September 11th – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “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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Fighting Ephemerality: The 9/11 Television News Archive Mon, 10 Oct 2011 12:52:22 +0000 Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at a mini-conference co-hosted by NYU and Internet Archive. The topic was Internet Archive’s revamped 9/11 Television News Archive, which allows users access to 24 hours of 9/11 coverage from the U.S. and abroad. Like all things on Internet Archive, the 9/11 TV News Archive is free—a tremendous help to anyone wishing to reevaluate how the events played out on TV. So I chose to speak a little about the issue of access and the singular experience of watching television in an archive. Below is an excerpt from my remarks.

I’m a media scholar, so I approach TV news a bit differently than other folks. First and foremost, I’m interested in television news as television—as a ratings-driven commercial artifact that juggles the responsibility of journalism with the stylistic and narrative demands of television. As a result of this primary interest, I’m also concerned with the way the demands of television often adversely affect the information we get, particularly during times of crisis when the appeal of liveness and breaking news can overwhelm little things like facts. It’s the fog of live television. The archive has a tremendous role to play in helping researchers reconstruct the past as seen on television, but it also helps us pinpoint precisely how history’s televised narrative is already a construct—a carefully crafted and complex set of signs and symbols. So I’d like to talk about the television news archive in terms of accessibility and analysis and why both of those things matter.

When I started researching Ugly War Pretty Package in 2004, I was in the third year of my Ph.D. program, meaning I was relatively poor. I didn’t realize this would factor so heavily into my ability to access news coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I actually had no trouble finding CNN’s coverage. My university’s media center maintained its own collection of CNN coverage, but—in a move that makes perfect sense to some but was a bad decision in the long run—they neglected to archive Fox News. CNN had become the newscast of record, so why collect anything else? I needed over 100 hours of Fox News coverage, so paying the Vanderbilt Archive for that amount of time was out of the question. Vanderbilt had just started putting clips online, but I needed days of coverage. I had to rely on the kindness of strangers, namely a journalism professor from the University of Arizona who didn’t think twice about mailing me every single Fox News tape her department had made. This was just seven years ago, and it was all very low tech. Video tapes. Snail mail. It got the job done, but not without anxiety.

Once the problem of access was solved, the next one revealed itself when I was transcribing the coverage and conducting my actual analysis. It was less of a problem and more of an intellectually complicated new experience—the experience of watching five 24-hour cycles of news. Nobody does that. As a television scholar, this was an exciting prospect. It forced me to argue that the basic unit of analysis of cable news is the 24-hour cycle. It’s not one particular program or even one daypart. Most people, even news junkies, consume news in snippets or in hour-long blocks. When you decide to study news with an eye to its aesthetic and narrative attributes, you’ve made the decision to remove news from its normal context. Even though much of my motivation was to reinsert news into the television context, the experience of watching hours of news in a cubby in my university’s media center, and the sadness of re-watching the shock and awe bombing next to strangers who were all watching something else, highlighted the very odd artifact that news becomes when it is placed in an archive.

So why does any of this matter? Television news has always been considered an ephemeral text. Certain clips, and I emphasize the word CLIPS, live on and pop up again and again: the moon landing, Cronkite’s announcement of President Kennedy’s death, the Challenger explosion. But aside from those morsels, there has been little effort to save, to catalogue, and to archive. When CNN released its Persian Gulf War coverage on home video, it was composed of highlights. Again, these were the morsels that stood out, but those morsels probably accurately represented how most people experienced the war in their living rooms. Researchers can’t live on morsels. It’s only when you can lay out every moment of concentrated coverage and truly study it as a coherent text that you can detect and explain the patterns and motifs in the genre of television news.

See, I’ve come to believe that the “ephemerality” of 24-hour news encourages sloppiness. I’ve worked in live television, and I know that screw-ups happen. Couple liveness with the pressure of covering a breaking story, and the potential for disaster is huge. The idea is that everyone will forgive CNN or FOX for living in the heat of the moment and speculating wildly. One news cycle simply replaces the last, and short of the satirical interventions of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, no one will really hold TV news accountable for the problematic statements, characterizations, and images that can dominate during moments of crisis.

The archive changes this. The archive replaces ephemerality with permanence and gives television the same respect as the written word. When TV news becomes institutionalized in this way, it is easier to study. This is a gift to people like me and especially to students and independent scholars who lack the resources that a university job often provides. And, of course, the 9/11 TV News Internet Archive is a gift to people like my students, who were barely old enough to grasp what was going on in 2001. It opens up so many avenues for research and discovery, critical or casual, and that value can’t be overstated.