Politics – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Fall Premieres 2015: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/09/19/fall-premieres-2015-the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/09/19/fall-premieres-2015-the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert/#comments Sat, 19 Sep 2015 20:12:32 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=28345 maxresdefault

Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report is one of the more critically acclaimed shows in American television history, earning Colbert praise and awards for his satiric right-wing narcissist pundit character. So what happens when Stephen Colbert the person rests that character to take over The Late Show after years of David Letterman ruling late night? Antenna asked several experts on satiric and comic television to comment on his first week at the Ed Sullivan Theater in semi-roundtable fashion.

First, some quick introductions:

  • Chuck Tryon (Fayateville State University) wrote for many years at his blog The Chutry Experiment on political television, and is author of the forthcoming Political TV.
  • Dannagal Goldthwaite Young (University of Delaware) has published a humongous amount (yes, that’s the official term) on satire and political entertainment, and performs with ComedySportz Philly.
  • Amber Day (Bryant University) is author of Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.
  • Nick Marx (Colorado State University) is co-editor of Saturday Night Live and American TV and is currently editing a reader on comedy studies.
  • Geoffrey Baym (Temple University) is Professor Colbert himself, having written many of the canonical treatments of Colbert, and is author of From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.



Chuck Tryon:

For many of us who have spent the last decade relishing the sharply subversive political satire of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert’s shift to Late Night with Stephen Colbert has prompted a wide array of questions: How would Colbert adapt his sly political commentary to the larger stage of a network show? How might he conduct interviews now that he is not playing a narcissistic pundit? And finally, how might his show rework the tropes of the late-night talk show for the YouTube age?

Many of these questions were answered almost immediately. Colbert’s debut sketch, in which he likened Trump jokes to eating Oreos was an inspired bit of political comedy, one that would have been at home—with slight tweaking—on The Colbert Report. But the segment also signaled a slight willingness to play with the form of late-night comedy. The sketch functioned much like a “cold-open” on Saturday Night Live and tapped into Colbert’s considerable skills as a comedic performer. Colbert has also made an effort to include guests outside of the Celebrity A-list, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and in both cases, Colbert acknowledged the disruptiveness of their technological and business innovations, even while testing the limits of some of their business practices.

But the most noteworthy moment for me during the show’s first week was Colbert’s heartfelt interview with Vice President Joe Biden, in which Biden offered a disarming account of his grief for late son, Beau, while also explaining how his despair was making his decision about whether or not to run for President an even more difficult choice. Because we are accustomed to seeing Colbert playing his superficial persona, the sincere interactions between these two public figures was especially striking. It was—for me at least—a strikingly humane moment, one that used the late-night format to powerful effect by offering us a remarkably frank conversation not just about the grieving process but also about how his life experiences have affected his politics. It’s also the kind of interview that Colbert’s persona might have prevented him from doing in the past.

I know that some critics have complained that Colbert is not pushing the boundaries of the late-night format enough, that the show has not been more subversive. But many of these complaints focus too much on the broader generic formulae—the monologue, the sketch, and the interview—without looking at how Colbert is using these features to carve out a valuable niche that mixes political satire with thoughtful interviews. If Colbert’s satirical pundit was the political voice we needed in the Bush era, his sincere humorist may be the perspective we need in a post-Obama political climate, one that is dominated by the undeniable fakery and buffoonishness of Trumpism.


Dannagal Goldthwaite Young:  

For people only familiar with Colbert, the self-described “narcissistic conservative pundit,” from the persona he had adopted for 9 years on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, the Stephen Colbert who we met last week on The Late Show might seem like an entirely new person. Oddly enough, this person, this “new” person, the one who does a clown-like jig and a disco spin to the music of his house band; the one who lets his guests shine while he listens and heartily laughs at their stories; the one who takes off his comic mask to talk to the Vice President of the United States about death, grief, and suffering… this is the real Stephen Colbert.

Colbert was initially trained as a long-form improviser. He’s not a stand-up comedian. And while he is known for his work with Second City in Chicago, his introduction to improv goes beyond Second City style short-form, to long-form, truth-seeking improvisation. As an undergraduate, he performed at iO (ImprovOlympic) at the Annoyance Theater in Chicago under the great Del Close, with a focus on long-form improvisation that emphasized “Truth in Comedy” (a philosophy of improv that Close expanded upon in a co-authored text by the same name).

Long-form improvisation involves the construction of a new reality within a set structure, often, The Harold structure. The Harold facilitates the development of characters and relationships onstage, and encourages players to think beyond his or her own character or scene. The Harold involves 1) a group “opening,” 2) three separate scenes, 3) a group game, unrelated to the scenes, 4) a second set of scenes offered to heighten the first set of three, 5) another group game, and 6) a final set of scenes to unify and resolve plot points from the earlier scenes. Within that structure, relationships emerge, narratives are constructed, characters are heightened and secrets are often revealed. But the beautiful – almost magical – element of the Harold is the third set of scenes that unite the characters and plots from the initial seemingly unrelated scenes.

To do this requires emotional honesty onstage. It also requires patience, listening, and a true spirit of “yes, and…,” which, in the world of improv simply means accepting your scene-partner’s offer and building upon it to further the scene and heighten the reality that you jointly construct. Stand-up comedy – the genre of comedy from which many late-night hosts emerge (Jay Leno and Dave Letterman, specifically) is focused mostly on the self – and the audience, to the extent that the audience furthers the energy of the comic.

Short-form improv comedy, the genre performed by ComedySportz and TheatreSports (and used by Second City in the brainstorming and development of sketches), involves improvisation, often within the context of a game structure with a gimmick that shapes the nature of the comic sensibilities that result. This shorter, game-based genre of improv taps into some of the same philosophies as long-form, but the gimmicks and time constraints can encourage more self-focused play, and can limit the kind of “collaborative discoveries” that happen through long-form.

It is the honesty – the truth in comedy – that I think are striking in the way that Colbert is approaching his new show. In the monologue of his second show, when he told the story of how the premier had gone so over time that CBS wasn’t sure if it would make it to the air – you got the sense that Colbert was sharing an honest moment of performer panic with us – the audience at home. Even in the way he interacts with his house band, John Batiste and Stay Human, it is with the spirit of deference and collaboration so typical of improv work.

And in no place can we see his improv roots more clearly than in how Colbert conducts his guest interviews. While some late-night hosts might mug for the camera or be focused on the next question while the guest answers the first, Colbert is present in the moment, responding to the “offer” given by the guest, and heightening the “scene” either emotionally or comically. It is not an accident that Biden opened up to Colbert as he did.

Just as is true of the comic structure of The Harold, Colbert’s show can be thought of as a new long-form comic structure in which “relationships emerge, narratives are constructed, characters are heightened and secrets are revealed.” I can’t wait to see what unfolds in the next scene.


Amber Day:

I will admit that I have never been a fan of traditional late-night shows, so when Colbert announced his impending move to the CBS slot, I worried that he and I might be parting ways. I am happy to report, however, that I have been buoyed by much of the material emerging from these early episodes and I anticipate that the program will hold onto its real estate on my DVR. My relief does not stem from Colbert’s intervention in the form. As Chuck points out, he hews to the well-established formula for late-night programs fairly closely. But what he brings to the format are all of the prodigious strengths he spent years honing on The Colbert Report.

In fact, I would argue that his persona as host of The Late Show is remarkably similar to that of The Colbert Report. This is because, even when playing a blowhard conservative pundit, Colbert was always able to winkingly allow his real self to shine through. It was never difficult to discern what his own opinion was on a particular issue, as he used his character to either tear open inconsistencies and hypocrisies, or to allow a guest he respected to put her best foot forward. His giddy exuberance was also never far from the surface. And, as Danna explains, it is his training in improvisation which allowed him to hold it all together, expertly responding to an interviewee’s statements while maintaining his character.

Thus far on The Late Show, the strongest segments have been the monologues in which Colbert made use of his keen satirist’s voice and the interviews in which he has drawn on his own interest and engagement with the guest’s work. The least interesting bits, in my opinion, have been those that were scripted to appear spontaneous – such as some forced repartee with the band, or pre-scripted goofy interludes like the one in which a tennis champion lobbed balls at the host (which just looked like it hurt). On the other hand, when Colbert seemed to be enjoying the moment, eagerly collaborating with Stephen King on a hypothetical horror plot involving thinly veiled references to Donald Trump, or dancing wildly to a Paul Simon song, it was hard not to get vicariously caught in the enthusiasm.

Ultimately, it is the personality of the host that sets the tone for individual late night programs and is likely the element that most strongly attracts or repels viewers. My enjoyment in the show is partially determined by the fact that when Colbert makes lewd jokes, they don’t come in the form of a “va va voom” directed at female guests (a la David Letterman). Rather, they consist of self-deprecating humor about his lack of underwear, or veer toward gentle gross-out jibes directed at figures like Donald Trump (whose carpet presumably does not match the drapes).  Colbert’ s personality as someone who is intellectually curious, quick-witted, open-hearted, and hyper-sensitive to hypocrisies is what carried the last show and likewise what will carry this one.


Nick Marx:

I’ll temper the hotness of this take by saying that it’s early, and although the Colbert Late Show hasn’t been great in its first two weeks, I’m certain it will be eventually. The Colbert Report was our most important satirical documentation of Bush-era economic and cultural policy, so I’m hopeful The Late Show can rekindle some of that critical edge, if only to counterbalance Fallon’s pandering. Colbert the Late Show host is much more Ernie Kovacs than David Letterman, though, so he’s unlikely to hold up the same cracked mirror to celebrity culture that Dave did. Instead, early episodes indicate that his primary target will be television itself, whatever we all disagree that is nowadays.

The Late Show is mercifully light on monologue and quickly moves Colbert behind a desk so that he can talk politics. These segments have been funny (e.g. the Oreo bit), if a little transparent in their network-notey-ness to keep it up with the Trump talk. Colbert’s real venue for innovation seems like it could come in the interview segments, where (as Danna notes), Colbert’s improv training looms large, an approach the comedian mentioned many times in the run up to this fall. If the explosion of interview-based comedy podcasts is any indication, there remains an appetite for inventive and unpredictable exchanges between two humans talking to one another. Colbert highlighted one end of his emotional range in last week’s Biden appearance, and one has to wonder where else he can go with game guests who discard their promotional boilerplate and follow Colbert down the “yes, and” rabbit hole.

There are no shortage of challenges facing The Late Show, but of all the men (and only men, as Vanity Fair reminds us) recently with skin in the late night game, Colbert has to be the odds-on favorite to be both funny on a nightly basis and memorable in the long run.


Geoffrey Baym:

Over the first two weeks of Colbert’s Late Show, the underlying theme, or ethos, of the program has become increasingly clear. There were several hints, even on the first night. They were more subtle than the thesis statement Colbert offered on “truthiness” on that first Colbert Report a decade ago (“anyone can read the news to you,” he proclaimed. “I promise to feel the news at you”). On the Late Show, however, the clues have come in bits and pieces. Take the house band’s name, for example: “Stay Human.” Or the musical act the first night, a star-studded performance of the old Sly and the Family Stone hymn “Everyday People.” Or the provocative question Colbert asked Jeb Bush about whether he had any real political differences with his elder brother George, a question that began as an ode to the bonds of family and a proclamation for Colbert’s love for his own brother (who was there in the audience and mouthed “I love you” in reply).

We saw it again two nights later in the remarkable interview with Joe Biden, which, as my colleagues here have noted, offered an unprecedented kind of emotional authenticity – a deep, tender, and serious exploration of tragedy, loss, and perseverance. Before the conversation turned to the recent death of Biden’s son, however, Colbert introduced Biden by proclaiming: “You’re not a politician who has created some sort of facade to get something out of us, or triangulate your political position or emotional state to try to make us feel a certain way.  … How did you maintain your soul,” he asked, “in a city that is so full of people that are trying to lie to us in subtle ways?” Later, as Biden openly pondered his own emotional strength in the face of a possible presidential run, the band (Stay Human) broke again into a riff from “Everyday People.”

And we’ve seen it on every show since then. We saw it in the interview with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who discussed the hardship of his childhood in war-ravaged South Korea. We saw it in the less emotional, but powerfully authentic conversation with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who spoke quite honestly about the actual workings of the Supreme Court – the unguarded moments never available to public view when the nine justices sit together and discuss the case at hand. Despite the ideological differences, Breyer explains, there is “never a voice raised in anger” and no one is ever “insulting, not even as a joke.”

We saw it in Colbert’s praise for Bernie Sanders as “incredibly authentic,” because no “focus group in the world” would ask for a candidate like him. We’ve seen it throughout the first two weeks in Colbert’s recurrent digs at Donald Trump, which return continually to Trump’s hollow performance of politics (what Chuck here calls his “undeniable fakery”), his self-evident nastiness, and his deep lack of reasonableness. Finally, we saw it in Colbert’s set up for his bit with Carol Burnett, in which he explains that he usually appears on stage before taping begins to take questions from the audience. That, he ironically suggests (and irony most certainly remains a core device for this iteration of Colbert), is intended to “humanize” him, and “it is important to maintain the illusion that I am human.”

I’m not certain that any of this is the “real” Colbert. Or rather, I’m not sure it matters. What does matter is that Colbert is constructing a deeply humane televisual space. It may lack the cutting sharpness of his ironic interrogation of political spectacle, but it no less provides a momentary antidote to a political landscape and media environment so deeply scarred by simulacrum and spin.



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“Aren’t We Such a Fun, Approachable Dynasty?”: Clinton’s Presidential Announcement, Cable News, and the Candidate Challenge http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/04/17/arent-we-such-a-fun-approachable-dynasty-clintons-presidential-announcement-cable-news-and-the-candidate-challenge/ Fri, 17 Apr 2015 12:35:00 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=26086 Clinton's Announcement Video

Clinton’s Announcement Video

In case you missed it, Hillary Clinton is running for president. On Sunday, April 12, Clinton announced via YouTube video that she would be making a second run for the Oval Office after being narrowly defeated for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 by Barack Obama. Clinton’s announcement had been anticipated for a few days, once Clinton’s team signed a lease to rent office space for its campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, but on another level, her intentions to run again had been expected for years, a fact that essentially meant that a number of media outlets and political activists already had pre-existing narratives in which Clinton’s candidacy could be framed. In fact, Clinton’s decision to announce on Sunday via social media was so widely anticipated that Saturday Night Live actually managed to parody Clinton’s web video outreach during their cold open even before her video went online.

These narratives reflect what Lance Bennett has identified as a tendency to impose reality television frameworks onto election coverage. Specifically Bennett seems to be talking about the so-called “gamedocs” or competition reality shows, such as Survivor, Fear Factor, or Big Brother, in which contestants are forced to undergo challenges in order to demonstrate their worthiness of winning the competition. For Bennett, such “candidate challenges” actually obscure substantive policy considerations, instead focusing on more superficial storylines. Bennett’s framework, I’d argue, helps us to understand how Clinton can be depicted, from both the right and the left, through similar, but strikingly contradictory narratives as someone who is at once a “celebrity” and also, simultaneously, disdainful of the news media that seemingly create her celebrity status through fawning profiles, and also as someone who is simultaneously too controlling of her messaging and incapable of crafting an effective message about herself. Finally, critics made coded reference to her age, turning her experience as a Senator and Secretary of State into a liability. Thus, for Hillary Clinton, the “candidate challenge” created by different media outlets, is to assume a contradictory set of performances that will meet all of these goals.

It should come as no surprise that the most overt attacks on Clinton’s announcement video came from Fox News. It is no longer controversial to suggest that Fox News has crafted an explicitly conservative approach to narrating the news. Fox has successfully cultivated a large conservative audience in the era of what Natalie Jomani Stroud has called “niche news.” But what is significant about Fox News is what Jeffrey Jones refers to as the news channel’s use of performative language that actually produces a reality in the guise of reflecting on or analyzing it.

Fox News on Clinton's Announcement

Media Buzz on Clinton’s Announcement

This type of performativity functions powerfully in shows such as Howard Kurtz’s Media Buzz, which purports to analyze the media frames that are shaping politics. However, Kurtz’s segment openly reinforces several of the existing narratives used to shape Clinton’s persona independently of any political views she might have. The segment opens with Fox News contributor Mary Katharine Ham gleefully dismissing the announcement as a “snoozefest,” promoting the perception that Clinton is too boring to win the presidency. Similarly, Washington Examiner columnist Susan Ferrechio pushed the idea that the video was an example of Clinton “controlling the message” because she made the announcement via social media rather than during a live speech—despite the fact that most Republicans announced in a similar fashion. Further, by focusing on perceptions of Clinton’s personality, Ferrechio was able to deflect attention away from the actual content of the video, which emphasized (however vaguely) Clinton’s desire to fight for working families. Meanwhile Kurtz himself trotted out the frame (also imposed on Barack Obama) that Clinton might be “covered as a celebrity” even while suggesting, almost in the same breath that she had been “disdainful” of the media. Later that day, Brit Hume, again with little evidence to back up his argument, asserted that Americans were tired of the Clintons’ “weird marriage” and that their story was “old news” and therefore uninteresting to reporters seeking out the next bright, shiny object that  could distract them.

Notably, both Kurtz and Bill O’Reilly used the SNL sketch, in which Kate McKinnon, as a simultaneously naïve and controlling Hillary Clinton, attempts to make a selfie video announcement, to attach her to these existing media frames. A clip of Darryl Hammond as Bill Clinton joking about his sex life stands in as evidence of their “weird marriage.” Hillary stumbling repeatedly to be sympathetic reinforces the idea that she is controlling and out of touch. While I did find the SNL clip funny—and think it’s more subtle by far than Fox News’s use of it—it provided Fox with the shorthand to criticize Clinton, even while allowing the network to be in on the joke for a change when it comes to political satire.

That being said, even ostensibly liberal supporters of Clinton placed unrealistic obstacles on her announcement. Bruce Ackerman, among others, writing for The Huffington Post, blasted the video as a “capitulation” to Madison Avenue—i.e., controlling the narrative. Once again, we must turn to Jon Stewart to find a way to navigate the utterly absurd narratives that have been imposed on her. Stewart debunked many of these narratives for their absurd use of dystopian and apocalyptic imagery, pointing out that they vastly exaggerate Clinton’s center-left voting history, even while they also produce a reality for the Fox viewers who are the intended audience.  The reception of Clinton’s announcement video can tell us quite a bit, then, not just about perceptions of her as a candidate or the conservative efforts to derail her candidacy. It can also tell us quite a bit about the role of cable news in constructing artificial “candidate challenges” that do little to inform us about how that candidate will actually govern.


What to Make of the Historic Net Neutrality Win http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/03/11/what-to-make-of-the-historic-net-neutrality-win/ Wed, 11 Mar 2015 14:20:19 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=25787  

Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel, Jessica RosenworcelThe FCC has done what even a few months ago seemed to most totally unthinkable: they delivered real net neutrality policy, putting in place strong regulations to protect fairness in internet access. After a decade-long policy battle, net neutrality advocates got nearly everything we’ve been calling for: clear-cut Open Internet rules that prohibit broadband network operators from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing internet content and services, that apply to both wired and wireless networks, and— the most wonky, yet most important, point— are based in Title II of the Communications Act. In other words, the FCC can now stop broadband providers from restricting your internet traffic or charging extra for exclusive internet “fast lanes,” whether your connection is to a personal computer or a mobile device, all rooted in a long-standing regulatory tradition of “common carriage” that protects openness and equality for essential two-way communications infrastructure. (For more details, you can check out my previous coverage of net neutrality here on Antenna, where I’ve written about the importance of Title II and the politics of policy that led to this point. For more on what net neutrality even is, you can check out my explainer for the Media Industries Project.)

Overall, the FCC’s new Open Internet rules represent a major come-from-behind victory for net neutrality advocates and a significant achievement for more democratic communications in the US. So, what should we make of this landmark FCC decision? How in the world did this actually get done? And what exactly happens now? Let me mention a couple of quick points along these lines.

The first and perhaps most important point is that a resilient social movement succeeded in getting a meaningful progressive victory in communications policy— an affirmative victory to enact good policy, not a defensive victory to stop bad policy. This success came even on a seemingly arcane and technical regulatory issue of invisible infrastructure, within a policy arena where corporate discourse and dollars dominate. I’ve spent the last eight years following net neutrality and, while I remained cautiously (if, as many told me, irrationally) optimistic throughout that it could get successfully put into policy, even I have to admit that it was quite a long shot to get rules this good from the FCC. Net neutrality policy has a long history of half-steps forward and large tumbles backwards, on a policymaking playing field heavily tilted in favor of the large corporations that set the terms of engagement there. Nonetheless, a strong coalition of media reform and civil rights activists, legal and technologist advocates, and online creators and startups pushed net neutrality forward in the policy sphere and the public sphere. They mobilized millions of citizens to engage with the FCC in its Open Internet proceeding— a powerful popular force in support of net neutrality that made it more than good policy, but also good politics. Some cynical defeatists are content to ignore the real difference made by everyday people’s voices and actions, instead emphasizing the role of the tech industry in lobbying for net neutrality in service of its economic interests. This perspective is not only demeaning and disempowering in terms of activist strategy, but also not very accurate: Google, Amazon, and other tech heavy-hitters mostly sat it out this time around, while smaller outsider tech firms (the likes of Etsy and Kickstarter don’t exactly have much sway inside the Beltway) worked better with the activist coalition.

The second point is this: even though this is a historic victory that should be celebrated, the fight is far from over. This is true in an immediate sense of challenges to the Open Internet rules. Broadband network operators and their allies in Congress are already seeking to block the new rules. The FCC will also surely be sued as soon as the Open Internet rules go into effect, kicking off yet another long legal battle over the agency’s ability to regulate internet infrastructure. It’s worth noting, though, that Comcast and AT&T both have potential mergers being considered by the FCC currently and Verizon’s appeal of the much weaker 2010 Open Internet rules backfired pretty bad on them, making theses corporations perhaps a bit more lawsuit gun-shy than usual (the cable and wireless lobbies look most likely to sue). Regardless, because this time the Open Internet rules are built on the strong and appropriate statutory foundation of Title II, we can be confident that the rules will stand up in court.

But the fight is also not over in a bigger picture sense: as consequential a victory as this is, it is ultimately just one step on a longer journey toward more equitable media structures. On the internet infrastructure front alone, there is much more to be done to ensure faster, more affordable, more inclusive broadband network access (although the other FCC action that same day— to overrule state restrictions on municipal broadband networks— opens a door toward a more promising future of public internet infrastructure for more cities). Having net neutrality meaningfully enshrined in communications regulations, and having FCC policy moving toward treatment of internet access as an essential utility, is huge, but net neutrality has proven a resonant discourse that can speak to critical social justice goals and can be employed more widely. Net neutrality could ultimately end up most historically significant, then, for the powerful discourse and movement that advocates put together around it— if we can build on this success and use this momentum to push forward for more victories like this one.


Selma, “Bloody Sunday,” and the Most Important TV Newsfilm of the 20th Century http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/03/10/selma-bloody-sunday-and-the-most-important-tv-newsfilm-of-the-20th-century/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/03/10/selma-bloody-sunday-and-the-most-important-tv-newsfilm-of-the-20th-century/#comments Tue, 10 Mar 2015 14:00:30 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=25759 01It’s the most consequential TV newsfilm of the 20th century.  The beating of voting rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 led directly to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act five months later.  With the 50th anniversary commemorations of “Bloody Sunday” this past weekend, both network and cable news channels have replayed that footage over and over.  But what’s its history?  And why was this particular piece of television newsfilm so powerful that it managed to galvanize a nation?

If you go by Ava DuVernay’s masterful Hollywood film retelling of the story in Selma, you’d think that people across the country turned on their TVs that Sunday afternoon and saw live, breaking coverage of the beating and gassing of marchers by Alabama state troopers as it was happening.  Of course that couldn’t – and didn’t – happen.  In a pre-satellite era, direct-to-air broadcast from news hot spots typically wasn’t possible.  Americans did not see live coverage from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  What did happen was actually more significant and helps to explain precisely why the newsfilm, when it was broadcast, had such an impact.

ABC was the third-run network in 1965 but on Sunday nights, it had a ratings hit with its prime-time “Sunday Night at the Movies.”  And on March 7th it was expecting especially large audiences for the TV premier showing of Stanley Kramer’s 1961 blockbuster, Judgment at Nuremburg.  With an all-star cast, it examined German moral culpability for the Holocaust.  An estimated 48 millions viewers (more than would typically watch the evening news and far more than would watch prime-time news documentaries) were settled in when ABC’s news division abruptly broke in to the movie with a report about the attack on the Pettus Bridge.

This may not have been Raymond Williams’ “planned flow,” but the transfer of meanings from the one text to the other certainly amplified, sharpened, and made more poignant the brutality in the Selma footage.  As I discuss in my book Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement, many commentators and ordinary people made the logical connections between Nazi storm troopers and Alabama state troopers.  Had the Bloody Sunday report merely been a story in the following Monday’s evening news, it likely would not have had the resonance it achieved by being placed in prime time – especially prime-time Sunday, then and now the most watched night of the week.  That the footage was juxtaposed to a narrative about Nazi brutality to victimized Jews made already frightful footage even more shocking.


The imagery of victimization is also crucial to how and why the Bloody Sunday newsfilm moved audiences the way it did in 1965 and continues to do so 50 years later.  In his examination of civil rights era news photography, Martin A. Berger in his book Seeing Through Race, argues that the images that have come to represent the civil rights movement typically give us activated whites and powerless, subjugated blacks who are meant to serve as objects of white pity.  Look at this iconic photograph from the 1963 Birmingham campaign (pictured above, top): the white firemen are in charge as they brutalize helpless blacks prone on the ground. Likewise, the Bloody Sunday footage (pictured above, bottom) gives us blacks knocked over and sprawled to the ground as the state troopers plow over them. The ultimate message is that whites are always in control and that good white people, seeing these images, need to take control away from bad white people to ameliorate the condition of victimized but powerless black people.  Berger criticizes this impulse in civil rights iconography as it discounts the agency of African Americans; its short term benefits (passage of legislation) undermines attention to more long term structural issues around racism and white supremacy.

Berger’s argument is compelling but it does discount the agency among civil rights activists in orchestrating these confrontations.  During the Selma campaign, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. publicly proclaimed, “We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in the dark corners.  We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”  Rather than hapless, docile, pathetically suffering objects, civil rights activists knowingly embraced the redemptiveness of  unmerited suffering (as King put it) and the iconography of white violence.  They were active agents in these narratives, whether or not white audiences grasped that fact or not.  Ironically, the white racists were less in charge than they may have thought.  On Bloody Sunday, probably none of the marchers expected they were heading to Montgomery that day.  Marching to Montgomery wasn’t the narrative.  Segregationist oppression and obstruction was the story the marchers expected to tell.  None of those marchers, however, expected to degree of the brutality they encountered.  And that’s why the footage is so shocking: the white violence is so out-of-control, so excessive.

20140819-curtis-ferguson-protest-1350The sheer hyperbolic, disproportionate response of white power at the Edmund Pettus Bridge calls to mind another set of images that galvanized the attention of the nation a lot more recently: Ferguson (pictured left).  This is one of the iconic images of the August 2014 confrontations between the militarized Ferguson police force against the unarmed mostly black Ferguson citizens protesting the police killing of an unarmed young black man.  The now-famous “hands-up, don’t-shoot” stance by the protesters suggests victimization and a docile subjugation.  But, of course, it’s anything but.  The Ferguson protesters empowered themselves and their community, eventually leading to the recent action by the Department of Justice, in part by the dissemination of media imagery that suggested powerlessness.  In the end, the protesters commanded far more power than the police with their 2014 body armour and Humvees or the 1965 troopers with their billy clubs and tear gas.  In both cases, they made the federal government take action.  In both cases, they understood the power of media imagery to tell narratives that at key moments they controlled.


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“Hope” for Net Neutrality? http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/11/13/hope-for-net-neutrality/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/11/13/hope-for-net-neutrality/#comments Thu, 13 Nov 2014 15:00:36 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=25000 On Monday, one more voice was added to the millions that have already urged the FCC to protect net neutrality (the standard that all users and uses of the internet should receive equal treatment from network operators like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T). This comment was particularly notable, though: it came from President Obama.

Obama’s statement calling on the FCC to implement the strongest possible net neutrality regulations in its Open Internet policy proceeding is significant for many reasons: how unusual it is for a sitting president to dive so deep into the weeds of communications regulation, the influence it can have on the policy the FCC actually adopts, and (amazingly) just how right on the President is in his plan. Obama’s net neutrality statement is also especially important, though, for what it signals about the politics of media policy: a legitimate social movement is pushing for fairness and equality in internet access by engaging in historically corporate-dominated policymaking processes and strategically “boring” regulatory discourses to successfully bring undoubtedly arcane yet crucially political media policy issues to the front and center of the national political stage. Simply put, the President wouldn’t jump this far into this fight with powerful phone and cable corporations and their allies in the incoming Republican-controlled Congress (and perhaps even the FCC Chairman he appointed) if it weren’t for wide public pressure to act boldly on net neutrality. The FCC is an independent agency that doesn’t have to answer to the President, so it remains to be seen if any of this is enough to shift the Commission’s current direction in Open Internet rule-making— right now toward a (likely untenable) attempt at compromise through a “hybrid approach”— but at the least it is heartening to see such prominent attention to obscure issues like paid prioritization (known as internet “fast lanes”) and Title II reclassification (somewhat misleadingly being called “utility regulation”).

15003287537_b16bdc6d26_zIn Obama’s statement, he surprised nearly everyone by laying out in unambiguous terms an Open Internet policy plan that would deliver pretty much exactly what most net neutrality advocates (myself included) have seen as what has been needed all along: a clear-cut set of rules against blocking and discrimination that apply to both wired and wireless broadband providers and prohibit paid prioritization “fast lane” deals with online content providers, all based in a “common carriage” regulatory framework with legal authority from Title II of the Communications Act. (Yes, this is the super nerdy, but now increasingly central, terrain on which this battle is being fought!) This is a stronger set of rules than those proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler this past spring and the rules that were previously adopted by the FCC in 2010 but struck down in court in January. As I explained in a post here in the aftermath of that case, the reason why the 2010 rules failed in court (and in enforcement) is that they were not implemented with appropriate legal authority to regulate openness and equal access and if the FCC wants to move forward with meaningful and sustainable net neutrality policy, it has to reclassify broadband. What the Commission needs to do— as called for by advocates for strong net neutrality, now including the President— is to implement Open Internet rules through Title II, where the Commission has authority to regulate essential infrastructure for two-way communications (which internet access clearly is).

This traction in the political debate around net neutrality comes as a result of a popular movement that has seen nearly 4 million public comments to the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding (a record-breaking total, of which up to 99% were in favor of net neutrality), protests and demonstrations both online (like the Internet Slowdown Day) and offline (like occupations of the FCC building and even Chairman Wheeler’s driveway), and John Oliver’s tour-de-force explanation and call to action. All of the public participation in the process (just like the President’s) may not even count for much to the FCC, but it has worked to shift the discursive terrain of the issue and, therefore, the range of possible policy action. Chairman Wheeler has backed away from his initial weak proposal and is now hinting toward wireless broadband regulations and at least partial reclassification.

Right now, though, the FCC is stalling while it decides what to do and its next move will come no sooner than 2015. For passing strong Open Internet protections, Wheeler has the votes at the Commission (with two pro-net-neutrality Democratic commissioners to make a majority with him) and now political support from President, but he may be waiting for more backup from the bigger tech industry players like Google and Facebook, which have been conspicuously quiet in this round of the fight. Strong public pressure will continue to be key to keep up this progress toward meaningful net neutrality policy.


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Redefining “Public” Education: Reflections from GeekGirlCon, Seattle, October 11-12 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/10/23/redefining-public-education-reflections-from-geekgirlcon-seattle-october-11-12/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/10/23/redefining-public-education-reflections-from-geekgirlcon-seattle-october-11-12/#comments Thu, 23 Oct 2014 14:00:36 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=24837 GGC-Logo-2013

We have been to three girl-focused cons this summer and fall: LeakyCon, DashCon and GeekGirlCon. These cons are non-profit, largely run by volunteers, and provide alternative geeky spaces to male-dominated cons. These cons extend the work of social media such as Tumbr by providing safe public spaces where feminist, feminine, and queer young people can gather to create communities that validate and encourage creative play, fannish passion, and critical thinking. The cons devote a great deal of attention to social inequalities faced by women, intersecting issues of sexism with racism, homophobia, classism, and related biases regarding ability, religion, educational level, and cultural capital. The socially critical content of these cons have demonstrated to me that we need to redefine what we mean by  “public” education. The organizers and participants of these cons are fashioning their own liberal arts education spaces. Many of the young panelists at GeekGirlCon made the point that they learned about feminist criticism, intersectionality, and social inequities from social media and at cons, not from the traditional public education system.

The role of social media and these types of cons as sites of critical thinking, community building, and social justice training for women has become increasingly urgent, most recently demonstrated by the nationally publicized attacks on Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of video games on social media. Sarkeesian represents this new kind of public educator who seeks to make her work democratically accessible, and she was GeekGirlCon’s opening speaker. GGC hired extra security for the death threats that immediately followed the announcement of her appearance, but the attacks against her, like the more recent threats surrounding her at the Utah State University, were not only leveled at Sarkeesian but at her audiences. The GeekGirlCon hashtag (#GGC14) on Twitter was taken over by Sarkeesian trolls, and any attendee who tweeted in support of Sarkeesian or used the #GGC14 hashtag also received threatening messages directed at them, individually. As numerous panelists and attendees made clear, anyone with a feminine-perceived username is the recipient of hate on many social media platforms.

GeekGirlCon Anita Sarkeesian Tweet

It is vital, therefore, that we view Sarkeesian’s work and the hostility directed at her as not an anomaly, but part of the greater structural misogyny and inequity embedded in and perpetuated by American public institutions. Public education largely does not address social inequalities and erases many identity categories (LGBTQA and transgender most obviously in k-12). There is virtually no sex or rape culture education in schools. Humanities and creative arts programs are increasingly marginalized at both k-12 and college-levels. Career counseling, networking, leadership training – particularly for women and social minorities seeking to enter fields dominated by white men – is generally unavailable.  It is not surprising that feminized spaces such as these cons and select social media sites have become so important to young people; we have heard countless testimonials to this fact from young women at every con.

This was GeekGirlCon’s fourth year, and it has grown in both programming and attendance, with an estimated 7,000 participants this year. GGC is distinguished by its localism. Like other cons, GGC has a robust year-round social media presence but unlike them, GGC is based in Seattle and is able to foster relationships with local schools, industries and businesses and maintain a community presence throughout the year; in this way, the convention itself can be viewed as a catalyst that brings the local community together but also facilitates an extension of its female-centered space.

Used with permission

Used with permission

The age range of attendees at GGC was broad, from pre-teens to women in their 20s and 30s; many children were accompanied by their parents, and thus there were more men than at other Cons. In addition, although GGC encouraged cosplay and devoted panels to fangirl topics such as feminist media criticism and slash, GGC addressed other aspects of the term “geek.” For example, GGC highlighted women’s role in the sciences and offered a DIY “Science Zone,” where attendees were guided through experiments by female science educators. GGC also offered several workshops, booths, and panels that addressed professional career and networking strategies and opportunities for women and girls, particularly those seeking to enter technology, engineering, and science fields. Local industries and educators who support GGC’s mission offered career advice and support.

Panelists continually noted the importance of “finding a support group of other women” for any career pursuit. Indeed, some of the most interesting career discussion came from a new generation of female media journalists. They spoke of their experiences negotiating a media landscape in which their feminist critical perspectives and knowledge of fan cultures were not always welcome by editors and their published work often provoked gender-based hate. At the same time, these fangirls emphasized the importance of the fan community as a resource and support, and they encouraged attendees to draw on the skills they have learned as fans –writing, editing, graphic design, media analysis – in building their careers. One particularly popular and insightful panel on this topic is linked below.

“M from Feels to Skills panel”

GeekGirlCon also distinguished itself by holding two panels explicitly devoted to fat identity and resources. The “Fatness & Fandom” panelists represented a range of fat body types and was also the most racially diverse panel that I (Jen) attended at GGC. Fat fans spoke of being snubbed and erased by manufacturers of geeky clothing, a hot topic within plus-size communities because of the lack of availability of well-made, fashionable plus-size clothes. This panel was a great example of the local presence at GGC, composed of members of PNW Fattitude, a meetup group for fat women in the Pacific Northwest. Taking part in this panel allowed the group to leverage the larger voice of GGC to spread awareness of issues that fat fans face and to allow more people to learn about the group itself. Following the event, panelists invited attendees to an in-person meetup across the street. PNW Fattitude thus allowed attendees to see successful example of sustainable community at GGC.

This article by Allison McCracken was research and written with the help of Jen Kelly.


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Popular Culture and Politics: The Hunger Games 3-Finger Salute in Thai Protests http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/06/04/popular-culture-and-politics-the-hunger-games-3-finger-salute-in-thai-protests/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/06/04/popular-culture-and-politics-the-hunger-games-3-finger-salute-in-thai-protests/#comments Wed, 04 Jun 2014 13:52:07 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=24135 On June 2, 2014, news about protesters in Thailand holding up the Hunger Games 3-finger salute began proliferating across news networks and websites like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Global Post, Quartz and others. Across the coverage, reporters and commenters seem unsure of what to make of political action that draws inspiration from a fictional story. Drawing from my research on popular culture, rhetoric, and fan-based civic engagement, I offer a contextualization for the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In a blog post over at Rhetorically Speaking, I examine how the protesters appropriate the 3-finger salute to signal resistance and critique. Here, I want to offer a framing of the Thai protester’s use of the 3-finger salute by articulating the relationship between popular culture and politics and by placing the Thai protests within a history of fan-based civic engagement.

blog post katniss 3-finger salute

Journalists covering this story have struggled to frame the protests within a broader relationship between popular culture and politics in the real world. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason.com says, “If I say the phrases Hunger Games and ‘life imitates art’ in the same sentence, you might start to worry. But this is actually an inspiring appropriation of the practices of Panem.” Ryan Gilbey at The Guardian points toward critics’ concerns that films inspire violent copy-cat behavior. Both Brown and Gilbey frame popular culture as a causal mechanism, but in doing so they undermine the agency of actors. This is particularly problematic when popular culture is connected to political action. In these cases, we ought to understand popular culture as resources. We must recognize that popular culture does not cause political action, while also recognizing the incredibly important role popular culture plays in offering up the choices we have for political resources.

The YouTube ID of hceO-SUoitk#t=35 is invalid.
Reporters also seemed to position the Thai protesters’ use of popular culture as relatively uncommon. Gilbey from The Guardian says, “You’d have to go back to the film adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, to find a comparable crossover between on-screen behaviour and widespread political iconography.” But the use of popular culture in politics is actually quite common. In fact, Thai protesters aren’t even the first to utilize the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In 2013, Senator Miriam Santiago from the Philippines used the 3-finger salute in a speech lambasting Senator Enrile in the Senate. The Harry Potter Alliance used the 3-finger salute in its Odds In Our Favor campaign, which critiqued economic inequality, particularly in the US.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 9.03.51 AMPopular culture has always functioned as resources for politics. For example, Nan Enstad describes how American women factory workers at the turn of the century used dime novels, films, and fashion to come to see themselves as both ladies and workers, and thus as deserving of fair working conditions. These women staged labor protests in unexpected numbers. Today, we see examples ranging from Harry Potter to football. In January 2014, Chinese diplomats used Harry Potter metaphors to make arguments about regional power in Asia. In the fall of 2013, the TeamMates’ Coaches Challenge campaign invited Nebraskan citizens to volunteer to mentor by connecting mentoring with being a Nebraska football fan, beating Kansas, and joining the Nebraskan team. During 2012 and 2013, DC Entertainment led a campaign named “We Can Be Heroes,” calling Justice League fans to donate money to charities working to end hunger in Africa. These are just three examples from this academic year alone. Indeed, there are many more.

What I hope this contextualization provides is a framing that enables us as audience members, reporters, and citizens to take seriously the Thai protesters’ Hunger Games salutes. While not all political appropriations of popular culture are necessarily ethical, desirable, or effective, we cannot dismiss such uses of popular culture out-of-hand. Jonathan Jones at The Guardian takes this problematic approach when he asserts that the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute “reveals something about the bankruptcy of political beliefs in the 21st century.” But Jones is missing the point because he’s got the context all wrong. The protesters aren’t claiming allegiance to the Hunger Games. They are using the symbol of resistance in the Hunger Games as their own, imbuing it with democratic meaning and critiques of the Thai government. Popular culture is a resource, combined and recombined with other resources, appropriated and changed through various performances. This framing is absolutely necessary to understanding the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute in a complex and full way.


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Net Neutrality is Over— Unless You Want It http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/01/17/net-neutrality-is-over-unless-you-want-it/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/01/17/net-neutrality-is-over-unless-you-want-it/#comments Fri, 17 Jan 2014 15:27:01 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=23424 series_of_tubesOn Tuesday, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals tore out the heart of net neutrality. In the landmark Verizon v. FCC decision, the court struck down the FCC’s Open Internet rules— the hard-fought regulations passed in 2010 that prohibited broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against internet traffic. Without these protections, network operators like Verizon are legally empowered to not only interfere with the online activities of their users but alter the fundamental structure of the internet and change the terms on which users communicate and connect online. The court threw out the no-blocking and nondiscrimination rules but left intact the transparency provision, so now the company you pay to get on the internet can mess with your traffic as much as it wants, as long as it tells you so. The ruling is not a surprise, but not because the Open Internet rules were not legitimate or net neutrality is a bad idea. It comes down to this: broadband providers are common carriers but the FCC can’t regulate them as common carriers because they didn’t call them common carriers. (I’ll explain in a second.) So if we want net neutrality, what should we do? Well, tell the FCC to call broadband providers common carriers. It really is that simple— not easy, but simple.

First, what’s actually at stake here? Well, the end of the open public internet and the beginning of separate but unequal private internets, under the control of the giant phone and cable companies in possession of the pipes and airwaves we depend upon for access. The FCC’s Open Internet rules left much to be desired but they were minimum protections to count on and a significant beachhead in the net neutrality battle. Without them, what do we get now? A network where Verizon can charge extra to prioritize traffic and block any service that refuses to pay a toll to reach its users (that’s what it said it would do if it won this case). A network where Comcast can derail video distribution that threatens its cable television business (that’s what it did when it blocked BitTorrent and what it does in favoring its Xfinity service— even though it’s obligated to abide by net neutrality until 2017 as a condition of its merger with NBC-U). A network where AT&T can cut deals with the biggest content providers to exempt their apps from counting against monthly data caps but squeeze out the innovative startups that can’t afford to pay (which it just announced last week with its new Sponsored Data plans). Networks — with pay-to-play arrangements, exclusive fast lanes, unfair competition, and prepackaged access tiers— where that independently-produced web video series, that nonprofit alternative news site, or your own blog are left behind in favor of those that can pay protection money to network operators. In other words, a network that is not the internet as we’ve come to know it— an open network where users can be participants in the creation and circulation of online culture, rather than a closed content delivery system for corporate media. While net neutrality proponents’ rhetoric might seem a bit overblown, we are much closer to a “nightmare scenario” than most realize.

The DC Circuit’s ruling was not against net neutrality itself, but rather the twisted way the FCC attempted to enforce it. The majority opinion actually went out of its way to describe why net neutrality regulations are necessary to curb abuses of power by network operators. It ruled that the Open Internet rules themselves were sound— they were just implemented the wrong way. Coming into the case, the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband at all was in doubt, after the agency was handed its hat by the same court in the 2010 Comcast case. The FCC tried it again this time with a slightly different tack (“even federal agencies are entitled to a little pride,” the majority wrote— federal appeals court humor, folks) and, amazingly, the court bought it this time around (while Verizon called the FCC’s argument a “triple-cushion-shot,” the judges pointed out that in billiards it doesn’t matter how much of a stretch the shot is if you actually make it). However, even though the court affirmed the FCC’s legal ability to regulate broadband, it found that it can’t regulate it the way the Commission wanted to in the Open Internet rules.

The court ruled that the FCC’s net neutrality policy treated broadband providers as common carriers, but that it couldn’t do that because it didn’t have those services classified in the common carriage portion of its legal framework. Basically, it all goes back to the FCC using the term “information service” rather than “telecommunications service” to define broadband starting in 2002. That’s it— this is a case where the importance of discourse, and the power to dominate discourse in the policy sphere, could not be more plain.

Net neutrality is essentially an update to common carriage, the centuries-old principle of openness and nondiscrimination on publicly essential infrastructure for communication and transportation. The FCC has regulated general purpose networks of two-way communication as common carriers since its inception with the 1934 Communications Act (at that time the focus was telephone service). Beginning in the 1980s as part of its influential Computer Inquiries and legally formalized in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the FCC distinguishes between these basic networks, defined as Title II “telecommunication services” (think pipes), and the content made available over those networks, defined as Title I “information services” (think water flowing inside those pipes). Under this framework, the FCC regulated internet access (the connectivity) as common carriage to ensure equality and universality, but could not regulate the internet itself (the content). As telecommunications services, internet access providers’ job is to pass communications back and forth to the internet, while the information services on the internet are publishers with editorial rights to control content. This all changed during a deregulatory binge at the FCC in the 2000s: cable companies called their broadband connections “information services” (pay no attention to their actual cables), conspicuously not subject to regulation, and then-FCC-Chairman Michael Powell was happy to define broadband that way, too (he’s now the head of the NCTA, the cable industry’s trade group, by the way).

Now, because broadband internet access is not classified as “telecommunications,” it cannot be regulated as common carriage. This means that, as the DC Circuit recognized, since net neutrality is basically common carriage, it cannot be implemented as long as broadband is still defined as an “information service.” So, even though broadband is now the essential general purpose communications infrastructure of our time, there can be no openness and nondiscrimination protections for it until the FCC is willing to change the label it has applied to it in its regulatory terminology. The answer, then, is reclassification: the FCC just needs to call broadband the telecommunications service that it is before we can have enforceable net neutrality policy. The policy really is that simple— it’s the politics that are difficult. The reason that the FCC built the Open Internet rules on legal quicksand is that it lacked the political will to go through with its reclassification proposal amidst a firestorm of pressure from the telecom industry and its allies in Washington.

If we want net neutrality, we should put our own pressure on the FCC. We don’t have the money and the lobbyists that the telecom industry does and we can’t count on the clout of any big corporations whose interests overlap with the public’s on the issue— Google already sold out to Verizon and other big online content providers are now backing away from it (the Amazons and Facebooks of the world have deep enough pockets to dominate the payola market of the future, so they seem willing to play ball at this point). It’s up to us, then, to push the FCC to do net neutrality right this time.


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Fordian Slip: On the Mayor Rob Ford Scandal http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/12/13/fordian-slip-on-the-mayor-rob-ford-scandal/ Fri, 13 Dec 2013 14:00:56 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=23163 imageOn Monday, December 9, 2013, Canadian television channel Vision TV aired an interview between former media mogul and convicted felon Conrad Black, and embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. The program, Conversations with Conrad is billed as “Conrad chats one-on-one with the finest minds of our age.” Is Rob Ford one of ‘the finest minds of our age’? Likely not. But as of late, he is certainly one of the most talked-about-public figures.

The interview with Black comes on the heels of Ford’s admission to smoking crack cocaine and buying illegal drugs while in office, and making obscene comments about a female member of his staff and his wife. Vision TV had originally planned to air the interview on December 16th but decided to move the segment ahead one week because of “overwhelming interest and demand.”

In the promotional clip for the interview Black asserts: “The piling on to Mayor Rob Ford has been excessive. He was elected mayor of Toronto and those who do not like his style will be free to vote against him if he runs again. If there is sufficient evidence to prosecute him with crimes, due process should be followed. But he should be accorded a full presumption of innocence unless he is justly convicted. Beyond that his accusers should put up or shut up.” In retrospect, the sound byte intimated the tone the interview would take, which was, as one Toronto newspaper described it, “[t]he media-hating media baron sits down with media-hating mayor to hate on the media.”

Black’s reference to the ‘piling on to Mayor Ford’ is a reference to the media scrutiny and critique that continues to engulf Ford. Indeed, media attention on Ford is overwhelming, and increasingly tiresome, but the fact that media hold elected officials accountable for their behavior is hardly sensational. It is in the public interest to do so. Beyond a commitment to the public interest however, the media continue to report on Ford because he continues to generate controversy, which he managed to do, again, during his interview with Black.

First, Ford accused Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair of orchestrating a political vendetta against him. According to Ford, the police probe, which included surveillance on him, was a repayment for budget cuts. “The chief, I have an issue with, I think it’s political. He wasn’t happy when I told people to find efficiencies.” Second, Ford insinuated that a Toronto Star reporter was a pedophile. In Ford’s version of the events, the reporter had been peering over his back yard fence and taking photos of his children. “He’s taking photos of little kids. I don’t want to say that word, but you start thinking ‘What’s this guy all about.’” In truth, the reporter had been taking photographs of a public lot behind the mayor’s house that Ford was interested in purchasing from the city.

Black did not pursue either claim, nor did he press Ford in any manner (or on any matter). The interview is perhaps best described as softball journalism. Black’s questions were leading and served as prompts for Ford’s stock responses. At one point, Black conceded as much and said: “In effect, I’m leading the witness here, but it’s just rank hypocrisy, isn’t it?” Hypocrisy indeed.  The interview was an opportunity for Black to share the spotlight, both prior to the airing of the program, and again in the aftermath of Ford’s salacious claims.

Playing into Ford’s ideological agenda by engaging in the blame game, Black condemned the media as opposed to shifting answerability onto Ford. At the core of this transference, which victimizes Ford and absolves him of accountability (i.e. ‘drunken stupor’), is the insinuation that Ford’s voting public accepts information at face value. In this equation, the media are great manipulators of truth, and the people are dupes, void of critical faculties when it comes to the media. Someone should break the news to both Black and Ford that the hypodermic needle model was displaced in the 1950s.

The underlying discourse of the interview is that media scrutiny and critique is the modus operandi of liberal/leftist/elitists. But who, exactly, are the elitists? Ford has long played himself against such a grouping. One is left, therefore, to question how a white man born into a wealthy and politically connected family can so easily ignore his own elitism. Perhaps this is, in fact, a marker of such privilege: that one can disestablish privilege at will.


On Leaving the Game Early http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/06/20/on-leaving-the-game-early/ Thu, 20 Jun 2013 13:00:21 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=20609 The dominant storyline that emerged in the wake of Tuesday’s thrilling victory for the Miami Heat in game six of the NBA Finals was not Tim Duncan’s second half disappearance, Ray Allen’s clutch three, or even the victory of LeBron James’s hairline over his headband. It was the fact that several hundred Miami fans headed for the exits early when it appeared the San Antonio Spurs were on their way to victory, then tried to re-enter the arena upon discovering the game had gone into overtime. The Internet exploded with paroxysms of e-finger-wagging, and justifiably so, for the most part. It’s one thing for Hollywood executive-types to duck out of Chavez Ravine after a couple of Dodger dogs, but it’s another thing entirely to skulk toward your car when Earth’s greatest sportshuman has 30 seconds left in an elimination game.

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 8.35.18 PM

Sports writer Bomani Jones captured Heat fans leaving Tuesday’s game early.

During the game’s commercial breaks, I browsed cable news coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, America’s most recent instance of centuries of systemic racism distilled into one man doing a very dumb thing with a gun, then cowering beneath the defense of the even dumber Florida law made possible by the dumbest amendment in our Constitution. One pundit decried Zimmerman’s defense attorneys for articulating something akin to an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer logic in their pursuit of jurors unbiased by media coverage of the shooting last year. “What is going on in Florida tonight?”, the pundit asked incredulously. I then caught snippets of The Daily Show’s coverage of recent immigration reform debates, in which John Oliver lambasted former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and current Florida Senator Cottonmouth for deciding it might be politically expedient to curry the favor of Latino voters in order to re-color Florida red for 2014 and beyond.

I lived in Florida this past year as a visiting assistant professor at Rollins College, a liberal arts school tucked away in a tony suburb of Orlando far removed from central Florida’s exurban theme park sprawl, yet intimately bound up with it economically and culturally. As such, I’ve developed a deeply ambivalent relationship with the state’s perceived wackiness so taken for granted in American media. On the one hand, I’ve been eager to disabuse visitors of the notion that Florida is all beaches and bath salt-huffing loonies, that it has all the same amenities and experiences necessary to sustain the habitus of “enlightened” academic-types. On the other hand, I’ve often been just as eager to join the chorus of pshaws whenever something from the Florida Man Twitter feed makes its way into national news.

More than anything, though, I’ve come to embrace this ambivalence and admire Florida’s totemic hold over the American psyche. Most of us have some version of a love-hate relationship with the place we’re from or where we live, but few outside our respective hometowns have strongly held opinions about these places in the same way non-Floridians do about Florida. It has been strange to absorb outsiders’ misguided conceptions of Florida from within it this year, one that began for me with the state again playing a contested role in the Presidential election and ending with the run up to what will likely be the highest profile American court case since that of O.J. Simpson. But it has been even more heartening to see the extent to which Floridians take outsiders’ diagnoses of their home state in stride.

Florida is such a loaded signifier that any mediated discourse about goings-on within its borders is quickly sloughed off as misrepresentative of a more serious, flattering, or authentic American experience. Zimmerman’s trial thus becomes an opportunity not to examine the country’s continued racial tensions and gun culture, but to excoriate a disturbed vigilante in some lawless backwater. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush courting Florida Latinos affords us not the occasion to consider the increasingly heterogeneous cultural identities of American immigrants, but the chance to speculate wildly about the 2016 Presidential election and wonder who’ll win the state. And those leaving Tuesday’s game early are not exhausted basketball fans just hoping to sleep six hours before work in the morning, but fairweather scenesters eager to party on South Beach. As I leave Florida next week, I’ll do so with a renewed skepticism of these and so many other snap judgements about the state, knowing that there might not be a more accurate microcosm of what American culture is right now–for better, for worse, and everything in between–and what it is becoming.