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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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.)

Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland

Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland

by Christian Christensen

Several years ago the highly-acclaimed – and supposedly über-liberal – television series The West Wing aired an episode in which President Bartlet had to address a diplomatic crisis involving Turkey. The story was that a woman in Turkey, found guilty of having sex with her fiancée before marriage, had been sentenced to death by beheading under religious laws implemented by a newly-elected Turkish government. The crisis for Bartlet was that he supported Turkish efforts to join the EU, but, naturally, opposed the beheading of women by rabid Muslim lunatics. In the end, Bartlet, while condemning the execution, maintained his support for Turkish EU membership. The sheer idiocy of this episode prompted me to publish a commentary in which I pointed out that, in reality, not only is Sharia Law a non-factor in the Turkish legal system, but Turkey – unlike the United States that President Bartlet presides over – does not even have the death penalty.

In broad strokes, conservatives hated the show because of a perceived liberal bias; liberals loved the show because it had a Democratic president with backbone, intelligence and ethics. The West Wing undoubtedly provided a kind of political pacifier to US liberals suffering through the darkest days of the George W. Bush administration. What made The West Wing Turkish story so egregious was the fact that the show was hailed as some kind of benchmark for “thoughtful” scriptwriting on behalf of the political left (US left, that is). The injection of a blatantly ill-informed, Islamophobic storyline into what was spun as an intelligent program only highlighted the extent to which, once one cracks the veneer of enlightenment encasing shows like The West Wing, what lies beneath is often little better than cheap xenophobia.

And this brings us to Homeland. Winner of back-to-back Golden Globes for “Best Television Series – Drama” the show has garnered positive feedback, including the following in a December 2012 Guardian editorial entitled, “In Praise of…Homeland”:

The presentation of good and evil is far more nuanced than in a conventional political thriller. One minute, the war on terror is depicted as a sad necessity; the next, terrorists show their human side. Herein lies Homeland’s strength: it is difficult to know where one’s sympathies should lie. The truth, as in life, hovers in the grey areas in between.    

Similarly, Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker lauded the show for being the “antidote” to superficial shows about terrorism such as 24 (in fact, Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were both writers on 24), finding Homeland to be, “surprisingly grounded in the world we live in.”

Therein, I would argue, we find the heart of the problem. The West Wing and Homeland may very well do a better (but not necessarily good) job of reflecting the nuances of politics or counter-terrorism in the United States than blunt fare such as 24, but these are, as Nussbaum put it, reflections of the world “we live in.” And which “we” is that, exactly? As Laila Al Arian noted, Homeland repeats so many Muslim stereotypes, and contains so many errors in fact and detail about Muslim and/or Arab culture, that she labels the program “TV’s most Islamophobic show.” (Reading Al Arian’s piece provides many excellent examples.)

Yes, The West Wing and Homeland contain dialog about the US political process and the War on Terror seldom, if ever, heard on US television. But if that dialog contains basic factual errors or crude stereotypes, then it is worth asking what, precisely, the show contributes to broader understanding of the issues in question? If the writers of The West Wing tell viewers that Turkey has a system of quasi-Sharia Law in place where women are beheaded for adultery, then no amount of sharp, intelligent writing can overcome the damage done by the use of that dramatic vehicle. Similarly, and as Al Arian points out in her Salon article, Homeland is based upon a single, overarching premise: that it is Brody’s conversion to Islam which enables his planned attacks against the United States. There are other factors (such as the death of the boy Issa), of course, but the core of the show revolves around his conversion.

And this is where Nussbaum’s notion of Homeland being “grounded in the world we live in” returns. The program is grounded, yes, but it is grounded in the America Americans live in: an America where an understanding of the nuances of Islam and countries with predominantly Muslim populations remains at a fairly elemental level. What makes programs such as Homeland dangerous is the idea that they represent a deeper, more mature analysis of these geo-politics, when, in fact, they represent a deeper analysis of a particular, limited understanding of geo-politics. Similarly, when critics hail programs like The West Wing and Homeland for their depth, intelligence and grounding in reality, the impact of Islamophobic content is all the more damaging. No-one expected 24 to be culturally-aware in relation to Islam, so when Islamophobic content emerged in the show, it was hardly a surprise. But, when Islamophobic material crops up in Homeland, it is easier to deflect critique of this material by pointing out the relative depth and relative broad-mindedness of the show. That is the problem with relativity in this context: when 24 or Jerry Bruckheimer are your bias benchmarks, then all is takes is content that is a bit less ethnocentric and a bit less xenophobic to make yourself look enlightened.

When critics hail Homeland, they would do well to ask themselves how they would react to a program where a Muslim captive at Guantanamo Bay succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, converts to Christianity, returns to Kabul/Tehran/Riyadh, rises through the political ranks to a position of authority, and, with the help of a radical Christian CNN journalist, plots a campaign of terror in his home country at the behest of a Christian extremist. I think I can guess some of the words used to describe such a program, but “nuanced” and “grounded” would not be among them.

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