news – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Fordian Slip: On the Mayor Rob Ford Scandal Fri, 13 Dec 2013 14:00:56 +0000 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.


The Distribution of Sympathy and the Death Penalty Sun, 02 Oct 2011 16:07:38 +0000

On September 21, our screens were filled with images and stories of Troy Davis’ execution and the protests against it. The same day, there was another execution in Texas. Russell Brewer, one of the three white men convicted of brutally dragging James Byrd Jr. to death in 1998, was executed just hours before Davis was.

These two men’s stories and executions were in many ways very different. Davis was a black man accused of killing a white man. Brewer was a white man accused of killing a black man. There were doubts about Davis’ guilt: there was no physical evidence, and key witnesses later recanted their stories. There was little doubt about Brewer’s guilt. Despite these differences, the two cases both demonstrate inequalities in the way individuals are able to appear as victims (or perpetrators) within legal procedure and decisions.

In Davis’ case, the lack of physical evidence and the fact that several key witnesses changed their testimony since the trial was, surprisingly, not enough to stay his execution. Quite simply, the justices reviewing the case failed to see him as a potential victim of procedural error or injustice. This failure, in light of very real problems of evidence and testimony suggests one of the key problems of practices of justice: the unequal distribution of sympathy. It would be nice to think that the justices who reviewed the case did so “neutrally” and “objectively,” but the data on death penalty suggests otherwise. Amnesty International reports that 77% of all executions for homicide involve a white victim. In contrast, 15% of executions involve a black victim, and 6 % a Hispanic victim (2% of victims were “other”) in the last 30 years.

One of the factors that explain these statistics and the lack of doubt in Troy Davis’ case is sympathy, or lack thereof. The ability to feel sympathy or not pervades many aspects of judgment. An ability to imagine a defendant or victim as like oneself or one’s family will impact the judgments we make about that person – our ability to see him or her as a victim or a perpetrator.  This ability is influenced by, among other things, media representations. Images of victimization, for good or bad, ask for sympathy.

We feel sympathy for those we are close to and can imagine ourselves as close to. For distant others, victimization is a common reason for feeling sympathy. However, the ability to appear a victim is not equally available to all. We have culturally defined ideas of what victims look like that make us more ready to see some people as victims than others (as the intense scrutiny of the dress, manner, and morals of female defendants in rape trials attests). These ideas are embedded in, among other things, race and gender. In particular, news representations provide the public with largely criminal images of black men, in which black men appear as perpetrators much more than as victims. For example, Entman and Rojecki’s study of black and white portrayals of crime in local Chicago news during the late 1990s found that while only 26% of black suspects were given names in the news, 46% of white suspects were identified by name; that while 38% of black suspects were shown in physical custody, only 15% of white suspects were shown in custody; and that stories about black suspects were four times more likely to use mug shots as illustration than were stories about white suspects.

When James Byrd Jr. was murdered by three white men, journalists devoted considerable space to emphasize his status as an innocent victim, as if anything beyond the brutality of the murder were needed to communicate his victimization. When his killers were tried, much was made of the fact that two of them, Brewer and John King, were sentenced to death. They were among the first white men to be sentenced to death for killing an African-American in Texas history. The fact that the two men were highly unsympathetic helped them become part of this statistic. They did not show remorse for the murder, had prior convictions, and were admitted white supremacists with multiple tattoos of white supremacist and Nazi symbols. They were easy to see as purely monstrous, certainly not men that the majority wanted to find commonality with. The third assailant, Shawn Berry, on the other hand, was a much more sympathetic figure. He was not a convict, did not have the sensational tattoos. He did not look and seem like a future threat to society, and so was sentenced to life. In the trail’s coverage, the reasons given for clemency for Berry were not about what he did or did not do that night, but about who he was: a “regular kid.” The point is not that Berry should have gotten a harsher penalty. The point is that the decision to give him a life sentence and the others a death sentence hinged in large part on the sympathy judge and jury felt for him, not on any sure knowledge that he was a lesser participant in the beating and dragging of Byrd. The distribution of sympathy is not equal; this is as true inside the courtroom as outside of it.

The individuals involved in deciding and carrying out capital punishment do not sit outside the influences of sympathy, nor of the influence of media texts in inculcating it. Most of those who comment upon Davis and Brewer have only “met” these men through media texts. These texts do an important job in locating the men in relation to viewers/readers and in dictating their location along the scale of the sympathetic. When we consider how much the distribution of sympathy is shaped by our own social locations and media contexts, it becomes difficult to imagine the death penalty being applied equitably, no matter how fine-tuned the procedures.


Reflections on the Challenger Disaster 25 Years Later Fri, 28 Jan 2011 15:00:03 +0000 25 years ago today, one of the most significant tragedy-induced media events of the twentieth century took place: the Challenger Disaster.

On the morning of January 28th, 1986, N.A.S.A.’s Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven crew members—Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and civilian Christa McAuliffe (who was slated to become the first teacher in space).  Adding to the shock and consternation of the fatal explosion was the fact that the accident was broadcast live on CNN and was being simultaneously shown at countless schools across the United States in recognition of McAuliffe’s involvement with N.A.S.A.’s “Teacher in Space Project.”  When the space shuttle exploded, word of the accident disseminated faster than any other American news event since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  More troubling was reality that more children than adults likely witnessed the event while at school that day.  President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation later that evening in lieu of the scheduled State of the Union address, hoping to calm the grieving public.  The ensuing media coverage zeroed in on the “human element” of the disaster, namely the astronauts themselves; however, Christa McAuliffe’s death attracted the most attention due to her non-astronaut status and largely-symbolic, nontechnical role in the shuttle mission while the “other astronauts” faded into generic anonymity.  N.A.S.A., one of the few revered bureaucracies in the United States at the time, garnered intense scrutiny.  In many ways the American space program never fully recovered from the damage to its reputation, especially following the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003.

But what has the Challenger Disaster taught us about how we interpret disaster by engaging mass media?

Not long ago, television was the primary source of rapid-fire information dissemination.  Prior to the Internet’s existence, most technologically-mediated communicative receptions in mass society were passively disseminated; that is, they did not usually host contemporaneous expressive interactions like instant messaging or texting, but rather a sender and a receiver who need not directly communicate to convey a message.  Despite this, the pervasiveness of television news and “live” reporting promoted a sense of simultaneity for viewers who were symbolically connecting to the events unfolding on the screen.  Today, this simulation of connectivity is provided by digital interactions online and through new media technology, which provides an opportunity for quelling the human thirst for understanding (or release of anxiety) following a tragedy.

It is easy to take for granted just how accustomed we have become to witnessing tragedy and disaster unfold on the news.  In just the last year, American news media has been saturated with coverage of the BP Oil Spill, a chilling shootout during a Florida School Board meeting, and, most recently, the tragic massacre in Tucson, Arizona.  Yet, as harrowing as these events have been, the fact remains that American culture has come to expect (and even demand) all-encompassing coverage following a shocking event.  When the going gets tough, the tough seek information.

By closely following a significant disaster or world event, media consumers establish a sense of stability from their new found awareness, which they then use to anticipate or rationalize the causational anxieties which may surface in times of peril.  However, when analog news operations fall short of providing such comfort through their broadcasts (or conversely, when they devote too much time to a single news story and flood their programs with recycled facts that fail to advance the current state of knowledge), people individually seek out information through the use of technology in an attempt to make sense of the world as it changes—on their own terms.  This occurred in the aftermath of the Challenger Disaster in the form of popular “sick joke” cycles that rhetorically countered the emotional hegemony of broadcast media in reporting the story; they influenced countless subsequent disaster-related joke cycles.

Without question, the subsequent media approaches following major events such as the Challenger Disaster have served to establish contemporary traditions for how the news is now captured and reported.  Stepping back reveals clear patterns that have emerged in the reportage of disaster: a focus on the “human element” (specifically a single individual’s story—McAuliffe with the Challenger Disaster; Todd Beamer’s folklorized cry of “let’s roll” in taking back a hijacked plane on 9/11; youngster Charles Evans articulating the frustration of so many during Hurricane Katrina; pilot Chesley Sullenberger after saving passengers from a crashed plane on the Hudson River; Ginger Littleton’s attempt at thwarting gunman Clay Duke from shooting members of a Florida School Board by hitting him with her purse; and so on); addresses by public figures and politicians; and relentless coverage that often replays the most dramatic and violent elements of the story.  In all of these cases, a clear desire for resolution, understanding, and solace is palpable.

Nevertheless, 25 years after the Challenger Disaster, we appear to be more accustomed to processing death, disaster, and tragedy as it unfolds than ever before, and with even greater means and desires to consume the unfolding narratives.


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What Are You Missing? Nov 21 – Dec 4 Sun, 05 Dec 2010 15:00:29 +0000 Ten (or more) media industry stories you might have missed recently:

1. Twitter’s bidding value has reached $4 billion, pretty good for a service whose purpose its own CEO can’t even pinpoint. Another Twitter exec said there are no plans to parlay Twitter into a news network, but Mathew Ingram says in some senses it already is one (and have you watched CNN?), as is social media in general. Twitter can also be used to crowdsource a story for Tim Burton.

2. We’re finally (hopefully) done with two long, drawn-out movie studio stories: Disney has sold Miramax to Filmyard Holdings, and MGM can now officially relaunch itself anew. But we’re not yet done with the long, drawn-out story of who will take over the MPAA. For a time it was said to be Democratic politician Bob Kerrey; now the name is Republican politician Tom Davis. And we’re not sure what the future of the British film industry will be without the long, drawn-out Harry Potter series to rely on.

3. Awards season is shifting into middle gear: Winter’s Bone is really cleaning up, winning at the Gotham Awards and the Torino Film Festival and leading the Independent Spirit Award nominations, which also had a few surprises; the National Board of Review liked The Social Network best; Sundance has announced its competitive slate (and the out of competition fare); the Academy has released the animated and live-action short Oscar nomination shortlist; and Roman Polanski accepted a Best Director award from the European Film Awards via Skype.

4. Blockbuster is hoping a new ad campaign (“We’re not closed yet!”) and a new pricing scheme (“Hopefully you’ll return this late!”) will rescue it. In contrast, the only thing rising faster than Netflix is the volume of articles on the rise of Netflix, which leads David Poland to offer his familiar “Wait a minute” perspective, while Dian L. Chu wonders if a crash is possible, and Paul Carr wonders why the studios don’t like Netflix more.

5. Wii console sales have declined precipitously; at the Xbox’s 5th birthday mark, there are no new consoles on the horizon; and Disney is shifting attention from console to online and mobile games. And why not, with games like Angry Birds garnering lots of money and new addicts.

6. Hard to keep track of all the piracy and copyright news lately: The US government has shut down over 80 websites suspected of piracy, Fox has gone after an online script trader, Viacom is appealing the YouTube case, Pirate Bay lost an appeal, prosecutors dropped a case against an Xbox hacker, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by a 16-year-old illegal downloader, Google will try out new anti-piracy measures (which make Greg Sandoval wonder which side Google is on now, Team Copyright Owner or Team User), and China (Team China) is fighting intellectual-property abuse.

7. Google’s looking to make a library distribution deal with Miramax, part of a larger plan to feature more long-form content on YouTube. Google’s plan to acquire Groupon fell through, though, ending an already tough week that saw the company investigated for antitrust allegations by the European Union and having to respond to criticism that it helps corrupt businesses. But hey, at least it’s not MySpace.

8. A UK court ruled that paid news aggregator services have to pay newspapers when those services feature newspapers’ online content, even just headlines and short extracts, which could have significant implications (though the ruling will be appealed, of course). Something like Google News (and WAYM!) is ok because it’s free and ad-supported, not subscription-based.

9. Half of the Grammy nominations went to indie artists and labels, but Leonard Pierce says it’s more complicated than that. Spotify took a big financial loss last year, but Bruce Houghton says it’s more complicated than that. Fergie won a Billboard Woman of the Year Award; I wish it was more complicated than that.

10. Good News for TV Majors links from the past two weeks: Ad Volume Standards, The Netflix Challenge, DirecTV May Drop Channels, Walking Dead Closes Writers’ Room, Copps Criticizes Media, Good TVeets (#liesshowrunnerstellyou edition), Terriers Coverage, US Worried About Rep on Canadian TV, Net Neutrality Vote, Comcast Dispute, Attention Span Issue.


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What Do You Think? Framing the Olympics Fri, 05 Mar 2010 14:46:55 +0000 Now that the Olympics are over, and all that’s left is a hefty tax bill for the residents of Vancouver, which news frames stick with you? What were the games’ more important moments, amidst its many “firsts”? Where did coverage prove itself inadequate to the task? Which frames bugged you, and which roped you in?

Was it the spectacle of watching South Korea and Japan find a new battleground in women’s ice skating? Was it the death of Ukrainian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, and NBC’s ghoulish love in the hours afterward for replaying it ad infinitum? The US men’s hockey team’s supposedly “improbable” run to the gold medal game? Contested disqualifications and ensuing death threats in short track ice skating? The debate over who should’ve lit the Olympic flame? The British press’s determination to label the games a mismanaged failure? Joannie Rochette’s skate in the face of adversity? The Canadian women’s ice hockey team smoking cigars on the ice after winning? The Plushenko-Lysacek “to quad or not to quad” debate? “Harry Potter’s” ski jump redemption? Or even the bi-annual, “what? That counts as a sport?!” discussion?

And for our non-American readers, what are the frames that the rah, rah, USA, USA drumbeat of NBC missed? What were the equally egregious rah, rah moments from various other broadcasters that had you cringing?


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Is There Room for Narrative Complexity in News about Politics? Fri, 05 Feb 2010 18:44:12 +0000 Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly represent opposite poles of television’s entertainment-political complex, a fact that makes the encounters between these two individuals (and the viewer-constituencies they “represent”) all the more fascinating. In Stewart’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor this week, he continued to develop his argument about Fox News’ “preconceived narrative,” but ranged further by noting that Obama himself needed a clear narrative, one that couldn’t so easily be overcome by the toxic narrative crafted by Fox.

When O’Reilly pressed for a list of things that Obama has done “wrong” in his first year, Stewart argues it is the poor job Obama has done of letting Congress (and the lobbyists who fund them) dominate the story. “It allows too much room for different narratives to take hold,” Stewart argues, “for instance, a narrative that might emanate from a news organization of this ilk.” Stewart is simply repeating what others are saying: that Obama has “lost control of his political narrative, his ability to define the story of his presidency on his own terms….Mr. Obama faces a narrative vacuum.”

These arguments about political narratives and the need for clear and simple stories deserve our attention. Jason Mittell has studied what he calls TV’s turn toward “narrative complexity” in the post-network era, especially in the realm of dramatic programming. But if Stewart is right here, news media, citizens, and even politicians seem incapable of dealing with narratives about politics that can adequately capture the complexity of those realities.

But must politics be reduced to simple narratives? How does one simplify that which is so complex? How does a news agency offer citizens a clear narrative, but one that doesn’t reduce the complexity of the situation? And who is the author of that narrative—the news channels or the politicians? Certainly Stewart is correct in noting that Fox and O’Reilly are masters of transforming complex social problems and the agents of government entrusted to address them into the most simple of good guy-bad guy, white hat-black hat tales (with the occasional conspiracy thrown in for the Birchers/Birthers crowd). And as O’Reilly notes, the market for such stories is alive and well (with Fox being ranked recently as the most trusted source of TV news).

But if Mittell is correct—that, by extension, substantial audiences do exist in this day and age for entertainment narratives that work outside such simple molds—where do we look for such similarly complex narratives about politics? Is The Daily Show and The Colbert Report the location for politics for those who enjoy the narratives on HBO (for there is nothing simple about parody and satire)? Or is Stewart simply a master at taking complexity in public life and boiling it down to nuggets of truths without pushing aside that complexity in the process (the way, say, that All in the Family did in a previous era)?

On the other hand, perhaps Stewart is wrong. Instead of a clear or simple narrative, perhaps Fox is actually presenting a very convoluted and complex one. Certainly the performance of ideology that Glenn Beck enacts on his blackboards or the conspiracy theory documentaries he produces are anything but simple (completely illogical is another thing). Perhaps the most simple of narratives about politics comes from CNN and the broadcast networks, with their presentist, “who’s up and who’s down today” narratives that blur the bigger picture of governance, makes politics into a farcical circus act, and treats “news” about politics as a series of penny dreadfuls.

Whichever way, the narrative complexity of entertainment television suggests that some citizen-viewers are capable of engaging with narratives that represent the complexities of social reality—much more so than the narratives we currently find in the realm of television news. Sadly, I don’t expect cable or broadcast news to embrace that complexity anytime soon. For viewers of my ideological ilk, fake news may have to suffice.


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The Role of the Media in Times of Crisis Thu, 21 Jan 2010 20:54:59 +0000

I really hate US television news. I detest its lack of historical context and investigative journalism, and its drive for ratings through fantastical and voyeuristic stories. There are moments, however, when I turn to television news to provide the visual, immediate, and ongoing coverage of stories not easily gained through newspapers, radio programs, or the Web: moments like 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Kashmir earthquake and now the earthquake in Haiti. Many American television journalists, like Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and Anderson Cooper, arrived in Haiti before much of the “relief effort” arrived. Like many of you, I have watched the coverage with my jaw dropped, overwhelmed and distraught by what these journalists have shown me.

Once the initial shock wore off, I wanted more information about Haiti, and the television news hater in me returned. Much of the television coverage has lacked historical information about Haiti and its relationship to the United States, focusing instead on images of flattened buildings, suffering people and stories of survivors searching for loved ones. I was truly appalled when I watched Anderson Cooper place a microphone deep into a demolished building to allow viewers to hear the screams of the 15-year-old girl trapped in the rubble. More recent stories have turned to death counts and plans for rebuilding.

The US television coverage of Haiti has me thinking about the role of media in a humanitarian crisis. Certainly the coverage we receive in the US is to serve the American viewing public. This coverage has no doubt encouraged Americans to donate the more than $100 million the American Red Cross has received through text-messages (don’t get me started about slackitvism). So we can argue that US television news indirectly has helped give aid to the Haitian people for medical care, food, and shelter, but how can the media benefit Haitians more directly?

Pondering this, I came upon an article in the New York Times that discussed the role of radio in Haiti (radio is Haiti’s most popular medium due to widespread illiteracy and lack of electricity). One station in particular, Signal FM in Port-Au-Prince has broadcast 24 hours a day nonstop through the earthquake to get critical information to their audience: remarks from Haitian President Rene Preval, details necessary for locating aid, and lists of the names of the missing. Internews, an international media development organization, is working with local journalists in Haiti to restore radio stations damaged by the earthquake and to produce programming to help Haitians receive humanitarian information. The organization argues that “strong, effective, local media are uniquely positioned to play a catalytic role in engaging communities during an emergency.”

I agree that Haiti needs a strong local and national media to weather this crisis and begin to rebuild. But they will also need foreign aid, and as we know, foreign aid is dependant upon information. What will happen in Haiti when the ratings-driving television coverage disappears, when news organizations pull their foreign correspondents (who are too few in numbers these days) to cover other crises? If the United States is going to play a useful part in Haiti’s rebuilding, US television news coverage must be ongoing and must work to give the American people a deeper knowledge of Haiti’s history and its future needs. We know from our own crisis in New Orleans that the needs of a community do not disappear just because news coverage does. The crisis in Haiti offers US television news a chance to do a bit of their own rebuilding—I really hope they take it.


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