A few weeks ago, Glenn Kubish, an Alberta-based reader of this blog, wrote to me to share a remarkable story about the power of grassroots media and participatory culture. Like a typical U.S. yokel, I had no idea what had happened up in Canada, but was blown away by the story he told and asked him to share it with the other readers of this blog. Kubish is currently working on a thesis which explores more fully the implications of these events, and would be happy to receive insights or suggestions from you fine folks. With this in mind, I've included his contact information in the bio which follows this piece. For now, sit back, grab some cookies and milk, and read what happened. C Is For Convergence!
by Glenn Kurbish
It's fairly widely known that Canadians are passionate about health care and the state of hospitals, so what happened to the man who used to run Alberta Health Services (AHS) shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise.
What was surprising was the role played by the Cookie Monster.
Welcome to my astonishing introduction to convergence culture.
You may not have heard of CTV Edmonton (the local television station in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where I used to work as news director) or Stephen Duckett (who used to work as president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, the government agency that oversees all aspects of health delivery in this province), but you have heard of the Cookie Monster, and I guess that is part of the point. But first, the facts.
On the morning of November 19, 2010, we did what we in the broadcast news craft always did to start the day. We met around around a table and behind a door to discuss story ideas and decide the shape of the evening news. Emergency room wait times was again a big issue that day, as hospital leaders from around the province were themselves meeting around a table and behind a few sets of doors at a downtown hotel. Their goal was to establish new standards for care and admissions.
The center of attention was Stephen Duckett. As he left the meeting, he was met by our reporter, who asked if she could ask him a question.
Actually, my words won't do justice to the 2:14 encounter. Some 337,000+ others took a look at it on YouTube.
Summary: Duckett wouldn't answer conventional media questions because he was:
a) eating a cookie,
b) still eating a cookie,
c) interested in eating his cookie,
d) of the opinion that the media should not question him, but, rather, go to a news conference at which an underling would speak about the day's discussions,
e) crossing the street, and
f) eating his cookie.
Dubbed the Cookie Affair and Cookiegate, that piece of video made it to the highest office in the province. The Alberta premier told the legislature, "I think everyone in Alberta watched and saw the offensive comments. I'll just leave it at that." Of course, he didn't leave it at that; he fired Duckett later that day.
And, as it turned out, Albertans did more than just watch and see the video. They posted thousands of comments in that new public square, the YouTube rectangle. Some found fault with the media:
Damn! Let the man eat his cookie! #$#$ media! Would you even had to bother him if he was sitting in the toilet?!? (SpiderQED)
Others defended the reporters' tack:
what a F**ing jerk. He is just so rude, so inconsiderate...They were asking him questions about the state of Alberta's healthcare, something he is responsible for. (maymonk)
And, predictably, others responded by playing some version of the Sesame Street card:
(It is fascinating how one 61-lettered, upper-cased, misspelled word gets the message across, complete with a moving image, with audio, of The Cookie Monster!)
And while many responded from their various perspectives, some recreated the video, using the video of the Duckett-media encounter as their own raw material in remixes that drew tens of thousands of views. Take a look (and tell me if you don't smile at the editing touch at :50!)
Here's another creative, autotune remix effort
And here's one that combines contributions from mass media current and past (Sesame Street's Cookie Monster, NBC's The Apprentice, CBS's Hee Haw) to make a grassroots media case against Duckett.
All of this news and reaction dominated front pages, tops of newscasts, radio call-in shows, chat forums, political blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages. TV Tropes picked it up. I'm Eating My Cookie badges popped up.
For his part, Duckett, a day after the video was posted on YouTube, responded, conventionally, with a letter to the media, which ended:
Most regrettably, I did not convey what I deeply feel, which is the greatest respect for the difficult challenges our health care providers face every day, and their innumerable achievements, and what those challenges and achievements mean for our patients and their families. When I got back to my desk I finalized and uploaded a blog which conveys my feelings in my words.
The blog was seen by AHS staff, but what struck me at the time was what strikes me now as I hit the keyboard letters, and that's how weak written words can be -- especially up against the Cookie Monster! Admittedly, that's not a new insight. Here, Lawrence Lessig in Remix makes the same point: "My favorite among the remixes I've seen are all cases in which the mix delivers a message more powerfully [emphasis added] than any original alone could, and certainly more than words alone could."
But it was a new insight for me as a news director and for the newsroom I managed, even though the superior power of the image and the sound over the word was the price of admission into the TV news industry. This was different. It's not that our station's question-asking and video-recording sparked subsequent debate, because that was routine. It was that the media we produced in this case became the primary material for others, and not so much to produce their opinions as much as to express their opinions by producing their own media.
This, for me, was new territory where, in the words of Henry Jenkins, "old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways."
It is surely the case that Duckett, an erudite and by many accounts friendly and caring citizen, was caught unaware not some much by the pitch of his opponents' attacks -- he was, after all, no stranger to public and political criticism -- but by the strange key in which it was composed, allowing notes from , well, muppets. Of course, this is my speculation, but it seems reasonable on the evidence that Duckett simply did not see the convergence culture moment he became trapped in and, ultimately, a victim of.
The evidence is admittedly indirect, but his retreat into the written word, and his wife's subsequent written defence of her husband's actions suggest, at the very least, a discomfort with the mashup tools arrayed against them.
"Alberta," wrote Duckett's wife in a letter the following month published in the capital city's broadsheet newspaper, "will not find a more passionate defender of publicly funded health care.
"In retrospect...was it too flippant? Probably."
This is all very reasonable. And it would have been very reasonable for the most vociferous of Duckett's critics to debate the statistics around emergency room admissions and treatment versus the targets for the same. Just like it was very reasonable for Duckett, who was bestowed by the University of Bath with a Doctor of Business Administration degree in Higher Education Management, to remind reporters that a news briefing on those very questions would take place within the half hour. (I should note that our news station also covered that news conference).
But all this talk of reasonableness only makes Stephen Duncombe's voice louder and his argument more insistent. In his 2007 book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics In An Age Of Fantasy, Duncombe chastises progressive leaders for hitching their star to the rationalism wagon.
Appeals to truth and reality, and faith in rational thought and action, are based in a fantasy of hte past, or, rather, past fantasy. Today's world is linked by media systems and awash in advertising images...We live in a "society of the spectacle," as the French theorist-provocateuer Guy Debord declared back in 1967.
Keep in mind the mediasphere that grew around the Duckett Cookie episode as Duncombe briefly surveys the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who found in the mysterious human capacity for metaphor a radical admission that hard information, rationality, reasonableness are not enough. These categories and metaphors, he argues, allow us to "translate hard information and direct experience into a conceptual form familiar and comfortable for us." He continues:
[P]rogressives need to think less about presenting facts and more about how to frame these facts in such a way that they make sense and hold meaning for everyday people.
Quite apart from whether you are in the progressive chorus, this is a solid stage on which to build a case for what really happened in the Duckett Cookie episode. Those who used the tools of spectacle, including raw material culled from pre-existing media and a laptop edit suite, have heard Duncombe's admonition. Says Duncombe in a chilling remark: "Those who put their trust in Enlightenment principles and empircism today are doomed to political insignificance."
As I continue to study this episode, and ask you for any thoughts or directions on finding and picking the theoretical fruit it contains, it is worth sharing a few provisional conclusions:
- It was not the bloggers nor the twitizens nor any other member of the new media who played the pivotal role of being in place to ask Duckett the questions and record his answers. The conventional media may indeed face a threatening business model, but we are not yet in the new world where public figures are directly asked questions by those other than the conventional media who have the resources (time, money) to do so.
- The Duckett Cookie episode is unthinkable without the contributions of mass media (Sesame Street) and the gamble, not much of one, that viewers of mashed up videos would immediately understand the Cookie Monster text.
- Laughter and ridicule remain potent politcal weapons. I am not the first to point out that once a public figure is ridiculed, he or she cannot be taken seriously.
- None of this would have happened if one unconventional decision was made in our conventional newsroom, and that was to post the raw video to YouTube in the first place. Why did we do this? For many reasons, including the feeling that the usual packaging of a television news story (heavily edited, 1:45 in length, reaction clips) did not serve our viewers in forming opinions about the issue.
- In convergence culture, the Cookie Monster matters.
Glenn Kubish is working towards a Master of Arts in Communications and Technology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where his final research project will analyze what happened in the 2:14 of video and in its sharing across social media. He can be reached at email@example.com