South of town, by roads weaving woodlands and fields of tall corn or low-lying soybeans, we would drive at unchecked speeds away from the light. Charleston, an illumination on the horizon behind us as we fled, glowed an unhealthy orange. The further we drove from that dull glow, the more the stars became flaring white. Points of radiance, unseen within city limits, appeared in the sky. The top was down on Homen’s car and we could sit on the trunk with our feet in the back seat, the wind too loud for talking.
Hardly a part of the black above wasn’t speckled with too many stars to make sense of. By the time we passed Fletcher’s Farm, we could barely see the constellations. It seemed they would light the night, so many were the number of points filling the heavens. The moon, too, shone and reflected brightly on the smooth, tarry parts of the road. But the trees beyond the ditch on either side of the country road were black masses of shadow. A few branches caught some moonlight as they reached out over the paved way, cutting into rural Illinois.
[Having conspicuously noted that I was missing from the scene, these descriptions of the fall, this seal broken under the severing strain of two worlds, should appear as a form of morbid penitence. Visualizing the event is the narrator’s attempt to come closer to the gathering counterculture that began to wane that night. He knew it was over. The safety of Peacocks and the canapé that hid our righteous shame was lost. He pines for proximity and damns himself for not suffering the scars borne by those he loved.]
In Jessica’s thin and cradling arms, Clayton’s upper body grew less responsive like a child going to sleep. Nothing of the toothy smile Clayton always flashed remained. He had an expression that wore hints of shock from the fall, a face that feared the ground and anticipated the impact but had forgotten what had happened. Just a countenanced paranoia of the impending that faded imperceptibly. Off in the distance, Leif’s screams for his father were dampened by thick leaves. Trying to reach through the uneven terrain rising and falling between him and his father, I could hear “come and see.”
I’ve taught Critical Media Analysis (CMA) as a methods course for a few years now. Fun class. What we do, in short, is examine media “artifacts” as a way to better understand American culture and the relationship between media and society.
Students with backgrounds in literature and film studies tend to excel in the course because the method is interpretive. But CMA is more than mere interpretation. It is a critical interpretation supported by a strict methodology and preponderance of evidence. The method isn’t asking “how students feel” about a text as many low-level English courses might emphasize. CMA requires a deep familiarity with the culture that both produced the media and received it as audiences. So, CMA is critical cultural analysis using media artifacts as a means to identify collective meaning-making, the dominant ideologies that inform that process and broadly held cultural assumptions that give the “texts” power in society.
As with many undergrad courses in media, there is peril in teaching this method, particularly when setting students out to find “hidden meanings” or embedded ideologies in music, news, film and television.
A standard textbook for Critical Media Analysis from Stocchetti and Kukkonen mentions CMA’s aim of unearthing the “hidden agendas” embedded in media artifacts. But students can easily misunderstand the term hidden agendas in the age of fake news. Critical media analysis, as a method, is not simply about seeing the “bias” of news organizations or, say, the pro-Trump leanings of a Roseanne reboot. Critical media analysis aims to look beyond the surface meanings offered by media producers, directors and writers. At its best, CMA unearths the underlying assumptions and cultural beliefs that allow media to make sense to large swaths of a public. It takes time, good judgment and careful effort.
How hidden are these messages? How are they hidden? By whom are they hidden? The short answer is that these messages are not hidden by anyone. Media are unavoidably shaped by the dominant ideologies of the culture that produces and consumes media artifacts. Often, media producers will not even be aware they are buying into a given ideology as they shape narratives for the greatest possible public circulation. It is, after all, about ratings.
There are all sorts of media analyses floating in Internet backwaters that fail to meet methodological rigor. But critical media analysis is not a tool to lambaste a program for having a point of view. For example, politically conservative criticism of how the new Star Wars is actually feminist “porn” propaganda. Too much “critical” media analysis is simply pointing out obvious messages in major productions and being mad that media don’t reflect the critic’s own worldview.
Good analysis, by contrast, uses media as a way to reveal non-obvious themes or less visible ideologies that inform how we use media to make sense of the world. CMA projects seek non-obvious or latent meanings contained in media or how media rely on nearly invisible cultural assumptions on the part of audiences.
I’ll try to illustrate the difference between surface observations and deeper interpretations ideally provided by CMA by using the Batman universe. Note: I say “universe” because the Batman mythology extends across many media platforms: 1970s TV, 1980s films, 2000s films, videogames and, of course, comics. This list shows that Batman clearly has cultural resonance with American audiences and speaks to how worthwhile it is as a subject for analysis.
Batman: Obvious and Non-obvious Interpretations
An obvious interpretation of Batman is that the dark knight universe helps us see the American appreciation for justice, law and order. Gotham is a corrupt city. The mob has bribed the police and judges, so citizens can’t turn to “the law” for recourse. Injustice is rampant. The powerful prey on the weak. Gotham, as a metaphor for American cities, represents the fear that these evils (greed, muggings, mafia bosses extorting shop owners, violence against citizens, corruption) will go unpunished. Batman is the comicbook answer to these fears: overwhelming criminality and urban decay.
Looking at Batman as a media artifact, we can make the cultural observation that Batman is a symbol of righteous law and order. He is the answer to these fears.
But would any fan of Batman find this revealing? No. This is a justified but rather uninformative analysis of Batman as an expression of American culture.
A Non-obvious Batman
On the other hand, we might use a theoretical lens to highlight less obvious and even counterintuitive interpretations. For example, some have questioned the bond between Batman and Robin, highlighting the “queerness” of their relationship.
There is compelling evidence that, as a media artifacts, their relationship is ambiguous and potentially (latently) sexual in nature. With a sexuality theoretical lens, we see something non-obvious. While non-obvious to the casual media consumer, many have poked fun at the idea of latent feelings between the crime-fighting duo.
But I don’t like that interpretation, frankly. I don’t, in part, because of the way it positions gay relationships as a punchline. Doing a bit of critical analysis of these gay readings, we might find the tendency to see homosexuality in Batman’s relationship with Robin as a restrictive cultural ideology: if a man loves a man, it can’t be anything but sexual. The tendency to deny men the ability to have strong bonds without sexuality the root. As Glen Weldon points out in Slate, this reading can conflate homosocial with homosexual.
So let me offer you my own reading. Batman (as Bruce Wayne) is a hyperrich man with near infinite resources for training and advanced equipment. He comes from a wealthy, respected family with a charitable “foundation” that tries to help Gotham. He is connected to political elites and can tap into his corporation when it suits his needs. Now, who does Batman often fight? You might immediately think of Joker or Bane, but these are actually rare “boss fights.” Most of the fight sequences in comics, films and the video game are of common “criminals” or goons that surround these bosses. They are sometimes tattooed. They are muscle bound and frequently have “tough guy” accents indicative of inner city education if any at all. At times, they are clearly mentally unstable. They are either seriously unstable or desperate enough to join a gang headed by a sociopath who paints his face. Regardless of the desperation or mental illness of these anonymous goons, Batman beats them severely.
What does this reading say about Batman as a popular symbol in American culture? One underlying message: the rich can and should, without relying on a legal system, physically beat those they personally determine are threats to society. How is “the criminal” constructed in Batman? Do we ever wonder if that bloodied underling took a job guarding a warehouse so he could afford Christmas presents for his kids? Or how that underling would pay for the broken clavicle the morning after some rich guy decided he deserved punishment?
Suddenly, Batman does not seem so heroic. He is more like a puritanical autocrat who decides to take the law into his own hands and mercilessly harm (but not kill because he is a good guy) anyone in his way. Why don’t viewers have any sympathy for the poor or insane that are roped into the Joker’s plans? What does this say about the American view of “criminals” that we so readily assume Batman’s foes are inherently evil?
This new reading is non-obvious and even subverts the dominant interpretation by exposing the underlying assumption we bring to the text to make it work.
In critical media analysis, we question the media artifact to expose the “hidden” messages about the wealthy, the criminal, law and order. If I asked a casual viewer of the films whether or not Batman was actually a villain, they’d say no. The best analyses are not impositions of one’s own ideology but the exploration of the ideologies that make media popular and, thus, tell us about the culture that gives media life.
In the months before Clayton’s death, we had begun to feel safe. Even superior to the normals in town. We felt the freedom of the woods.
He died here. In the woods. Among the sticks and stones. Fell through the dark near 70 feet, we estimated. You could see the flaring burn of his cigarette lofting in an arc out over the ravine like a swooping firefly. Then a rapid, straight descent. More like a meteor shooting toward the earth. They said he was dead on impact, but Jessica had cradled his head after we all sprinted down the dark hillside dodging tree trunks in our rush. She said the paramedics were lying to us. She said she wiped the blood away and looked into his eyes.
The ravines of southern Illinois marked the end of the last ice age. Glaciers, we were told, pushed south from the poles in some achingly slow geologic process and rippled the earth in an icy advance. The effect was like corrugating the land with irregular peaks and valleys.
This history left portions of the famously flat American prairie with low-elevation but sharp-angled slopes that funneled summer rains down brush-choked hillsides into rivulets which, in turn, poured into Kickapoo Creek. Each flow paid tribute. The Kickapoo to the Embarras River. Embarras to the Wabash. Wabash to the Ohio. On to the Mississippi. The Mississippi to the far off ocean.
Every time he drank enough, Devin would get serious about building a small armada of canoes and kayaks to float the entire tributary river system to New Orleans and out into the gulf.
“Imagine it. It would be easy to mount Matt’s picnic table on sealed barrels. The barrels are out at Jesse’s farm. They are just sitting out there rusting. Jesse’s dad wouldn’t care. Make em airtight, lash em to the legs and have a communal spot for gear storage and eating together without having to go to shore.”
“A floating picnic table. How novel.” Deb seemed unimpressed.
Seven of us of sat drinking after clearing brush from some forest line. Leaf had designed an open-air shelter and enlisted us to help cut away the nettles and blackberry bushes that had overtaken the plot. We were sweat drenched and full of holes from the thorny detritus we had moved to the burn pile.
Luke laughed. “Look at Huckleberry over here,” gesturing to Devin. “Gonna find himself a Nigger Jim and light out for the territory.”
I cringed, then gritted my teeth. Luke and I had talked about that word. He was normally good about not saying it. At least when I was in ear-shot.
“Luke!” I yelled a little too loud. “Unless you are a black dude or a racist hick, don’t say shit like that. And you aren’t a black man, so . . .”
“I’m quoting literature, man. You should dig that.”
Devin shut us up before I could say anything else. “Focus people. It’s possible. I’ve mapped it out. We could stop for supplies every two or three days like we do at Greenup when we go down the Embarras. What was that? Like five hours?”
“Six hours in late summer. Uh . . . Four and a half in spring,” Leaf piped up, raising his hand to his eyebrows to look up at the sunny sky.
Leaf was usually quiet. When he spoke, everyone listened. The kid had retained a speech impediment into his late teens despite the public school system trying to drill it out of him for years, but that did not affect the respect everyone had for him. At least the country folks. People in town were less forgiving. He was rarely showered and had a wardrobe one would expect from a reclusive serial bomber. But Leaf lived in the country and he knew the rivers. He knew the wilderness better than most of us. Luke, Tully and Deb knew it too. I didn’t know shit. I was the cityboy they tolerated because they could tell I loved the woods. Leaf taught me to juggle the burning coals of a dying fire.
Devin went on, emboldened by Leaf. “Fuck yeah. I’m telling you guys. We could do it. It would be epic. After Greenup, we could stop in Newton. We’ve got New Liberty, The Chauncey Preserve, and Lawrenceville for stops too. Once we are on the Wabash, I’ve got a cousin in Mount Carmel. We can set up on his property for a couple of days.”
“Do you have any relatives once we are on the Mississippi?” Deb’s tone was incredulous. You could almost feel her eyes rolling in how Deb punctuated her words. She often played the skeptic when Devin got on his flights of fancy. Where Devin was loud and blunt, Deb was thoughtful and incisive. “Is every farmer gonna be happy to see a long-haired drunk like Luke wandering onto his land from the river?”
“We could find something,” Leaf said. “There’s a lot of beach along the wriver banks. And there arwe small islands where no one would bother us with plenty of driftwood for fiwres.”
“Easy,” Devin went on. “Once we get to bigger water, we could fish for food rather than having to go into town all the time.”
“We can’t fish for beers, brotha. Beers cost money.” Luke was giving the idea more thought than he had in the past. He threw the can he had just emptied into the mound of unburnable trash. An old two-by-four with the words “RECYCLE ONLY!” burn-etched was nailed to the tree nearby.
“Hell,” I said. “We could get sponsorship. Some kayak company that wants a bit of good press.” No one responded. I realized right away that had violated the spirit of the trip we were imagining. “I’m just saying we could make the trip less expensive. It’s gonna cost money.”
“Not really,” Devin said dismissively. “Sandwiches and the occasional 24-pack of Miller High Life would be our main expense. My tent and Luke’s could fit 10 people easy.”
“It’s actually my mom’s tent,” Luke added.
As evening came on, we watched the fire grow brighter. Devin took to adding to the burning brush and then taking a running leap over. Luke’s brother had mysterious, clear whiskey that smelled like nail polish remover but burst like a flame thrower when he spit mouthfuls at Devin’s fire. Leaf and I tossed smoking embers back and forth. An evening moon appeared as if hastening the sun’s departure.
Anyone note the explosion of advertising for free access to content like Spotify or Netflix? This T-Mobile ad samples TV so much it could be mistaken for a Netflix promotion. But if we look past the smiling shots of our favorite TV characters high-fiving, we see the first signs of what life on the web will be like after Network Neutrality.
It is no coincidence we see these offers in the wake of weakened Network Neutrality principles. This practice, “zero-rating,” is a clear example of what NN advocates have feared. Zero rating is the practice of creating partnerships with content providers like Netflix and making access to content from certain providers cheaper. Those who control the network get to play favorites in choosing the content flowing through their “pipes.” In short, not everyone trying to reach users/customers is treated equally.
How is this anti-competitive? Imagine we want to launch a music service to compete with Spotify. We have a good tech team that worked hard developing a friendlier user interface and faster file access for the consumer. Spotify’s deal with T-Mobile means our start-up music service, regardless of our app’s superiority, will likely fail. Why? Incumbent market advantages:
Access to customers. Spotify will have a guaranteed user base in T-Moblie’s subscribers. Big user bases attract revenue from venture capital and new media investors of the Silicon Valley sort.
Advertiser appeal. A high number of users (high traffic) will mean increased interest from advertisers, another revenue stream.
Data sales. High traffic also provides user data. User data is valuable to marketing firms and several new industries that lurk in the shadowy world of data brokers (one broker offering a “Rape Sufferers List” for targeted marketing).
All of these factors add up to tall barriers to entry for competitors. By preferring Spotify’s content over others, network owners will effectively pick and choose winners while stifling innovative startups. And what is the likelihood that T-Mobile will allow a Spotify competitor to use the T-Mobile network?
This glimpse of a post-Network Neutral internet shows how anti-competitive the legal environment can become. It is a sharp contrast with the early (network-neutral) internet that allowed a young Netflix to challenge cable providers. Even seemingly innocuous Netflix package deals could be harbingers of a significantly less competitive industry in which consumers and startups ultimately lose.
Despite the upbeat Netflix vignettes, these growing and merging media companies are not friendly giants. Zero-rating is a first stage of dramatic changes in store for a post-NN world. Network Favoritism of this sort dampens the industry’s ability to produce innovations and removes incentives to improve customer services. Without Network Neutrality, we risk more concentration in ownership and the development of distribution-content trusts. These trusts are more likely to stifle innovation.
Internet service providers like Comcast argue they would suffer unfair market disadvantages, but Comcast’s position on NN is contorted. As T.C. Sottok noted in The Verge, Comcast’s incoherent NN policy goes something like: “We respect and abide by NN principles and that is why we want them removed.” It begs the simple question: If the company appreciates NN, why petition to change FCC rules?
Public relations speak has made Comcast’s position nonsense, but policymakers have maps for navigating these waters. Nineteenth century Americans fought the Standard Oil monopoly because trusts and monopoly violated American ideas of capitalism. Concentration led to market dysfunction and harmed the economy at large. Early in the 20th century, AT&T had bought up most of the nation’s phone networks but accepted substantial government regulation in exchange for becoming the nation’s sole telephone company. AT&T owned all the market and Americans had public interest (9-1-1, fair rates, equal access) hardwired into US telecommunications system.
Standard Oil’s J D Rockefeller was a strict, church-going man. Reporters of the era noted that he taught Bible school on Sundays, but, by Monday, he was as ruthless a business mogul as the Gilded Age could produce. Disney may have the veneer of progressive ice princesses and dancing tea sets, but the media business is, well, business.
Russian interference in the 2016 US election took many forms. Twitter bots, paid trolling, memes, and Facebook ad campaigns put politically charged messages in front of Americans, enflaming preexisting social divisions in the US. This paper seeks to place RT in a larger complex of the fragmentation of the American public, the role of “disruptive media” strategies and, finally, the geopolitics of US-Russian relations. By tracing the intellectual work of Kremlin political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin, we get a clearer picture of Russian media campaigns that dominate the headlines.
There is mounting evidence that Russian efforts consciously sought to play on preexisting tensions in American civic life. Race, class, gender and sexuality, all subjects of political strife in a hyperpartisan American political system, became fodder for Russian meme-factories and a small army of covert online commenters. RT’s disruptive role also reflects the Anti-Liberalism of Dugin in his work on geopolitics and so-called Fourth Political Theory. This paper argues that RT is part of a larger strategy we call “disrupt media” and reflects the under-explored teachings of Russian political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin.
Disrupt media refers to persuasive campaigns that play upon growing American distrust of US news as an institution of political and social life. But the strategy is not unique to Russian disinformation. For years, domestic news operations -Fox News and Brietbart- have played on the distrust of “mainstream” journalism to draw and retain viewership by cultivating distrust in American media. This paper explores how RT combines a disrupt strategy with the geopolitical thinking of “Duginism” which suggests “introduc[ing] geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts” (Dugin, 2015, p. 367).
Sharable partisan content, regardless of its support for right or left, Democrat or Republican, left vs. far left, is best understood as an outgrowth of the information bubbles and fragmentation of the American electorate. Disrupt media, in Dugin’s model, fortifies group identity. In line with the Council of Europe’s 2017 report, we reframe this strategy of “information pollution” as a question of culture and ritual rather than simple information transmission, recognizing that “communication plays a fundamental role in representing shared beliefs” (7). RT’s campaign found success by taking advantage of the commercial foundations of the US (new) media system and forms of redistribution enabled by user sharing functions of new media platforms.
Surprised by Trump’s election in 2016, pollsters have had to do some soul-searching. How could their statistical models have missed so many Trump voters? Polling organizations and pundits failed to see Trump’s populist base: the disaffected, white working class.
The narrative goes like this. These Americans felt left behind by globalization and neglected by national political elites. Where jobs are not fleeing across the border, wages were stagnant. Though wages don’t improve, financial networks like CNBC celebrate the S&P or Dow’s record-breaking highs with bells and whistles.
For the downstate Illinois voter, the economy on TV does not look like life in Charleston with its scenes of boarded up storefronts and abandoned theaters. Just as cable news seems detached from the lived experience of small town Illinois, downstate voters grow skeptical of the wealthy political establishments in Washington and Chicago.
Income inequality in places like Charleston can spike to levels on par with developing economies like Brazil, a country notorious for its gated communities separating the poor from the wealthy. Clearly there should be a broad public sentiment that would take to a message of income equality.
But how can progressives sell policies that address the growing divide between the haves and the have nots in political territory Trump won handily? Republicans are suspicious of so-called class warfare and easily dismiss economic agendas that would put more money in their pocket. We find, for example, more support for repealing the Estate Tax than plans to alleviate the burden of student loans, an agenda much more likely to improve the economic standing of those living.
Republican, conservative orthodoxy has a grip on the region, and knee-jerk rejection of the Democratic brand means a Democratic candidacy is all but doomed. (The Dem candidate won around 33% of the general vote in 2014). This political situation requires a candidate run as a Republican. At once, candidate X must show how arresting the growth of wealth inequality fits into the conservative traditions: equality of opportunity, individual liberty and economic growth. Since the Republican Party has a lock on downstate voters, any pro-public economic reforms need to be clearly argued from Midwestern values and spoken in a language Republicans can relate to.
Charleston is in Illinois’s Assembly District 110. Economic data show a median household income of under $30,000. Graphs of income distribution in 110th district have a significant “bulge” in the lower incomes. This means the district has a greater number of low income residents relative to the rest of Illinois.
Data also shows how many unwed mothers a candidate would represent. A candidate could emphasize a pro-children agenda. In addition to the generic appeal of a call to support mothers, candidate X could seek to expand daycare options with subsidies that can free unwed mothers to pursue degrees or careers.
If we look closely at the data, the presence of a university partly explains Charleston’s high wealth gap. Students earn little, pushing down on average incomes. Champaign, home to the University of Illinois, also has high wealth inequality (mid to low 50s).
Still, incomes are disproportionately low. As a result, this kind of unending rural recession will fail to attract new business development. And this is the beginning of a longer list of ills afflicting small towns like Charleston.
The Illinois fiscal crisis and partisan polarization in the House and Governor’s office has triggered furloughs among university staff.
Budget impasses prevent a predictable pay schedule for local contractors employed by the university.
Students who rely on the state funding often have their entrance to school subsidized by state schools when bipartisanism fails in the statehouse. This pushes institutions of higher education further into debt to honor their educational mission.
Public services are also threatened by dysfunctional state politics as budget deadlines pass without appropriating funds for essential services.
The sum total of these tribulations is a municipal economy that ends up lurching from one emergency appropriation to another with little stability for long-term financial planning and investment.
So, a progressive economic message may have some appeal in places like Charleston, but selling this idea requires understanding the values of rural America, i.e. Trump country. And yet I can’t help thinking about what it would take to address income inequality in a deeply red district.
What can the campaign emphasize? Pro-business and pro-EIU (higher education) funding.
“If EIU thrives, so do we.”
A candidate who is business-friendly but also recognizes that the economic base of the region is EIU can argue for both greater support for higher education. EIU relies on the funding of public education. Therefore, you are “business growth through public funding.” Being pro-consumer is being pro-business.
The economic base is consumption. That means we need expendable income. So, how is the average consumer doing in the District? It does not look good. Average household income in Coles County, for example, is lousy. Median is 37,040/yr. And this is low compared to surrounding counties (also in the 110th district). Charleston is just a particularly bleak part of the county.
The more elaborate argument for this is simple economics. State funds for the university (as well as student aid programs like MAP) make stronger consumers. Greater consumption is good for current business and future business development which, in turn, funds public projects. A smart Republican can combine a pro-business platform with the ‘compassionate conservative’ respect for public programs (like DCFS and public higher education).
Now, I’m not naive. I recognize that Republicans dominate as a political brand in East Central Illinois. Since Democrats don’t have much of an operation, there might be a place for a moderate Republican to capture what would be Democratic voters (and hope they vote in Republican primaries).
The key fight is in the primary. Jockeying for position might push the campaign to focus on conservative planks. Taxes, guns, and economic growth, I imagine. The trick is selling public funding of EIU to help boost salaries and business development. Maybe even shifting the state tax burden more to Chicago-level incomes.
Stump speech excerpt:
“Look at our median income. It is unacceptably low. Why does Charleston pay for Chicago’s prosperity? We need policies that support downstate businesses, downstate communities, downstate mothers and the educational opportunities for the next generation to thrive.”
An inconvenient truth for a Republican: the Gini coefficient
Basic data shows Charleston has one of the worst wealth gaps in the state and, perhaps, nation. The poor are very poor and the rich are very rich.
The problem with this kind of chasm between economic groups is about more than the loss of social cohesion and problems of poverty in general. There is an economic reason to fear weakening consumer power. Middle class shrinkage pulls money from the economy by cinching the belt on those who spend the most.
The economics term for the divide between rich and poor is the Gini coefficient. To offer some perspective, Mexico is at 47. Brazil, the highest concentration of wealth, is at 61. Charleston is at 54. Some economists argue that revolution is probable at around 60 or higher. These are key data points that can rebrand a Republican as both pro-business and concerned about sustainable economic growth.
Stump speech excerpt:
“Charleston should not rank with Third World economies when it comes to the welfare of our people. Policies that empower our middle class will increase our paychecks and drive growth from the bottom up. Illinois citizens deserve better than Third World economics from Chicago.”
I believe there is a place for moderate Republicans in Illinois. Too often, Republicans sell corporate tax cuts as “relief” for the middle class. But we can no longer endure politicians who sell the myth of a classless society and ignore the ills of the growing wealth gap: a tearing of the American social fabric and continued political polarization.
Rural Americans are entitled to feel cheated by a system that has been oversold by rhetorics of free trade, deregulation and competition. A clear message about good paychecks to those who spur production is crucial. Progressive policies put more money in the hands of those who buy then spur production. That creates jobs. A clear and direct appeal to economic security.
Regardless, the current trajectory is not sustainable for places like Charleston. The middle class floats on a bloated raft of credit card debt while the poor slide deeper into deprivation. The need for change in these communities is clear. Gracefully, framing issues of wealth inequality, a bold candidate can lead on these issues and make Republicans a pro-middle class party.
RT, Russia’s cable news channel, has grown considerably since Moscow started funneling money into global news production. Moscow has a vested interest in influencing foreign publics, especially those in the United States. Typical responses to RT fall along two lines of reasoning.
The first interpretation is rooted in a predictable Western response to government-funded news: RT is nationalist propaganda. There are less accusatory labels for Russia’s effort like “public diplomacy” and “nation branding,” but at root they all place Russian motivations at the center of understanding RT. Foreign influence is bad for democracy.
The second view of RT is a bit less obvious. RT is simply good independent journalism in the best Western traditions of an antagonistic press, a press that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” RT contributes to pluralism in our media system, and having many perspectives is good for democracy.
Should we view the media outlet as foreign propaganda? Or should we look at the often critical reporting as news with extraordinary independence?
I argue that the critical agenda of RT’s operation in Paris or Washington, D.C. should be distinguished from the domestic press. If for no other reason, the fate of mainstream domestic media is tied to the maintenance of many domestic institutions, economic, social and otherwise.
The two interpretations of RT.
RT as Propaganda:
The geopolitical rivalry of the US and Russia may seem to preclude any view of RT as a source for good journalism. Advocates for RT-as-propaganda point to RT’s critical coverage of the Russia government, Putin or Moscow’s foreign policy. There is none. RT burnishes Russia’s image as a powerful and innocent international force. Likewise, RT’s reporting on geopolitical conflicts significant to Russian interests follow the foreign policy du jour in the Kremlin. Such coverage predictably supports the Russian government’s view of, for example, militant Crimean separatists as a defense of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. There may be no glorifying pictures of Putin on horseback, but RT uses subtler forms of persuasion in the Western-styled presentation of news. Thus, the news channel has unavoidable bias in its portrait of international events and should be considered propaganda.
RT as Journalism:
Those who view RT as journalism are not naively taken in by this ruse. RT’s defenders are often clear-headed about the intentions of the channel but express sympathy for RT’s mission to counterbalance a global news agenda largely driven by American and British news producers (CNN and BBC). Russian officials, they understand, chafed against the Anglo-American domination of the global news agenda and sought balance by replicating Western news production styles to offer stories under-reported by Western news agencies. If Reuters, AP, The New York Times and CNN reflected Anglo-American geopolitical interests, it is only fair that news consumers had access to alternative worldviews. According to this logic, RT completes our picture of world events.
The view of RT-as-journalism is a bit counter-intuitive but has merit. Many of RT’s defenders are quick to point out “bias” in American news. Reliance on official sources make national reporters reluctant to alienate office holders. Some media companies seek favorable regulatory conditions from an administration’s FCC and offer themselves as message vehicles for patrons. Sinclair Broadcasting may be a strong example of this quid pro quo media politicking. Reliance on advertisers introduces another set of pressures on editorial boards. The list of compromising conditions for news industry professionals is long and challenges more rosy pictures of the intrepid journalist speaking truth to power.
News critics aware of these vices in American journalism want an antagonistic press with true independence. Beyond critics, portions of the American public, too, agree with President Trump’s frequent shots at the press. Indeed, Trump’s victory may have hinged on casting clouds of doubt over mainstream press organs like CNN. This growing body of “woke” news consumers is part of a trend in American public opinion, a trend of skepticism. Simply, Americans show a waning faith in domestic, corporate news. A glance at the history of Gallup Poll public opinion numbers shows a declining faith in “the mass media” as a neutral source of information.
At once, we see a countervailing trend in how Americans appreciate their news sources. Those who disregard media at large as biased or fake will often praise the news channel they regularly use as an objective source of information about the world. We see an analogous Gallup trend in public views of Congress. Much like members of the public will give “Congress” low scores yet praise their district’s Congressional representative, Americans tend to hate “media” but love their channels.
Despite the downward trends in Americans’ regard for news media, many argue that we should hate the press. At least a little. A contentious press system that holds those in power to account and offers a range of opinions should anger and delight different groups of the public. If it did not, it would not be fulfilling its mission in a pluralist democracy. Journalism worthy of the name should occasionally attack, pillory and shame public figures and American culture.
Even if we appreciate a vicious watchdog press, we still must make distinctions between domestic and foreign media to appreciate RT’s role in the American media landscape. A thought experiment may help. If, for example, French political culture is significantly destabilized by events (terrorism, social strife, economic failures), Le Monde could reasonably be expected to report on contentious issues with the aim of re-stabilization. As domestic journalism, Le Monde is invested in the maintenance of French society and, given significant disruption, the paper would report in a way that sought a return to the status quo or normal economic, political and social French life. After all, “normal” French life has sustained Le Monde’s business model. The same can be said for The Washington Post and NBC Nightly News. The aim is not destruction of institutions but reform.
Not so with RT. Safely distant from Paris and Washington, RT can practice a sort of journalism of pure criticism, highlighting fractures and conflicts with little regard for clarification of debate and resolution. It is the difference between harsh criticisms from a family member versus a stranger in the street. One has an investment in you and your future. The other does not.
How we handle these new players in global media today will chart a path. This path can lead us out of a parochial age of national news and forge links across national boundaries. Pessimistic readers will see propaganda and hostile foreign powers seeking geopolitical advantage in news-diplomacy. Idealists envision a sort of global public sphere developing. Regardless, the path will be shaped by policy choices today.
Trump’s recent sit-down with reporters on Air Force One show a candid and off-the-cuff president. Initially “off the record,” Trump’s team released a redacted version of the transcript. . .
Many of Trump’s “authentic” mannerisms are a break from traditional rhetorical styles of the American presidency. One example is the “now you know” technique. Trump takes on a professorial persona and relates common knowledge as if enlightening the audience with special wisdom they would not otherwise have. The tone is insulting for those who are well aware of the world faced by the president, despite Trump having discovered these truths only recently.
It is when Trump tries to inform that his ignorance is most clearly displayed. The exchange with reporters on Air Force One reveals a great deal about how limited he believes the press pool’s understanding of the world actually is.
“They have an 8,000 year culture. . . . And you know, don’t forget, China, over the many years, has been at war with Korea — you know, wars with Korea.”
[Yes, China has been around for awhile]
“But don’t forget. He’s for China. I’m for the U.S. So that’s always going to be.”
[Yeah, you are presidents of distinct countries.]
“We have a thing called healthcare.”
[likely a joke but indistinguishable from raw stupidity or creeping alzheimer’s]
“Look, there’s no better place for solar than the Mexico border — the southern border.”
[Mexico is South of the US. Lots of sun. Got it.]
“. . . when they throw the large sacks of drugs over. . .”
[I hate it when my drug dealer accidentally throws my sack of drugs at the border patrol agent’s head]
“They have pressures that are tough pressures”
[have an indistinct grasp of concepts much?]
“[The meeting with a Russian lawyer] was attended by a couple of other people who — one of them left after a few minutes — which is Jared. The other one was playing with his iPhone.”
[As if the attempt and failure to work with US adversaries vindicates the crime of working with US adversaries.]
“Q Are you mad that Putin lied about the meeting that you had with him, especially about —
THE PRESIDENT: What meeting?”
[This would make sense if he then asked ‘Who are you? How did you get in here!?]
“I’m a tremendous fracker”
[Yes you are. Yes you are.]
The age of the celebrity president is upon us. Reagan pushed us that way. Jesse Ventura a sign. Schwarzenegger was the writing on the wall. Trump is the breaking of the damn wall. The television presidency is here.
Let’s just hope Dwayne Johnson believes Americans deserve healthcare.
“. . . you [Trump] talk like a sign language gorilla who got hit in the head. In fact, the only thing your mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cockholster.”
The oral sex reference caused a backlash with the predictable hashtag #firecolbert. The impulse to remove Colbert might seem obvious. But objections to the comedian’s “obscene” monologue are not coming from the voices we might expect: media outlets focused on gay rights.
The week after Colbert’s monologue, Outhad published little on the issue. The Advocate‘s fleeting coverageframed the outrage as driven by the right, noting how “[c]onservatives alleged the joke was homophobic.” They credit Trump supporters for the FCC filings as well as the hashtag #FireColbert trend on Twitter. Instinctstaff focused on the damage the monologue did to Trump and prompted readers to question if the comment was indeed homophobic. “Or, is it just correctly using the anatomy of the two people involved? Do you think Colbert would have called Trump a cunning linguist if the leader of Russia was a female?” In these leading publications, there is little outright ire or condemnation of the comedian.
Mainstream publications are more critical. Time magazine weighed in with its humorless and clinical take on Colbert’s political comedy. Journalist Daniel D’Addario criticized Colbert’s mockery of the president as a “controversial monologue in which he directed a homophobic slur at the President.” Over at Vox, @germanrlopez tried to spell out out how Colbert’s joke was worth offense.
“. . . the only way this works as a joke is by demeaning gay people. The underlying implication here is that gay relationships are somehow extra funny — that Trump engaging in sexual acts with Putin is hilarious because it’s gay.”
The Washington Post, too, was scathing in its treatment of Colbert’s reliance on homosexuality as gag. In a Wapo perspective piece, Craig Konnoth admits “[c]omedy is an effective means of protesting the new administration. But” he says, “these particular jokes rest on homophobic assumptions.” Konnoth recognizes Colbert’s public expressions of support for LGBTQ communities but is quick to shoot down the idea that political support grants a pass on using homosexuality as a punch line. He goes on to point out the implied insult in putting Trump in a submissive, feminine posture to make the point about his relationship to Russia. This, he argues, sends a harmful message about gender:
“It teaches kids that making gay jokes about classmates who are a little too friendly is all right. It tells conservatives and Trump supporters that gay jokes are funny — and that being gay is, indeed, being weak.”
Responding in Wednesday’s monologue, Colbert seemed to answer critics focused on homophobia at the root of the joke. He clarified his view of freedom to love.
“But I just want to say, for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love in their own way is to me an American hero. I think we can all agree on that.”
Right or Left-wing Criticism?
A review of tweets and memes complicates a easily-offended-liberal, snowflake narrative. The push to oust Colbert awkwardly mixes the defense of LGBTQ folks with a more predictable right-leaning internet verbiage. For example, a #firecolbert meme refers to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, an insulting nickname for the liberal senator from Massachusetts, a frequent target of conservative commentators.
The response to Colbert’s assault on all things Trump cuts across a common political divide. Criticism mixes the conservative’s outrage at indecency directed at the president and the liberal’s outraged defense of social minorities. Often, these are separate public segments being outraged, but not always:
Stephen Colbert is being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission for his disgusting homophobic remarks. Good! #FireColbert
The complaints to the FCC will go nowhere. Why? Because the First Amendment protects against silencing critical voices. But there is a competing vision of liberalism that has less tolerance for free speech. It is the liberalism that leads many to criticize college campuses and triggers twitter wars over offensive language targeting unprivileged social groups.
Identity politicking can serve to defend a president who is openly hostile to dissent and minority justice. We see less animosity from social groups who “should” be concerned about slandering gay life. Instead, Colbert’s critics are nested in mainstream media and conservative corners on social media.
In these conservative corners, voices on the right complain of liberal hypocrisy. Liberals level accusations of homophobia and sexism only when conservatives show cultural insensitivity, they argue. But the claim of hypocrisy ignores the larger political context of how we take offense as a public.
Though “illiberal” tendencies on college campuses have made headlines recently, the response to Colbert is more complicated. Political conservatives with sympathies for the LGBTQ community may have already been turned off by Colbert’s increasingly political Late Night act. At once, Colbert’s poor joke choices provide opportunistic fodder for conservatives to reject the anti-Trumpism that has proven a ratings success.
In some ways, this backlash mirrors an earlier burst of hashtag activism in response to Colbert’s farcical rightwing character from The Colbert Report years earlier. Colbert’s character displayed clear insensitivity toward Asians by announcing an offensively named foundation to support Asian communities. The satire was lost on many critics who created #cancelcolbert in response. They, too, sought to undermine the advertising base of the show rather than expecting the FCC to challenge (and censor) programming content.
So, while legal protections will allow Colbert to continue hammering away at the 45th president, another form of censorship remains a threat. Social censorship is the non-legal form of policing speech. Instead of legal action, socio-commerical censorship can have a potent effect on free speech. If a voice we disagree with does not violate law, the power of group pressure, hashtags and boycott movements can step in. Even when advertising revenue is not immediately threatened, media outlets can shy away from certain voices that do not fit the long term branding. Glenn Beck and, more recently, Bill O’Reilly, have suffered as advertisers withdraw from controversial media figures.
Classic voices of free expression (J.S. Mill) and more recent studies of public culture (spiral of silence) point out how legal action is only rarely needed to silence dissent and offensive speech. Public pressure and, importantly, the fragile financial interests of corporate media shareholders can influence free expression.
The impulse to silence objectionable voices is paradoxical. We celebrate the empowerment of public voices through new media tools, but what happens when online communities rally against the speech of others? Boycott and #cancel movements are a valuable tool for audience empowerment in the age of social media, but the pressure of public opinion may not always be the best mediator. Social pressures put important limits on public discourse. This is why Holocaust deniers are not consulted as experts on CNN. But the function of social censorship also cultivates ideological homogeneity. The public is supposed to learn from the media environment, but increasingly, that does not happen.
Ronald Reagan talked of a prosperous America as a beacon of democracy around the world. And Barack Obama talked about the hope of which he was the living embodiment.
Donald Trump gave us “American carnage.”
-ANDREW ROSENTHAL @ NY Times
The New York Times‘ Andrew Rosenthal and others across the media have commented on the unorthodox tone of Trump’s inaugural address. Many had hoped for a tone of reconciliation after a vicious and often fact-challenged campaign season, but most commentators were struck by the “dark vision” of Trump’s address. EJ Dionne felt “Abraham Lincoln was more upbeat during the middle of the Civil War.” Fellow journalists at NPR were quick to agree.
Reporting on the inauguration speech fell into the Trump-as-deviant narrative that seems to be taking root in these first days of his administration. Trump did indeed employ striking rhetoric. News reports noted that Trump was the first president to use terms like carnage, bleeding and tombstones. This framing became the focus of reporting because the speech fit neatly into the preexisting narrative. This narrative feeds on a steady supply of (often superficial) Trump novelties and eccentricities to shock and surprise. Was his speech as much an anomaly as the candidate?
New data tools give us quick and easy means to look at bigger pictures of tone and language use. Data visualization techniques like wordclouding are simple analytic tools that offer easy to grasp observations. If you want to quickly assess the tone of a speech by counting the frequency of words use, these analytic tools are a snapshot of the verbiage and get at some empirical data on tone.
By way of illustration, here are wordclouds of the Obama and Trump inaugural speeches.
Of course, numbers back up these data-snapshots. We can parse the data out to see the top words used ranked according to frequency (see below).
With this data, we can examine address tone, gauged by word frequency (words used 4 or more times).
The top five words in Obama’s 2009 address: will, can, nation, new, America.
Trump’s top five: will, America, American, people, country. Not too much deviation in tone according to these numbers.
More noteworthy is the number of times words were used. Obama used the words “will” and “can” 17 and 13 times respectively. Trump used “will” and “America” 43 and 19 times. We also see some notable differences that might make for a basis of analysis. Where “women” has mention 4 times in Obama’s speech, wealth is in that position in Trump’s.
Obama Inauguration Speech words by frequency of use:
Trump Inauguration Speech words by frequency of use: