One human race?

I saw this image on Facebook, after the Trayvon Martin verdict. It is a lofty sentiment, and an earnest belief. It is even true, but only if we just regard race as just a biological concept. Yes, biologically speaking, there is only one Homo sapiens.

Unfortunately, race is more than just biology. Race is a discursive construct. Discourse, according to Foucault, defines and creates knowledge and truth (see, for example, Truth and Power). It is a type of knowledge that bears the approval of our most respected social institutions. Indeed, science, religion, law, and political systems, among others, create and perpetuate discourse. This means that discourse is inextricably linked to power, which makes it all the more difficult to challenge. After all, power can coerce us to accept discourse, as our dissent can be punishable by laws and practices that are also founded on discourse (e.g., anti-sodomy laws, anti-miscegenation laws, etc). Of course, coercion is not the only way in which discourse is upheld. It’s probably not even the most effective way. We uphold discourse in our daily practices, but that is a subject for another post. This time I would like to point out some of the ways in which institutions create and reinforce racial discourse:

  1. The United States Census Bureau collects data about race by asking individuals to self-identify as members of a particular race. The Census racial categories “generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.” According to the Census, the population of the United States can be described using five racial categories (White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander). For a definition of how these racial categories are defined, see this.
  2. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 includes provisions about race, which have an impact on redistricting. Though the Supreme Court repealed section 4 of the VRA in Shelby v Holder, Section 2 is in effect. Section 2 prohibits “voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race.” Race data from the Census is used for redistricting purposes, both to establish districts, and to evaluate whether or not new districts comply with Section 2 of the VRA. For commentary the Shelby v. Holder, check out this piece.
  3. Recently, Merlin Chowkwanyun argued in The Atlantic, that racial categories infuse our knowledge of health and disease. Indeed, we don’t bat an eye when the CDC states that white women are more likely to develop osteoporosis, or when WebMD tells us that “High rates of high blood pressure in African-Americans may be due to the genetic make-up of people of African descent.
  4. Racial profiling is a real practice. If it were not, we would not need explicit prohibitions against it, such as this one. Seventeen States ban racial profiling outright. President Bush banned racial profiling at the federal level in 2003. At the time, Mr. Bush stated that “racial profiling is wrong and we will end it in America.” Legislation to end racial profiling at all levels has failed repeatedly in Congress.

Our institutions don’t think of race as a biological construct. They articulate it as a social category. Whether we like it or not, such articulations do have consequences. They can address practices that society deems as unacceptable, but that were not considered as such under previous discoursive regimes. If you think about it, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, literacy tests like this one were used to keep African Americans from voting. I’m not entirely sure I could pass it.

I did not write this to argue whether or not the acquittal of George Zimmerman was fair. It was lawful, which speaks to the nature of the law and how it is applied (Andrew Cohen has a very nuanced treatment of the issue here). My point is that, as much as I would love to believe that we are all one big happy race, the truth supported by discourse is that we are not.

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Venezuela and Chavez

When it comes to Venezuela, it’s impossible to understand today’s media landscape without thinking about Hugo Chavez. The controversial Venezuelan president is one of the most media savvy politicians in the Americas. Alo Presidente, Chavez weekly radio/television show, is an unscripted, populist stage, but it serves Chavez well. His countrymen see him as the populist hero, who sings, rides around in tractors, or horses, and explains his hopes, ambitions, dreams, and plans to the average Venezuelan.

Venezuela is technically a free media market. The commercial sector has a long history in the country, and what Chavez has done is curtail their influence. He did not renew the license for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a media company that supported the 2002 failed coup against Chavez. He has also openly criticized and ridiculed any media outlets that dare speak against him. But it doesn’t stop there, as journalists can probably live with ridicule. Censorship, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. With a new law governing media content, Venezuelan media cannot broadcast anything that can be deemed against national security, they cannot “disrespect” the president or other government officials, and cannot broadcast information that could cause civil unrest, which is a direct jab at the media’s role in the 2002 Coup (Diehl, 2005). RCTV, Venevision, and Globovision strongly supported the coup. However, Chavez only shut down RCTV, surprisingly waiting five years to do so.

Moreover, Chavez’s controversial closing of RCTV is still felt. The station, no longer free to broadcast over the air, made the move to cable and was still available there. However, in late January of 2010, cable companies dropped RCTV and 6 other stations. The reason? they failed to broadcast Chavez’s speeches, and were thus deemed in violation of Venezuelan telecommunications law (Bright, 2010). In 2003, a new statute required all Venezuelan broadcasters to broadcast government announcements in matters including, but not limited to, development policies, education, conservation, and democratic participation. The speeches, probably, fall under any of those rubrics.

Duffy and Everton, in their chapter  in, Global Communications: Toward a Transcultural Political Economy, try to explain the government’s position. To them the measures introduced in the Media Law passed in 2003 are very similar to statutes in place in Canada, Europe, and the United States. They include a ratings system, to protect children, and “prioritize social and cultural objectives above the commercial imperatives of owners” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 137). The authors, who from the tone of their writing, are very much in favor of the Chavez communication policies — in terms of promoting community access to broadcasting, the government has, in fact opened up spaces for marginalized groups — have to rationalize the need for reform. While they admit that “open ended language in these clauses could open the door to authoritarian abuses in the future” (p. 137), they wax optimistically about the Venezuelan experience:

These measures suggest both an innovative model of the state as facilitator of relatively autonomous participatory democratic initiative and also the possibility of a post-neoliberal communicative order based on a radical reconceptualization of democratic communication rights. While history unfortunately offers no guarantees, and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is a complex political phenomenon with its own potential internal contradictions, it is nonetheless possible that this trajectory of structural media reform could indeed play an important role in the construction of a democratic “socialism for the twenty-first century” (Duffy & Everton, 2008, p. 139)

I do agree that developing a stronger community media fosters greater democratic participation. However, I fail to see how quashing dissent can be liberating to anyone. In fact, I also fail to see how the closing of RCTV can be construed as anything other than censorship. In 2007, as the closing was announced, Reuters suggested that the big beneficiary from the closing would be Venevision, another one of Venezuela’s top media companies. Gustavo Cisneros, the owner of Venevision, is also part-owner of Univision. He met with Chavez, according to Reuters, and agreed to stop criticizing the government. In return, Venevision had its license renewed, while RCTV, who became even more virulent, lost its license (Reuters, 2007). I don’t know how these events fit into Duffy and Everton’s rosy views of the Venezuelan media landscape.

Isn’t that interesting?

According to Human Rights Watch, the media laws in Venezuela promote self-censorship. The government can use the legal system to persecute the opposition, which has left the Venezuelan public airwaves practically deprived of opposing viewpoints. Globovision is the only television station left that is still openly critical of the president. In July of 2009, 32 radio stations lost their licenses for the same reason (Human Rights Watch, 2009).

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References

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Italy: Berlusconi’s Media Playground?

Even before I ever began researching, writing, and comparing media systems around the world, I was familiar with the name Silvio Berlusconi. I knew him as Italy’s prime minister, and also as the billionaire media mogul. I did not know, however, that he and Rupert Murdoch used to be buddies, but are now rivals, or that Berlusconi is the co-owner of Endemol, the Dutch production company that brought us Big Brother (Osborne, 2007; Israely, 2009). Clearly, it would be futile to try to understand the landscape of Italian television today without Berlusconi.

But how did such degree of media concentration and power come about? I mean, Berlusconi did not just materialize from ether. He, like any other industrialist/politician, is the product of a political, social, and economic environment. At least that would be what author’s Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini would argue. They suggest, in Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics, that political institutions, beliefs, traditions, power-sharing agreements, economic variables, and the evolution of civil society influence the development of the media system. Their thesis, though similar to that espoused in Four Theories of the Press, is not as deterministic or as simple. That is, where Siebert, Peterson, and Schramn, the authors of of Four Theories of the Press, proposed four models — authoritarian, the liberal, the social responsibility, and the Soviet Totalitarian — to explain media behavior, and believed that differences between them were about philosophy,  Hallin and Mancini believe the picture is more complex. There are no ideal types, and the purpose of studying media comparatively should not be limited to pointing out failures. In other words, we should not expect media in different countries to follow a liberal model, which was the ideal for Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm. Instead, we should try to understand the key influences that make them different, and the layers of complexity that make them contradictory:

The Liberal Model enshrined in normative theory, based primarily on the American and to a somewhat lesser extent the British experience, has become so widely diffused around the worlds – partly, as Blanchard (1986) points out, as a result of campaign mounted by the U.S. government and press in the early years of the Cold War — that other conceptions of journalism often are not conceptualized clearly even by their own practitioners. Even within the United States, the normative ideal of the neutral independent watchdog leads to blind spots in journalists’ understanding of what they do […]. The gap between ideal and reality is far greater in countries such as Italy or Spain where journalists will express allegiance to the Liberal model of neutrality and objectivity, while the actual practice of journalism is deeply rooted in partisan advocacy traditions (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 13-14).

So, what key influences should we look at to try to unravel the Italian media system? According to Hallin and Mancini, we should look at (1) the development of media markets, (2) political parallelism, (3) the development of journalistic professionalism, and (4) degree and nature of state intervention.

Development of Media Markets

For Hallin and Mancini, this category describes when, how, and which types of media develop in a nation. For example, in the United States, newspapers “tend to be addressed to the mass public” (p. 22), whereas in Southern Europe, which includes Italy, they are usually geared to the elites. Some countries, furthermore, have a national media, while others have regional and local media.

Political Parallelism

The media, all claims to the contrary, is never truly impartial, or truly disengaged from political power. Hallin and Mancini explain this relationship through the variable of political parallelism, which they define as “the extent to which the different media reflect distinct political orientations in their news and current affair s reporting, and sometimes also the entertainment content” (p. 28).

Professionalism

This dimension refers to whether or not the media are autonomous. That is, whether or not the individuals that produce content for media organizations can work with relative lack of pressure from, either, owners, or the government. Professionalism also refers to the existence of ethical norms, which, in the case of broadcasting service, include the obligation to serve the public.

State Role

States shape the media system by enacting policies and regulations, by granting subsidies, and by protecting local media production from outside competition, among other tools. States can also intervene through outright ownership of the media, and through funding.

The Model at work in Italy: How did we get to Berlusconi?

Lets see how useful Hallin and Mancini’s model is to explain the Italian situation. First, the media in Italy did not develop as nation-wide markets. They were, and remained for the most part, local and regional in character. Furthermore, the press, and the media by extension, developed with strong party affiliations, with papers like L’Unita (Communist Party), Il Popolo (Christian Democrats), and l’Avanti (Socialists), and l’Ossevatore Romano, which is the official paper of the Catholic Church, and one of the most influential dailies in the country. Hiring practices in all of these outlets reflected ideological commitments. Moreover, fascism exacerbated the political affiliations of the press:

Under Fascism, of course, the media were expected to serve political ends – Mussolini was a journalist. And with the Liberation the first newspaper licenses went to anti-fascist political forces […]. The party press was extremely important in the immediate post liberation period (Hallin & Mancini, 100).

In terms of political parallelism, the practice of lottizzazione is prevalent, in public broadcasting (RAI) and commercial media (Hibberd, 2007). As in the UK, RAI was established by government charter, and given public service obligations. RAI also held a monopoly over broadcasting, which remained in effect until 1976 (Hibberd, 2004; 2007). The Christian Democratic Party was in control of policy, programming, and operations until 1963, when the Socialists began joining government coalitions, and were given roles in the direction of the institution.  The power sharing arrangement is known as lottizzazione.

Lottizzazione is a distinctive characteristic of the Italian media system, and it speaks to its level of professionalization and independence. It parcels out control over public broadcast media, among other public services, between different political forces. Lottizzazione, according to Padovani, determined not only how the RAI was carved up, but who would be hired to work there:

During the first decades of television broadcasting, journalists’ entry into RAI was determined by political and social homogeneity with the government party. In some cases the broadcaster itself trained its journalists, who were chosen from among young intellectuals, often in line with the dominant ideology of the time. Candidates were selected upon the recommendations of political leaders and friends of the director general and, only on rare occasions, they were selected from among the winners of national exams. Selection procedures, which consisted mostly of interviews, written and oral tests, and professional tests, were often fictitious, while determinant factors were personal and party connection and the “right recommendation (Padovani, 162).

Hibberd (2007) traces the institutionalization of Lottizzazione to around 1975, which was the year in which the Broadcasting Act divided the RAI into two networks:

The formation of two networks facilitated the creation of two broad ideological camps: the first for a Catholic culture and the second for a lay culture, with the result that the two camps were gradually subjected to political control. RAI was effectively partitioned along party lines running from the President (Socialist) and the Director General (Christian Democrat) down to the TV and radio networks, Raiuno (Christian Democrat) and Raidue (Socialist). Radio channels came under the sphere of influence of minor government parties (p. 885).

In terms of the role of the state, it is important to first understand how the state is organized to exercise power. Italy has enjoyed formal democracy since the mid 1800, when electoral laws were first introduced. These laws, however, only extended suffrage to landowners, and literate, male individuals. Universal male suffrage was established in 1913, and universal suffrage came about in 1946, which is when Italy became a Republic. In 1948, Italy adopted parlamentarism as a form of political organization of the government. Under parliamentary systems, voters elect the members of parliament, and they, in turn, elect the President, who holds ceremonial power. The president, in turn, names the Prime Minister, who holds executive power; he/she forms the government, by selecting the members of the Council of Ministers. The system, though modeled after British parlamentarism, has been notably unstable, as there have been at least 60 different governments since 1945 (US State Department, 2009).

As stated previously, RAI held a monopoly over broadcasting until 1976, when the Courts decided to allow commercial broadcasting based on the fact that “technical advances meant that television frequencies were no longer as scarce as they once were and commercial broadcasting could be permitted at a local level” (p. Hibberd, 2006, p. 886). However, the Courts left the system unregulated until the passage of the 1990 Broadcasting Act. The lack of regulation not only allowed for the proliferation of local channels, it also opened the door to Silvio Berlusconi, whose company, Fininvest, “gained gradual control of the commercial television market” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 886). By 1980, Berlusconi had almost achieved national coverage. By 1984, through acquisitions, he was RAI’s only national competitor. Though the Italian courts revoked his license that same year, Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi reopened them by decree. Since Craxi was a personal friend of Berlusconi’s, the decree known as the Berlusconi Decree is an obvious example of political clientelism (Hibberd, 2007).

Who is this guy? And why does he matter

Berlusconi is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Italy. He is a media mogul, and according to Forbes, he has more money than Rupert Murdoch (Forbes, 2009). Through his family’s holding company, Fininvest, he has controlling interests over Mediaset, the largest private media company in Italy, the AC Milan, Mondadori publishing, Il Giornale newspaper, and over 100 companies more. Foreign Policy magazine described him, in 2009, as “a master of legal maneuvering” who has managed to avoid jail for corruption, tax evasion, and embezzlement, and has been elected prime minister 3 times in spite of it all. His trials and tribulations involve a sex scandal, a high profile divorce, and ever-recurrent embezzlement allegations. Here is what BusinessWeek has to say about his latest brush with Italian law:

The latest probe, dubbed Mediatrade-Rti, is an offshoot of investigation that led to one of those trials. In that trial, the premier and others are accused of overpaying for rights to show U.S. movies on Berlusconi’s TV networks and pocketing the differences (D’Emilio, 2010).

What a guy, and what a system! Berlusconi, his critics say, exercises and incredible degree of control over Italian broadcasting. Hibberd points out that he has used his position to advance Mediaset’s interests, and to unermine the RAI. Hence, in this sense, “Berlusconis’s conflicts of interest are very real and are detrimental to the economic and cultural development of media in Italy.” However, Hibberd also indicates a measure of pluralism, as the system offers a wide array of media choices (2007). Consequently, he argues that it is too simplistic to blame everything on Berlusconi, or to accuse him of controlling 90% of Italian media. The problems, in fact, pre-date the controversial media mogul, as they may be linked to “the slow development of democratic norms and practices” which include “the lack of effective safeguards guaranteeing essential media freedoms” (Hibberd, 2007, p. 29).

Personally, I believe Berlusconi is a creature of his environment. He has benefited from the institutions, practices, and political arrangements that have plagued Italian politics since the early days of the unification of the peninsula. Since the problems are structural, you cannot expect them to go away by wishing them out, or even by jailing Berlusconi. Political systems and practices do not change overnight, and in Italy’s case, the lack of separation between public and private interests will keep the door open to further encroachment upon the public sphere. The Internet, apparently, is next on the list, as Berlusconi’s government is seeking control “over online video content and force anyone who regularly uploads videos to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications” (Israely, 2009). The legislation will also require sites like Youtube and Dailymotion, as well as blogs and other online content providers, to screen video uploads for pornography and violence. Fines for non-compliance will range from about $210 to $210,000 should the law pass (Barry, 2010).

It will be interesting to see how this law, which some experts believe is a direct challenge to Google, plays out. Berlusconi’s government argues that they are only attempting to enforce the European Union directive “to set up media rules” (Barry, 2010), yet only the Italians have taken it as far.

Did anyone say China?

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References

 

Participatory cultures: Not your usual politics?

In 2007, Politicstv.com began compiling a weekly top 10 list of political videos. At the time, the site had  been in existence for about a year. They were described as “a progressive political news Internet video channel featuring news, opinion and humor,”  which would support itself through advertising. The goal of the site was to reach out to progressive (read: left-leaning) viewers, focusing exclusively on issues that would appeal to this constituency (MediaPost, 2006).

I would say that Politicstv.com, though still in existence, is not one of the most successful ventures attempting to marry politics and cyberspace. In fact, when I set out to look for political viral videos, the first site I thought of was JibJab. They first came into the limelight of American public consciousness with the “This Land is Your Land” video, featuring John Kerry and George W. Bush. Though JibJab began as an outlet for political satire, by 2007 it had expanded into the on-line card business. In fact, they brought us another internet classic: Elf Yourself (Mcarthy, 2009).

Without a doubt, most political organizers in the United States look to the internet to enhance political participation. The Internet’s promises access to one of the most coveted demographics: the elusive “young voter,” the 18-34 year-olds who spend a significant amount of their time online. Furthermore, the Internet is inherently democratic: you do not need a degree, a resume, or extensive experience to start writing a blog, or to post videos of yourself on youtube.

So, why not politics? Why not admit that the revolution, as Gil Heron Scott stated once, will not be televised?

Or, as Henry Jenkins suggests, that new media, like the Internet, empower us to bypass mainstream media (Jenkins, 2007). New media are significantly different than old media when it comes to politics and participation:

The new media operate with different principles than the broadcast media that dominated American politics for so long: access, participation, reciprocity, and peer-to-peer rather than the one-to-many communication. Given such principles, we should anticipate that digital democracy will be decentralized, unevenly dispersed, profoundly contradictory, and slow to emerge (Jenkins, 2007, p. 208).

Henry Jenkins is a firm believer in participatory culture. Nevertheless, he, more than anyone I have come across, understand that the grassroots power of the internet is half of the equation. Mainstream media are constantly monitoring online events. Their reporting puts viral video into overdrive. In fact, understanding the relationship between old media (television, newspapers, magazines, etc) and new media can partially explain the difference between politicstv.com and barelypolitical.com. If you don’t recognize the site, maybe you will remember this:

Barelypolitical.com is part of nextnewnetworks.com. This is an online content provider that has branded itself as “TV for the Internet.” The company, which is privately-owned, counts Goldman Sachs as one of their investors. And this is another important distinction between barelypolitical.com and politicstv.com: the first has a clear business plan and investors, and the second one, apparently, underestimates both (at least as far as I could tell).

But I digress… I promise I have a point. When it comes to politics, the potential of the internet works as part of a strategy, and the key aspect of that strategy is convergence:

Candidates may build their base on the Internet but they need television to win elections. It’s the difference between a push media (where messages go out to the public whether they seek them or not) and a pull medium (which serves those with an active interest in seeking out information on a particular topic). The Internet reaches the hard core, television the undecided (Jenkins, 2007, p. 213).

Mobilizing on the Internet

In 2008, Wired magazine columnist Sarah Stirland wrote that Obama owed his nomination to the Internet:

He used the web more effectively than any prior national candidate, harnessing its organizing power to vault over party favorite Hillary Clinton and become the first black presumptive presidential nominee. With an enormous internet-driven donor base of 1.5 million people, more than 800,000 of whom have accounts on Obama’s social networking website, Obama is the first internet candidate to win mainstream success. His online supporters have created more than 30,000 events to promote his candidacy, some of which are still underway in the last primary states of Montana and South Dakota (Stirland, 2008).

Reading Stirland’s article, I could not help but wonder why she did not mention Howard Dean. If anyone pioneered Internet campaigning, it was Dean. This is how Jenkins summarizes the Dean campaign:

Dean raised more money online from small contributions than any other previous candidate, setting a model that John Kerry would subsequently follow to close the “money gap” with the Republicans. His staff used blogging to create a more intimate, real-time relationship with his supporters. They deployed “smart mob” — style tactics, including an adept use of Meetup.com, to quickly launch rallies, drawing together thousands of people at a time when other candidates were still speaking to half-empty rooms. Dean didn’t so much create the movement; his staff simply was willing to listen and learn” (Jenkins, 2007, p. 210).

Obama applied and refined these tactics, tapping into social networks, like Facebook, that were in their infancy in 2004, or did not even exist, like twitter. Of course, not everything was a smashing success. When the Obama campaign decided to announce the name of Obama’s running mate via text message, they overwhelmed the system. As a result, many supporters ended up not receiving the text message until hours later (Vargas, 2008).

Regardless of this glitch, the success of the Obama campaign sparked considerable interest on his web tactics. Meghan McCain, in particular, decried how much Republicans failed to understand and harness the Internet. She suggested that “unless the GOP evolves as the party that can successfully utilize the Web, we’ll continue to lose influence” (McCain, 2009). And utilizing effectively the web is not merely about jumping on every new site that appears on the horizon. It is about having a message that appeals to the voters, and, as McCain suggests, about understanding the times in which we live:

We live in an era where most individuals my age [Meghan McCain is in her twenties] get their political news from The Daily Show and SNL’s Weekend Update. I know this aggravates the old school political operatives to no end, but it’s true. The Obama administration understand that my generation spends most of its day on a laptop or a BlackBerry, and that using the web is easy way to communicate their ideas to their constituents. Making a website, Facebook group, or YouTube video entertaining and enticing is where grassroots campaigning begins (McCain, 2009).

To be fair, not all Republicans are as resistant to the Internet. McCain herself is an excellent example. However, she notes, with frustration, the disconnect between the Republican party and young voters. It is also worth noting that the demographic composition of the nation is changing dramatically. In other words, “the overall U.S. electorate is becoming less conservative, less white, and younger, while Republican voters are getting older, whiter, and more conservative” (Koppelman, 2008).

Maybe it’s time, like McCain suggests, to rethink the usefulness of videos like this one.

References:

  • Jenkins, H. (2007). Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide
  • McCain, M. (2009). Why Republicans don’t get the Internet.


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Cynical media: Is Jon Stewart bad for democracy?

What is going on in the United States? Once — and it was not so long ago– idealism was the mark of a worthy politician (at least as far as popular films were concerned). Frank Capra, for example, gave the country iconic images of the ideal senator. Jefferson Smith, the naive country boy, reaches the senate only to discover that his idol, Senator Joseph Paine, and his ilk have betrayed every principle in favor of special interests.

Ah… the good old days! Jefferson Smith could prevail at the end because politicians could come around. They just needed a reminder. Clearly, American society was a lot less jaded and cynical than it is today, or so the story goes. But the United States was neither kinder, nor gentler, nor more naive back in the 1930s. There was considerable turmoil in the United States as the country reeled from the Great Depression. As John O. Hunter explains, throughout the 1930s Americans were concerned about “housing, education, discrimination, and unemployment” (Hunter, 1966, p. 230). Hence, questions like What America should do for the Joads? were very important.

So, why do we think that American society then had less to feel discouraged about, less to gripe about, and less to be cynical about than we do today? The answer, according to Robert Hariman, is loss of innocence:

For the past decade we have had to contend with noxious politics and irresponsible media: A relentless persecution having no possible public benefit, vicious political operatives destroying dedicated men and women with lies and more lies, and an administration using egregious deception and highly coordinated propaganda campaigns to advance policies that are fundamentally damaging to the national interest, human rights, and the democratic process (Hariman, 2007, p. 275).

Under the circumstances we need a laugh. But more importantly, we need Jon Stewart and his brand of political comedy. In American society, parody has always been a vehicle to bring serious issues to the public. In other words, political parody stimulates democracy and public discourse. It raises awareness about society’s problems that would otherwise go unnoticed, especially in light of the overwhelming amount of information that circulates every day. Accordingly, Robert Hariman asks us to see the Daily Show for what it is. Not idle and corrosive cynicism, but “a defense of democratic deliberation” (Hariman, 2007, p. 274).

Roderick Hart and Johanna Hartelius, on the other hand, take the opposite view. They see Jon Stewart’s comedy as cynical, and thus detrimental to American democracy. Using rhetorical devices like diatribes (rants deriding public figures and institutions)  and chreia (“statements about an incident or situation, followed by a pungent remark”), cynics like Stewart offer vacuous, self-indulgent criticism, but no alternatives or solutions.

Here is an example of a rant, by Lewis Black.

And this is an example of chreia:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Doubt Break ’09
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

Hart and Hartelius* write that politics is a serious affair that demands seriousness:

Politics, of course, depends on more than mere attention. It depends on serious beliefs seriously pursued. Cynicism, in contrast, promotes only itself, summoning followers to abandon conventional society and its stultifying love of order, predictability, and progress (Hart & Hartelius, 2007, p. 267).

Nevertheless, cynicism is very popular. It is a mode of address that fits the generations of Americans of the television age. Television creates spectacles, superficial heroes, vapid pseudo-events (see Boorstin, “The Image”), and celebrities that fill our time, our screens, and that seep into our conversations. Jon Stewart can aptly play to us, as an audience because we are “quickly bored and often surly” and have little patience for “intractable problems” (Hart & Hartelius, 2007, p. 270). In other words, those of us who have always had television available want instant gratification. We want neat, uncomplicated endings, and we want to escape into lala-lands where we don’t have to reflect on the seriousness of real life.

Ironically, The Daily Show has a life of its own. We know that it is satire, but since it offers commentary about real events, it is taken seriously. In 2004, when Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire, co-host Tucker Carlson accused him of not asking poignant questions. To this, Stewart responded: “if your goal is to compare yourself to a comedy show you’re more than welcome.”

Tucker Carlson is not alone. Bill O’Reilly also felt the need to set the record straight. His concern? that young people in America, who make up the Daily Show’s key demographic, may believe Jon Stewart is painting an accurate picture of the country

And this is how CNN covered “the feud”

Perhaps O’Reilly is not off the mark: Did you know that, according to Time magazine, Jon Stewart is America’s most trusted newscaster? I was surprised, but only because I never did consider him a newscaster. I consider him a satirist and a political commentator. But, in terms of serving one of the key function of a free press, the Daily Show has become the watchdog of the watchdogs. Here is a good example of what this means:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Queer and Loathing in D.C.
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Ron Paul Interview

References:

  • Hariman, R. (2007). In defense of Jon Stewart. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 24(3), pp. 273-277
  • Hart, R.P & Hartelius, J.E. (2007). The political sins of Jon Stewart. Critical Studies in Media Communication. 24(3), pp 263-272.
  • Hunter, J.O. (1966). Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle will Rock” as a Document of America, 1937. American Quarterly. 18(2). 277- 233.

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Notes:

* The issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication in which Hart & Hartelius, and Hariman were published recounts the mock trial of Jon Stewart, during the Annual Convention of the National Communication Association. Their comments are meant to be taken with a grain of salt.

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