Friday, October 24, 2008

The Politics of Film in October 2008: Part II: W

Oliver Stone's W (2008) is the second controversial pre-election docu-genre film that I will explore. Although it is inappropriate to classify this film as a documentary, it remains an interesting comparison to Mahr and Charles' Religulous because it uses real footage and accurate re-enactment in attempting to satirize the real by presenting it as faithfully as possible. To clarify using a different example, Tina Fey's rendition of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has achieved a similar effect. In each case, the media producers merely hold a mirror up to their object of scorn and allow the results to speak for themselves. Naturally, this is more the case in Fey's Saturday Night Live performance than in Stone's film, because the latter must yield to the constraint of presenting a feature-length drama.

Before delving directly into an analysis of the film's mechanics, I want to direct the reader to the diagram featured on my homepage ( This diagram is the outcome of an extensive research project investigating film adaptation and is taken from my recently completed dissertation, Found in Translation: Structural and Cognitive Aspects of the Adaptation of Comic Art to Film (Jones, 2008). The theory of adaptation expressed through the diagram is relevant here because it shows the pathways that exist between original source material and adaptation. In this case, the reality of Bush's presidency represents the source material, and Stone's film represents the adaptation.

Looking at the film from the perspective of this General Model of Adaptation (Jones, 2008), we can say that it is a structural adaptation (Jones, 2008) which selects a specific series of events and modifies them through reorganization, condensation, and extrapolation (see pgs. 114-116 for definitions). Using this framework, I will now trace the migration and modification of content from source to adaptation in Stone's W.

The foundation of this "adaptation of reality" is the actual events that occurred in the life of George W. Bush. Like any personal history, no matter how recent it is, some aspects are clearer and easier to discern than others. Certainly the least ambiguous aspects of the film are those lifted straight from reality in the form of archival television material. These clips, taken directly from the media contemporary to the events being dramatized, ground the film, no matter how tenuously, in the realm of actuality. The brief television clip of Bill Clinton's victory over the elder Bush, the invasion of Iraq, images of worldwide protests, and the destruction of the Saddam Hussein statue are examples of the infusion of reality into the context of the story. Of course, these scraps of authenticity are quickly modified to fit into the narrative through the context surrounding them. For example, the reality of the Bill Clinton victory as it was presented on television is immediately placed in the service of making a point about the relationship between George W. Bush and his father: As the elder bush weeps softly at his loss, his son gets angry and exclaims that he should have gone all the way and unseated Saddam from power. This troubled father/son relationship and the argument over Iraq are elements that are central to the entire film; however, the seam between reality and fiction is barely detectable because of the credibility lent by the real-life television excerpt.

Beyond these archived images of the recent past, the film also features re-enactments of actual media events. Similar to Tina Fey's performance on Saturday Night Live, humor and criticism are achieved through fidelity, not hyperbole. Two outstanding examples of this technique, as it is used in W, are the press conference where Bush struggles to explain what mistakes were made leading up to the war, and the "Mission Accomplished" photo-op in which Bush lands a fighter jet on an air craft carrier. Both of these scenes augment the real events they portray by recreating them for the film narrative. For one thing, being re-enactments, these scenes do not present a recycled, previously interpreted version of reality the way the television clips described above do. Instead, they serve to remind viewers of key moments that inform the film's perspective on the Bush presidency and comment upon those moments through their reconstruction by presenting the viewer with a slightly different version of events that serve as a prompt for re-examination within the context of the film's narrative. For example, by exploiting cinematic devices such as the close-up shot and montage editing, these scenes are explored in ways that would be impossible if a completely faithful representation or their original media sources were used instead. To illustrate my point, imagine the press conference without close-ups or the "Mission Accomplished" scene without camera movement.

A step further away from the "documentary" quality of the previous examples of archived footage and re-enactments is the dramatization of anecdotal stories that compose the scenes of Bush's youth which are intercut with the first term of his presidency. Depictions of his life as a Yale "frat-boy," his relationship with Laura, and, especially, his relationship with his father, George H. W. Bush, are dramatized based on anecdote and interspliced with the core of story that explores the events surrounding the invasion of Iraq. The most interesting thing about these anecdotal dramatizations is how they form a parallel story to the Bush presidency and, in the process, attempt to lend insight into the psychology of George W. Bush. As in the case of Religulous (Mahr & Charles), parallelism is used to structure the film's plot in the form of an argument. As Manohla Dargis explains: "The story repeatedly shifts between scenes of the younger Bush meandering through his life, and the older Bush navigating through the early stages of the Iraq war. This shuttling across time and space undercuts the drama — the story doesn’t so much build as restlessly circle back — but it puts into visual terms Mr. Stone’s ideas about the present and past being mutually implicated" (New York Times).

One telling example of how parallelism occurs happens when we are witness to Bush's envious response to his father's support of his brother, Jeb, during his campaign for governor. Upon witnessing this exchange, we are left with the impression that much of Bush's motivation is to earn the respect and approval of his father. In light of this, the war is framed as a misplaced attempt to win approval by completing the job his father started. Parallelism, in this respect, is similar to the adaptive operation that I call "reorganization" in the diagram of the general model of adaptation because events are presented in an order that supports the new plot rather than retelling the story in the literal sense.

In addition to reorganizing history in the service of the film's plot, much of the recent past is also omitted. As noted by McCarthy, "Stone and Weiser make no attempt to cover historical bases; major episodes, including political campaigns, business alliances and elections, are completely omitted" (Variety). Cutting to the chase in this way by elimonating extraneous information not directly relevant to the film's central plot is akin to the adaptive operation of "condensation" in which nonessential material is dropped in order to unify the plot. One major example of condensation in W was the omission of the 2000 presedential race against Al Gore and its highly contested outcome.

Finally, some scenes in the film were completely invented, or "extrapolated" for the sake of the plot. Examples include the scene where Bush discovers Jesus after collapsing during a jog, the scene where he dreams of his father sitting in the Oval Office and lecturing him, and all of the scenes of Bush alone in the baseball stadium catching fly balls. As with the extrapolation that occurs in all film adaptations, these scenes serve to stitch the plot together and, in the process, make salient the most important aspects of the story. Take, for instance, the last scene in the film where Bush runs backward to the wall to catch a fly ball just before it disappears, leaving him bewildered in an empty stadium. There is no equivalent of this in reality but the scene works metaphorically, using the disappearing ball to suggest Bush's ultimate lack of control and confusion in the face of the events surrounding him in the wake of the invasion of Iraq.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Politics of Film in October 2008: Part I: Religulous

Over the next three blog posts, I will be examining three politically charged films released in October, 2008; the month prior to the Presidential Election. These include Religulous (Charles), An Americal Carol (Zucker), and W (Stone). One of these is a documentary, and the other two are narrative films that exploit the reputations of real people.

I begin with the documentary Religulous so that An American Carol and W can be compared more directly as narrative products.

To briefly summarize, Religulous is premised upon comedian and social critic Bill Mahr's quest to understand why people maintain religous faith in the face of overwhelming reasons to doubt. He speaks to leaders and believers in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities in order to try to understand their perspectives. At the end of the film, Mahr concludes that religion is dangerous and should be discarded because it will ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy about the end of the world.

The reader who has seen this film will correctly observe that the previous paragraph of synopsis ignores the fact that Mahr is not really trying to "understand." His mind is obviously made up and he is plumbing the religious leaders, followers, and places of the world for information that will support his position. This is not a new technique, nor is it a dishonest or unethical technique as some might suggest. A film's classification as "documentary" does not mandate a perspective that is fair or unbiased in any way. In the most literal sense, a documentary film documents reality and does not script dialog or stage events for the camera beyond the readily apparant staging of the interview scenario. How that reality is sliced up and reassembled, however, is both a perceptual and ideological task that cannot be avoided anyway. The most obvious evidence of this singular, biased point of view inherent to cinema is that the camera's lens can take on only one perspective. The screen can be split, images can be superimposed and multiple cameras and angles can be employed, but none of this can remedy the basic truth that a camera can only see one thing at a time and that is what the filmmaker chooses to point it at.

Taking full advantage of the power of the medium to focalize events through a single perspective, Charles and Mahr employ several techniques in promoting their anti-religious message. These include "gatekeeping," "reflexivity," "parallelism," "cutaways," and "verite."

Gatekeeping is the most obvious of this or any other documentary's modus operandi. Those interview segments, scenes, and lines of dialog that work in the favor of the documentary's perspective are kept and those that work against it are discarded. Naturally, having seen only the theatrical release of the film, I have no direct evidence that gatekeeping has occured, but it is safe to assume that much footage was discarded in order to arrive at the final product, and that some of the footage may have contained parts that were less than perfect in terms of the film's goal.

The second strategy is actually quite related to the first. Reflexivity attempts to reconstitute some of the context that the viewer knows is missing. Charles and Mahr achieve reflexivity through personal reflections that Mahr offers as the crew moves from location to location. He speaks about is family history and his personal experiences in such a way as to reveal his honest doubts and his motives for doing what he's doing. In this sense he is quite transparent about his perspective and this compensates for the necessary lack of transparency in the filmmaking process.

Paralellism is the third strategy and it is an old technique in both literature and filmmaking. To understand it, one must grasp the difference between story and plot. While the plot is the sequence of events depicted in the film, the story is the sequence of events as they occur naturally in the story that the film tells. The classic example is Citizen Kane's use of Thompson's investigation (plot) to structure the events of Kane's life (story). Using this perspective, I would say that Religulous is "all plot" and is structured more like an essay because it is guided by the logical relationships between ideas rather than the temporal relationships between events. Once again, Charles and Mahr use this to full effect, returning to various interviews repeatedly to remind the viewer of themes emerging among religious responses. For example, in one sequence, the filmmakers revisit virtually ever previous interview to make the point that religion actively promotes and seeks out the "day of judgement" when the world will end.

The most obvious technique employed throughout the film is the cutaway and it is most often inserted during the interview segments to undermine or contradict the factual incorrectness of the interviewee. Michael Moore famously used this technique in Bowling for Columbine during an interview with a Lockheed Martin spokesman trying to claim that the United States uses its weapons only against aggressors. The film then cuts away to a sampling of half a dozen instances to the contrary. Cutaways were used for similar effect in Religulous, such as the instance where a "formerly" gay minister claims that there is no such thing as a "gay gene" just before we cut to a breif interview of Mahr meeting with the scientist who discovered the "gay gene." More commonly, however, Religulous employs the cutaway for comic effect and to guide the emotional response of the viewer. For example, when suggesting that the reason the bible skips the first 30 years of Jesus' life because he had an awkward adolescence, the film cuts to a shot of Jonah Hill from the film Superbad (2007). In numerous other examples, old educational films and classic hollywood cinema (e.g. The Ten Commandments) are used to similar effect.

The final technique I will discuss this entry is "verite" and it refers to those parts of the film that were unexpected and stand outside of the director or interviewer's control. Examples include a parishioner of the "trucker's church" threatening Mahr and walking out of the interview, Mahr being thrown out of the Vatican, and various other points when religious figures get agitated with Mahr's presence. The effect of including these scenes is to stand back and let the viewers observe, as objectively as possible, the craziness, defensiveness, anger, paranoia, and general misbehavior of those under scrutiny. To illustrate, merely watching Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda to speak calls his sanity into question.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Part V: People

People magazine is to The Atlantic or The New Yorker in terms of "sophistication" what The Weekly Standard is to Mother Jones in terms political bias.

As a "low-brow" cultural artifact, People is dedicated to celebrity gossip and human interest stories. We should be aware, however, that focusing on human interest stories above issues does not make People apolitical. In fact, in the current climate that thrives on identity-politics, People may (unfortunately) be dealing with the core issues upon which the upcoming election will be based. This being the case, a brief look at the cover story is in order.

The first thing that is striking about this cover is the arrangement of the members of the McCain family. They are divided by gender and by race. The men are at the top of the image, followed by the women in the second tier, and Bridgette McCain is at the bottom left of the image.

It is difficult to read this image in a way that is not hierarchical. Even if one were to say that Bridgette is located at the bottom left due to being the youngest, this does not account for the gender segregation or the fact that Cindy McCain is older than everyone above her except for the Senator. Given that framework, even the sympathetic onlooker cannot deny the potentially sexist/racist underpinnings of the portrait.

To make the point even clearer, a quantitative analysis of the distances between family memebers reveals that Bridgette is mathematically the furthest away from any other family member in the portrait (see right). And the point is underscored by the two-page spread within the magazine which has Bridgette sitting on the floor in front of the couch while the rest of the family is either seated or standing above.

This gives her the disturbing appearance of being a sort of "family pet," but it is doubtful this is the true subtext of the message. It is far more likely that Bridgette is being used as a prop to demonstrate the humanitarian qualities of the McCains, particularly Cindy. Moving on to the next image in the article, this becomes very clear as we are offered an overt image of Cindy in Cambodia doing work for CARE and Operation Smile.

The title above, "Her Mission of Mercy," not only frames Cindy as a selfless philanthropist, it seems to portray her as being on a mission from God and lend her significant symbolic value from the woman whose pose she is adopting in the photograph...

While it would be unacceptable to compare a billion-dollar beer fortune heiress to the late Mother Tereasa using words, images that contain suggestive poses are capable of the subtlety necessary to do the trick.

For People magazine and its readers, it isn't the candidates' policies or positions that are important, it is how the reader feels about the candidate as a person. This is what distinguishes it from the other publications in this five part analysis. Unlike Mother Jones or The Weekly Standard, People makes no arguments or claims that can be refuted. They present images that can be critiqued as I have done above, but the ambiguity inherent to images and stories about personal qualities deflects criticism and slips under the critical radar to strike the reader at the level of emotion.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Part IV: The Atlantic

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Sen. John McCain is depicted on the front cover in extreme close-up by photographer Jill Greenberg, who was also responsible for the manipulated photographs below (subsequently posted on her website). The cover came under scrutiny by right-wing media sources after the manipulated shots were discovered. This summons the question of what effect the reputation, political philosophy, and previous work of the photographer has on the work he/she produces.

Without the discovery of the other contraversial photographs which prompted further investigation into Greeberg's work, would conservative commentators feel the same way? In their wake, is it possible to look objectively at the cover of The Atlantic or the contents of the magazine?

Presenting this cover to the students in my Introduction to Mass Media course, their response was not critical until I revealed Greenberg's manipulated shots. Once they were exposed to them, however, it seemed impossible to view either the cover or the contents of the magazine objectively.

Such "ex post facto" reasoning raises the old issue of the role cognition plays in perception. Those with conservative points of view whom would, presumably, find themselves offended by the three images above are going to find it difficult to supress knowledge of the previous work of the photographer in order to render an objective decision about the fairness of McCain's portrayal on the cover of the magazine. In my classroom, this tended to manifest itself as increased attention to the folds of skin beneath McCain's chin and the lines around his eyes.

The problem, however, is this: no photograph is unmanipulated. Above, I was actually incorrect to refer to the photos in question as "manipulated" to distinguish them from the cover photograph which, itself, is certainly manipulated as well. The tricky thing about photography has always been its capacity to mechanically reproduce reality as if the person behind the camera had little to do with the outcome. As a result, it serves as a great way to hide ideological portrayals because the photographer will always imply that he/she was just capturing what was there.

So the debate over the unmanipulated cover vs. the manipulated images of McCain is actually false because it is really a debate about the way the photographs are manipulated which is important. Right-wing viewers are less offended by the cover because it manipulates McCain's appearance in a way that is more amenable to their ideological stance.

The real problem, however, begins when conservative pundits begin to imply that the magazine itself has a similarly unfair treatment of John McCain because of the choice of hiring Jill Greenberg as their cover photographer. Actually reading the article with which the cover photograph is associated reveals the author (Jeffrey Goldberg) to have employed the most objective of methods to write his story. Having traveled to speak with McCain and his closest associates, Goldberg chooses to hand over documents and photographs to McCain in attempt to prompt reflections from him rather than asking pointed questions that are guided by an agenda. In essence, Goldberg uses qualitative research techniques in order to bring out McCain's real thoughts on the subject of the war in Iraq. Instead of subordinating McCain to his interview, the author subordinates his interview to McCain. Is it possible to be more fair or objective?

It's easy for the like-minded to get caught up in the furor that right-wing pundits (Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, et al.) have created about the dreaded "liberal media," without actually investigating the media content they are attacking. Striving for the goal of objectivity despite the impossibility of its attainment is one of the trademark strengths of the Western Press and it shouldn't be thrown into the same category as openly ideological sources (e.g. The Weekly Standard and Mother Jones).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Part III: Mother Jones

This cover requires little analysis to decode its meaning. In the Wizard of Oz scenario presented, Bush is depicted as the doomed "Wicked Witch of the West" as Obama and McCain look on as Dorothy and The Cowardly Lion, respectively. The double asterist next to McCain indicates "No, we're not calling him a coward," and directs the reader to page two where a quotation from the film appears: "As for you my friend, you're a victim of disorganized thinking... You're confusing courage with wisdom." The implication being that McCain lacks wisdom despite his courage.

Perhaps equally as obvious and only slightly less drastic is the photo of President Bush on page 71 (see right) standing among African childeren with his hand over his mouth in a gesture that gives him the appearance of foolishness or embarassment. The accompanying article is critical of the mistakes made in administering to the Millenium Challenge Corporation and the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief and this is dramatized photographically from the start.

It's worth pointing out that this technique - capturing an awkward expression or posture - is commonly employed in the photography of partisan publications. An equivalent example from the previously discussed edition of The Weekly Standard (see previous post) depicts Al Gore describing an anti global warming intiative with a captured gesture that makes him appear crazed or insane (below). Gore's outstretched arms imply that his proposal is large and wasteful. The article goes on to describe it in those precise terms.

A more subtle technique was employed in the photograph for the "Exit Strategy" article (p. 35) of this month's edition of Mother Jones (see below).

The photograph depicts President Bush walking off stage after a speech. His head is bowed, his eyes are closed, and a shadow covers his face. The caption beneath is a summation of criticism that the magazine has aimed at the president, and the full title above reads: "Exit Strategy: Time to start putting our country back together."

The latent message of the page is twofold. First, by using the title "Exit Strategy," the editors simultaneously refer to Bush's leaving office and his legacy of the war in Iraq. Second, the photo is heavily laden with obvious symbols for shame, defeat, and the end of Bush's presidency. Among these are the following:

  1. The photograph (literally) shows President Bush stepping down off the stage where he was presumably speaking a moment before. This is a rather obvious symbol of the end of his administration.

  2. His bowed head and closed eyes read as symbols of defeat and shame.

  3. The shadow cast over his face employs expressionism to further emphasize the defeat and shame present in his posture and facial expression.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Part II: The Weekly Standard

Departing from Newsweek and veering to the right, we are greeted with this cover from the conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, published by Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes.

Gary Locke's cover (pictured left) seems innocent at first glance, with it's bulbous-headed caricatures zeroing in on the most obvious physical features of the candidates. It hardly requires a second look to get the message: Sarah Palin has energized the McCain campaign and the Republican party as a whole.

In the absolute simplest of terms possible, Palin's caricature is representative of herself, McCain's caricature represents both himself and his campaign, and the elephant is, of course, the Republican party. But there is an obviously intentional subtext to this image that links these three countenances together into a message both illustrating and exploiting the power of sexual persuation.

I doubt that I need to explicitly point out the symbolic value of the elephant's trunk here, positioned as it is squarely in front of McCain's groin and extending upward in a display of phallic turgidity. Within the narrative of the image, Sarah Palin is the stimulus for this eroticized display, lithely reclining at the end of the groping, grasping trunk/phallus. Couple this with the naughty glair in the eyes of the elephant and the message stated above becomes obvious and much more specific: the energy Palin lends to the campaign is of an unmistakably sexual nature.

But this is only half the story when it comes to The Weekly Standard's symbolic depiction of Sarah Palin...

The caricature to the right is composed of several relevant symbolic elements: The Alaskan Wilderness, Sarah Palin, A Beauty Pageant Sash, and a Hunting Rifle. Of these, the two that play the central role are the most dynamic elements in the composition: The Beauty Pageant Sash and the Hunting Rifle intersecting right at the center of the image. In this case, "X marks the spot" for symbolic value.

Here, Palin's femininity (referenced by the beauty-pageant sash) is crossed with her toughness (her moose-hunting rifle) to create a visualization of the much discussed difference between "hockey-moms" and pit-bulls.

Observe that this juxtaposition is perfectly in line with Newsweek's feature article employing an image of Palin as an amalgum of hard edged toughness and softly curved femininity (see previous entry for context and elaboration).

So it seems, at least on this point, that The Weekly Standard and Newsweek are in agreement about which of Sarah Palin's personal qualities are the most important.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Magazine Coverage of Presidential Candidates

Early in the history of periodical publication (1700s), most magazines were labeled "miscellanies" because they tried to appeal to a relatively diverse demographic with a wide variety of content. This, of course, is no longer the case since almost all modern magazines cater to niche markets. Over the course of the next several entries, I will make a series comparisons among magazines based on their use of photographic imagery in the context of the articles they present.

I begin the analysis with Newsweek because, as a mainstream publication, it can serve as an imperfect baseline to judge the extent to which the "left/right-wing" publications exploit or manipulate imagery to support their ideological points of view.

Starting with the most obvious characteristics of this cover, the use of lipstick to inscribe "What Women Want" is a blatant allusion to the use of lipstick as a metaphor since the Republican National Convention when Palin quipped that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit-bull was "lipstick." Of course, this lipstick conversation continued well beyond that speech with the now-famous battle over Obama's "lipstick on a pig" remark used to describe McCain's economic policy. However, to confine the imagery of this cover to that superficial exchange misses the point entirely. What Newsweek is trying to do with this cover is cleverly introduce a discussion on politics and gender.

As we will see, they do this quite effectively through the use of photographs.

This photograph to the right, for instance, which features the title "From Seneca Falls to Sarah" with a reiteration of the question from the cover beneath, can be read from two perspectives that may lend insight into the role of the print media in perpetuating the "Palin Effect."

From a psychodynamic point of view, the iconic quality of the exaggerated lips - red, swollen, and moist - are a clear symbol of not only femininity, but virile sexuality. Symbols like this have the effect of linking their referent (Sarah Palin) to her biological sex through reference to gender-based cosmetic practices (i.e. the use of lipstick) and symbolic representation of female genetalia.

Read from a Marxist perspective, the words "Lipstick wearers unite" on the sign is an allusion to the communist mantra "Workers of the world unite" taken from none other than The Communist Manifesto. At the sight of this, one is left to wonder if the bearers of these signs are conscious of the contrary political significance of their choice of slogans. Palin, an outspoken proponent of market de-regulation, would seem to have no relationship to this political philosophy of unionization and market regulation. The fact that it is used is symptomatic of how effective the right-wing in the United States has been at appealing to lower socioeconomic classes despite the economic best interest of those classes. Specifically, the poor, working poor, and most segments of the middle class would benefit more from an Obama presidency than a McCain presidency, yet many in these groups still support McCain, perhaps ignoring actual proposals for rallying cries.

The feature article itself traces the evolution of female political figures throughout American history beginning with the right to vote all the way up to Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Looking at the women embedded at the center of the text on each page, the tracing of female figures takes on a very literal meaning as the bodies of four women are wrapped in text, emphasizing their physical qualities. In the page to the left, Annie Oakley is dangerous and aggressive, holding a rifle and staring down the barrel with menace.

She is composed of diagonal lines and right angles, a fierce and threatening woman ready to defend herself against any attacker. She represents the toughness of the midwestern frontier woman.

On the opposite page, the reader is likewise greeted with a symbolically opposed image. The woman here is plump and curvaceous, her arms stretched up behind her head rendering herself vulnerable to the gaze of the reader. This is clearly the counterpoint to Annie Oakley's angular posture of defense and threat.
She is the archetype of motherhood and the outline of the text surrounding her hips emphasizes this, further exaggerating her fertility and abundance.

The following two pages juxtapose Margaret Chase Smith (a woman who filled her husbands congressional seat in 1940) with Hillary Clinton. This is a strange union of imagery since it seems to suggest a parody between the two women on the basis that both of them served in Congress after their husbands held poltical office. If I read these images correctly, this is a poor comparison indeed since Hillary's political career was not handed over to her by her husband.

The final page of the article presents Sarah Palin as the ultimate outcome in the history of the political woman. Notice how her shape, contoured by the text on the page is an amalgum of hard angles and diagonal lines (of the Annie Oakley variety) and the softer curves of the woman on the opposing page. This closing image reiterates the title of the article "From Seneca Falls to...Sarah Palin" and subordinates all previous instances of women in political office to this single definitive moment in history.

The remaining magazines will be analyzed based on political persuasion (The Weekly Standard vs. Mother Jones) and level of sophistication (The Atlantic vs. People).

Monday, September 8, 2008

Media Wars at the RNC

It wasn't difficult to detect common themes among speeches during the second night of the Republican National Convention when Vice Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, was scheduled to speak. Sociologist and media theorist Herbert Gans might have pointed out "small-town pastoralism" and "rugged individualism" as two that were repeatedly invoked through anecdotes about down-home family values and moose hunting. The most obvious of these motifs, however, was the repeatedly stated claim that the "elite liberal media" were treating Sarah Palin unfairly in their reports. Evidence of this complaint is clear in statements by Giuliani ("We decide the next president, not the left-wing media"), and Palin herself ("If you're not a member of the ... elite then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone"), among multiple others.

Opposing this perspective, broadcasters countered the claims by citing the obligation of journalists to inform the public. In particular, Chris Matthews of MSNBC noted the importance of providing information on a candidate that the McCain campaign failed to provide. Tom Brokaw also pointed out the strategy involved in attacking the media. From the perspective of Palin and the Republicans he states, "Let's create something called the Eastern Media Elite." The theory is that if the public perceives the media as treating Palin harshly or unfairly, then sympathy will swing public opinion and, ultimately, votes, in favor of the republican ticket.

Beyond this readily apparent tit for tat, though, a less noticeable battle seemed to have been fought between the organizers of the RNC and the media outlets broadcasting its staged spectacle across the world. Chris Matthews noted the decision by the RNC organizers to eliminate breaks between speeches near the end of the night. This had the effect of limiting the amount of media commentary and analysis and kept control of the event firmly in the hands of the convention people. Perhaps in response to this, the MSNBC broadcast contained at least three shots of Sarah Palin speaking wherein the teleprompter from which she was reading was clearly visible over her shoulder. While this was not drastic and each of the shots were brief, they did serve to remind the audience of the fact that Palin required a teleprompter and, thus, potentially served to undermine her credibility.

The purpose in commenting upon this potential struggle for control over representation occurring behind the scenes is to draw attention to the fact that media are capable of shaping perceptions even when an event is highly choreographed. In the case of a political convention, media serve as a meta-spectacle, subsuming the original performance and recreating it through their own channels.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Theory of Media Digestion.

The streams of information that we, as humans, use to either construct or decode (depending on your ontological point of view) the world around us are undergoing a constant process of filtration which undermines the notion of a single reality to which we all belong. In what follows I offer a description of how different levels of gatekeeping on both the personal and institutional level contribute to the collaborative production of culture through the media.

To begin with, when I use the phrase "streams of information" in the paragraph above, I am referring to a series of heirarchically situated avenues through which we receive our information about the world. These include the Pure Content Stream which represents the broadest level and is defined as the very fabric of external concrete reality. Embedded within this is the Medium Stream which refers to the human engineered conduits through which the Pure Content Stream passes. Beneath this is the Medium Content Stream which refers to the new content that is produced as a result of the interaction between "pure" content and the medium and accounts for for McLuhan's (1964) "medium is the message" concept. Deeper still is the Personal Stream which refers to our indiviudal agency in schematically selecting information and incorporating it into our symbolic universe or "umwelt" (Sebeok; Von Uexkull). Finally, at the most basic level, there is the Empirical Stream of information that accounts for the biological mediation of our sense organs. This has been previously referred to as "first order" mediation ( and calls to attention the fact that our perception is made possible only through cognitive "representations."

“Gatekeeping” is the process through which information is selectively presented through mediation and it occurs at the level of each of these information streams. Only a microcosm of the Pure Content Stream is selected for mediation through the Medium Stream, and this is accomplished through the Personal and Empirical streams of media content producers. For example, when a news van goes out to cover a story, producers have already begun the gatekeeping process by selecting that story and not the infinite variety of other recent or emerging events and occurrences that compose the whole of reality. When they arrive on the scene, producers gatekeep further by selecting positions, camera angles, microphone placements, interviewees, and so on. In other words, their Personal Stream is the whim that guides the selection of events that will ultimately construct the story for the viewing audience. In addition, their choices of what to include and where to direct their attention are constrained further by their ability to perceive and apply information from the Empirical Stream (touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing).

The Medium Content Stream is intended to account for the ways in which the medium itself structures the message (McLuhan, 1964) and is predisposed to transmitting certain types of information. It is in this predisposition that the gatekeeping function of the Medium Content Stream takes place by privileging some types of content over others. For example, you would be unlikely to find a lengthy philosophical debate aired on prime time television and much more likely to find a situation comedy or reality program that is flashy and fast-paced. To be more precise, though, it is not the medium that makes the choice regarding the content it will carry, but producers who have internalized its character and conventions and applied this knowledge to create a program that is most likely to hold the attention of its viewers. Thus producers select elements from the Pure Content Stream and combine them with their knowledge of how the Medium Stream functions to produce a new reality that appears in many ways to represent the Pure Content Stream which is, simultaneously, the physical world that surrounds us and the raw material required for media production.

The Personal Stream shifts the gatekeeping power away from media producers and into the hands of consumers. In the simplest sense, it is the stream that determines what media we choose to expose ourselves to. When we search through television channels or radio stations, surf the web, walk into a movie theater, or choose to purchase one newspaper over another, we are gatekeeping. While the specific factors that contribute to making the choices that compose our Personal Stream are numerous and complex, they may all be attributed to a quest for psychological consistency. That is, we seek out programming similar to what we are already familiar with. To illustrate, most of us have a preferred radio station, format of television program, genre of movie, and so on. When new media is introduced, we choose what requires the least amount of cognitive adjustment on our part.

Describing the Personal Stream in semiotic terms, this quest for consistency is guided by the umwelt, a term used by Jakob von Uexkull and Thomas Sebeok to define the part of the world we choose to inhabit based on our store of previous experiences with it. If we have no previous experience with something and no metaphor by which to assimilate it, comprehension is impossible. Conversely, the more similar something is to our personal universe of experience the more readily its use and meaning is available to us. So it is with media programming as well.

Finally, the Empirical Stream is simply the part of the media program we are able to perceive with our five senses. Some feature films contain over one-hundred tracks of sound mixed together for a scene at different audio levels. It is doubtful that each sound element will be perceived by the filmgoer. Factors such as hearing loss, familiarity with the film, and knowledge of audio production are likely to influence how much of the soundtrack is appreciated. The point is that our senses also play an important part in gatekeeping the world around us if they are incapable of supplying us with the full gamut of environmental information.

Building upon this gatekeeping process as it functions through the streams described above, one should also note that gatekeeping occurs across time on a much broader social and cultural level through the retention and repetition of certain types of information over others and the metatextual commentary that occurs between media programs. To illustrate this point in the clearest terms possible, I will employ the example of news and current events programming on television.

Let us begin with programs that feature “breaking news” as their primary content, such as BBC World News, CNN: Newsroom, and Fox News: The Live Desk. These program formats tend to focus on emerging stories and to periodically review the “stories of the day” as they wait and search out new events to cover. Due to their blanket coverage of emerging news throughout the course of the day, programs of this type herald the stories that evening news programs and analysis shows will discuss around prime time. These shows are a form of institutionalized social “brainstorming” determining which stories “have legs” and will be repeated, analyzed, discussed, and (if compelling enough) used as source material for other genres of television programming and even other forms of media. In short these programs are the first step in determining which stories are used to construct the mythologies that compose the cultural environment.

The next step in this process of collective televised gatekeeping occurs during evening news programs that are featured on the major networks such as CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC World News. Here, the programming takes on a more narrative tone with stories being presented as “packages” as opposed to raw, unfiltered “breaking news.” Such stories or packages are often accompanied by a narration and are assembled into sequences that mimic dramatic production and include techniques such as montage editing and flashback scenes.

Still further along on the food-chain of gatekeeping and cultural production are analysis programs like The O’Reilly Factor and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Programs like this often comment upon and critique network news programs and other sources of media production. This reflexive approach toward other news outlets along with a more narrow focus on a few big stories supplemented by analysis, interpretation, and discussion move beyond mere presentation of the news and into the realm of positioning it within the wider social discourse that is expressed through ideology.

A more recent genre of news exemplified by Comedy Central programs such as The Jon Stewart Show and The Colbert Report take the analysis program into the realm of the absurd and comment self-consciously upon television news and culture through parody. These programs are, perhaps, the last level in the hierarchy of television news gatekeeping because they serve as a bridge between the story-driven world of straight news programs and the realm of entertainment programming in all media which is the last incarnation of news-based cultural production.

What has been presented here is obviously speculative, but the purpose of this blog from this point on will be to attempt to trace the routes of cultural production as they originate in “breaking news” and make their way through prime time news to analysis programs, comedy, and, ultimately to the social mythologies woven together through narrative production.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hello Class!

The following is an example of what I would consider to be an ideal entry for your weekly Web Log assignment:

A semiotic reading of the OLYMPIC ATHLETE:

Despite the many changes that have taken place between the ancient and modern eras that compose the whole of Olympic history, one common theme has remained prominent: the glory of the individual athlete. From the ancient wrestler of sixth century BC, Milo of Croton, to modern names such as Michael Phelps, it seems that the individual achievement, personality, and perseverance of the athlete stands paramount.

There is an unambiguous flip-side to this sense of individuality, though, which we all recognize as nationalism. Teams compete against each other based on national affiliation and even individual sports (such as swimming, fencing, wrestling, and the martial arts) are arbitrarily grouped into teams based on citizenship. Beyond this, the Olympics have often been a forum for nations to showcase their unity, strength, and pride. Recall the Berlin Olympics of 1936 when Hitler used the games to showcase Germany's renewed strength since defeat in the Great War. Today, many commentators observe the Beijing Olympics as a show of China's new economic and industrial clout. These "national displays" demonstrate that the Olympic athlete is an individual, but that this is important only insofar as he/she is a member of a nation.

One powerful symbol of this individual/national duality which privileges nationhood over personhood in the 2008 games doesn't even occur as part of a sporting event. A little girl by the name of Lin Miaoke took part in the Opening Ceremony of the games and appeared to sing. In reality, however, the voice that was heard came from another little girl, Yang Peiyi, who was deemed less attractive and thus not suitable for the world (television) audience. This is a strong case in which individual skills are highlighted, but subordinated to the national cause.

What has been stated thus far is fairly obvious to most astute observers of the Olympics, however, the main point that I would like to make has to do with precisely how and why the athlete him/herself makes such an ideal national symbol. First, consider the amount of training and preparation that goes into the careers of the vast majority of Olympic athletes and couple this with the level of innate talent, confidence, and focus necessary to succeed in the world class Olympic arena. The final product of all of this - the Olympic athlete him/herself - is perceived as a symptom of the culture that bred him/her.

Second, the training regiment that the majority of athletes must undertake precludes their full participation in "extracurriculars" such as political/philosophical debate, popular culture, and generally subversive behavior. This arrangement suits national needs well since it presents individual athletes as "empty symbols" or signifiers (to use a semiotic term) that are ready to be filled by the significance prescribed by the nation-state. In support of this contention, there are several examples of instances where Olympians were banned for having political or philosophical opinions. Recall the Tommie Smith and John Carlos "black power" fist-pump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when the Unites States originally denounced the athletes for their overt display of politics. (Interestingly, they are recent recipients of the ESPN Arthur Ashe Courage Award.) More recently, China banned U.S. gold-medalist William "Joey" Cheek from competition because of his outspoken stance on the situation in Darfur.

Before I close, it should be noted that there have been some athletes, no matter how few and far between, who have permitted to embody their own unique personality complete with personal philosophy and political opinion. Among these are Joey Cheek, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Muhammad Ali, and a few others. It is my perspective that if more emphasis was placed on Olympians as individuals and not as mere nationally-generated "winning-machines" to slap a flag on, the Olympic spirit of global solidarity and open international communication would be better facilitated.

Matthew T. Jones