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.

Dean Scream Remixes
Dean For America
Democratic Party
Republican Party

Please feel free to comment.

Interview with Sara Leeder, Segment Producer for CNBC’s “Topic [A] with Tina Brown”

by: Hollis Griffin / FLOW Staff

Tina Brown had a successful career in print journalism and might be remembered for an earnest attempt at publishing the magazine Talk. What qualities of strength do you think Ms. Brown brings with her to broadcast journalism?

Tina brings a great sensibility to the editorial direction of the show. She plays a huge role (more so than any other “talent” I’ve worked with) in booking the show, and crafting each segment. I’ve learned from Tina how important “the mix” of the show is each week, i.e., getting the celebrity spot, the hard news spot, an offbeat topic, etc. And we’ve been working on fine-tuning that mix every week.

Can you describe how editor responsibilities are distributed in a 24-hour news environment? What is a segment producer? Who is pitching stories, choosing stories, assigning stories?

For me, the hardest thing about working in a 24-hour news environment is keeping myself constantly attuned to what “the news” is, when “the news” is always changing. At Topic [A], we have a really small staff, which is always a great opportunity to take on more responsibility. As a segment producer, I: book guests (depending on the week), pitch story ideas (we have daily meetings), prepare Tina with a research book for every segment, pre-interview each guest over the phone, write suggested questions, work with Tina to select which questions we’ll use, and – finally – edit the interview after it’s taped.

What sorts of technology do you use, if any? Can you describe how digital editing and video databases have changed the producer’s job?

We use NewsEdit and Avid editing systems. I personally have only worked with digital editing in my career in TV, so I can’t compare what it was like before. We also have amazing technological capabilities in screening video right from our desktops, which saves hours of going through tape libraries, etc.

How does Tina Brown’s show play into CNBC’s perception of its target audience? How and why do you feel the show appeals to particular viewers?

CNBC is known for its business news, which dominates the daytime lineup. It’s an interesting time to be at the network since CNBC is still in the process of defining its primetime lineup, including Topic [A], Dennis Miller, The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch. Right now, I think our show primarily has a metropolitan appeal – although we do get e-mail from viewers around the country. I think that’s because of that mix we strive for each week, and a lot of it comes from the buzz in big cities like New York and L.A.

How do you choose your topics and guests? Do you tailor your topics around the availability of guests? Do you invite certain guests based on the topics? In either case, what are the primary motivating factors behind these decisions?

We select our topics and guests as a reaction to the news or a pop culture event – be it the elections in Iraq or the release date of a movie. We put a lot of thought into how we can tap into an unexplored angle or voice on a particular new story. That’s a constant struggle in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. We also work to get ahead of any particular story, so that our Sunday night show is looking forward to the next week, rather than the one that’s just passed. We’re also always looking to strike the right balance between news and entertainment to put a show that people feel like watching on a Sunday night (meaning, nothing too heavy nor too fluffy). Of course, with some of the bigger name guests, a lot is tailored around when they are available, but I imagine that’s how any show works. You’ll take Tony Blair or Madonna whatever week they can.

You have worked at two of the big cable news channels. What would you say is the difference between them?

The big difference between CNN and CNBC is that CNBC is a business news channel. Just in the last year or so, CNBC has started doing news and entertainment programming in prime time. Although we don’t have the same news resources here at CNBC, we are very lucky to be able to lean on NBC and MSNBC newsgathering sources, bureaus around the world, etc.

I notice that the host, the executive producer, and many of the staff members for Topic [A] are female. Do you think this affects the work environment at Topic [A]? Has gender had an impact on your journalism career? In your opinion, is journalism becoming less of a “man’s world”?

It’s interesting that you ask this, because at CNN I had a male boss and worked with a male anchor, and I myself wondered what the difference would be working with women. I do feel lucky to be working in an era where I rarely think about how my gender affects the job I do. More often, I find that my age (or the fact that I look younger than I am) affects how people receive me. It is important, though, to have a mix of men and women on any staff/in a newsroom to reflect the different sensibilities.

Is there a typical career path for news journalists? Is J-school a prereq or do producers look more for work experience when you’re breaking into the biz? (i.e. should I go to school or go find a job if I want a position like yours?)

Great question, and a highly debated one. People seem to split into two camps on this one. I think a lot of it depends on the economy/the job market at the time. Since I graduated from J-school (May ’01), the market has been so tight, that I don’t think having the degree has necessarily helped. Meaning, I’ve paid my dues the same as if I had not gone to J-school. Although it’s certainly an enriching education, I think right now experience is valued more than a degree. But, of course, there are always the contacts made through the J-school experience (especially at a place like Columbia), which can turn out to be quite handy.

Topic [A] with Tina Brown
Columbia School of Journalism

Please feel free to comment.

Transform Me, Please…

by: Tara McPherson / University of Southern California

After Botox

Discovery website – After Botox

I’m feeling my age these days. My toddler’s been wrestling with a cold for weeks, setting off a seemingly endless cycle of sick boy, sick dad, sick mom, as we tag team viruses with the 20+ other wee ones in our preschool set. And the semester’s just kicked in, amping daily life up to full-frantic pace, with seminar prep, admission cycles, budget planning (a perk of life as division chair), and another turn on the committees-of-the-week ride. And then there’s the email. Always the email. Ironically, I’m teaching a grad course this spring on fashion, beauty, and media culture. Can’t say I’m feeling all that expert on such topics right now. I’m lucky to shower these days.

So, I have to confess that the chance to ‘look ten years younger’ in ten days has its appeal. That’s the promise hawked by one of the seemingly countless ‘makeover’ shows dotting the televisual landscape today, the appropriately-titled 10 Years Younger on TLC. Avoiding the nip + tuck techniques of The Swan or other surgically-enhanced shows, this kinder, gentler series promises a non-invasive path to a renewed and youthful self.

But, just as I’m getting lured in, ready to submit my own application online, something (besides standing in mid L.A. in a big glass box while passing strangers guess my age) gives me pause. I already work a lot, with my job bleeding into domestic space via email, phone line, and fax. Even my TV watching is pretty much always tied to work, particularly this past fall while I was serving as a juror for the AFI television awards. While life in the university has probably always made separating work and play difficult, the technological landscape of post-fordism makes the blur feel complete. I’m going to resist the TV’s siren call to add working on myself to the equation and instead ponder why transformation has become such a powerful media lure today.

Of course, the promise of transformation via the commodity is not strictly a 21st century phenomenon. Media culture has been tightly tied to beauty culture since the birth of advertising, and it’s hard to think the history of Hollywood without recognizing the role the silver screen played in perpetuating precise ideas of glamour and fashion. Certainly, the proliferation of screens across the late 20th century – from televisions to computers to new mobile devices – participates in and extends these legacies and logics.

Vanessa Before and After on 10 Years Younger

Vanessa before and after on 10 Years Younger

But today’s makeovers are different too, and these differences matter. As Heather Hendershot recently noted in an article for Flow, today’s promises of transformation frequently penetrate the body, sculpting flesh and figuring it as increasingly mutable, changeable, and porous. The ‘transformations’ featured on shows ranging from Extreme Makeover to Plastic Surgery Beverly Hills (and on their attendant websites) highlight malleability to a new degree. Sure, specific products – from Botox to DaVinci veneers – are featured and made familiar. But this is about more than just selling procedures and pharmaceuticals.

Bodies become one with the bitstream, as easily morphed as a Photoshop file. Beauty is no longer a surface phenomenon, with the exterior reworked to match a ‘beautiful’ interior through a careful consumption of products. The inside and outside now collapse and blur, all up for reconfiguring and all requiring hard work. Thus the focus on many of these series on process itself; while the ‘reveal’ is still important, the shows narrate the labor involved in transformation in a manner quite different from earlier makeover tales. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ are still key, but the in-between expands.

New technologies of vision help underwrite the collapse of inside and out, making visible the interior of the body in new ways, but such a collapse is not just the effect of new representations on the surface of our screens. Rather, the very forms of electronic culture (and, especially, of digital culture) help naturalize this process, shifting our understandings of what constitutes the self and working in tight feedback loops with shifting modes of economic production and emergent media ecologies.

Various theorists and economists have noted a shift in the workings of capital, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating through the past several decades, a shift marked by a turn from factory production models toward an information economy. Western economies have moved toward flexible patterns of production, economies of scope (small batch production of a wide variety of products), service and knowledge industries in which computerization figures as a major development, and a new priority on consumption that targets highly differentiated niche markets.

A key factor in this shift to post-fordism is the emergence of data processing in which workers and machines are figured as equal relays in electronic circuits of information. Computers, moreover, contribute to a temporal and spatial decentralization of work that involves the overflow of labor beyond the eight-hour day or the confines of the office. There’s a space-time compression in which the boundaries between labor and leisure, work and home, bleed together. The internet in many ways crystallizes this shift, making it manifest, as work follows us home and shopping follows us to work.

Swan Logo

The Swan logo

The recent explosion in transformation TV situates television firmly within electronic culture, narrating recombination across our very bodies and homes, underwriting a continuum that runs from the extreme surgery shows to the seemingly tamer worlds of What Not To Wear and Trading Spaces. Electronic forms are complexly situated within the workings of capital. Thus, the bleed between product and information, between work and leisure, between old and new bodies can be seen as skilling us for the new modes of living demanded by post-fordist economies, modes that require a new relationship to our very corporeal selves.

But, if electronic culture is teaching us volumes about transforming selves, perhaps it is also teaching us something about other modes of change and transformation, pushing electronic culture into spaces of hope and possibility. Can we push this logic further, envisioning new recombinatory modes of living or even new labor movements? If electronic culture insists that everything is malleable, why stop with the self? Why not transform the very structures of capital? Just thinking about it makes me feel ten years younger.

Further Reading
Alliez, Eric, and Michel Feher. “The Luster of Capital.” Zone, no. 1/2 (1987): 314-59.

Recent Flow Articles of Interest
Heather Hendershot, “The Boob Tube”

10 Years Younger
Extreme Makeover
The Swan
Trading Spaces
What Not To Wear

Image credits:

1. Botox injection image: The Discovery website offers details on Botox

2. Two images of same woman: Vanessa’s before and after on 10 Years Younger

3. The Swan logo

Please feel free to comment.

Women Watching Sports

by: Janet Staiger / University of Texas at Austin

Avid WNBA fans

Avid WNBA fans

I knew something had changed when I called my then-mid-70-year-old mom in Omaha several years ago on a Saturday afternoon before Christmas to ask her about clothing sizes for gifts and she responded: “I can’t talk now. Texas is beating Nebraska for the Big XII Championship.”

Granted my brother Don and his son Kevin had been a bit extreme as fans for Nebraska football. Although working in Houston and Los Angeles and now Perth, Australia, Don managed to come back until his Perth job to nearly every home game during a season, especially when Kevin was still at home. Even now, with Kevin working in Washington, D.C., both make it to about half the games. And when he can’t come home, Don will call mom from Perth several times during the game for updates. She tapes the games to send him (sorry about that!; I’m sure he destroys them after watching).

But having my mother become so devoted to watching the game marked an escalation of family commitment to the team. When she watches the game (I’ve been home to see this), she keeps jumping off the couch and paces around the room, holding her arms close to her body until the play is over, and then relaxing. My own recent involvement in Texas sports has been in part due to being able to offer Don and Kevin 50-yardline seats for Texas home-games against Nebraska.

My family life memories are vividly of the family gathered in the evenings around the (sole) television set during the 1950s and 1960s (dad bought a TV in 1952 when Omaha had its second station, but we did not move up to more than one set in the household until after I left for graduate school in 1968). So watching TV always meant negotiating which program to watch and then enjoying it together.

So I have understood my mother’s involvement in Nebraska team sports “escalate” to this new stage potentially as a way to relate virtually with my brother and nephew’s obsessions. But it is also the ability to watch the game on television that has permitted her commitment.

I use this example to suggest that while Title IX has been important in the last thirty years to the development of women’s sports and women (and men) fans of women’s sports, I speculate that television has been an important facilitator of women’s engagement. Particularly cable — with its proliferation of channels and avaricious appetite for content — has enabled fans for most major college teams to see almost all of the conference games. While radio used to supply coverage, now television provides this service as well, with the visual information intensifying the experience. (This raises the question for me as to whether radio or television might be better for certain sports; certainly baseball seems almost a radio game because of its long periods of “inaction” versus the multiple events occurring simultaneously during football and basketball games. Has anyone researched this?)

In fact, I would also argue that fans of sports are increasingly more distributed between the sexes as a result of cable coverage of sports. Often, I will raise the topic of sports — like weather — as a means to engage conversation with new acquaintances. Frequently, recently, men have indicated to me that it is their wives, girl friends, or boy friends (but not they) who follow sports.

Yet we do not know much about women’s sports fandom. My mother, for instance, knows very well what is going on in a game and can intelligently understand and predict plays. However, statistics and recollections of past games are not part of her arena for football fandom.

Other women, however, seem as capable as well-trained men in providing the on-going narrative arcs of a team: the triumphs and difficulties of the players, the inter-school rivalries, and so forth. Trained as soap-opera viewers, this sort of long-term engagement with a text is not difficult for women to do.

We also do not know much about the progression of fandom or its progression in relation to access through various media. Mom also enjoys watching (and playing) golf, a sport I cannot contemplate viewing on TV. Meanwhile, for various reasons, I have recently added the Texas Women’s Basketball team to my sports watching. Being able to see the games on cable television led, finally, to the purchase this year of a season ticket. Lately I have actually been reading the sports pages and watching the headline news tickertape for game results. That has lead this fall to following the coverage of the Pistons-Pacers and their fans’ brawl and actually bothering to watch the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neill re-union match last week. Clearly knowledge leads to curiosity, leads to more information, and so on.

The growth in the popularity of women’s sports and women watching sports (men’s or women’s) is partially a result of second-wave feminism and Title IX. (I haven’t even touched on scopophilia or attention to body images in the past thirty years as partial causes.) But the impact of cable television to facilitate virtual attendance for some intensely visual sports also needs recognition as a factor in the changes that are evident. Personally, as odd as it may seem, Saturday afternoon football viewing has become family time even though my family is spread as “near” as Omaha and as far as Australia. It’s really nice to know that we are still gathered together watching the same program on TV.

Title IX
Women’s Sports Online homepage

Image Credits:

WNBA fans

Please feel free to comment.

Why Fox News is a Good Thing

by: Toby Miller / University of California, Riverside

Fox News Channel

Fox News Channel

For many liberals, centrists, and leftists, the Fox News Network is a whipping boy, a monstrous example of what happens when deeply politicized, fiercely partisan media mavens rule the roost. And in many ways, this is an accurate diagnosis. Fox News operatives described the Taliban as ‘rats,’ ‘terror goons,’ and ‘psycho Arabs’ during the 2001 conflict, for instance, and the network accompanied 2003 anti-Iraq war protests in Manhattan with a ticker-news crawl taunting the demonstrators. When The Simpsons, a program on its network cousin, mocked this with ‘Do Democrats cause cancer? Find out at,’ Fox News threatened the creator with legal action. As the noted CNN foreign correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, told CNBC after the war: ‘television and, perhaps, to a certain extent, my station was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News. And it did, in fact, put a climate of fear and self-censorship, in my view, in terms of the kind of broadcast work we did.’ She was immediately derided by Fox as ‘a spokeswoman for Al Quaeda.’

It can be no accident that Fox News Channel, which employs few journalists and staffs only four foreign bureaux, has the most pundits on its payroll of any US network — over fifty in 2003. There has also been a malign Fox-effect on other networks. Despite Fox’s claim that it is less liberal than CNN, each delivers pro-Bush positions on foreign policy as if they were organs of the Pentagon. During the invasion of Iraq, both MSNBC and Fox adopted the Pentagon’s cliché ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ as the title of their coverage. Viacom, CNN, Fox, and Comedy Central all declined to feature paid billboards and commercials against the invasion. Fox News Managing Editor Brit Hume said that civilian casualties may not belong on television, as they are ‘historically, by definition, a part of war.’ But CNN instructed presenters to mention September 11 each time Afghan suffering was mentioned, and Walter Isaacson, the network’s President, worried aloud that it was ‘perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship.’

So what is the difference? CNN and Fox market themselves differently — the former to urban, highly educated viewers, the latter to rural, less-educated viewers. One functions like a broadsheet, the other like a tabloid, with CNN punditry coming mostly from outsiders, and Fox punditry as much from presenters as guests. CNN costs more to produce and attracts fewer routine viewers (but many more occasional ones). It brings in much higher advertising revenue because of the composition of its audience, and because its fawning and trite business coverage addresses high-profile investors and corporations in ways that Fox’s down-market populism does not.

Does all of this amount to Fox being a disgrace? Let us rather say that it is breaking the boundaries in its routine denunciation of the other media as ‘elitist,’ and its rabid partisanship — but that it is effectively no less tied to the Washington line than are its competitors. Perhaps something good can even come of the Fox-effect. Imagine a scenario in which, as applies in virtually every wealthy, highly-educated democratic nation, the media declare themselves politically (think of the Guardian versus the Daily Telegraph in Britain) and then go out and do actual reporting — not chasing tornadoes or screaming opinions, but compiling stories about the conduct of governments and corporations. It would surely be better than endless, tired fights over objectivity that inevitably lead to more and more punditry and less and less research, more mavens and fewer journalists.

Let’s take the sting away from Fox by acknowledging that it is correct — there is a consensus in television news; it is mildly liberal, but wholeheartedly endorses the Bush Administration; and Fox is more wholehearted in its endorsement of the Administration that its competitors. Then let network news and the cable “specialists” actually go forward and find stuff out, rather than throwing punditry at the viewers, night after night, day after day. That would be journalism worthy of the name, and it could come from competing for stories rather than competing for noise.

Fox News
Faux News Site
The Guardian
The Daily Telegraph

Image Credits:

Fox News Channel

Please feel free to comment.

Fairness Doctrine Now! Will it really hush Rush?

by: Frederick Wasser / Brooklyn College

We cannot blame this one on the media. There was no spin, no agenda setting, and no spiral of silence powerful enough to excuse the electorate. We re-elected a government engaged in an incompetent “war” on terror and an immoral one on the people of Iraq. Television fully displayed the lack of leadership skills of the present president when it broadcast the debates. The people saw and the people voted. Why talk of the Fairness Doctrine?

Television is not to blame, but television, and the rest of media are not blameless. So let us talk of the doctrine. When it was in force the Fairness Doctrine stipulated the Federal Communications Commission’s desire that every station owner broadcast matters of public controversy and give time to those with differing viewpoints on these controversies. Its reinstatement will not, nor cannot, change the media landscape by itself. Yet, surprisingly for a doctrine that was never vigorously enforced and has not been enforced at all for seventeen years, it has resurfaced. A quick Lexis-Nexis search finds the Fairness Doctrine popping up 28 times in the last year. Print outlets from the Boston Globe to Daily Variety evoke the doctrine as a sign of a kinder, gentler time. Quite obviously it is in the air because our media are so patently unfair. When Fox chooses to use the motto “fair and balanced,” it has already lied twice.

All media watchers have accumulated a list of grievances from the last cycle. The sins of commission, such as libeling Senator Kerry’s war record in issue ads, are more tangible but no less pernicious than the sins of omission (for example; cable’s refusal to show Fahrenheit 9/11 before the election). My list just touches the tip of the iceberg. Your list probably doesn’t exhaust it either. The point is whether the Fairness Doctrine could have helped.

Let’s look at its history. The Federal Communications Commission was already embarrassed in 1949 by the failure of American commercial broadcasters to honor the “public interest, convenience or necessity” mandate of various communications laws. They therefore stipulated that at the time of the license renewal they would ask station owners if they had provided coverage of vitally important controversial issues and had given reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on these issues.

The Reagan administration came to power in 1981 determined to rescind this rule along with others that had accumulated in the FCC’s attempts to widen the range of voices on American airwaves. Mark Fowler became chair of the FCC and he voiced the ingenious and more than slightly Orwellian argument that the Fairness Doctrine was counter-productive. Here the logic was that the second prong of the doctrine (to provide contrasting viewpoints) was so burdensome that station owners avoided controversial issues altogether. Rescind the doctrine and the airwaves would be full of issues of vital importance!

Researchers filed studies that showed the opposing viewpoint problem was not burdensome in any meaningful degree, all it had done was occasion some grievances and minor court cases for the multi-billion dollar industry. But Fowler, Reagan and their allies were undeterred and they killed the doctrine in 1987. The outrage of Congress was expressed in several subsequent attempts to pass the doctrine into law but Reagan successfully vetoed the strongest attempt, George H.W. Bush turned back another attempt and Clinton lost interest.

Therefore we can now test the truth of the Reagan promise that vitally important issues would now flourish. Hmmm…. TV networks have cut back their news divisions radically and therefore have almost nothing informative to say about foreign matters. Radio has consolidated and has less and less to say about local matters. Indeed local television news has little to report about local matters beside who got murdered and how to restore your wooden gable.

The one area where the Reagan promise might look like it was fulfilled is commentary on national issues, to the superficial witness. Since 1987 there has been an explosion of TV media punditry and radio talk shows. The number one topic is national news and political anger. The most famous: Rush Limbaugh went from Sacramento local anger-meister to national scold in this time period. Indeed he claims attempts to revive Fairness would “hush Rush.” In other words, these are attempts to silence the talk show genre. So is the Reagan/Fowler logic vindicated?

No. Not at all by Rush or his ilk. TV punditry and talk-radio are precisely why the Fairness Doctrine had two prongs. It is not enough to broadcast matters of public concern and controversy. There must be a response within the same channel or network. After all one cannot respond effectively to a 100 watt amplified voice with a tiny little blog whisper. Susan Drucker and Gary Gumpert have, just a year ago, justified a revival of the doctrine by arguing that we suffer from a qualitative scarcity of access to mass media.

Indeed it is not just for the benefit of the oppositional voice that we want a response. It is the anticipation of response that motivates us to fully formulate our reason for a position and makes us think more sharply. When we know there will be no effective response, it is human nature to indulge in shorthand slogans, rather than full arguments.

TV pundits do not give us arguments on the polite Washington Week type shows. They give us reports about other people’s arguments. They often do so in the context of evaluating the motivations for the argument rather than the argument itself. Television teaches us to be meta-critics before it teaches us to judge the merits of the original argument. The rude shows such as The O’Reilly Factor, do feature direct arguments although the format of short time spans and encouraged interruptions are there to heighten the entertainment factor, not to serve public “necessity.” Rude shows that feature dominant hosts undermine the ability to be thoughtful.

The importance of the Fairness Doctrine is not eviscerated by the fact that it will always fall short of giving us truly public-spirited television. Its importance is that to reinstate the doctrine is the high-minded fight to restore ideals to mass media. The doctrine will show a general political commitment to a public sphere of mutual listening and mutual talking. It is a fight for once broadly accepted simple ideals such as this one that will reinvigorate a democratic media, not a search for an impotent third way or an acceptance of the corporate media status quo. Perhaps the saddest thing about politics in the age of media consolidation is that Republicans feel they no longer have to listen to Democrats or any other oppositional voices. They don’t listen because they know the post-doctrine media will also ignore these voices. The fact that they don’t listen has led them to make repeated mistakes in their foreign and domestic policy, not only mistakes of convention, but also mistakes of competency.


Drucker, Susan and Gary Gumpert. (Spring 2003). “Scarce, Scarcer, Gone! What’s with the Fairness Doctrine?” Television Quarterly. 33(4) 10-15.

U.S.Congress. (1987, April 7th). Broadcasters and the Fairness Doctrine: Hearings of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.

Rush Limbaugh Home
Fairness Doctrine

Please feel free to comment.

“Citizen versus Consumer”: Rethinking Core Concepts

by: Michele Hilmes / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Obama for President

Projecting into the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC Online
Jurgen Habermas Resource Page

Image Credits:

Buy American Vote for Barack Obama

Please feel free to comment.

The New “F” Word: Indexed Out of the Election Debate

by: Bill Herman / University of Pennsylvania

If the Watergate story broke tomorrow, would it get any traction? I somehow doubt it. Rather, I fear Woodward and Bernstein would be shouted down as partisan hacks and conspiracy theorists, and the mainstream media would offer airtime to any experts who would discredit them.

The least-respected, and potentially biggest, story of 2004 is not about one political party breaking into another’s headquarters. Serious, documented allegations of electoral anomalies, malfeasance, and even electoral fraud in the presidential election are widely available online, but most are absent in the mainstream media. I do not use this paper to advance these theories; readers may follow the links themselves and draw their own conclusions. Rather, I argue that newsworthy allegations of fraud are systematically marginalized by major news outlets. First, I will describe W. Lance Bennett’s theory of indexing. Then, I will briefly explain four newsworthy fraud-related stories, two statistical and two anecdotal, describing how both have been indexed out of most news coverage. Finally, I will briefly indicate where the research should go from here.

The media do not give equal weight to all voices in political debates. As Bennett argues, the media “tend to ‘index’ the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given topic.”[1] That indexing generally reflects material conditions of power. “An essential journalistic norm is to survey the recognized power players in a political conflict and to try to give representation to the various players in proportion to their relative power.”[2] As a corollary, if there is no debate among powerful players, there tends to be no story.

Two Statistical Analyses: Exit Polling and Florida Counties
Almost everybody who watched televised election night coverage thinks they know the exit polling story: early exit polls showed a clear Kerry victory, but final vote tallies showed that those exit poll numbers were wrong. The part that is rarely mentioned is that Kerry still led in the final exit polls. Dr. Steven F. Freeman, visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses this using uncorrected exit poll data taken from in the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 3.[3] Exit polls are a reliable predictor of electoral outcomes, used to demonstrate fraud in elections in Georgia (the former Soviet republic), and currently being offered as proof of election fraud in Ukraine (even by the same mainstream US press that ignores the story at home). Of eleven swing states, only one tabulated a final result in line with exit polls; the other ten states broke remarkably for Bush. Freeman argues that the odds that this discrepancy occurred merely due to random error are 1 in 250 million. He argues not that this is proof of fraud, but he places it on the list of possibilities and insists that this monumental anomaly must be reconciled. First and foremost, he calls for the polling company to release the full data so that scholars can analyze them fully.

Self-appointed experts, some of whom cannot competently evaluate (and may not have read) Freeman’s argument, have marginalized this story out of the headlines as just another “internet conspiracy theory.” Among such self-appointed experts is Douglas Chapin, whose website ( monitors election irregularities and reform initiatives. On November 18, 2004, Chapin was a guest on a Philadelphia-area call-in radio show.[4] One caller mentioned Freeman by name, citing his statistical estimate of 1 in 250 million, and asked “Dr. Chapin” what he thought about the paper. Chapin begins his answer by explaining that (unlike Freeman, who has a PhD from MIT’s Sloan School of Management) he is not a doctor. Qualifications aside, he provides a mini-lecture on the flawed methodology of the exit polls and says that he has “yet to see any data that leads me to believe that we’ve got a really rigorous study of that problem.” When the next caller talks about anecdotal stories of disenfranchisement and fraud, but not statistics, Chapin takes another swipe at what he calls “weak statistical analysis of election returns.” One more caller insists that there were hints of fraud, and the show’s host interjects that the Kerry campaign’s failure to contest the results should satisfy her that there was no malfeasance. Where there is no official debate, reporters see no debate at all.

At least one other statistical analysis concludes that an investigation is necessary. A study done at UC Berkeley compared the 2004 results in Florida with those in 2000.[5] The study concluded that Bush got 130,000 to 260,000 extra votes in heavily democratic urban counties with electronic voting machines. Here as well, pundits and self-appointed experts ignore or dismiss this study. With no debate between powerful players, the media limits this discussion to how best to deal with “isolated” problems. When these parameters are challenged, the “internet conspiracies” are discussed shallowly and compared unfavorably with the non-debate between the two dominant political parties.

Human Stories: Bev Harris and a Huge Reward
Bev Harris directs Black Box Voting, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to “consumer protection for elections.”[6] The group, one of the loudest pre-election critics of unauditable direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, has conducted the largest Freedom of Information action in history. Unlike the implicit charge that fraud is conceivable based on statistical analyses, Black Box Voting has alleged that election fraud absolutely did take place. “It’s okay to use the ‘F’ word,” they argue, and the website has several preliminary reports to indicate that such a charge needs to be investigated.[7] Harris and others are in Florida right now, investigating on their own time with money largely raised by PayPal donations. “While some Florida counties have been attentive to the public interest and have promptly complied with our public records requests, … other counties have stalled, stonewalled, failed to comply in a timely manner, or outright refused to provide the records.”[8] In Volusia County, for instance, officials refused to turn over proper copies of voting machine tabulations; in a strange turn of events, Harris’s team found some of the original, signed vote tallies in the garbage and destined for the shredder. This is just one tidbit of a long-running saga that, if Harris is right, could send shockwaves through US politics for decades. Even if she is wrong, this story is more important to more people than, say, the Scott Peterson verdict.

If Harris is right, she and her team will have more than PayPal donations for their efforts. Consider another newsworthy, utterly invisible effort to uncover fraud: “On November 6, 2004, Justice Through Music,, posted a $100,000 reward for specific evidence of vote fraud in the presidential election. On November 16, that reward was doubled to $200,000 in light of the rampant voter irregularities reported online and in the media over the past two.”[9] Even though both of these stories (especially the Black Box investigation) have been staples in the blogosphere, no major television or print sources have covered them at all. Even within the election reform movement, Black Box Voting has little political power; Justice Through Music was not even part of the discussion until this month. This lack of political power therefore supports the non-coverage of an investigation and a cash reward of historic proportions.

Future Research and Beyond
The most important research question here is what actually happened on Election Day; most communication researchers are ill equipped to do this. The US needs investigative journalists with mainstream political capital to sort through all the smoke and tell us about the fire. Yet communication researchers can contribute in at least two significant ways. First, those who have experience with quantitative methodology (especially surveys) and data analysis can add to the statistical and methodological debate. Second, communication scholars with experience analyzing news content could help unpack the process that has kept the “F” word off the air. This paper is a preliminary analysis at best, and I bring far more political interest than scholarly gravitas.

We can do the most as a community of media critics and citizens by raising our voices loudly to demand fair media coverage, electoral reform, and free access to exit polling data. We must act as citizens today because the process of scholarly production moves at a glacial pace. If one’s goal is to write a paper about this for beefing up one’s curriculum vitae, it will almost certainly not be published before the election system for 2006 is finalized. That is too long to wait when the integrity of our voting system is in doubt. As media critics and scholars, we have the professional credibility to insist that even preliminary evidence of malfeasance is newsworthy; let us use what mainstream credibility we have together, even if it means saying the “F” word on television.

W. Lance Bennett, “Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States,” Journal of Communication 40 (1990): 106.
David Levin, “Structure of News Coverage of a Peace Process: A Test of the Indexing and Zero-Sum Hypotheses,” Press/Politics 8:4 (2003): 9.
Steven F. Freeman, The Unexplained Exit Poll Discrepancy, 2004 (23 November 2004).
Radio Times, Hour One, 18 November 2004 (23 November 2004).
Michael Hout, Laura Mangels, Jennifer Carlson, Rachel Best, Working Paper: The Effect of Electronic Voting Machines on Change in Support for Bush in the 2004 Florida Elections (23 November 2004).
Black Box Voting, Black Box Voting, 2004 (23 November 2004).
Justice Through Music, $200,000 REWARD for evidence of vote fraud in the presidential election (23 November 2004).

CNN Election Results
Exit Polls From Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International
Black Box Voting

Please feel free to comment.

A Column About Columns

by: Horace Newcomb / University of Georgia

In the spring of 1973, I had begun my second semester teaching in the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. Unlike many American Studies programs, the department (there were only five of us) was self-contained and not based on joint appointments. I had been hired the previous spring to develop courses in the study of popular culture as well as to offer seminar courses on topics of my choice. It was a grand appointment. The first Popular Culture Association meetings had been held just three years previously. My colleagues taught courses in Women’s Studies issues, Community Studies, and other rich areas that allowed us all to read across history, literature, sociology, anthropology and other disciplines and fields. All were firmly committed to the study of popular literature, film – and even television.

Each of us taught three courses every semester to bright undergraduate students. Many of them were first generation college students. Most lived at home with their families. Both these factors matched my own experience and I was pleased to be there, to discover what a fine city Baltimore was and is and what a fine university was and is UMBC.

TV: The Most Popular Art

TV: The Most Popular Art by Horace Newcomb

I also had a book contract with Doubleday/Anchor for the project that became TV: The Most Popular Art. It was going somewhat slowly given that I had moved from one institution to another shortly after receiving the contract, made that move with two small children, helped Sara Newcomb situate our family in the new setting, and prepared new courses. Still, I had interests in possibly working in some aspect of the television industry and made time to arrange a visit to the General Manager of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Station, whose name I have forgotten. In our meeting I explained that I took television seriously and was writing a book about popular, fictional television. He mentioned that Judy Bachrach, the television critic for the Baltimore Morning Sun (there were still two papers in the city, the other being the Evening Sun), had recently left that post. He suggested I speak with the features editor about writing for them in some capacity.

Charlie Flowers, features editor at the Sun, was a Tennessean, a Sewanee graduate. We hit it off. I regaled him with stories about facing the Sewanee debate team as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college in Mississippi, remarking on the fact that their team wore academic robes, in the manner of exclusive British colleges, and would swoop into dreary classrooms on the southern debate circuit, briefcases in hand, robes flowing sufficiently to intimidate any opponent. Charlie opened the possibility of writing the television column and asked that I submit a sample piece. That night I wrote a 600 word review of The Waltons, which had just begun its run on ABC. He then asked for another. I’m not sure what I wrote for the second. He called a few days later and offered me the job.

Cast of the Waltons

Cast of The Waltons

For the next fourteen months, while teaching full time, I wrote 600 words a day, five days a week, for $35 a column. At the end of that run I was fired or quit, depending on the story, largely because as a freelance writer I had replaced a member of the guild that represented writers at the paper. The guild had finally noticed the television column and complained. I was also very tired of trying to fill the space.

There were no VCRs in those days, no email, no preview copies unless one went to the local affiliate and viewed a closed-circuit broadcast feed, an event rare enough in itself and almost never in line with my schedule. My practice was to view a television show, go to the basement office, type a review or comment, then drive the copy to the paper before the 10:30 deadline. I had persuaded Charlie to allow me to “review” shows that aired two or three nights earlier in some cases. I had also informed him that the column would be about television content, that I was not a “media reporter,” that I would not comment on details of “the business,” or cover FCC hearings in Washington. This was to be a column of television criticism.

This, too, was a grand arrangement. I wrote a terrific column (if I say so myself), on Elvis’s Hawaii Concert. I reviewed “The Execution of Private Slovik,” one of the best social problem dramas produced by Richard Levinson and William Link. I wrote a column complaining that baseball on television was terribly boring (as it was thirty years ago), and received my first letter from a reader. A thirteen-year-old girl informed me of my stupidity, of the delight she and her family took in watching games together, of the pleasure in seeing her team on the tube. It was not the last letter challenging my intellect, credentials, sanity, or authority. But neither were these “critics of the critic” the only correspondents. I often received praise and thanks for taking the medium seriously.

And this was my intent. I wanted to provoke talk and thought about the medium, to show that it could be taken seriously. During the Watergate hearings I wrote commentary about politics, filtered through comments about the television personae and performances of senators, presidential aides, burglars and journalists. When I wrote about visual technique, I tried to think about shows that had aired long ago to demonstrate developments in the medium. During this period I offered my first course in the study of television. To do so I scheduled the course at night, rolled a cart with TV set into the classroom, viewed a show on the air and discussed it with students. Later, I used a version of the first Sony half-inch, reel-to-reel videotape recorder to take some shows off the air for later presentation and discussion. As I wrote chapters for the book, my approach fed into the column. As I wrote columns about current television, the ideas fed into the book. My hope was that it, too, might be more widely read and lead to discussions in other arenas, perhaps even among industry professionals.

That did not happen. Instead, the book was read in English departments, American Studies classes, and fairly quickly in various sorts of “communication” departments, even in some programs focused on “cinema.” As a result, most of the rest of my academic career was redirected.

But the column writing remains a touchstone for me and I’m grateful for another opportunity, in Flow, to comment occasionally on the more public aspects of television. It’s not the same, of course. The excitement of writing my 600 words knowing they would be read by several thousand people the very next morning is hardly matched, even by the reach of the internet, when I recognize that this new audience is already so predetermined. As David Thorburn and I have often discussed, we still have no good, strong, public vehicle for television commentary. Newspaper criticism has, to be sure, improved dramatically in recent years. Shales’ curmudgeonly voice continues to mark a standard, and his colleagues at the Washington Post, numerous writers at The New York Times, and some of the news magazine writers all add to a richer, more thoughtful discourse surrounding this strange box. I hope other generations of informed writers will take up places at other venues. I hope they will lead to columns that might be collected into collections of columns, applied in better, more meaningful ways. It’s a great medium, a great site of expressive culture. It still deserves better than it gets.

Links of Interest:

1. Tom Shales Columns

2. Baltimore Sun TV Page

3. New York Times TV Index

4. The Guide to the Television Shows You Love

5. PopMatters, Television Review Archive

Image Credits:

1. TV: The Most Popular Art Cover

2. Cast of The Waltons

Please feel free to comment.

Media Spectacle and the Wired Bush Controversy

by: Douglas Kellner / UCLA

During a media age, image and spectacle are of crucial importance in presidential campaigns. Media events like party conventions and daily photo opportunities are concocted to project positive images of the candidates and to construct daily messages to sell the candidate to the public. These events are supplemented by a full range of media advertising that often attempts both to project negative images of the oppositional candidate and positive images for the presidential aspirant that the ads seek to support. In an era of media spectacle, competing parties work hard to produce a presidential image and brand that can be successfully marketed to the public. In a forthcoming study of media spectacle and election 2004, a draft of which is available on my website, I sketch out some of the key structural elements of the media campaign spectacle, discussing primaries and conventions, advertising and spin, and the presidential debates, illustrating them with examples from the 2004 presidential election, which is emerging as one of the most highly contested and media-mediated in recent history.[1]

Election Spectacles and Resonant Images
The primary season requires that candidates raise tremendous amounts of money to finance travel through key campaign states, organize support groups in the area, and purchase television ads.[2] While the primaries involve numerous debates, media events, advertising, and then state-wide votes for delegates, usually a few definitive images emerge that define the various candidates, such as the negative image in 1972 of Democratic party candidate and frontrunner Edmund Muskie crying on the New Hampshire state capital steps while responding to a nasty newspaper attack on his wife, or front runner Gary Hart hitting the front pages with a sex scandal, replete with pictures, in the 1984 primaries. Michael Dukakis was arguably done in by images of him riding a tank and looking silly in an oversize helmet in the 1988 election, as well as being the subject of negative television ads that made him appear too liberal and soft on crime and defense. Bush senior, however, was undermined during the 1992 election with repeated images of his convention pledge, “Read my lips. No new taxes” after he had raised taxes and doubled the national deficit.

Beyond political primaries, spectacles can make or break campaigns for the presidency as well. In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s decisive seizing of a microphone in the New Hampshire debates and insistence that since he was paying for the debate, he would decide who would participate produced an oft-repeated image of Reagan as a strong leader; in 1984, his zinging of Walter Mondale during their presidential debates (“There you go again!”) and making light of his age arguably assured his re-election. By contrast, Al Gore’s sighs and swinging from aggressive to passive and back to aggressive behavior in the 2000 presidential debates probably lost support that might have been crucial to his election and have prevented the Bush Gang from stealing it.[3]

In the 2004, Democratic Party primary season, Howard Dean was for some time positively portrayed as the surprise insurgent candidate. An energetic Dean was shown nightly on television and he received affirmative publicity as front-runner in cover stories in the major national news magazines. Dean raised a record amount of money from Internet contributions and mobilized an army of young volunteers. As the time approached for the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, however, images of an angry Dean increased and intemperate remarks, or critical positions taken out of context, made Dean look like a fire-breathing radical.[4] While he received significantly more media coverage than any other Democratic Party candidate in 2003, Dean received almost totally negative coverage in 2004 and his campaign came to an abrupt halt the night of the Iowa primary. Coming in a distant third, Dean tried to energize his screaming, young supporters and to catch the crowd’s attention when he emitted a loud vocal utterance, which followed an energetic recitation of the states he would campaign in. Dean’s “scream” was perhaps the most-played image of the campaign season and effectively ended his campaign.

The Presidential Debates and Images of the Wired Bush
The Democrats went for “electability,” chose John Kerry, and anointed him at their convention spectacle. Unleashing an unparalleled barrage of negative advertising, including the Swift Boat campaign, the Republicans sought to impugn Kerry’s integrity, paint him as a hopeless flip-flopper, and finally as a tax-and-spend “Massachusetts liberal.” After dropping “Stronger, Safer” ads that were intended to re-elect George W. Bush, the Republicans deployed a wide repertoire of positive ads of Bush combined with negative ones of Kerry, culminating in the infamous pack of wolves that were intended to scare the nation into voting for Bush.

The Democrats and supporting 527 groups, in turn, produced a barrage of attack ads on Bush for his disastrous Iraq war, failure to get Osama bin Laden, and failed economic record. Both parties used their conventions to sell their candidates, and while the Democrats chose, perhaps unwisely, to go positive, the Republicans unleashed a unparalleled spectacle of mocking attacks on Kerry, including ritual “flip flop” displays and small purple band-aids to highlight the Swift Boat campaign message that Kerry exaggerated his war wounds and did not deserve a purple heart.

But it was the debates that provided a relatively direct confrontation of the candidates and that was probably the most revealing and perhaps important spectacle of the campaign. Television tends to exaggerate small defects and provides images of the candidates that their handlers might not wish to circulate. Al Gore was excoriated for his sighs during the first 2000 presidential debate and George W. Bush was taken apart for his petulant, testy, and often confused responses to Kerry’s sharp criticisms of his positions, and most commentators scored Kerry the decisive winner in all three debates.

But perhaps the most surprising television moment of the spectacle was revelations in the first debate that George W. Bush seemed to have a wire running up his back. One of the most intriguing stories concerned images circulated in regard to the mysterious bulge in Bush’s coat evident throughout the first debate. Speculation mushroomed over whether Bush was wired with Karl Rove feeding him answers, or if the wire malfunctioned or was jammed, causing Bush evident grief. John Reynolds in a commentary “Bush Blows Debate: Talks to Rove in Earpiece!” suggested that in the middle of an answer while the green light was still flashing Bush impatiently blurted out, “Now let me finish,” even though no one was seemingly interrupting him.[5] For Reynolds:

The ‘let me finish’ quip was clearly Bush talking to someone (probably Rove) in his earpiece- saying ‘let me finish’ (before you give me the next answer).

He blows it 60 seconds into his 90 second reply — so no warning lights had gone off and the moderator had not motioned for him to end as there was plenty of time left.

There is really no other plausible explanation for this huge blunder — who was he telling to ‘let him finish’? The voices in his head?

Is he talking to God again? Shouldn’t this be enough to warrant a major investigation of some sort — Bush is so incompetent he needs an earpiece to speak in public! (ibid).

Indymedia and other Internet sites circulated the images of the bulge and speculated that it was an electronic wire telling Bush what to say and a website quickly appeared collecting all the information and key stories on the phenomena at Once Salon broke the story on Friday,[6] all of the major Saturday newspapers had a story with lower-level Bush spokespeople saying it was “preposterous.”[7] The story persisted and on Sunday ABC’s morning show featured the images of Bush with the bulging coat that by now was blamed on his tailor. Yet the TV footage of the debate clearly showed what appeared to be a wire running along his back with a noticeable bulge around it.

Hence, when the third debate began on October 8 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, many were looking closely to see if there were any signs of a tell-tail wire on the back of Bush’s coat. While his shoulders and rump revealed rather strange tailoring, there was no evidence of a wire, as there was throughout the first debate, on Bush’s back until the end of the debate when he bounded on stage to meet with his and Kerry’s families. A picture in Salon suggested that a wire appeared to have popped out, as an astonished Kerry daughter looked at the strange hump in the back of Bush’s jacket.[8]

Speculations continued to fly over the Internet concerning whether Bush was wired, whether he had diabetes and the bulge was an insulin device, whether he had a heart attack (he had allegedly postponed his yearly physical this year), or whether the tell-tail bulge was just a flack jacket. Tailors weighed in and most said that the tell-tale bulges could not be explained by poor tailoring. The New York Times had an Op-Ed feature that showed pictures of New Yorkers walking down the street with big bulges in their clothes, but in these cases one could discern money-belts, shoulder pistols, flack jackets, and other devices. Critics like Dave Lindoff began looking at other tapes of the Bush presidency and finding evidence of a Wired Bush:

I just got a look at the full Fox tape of President Bush’s May ’04 joint news conference with French President Jaques Chirac. In that tape, as in several other tapes I’ve seen, Bush can be heard seemingly getting prompting from another voice. About 12 seconds into the piece, the leading voice says, “And I look forward to working to” Bush comes in with “And I look workin’…And I look forward to workin’ to.” The verbal slip-up makes it clear that this is no electronic echo or sound synchronization problem.

At another point, about one minute and sixteen seconds into the tape, the leading voice lets out a loud exhale of breath. Bush does not follow suit. There is no preceding voice when a reporter is heard asking a question. Also, at one minute and 28 seconds into this tape, Bush reaches up and manipulates something in his ear, at which point there is a static noise and the sound of a speaker acting up, until he removes his fingers from his ear.

There is no wire going up to his ear, indicating that the earpiece in his right ear is wireless.[9]

My own contribution to the Wired controversy emerged from a viewing of the extras on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (DVD) where one node appears at Bush’s press conference right after the 9/11 Hearings meeting between the president, Cheney and the 9/11 Commission. A subdued Bush swaggered out to the White House lawn to make a statement and meet with the press. After fumbling, he finds the words to describe the meeting and generally provided brief answers to reporters’ questions, often after a concentrated pause. As Bush turns around to return into the White House at the end one can clearly observe a bulging tell-tale sign in his jacket similar to the bulge observed during and after the first and third debates.

Of course, the bulge could have been a bullet-proof vest, but oddly the Bush handlers have not made the claim and in any case a flack jacket could easily hold and conceal a wiring device. A Wired Bush could explain his tendency to give answers in brief code words rather than sentences, although it is also possible that he is simply linguistically challenged. Wired or not, most commentators indicated that Kerry was the winner of the third debate on style and substance and that regarding the debates as a whole the Democrats scored a big grand slam over the inept Bush and the sinister Cheney. While Bush didn’t flub as bad as the first two debates, his performance was full of misstatements, evasions, and empty rhetoric. He smiled inappropriately both when he and Kerry were speaking and his eyes wildly blinked throughout. His painful attempt to smile was undermined by the right corner of his mouth turning down as though a botox injection had gone bad and blog commentators complained about spittle hanging over the corner of his mouth for much of the debate.[10]

Although John Stewart, Jay Leno, Dave Letterman, and other comedians continued to make Wired Bush jokes, the controversy was ignored by the mainstream media until Charles Gibson confronted Bush in a Good Morning America interview. In the summary of Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin:

As you recall, the bulge, most clearly photographed during Bush’s first debate, raised conspiracy theories that Bush was possibly getting audio cues over some sort of wireless device. This morning, in part two of his interview with Bush on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Charlie Gibson spit it out. Brandishing a copy of the photo, he asked:

“Final question. What the hell was that on your back, in the first debate?”

Bush chuckled.

Bush: “Well, you know, Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett have rigged up a sound system — ”

Gibson: “You’re getting in trouble — ”

Bush: “I don’t know what that is. I mean, it is, uh, it is, it’s a — I’m embarrassed to say it’s a poorly tailored shirt.”

Gibson: “It was the shirt?”

Bush: “Yeah, absolutely.”

Gibson: “There was no sound system, there was no electrical signal? There was — ”

Bush: “How does an electrical — please explain to me how it works so maybe if I were ever to debate again I could figure it out. I guess the assumption was that if I was straying off course they would, kind of like a hunting dog, they would punch a buzzer and I would jerk back into place. I — it’s just absurd.”

So it’s the shirt? Sure doesn’t look like a shirt.[11]

Salon weighed in with another story on the mysterious bulge images as a NASA and Caltech scientist did an electronic enhancement of the images that clearly showed that something looking like a wire device was in the back of Bush’s jacket. In Kevin Berger’s summary:

George W. Bush tried to laugh off the bulge. “I don’t know what that is,” he said on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, referring to the infamous protrusion beneath his jacket during the presidential debates. “I’m embarrassed to say it’s a poorly tailored shirt.”

Dr. Robert M. Nelson, however, was not laughing. He knew the president was not telling the truth. And Nelson is neither conspiracy theorist nor midnight blogger. He’s a senior research scientist for NASA and for Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and an international authority on image analysis. Currently he’s engrossed in analyzing digital photos of Saturn’s moon Titan, determining its shape, whether it contains craters or canyons.

For the past week, while at home, using his own computers, and off the clock at Caltech and NASA, Nelson has been analyzing images of the president’s back during the debates. A professional physicist and photo analyst for more than 30 years, he speaks earnestly and thoughtfully about his subject. “I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate,” he says. “This is not about a bad suit. And there’s no way the bulge can be described as a wrinkled shirt.”[12]

It remains to be seen if the Wired Bush controversy and photo widely circulates through the Internet during the last days of the campaign, makes it into the mainstream media, and has any effect on the election. Yet the phenomena reveals how television can scrutinize and capture minute details of behavior, personality tics, and focus attention on issues –- or ignore them. The Wired Bush controversy was clearly initially an Internet phenomenon that snuck into the margins of the mainstream media, but so far has not penetrated the center. Failure of the mainstream corporate media to not more seriously investigate the phenomenon shows the incompetency, cowardice, and pack journalism conformity of the mainstream media. And yet when the mainstream picks up on an issue, it can be devastating, as the Dean Scream spectacle proved for Howard Dean and the Watergate saga for Richard Nixon. Watergate was initially a highly marginal story, which briefly appeared before the 1972 election, and then returned to haunt Nixon and drive him from office after the election. And so marginal images and stories can proliferate and can generate unforeseen consequences and effects. In an age in which politics is mediated by media spectacle, those who live by the media can also die by it.

This text extracts from a forthcoming book to be published by Paradigm Press, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy: Terrorism, War, and Election Battles. Thanks to Dean Birkenkamp for support with this project, and to Rhonda Hammer and Richard Kahn for discussion and editing of the text. A draft of the text is available at my website.
By August 2004, a record billion dollars had been raised by both candidates, double the amount for the previous year. See Thomas B. Edsall, “Fundraising Doubles the Pace of 2000.” Washington Post, August 21, 2004: A01.
For details, see Douglas Kellner, Grand Theft 2000. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
Many media pundits were cool for Dean from the beginning although he got much good press when the long-shot contender became a surprise front-runner. On the very negative coverage of the Dean campaign by the media punditry and corporate networks, see Peter Hart, “Target Dean. Re-establishing the establishment.” Extra! (March-April 2004: 13-18).
John Reynolds, “Bush Blows Debate: Talks to Rove in Earpiece!”.
Dave Lindorff, “Bush’s mystery bulge. The rumor is flying around the globe. Was the president wired during the first debate?” Salon, October 8, 2004.
See Mike Allen, “Bulge Under President’s Coat in First Debate Stirs Speculation,” Washington Post, October 9, 2004: A16.
Farhad Manjoo, “The bulge returns. As this screen shot from the Wednesday night debate indicates, the Bush mystery will not disappear.” Salon, October 13, 2004.
Tongue partly in cheek, the Salon writer noted: “Salon looked hard for evidence of the president’s mystery bulge this evening, but for much of the debate, on the ABC feed we screened, Bush’s back remained out of view. At the end, though, as the president crossed the stage to thank his opponent, we caught this glimpse of something strange pushing out of the commander in chief’s tailored coat. Is it part of an in-ear prompting device? Is it a back brace? Body armor? Confirmation that Bush is an alien? The mystery deepens … ” Earlier in the day, trying to make light of the whole affair, a Bush spokesman had said jokingly that the pictures of Bush’s humped back and mysterious bulge reveals that Bush is an alien.
Dave Lindoff, “At each ear a hearer: Bulletin on the Bush bulge,” Counterpunch, October 18, 2004.
See Ayelish McGarvey’s 01:54 a.m., October 13, 2004 commentary on the American Prospect webblog “Tapped” and the same day’s Salon “War Room ‘04” weblog.
Dan Froomkin, “Bush Tackles the ‘Bulge,'” Washington Post, October 26, 2004.
Kevin Berger, “NASA photo analyst: Bush wore a device during debate. Physicist says imaging techniques prove the president’s bulge was not caused by wrinkled clothing,” Salon, October 29, 2004.

Salon article:Technical expert: Bush was wired
Wired Bush conspiracy site
Tom Watson’s Wired Bush comments

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