrong (with the exception of ABC’s Diane Sawyer who did her own detailed investigation into the issue.) It was sampled in hiphop songs, imitated on late night TV talk shows, and labeled the “I have a Scream” speech.

Perhaps more important, though, is the way this media event revealed something about the perverse political age in which we live. Why would we be so offended by Dean’s scream and not be offended by Bush’s use of an earpiece during the debates? Why would we be offended by the passion of a political candidate and not be offended by an administration that authorizes the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib or the massacre of Iraqis in Fallujah? 1200 have been killed during the past week alone. We can only imagine the screams that must reverberate there because they never make it to our TV screens. What is wrong with a presidential candidate exuberantly expressing himself before a crowd of cheering supporters? Our current president made an illegal declaration of war!! Give me Dean’s scream over Bush’s war cry any day!

But what this event also revealed unfortunately was a lack of vision and verve within the leadership of the Democratic Party, which treated it as an opportunity to edge Dean out of the race and scold him for being out of line. Some even withdrew their endorsements. The irony, of course, is that Dean may now be in contention for the position of chair of the DNC precisely because he was one the only candidates that had a platform based on substantive and meaningful differences from the Republican Party. Another irony is that Dean was one of the only candidates to take a position on media reform, boldly stating, “this government has given away our airwaves to the most powerful corporations, who are misleading the public. That is a dangerous thing for the promulgation of democracy, and that will be undone in a Dean administration.”

So the Dean scream is about much more than a wild howl. It’s a symptom of: the need to invigorate the Democratic Party with meaningful differences rather than centrist stances; the commitment to first amendment rights, which includes the right to express outrage over the current administration’s policies; the need for media industry reforms that treat the airwaves as a public resource instead of a corporate or military battlefield.

Links
Dean Scream Remixes
FCC
Dean For America
Democratic Party
Republican Party

Please feel free to comment.