US Television News and Tragic Events: What They Say vs. Mean

US Television News and Tragic Events: What They Say vs. Mean

What  they say…

What they hope you think…

What it really means…

”Reports are coming in of a shooting/bombing…”

”This news organization is connected to all major news sources…”

”An intern happened to be on Twitter…”
”As yet, there are no indications that this is a terrorist act…” ”These guys are really being careful not to draw any conclusions…”

”As yet. But we can hope…”

”There are reports that this could, we repeat could, be an act of terror…” ”This is a complex story with potentially deep geo-political implications…” ”The suspect isn’t white…”
”The assailant is reported to have links to a possible terrorist cell…” ”These terrorists are far more organized in the US than we imagined…” ”The suspect has friends with weird names on Facebook…”
”We now turn to our Senior Domestic Security Analyst…” ”Wow! This channel has some knowledgeable people…” ”Only person in newsroom with degree in Political Science…”
”It seems possible that this is not, repeat not, an act or terror…” ”Thank God…” ”Despite what we suggested, it would appear that not all non-whites are Muslim…”
“Sources now confirm that they are now not treating this as an act of terror…” “Good. Now that is confirmed…” “We can confirm that the suspect is white…”
”This would appear to be a domestic incident…” ”So, this is just the work of a deranged nut…” ”Shit. Now we have to talk about gun control again…”
“Of course, we can never entirely rule out the possibility of home-grown terror…” “We must be vigilant when it comes to far-right extremists…” “Didn’t CNN say something once about a Norwegian Al Qaeda…?”
”The situation is fluid…” ”These guys are covering a fast-moving story…” ”We really don’t have a clue what’s going on…”
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Toy Stores: “Hi Girls! Just be Dumb, Sexy and Subservient”

Earlier I posted some pictures from a visit to a local toy store in Stockholm with some truly awful, sexist toys (see later in this post). So…another trip to a Stockholm toy store with my daughter (aged 3), and let’ s see what lessons she learned this time. Basically: be dumb, sexy and subservient. “Dream Wedding”??? “Create your Shopping Tour”??? Plus, note the gender of the child on the box for the more interesting marble toy. How the people who make these things sleep at night is beyond me.

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And those earlier, equally sexist, pedophillic pictures…? (Note the pictures with the boys: what they do, what they “are”.)

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Six questions journalists should ask Barack Obama when he visits (enter your country name)

President Obama will be visiting Sweden in early September. These are a list of questions I would hope journalists in Sweden (and elsewhere) would ask Obama when he comes. Hope…but I doubt they will. I also know that if asked, his answers would tell us nothing. But, they must be asked. Repeatedly. Apologies for the writing, but this was a quick post!

Six Questions Journalists Should ask Barack Obama When he Visits (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY NAME)

by Christian Christensen

1. Mr. President, one of your election promises in 2008 was to close Guantanamo. It is still open, housing inmates who have not been charged with a crime and denied the basic right of habeas corpus. A large number of those inmates have been on a lengthy hunger strike in protest at their inhumane treatment. Can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how this prison, which you have failed to close, stands in relation to US claims to be a country which respects human rights and the rule of law?

2. Mr. President, you will accept, I hope, that a fundamental element of a functioning democracy is the presence of vibrant, critical journalism. That journalism is often fueled by whistle-blowers who release information they feel shows illegal or unethical behavior. Given the aggressive prosecution of Bradley Manning, Barrett Brown and Edward Snowden in the US, as well as the Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) why the US is going to such lengths to stifle the work of journalists, as well as prosecute individuals who engage in an act that is fundamental to keeping an eye on those in power, namely whistle-blowing?

3. Mr. President, the US is ranked 5th globally in the number of executions behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and ahead of North Korea, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. The US is also the only country amongst nations with advanced economies to still have the death penalty. How can the US lecture other nations on human rights when it engages in an act so many countries consider barbaric?

4. Mr. President, citizens of (ENTER COUNTRY NAME) might be confused as to how the US can justify the killing of its own citizens via the use of drones without judicial oversight, as well as the well-documented killing of scores of innocent civilians globally via the use of the same technology. Could you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how drones, like Guantanamo and the death penalty, square with a US commitment to the right of fair trials, basic human rights and the rule of law?

5. Mr. President, do you feel it is appropriate for a person to be held for 9 hours, without access to a lawyer, under counter-terrorism laws simply because he is the partner of a journalist who broke the NSA story? Was the US involved in any way with his detention? Should journalists throughout the world who report on US national security now be worried when they travel, in case they are questioned at the request of the US government at random international borders?

6. Mr. President, one of the hallmarks of the former Soviet Union and current authoritarian regimes is the use of widespread surveillance under the guise of protecting “national security.” Can you explain how secret, widespread surveillance of the US population, done in cooperation with private corporations, can be justified in a nation that proclaims to be “the freest in the world”? Should Americans not be able to send an email without fear of it being read by the government?

Whistleblowing, Journalism and Academia: 3 Questions/Answers

I was recently asked to answer a few interview questions regarding whistleblowing, journalism and academia. Here are my responses:

(FOR A MORE DETAILED PIECE ON MY THOUGHTS IN RELATION TO JOURNALISM, SEE MY OPINION PIECE PUBLISHED BY AL JAZEERA.)

1. Why should whistleblowing be seen as important in a democracy – for being increasingly perceived as an effective means of fighting corruption or for the sole rights of information freedom and the whistleblowers’ rights in disclosing information that is of moral/ political relevance?

It’s important to be clear: whistleblowing isn’t just releasing information on any given topic. A whistleblower is someone who has access to information hidden from public view showing what she/he perceives to be an illegal, unethical or unjust act, and making that information public for the purpose of injecting some type of justice into the situation. It is absolutely fundamental to a working, democratic society that whisteblowers are protected from persecution. Clearly, there are political and corporate actors who have no desire to have illegal or unethical acts exposed, but their interests should always be outweighed by the long-term benefits of the exposure of such acts. Without whistleblowers, it is hard to imagine how many corporate or political crimes  would ever come to light, given the power of governments and large corporations to suppress information. In the end, whistleblowing is a way to balance power.

2. How should one address the threats that acts of whistleblowing may pose on internal security?

National security is often used as a rationale for cracking down on whistleblowers, but, when we take into consideration what I said above — that whistleblowers are releasing information regarding activities that break, or at least seriously bend, the law — then one must again ask the question: “which serves the greater good: suppression of an illegal/dishonest act in the service or national security, or exposure?” To me, in a democracy, there can be no instance when an illegal act is acceptable, and, thus, it needs to be exposed. Similarly, if governments have lied to their citizens, then that should also be exposed. What is interesting in the case of Manning & WikiLeaks is that there has, to date, never been a single clear example of a life being lost as a result of the leaks. In the end, if governments act legally, ethically and with transparency, the need for whistleblowers will diminish. It won’t disappear, though, because even legal acts can be seriously unethical…but it will certainly diminish.

3. What is the importance of whistleblowing – keeping in mind especially the issues raised by the recent Edward Snowden case or the past Wikileaks affair – in journalism/ communication research?

This is a good question. The topic of whistleblowing, and organizations such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, has certainly gained currency in academic research recently. But, in all honesty, up until a few years ago, it wasn’t really a topic addressed to any significant degree within Media & Communications research — other than the standard references to The Pentagon Papers. Whistleblowing isn’t new, but what is new are digital tools available to whistleblowers which allow the release of copious amounts of information all at once. The decision not to find Bradley Manning guilty of “aiding the enemy” was pretty important for journalism in the United States (and abroad), and I suspect that we will be seeing a slew or articles addressing that issue in the coming months and years. The implications of the Manning case for journalism are far-reaching (even without an “aiding the enemy” conviction), and it is something that I hope many scholars will tackle. Again, this is about maintaining a critical eye on power, and that is what both journalists and academics should be doing.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous as Responses to Status Quo Journalism

WikiLeaks and Anonymous as Responses to Status Quo Journalism 

Christian Christensen

Professor, Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University

(Note: The following is a shortened, updated version of the professorial installation speech I gave at Stockholm University in April 2013.)

The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play). – Michel Foucault, “The Concern for Truth”

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them. – Michel Foucault, “Human Nature: Justice Versus Power”

So, what does this have to do with journalism? A lot, I would argue. Many of the issues with which we (should) associate academia – freedom of speech, freedom of expression, critical thinking, keeping an eye on authority, education – are issues historically linked to journalism. Thus, just as it is important to ask to what extent we as academics have investigated, questioned and challenged the distribution and use of social, economic and military power in society, so, of course, should we ask the same of the news organizations described as ”watchdogs” and ”guardians.”

My point is that the mainstream press in countries such as Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom, have (more often than not) failed to engage in critical investigations into, and analyses of, the accumulation and utilization of power. And, it is this failure that has created a vacuum filled, at least in part, by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. If we are looking for an obvious example of such a failure of critical analysis, one need only look to the attacks by a number of US journalists upon fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald – for a particularly devastating exchange, see Greenwald’s response to Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus – and source Edward Snowden following their revelations of domestic and international surveillance by the US government. In Sweden, the Swedish vetoing (together with the UK) of EU discussions with the US over those same NSA revelations has been met by relative silence in the Swedish media.

There is, however, a second premise to this post, and that is that in our discussion of groups such as WikiLeaks or Anonymous, emphasis is often placed squarely upon their use of technology, rather than the socio-political and cultural reasons behind their evolution. This techno-centrism, I would argue, deflects a measure of critique away from mainstream journalism, and ”explains” the rise of groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous as predominantly technological phenomena. In other words, they exist because the technology allows them to exist.

To get back to Foucault: his suggestion that we need to ”criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent” is vital; in particular, his choice of the word ”workings”, because it points to a central idea, namely the importance of process. Where contemporary journalism has failed, I would argue, is in the lack of exposure and lack of analysis of the mechanisms of power that Foucault discusses. These are mechanisms that are neither sexy nor exciting, and can be mind-numbing in terms of the minutiae of political, legal, diplomatic or technological details. These details are, however, the building blocks of real power: blocks mostly obscured from public view under a veneer of PR, spin, infotainment and ”event”-based news coverage. Over the past few years, and to varied levels of success and impact, groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks have peeled back this veneer, exposing activities that are both shocking and banal.

In his powerful testimony of July 10, 2013 at the Bradley Manning trial, Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler outlined precisely why he feels that WikiLeaks is not only a compliment to journalism, but part of journalism itself, “shining a light” on processes otherwise hidden from the general public (from the unofficial court transcript):

Q: Is WikiLeaks a member of the network Fourth Estate?

A (Benkler): Absolutely.

Q: Why do you believe that?

A (Benkler): It is — journalism is made up of many things. WikiLeaks doesn’t do interviews and pound the pavement. Again, when we say WikiLeaks, we’re really talking about before the severe degradation that followed the attack on the organization that we described just before. WikiLeaks was a solution to a very particular and critical component of the way in which investigative journalism, muck-raking confine instances of corruption. It’s — we don’t only live from Pentagon papers or Watergate or the NSA wire tapping scandals of 2005 and the more recent months. But it’s a clear, distinct component of what in the history of journalism we see as high points, where journalists are able to come in and say, here’s a system operating in a way that is obscure to the public and now we’re able to shine the light. That’s what WikiLeaks showed how to do for the network public sphere. WikiLeaks may fail in the future because of all these events, but the model of some form of decentralized leaking, that is secure technologically and allows for collaboration among different media in different countries, that’s going to survive and somebody else will build it. But WikiLeaks played that critical role of that particular critical component of what muck-raking and investigative journalism has always done.

While it would be a stretch to say that September 11, 2001 was the genesis date for groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, it would nevertheless be fair to suggest that the range of domestic (US) and geo-political events that followed those attacks 12 years ago had a profound effect upon global activism: from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the occupations of those two countries, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bush presidency, the London and Madrid bombings, the global War on Terror, The Patriot Act, to PRISM.  In all of these cases, from the attacks themselves to the passage of restrictive censorship and privacy legislation, an understanding of ”workings” and ”process” was (and remains) fundamental.

As the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, it became clear that citizens also had little understanding of the mechanisms of the politics of war or the US legal system. As hundreds of billions of dollars were spent by the Bush and Obama administrations on the war effort, media still focused on surges and attacks, not corrupt no-bid contracts offered to former business partners of Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, as the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Prison have passed their 150th day of hunger striking, the limited amount of time spent by the media addressing the very legality of the prison, and the treatment of the prisoners, has become painfully apparent.

For both WikiLeaks and Anonymous, there is a commitment to expose corporate and state abuses of power, often by exposing the very mechanisms by which such power is exercised. The leak/hacking/publication of emails, internal documents and memos, military videos, diplomatic cables, bank accounts in the service of increased transparency, as well as the protesting surveillance or censorship, has caused concern for corporations and state institutions.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous are an expression, a crystallization of a dissatisfaction with the extent to which primarily commercial, but also public service, news organizations have willingly absorbed elite discourses in relation to socio-economic, legal and military issues. Stories which expose political or corporate misconduct should not to be seen as the antithesis to these discourses. Often, such instances are simply defined as ”the exceptions that prove the rule” while the greater meta-story of capitalism and western power remain unchallenged. For example, the rhetoric of Sweden as a neutral country with a primary interest in diplomacy hides, to a certain extent, the economic and political power held by large corporations in this country: corporations involved in business activities antithetical to both democratic development and peaceful resolutions of disputes.  The cloudy role of the Swedish government in protecting Ericsson’s interests in Syria, for example, while covered by Dagens Nyheter and Swedish Radio, received relatively little press coverage, given how it clashed with so much of the political discourse coming out of Stockholm regarding a commitment to freedom of speech and the rule of law.

Again, while stories on surveillance and weapons manufacture are broken, deeper analyses of how the stories relate to power remain, for the most part, unwritten.

But, this post is not about the ”death” of journalism, but rather a particular failure: the failure to address process and context. Yet, the work of both Anonymous and WikiLeaks should be seen as positive developments for journalism, as they introduce new elements into the informational and democratic landscape. Ultimately, what is challenged by WikiLeaks and Anonymous is not so much the mode of news and information production and distribution, but rather the relationship between mass media and those holding political-economic power.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous force us to rethink a number of core democratic relationships: the one between citizens and the state (impacted by providing access to sensitive intelligence previously hidden from view); the one between citizens and the media (impacted by exposure of the shortcomings of an uncritical commercial media system); and, the one between media and governments (impacted by challenging the mantle of “watchdog” proudly trumpeted by major mainstream news outlets). This is not to say that these relationships have altered dramatically, but rather that WikiLeaks and Anonymous, through an determination to challenge global hegemonies, have thrown down the gauntlet in front of those in power by laying bare (some of) the practices of authority hidden from public view.

As academics, such challenges are worthy of deeper examination, as they are at the heart of the democratic ideals both academia and journalism profess to uphold.

The Occupy Gezi Protests and the Re-Ignition of Public Intellectuals

(The following is the first of a two-part blog posting about events in Turkey, and how academia has played a role in coverage and analysis of events. Against all laws of nature, this post is link-free. I don’t see the need for them as I will be providing links in the follow-up posting. This is the set-up piece. If you don’t know what happened in Turkey, or need background, it’s all out there.)

The Occupy Gezi Protests and the Re-Ignition of Public Intellectuals: Part I

Isolated. Cloistered. Pampered. Stuck in ivory towers. Drowning in theory. Divorced from reality. Those who cannot do, teach.

Those of us who work in academia have heard it all over the years, often from people without the faintest clue what is actually involved in academic work: years of study with little or no income, copious reading and writing, data collection, administrative meetings, teaching, student advising, conferences. I’m not complaining that I am overworked. In fact, I have made it clear on many occasions that I consider academic work to be a privilege in a world dominated by awful jobs with terrible wages.

The critique of academia is part of a broader, depressing anti-intellectualism in a great many societies. If we are being honest, however, these wounds are in part self-inflicted: academics have (in general) been terrible at explaining to the outside world what it is we do, how we do it and why it is important. On top of this, while many of us rail against the commodification of society, we (and I include myself here) publish in journals and books charging crazy money for access, teach at universities increasingly demanding fees, and present research at expensive conferences only other academics are interested in attending. We have been unfairly maligned, but is it any wonder?

And, of all of the disciplines within academia, few have been as maligned and misrepresented as Media Studies/Mass Communication. Media professionals look at us and ask, “They’ve never worked a day of their lives in the industry, yet profess to be experts?” Regular citizens look at us and ask, “They are paying people to do research about television?” And, journalists look at us and ask, “Studying cartoons and David Beckham is what passes for university material?”

So, what are we to do? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the protest…

Recent events in Turkey have made it abundantly clear what academia in general, and Media/Communications Studies in particular, have to offer. And it’s a lot. If we take my own discipline (Journalism, Media & Communications) as an example, the protests around Gezi Park in central Istanbul, and the state and media reaction to those protests, raised a number of core issues. Here are 10 examples:

1. The use of social media as a means of information distribution, organization and dissent;

2. the role/performance of the domestic (in this case Turkish) media — both mainstream and alternative — in the coverage or non-coverage of events;

3. the role/performance of the international media in the coverage or non-coverage of events;

4. the ownership structure of media in Turkey, and an historical understanding of the impact of such structures upon content;

5. the role of the Turkish state in the regulation of radio, television, film and newspapers, as well as social media;

6. the contemporary and historical relationship between journalism and the state in Turkey;

7. levels of access to, and use of, social media in Turkey;

8. forms and modes of social media use, as well as use of television, radio and newspapers;

9. the relationship between popular culture and politics in Turkey;

10. the use of media for the purposes of political communication by mainstream politicians.

Yes, this list is not complete; and, yes, many of these issues overlap. But, if we can get away from that for a minute, let’s consider this list and just how central they are to (1) an understanding of what is going on in Turkey, and (2) what academics do for a living.

An in-depth understanding of any of the items on this list requires more than a few hours with a laptop and an internet connection. It requires reading and research. It requires an understanding of social, political and historical context. It requires reflection. So, when the protests in Turkey broke out, what happened was interesting: a large number of academics — many Turkish, some not — began to emerge as key sources of information and analysis. What is also interesting is that these sources and analysts were not relegated to those at the top of the academic food chain: bloggers, Tweeters, Op-Ed authors and news sources ran the gamut from Professors to MA students. Of course, within this process, technology has been absolutely central.

Some caveats. First, none of this is to say that what has happened in Turkey is unique, but, rather, that Turkey has made the role of the public intellectual (to me) more visible. Academics have been writing about public events for centuries, of course, but my sense is that this function has diminished, and recent events in (for example) Iran, Egypt and now Turkey (not to mention the Manning and Snowden cases) have re-ignited that public role. Second, none of this is to say that there are not journalists and non-academics who can do the kind of analysis and research I am writing about. There are. Finally, I am fully aware that there are academics in Turkey, Iran, Egypt and elsewhere who have been active for many years in spreading information and analysis about events in those countries. This is not to ignore that work, but rather to note how academics are now reaching out to a much broader audience via a combination of language (English) and technology. My ultimate point is to highlight the ways in which academics can engage in the coverage and analysis of a major event such as Gezi, and how this should be held us as evidence of how the supposedly banal, dry research which we produce is not only relevant and applicable, but actually central to an understanding of important events. This, in turn, needs to be trumpeted as a important component of academic work.

(In the next installment, I will discuss some specific examples of what I am writing about about here, and how they contributed to and understanding of events in Turkey.)

Dear 7-Eleven: “Crazy Bitch” isn’t ice-cream music

The following is an email sent to the Swedish headquarters of 7-Eleven.

(UPDATE: 7-ELEVEN HAVE RESPONDED AND INFORMED ME THAT THEY WILL CONTACT THEIR MUSIC SUPPLIER TO MAKE THEM AWARE OF THIS ISSUE.)

Dear 7-Eleven Sweden:

Yesterday, a beautiful day here in Stockholm, I picked my 3 year-old daughter up from daycare. One of the things she likes more than anything is to go to 7-Eleven and get a strawberry frozen yoghurt. She insists on sitting in the store while eating it…she likes watching the people and sitting at the table.

So, we get into the store and get her frozen yoghurt. She is loving it, as usual. There is music playing, of course, but I don’t pay much attention.

Then, after a few minutes, I begin to notice the lyrics. The song is “Roses” by Outkast, the chorus of which includes the line: “I know you’d like to think your shit don’t stink…” OK, so this isn’t the first time my daughter has heard a swear word, and probably not the last. I’m prepared to let it go. Then, the rest of the song kicks in:

Better come back down to Mars Girl

quit chasin’ cars

What happens when the dough get so low

Bitch, you ain’t that fine

No waaay…no waaay…noo waaaaay

Crazy Bitch

Bitch,

Stupid ass bitch,

Old punk ass bitch,

Old dumbass bitch,

A bitch’s bitch,

Just a bitch

This refrain is repeated over and over. Loudly. I ask the staff at the store if they are the ones who selected the music, and point out that my daughter should not have to sit through misogynistic trash like this. The clerk is apologetic, and tells me that all 7-11 music is centralized and streamed through to all of their stores. He then shuts the music off. (Credit to your staff.)

This can seem like a small thing…music that no-one pays attention to. But, these songs are part of a broader culture of aggression against women, and since your stores cater to a lot of younger customers, phrases like “stupid ass bitch” and “crazy bitch” being played over store speakers only confirms what a lot of younger people are being trained to think: it’s OK for women to put up with this kind of aggression.

My daughter is 3…must she hear the expression “bitch” 125 times in 4 minutes just because she wants to have a frozen yoghurt at your store? Perhaps your music selectors didn’t know what they were doing when they OK’d this song. But, you need to be aware that it is precisely this kind of “everyday sexism” that makes life for women so difficult.

My daughter is just starting out in life. She will undoubtedly encounter sexism for most of that life. What I ask is that, at the age of 3, she can enjoy the simple pleasure of eating an ice-cream without being reminded of that fact.

Yours,

Christian Christensen

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