Mediating the Past – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Mediating the Past: JFK and the Docudrama Fri, 22 Nov 2013 15:00:47 +0000 martin-sheenJFK has consistently been polled as the most popular past president of the United States. There are perhaps many reasons for this, and I am sure the mythic Camelot discourse that surrounded his presidency and his tragic death play a part in JFK’s continued popularity. However, Kennedy’s political career also coincided with the rise of television broadcasting, and his administration was one of the first to exploit television and mass media to promote JFK, his family, and his policies to the public. JFK is significant to the mediation of history in many ways, and the least of which is the fact that his presidency occurred in a modern era, and recordings of his speeches, or Jacqueline Kennedy’s famous televised tour of the White House, or even his death as documented in the Zapruder film, have become important stock footage that not only convey meaning about the Kennedy family or his presidency, but can also represent the turmoil and loss of innocence many associate with 1960s America. The recreation of this stock footage is one of the elements often used in scripted docudramas about the Kennedy clan, which encourages viewers to make sense of televisual recreations of the past as  “authentic” cultural memory, and provide those of us who were not alive at the time an engagement with our collective national history. On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, this post considers how fictional depictions of Kennedy represent history and engage cultural memory.


A young Patrick McDreamy Dempsey as JFK in Reckless Youth.

In the history of broadcast television in the United States, there have been no less than eight fictional historical mini-series and made-for-TV movies about the Kennedy family.Those that have focused on JFK specifically include ABC’s 1974 made-for-TV movie Missiles of October, which told the story of the Kennedy Administration’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis and based. There is also NBC’s 1983 Kennedy, which is a five-part mini-series depicting JFK’s presidency, and notably starred Martin Sheen as the ill-fated president. ABC showed the three-part miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts in 1990, which primarily focuses on the early history of the family, beginning with Joseph Kennedy’s courtship of Rose Fitzgerald and ending with JFK’s inauguration speech. One of my personal favorites is ABC’s 1993 miniseries JFK: Reckless Youth, which starred Patrick Dempsey as John F. Kennedy, and chronicled JFK’s youth through to his first congressional election. These representations, for the most part, reinforce JFK’s public persona as a cold war warrior, and are emblematic of a 1960s brand of New Frontiersman masculinity, typified by his reputation as a brilliant scholar and athlete at an Ivy League university, and membership within groups mainly exclusive to men, including boarding schools, fraternities, the military, clubs, and government. And yet, also personalized by his unique Boston accent, and Irish Catholic ethnicity.

kinnearIn January, 2011, The History Channel announced that it would not be airing its mini-series The Kennedys for U.S. audiences. THC picked up The Kennedys project in December, 2009, and it starred Greg Kinnear as JFK, Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy, and was produced by 24 creator Joel Surnow. It was part of the network’s greater push from Executive Vice President and General Manager Nancy Dubuc to expand into glossy, cinematic fare, and The Kennedys was slated to be THC’s first scripted original docudrama program. As you may know, THC decided to drop The Kennedys after a series of protests online at Stop Kennedy Smears, although it still aired on THC’s global network in the UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Looking at the objections protestors had about The Kennedys, which were based on leaked copies of the miniseries script, it is clear the JFK’s masculinity is at the forefront of concerns. Protestors comments that this miniseries demeans JFK’s legacy by making him out to be emotionally and physically weak, portraying him as a man with a crippling back injury, as well as a sex addict and a drug addict. This public outcry illuminates how The Kennedys was interpreted as a challenge to JFK’s mythic New Frontiersman masculinity.

small_HistoryChannel_TheKennedys_AKA_i02-1The infamous 2011 The Kennedys mini-series is a bit heavy handed in its re-telling of John F. Kennedy’s story. The Kennedys begins its program with an emphasis on JFK’s back pain, and throughout the series is aggressive in its characterization of Jack Kennedy as an incapacitated leader during his presidency. This is compounded as he is treated in secret for his back pain with shots of methamphetamine, and when he isn’t grimacing in pain, or getting doped up on meth, he is usually overshadowed by a father he cannot stand up to or lying to Jackie about his infidelities. And while some of these aspects may be backed up by historical evidence, it is a portrayal US audiences are not accustomed to seeing, and which did not resonant with some viewers’ conception of who JFK was. What this does demonstrate is the role of audiences in historical meaning making through television, as well as the contested nature of historical television and collective memory.

National Geographic’s Killing Kennedy is the most recent JFK historical docudrama to air on television in the United States. In the As you know, it is not the first televisual account of JFK’s life, however it is the first to be based on a book written by Bill O’Reilly, directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Rob Lowe in the titular role as Kennedy. His Kennedy accent alone is worth the watch. This miniseries is perhaps different from its predecessors in the way it parallels the story of JFK and Jackie along side Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife Marina. In this sense, it is an attempt to reassert the official narrative about JFK’s assassination by a lone gunman on the grassy knoll, and attempts to explain Oswald’s motivations for killing the president. O’Reilly’s book is reportedly full of factual inaccuracies, and this straightforward story about the assassination challenges the conspiracy theories still circulating about JFK’s death. Nevertheless, Killing Kennedy drew 3.4 M viewers to National Geographic when it aired on Sunday, November 10th, which is a viewership record for National Geographic. More importantly, both the production investments in big name producers, stars, and a Hollywood director, as well as the popularity of Killing Kennedy, demonstrate the continued fascination with retelling JFK’s story through televisual docudrama.



The Diets of the Goldbergs Tue, 20 Aug 2013 13:00:08 +0000 The Goldbergs.]]> 1

Dieting is as American as apple pie. As Jerry Mosher notes in “Setting Free the Bears: Refiguring Fat Men on Television” from Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, “Dieting is such an American institution… most American sitcoms sooner or later do a ‘dieting show'” (188). This has been true since at least the fifties, when The Honeymooners and The Goldbergs both featured fat lead characters and episodes on dieting. However, The Goldbergs has the rare distinction of featuring at least two dieting episodes, airing only two years apart with drastically different resolutions. These two episodes from the early family sitcom demonstrate how ambivalent approaches to corpulence have long coexisted in American culture.

Series creator and writer Gertrude Berg had a self-deprecating but strategic awareness of her size. Embodying the role of Molly Goldberg for three decades, Berg capitalized on the meanings of her character through a number of paratextual products, including a cookbook and line of plus-sized house-dresses. Three factors may have insulated Berg from conventional pressures to reduce throughout her career: her establishment in radio; her matriarchal main role; and her Jewish background, since “off-white” ethnicities have often been associated with larger sizes in American culture. However, moving from the aural medium of radio to the visual medium of television may have increased those pressures. Mid-fifties competition may also have played a part, especially with the bevy of thinner, younger wives from the WASP-populated middle-class suburban family sitcoms that followed in The Goldbergs‘ wake.

Molly Goldberg’s size takes center stage in at least two episodes, number 25 from the DuMont run in 1954 and number 66 (“Milk Farm”) from the Guild Films syndication run in 1956. The episodes are remarkable for their similarities and differences. Chief among the similarities is their incorporation of the tropes of weight-loss narratives. These include forms of confession and surveillance, through the use of counseling, scales, and before-and-after photographs.

Both also feature work-out scenes that emphasize evolutions in televisual style through differing takes on similar routines. The 1954 episode, aired live, involves a long take through deep space. The camera captures a long shot of women working out simultaneously on different machines, then moves into and through the space, getting closer shots until finding Molly in a steam cabinet. The 1956 episode, edited for syndicated broadcast, functions as a conventional montage: single takes of women at different machines combine to represent discrete moments over time.

However, the biggest difference between the two episodes resides in their treatment of Molly’s efforts and results. In both, Molly cheats on her diet and fails to lose weight. In the first, the family supports her endeavor but finds the process amusing. When Molly reveals she’s ultimately lost no weight, they surround her with affection and console her with a bowl of ice cream.


In the second, the family supports Molly’s husband Jake in forcing her to go to a milk farm. Booted for cheating, Molly returns home to find a letter to the family detailing her crimes. At dinner Jake then shames her, calling Molly a “compulsive eater” who can’t control herself. She explodes:

“I am not! I am a human being like you and like you and like you! You think going away to drink milk is the answer? It is not!… How should I learn self control with skimmed milk? I don’t want to be forbidden forbidden fruits! I want to be surrounded by them! I want to be the one to say no!”

3Molly then appears to prove Jake right, storming into the kitchen and devouring spaghetti behind closed doors. She returns to the living room with only bread on her plate, chomps a carrot, and indignantly exclaims “I don’t need a policeman!” before the episode ends.

One reason for the differing treatments here may be the change in the series setting. By the second episode, the Goldbergs have moved from the Bronx to suburban Haverville, changing their sociocultural meanings as much as their geographical location. Such aspirational migrations often compel corporeal alterations. Likewise, assimilation to their new environment (and new producers) may have involved attempts at not only trimming the Goldbergs’ Jewishness but also their size. The episode’s battle over Molly’s body reflects the angst from all these adjustments, as well as Gertrude Berg’s own dissatisfactions with the demands of Guild Films and the direction of her show.

Ultimately, the contradictory aspects of these two episodes are invaluable in framing ambivalent experiences of corpulence operative both then and now. Together, they highlight the negotiations over the body between self and others–the networks that help to shape the body and our perceptions of it–as well as the conflicts within. Gertrude Berg’s inspirations and intentions with both episodes may not be fully known, but her writing and performing in both provide a glimpse into the complexities of size in American culture at that moment that still resonate today.


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Mediating the Past: Licensing History, One Game At a Time Fri, 30 Nov 2012 16:43:54 +0000 **This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how history is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series has always been invested in history: its central conceit is a machine, the Animus, that allows hero Desmond Miles to travel through his ancestral past unlocking details of an epic battle between the Assassins and the evil Templars. This overarching story has taken players through a collection of cities such as Florence, Venice, Rome, and Constantinople, each painstakingly recreated based on extensive research on the time periods in question.

However, with Assassin’s Creed III the series enters new territory, literally, moving its focus to North America with a game primarily set in Boston and New York during the American Revolution. The result has been an increase in discourse around the series’ approach to history, best captured by Slate’s “The American Revolution: The Game.” Lamenting the lack of realistic portrayals of the colonial era, Erik Sofge writes of Ubisoft Montreal’s bravery in embracing the underwhelming aesthetics of the period with a Colonial Boston that is “boldly, fascinatingly ugly.” Arguing that the general monotony makes the game’s standout moments all the more remarkable, Sofge commends the game, calling it “one of the best, most visceral examinations of the history of the Revolutionary War.”

When considering the Assassin’s Creed series in regards to mediating the past, its relationship to actual history—as in history as it happened—is limited. While heroes like Connor or Ezio might intersect with famous historical figures like George Washington or Pope Alexander VI, or weave their way through a particular historical event, their exploits—science fictional as they are—remain distinct enough that any label other than historical fiction would be undeserved, even if the games’ broader narratives stick largely to basic historical fact (unlike some planned downloadable content).

Indeed, the game’s developers have made a key distinction in the past: in an interview prior to the release of Assassin’s Creed II, creative director Patrice Désilets revealed, “I like to say that histories are licensed. So, yes we can take some liberties, but not too much, otherwise…what’s the point, right?” While we normally consider licensed video games as those based on other media properties—movies, television shows, comic books—the idea of licensing history is similar: the basic details of the licensed property are mediated through the principles of game design and the result is a product undoubtedly based on, but unlikely to be an exact recreation of, the original.

Of course, much as licensed games are often judged based on their authenticity (or lack thereof), Ubisoft Montreal must face questions of historical accuracy; this could lead to Sofge’s effusive praise of the developer’s commitment to representing this period in history, or The Globe and Mail’s objections to the game’s alleged suggestion that “indigenous peoples rallied to the side of the colonists.” Regardless of whether either argument has merit—ignoring that the Globe and Mail argument shows zero evidence the authors have played or even researched the game in question—they reflect the risk and reward in licensing something as meaningful as history, particularly American history: put another way, these same conversations weren’t as visible when the series was licensing European histories less familiar to the world’s largest gaming market.

Although the final judgment on Assassin’s Creed III’s historical accuracy lies in the game itself (which I haven’t played yet), I’m more interested in how the licensing of history is understood within pre-release hype surrounding the release of each game. Ubisoft’s claim to pure historical capital is tenuous, particularly before people have played the game, but they can more readily make a claim to gaming capital as it relates to historical accuracy. The accomplishment is not in the end result—the accuracy of which we can’t even really judge, given we didn’t live in the 18th century—but rather in the painstaking efforts necessary to recreate the minutiae of 18th-century Boston on an immense scale worthy of today’s high-powered consoles. Previews and interviews allow the developers to make this labor visible, detailing the process whereby historical capital is translated through—or, more critically, disciplined by—the logics of game design in order to create the most satisfying experience for the player while nonetheless maintaining that direct line to historical capital.

Concept art for the younger version of Connor featured in ACIII.

This notion of discipline is important, here, though: while history brings potential cultural capital, disciplining that history brings cultural consequences, particularly in a game that features a Native American hero (as Connor’s other was of Mohawk descent). Ubisoft’s narrative, however, firmly encloses the discussion of Native American representation within the rigor of the development process rather than the gameplay experience of the final product. Sofge’s article details their cultural sensitivity through the use of a Mohawk liaison and their commitment to authentic Mohawk dialogue, effectively reporting Ubisoft’s due diligence rather than how it manifests in gameplay; a similar process, rather than product, is revealed in Matt Clark’s profile of ACIII writer Corey May. Within game development this level of cultural accommodation is considered remarkable, allowing Ubisoft’s stated commitment to accuracy to potentially circumvent any criticism of how the game’s design complicates its representation of indigenous peoples (as simply the details about May’s diligence seem to impress the professor of Native American studies consulted for Clark’s article, who has not played the game in question).

As with all licensed properties, then, Ubisoft carefully manages the place of history within the Assassin’s Creed series, much as the series itself is closely managed as the developer’s most successful franchise. When Ryan Smith suggested a roaming art installation featuring works inspired by the game’s historical period was more apt to comment on the revolution of the Occupy movement than the generic “Get Out The Vote” connection on offer, Ubisoft responded that “I think that we have tried not to read into this that much, to be honest. At the end of the day, this is just a video game.” The cultural capital of licensing history has value up until the point that cultural capital becomes politicized or problematized, at which point Assassin’s Creed III ceases being about history, and focuses exclusively on the gaming capital to which Ubisoft can more comfortably claim ownership.


Mediating the Past: Treme and the Stories of the Storm Wed, 14 Nov 2012 13:43:34 +0000

**This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how history is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

HBO’s Treme, now well into its third season, continues to occupy a borderland where lines of fiction, performance, art and journalism converge. Some characters are based on prominent figures in New Orleans such as civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, the inspiration for Toni Burnette (Melissa Leo). Other musicians, singers, chefs, and Mardi Gras Indians slide in and out of the series playing themselves. Real, composite, or invented (including the more problematic roles of cops or developers) they weave through the battered fragments that constitute the story of Hurricane Katrina, a humanitarian disaster that continues the destruction of New Orleans even as the city recovers. The hurricane remains catastrophic, but is now understood as part of an equally forceful historical flow, one defined by the legacy of power, corruption and racism. Mining the details of the hurricane embedded in the city, the producers have created a hybrid genre as they seek both accuracy and entertainment. Truth is often found in the artful, liminal spaces that dance onto the screen, propelled by the musical forces that drive the city. But the center of this narrative is always located deep in the heart of its characters, real or constructed.

Treme does not simply revisit a post-Katrina sequence of events. It tracks the mediated versions of them, underlining, commenting and critiquing previous formulations, re-inventing the story and becoming part it. Such mediations began from the start, best illustrated in a contentious exchange, after which Creighton Burnette (John Goodman) throws a newscaster’s microphone into the river. It was a strong redress to initial “disaster myth” coverage, which further victimized residents in the flooded city that Maureen Dowd characterized as “a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs.”

A main thread in season 3 also traces existing media footprints, this time augmenting an investigative expose. When freelance reporter L. P. Everett (Chris Coy) arrives in town he begins to unravel the enigma of human bone fragments strewn across the back seat of a burned-out sedan left about a block from the Fourth District Police Station. This on-going plot sequence refers to A. C. Thompson’s investigation into the police murder of Henry Glover, published in 2008 as “Body of Evidence” by ProPublica. Exposing Glover’s murder became part of a larger investigation that aired in 2010 as a Frontline Documentary “Law and Disorder.”

On Treme, the dogged Everett pores over files, connects a name to a number, cold calls potential witnesses, and gets a break on episode 4 when a law-enforcement source meets him in a café and shows him grisly pictures of the scene taken by police. Everett eventually locates the out-of-state forensic pathologist who first believed the charred remains pointed to murder. During Everett’s interview the words of the medical examiner are virtually identical to the quote in Thompson’s initial reporting, which are also spoken by the real doctor on Frontline: “When I heard he was found in a burned car I thought that was a classic homicide scenario: you kill someone and burn the body to get rid of the evidence.” A.C. Thompson’s description of meeting the source in the café reads like the set directions from Treme.

Glover was only one of the victims after Katrina, when police were told they could shoot looters. Mary Howell explains on Frontline, that the long-history of NOPD corruption and brutality resulted in the breakdown of professionalism during the hurricane. On March 31, 2011, a federal judge sentenced ex-officer David Warren to 25 years for shooting Henry Glover with an assault rifle.

When I ask Mary Howell about criminal justice depictions on Treme, she usually concludes with, “remember the program is fiction.” It is true that unlike Tony Burnette, Mary Howell did not have a husband who killed himself, and we don’t know if A. C. Thompson is really a fan of heavy metal. But when L.P. Everett jumps into the mosh pit it makes sense for the character. In these emotional and expressive spaces, fiction meets journalism.

Treme’s mediation of the past through the lens of past media can be temporally disconcerting. Episode 7, Promised Land, aired November 4th, and depicted the third Mardi Gras after the storm, yet it is presently 7 years after Katrina. In Promised Land, Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) meets Kimberly Rivers Roberts who hands him a DVD of Trouble the Water. The documentary features Roberts’ video footage of Katrina flooding her home in the Lower 9th Ward. Some viewers surely remember the film, which was widely reviewed and won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2008. Watching Delmond watch it might have been little more than intertextual nostalgia, but amid the unfinished interior of his father’s damaged home, we see it steel his commitment as he returns to sewing his Indian suit.

This season Chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) is sick. Though diagnosed with lymphoma, he refuses to start chemotherapy until after Mardi Gras. He, Delmond and the gang continue sewing the suits for what may be his last walk. In Episode 4, Delmond takes him to the Musicians’ Clinic, an actual non-profit facility. (The cast and producers of Treme have been involved in fundraising for the clinic.) As they prepare for Mardi Gras, Guardians of the Flame practice their chants at LaDonna’s bar, and dance with Big Chief Howard Miller of Creole Wild West. The sequence of the Indians on Mardi Gras in episode 7 features Lambreaux meeting another Big Chief, Wallace Pardo of Golden Comanche, some of which can be seen in this video with the Neville Bros. It is a stunning visual and musical mix, true to what Chief Howard told me when I asked him about the history of the Indians last March, “You see an Indian coming, you see honor and respect. It is about bringing dignity to the people and the neighborhoods. Slavery itself was a physical and biological war. [Slaves] used Mardi Gras to celebrate joy and love of themselves.”


Mediating the Past: Sacred History and Sacrilegious Television Comedy Wed, 22 Aug 2012 13:23:37 +0000

**This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how history is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

In a 2009 episode, Family Guy joked about a world in which JFK had never been shot. This was not an earnest exploration of historical causality however, but a setup to a gruesome site gag replacing JFK’s assassination with Mayor McCheese’s. To make matters worse, after the parody’s eerily accurate recreation of the event, Jacqueline Kennedy climbs onto the back of the car not to flee, but to eat the McViscera. Of course, offensive humor is Family Guy‘s stock in trade and a spin around the young-skewing dial from FOX to Comedy Central to Adult Swim reveals a host of gags about collective traumas from the assassinations of the 1960s to the catastrophes of 9/11 and Katrina in the 2000s. Even more recent events like the Penn State scandal and the Aurora shootings have comics laughingly asking, “Too soon?”

Joking on these topics offends because they are sacred moments in popular culture’s understanding of its own history. Reportage defines these events using a combination of extreme seriousness and emotion, marking them as sacred in the senses of their importance, uniqueness, and as common touchstones for popular memory. Indeed, the two most archetypal “national traumas” remain the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. The cliche stating that everyone recalls where they were when they first heard about either highlights their importance to both individual and national history. The rules governing humor in bad taste highlight the complex and often ambiguous conflicts of different values in culture. In these instances for example, solemnity regarding the events runs against the respect for free expression tested by sick jokes.

More practically for television, this humor represents an attempt to corner valuable young demographics, but risks public, advertiser, and regulatory flak. So while this humor is governed by the time elapsed since the initial event and decorum of the period, its appearance on television gives particular insight into the growth of narrowcasting and sick humor in the last half century. As the archetypal national trauma of the television era, the JFK assassination not only demonstrates this growth, but the ways in which television comedy has come to play with these events, in a sense rejecting the sacred framework.

In 1983, Eddie Murphy grew tired of his signature SNL character and decided to kill Buckwheat. While obviously in dialogue with the recent shootings of John Lennon and the pope, the bit alluded most directly to the recent Reagan shooting. Certainly, Reagan’s survival helped make this event available for SNL‘s humor, but while Buckwheat’s assassin was a composite of Reagan’s and Lennon’s mentally ill shooters, Buckwheat’s assassin, John David Stutts (also played by Murphy), was killed while being led down a hallway in handcuffs. SNL thus played it relatively safe by limiting its most direct references to Oswald’s death and not JFK’s. Nevertheless, this is one of the first (possibly the very first) example of a comedy show parodying the assassination in any way and it occurred notably on a late-night show known, even as late as 1983, for its edginess.

When the cultural zeitgeist of the early 1990s turned towards conspiracy theorist’s view of history, JFK’s death figured heavily. Along with The X-Files, Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK was arguably conspiracy culture’s central text. Television’s growing penchant for parody in the 1990s meant shows like The Simpsons, The Critic, and The Ben Stiller Show would reference the film. But a 1992 episode of Seinfeld left the greatest mark on pop culture. In explaining why they “despise” Keith Hernandez, Kramer and Newman convey the story of having been spat on, launching into an extended stylistic parody of JFK.

Although airing during prime time, Seinfeld skewed young, urban, and liberal–especially in 1992 when it had yet to dominate the ratings. During the season in question, the program aired at 9:30 Eastern in between the risque, if juvenile, humor of Night Court and Quantum Leap, a show often about working through historical trauma. More importantly, though playing with the imagery of the assassination, Seinfeld acts more as a parody of Stone’s stylistic excess rather than a joke about Kennedy’s death.

Despite its apparent edginess, the magic loogie bit would pale in comparison to the ways in which parodists like self-consciously sick Family Guy played with this imagery later. Despite rocky beginnings this program has surpassed The Simpsons as the crown jewel in FOX’s valuably young-skewing Sunday night lineup and acts as the centerpiece to a growing cadre of Seth MacFarlane productions. In 1999, but since cut from reruns, a young boy holds up his “JFK Pez Dispenser” just as a stray bullet shatters its head. Ominously, the child consoles himself with his Bobby Kennedy dispenser.

Like the 2009 Mayor McCheese gag, this joke plays on juxtapositions between sacred politicians and childhood trifles. But they also elicit “I-can’t-believe-they-just-did-that” laughter. They stack uncomfortable humor on top of the fundamental joke. Even by Family Guy‘s standards though, the 1999 gag was edgy. But the shattered plastic of 1999 is downright tame compared to Jackie Kennedy eating Mayor McCheese’s head.

Since the early 80s then, this type of sacrilegious humor has not only grown more extreme, but has moved from fringe programming hours into prime time. To some extent, general social factors like generational shift, the time elapsed since 1963, and broadly-labeled “permissiveness” account for these examples’ increasingly flippant attitude towards sacred history. More pointedly, the network tendency towards ever-more-specific demographics has allayed standards & practices, network, and FCC fears with the assumption that easily offended audiences would not be watching. For a particular demographic, often one too young to remember the moment directly, moments of common historical importance are increasingly being inflected with the flippant attitude of sick humor.


Mediating the Past: Radiolab Revisits the Crossroads Wed, 25 Jul 2012 13:00:33 +0000 **This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how history is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

The Radiolab episode “Crossroads” aired on April 16, 2012 and exemplified how this public radio program uses sound to explore the past for listeners. Radiolab has won numerous awards, has a significant audience, and is on tour this fall around the country. It is thus an important site where listeners interact with narratives about our history, one of the many subjects Radiolab engages with. Radiolab is a program structured around curiosity, and explores familiar issues from a new perspective. We hear this in “Crossroads,” as Radiolab explores the cultural myths that surround the successful and mysterious blues musician Robert Johnson going down to the crossroads in the 1920s and selling his soul to the devil for the talent to play the guitar.

Oh Brother Where Art Thou's Tommy Johnson sold his soul to the devil for guitar talents--a story reminiscent of Robert Johnson's legend.

This is not a current event story, not breaking news, but an issue that digs at the myths and material traces related to Johnson, myths that have pervaded our culture for the last century. It can be heard on Cream’s “Crossroads” or seen in the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou. Radiolab mixes actuality sound (sound recorded outside of the studio on location) with new interviews, archived interviews, and music, around the voices of co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. All of these components overlap and function together as Radiolab becomes an academic investigation, an artful montage of sounds, and an informal fireside chat. Thus, Radiolab blurs the line between reality and art to tell a story that will pique listeners’ interest in cultural history, a topic with the potential to get boring.

One of the key elements of the show is the dialogue between co-hosts Abumrad and Krulwich. They intentionally use an informal, conversational style to get listeners interested and engaged. Scripted and edited before the show airs, their “natural” discussions invite the listener to feel at ease. Their dialogue also functions in another way, as Abumrad usually tells a story or explains some phenomenon and Krulwich–a stand-in for the audience–asks questions and tries to make sense of what Abumrad is saying. Krulwich’s questions are absolutely scripted, but sound as if they come up spontaneously in conversation.

The infamous crossroads in Clarksdale, MI, which Abumrad tells us is now a tourist attraction.

We hear this at the beginning of “Crossroads” as Abumrad begins to tell Krulwich about his recent trip to the crossroads at midnight and meet the devil. Before he does, we hear actuality noise of the car and the wind as Abumrad talks with someone named Pat and admits that he “is starting to regret doing this.” He then tells us Pat turned off the headlights to scare him. At this point, we have no idea where Abumrad is. This actuality noise builds mystery and engages the listener’s curiosity. Abumrad’s voice begins to narrate over this recording, overlapping with the sounds of him and Pat in the car. Krulwich jumps in, asking, “well, where are you?” Abumrad explains he was in the Mississippi Delta. By listening to this exchange, we can see how dialogue works to tell a story in a more engaging way than if Abumrad just reported where he was and what he was doing. We also see how Krulwich becomes an audience surrogate, acting as if he too is in the dark and does not know Abumrad’s whereabouts, which is doubtful.

Radiolab co-hosts Krulwich and Abumrad.

This segment also points to the show’s overlapping sound tracks, a technique used to help listeners inhabit Johnson’s story. Abumrad continues to tell Krulwich about his trip to Mississippi. The actuality noise fades out as he segues into discussing Johnson, the myths that surround him, and then blues music. Music, interviews, and archived sounds are woven through Abumrad and Krulwich’s discussion as Abumrad takes us through the history of this myth about Johnson and the devil. In “Crossroads,” their conversation moved listeners from one piece of sonic evidence to another as Abumrad essentially builds an almost academic study of Johnson. We hear interviews with historians and music critics; we hear details read from historical records and artifacts; we hear Johnson’s music. These components are pieced together to convey both an exploration and an argument about Johnson.

At the end, the very work of historiography and compiling past narratives is troubled and complicated. In an interview, a historian recants something he wrote about Johnson. As he studied the famous blues artist through oral histories and official records, he came to find out that there were many guitar players in the South at that time named Robert Johnson. We end the program on this note of uncertainty, but Abumrad tells us that we still have recordings of Johnson and perhaps that’s enough. Johnson’s music plays underneath Abumrad’s words. Then Krulwich directs us to further reading on the topic. Here is where we can see Radiolab‘s goal–not to provide listeners with a clear finite answer to a question about the history of Johnson, but rather to arouse our curiosity on the subject and perhaps encourage us to question dominant narratives of the past.


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Mediating the Past: History and Ancestry in NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Thu, 12 Jul 2012 14:45:46 +0000 **This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how history is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA?) transports viewers through time and space by tracing American celebrities’ ancestries. The show is one of ten international offshoots from the BBC’s show of the same name. Each episode of NBC’s version follows the genealogy of a well-known celebrity. In its three seasons, the show has featured the family trees of Steve Buscemi, Rashida Jones, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Martin Sheen, among others. For each episode, the show’s research team works with corporate sponsor’s genealogists to trace one or more lines of the celebrities’ family trees. The documentary-style show takes the celebrities to the locations of their historic family moments, both in the United States and abroad, and chronicles their reactions to the historians and historical documents that reveal their ancestors’ pasts. The show is based upon a premise that is repeated in the show’s title sequence, “To know who you are, you have to know where you came from.”

WDYTYA? is fascinating because it tells histories that are different from those most Americans learn from textbooks and celebrated national stories. To help viewers understand the triumphs and injustices uncovered while researching each celebrity’s history, the series regularly includes brief segments that give viewers relevant historical context. Though critics and viewers have largely overlooked the series (its cancellation in May 2012 received no fanfare), its stories are rich and compelling historical lessons about immigration, assimilation, gender, race, and class—their emphasis on both diversity and unity echoes the discourse of the American “melting pot.” Some of the most compelling episodes, however, are those where relatively little information about a celebrity’s ancestors can be found. These episodes shine a light on the fact that the histories of Americans with little economic, political, or cultural power were recorded unevenly (or not recorded at all), and usually focus on one of the United States’ most shameful and devastating practices: slavery.

Through the ancestries of Spike Lee, Emmitt Smith, Vanessa Williams, Lionel Richie, Blair Underwood, and Jerome Bettis, we learn about “the wall” many African Americans hit when trying to uncover their histories. In each of these episodes, we watch disappointed and frustrated Black celebrities learn that their ancestors’ histories are segregated in documents like the “Slave Schedule” (a census-like document used to collect information about slaves), which lists the number and characteristics (sex, age, color, literacy, mental capacity) of slaves owned, but infrequently contains their names. Instead of the typical “go-to” sources white celebrities use to locate their family histories, Black celebrities must read the diaries and wills of slave-owners to find faint traces of their family members’ fates. And unlike the other celebrities WDYTYA? features, many Black celebrities cannot visit their family members’ graves because their burial sites were only marked provisionally, if at all.

The most compelling moments in episodes of WDYTYA? that feature Black celebrities come when they can break through “the wall.” For example, Bettis feels pride when he learns that his three-times-great-grandfather, hit by a steam engine, successfully sued the Illinois Central Railroad; and Williams is humbled to learn her great-great-grandfather risked his life as a Black union soldier fighting in the American south. Further, WDYTYA? uses DNA tests to trace Underwood’s and Smith’s ancestors to particular villages in Africa, and in Underwood’s case, introduces him to a distant relative. These episodes end with cathartic pride as Black celebrities reclaim pieces of their family histories that at first seemed unrecoverable. These inspiring emotional moments, however, overshadow the fact that the experiences of Black women who shaped and, quite literally, birthed these histories, are absent.

This is particularly frustrating given that many celebrities, like Lee and Underwood, begin their journey hoping to explore the ancestry of a beloved female relative. Bettis’ episode, for example, is driven by his desire to learn more about his mother’s ancestry, yet glosses over evidence that his great grandmother and grandmother were abandoned in the early 1900s, and focuses instead on his great grandfather’s bravery for taking legal action against his abusive white employer at a spoke factory. WDYTYA? sidesteps discussion of enslaved Black women’s experiences of master-slave rape with euphemisms like “commingling” in Smith’s episode. Similarly, Richie passes over evidence that his enslaved great-great-grandmother was raped and praises his ancestor’s slave master for providing for his own mulatto children, saying, “to protect what was his was just the greatest gift.” Only Lee acknowledges his mulatto heritage is a product of slave rape, but neither he nor the show explore what that reality might have been like for his ancestors or Black women more generally.

WDYTYA?‘s efforts to break through “the wall” by uncovering and narrating our ancestors’ lost stories are vitally important. Still, as compelling and significant as Black men’s narratives are, their histories are incomplete without Black women’s voices. And, considering the show’s inclusion of white women’s historical narratives (notably in episodes featuring Susan Sarandon and Helen Hunt), the omission of Black women’s experiences is all the more problematic. Though our female ancestors’ stories have long been overshadowed by their husbands’ and fathers’ histories, Black women’s historical narratives tell equally important and compelling stories–and they should be told on WDYTYA? and elsewhere, no matter how fragmented or uncomfortable. Without Black women’s stories, we can never really know “who we are” or “where we came from.”


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Mediating the Past: The Future of Media History Wed, 27 Jun 2012 12:39:53 +0000

**This post is part of our series, Mediating the Past, which focuses on how the past is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

I had an epiphany at Half Price Books one day last spring. They had placed hundreds of DVDs (including many TV box sets) into special clearance racks, priced at $3 each. These weren’t the usual bargain-bin titles, but mostly major releases of the past several years. While they still have several shelves devoted to DVD and Blu-Ray, this was a significant clearing-out of media with apparently little perceived value. It dawned on me at that moment that if the looming end of the DVD was hitting used book stores, than it was time to prepare for it.

We live in an era of incredible access to media, and an increasingly impressive array of digital tools with which to curate and analyze them. That much is certain. However, we’re also living through an era of media extinction, as physical media forms disappear to the proverbial “cloud.” A four-decade boom in accessible and convenient physical audiovisual media (from the audio and video cassette to the Blu-Ray disc) is clearly ending. Media distributors are more concerned about lining up digital license agreements than securing physical shelf space. Media hardware manufacturers emphasize internet connectivity and streaming apps rather than optical disc drives. Moreover, the newest generation of laptops and even desktop computers do not even have optical drives.

As physical media, and the ability to play it, disappears, we’re told to look to the clouds. The impermanence of the metaphor, as I look out on a cloudless sky, is telling. As longstanding battles over online content distribution have indicated, the content of the cloud will always be contingent. The phrase “on demand” associated with the cloud is best understood as “only what’s available today, under these specific terms, which will probably be different tomorrow.” This uncertainty applies to every ostensibly physical media form we might use, as books and periodicals become e-books, microfilm becomes PDFs, and film and television become streaming videos, and all become locked up  in “the cloud.” Moreover, it applies equally to media consumers at all levels, including academic research libraries.

Thus, this Age of Digital Plenty is at best an exaggeration, and at worst bullshit. Unless you have a hard copy (or an external hard disk) on your shelf, and the necessary hardware and/or software to use it, you’re at the mercy of the clouds. Even the illicit corners of the Internet may not save you (lest we forget what happened to Megaupload).

This shift from atoms to bits corresponds with and exacerbates a more existential challenge: what is history for? More precisely, what is media history for? While this has always been the key question at the heart of every investigation of the past, it has rapidly become even more pressing. Mediated traces of the past keep piling up faster and faster, yet our attitudes towards them reveal a growing separation between instrumental and historical uses. On the one hand, the now-classic postmodern value of remixing and repurposing bits of the past has certainly been a liberating, and at times, provocative practice. However, it has coincided with a retreating cultural interest in the contexts of the past, as “history” is understood more as arrays of “cool stuff” and “cool stories” than as narratives of the present. Our pasts are either mythologized (cf Mad Men, or the retromania critiqued by Simon Reynolds), or deliberately ignored (all the “boring stuff” nobody has yet posted on tumblr). An ongoing debate in television blogging and criticism of late has even seriously questioned whether pre-1990 (or more commonly, pre-Sopranos) television has any aesthetic value, as if it were the primordial muck from which today’s “serious and ambitious” television emerged.

As curators of the media past, we not only need to critically engage with these historiographical ideologies and methods in these times of shifting temporality and materiality; we also need to politically intervene on the past’s behalf, protecting physical media, whether on print, microfilm, film, vinyl, tape, optical disc, digital code, or any other form. While it is essential to also work to convert and maintain online access to digital versions of these media (yes, in the cloud), we can’t assume that offline resources will always be there. Sometime within the next decade, there won’t be any more DVD shelves at Half Price Books.


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Mediating the Past: Mad Men’s Sophisticated Weekly Get Together Fri, 13 Apr 2012 20:14:28 +0000

Hugh Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse

**This is the first in our new series: Mediating the Past, which focuses on how the past is produced, constructed, distributed, branded and received through various media.

About six months before Mad Men’s very first episode takes place, Hugh Hefner debuted a syndicated television program entitled Playboy’s Penthouse.  It was an early example of intra-corporate cross-media promotion, in which—to invoke the era’s term of art and Hefner’s actual words—the “foremost exponent of sick humor.” Lenny Bruce, explained “I would never satirize the obvious,” before wondering aloud, on the program, who would advertise on such a program.  Bruce concluded his ad-libbed ruminations by gibing Hefner directly: “I’m glad you’ve got some guts…you’re not interested in the people that don’t have any money.”

Maybe it was the mise-en-scène, but I recalled this line again during the extended swinging penthouse party sequence in Mad Men‘s fifth season premiere episode (of an apparently contractually finalized seven).  Back with new episodes after 17 months, the media saturation leading up to its return has had me thinking that Mad Men and the cable channel AMC on which it is shown have “got some guts” in rather the way Bruce meant.


For a couple months now, middlebrow America has been utterly awash in Mad MenThe New York Times ran so many profiles, interviews, style pieces, analyses, reflections, recaps, think-pieces, reviews, political tie-ins, beverage tie-ins, and other pieces, that another media reporter, Joe Flint (@JBflint), tweeted after the season premiere ratings were revealed: “Mad Men draws 3.5 million viewers.  I didn’t know NYT’s staff was that big.”  The Washington Post meanwhile actually ran a piece on the number of Mad Men pieces it ran leading up to the season premiere:  22 including that piece itself!  Newsweek contrived a special retro issue timed to correspond with the new season’s premiere. The New Yorker offers online readers weekly episode synopses, as does Slate, Salon and Esquire (which also lists “all things Mad Men” on its site, and sprinkles its hard copy pages with regular think pieces about the show it has suggested “is the greatest piece of sustained television ever made“).  Even nominally non-commercial public service network National Public Radio ran stories about Mad Men on “Fresh Air,” “Morning Edition,” “Weekend Edition,” “All Things Considered,” it’s online food blog, and “Fresh Air” again!  For certain media consumers, Mad Men has been impossible to ignore.  Have you been hailed by Mad Men? (hint: you’re halfway through another piece about it).

While this media surge contributed to this season’s premiere becoming Mad Men’s highest rated episode ever, ratings are not really the point (it still had 5.5 million fewer viewers than AMC’s The Walking Dead finale had the week before).  Mad Men brings other kinds of value to AMC:  the wealthiest viewers on cable, industry prestige (AMC Networks promotes itself with Mad Men’s four consecutive Emmys and three Golden Globes), and overwhelming (and overwhelmingly positive) media coverage.  Mad Men, in other words, sustains AMC’s brand, providing a specific and prestigious visibility that extends beyond those who actually watch.  Visibility like this matters for attracting more viewers, for setting ad rates, for attracting “quality” program producers, but also, crucially for a cable channel, for negotiating with MSOs and setting carriage fees. (It also helps Lionsgate continue to “monetize” Mad Men beyond AMC).

Branding for AMC is all the more important as it transitions within a changing television industry.  Begun in 1984 to monetize vaults of otherwise unseen old movies, this is no longer seen as the most profitable way to use a library of films much less a branded cable channel.  As AMC sought to expand its revenue (beyond cable carriage fees) by introducing commercials, it began to alter its programming to attract audiences of the type (younger, richer) and size (bigger) advertisers would pay for.  In an era when old movie libraries are now more profitably being licensed to Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, however, AMC has had to accelerate its rebranding efforts around a significant transformation (which is why “AMC” no longer stands for “American Movie Classics”) without the loss of its most valuable asset, a predominately male audience achieved through non-sports programming.  This audience came to AMC for the Three Stooges marathons and old Westerns.  They’ve been asked to stay for Mad Men.

Actually, not even so much for Mad Men, but for what Mad Men says about AMC, what its presence reflects about the channel.  Set in the milieu of mid-century advertising, it is itself functioning as an advertisement for a channel once associated with mid-century movies and now deriving increasing revenue from advertisements.  Offering viewers the opportunity to feel simultaneously nostalgic for and superior to a version of an earlier era, Mad Men actually achieves something close to what Hugh Hefner only aspired to for his 1959 program, a “sophisticated weekly get together of the people we dig and who dig us.”  If “sophisticated” once again means straight white sex, smoking, booze, and terse conversation, Mad Men at least presents it in ways that feel comparatively and flatteringly grown up for television today.  Rather than zombie walkers and fidelity to a comic book, Mad Men offers well-dressed Manhattanite drinkers and fidelity to the style of an era.  Middlebrow media has not been voluntarily filled with stories on the characters’ inner lives, much less the fashion, style, and recipes of the higher-rated The Walking Dead.  HBO’s hits Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire (never mind Mad Men‘s other timeslot competition The Good Wife) have not had their own tabs on The New Yorker website.  But Mad Men has.  It was born to help rebrand AMC.  It lives on to embody and advertise that new brand’s meaning.  In this capacity it is meant for viewers, sure, but it is almost perfectly suited to attract and flatter the imaginations of advertisers, reporters, and the mediasphere more generally.  The show’s value is not entirely dependent upon its immediate ratings.  This is a point lost on would-be imitators like ABC’s Pan Am and NBC’s Hefner-endorsed The Playboy Club, but it is critical to making a show set in the past point to the future of television.  It has got some guts.


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