Jeffrey Jones – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Fox News’ Post-Election Post-Mortem? Sat, 10 Nov 2012 14:00:59 +0000 With election results now in, attention has inevitably turned to the one media source that has seemingly dedicated itself, 24/7, to making sure Obama was defeated and Republicans would take control of the Senate: Fox News.

Journalists and bloggers have lined up to peddle new conventional wisdom as to why, given all the time and effort employed to preach right-wing Republicanism all the time, the network seemingly failed as both an electoral strategy and as a news organization. Fox’s mission, they argue, was supposedly repudiated. They point to the failures of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who has featured too many kooks on his network for it to be taken seriously. They argue that Fox misinformed its viewers over the last four years—from its mad-cap conspiracy theories and outright lies to its closing campaign to push unrealistic fantasies of a Romney landslide. They point to the failures of the audience, which supposedly wants to be lied to, or wants to hear what it wants to hear. They point to the failures of Fox’s supposed electoral strategy of constant anti-Obama, anti-Democrats rhetoric, and thus, they contend, Fox must start over.

Perhaps some of those arguments have merit, but I tend to think they miss more important, better explanatory points. The failures of Fox is not about misinformation, for information is not the commodity it is selling. The failures aren’t about Ailes trying to get his guy elected, for there is no overall electoral strategy from which Ailes is working. And it’s not about making the audience comfortable by giving it the lies it wants to hear, because audiences don’t directly drive the specifics of content. Rather, Fox is fundamentally about two things that go together—community and money. Through the former, the latter arrives with ease.

The creation and sustaining of a community of viewers is one of the most important cable industry strategies of the post-network era, as I have argued elsewhere. Fox News has, by all accounts, created one of the most loyal audience communities, and done so largely through ideology. As numerous polls have shown, conservative viewers have found the place on TV where they call home.

Another, perhaps more helpful word for community, though, is tribe. Fox isn’t attractive to viewers because viewers have some overt affection for Dick Morris, Michelle Malkin, or Steve Doocy, or belief in the information (or vitriol) these commentators and hosts spout. Rather, those are just people found within the tribe. The tribe coheres, and its participants return, for other reasons.

Let’s look at the Chicago Cubs as an example. By all measure, the Cubs are losers. They haven’t won the World Series in over 100 years, and when post-season opportunity knocks, they are always sure to disappoint. What is more, there is a completely viable team that could be cheered instead—the recent World Series champs (2005), the White Sox—who live right across town, where the baseball fan can even find a ticket on any given day.

But Cubs fans come for something else. It is who they are; it’s where their peeps reside. And never mind that tickets are hard to come by, or that you have to sit on the roof of a house that isn’t even in the damn ballpark. To be a Cubs fan is to be at Wrigley Field and to be with other fellow Cub fans, irrespective of the manager’s strategy for winning, and irrespective of the fact that you rarely hear what you want to hear (e.g., the roar of the crowd). The same goes with conservatives and Fox News. Audiences come because this is their crowd and their team and their stadium. They lost this season, but 2010 was glorious.

What Fox is selling is a worldview that makes sense to its audience’s worldview. They aren’t selling information, because the audience didn’t come for that. Indeed, as Chan-Olmsted and Cha argue in the International Journal of Media Management, studies of cable news audiences suggest that the motivation to view in order to learn information is not a primary factor in people’s choice of cable news viewing.

Fox News CEO Roger Ailes

Neither is Fox in the business to convert voters in Wisconsin, Colorado, or Nevada. They are concerned with feeding their tribe in Alabama, Indiana, and Arizona. It’s about communion, a word that shares a central relationship to community and communication, as James Carey famously pointed out. These are communers who return day after day, week after week, and by doing so, leave their offering in the viewing plate.

News Corp didn’t just renew Roger Ailes contract before the election because they were confident he had brought or would bring them a victory. They did so because he makes them nearly a billion dollars in profits (40% of News Corps profits), a unit that is second only to the company’s film division for profitability. We might argue (as did Thomas Frank in 2004 concerning the electoral defeat of certain right-wing culture war initiatives) that failure is good for business. It sustains impatience, and given the network’s tendency to cast the viewer as protagonist in the struggle against evil liberals and the Kenyan Overlord, the viewer is, as Victor Turner once wrote, “overborn by duty” to keep tuning in, ever vigilant in defense of his or her core values that are under attack.

Perhaps the most prescient analysis of Fox News was made over a year ago, and unrelated to this election. Former Bush speechwriter and conservative columnist and blogger David Frum noted, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us. Now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.” Literally, Fox has masterfully mined the fields of Republican politics for a cast of characters that make up the Fox team. Win or lose (preferably the latter, for then the Palins, Roves, and Huckabees are available for air time), they provide the talent and ideological perspective from which Fox crafts its programming around daily events and partisan struggles.

We make a mistake, I contend, in continuing to evaluate Fox’s place and role in American political culture through the lens of journalism (and its assumed information-seeking citizen-viewers), or even through the lens of politics. Fox News is about television and the assemblage of the largest audience it can muster. Like other reality shows that feature food or fashion or fishing, this one just happens to use politics for its performances.

It is in this regard that Frum gets it right—as the tribe comprised of the Republican politicians and Republican viewers engage in their ritual performances, they provide the (free) labor, while Fox simply coordinates, orchestrates, and performs its public demonstration of the tribe’s fight for survival. Unfortunately for Republicans, in this instance, another tribe has spoken.


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Sarah Palin, Anti-Fandom, and the Nature of Political Celebrity Fri, 01 Jul 2011 13:00:36 +0000 A new documentary on Sarah Palin (The Undefeated) premiered on Tuesday night in Pella, Iowa, with Palin in attendance. The film reportedly opens with numerous instances of comedians and other Hollywood celebrities cursing Palin with perjorative and at times vulgar epithets, an editorial choice for framing the opening that I can only assume is used to (re)establish Palin’s victimhood and her own narrative as fighting those demonic Hollywood liberals. After the film concluded, The Hollywood Reporter asked Palin what she thought of those sequences, and Palin said in response, “What would make someone be so full of hate?”

How bizarre that one of America’s foremost political celebrities would so fundamentally misunderstand the nature of celebrity (though one must admit that Palin uses exceptionalist logic in almost everything she does). No single politician today—not even Obama—has so adroitly crafted her or himself as a celebrity figure and icon as Sarah Palin. From her reality television show, to her guest commentator position on Fox News (including having a TV studio built in her Alaskan home), to her Twitter and Facebook missives, to her book release tours, and even to crafting a family vacation/media circus entourage/ bus tour road trip of America’s historical sites, Palin has mastered the modern art of celebrity production and sustainment. If Palin farts (metaphorically, though perhaps literally), we can be assured it will receive media coverage somewhere.

So it seems particularly strange that she doesn’t understand the darker side of that celebrity. That is to say, with such spectacle presentations, fabrication of attention, insertion into people’s lives, and fawning, worship and adoration that is characteristic of celebrity culture comes the opposite: the outright hatred for all that (and in very personal ways). Most celebrities realize (if only from their fan and hate mail) they are loved and loathed at the same time, that people love their achievements but also (and at times simultaneously) revel in their failures, fatness, fakeness, and so on.

But perhaps Palin actually does understand this. While it is still strange that one of America’s most venomous and hate-filled politicians would take umbrage at others returning the feeling, perhaps she does understand that part of the media/celebrity game is that celebrities benefit from crafting such antipathies, and it is simply part of celebrity culture. What is Keyshia Cole without Lil Kim, David Letterman without Jay Leno, or Rosie O’Donnell without Donald Trump? Perhaps Palin does understand that such battles are the fuel that celebrity runs on.

But what makes political celebrity different from strictly entertainment celebrity is that the ideological yoke is always present. For right-wingers, to witness an attack on Palin is to be personally attacked as well (in ways that, say, attacking Lady Gaga simply doesn’t register). Similar to religious beliefs, political values and beliefs run deep. Feeling under attack, of course, is the bread-and-butter of the contemporary Republican Party. For over two decades, media pundits such as Rush Limbaugh (and now politicians) have perfected a victimization rhetoric built on binary oppositions, and in the process, using such rhetoric to transform political opponents into ideologically justified mortal enemies. One can find an audience, raise money, craft movements, be elected, and overthrow governments based on hatred. And it is central to Palin’s celebrity and brand as well.

Celebrity hating and oppositions have value in politics too. Why are Hollywood celebrities always a much more frequent target for right-wingers than, say, Senator Bernie Sanders—a true-to-life, living and breathing socialist who actually has political power? Because most Americans don’t know or care about legislative politics. What they care about is symbolic politics, and celebrity brands are the apex of symbolic meaning and value in a consumer society. Palin, in fact, does know this well, for it is one of the primary reasons she shed her duties as governor of Alaska mid-term (who the hell needs those tiresome burdens?) to embrace more fully and commit more time to her primary job as symbolic figure.

Political celebrity is an important part of contemporary American political culture. Politics can be as profitable as any other form of entertainment, and there are many such people—Glenn Beck, Mike Huckabee, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, et al.—for whom politics is central to their celebrity brand. For Sarah Palin to reject the anti-fandom that comes with such celebrity is disingenuous, for what she knows better than most is that it is damn good for business.


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Glenn Beck’s Legacy for Television News Tue, 21 Jun 2011 12:00:08 +0000

With Glenn Beck’s upcoming departure from the cable news network that made him a household name and political player, it certainly seems time to reflect on the impact he has had on television news. Although Beck had been in cable news (CNN) prior to his arrival at the Fox News Channel in January 2009, it was the unfettered platform that the conservative network provided Beck to unleash his “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” persona that enabled his stardom. What has transpired since that time is that Beck (with Fox News) has been an enormously influential force in redefining cable television news and the role it plays in the construction political reality. Thus, as he departs Fox News to create his own network (GBTV), here is a cursory look at his legacy:

1. News is Political Entertainment Too: Certainly the lines between entertainment television and serious public affairs programming have been blurring for decades. When we speak of “political entertainment,” though, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher typically come to mind. But Glenn Beck has demonstrated the meshing of entertainment and politics from the other side, that is, “journalism.” For Beck, politics and current events were simply the raw material for his spectacularly entertaining performances of right-wing ideology. With a wardrobe of Viking helmets and 3D glasses, demonstrative stunts (gasoline cans and boiling frogs), and a professorial chalkboard, Beck entertainmentized public affairs on a news channel, all while arguing that he was delivering valuable public information important to a democratic polity. As he ventured on comedy tours and political rallies outside the television box, he demonstrated further how politics and entertainment are largely one and the same, free and open to all performers who can capitalize on public passions and the audience’s desire to participate in such “non-fiction” performances.

2. News Creates Political Reality: Following J. L. Austin’s theory of performativity, speech acts—including the news—don’t just report on reality, they are capable of creating reality as well. A variety of political players have honed this to an art form in the contemporary political arena (Sarah Palin’s “Death Panels”), but Glenn Beck became a regular and reliable fount of such political reality creation. It doesn’t matter whether what he asserted was untrue—Obama as racist; Obama favoring the Muslim Brotherhood; socialism=fascism; Van Jones as “radical revolutionary communist;” Sharia law in America. It only matters that his viewers believed these things to be so, and they do so in part because of the authoritative platform from which Beck speaks. When numerous Republican presidential contenders assert their vigilance against the assertion of Shariah law during the first Republican presidential debate of the 2012 campaign season, one begins to see just how powerful such reality creation has become.

3. There Is No Such Thing as Too Crazy for Journalism: Through Beck, Fox demonstrated that if a host can draw and keep a large audience, that is sufficient for staying on the air, irrespective of the wildly irresponsible and bat-shit crazy statements, antics, and rantings Beck produced. While one might think such antics would hurt Fox’s credibility as a “fair and balanced” “news” network, in fact, Beck served a quite useful purpose in building its brand as a place where liberal ideas and pieties would be attacked with full force. What is more, with Beck defining just how far out the far right could go, he made others at the network—Steve Doocy, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly—seem sane and somewhat moderate by comparison. To stay with the analogy to the movie Network, Sybil the Soothsayer seems, well, completely natural and normal when placed beside Howard Beale.

4. Conspiracy Theories Constitute Legitimate News: Gone are the days when the John Birch Society peddled its conspiracy theories via newsletters, pamphlets, and other small time means of communication. With his “expert” guests, blackboards, documentaries, and readings lists, Beck demonstrated that a news network was the legitimate place for the presentation of all sorts of fanciful political renderings to millions of viewers. A self-taught man, Populist Beck nevertheless saw it his duty to connect the dots of an overarching grand conspiracy of liberal and progressive agents destined to subvert “traditional American values” from within. Beck’s blackboard was literally his canvass, and his viewers were cast a studious pupils ready to receive their lessons in order to save democracy. And here again, the overtly ridiculous nature of Beck’s conspiracy theories only made the network’s other grand conspiracy narratives offered up in its “news” programming—the Ground Zero Mosque, Obama’s birth certificate, Black Panthers intimidating voters—seem legitimate and not too far fetched.

5. News Credibility Is Not What You Think It Is: Irrespective of Beck’s wild assertions and conspiracy theories, Fox felt fully comfortable in having Beck appear across a variety of Fox programs in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Typically an appearance on another program suggests some level of expertise or credibility as a source. Fox smartly realized that Beck, like network contributor Sarah Palin, need not have any credibility as someone with a relationship to truth or facts, only credibility in his or her relationship viewers. If viewers trust in his or her opinions, then the credible truth is what viewers and hosts make it out to be.

Upon announcement of Beck’s departure, Fox noted that it would maintain a relationship with the host as he continued to develop future projects for the network. It is hard to fathom, though, how any such projects could be as significant as these fundamentally redefining aspects of that which now (legitimately?) comprises television news.


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Are Bodies Politically Meaningful? Report from The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear Mon, 01 Nov 2010 21:44:24 +0000 Are bodies a text, or can they be read as such? Saturday I spent the afternoon at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” with 400,000-500,000 of the most polite political “demonstrators” I’ve ever seen or been around. Having been there, what so amazes me about the print media coverage that followed is how those bodies really don’t seem to matter much.

I’m not talking about the underestimation of the rally numbers, though one can forget the estimates of 215,000 people in attendance; those estimates fall far short. What I’m talking about is our seeming inability to make meaning of those hundreds of thousands of bodies and our inability to assess their significance—either at the level of democracy (to be grandiose) or at the level of those simply in attendance (to be realistic). The coverage has focused on Jon Stewart’s “sincerity” speech at the end of the rally and what it meant–an identifiable text that reporters know how to read and discern meaning from. But as Stewart notes in his speech, the speech itself means nothing without the people who showed up (or as he put it, “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: You have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted”).

So what do so many bodies mean? When journalists do turn their attention to the people, they again turn to more texts—the posters and signs these bodies carried. Reporters have used such signs to once again marginalize the rally and Stewart, as they had done repeatedly for the weeks leading up to the rally (the subject of a forthcoming Antenna post). But again, for journalists, these are the texts that speak for the body, over and above what the bodies themselves are saying by their presence.

I don’t think journalists or citizens or politicians in the 1930s had a difficult time understanding political bodies and their meaning for citizenship. Political reality was actually comprised of bodies—at train stop rallies in the North or surrounding politicians stumping from the backs of wagons and trucks in the Deep South; people assembled around radios or teemed from bars during political events; thousands upon thousands of marching Nazis; mobs lynching black men. For those of us who didn’t live in those times, these are the bodies represented in documentaries like Triumph of the Will and Why We Fight, and films like Meet John Doe and All the Kings Men. In this world, bodies comprised political reality. They were meaningful by their sheer presence.

But today, in our postmodern political reality, they seem inconsequential, despite the improvements in communication technologies to capture and represent such bodies in action. Indeed, the paradox is that hyperreality seemingly makes them meaningless or, if that is an overstatement, the hyperreality that stands for reality doesn’t know how to deal with them. Bodies are exhibited on screen, but then can be ignored, not taken into account, not used as the starting point for understanding just what an event like Saturday meant to the citizens in attendance.

For those in attendance, smashed together, standing shoulder to shoulder, unable to move in any direction yet politely and jokingly making space for the families having to leave to take Missy and Junior to the potty or carry out the poopy diaper, we literally embodied the message coming from the stage. And it was a message whose only meaning resides with and is given meaning by us. From the journalistic accounts I have seen, that is the text that reporters seemingly have no idea how to read. The “24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-conflictinator” indeed.


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What the Quran Burning Episode is NOT About Wed, 15 Sep 2010 13:24:53 +0000 In the aftermath of the media spectacle around the Reverend Terry Jones and his threat to engage in a good old-fashioned book burning ceremony (and what was popularly imagined as “Let’s hope this crazy redneck doesn’t start World War III”), the public discussion has centered on several things that miss the broader and more important points:

1. This is not about media excess. Lunatics don’t need mainstream news media to create enormous problems. Witness the Reverend Fred Phelps, infamous for his “God Hates Fags” protests. The media typically ignore his shenanigans, yet it will take a ruling by the Supreme Court to finally put an end to his protests at funerals. Here too, as Justin Elliot reported in Salon, this story was getting a lot of attention in the Muslim-world long before it became a media spectacle in the U.S. The reason why, of course, is that it fits within the broader right-wing war against Islam that is being waged daily in the U.S. and in Europe. Irrespective of whether those wars are waged over real (Iran) or fictitious (Obama as Muslim) issues, they are rightfully received as threatening to the Muslim world. Where the media has demonstrated excess is in its coverage of the Park51 “Ground Zero mosque” project, buying into the right’s cynical machinations and Fox News’ promotion of this as Issue Number One, while stoking a “controversy” where none had previously existed.

2. This is not about a lone lunatic fringe figure named Terry Jones. In suspending his antics, Jones directly linked that “deal” to the discussion over the “Ground Zero mosque.” Jones figured himself as an important figure, even a hero, in that battle. But that battle is larger than Jones, Sarah Palin, Fox News, and the other instigators of this hysterical outpouring of bigotry. What is ascendant is the tendency toward fundamentalism in American thinking and behaviors, or if not the “American” mindset writ large, certainly in the rhetoric that continues to dominate public discourse. Writing during the Cold War, political scientist Murray Edelman noted the tendency for nations to mirror their enemies. Fundamentalist thinking isn’t just that which dominates Middle Eastern politics and religion at this moment in time—it is that which consumes us as well. Jones is just one of the less “respectable” members of a much larger constituency.

3. This is not about the book-burning event itself. Now that Jones has “suspended” his ceremony and no books were actually burned, has the Muslim-world breathed a sigh of relief and gone back to its previous concerns? Protesters in Afghanistan rail on, while two have actually been killed as a result of the fervor over the stated intent to burn the Islamic holy book. Americans have, in effect, already “burned” the Quran, whether real copies were turned to ash or not. We burned it with our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. We burned it every time we offered our blind support of Israel’s worst offenses against international law. We burned it by allowing citizens to use the religion as a substitute racial epithet when attacking our president. The damage has already been done, whether Jones’s event proceeds or not.

As news media take measure of their performance during the pause in the action, perhaps they should stop obsessing about themselves and train their sights on the broader discourses of fundamentalism, bigotry, and hatred that define our times.


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Musical Performance Finally Gets Its Due in Treme Tue, 18 May 2010 12:00:39 +0000 The standout feature of David Simon’s new HBO drama, Treme, is something that almost no other show in the history of narrative television has done well, and that is present music and musical performances as central to the narrative (Cop Rock excepted!). Indeed, writers and directors have shown repeatedly that they really don’t know how to handle musical performance within a narrative, always treating it secondary to character and plot, though usually just for mise en scene. Rarely is an entire musical number aired. Seemingly half the time the musical performance is faked (or certainly not filmed and recorded as part of the action; watch the drummer for the lack of synchronization). When musical performances do appear as a feature, it often seems a gimmick for the other more important needs of narrative (think unity and closure in Ally McBeal). In short, writers have rarely treated music with respect, suggesting repeatedly that it detracts from or is superfluous to the more important business of dialogue, drama, and action.

Not so in Treme. David Simon is finally giving musicians their due. Certainly there is a degree of celebration going on here (note the enumerable appearances by famous and not-so-famous New Orleans musicians). Indeed, Simon has noted in interviews his desire to demonstrate how the culture embodied by New Orleans residents was irrepressible after the flood—that is, people had to participate in the cultural expressions that are central to who they are as members of this community. [Side note: an irrepressible spirit was also central to the characters on The Wire, but it certainly had a darker, less joyous dimension than this one].

But here Simon is giving us more than just a feel-good, touristy celebration of New Orleans’ musical heritage a la Bourbon Street and Dixieland jazz. He is treating musicians and musical performances with respect (perhaps too much so for viewers who don’t enjoy jazz and may feel burdened by the resulting narrative “rupture”). Sunday night’s episode (“Shallow Water, Oh Mama”) is a case in point. Across four storylines and sets of characters—as well as at least four musical styles—each musician is seen fighting for respect on his or her own terms as musicians and artists, while maintaining respect for “the tradition” (as jazz musicians are wont to say). Big Chief Lambreaux is determined to put his tribe back together, including rehearsing by candlelight in his decimated bar sans FEMA trailer. Both Annie and Sonny yearn for more than whoring themselves to tourists for coins with yet another rendition of “Saints.” Antoine Batiste needs a gig desperately, but refuses to succumb to the soul-crushing imperative of high-society Mardis Gras gigs and their placid and safe versions of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” And Lambreaux’s son, New York trumpeter Delmond, keeps pushing back against the need for all New Orleans musicians to “kick it old school,” demanding instead that his favored brand of post-bop jazz be given the respect it deserves as a serious art form (not to serve as just another form of booty shakin’, beer swilling music). [Side note two: Simon simultaneously offers up real life versions of these tensions between jazz styles, including traditional N.O. trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and post-bop alto saxophonist Donald Harrison as actors in this drama].

With perhaps the exception of the Indian tribe, these are experiences that all professional jazz musicians can relate to—the imperative of economic survival and what that means for the production of “music;” the reality of performing before the masses and their need for little more than a soundtrack to go about their primary concerns of jabbering incessantly or attempting to get laid; playing music that has become so cliché it is incapable of stirring the soul; and feeling the desire to say “fuck this shit” and stand up and play the tune the way it is supposed to be played. With little interest here in entering the discussions of “authenticity” and “realism” in Simon’s work, let me simply say that finally, dramatic narrative television is giving music, musical performance, and musicians their (long over)due respect.  And its been a long time coming.


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Do New Media/Social Media Distort Political Reality? Tue, 04 May 2010 13:00:29 +0000 Count me amongst those who argue that new media/social media are having an enormously beneficial effect on politics. The evidence seems overwhelming that through digital networks, citizens now have the means of enhanced political participation and engagement. But I have increasingly begun to wonder if all this participation has a distortion effect on our conception of political reality. Do blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Digg, websites, and the array of other new media and social media forms in the hands of partisans, ideologues, and just-plain old political junkies transform that which is considered meaningful? Do such media platforms and sites of engagement provide the means through which citizens now focus on the trivial, the outlandish, the spectacular, while missing larger and more important political issues. Is the tail wagging the dog?

Take the Tea Party “Movement,” for instance. By most level-headed accounts, this “outpouring” of populist rage, right-wing hatred, and visible anger is less a “movement” or political tsunami than a media event. What is worse, it is something that liberals have played an important role in constructing. Certainly cable news has played a big role here as well, helping craft the movement (see Glenn Beck), then supporting and promoting its activities at every opportunity (Fox News, but also CNN and MSNBC). But is all this attention merited? It is hard to imagine other “movements” of much greater importance—immigration reform, for instance—receiving the amount of attention these folks have received (that is, until Arizona rightwingers overplayed their hand). The same holds true for the specific politicians and wingnuts that populate and animate this “movement,” from Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann to Glenn Beck and Michael Steele. Liberals—myself included—rant, rave, scream, laugh, and gesticulate over every idiotic statement and boneheaded hiccup these folks emit, positioning ourselves somewhere between amazement at their stupidity to outright fear and terror that the clowns might end up running the circus.

By focusing on them so intently, their extremism doesn’t marginalize them, as should be the case. Instead, their nuttery becomes the center of gravity, pulling other members of the minority party toward them. And why not? Given the attention they receive, what better way to make a name for themselves when their party really has nothing else to sell? This is true whether we are talking about Jim Bunning, Joe Wilson, or Michelle Bachmann. They easily become the party “stars” of the moment. Why? Because their ideas make sense? No, because they attract attention and loathing from the left, which attracts attention and fawning from the right, not to mention money. Furthermore, they fill a media hole–reminding citizens that the Republican Party is actually alive and seemingly “standing for” something.

One might argue that this is a good thing, exposing the idiocy and downright hatred that might have been hidden in the old system of party or think-tank-driven agendas. One might also argue that such attention means the right is overplaying its hand, and therefore will alienate independents or more moderate voters who will, in the end, give such nuttery the cold shoulder it deserves. Yet new media users nevertheless participate in drawing attention away from more moderate voices, ones that could be helpful to all pragmatists interested in seeing our attention devoted to solving common problems. Again, I count myself guilty as charged.

To be sure, I am not making a technological determinist argument. New media are not responsible for this change. But given the opportunity to share, discuss, participate, explore, expose, ridicule, and foment, citizens increasingly are shaping what the political landscape looks like by focusing on things that may not deserve their place in the spotlight or may not deserve to be taken as seriously as they are taken. Maybe we should all check our dismay at the door and move on.


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The Profound Danger of Glenn Beck Tue, 20 Apr 2010 13:00:14 +0000 There is a tendency amongst moderates and liberals to simply laugh-off or scoff at Glenn Beck because he makes no factual or rational sense. What he says is historically inaccurate, thus he comes across as farce—someone difficult to take seriously. Yet obviously millions of Americans do just that (witness the Tea Party Movement, in many ways Beck’s personal creation), and it is a mistake on the part of liberals, not to mention intellectuals and the news media, not to take him seriously. Beck’s project is fundamentally corrosive, and must be publicly addressed as dangerous.

Jeff Smith argues in his excellent book, The Presidents We Imagine, that in the Great Depression, we conjured presidents (in various fictional treatments, if not also in the real life FDR) “who could reach deeply enough into citizens’ lives to solve their everyday problems.” In contrast, Glenn Beck conjures a villain—an “other,” a foreign exotic (including name, ethnicity, color, but also education and intellect) who is reaching deeply enough into citizens’ lives—marriage, health care, gun ownership, taxes, liberties—to destroy their “way of life.” If presidents are, like the nation, something we imagine, then the rhetorical project to connect Socialism and Fascism to Obama is not simply a political power play. Socialism and Fascism were real historical dangers (though sometimes they too were imagined). But the residue of those real and imaginary battles with the enemy linger. Obama, thus, is not an opponent in a democratic political arena. He is an enemy that must be eradicated, just as those previous threats were “eradicated.”

The right seeks an escape clause by arguing that what Beck does is no different than the vilification of W. Bush by liberals. Perhaps they base this claim at the level of affect, for in terms of factual specificity, they are simply wrong. Liberals pointed to specific Bush policies—such as the invasion of a sovereign nation, the suspension of the Constitution, an imperial approach to government powers, etc.—as reasons for why he should be voted out of office, if not impeached. For the current rhetorical project of the right, however, it is the vagueness of the attacks—the symbols without concrete or factual referents and their lack of correspondence to reality—that is their power. Sure, they point to specific things like health care reform or the federal stimulus legislation, but those are opposite of what the right says they are—both are efforts that bolster and sustain capitalism. Beck, in particular, has been successful at conjuring other specifics, again as shadow objects (Van Jones, Acorn, “Social Justice” Christians)—entities whose vagueness and obscurity are also their value.

Furthermore, Beck’s usage and deployment of the same techniques as that which he charges Obama of being gives this rhetoric power as well. He employs Fascist techniques in his accusations of Obama as Fascist “other.” As political scientist Murray Edelman argued, we mirror our enemies. Thus, Beck animates the Obama-Fascist he has created—he gives it life. Perhaps the audience should be forgiven for mistaking the exact location of the Fascism in the spaces between the reality and its (mirror) image. But we shouldn’t let Beck’s audience off the hook so easily. For such open signifiers allow audiences to fill them with an array of fears and hatreds, including that of racist thinking (blacks, immigrants, Arabs), economic anxieties (fat cat bankers, the deficit, taxation), and culture war fissures (abortion in the Health Care Reform legislation, supposed federal gun legislation, gay marriage).

Which leaves us with the question of the news media: Does the Miltonian self-righting principle apply here (“Let truth and falsehood grapple; whoever knew truth put to the worst in a free an open encounter”)? Who will supply the truth to counter this (beyond Jon Stewart)? Is this simply partisan speech or clever hate speech? If the former, should it be addressed as aggressively as if it were the latter, with the full moral and ethical weight of the community in near universal rebuke? Does the fact that he appears on Fox News make it seem simply partisan, therefore giving it cover as “acceptable” political speech? All of these questions need answering, and soon, for as history has demonstrated, demagoguery rarely exists without the collatoral damage of real-life victims.


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The Dark Side of YouTube Politics Tue, 30 Mar 2010 18:59:28 +0000 The 2006 and 2008 election cycles suggested a new day was dawning for citizen engagement with politics via Internet-circulated video. In 2006, Senator George Allen was caught on video spewing racial hatred to his rural Virginia constituents. When this “Macaca” video was posted to YouTube, the seeds to Allen’s downfall were planted. In 2008, an array of citizen videos concerning the campaign appeared on YouTube, many that were highly creative. They injected the language of irony and satire into the realm of what had become, in the television era, banal political speech dominated by focus-group tested messages crafted by professional spin doctors. What is more, YouTube served as an archive where citizens could search and retrieve these messages at will. It seemed that citizen-generated video might invigorate the electorate and give a new charge to democratic participation.

But as with most new technological advances, there is a looming dark side. And in this instance, it seems that Michael Moore’s chickens have come home to roost. The political right is increasingly using Moore’s guerilla video tactics of confronting public figures and recording their responses for public display. As with Michael Moore, the goal has little to do with conversation, discussion, or debate, and more to do with public embarrassment and the advancement of one’s own thesis. It is a form of street theatre. It is also typically a full-frontal assault on truth.

Bill O’Reilly’s producers have been doing this for well over a year. Anti-Acorn advocates were successful at it. Now we see a Republican entrepreneur and right-wing functionary named Jason Mattera doing the same. He runs his own website, and uses these guerilla video confrontations with numerous Democratic political figures to promote himself and his book Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation (published through Simon & Schuster, no less) via YouTube and other sites.

The latest video making the rounds is Mattera’s confrontation with Senator Al Franken about the health care bill, including a supposed section that allots $7 billion for jungle gyms. The provision, of course, says nothing of the sort, but instead says that (as Media Matters reports in its “fact checking” of Mattera) “entities receiving grants may use them toward activities such as ‘creating healthier school environments, including increasing healthy food options, physical activity opportunities, promotion of healthy lifestyle…and activities to prevent chronic diseases.’”

The dark side of all this, it seems to me, is how little truth matters when it comes to visual rhetoric. Mattera has constructed what elsewhere I have called a “believable fiction” or what Farhad Manjoo calls “true enough.” It may not say jungle gyms explicitly, but that is what it means, so it might as well say jungle gyms, Mattera asserts. Stephen Colbert, of course, calls this “truthiness.” Whatever we call it, it is a clear example of how truth really doesn’t matter in such videos—it is the performance of truthiness that triumphs. The Democrats in the videos are made to look stupid, arrogant, or elitist, while Mattera comes across as the brave citizen “speaking truth to power” or doing the job an investigative reporter would do if the media weren’t so liberal.

Given that the political right has demonstrated a willingness to believe almost anything (i.e., death panels, fake birth certificates claims, Obama as the anti-Christ), we should probably pause to reflect on the potential damages that will arise in the days and years ahead from this conjunction of supposed indexical “proof” with a certain section of the electorate’s will to truthiness. Visual rhetoric, as manifest in political videos such as this, is revisiting the dark side. Let’s look for a new hope in the foreseeable future.


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Our Intractable Ideological Moment: Surnow, The History Channel, and the Kennedys Thu, 18 Feb 2010 14:20:56 +0000 For me, the dilemma began in 1991. I was teaching an “Introduction to Political Science” class at the time, and one evening I boldly proclaimed that what the new talk radio media phenomenon, Rush Limbaugh, was saying was a load of crap. I simply assumed that anyone attending college would, of course, recognize that Limbaugh’s spurious claims, ad hominem invective, and dubious social and political analysis would be obvious to any sentient human being. I was taken aback, though, when a round-faced young man on the front row from somewhere in rural Alabama earnestly and honestly proclaimed that I was wrong—Rush Limbaugh was not lying; he spoke the truth, I was told.

Ever since that moment, I have wrestled with what I see as the fundamental issue that defines our political moment in time—the seemingly irreconcilable epistemology of liberals and conservatives. That is to say, conservatives have mobilized a full scale assault on our previously shared ways of knowing and what counts for truth. For at least two decades (if not longer) they have routinely promulgated a myth of an untrustworthy and dangerous “liberal media,” as well as “liberal elites” that supposedly dominate much of society. That has grown in recent years into a full-throated screed against any sector of society that doesn’t adhere to the orthodoxy of right-wing conservativism. While this line finds obvious currency in the rhetoric of media populists such as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Limbaugh, it is now much more pervasive through all segments of the Republican Party and conservative establishment, including politicians such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Eric Cantor, and others. Furthermore, it is now routinely a rallying cry for all ilk of ill-informed grassroots groups, including that amorphous yet dangerous grassroots populist uprising known as the Tea Baggers.

As I have argued elsewhere, what lies at the center of these attacks is an epistemological challenge to how society arrives at its truth claims. From the ridiculousness of Conservapedia (the right-wing’s answer to the supposedly liberal and anti-Christian Wikipedia) to the patently offensive assault on knowledge and history that is Glenn Beck’s “documentaries” linking Fascism and Hitler to Communism and Stalin (and by association, the great American Socialist Barack Obama), the far right is making headway in their promulgation that the old ways of arriving at knowledge are not to be trusted (a point parodied, of course, when Stephen Colbert noted that “reality has a well-known liberal bias”).

The latest flair-up in this epistemological challenge can be seen through Joel Surnow and The History Channel’s upcoming documentary on the Kennedys. Press accounts report that left-wing documentarian Robert Greenwald (Brave New Films) is spearheading a campaign to thwart what he and former Kennedy staffers see as a tawdry and malicious hatchet job on the Kennedy family. The best the press can do in trying to measure such disputes is point to a previous docudrama, The Reagans, to suggest a historical corollary. The Reagans suggested that Ronnie was “insensitive to AIDS victims, and that Nancy Reagan was shown as being reliant on a personal astrologer” (which history also suggests was true in both accounts). Surnow can, of course, assert that the Kennedys were womanizers (which is also historically accurate, however that is defined), and offer a fictionalized account that can display that in all its soap-operatic glory.

What we are left with, though, is competing truth claims—a He Said, She Said of political history and, ultimately, historical truth. But what conservatives realize is that at this moment in time, truth is up for grabs, and popular culture is as good a realm as any (if not better than most) for making historically revisionist claims to alter history toward their preferred readings. With a distrust of elites, a delegitimized news media, a populist-paranoic rise in anti-intellectualism, and a hyper-ideological political culture, what constitutes historical truth (and even contemporary reality) is and will be hotly contested in the foreseeable future. It is a contestation that will be played out repeatedly and with much gusto across media platforms, formats, and genres. When such conflict is derived from a profound difference in our (no longer) shared ways of knowing, I am unsure how society arrives at the “common good.” In sum, if the conflict really is epistemological, I am worried it is going to get worse before it gets better–and frankly, that scares the piss out of me.


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