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.