Barack Obama – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “Hope” for Net Neutrality? Thu, 13 Nov 2014 15:00:36 +0000 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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Two Futures for Football Wed, 30 Jan 2013 14:00:58 +0000

Star NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in May 2012. It was later concluded that he suffered from chronic brain damage.

Each year, it becomes a little harder to be a football fan. I have loved the game since I was 11, and I always intellectualized it, an attitude that is now rewarded with the renaissance in football analysis online.  But while I could somehow always look past the politics of the game, the new findings on concussions seem to be a whole other level of destruction visited upon the bodies of players.

It may be Super Bowl week, but concussions are in the news.  The Atlantic ran a short piece on scans showing brain damage in living former players.  Scans of Junior Seau’s brain show that he had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma at the time of his death even though, according to the NFL, he “never” had a concussion.  The news is only going to get worse, not better, for the NFL.  Helmet technology is not going to save players, especially when there’s resistance to even marginally better helmets.  Players who have come up in the system won’t report concussions when they should (they’re the same with other injuries) and the league head office seems mostly interested in head injuries as a PR problem, a problem that continues to get worse as public figures–including the US president now–say they would not let their sons play the sport competitively.  I can imagine two possible futures for football in this situation.

1.  The first is that the game will continue to change to the point that it is substantially different from what it is even today.  Obama isn’t the first president to weigh in on football violence.  If we go back to the 19th century, people were getting killed because of the rules.  In 1906 Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban organized football, because college students were getting killed off–the 1905 season saw 19 player deaths and countless major injuries (Roosevelt’s own son played for Harvard and suffered a malicious broken nose).  In response, the NCAA legalized the forward pass and changed several other rules, such as banning mass formations and the creation of a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage.  This was after rules changes in 1894 banning the flying wedge and other exceedingly violent tactics.

From the standpoint of concussions, we are at some point before 1894.  If someone like Seau can go through his career “without” a concussion (note the scarequotes) and probably die as a result of brain injuries, then massive reforms are needed.  I don’t have a clear program, but in essence what we’re looking at is either a transformation of player equipment to make it less possible for them to hit each other as violently as they do, or a transformation of the rules to further favor offensive players, perhaps making it more like arena football or flag football.

2.  The other future for football is visible in the state of boxing today.  Boxing was a major American sport for a large chunk of the 20th century.  Boxers were cultural icons and the sport, like football, developed a following among intellectuals.  But today, it’s fan base is heavily diminished.  It has lost a good deal of its cultural respectability, its cache with fans, reporters and writers, and most importantly, with parents whose children might go into the sport.  Part of this is a business question, having to do with boxing’s relationship with television, and the challenges it now faces from competitors like the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  But boxing also declined because its violence went from being aestheticized by sportswriters and other intellectuals–as “the sweet science”–to being deplored by those same people.  The NFL and NCAA clearly have good media sense, and it is possible that their PR machine can hold back the attacks that will come as more information about the extent and effect of player concussions is revealed.  Perhaps football will become more of a lower class sport, as parents who have intellectual or knowledge-economy ambitions for their kids move away from it.  It’s one thing to think your kid might break a bone or tear a muscle from playing a sport.  The prospect of brain damage resonates quite differently with parents.

Today, boxing suffers from an association with its athletes as members of a disposable class of society.  If football’s rules don’t change, it risks joining boxing as a sport whose athletes will be imagined as disposable people–even more than they are now.

However much I like the sport, and however much money is behind it, I don’t think we’ll see the same game in a generation’s time.


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“Depiction is not Endorsement”: Representing Torture in Zero Dark Thirty Tue, 22 Jan 2013 15:00:24 +0000 Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Despite complaints that it justifies the use and effectiveness of torture, the film cannot be dismissed so easily.]]> Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Like Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty has been received as an important document in helping to provide a popular history of the war on terrorism. In fact, at least one critic has suggested that Zero Dark Thirty “will be the film that defines a decade,” and, judging by box office numbers, audiences appear curious about the film and what it says about this cultural moment.

In making sense of Zero Dark Thirty, it’s worth noting that Bigelow chooses a very narrow frame for telling the story of the bin Laden manhunt. The film opens with a black background while audio from the September 11th attacks plays, a technique that reinforces the film’s authenticity and directly precedes a sequence in which Dan (Jason Clarke) roughly interrogates a suspect, punching him and eventually humiliating him sexually. For the next two hours, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of CIA operatives, particularly Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is introduced to the manhunt during one particularly brutal interrogation scene and who then devotes virtually all of her time and energy to the pursuit of bin Laden. When asked later by the CIA director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), what else she’s done since joining the organization, Maya quickly replies, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Thus, rather than viewing the war on terrorism through the lens of policy or through its effects in the battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, we get what is essentially a procedural narrative, in which Maya pursues the clues leading to bin Laden.

The debate over the film began weeks before its early January national release when political commentator Glenn Greenwald condemned it (without having seen the film), in large part on the basis of Frank Bruni’s New York Times column. Greenwald worried that the film seemed to assert that coercive techniques such as waterboarding were “crucial, even indispensable” in pursuing bin Laden, when most accounts suggest differently – that these enhanced interrogation techniques often produced incorrect information, an argument that Alex Gibney, director of the investigative documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, makes in his extended analysis of the film. And under a relatively straightforward cause-effect analysis of the film’s narrative, it’s not too difficult to reach this conclusion. Dan roughly interrogates suspects. Eventually, Maya suggests more subtle forms of coercion. Through these techniques, they get the name of bin Laden’s courier, which eventually allows them to find bin Laden’s compound. Matt Taibbi makes a similar argument, going as far as saying that the film’s genre as a political thriller actually reinforces the justification for torture, suggeting that our expectations of capturing “the big treasure”  lead us to accept the actions of Maya, Dan, and others in the CIA. This affirmative account is, perhaps, reinforced by source bias. Bigelow and Boal were given unusual access to the CIA operatives involved in the case, and the film was made with the material support of the US military (as Chastain mentioned in an interview with Jon Stewart).

Eventually, Bigelow was forced to defend Zero Dark Thirty against many of these complaints, writing an editorial in the Los Angeles Times where she defended the film by stating flatly that “depiction is not endorsement.” In other words, her decision to show the use of torture is not meant to be understood as advocating for it, either morally or strategically. What Bigelow’s argument overlooks, however, is the fact that depiction is, in fact, endorsement, at least to the extent that her film endorses one specific truth about what led to the capture of bin Laden. As Taibbi observes, all of the narrative choices that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal made involve framing how the story is told and are, therefore, endorsing a way of thinking about the bin Laden manhunt. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty seems to claim authenticity not only through its set design and handheld camera techniques – which tend to augment the film’s documentary “feel” – or through its use of expert testimony, but also narratively, through the storytelling techniques that frame our interpretation of the events leading to bin Laden’s death.

Yet, despite these complaints, Zero Dark Thirty cannot be dismissed so easily. First, due to the film’s extreme focus on the experiences of Maya, many of the popular (or official) narratives about the war on terror are effaced. Elected officials only appear fleetingly on TV sets, their comments often remote from the daily business of the CIA. The triumphant image of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and others watching from the White House as Seal Team Six completes its mission is absent. The only image of celebration is a brief shot of Maya, and even this image seems to be coded as part of the procedural narrative associated with completing the job. Instead, these scenes seem almost somber in tone. In fact, there is very little sense of resolution at the end of the film. I don’t think the depictions of torture can be ignored, and Bigelow’s defense of the film seems hollow at best. No one is questioning her right to show brutal violence, just the implication that the use of torture produced intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture. But given that Maya’s pursuit is filled with false starts and failed leads – recall that one prisoner continues to make up false information despite being repeatedly waterboarded – it also resists simply affirming a celebratory narrative about bin Laden’s death. The critiques that label the film as “propaganda” overlook or ignore this complexity and underestimate the interpretive skills of audiences who seek to engage with the film. Thus, rather than dismiss the film, we should instead engage with it and make sense of how it both reflects and challenges dominant discourses about the war on terrorism.


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