Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Media Res

This was good to see, though I don't quite agree with Avedon that Hedges "gave better than he got." Why should he get flustered just because some corporate toady calls him a "left wing nutjob"? I'm not all that concerned about such labels, and I have the impression that most of the OWS people aren't either, but I don't feel defended when Hedges says that those who oppose the corporate state are "the real conservatives." It's a claim that can be defended, but why waste time doing so? If Occupy Wall Street be left wing nutjob-ism, make the most of it!

Which reminds of something I should have written about last week. Sarah Sobieraj's recent book Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism (NYU Press, 2011) ought to be read by anyone who's interested in strategy for the current movement. I have some minor quibbles, for example that her discussion of media ignores people like Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, Mark Crispin Miller and others who've done important work on the subject; she does cite Nina Eliasoph's Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (Cambridge, 1998), but I don't remember Eliasoph reaching the conclusions Sobieraj attributes to her; that may just mean it's time for me to reread Eliasoph. My only real complaint is that Sobieraj doesn't follow her arguments quite far enough, but if other people see what I see and draw the same conclusions, it won't matter much.

Sobieraj is a sociologist who studied and observed political activists during the 2000 and 2004 Presidential campaigns, primarily the party conventions and the debates between the nominees. She went for breadth more than depth, intending to cover as broad a range of organizations as possible. What she observed was that media-savvy activists who put together big actions aimed at getting the attention of the media failed almost entirely to do so, for two main reasons.

First, reporters chose to cover the conventions and debates themselves, with only cursory accounts of what was going on outside. At most, activists appeared as a faceless, nameless sea of nobodies, putting on an incomprehensible performance that no one could possibly understand. Second, even when a group was identified by name and an activist spoke on camera, their aims and reasoning were ignored. Neither of these points will be news to many activists, but they continue trying to get corporate-media attention anyway, apparently in the belief that someday they'll crack the code that will give them the media access they seek.

Sobieraj finds revealing contradictions on the reporters' side, though. For example, after describing the scriptedness of the nominees' debates, she writes (page 71),
In light of this … it seems entirely plausible that the press would prefer to cover the activists, gravitating toward the less predictable, more colorful set of events and organizations clamoring for attention in its wings. Yet this is not the case. Why is there such [sic] little news about these groups and their activism, and why is the news that does circulate so prone to exclude political content? I argue that this dismal showing in the news is a product of a set of unwritten expectations that govern the coverage of political “outsiders,” which is diametrically opposed to the professional norms and work routines involved in the creation of most political news stories.
Or as "Dustin, a reporter with a primary newspaper for a major metropolitan area" (77) put it:
… "If people riot, we’ll pay attention. We’ll wanna know why they’re so damn upset."

The newspaper articles, however, suggest this is not the case, that there actually is minimal interest in “why they’re so damn upset.” In the conflict / crime model stories, associations usually receive more extended attention than in local stories, but they are still largely unsuccessful at injecting their issues and perspectives into the mainstream discourse.
But Sobieraj overlooks the way that coverage of the debates and conventions is also "prone to exclude political content." In The Bush Dyslexicon Mark Crispin Miller describes at length how, after the third debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush in October 2000,
the "analysts" at CNN said not one word about the substance of the candidates' exchange but just kept harping on the general "statements" were putatively "trying" to make about themselves through their tone and body language.

Although a waste of time, the postdebate bull session was at least not strongly biased, nor was its anti-intellectualism too pronounced. On ABC there was a far more noxious session on the subject of the third debate.
This session, featuring Sam Donaldson, George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts, and George Will, "captures perfectly the the barbarous synergy between the right and TV news, each feigning populism for its own elitist purposes." Roberts complained that the issue debated by the candidates wasn't "the important point there. ... Because that's not what comes across when you're watching the debate. What comes across when you're watching the debate is this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak" [pages 68-69]. The irony of four Beltway media insiders denouncing Al Gore for being a Beltway insider, while delicious, was totally lost on Roberts. It's a reminder of how little facts matter, but personalities do matter, to the corporate media. And that means that if activists did manage to secure the magical gaze of TV cameras on the same level as political insiders, their ideas and programs would still be ignored in favor of image and presentation, just as they are now.

Political insiders, of course, are virtually guaranteed ample coverage, whether or not they have anything substantial to say. Reporters profess to be frustrated by this, but they go along with the program: it's their job. They have a different set of standards for "outsiders," which Sobieraj discusses (page 83):
I watched, time and time again, as reporters gave the cold shoulder to voluntary associations following standard industry practices. In many respects, those organizations that followed the rules most judiciously were the least attractive to the news workers they were courting. Journalists accept press releases, press conferences, and spokespeople in their routine political reporting, but their coverage of activism was governed by a very different set of rules and practices, which in many ways was diametrically opposed to those employed in routine newsgathering. When activists attempted to conform to journalists’ model for routine newsgathering, they failed, not because they didn’t conform to the “implicit rules of newsmaking,” but because they were following the wrong rules.

When journalists looked at activists, they weren’t looking for talking points, they were looking for authenticity.
"Authenticity" means that
"real" activists are politically driven as a result of personal connection to an issue. Reporters preferred sources who discuss issues as individuals with stories to share, rather than as publicly minded advocates. This is primarily because the journalists were not looking to write about issues or about associations, they were looking to tell stories about individuals [94].
... It is a fine line to walk, because fervor simultaneously attracts and repels the news media. Too little passion and the associations are inauthentic, too much and they are zealots [96].
Now, there’s a double bind. To add to the problem, Sobieraj noticed that many organizations were so busy courting the media that they made no plans for engaging the public that they presumably were trying to reach.
Activists lost opportunities to connect meaningfully with nonmembers by treating bystanders as passive audience members and offering pedestrians symbolic acts rather than interactions. Their public performances were often compelling but rarely engaging. In most cases, onlookers had no structured opportunity to ask questions, share insights, or probe behind the chants, comedic skits, or dramatic displays of emotion. Speech about politics was central to association activities around the conventions and debates, but talk about issues – two-way exchange – was exceedingly rare. The same flamboyant techniques that groups concocted to draw the media often captured pedestrians’ attention, but the activists did not know what to do with that attention once they had it [111].

... When I later asked Eli [of Republican Freakshow] why they didn’t “work the crowd” a little more, he explained that they were mostly focused on being available to journalists. When I pressed him, commenting that there were no journalists around, he indicated that he just wanted to get ready to do the routine again in hopes that some would come by ... Most activists were more responsive to pedestrians than were Eli and his colleagues, but they often deferred interested parties to websites or handed them a pamphlet. They were usually prepared to direct bystanders to resources, but they seemed noticeably unprepared or unwilling to actually talk with them [118-9].
If I understand the purpose of media outreach, it is to use the media as a means to the end of reaching the public. Since this mostly fails, it would be wise to forget about the middleman -- the medium -- and try to reach the public directly. This may be slow -- Noam Chomsky, for example, remembers speaking against the Vietnam War to tiny groups in people's living rooms at the beginning of the anti-Vietnam war movement -- but it produces more real understanding. Even if the media gave more coverage to activists' performances, the task of building a movement would still remain. (My own -- limited -- experience with activist groups is that they sometimes begin by organizing, and only afterward try to think of something to do.)

From what I've seen, compared to the groups Sobieraj observed, the Occupy movement is less obsessed with media attention and more interested in putting people together with people. Her account of the way the corporate media cover activism fits well with mainstream journalists' frustration that they don't know what OWS wants, which shows that this isn't a new theme. But the media aren't interested in, or capable of even hearing, what activists want. That's not news in itself; it's been noticed for a long time, from the "anti-globalization" protests of the late 1990s to the antiwar protests between 2001 and 2003.

So it seems to me that reaching the corporate media ought not to be a high priority for serious activists. It should be a low priority, after seeking the attention of fellow citizens, welcoming them into the group or movement, and dealing with other strategic concerns like the hostility of government at all levels. Sobieraj notices that many groups put most of their energy into grooming members to deal with the media or to hide from them; during her fieldwork she often had trouble getting rank-and-file activists to talk to her because they thought she was media and they hadn't been cleared to talk. She suggests, and I believe she's right:
If members could understand the organization, its work, and its priorities. their unrehearsed responses to journalists’ questions would be “on message.” In other words, talk is exactly the type of association activity that builds these relationships, and with stronger ties, activist groups could worry less about being derailed by their members and could begin to benefit from them. Promoting healthy dialogue, then, would likely yield both cultural and instrumental benefits [151].
But even if she's wrong, it's more important, and more effective, to build numbers and organizational strength by concentrating on the members' interests and morale than to court the corporate media, because building the organization is an end in itself, as well as a means of producing social and political change.