Comedy Is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Two)

You spend a good deal of time discussing the Marx Brothers, who remain perhaps one of the best known of the comedy teams to emerge from the Vaudeville stage and go to Hollywood. What might contemporary audiences be missing when they watch the Marx Brothers’ movies if they do not understand their roots in vaudeville?

 

Since my late teens when I became aware of the Marx Brothers I have always enjoyed their movies and their perspective of the underdogs who get the better of those in authority. As a working class kid from New Hampshire, I was inspired by the fact that they could break down the doors of the powerful and elite by mocking them and creating chaos in the halls of respectability; a place I never thought I certainly could ever access or influence personally.

When I started to research the Marx Brothers more in depth as performing artists, I became aware that many of their plots and gags were taken directly from their twenty-plus years in vaudeville. They had not made their first picture until they were in their early forties. This was a revelation to me. The Marx Brothers movies were translations of the vaudeville stage and the Broadway musical revue on film. Not films in and of themselves, but stage shows and routines that had been honed and crafted over many years on the road on the third-tier vaudeville circuit.

The seemingly improvisational feel of the films was not improvisational at all. But they made it seem as if it were happening in the moment for the very first time, and I think this still resonates with me each and every time I watch these films. How fresh, accessible, and alive they feel in that relationship between audience and stage (that notion of “putting it over” as mentioned before), seen in the asides that Groucho makes to the camera as if he were talking to a live audience. This still works for me and that feeling of the servants putting it over on the masters even after I know that it was well rehearsed and staged over many years of their careers, always amazes me.

Once the Marx Brothers let go of the formality of their vaudeville act in the 1910s of a singing and dancing act, and started in on their special brand of comic subversion through making nonsense out of authority and the rules of upper-class decorum, then they began to thrive as a comedy act both on stage and screen.

 

The status of women in comedy remains a controversy today, despite the fact that female comics have been disrupting gender roles on stage since at least the turn of the last century. What would we understand about today’s female clowns, such as Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman, if we traced their roots back to the “rank women” of the early vaudeville stage?

The notion that female comedians are somehow dirtier and more obscene simply because they are women is still an issue in contemporary comedy. In my book The Comic Offense From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy (2014), I cite an incident that Tina Fey writes about in Bossypants (2011), Fey’s memoir, when she recalls a story in which fellow Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler was in a meeting with a predominantly male group of writers and cast members, doing a “dirty and loud and ‘unladylike’” comic bit. Jimmy Fallon, the de facto male star of the moment, mocked Poehler for her crudeness saying, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.” According to Fey, “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.”

This notion that Poehler was offending her fellow male comedians simply because she was a woman telling an offensive story is ironic given the fact that this is what the male comedians admire in each other; the notion of crossing the line.

A female student of mine who is studying comedy and wants to be a comedian, was shocked that Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007 an article titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The institutionalization of comedy by men in the early twentieth century was an attempt to marginalize women as comedians and comic writers in a self–created “boys’ club.” And this “boys club” is alive and well today. Hitchens thought women didn’t have to be funny because women didn’t need to attract men, and humor according to him, was necessary for men to attract women. Of course this is overly simplistic and Victorian in its outlook on male/female relations (not to mention the fact that it discounts lesbians entirely), but it persists in the twenty-first century.

And although Tina Fey was the first female head writer in the thirty-nine year history of Saturday Night Live, she is still the only female head writer in their history even after her leaving the show eight years ago in 2006. Personally I think men are threatened by funny women since they appear to relate it to masculinity and some kind of mating ritual. Admittedly humor is attractive, but certainly men are attracted to funny women, and women are attracted to funny women as well, no?  

I think the main problem is that women being considered “dirty” or “obscene” or “crossing the line” somehow puts them in the category of being what the turn of the twentieth century reformers saw as “rank ladies.” Mae West, May Irwin, Marie Dressler, Eva Tanguay, and Kate Elinore were seen as “tough girls” who were too aggressive physically and verbally and lacked the demur refinement of middle-class women of “respectability.” Sex jokes in particular somehow signaled to the primitive male mind that women are sexually available and promiscuous, and ultimately morally bankrupt. And this brings us back to the virgin/whore binary that women still can’t seem to shake.

 

The vaudeville tradition fed film and television comedy for generations, but there are few if any performers with roots on the variety stage who are still working today. Today’s clowns come from the standup circuit, Improv comedy troops, and television sketch comedy programs. In what ways do these newer forms of comedy mirror the traditions of earlier forms of popular entertainment?

It was very surprising to me when I was researching these books that the techniques used all the way back to the commedia dell’arte of the sixteenth century Italy have always been inspirational to comedians. Comedians sincerely study and are influenced by performers from comedy history. There is a real respect for the craft and for those comedians who came before them.

The term slapstick itself, as an actual noise maker that emulates the slapping and punching associated with Punch and Judy puppets, was used in silent film shorts – giving it the name slapstick comedy – and of course is still used in the comedy films of Judd Apatow and Mike Judge – look at The Hangover franchise as a prime example. But just the notion of pain and getting into trouble as being funny, watching someone slip and fall or get hit by various objects as in the Three Stooges, never seems to get old.

Also the idea of improvisation—of being in the moment and making jokes that can be tailored to the audience is fascinating to me and embraced by comedians. You can change the jokes according to who is in the audience and whom you want to offend (or not) as the case may be. This is very important to the notion of “putting it over” as well. Knowing your audience and what is “killing” and what is “dying.”

The stage is the only place where this immediate response and in-the-moment improv is possible. Even though there are improv television shows, they can be edited (and are certainly) after the fact in case there is anything said in the moment that offends or satirizes advertisers or the television network. SNL and other “live” shows have that two-three second delay just in case someone crosses the line. You can’t censor or edit a live performance, or let me correct that, you can shut it down, or stop the act, as in the case of Lenny Bruce, who was literally arrested onstage, but that in itself made a statement that couldn’t be edited from the minds of the audience.

The notion that comedy is and was dangerous, and threatening to authority figures, governments, corporations, and the ruling classes, is truly what connects the vaudeville generation to contemporary standup and improvisational comedy. To paraphrase Moliere who has been quoted as saying about his incendiary play Tartuffe, which the Catholic church of the seventeenth century was attempting to ban and threatened to imprison its author, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

 

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen

Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part One)

Last spring, I was asked whether I might be willing to blurb a book called The Comic Offensive, From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy. This was something of a blast from the past for me! My  dissertation book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, was also focused on the ways that vaudeville had influenced other forms of popular comedy. My story remained focused in the 1920s and 1930s, where-as Rick DesRochers has brought the vaudeville tradition into the 21st century through the imaginative pairings between different comic performers – for example, Will Rogers and Stephen Colbert or the Marx Brothers and Larry David — in order to show how certain styles of comedy have persisted over time. DesRochers contends that 20th century American comedy has always allowed the expression of critical and often minority perspectives before a more mainstream audience.

Since reading The Comic Offensive, DesRochers has shared with me his other new book, The New Humor in the Progressive Era, which provides more of the historical context for how this style of comedy emerged and what roles it played in the early 20th century.

The two books, together, complete a historical framework for thinking about popular theatrical performance and humor across the span of the 20th century, the ways it differed from 19th century predecessors, the ways it responded to social, political, economic, and technological change, and the ways that it has often challenged the way the culture saw itself. DesRochers does all of this in a fashion that is grounded in original source materials, including perhaps the fullest discussion to date of the theatrical work of the Marx Brothers before they went to Hollywood, and is presented in a vivid, engaging, style that would be highly accessible to undergraduate students.

I invited DesRochers to do an interview for my blog, and I am delighted to share it with you today. His substantive responses, his reflections on comedy — both past and present — should give you plenty to think about and may even provide some encouragement to seek out comic performers who might have escaped your attention before. I hope you will enjoy the experience of forgotten laughter.

 

What was “New” about the “New Humor”? How did it differ from more established traditions of humor and comedy in American culture?

The playwright and librettist Edward “Ned” Harrigan, co-author of the popular Mulligan Guard series of light comedy revues, warned in 1900 that “there’s been a great change in the sense of humor in New York, the great influx of Latins and Slavs—who always want to laugh not with you but at you—has brought about a different kind of humor. Vaudeville historian Albert MacLean Jr., called this notion of Harrigan’s “the new humor.” What was “new” about the new humor was that it challenged Anglo-American authority and the belief that the ruling classes’ notion of highbrow culture could be made fun of and even defied. You could laugh at the abuses of authority and Anglo-American dominance, as well as with the attempts of southern and eastern European immigrants trying to assimilate into the Anglo-American way of life. The irony of this xenophobia of Harrigan’s was that the Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants were discriminated against in the very same way only two decades earlier, and now Harrigan, along with Tony Hart, was affectionately writing musical revues that featured those same Irish immigrants that were once perceived as morally inferior and culturally lowbrow.


The contemporary version of the new humor can be witnessed in the work of comedian and writer and co-creator of Seinfeld, Larry David, when he discusses with Ricky Gervais, “We all have the bad thoughts. We just think them and don’t say them. But the bad thoughts are funny.” In Dave Chappelle’s comedy, being offensive through the new humor becomes necessary to create meaningful conversations that cannot happen otherwise. His interview with James Lipton of the Actor’s Studio concludes with “I’m a comedian, man. That’s how I look at the world. . . . The only way to know where the line is, is to cross it. What is life if nobody’s crossing the line?” This notion of crossing the line by laughing at authority and mocking hegemonic ideology and culture was known as the new humor. The new humor is still very much with us in the work of Chappelle, Larry David, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Louis C. K., Sarah Silverman, and Jon Stewart.

One of the ways that the New Humor pushed back against older standards of taste and decorum was through its emphasis on emotional immediacy, on provoking overt displays of emotion from the audience. You devote a chapter to the concept of “putting it over.” What did that mean to the vaudevillians? What kind of relationship did they seek to establish with their audiences?

“Putting it over” was the comedians’ way of saying that they had a connection with the audience, and that their comedy was getting over the footlights as a form of dialogue between audience and performer. You could put it over by singing, dancing, telling jokes, playing comic characters, or combining any number of these performance skills, but the real talent lay in understanding how the comedian related to the audience and made them feel as if they were complicit in the subversive nature of humor. I am very interested in the vaudeville notion of “putting it over” as a way of getting jokes across to audiences as a coded way of telling the audience that they are in on the jokes, and share something that the world outside the theater isn’t in on. This is very much in the spirit of the sixteenth century Italian commedia dell’arte where servants like Arlecchino would “put one over” on their masters like Pantalone, not just to make fun of them, but as a means of survival. If I can trick the master out of food and money, and at the same time make him look like a fool all the better, and there are those in the audience going through circumstances. In The New Humor in the Progressive Era (2014), I see it as a class conflict where comedians from impoverished immigrant backgrounds were able to make a living by putting over their act and therefore making money to survive, and in some cases actually rise to the upper classes (at least economically) themselves.

You argue that vaudeville humor “brought unconventional ideas and the rejection of conformity to middle-class audiences, who were sheltered from and fearful of new concepts, cultures, and ethnicities at the beginning of twentieth century America.” What were they afraid of and how was comedy used to address their “bogeys”?

I think the central fears or “bogeys” – a term I appropriated from Walter Lippmann – were very much centered around the idea of keeping the working poor in their place; to stifle creativity, innovation, and radical sociopolitical notions of equal opportunity for all, at bay. By insisting that the underclasses conform to middle-class standards of morality –  for example, women get married and take care of children; school as a place of assimilation and conformity to middle-class Anglo-American values of patriotism and duty to ones superiors; and simply fear of sex and other vices that the middle class felt the new immigrants brought with them from their presumably “uncivilized” peasant backgrounds –the middle class could stem the bogeys that the new immigrants were trying to take their jobs and their daughters away from them through infectious immoral behavior. The idea of “association” – in other words who you associated with – would influence you in either a good way with strong middle-class values, or in a bad way through vice and sin that was perpetrated on the comic stage. The bogeys of “foreignness” still permeate the US today; the fear of immigrants from say Mexico and the Middle East.

The rhetoric of Vaudeville’s promoters emphasized the notion that they were offering “refined entertainment,” yet it is not hard to find contemporary critics who were shocked and outraged by what they saw being performed. You cite, for example, an American Magazine author who proclaimed that Vaudeville had “done more to corrupt, vitiate and degrade public tastes in matters relating to the stage than all other influences put together.”  This has led to debates about the cultural status of variety entertainment during the period. How have you approached this question?

I think the idea that Lawrence W. Levine promotes in Highbrow Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) and David Savran more recently put forward in Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (2010) about the 1920s jazz era, that there was a real effort on the part of cultural critics like Sime Silverman at Variety or later George Jean Nathan with the canonization of American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill to create an American stage literature that rivaled that of the Western European theater, influenced cultural critics as tastemakers to consciously create a consciously “highbrow” theatrical culture in the US. Therefore the critics and upper-class patrons of the performing arts promoted forms of American culture that would emulate and be considered of cultural significance, especially on the stage through plays as literature that has still remained with us to the present day. Popular entertainments were considered by critics and progressive reformers alike as leading to degeneracy, immorality, and ignorance of the value of high culture with vaudeville in particular. The idea that the unwashed masses would be corrupted by simply being in the presence of vaudeville comedians, jazz musicians, and musical theater performers, was something to reject and ultimately correct through the fine and performing arts like ballet, symphonic music, and plays. Ultimately “refined” vaudeville was promoted by mangers and entrepreneurs like B. F. Keith, that took “high class” acts from the legitimate theater, opera, and classical music to include in vaudeville bills in order to “clean up” vaudeville; this was known as “the Sunday School circuit.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post.  He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen 

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Three)

Henry: I really appreciate the work the CML does in translating research into awareness and action, in trying to build a more sustainable and scalable movement for media literacy. As someone who sees themselves first and foremost as a researcher, I am deeply committed to translating our research into language that can be broadly accessible and providing resources which can be deployed within important conversations; I see this blog as part of the work I try to do to broker between different groups of people who should be talking to each other.

My team through the years has done a fair amount of applied work with educators, trying to get our materials out in the field. We’ve come to the same conclusion you have that media literacy is at least as much about rethinking education as it is about rethinking media. We found very early on that developing resources were never enough unless you also helped to train the teachers who would be using those materials. This took us down the path of developing and running teacher training programs in New Hampshire and California, and then publishing a series of white papers which dealt with what we saw as best practices in fostering participatory learning, practices that both dealt with how to integrate the new media literacies into school curriculum but also how to couple them with progressive pedagogies that are very much in line with those that Masterman describes above — pedagogies that are very much informed by thinkers such as Dewey and Freire. See, for example:

 

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/play-participatory-learning-and-you.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/shall-we-play.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/09/designing-with-teachers-participatory-approaches-to-professional-development-in-education.html

 

We are back in the trenches again with the latest phase of our work, this time emerging from extensive research (interviews with more than 200 young activists) about the political and civic lives of American youth: We’ve now built an archive featuring videos produced by young activists around a range of causes, many of them appropriating and remixing elements from popular culture, many of them using tools and tactics associated with participatory culture. This time, we are testing these materials in collaboration with the National Writing Project, and working with their teachers (as well as the organizations we study) to develop activities and lesson plans which might allow educators to integrate our materials and insights into their teaching. One thing we’ve learned through the years is that our core strength is ultimately in cultural theory and research and thanks to my move to USC, coupled with media production capacities; we have some understanding of core pedagogical issues; but we do better working hand in hand with classroom teachers to develop the actual activities that make sense in the public schools. And we count on the power of various networks — including both the Media Literacy Movement and those folks involved with the DML world — to get word out about what we’ve created. This is why I place such a high priority in building partnerships which can help us work together to achieve our shared goals.

 

The issue of whether representation remains the core of contemporary media literacy is a complex one, it seems to me. Representation is a powerful principle, one which helps to explain the ways we use media to make sense of ourselves and our lives, and it remains very pertinent in a world where we are encouraging young people to develop a stronger sense of their own public voices, to tell their own stories, to create their own media. Looking critically at existing representations, thinking ethically about the choices they make as they create their own representations as media producers remain core to any understanding of media literacy, but young people are also participating in media which are more focused on social exchanges and personal interactions in which the creation of texts is secondary to the cementing of social bonds.  If we were developing media literacy in response to the telephone rather than television, would we be asking different questions, have different priorities?

 

Representation is itself a process, to be sure, but we also often use it to refer to a product or text: a representation. The disciplines which do much of the heavy lifting on media literacy education — especially language arts but also arts education — tend to focus heavily on texts, and so as the term representation gets translated into their vocabulary, it is not surprising that it comes to circle around texts. This focus on texts can lead us to think in terms of readers and writers/producers but not in terms of participants in an ongoing communication process. And this is a key reason why my vocabulary tends to place a greater emphasis on notions of participation than on notions of representation.

 

TESSA:  Ah…and so down the rabbit hole we go. And we are going on a slippery slope because as you said, it’s complicated.  I’m enjoying the ride!

Which universe are we describing? The physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive on a local and physical level — the world that surrounds us with physical media like logos and traffic signs and billboards and movies and music and candy wrappers — or the alternative global village or digital media that we access only through the assistance of hardware and software media like the internet in general or Instagram or Facebook or games?  In each case, the media are man-made, which means that men (and oh yes let’s be sure to be inclusive and say women too) construct these media messages and devices. Construction always calls for decisions on the part of the creator(s), who sets the initial limits and boundaries through which we may experience his or her creation — media construction, whether digital or not, is a physical representation of the creator’s intention.

So fundamentally, construction and (implicitly) representation must take place before participation is possible.  And participatory culture (whether we participate online or off) is both an input to and an outcome of construction/representation — and the fusion constantly changes the nature of and the expression of the construction, which always has emotional, social and cultural implications. There is a chicken-or-egg quality to the cultural issues and their intersection with media, but it can also be argued that an individual’s mind and group culture itself are also constructions/representations.

But back to media…As an example, let’s think about video games.  The games are media constructions and they provide a software “box” in which players operate, and this software box is constrained by the hardware platform.  The creator of the game designed the game intentionally — to share a worldview and/or to profit from game purchases. Players engage with the game text itself and interact with each other to experience the game in a myriad of ways — visual, verbal, social, emotional — and often players invent new ways of experiencing the game through mods or hardware and they amplify their experiences together.  But because the construction itself is constrained, there are inevitably frames and experiences that are included and excluded.

So much depends on how we parse the world we live in!  But at the same time, to take a scientific approach towards media literacy, we need boundaries and concepts that define and describe a specific field of inquiry — that of media, in this case. While the cementing of social bonds through media use may be a primary goal for youth or adults, media are still the means toward an end, while also acknowledging that digital spaces (constructions) multiply possibilities for and the nature of social engagement exponentially.

I agree with you, Henry, that the focus on the word “texts” — because of its traditional association with physical media — generally limits people’s perceptions about participating in an ongoing communication process that digital media enable.  In today’s context in the global village, the notion of text expands so that “text” may become the entire “box” that encompasses the digital world itself, and the cultural representations within the box and outside it. We now have the physical world and the digital world and their intertwining and as Steve Jobs famously espoused, we need to “think different.”

 

Henry: Your phrase above, “construction and (implicitly) representationmust take place before participation is possible,” hints at the core hesitation which I am trying to flag here. I absolutely agree on the term construction in this sentence and with your discussion of the many different ways that construction takes place on the level of technological constraints and socio-cultural conventions. I have always been drawn to Lisa Gitelman’s definition of media: she argues that a medium is a technology that enables communication and also a set of associated ‘protocols’ or social and cultural practices that have grown up around the technology. She writes, “Protocols express a huge variety of social, economic, and material relationships. So telephony includes the salutation ‘Hello?’ (for English speakers, for example) and includes the monthly billing cycle and includes the wires and cables that materially connect our phones…And protocols are far from static.” These features change over time, work differently in different cultural contexts, and are influenced by the other media that intersect with them at any given moment. So, our models of different media and of the media ecology have to be very nimble to respond to those transitions. But, all of this can be described in terms of the construction of media messages, audiences, and contexts. I would just expand contexts to include not simply forms of production but also the terms, the social norms, that shape our participation.

 

However, I do have some questions about whether “representation” can stand in for the totality of the communication process. We might start with the distinction art critics might draw between representational and abstract art: surely, an abstract painting is a media text, but does it fall under the category of representation. Sure, in an abstract or “implicit” way, such a painting represents the artist’s vision  but at some point, we need to agree either that representation is not the only thing going on here or that the word representation has been stretched so thin that it no longer serves a useful purpose.  So, I would absolutely agree that representation is an important concept to draw into discussions of media literacy, especially given the links between representation (as a mimetic process) and representation (as a political concept) so that we can speak of the struggles of marginalized groups to gain media representation as a struggle that impacts their power in society.

 

But, if we go back to my earlier question about what would have happened if media literacy had taken shape in response to the telephone rather than radio, film or television (depending on which strands we are discussing), we should think about the properties of the telephone (as Gitelman invites us to do here). We do not talk about telephone calls as texts — unless of course we are talking about transcripts or recordings of them. We might ascribe to phone calls a broader range of motives besides power and profit. We do not talk about telephone calls in terms of authors and readers — but rather in terms of participants. There are certainly all kinds of representations involved in telephone calls — from Goffman’s performance of self in everyday life to the narratives we are recounting with each other — but we might well argue that the call allows for communication that operates on other levels and that perhaps the most important thing going on through the call is the establishment of interpersonal relations between the participants. When we say to each other, “I just wanted to hear your voice,” we are speaking about the telephone call as something much closer to pure expression — like the abstract painting — than representation (in much the same way that Marshall McLuhan argued that the light bulb was a medium of “pure information”). Not quite, of course, which is why this is complicated.Yes, there is interpretation involved in the telephone call and definitely construction. In no sense do I mean to imply that the telephone call is somehow transparent. But the media literacy skills we need to understand the telephone call may focus much more on the social relationships being performed and the ways they are embodied through Gitelman’s protocals than they have to do with any notion of texts or audiences which seems to go hand in hand with representation as it is being discussed here.

 

As we turn towards digital media, some of it does generate texts in the classical sense of the term — a podcast or a YouTube video or a blog post, though it matters that these are forms which we can directly engage and respond through the same medium to the same audience and that these tools enable many-to-many forms of communication. Some forms and uses of digital media are much more important because of the communication processes they enable than they are in terms of the product of that communication — text messaging, for example, or Twitter, come to mind, as having more in common with the telephone than with television. So, what I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy’s historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.

 

I know in doing this I am edging back towards the idea that you are obejecting to, the idea that media literacy has historically been framed in terms of mass media literacies — and this is somewhat unfair on the conceptual level. Yes, media literacy covers a broad array of different media in theory but the fact remains that if I went to a media literacy conference at the time that our white paper was first published, the over-whelming majority of talks would have centered around various forms of mass media, including film, television, advertising, and print based media, with some noteworthy exceptions. What gave Media Literacy its urgency throughout most of its history was the pervasive role of television in American culture just as the digital is what gives new media literacies their urgency. When I looked at the production projects being proposed, most of them were modeled on the public service announcement, itself a product of the one-way communication practices of broadcast media, rather than the kinds of dialogic production practices we are finding on Youtube or Tumbler. I like Jessica Clarke’s term, “public-moblizing media”, which stresses a different dynamic between those participating in these media exchanges.  This has changed dramatically over the past decade, we are seeing more work done on the participatory dimensions of media, we are seeing more projects that involve remix practices, though there is still a tendency to think about media in terms of texts rather than process, practices, or to use your word above, relationships that are being mediated through various kinds of communication technologies. Organizations like NAMLA have more than caught up with the changing media environment, but I would argue there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions as we work through what if anything is different about the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced.

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Two)

Tessa:  I found myself nodding yes Yes YES! as I read your response. The law of unintended consequences always follows any meaningful action — and some of our discussion falls into that category and Henry, I applaud your action and know that your intentions are the absolute best.  Most importantly, we agree on the primary goal of media literacy education:   as you said, media literacy requires a fundamental paradigm shift in ways to teach all subjects.  Media literacy education— whether it is high tech or low tech — primarily concerns itself with teaching and learning the conceptual underpinnings beneath contextualizing, acquiring and applying content knowledge.

 

Learners gain content knowledge through using their media literacy skills — and these skills are applicable to any content anytime, anywhere on a lifelong basis.  Sometimes this process has little or nothing to do with technology, although I will note that access to technology in the U.S. Is widespread:  in our experience at CML, in the poorest communities in the U.S., cellphones and applications like video games proliferate, but these technologies are frequently barred in the classroom.

 

This changed education paradigm is a radical shift in cultural and education systems where formal learning worldwide has traditionally been confined to content silos whose subject matter is warehoused in physical textbooks and dumped into students’ heads. Since these traditions have dominated since Gutenberg’s invention of the press, they are rooted deeply in our culture.  “Mastery” is no longer the goal for education; constant improvement on a continuum of learning is what we are seeking, while recognizing that some will inevitably be more skilled than others in various domains.  As Len Masterman, a professor from the University of Nottingham and a media literacy visionary, said his his Eighteen Basic Principles in 1989, “…you can teach about the media most effectively, not through a content-centered approach, but through the application of a conceptual framework which can help pupils to make sense of any media text (this includes media texts created by users and software “texts”).  And that applies every bit as much to the new digitized technologies as it did to the old mass media…The acid test of whether a media course has been successful resides in students’ ability to respond critically to media texts they will encounter (or create) in the future.  Media education is nothing if it is not an education for life.”

 

We at CML like to say that thanks to technology, the content is infinitely variable, plentiful and available, but that the media literacy process skills of “learning how to learn” and to be critically autonomous are the constants that learners need to practice and employ and constantly improve — and because of the lack of understanding and training of both teachers and learners, these skills are scarce.  It is going to take more than a village to institutionalize media literacy education. Policy initiatives, coalitions, professional associations, researchers etc. will all play a vital part in realizing this global imperative.

 

Which brings me to the point that being media literate, undertaking research and development, teaching media literacy, and institutionalizing media literacy are widely divergent roles which require various degrees of media literacy knowledge and skills. Who needs what knowledge when, and for what purpose?  Masterman noted that …”media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded). The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us and what we represent to others through media).”  Researchers who explore the vanguard of media literacy — such as you and many of those who are part of the DML community — may have a different goal for media literacy education than preschool teachers. Yet each is in the business of sharing knowledge about media literacy  and helping youth and adults to understand and to be able to describe and navigate symbolic media systems — whether these systems are technology-based or not. I do not see conflict — I see coalescence.  Common understanding fuels coalition-building — which is highly desirable and needed!

 

To grow media literacy education at the pre-K-12 level, we need to have pedagogy that can be replicated, measured and scaled.  Only then will media literacy be common knowledge rather than privileged information.  Some of the basic components for achieving this goal have already been developed in ways that fit with new curricular approaches — highly encouraging.  And in the meanwhile, it is also encouraging to note that media literacy education has survived through the grassroots for many years, because some early adopters recognized its importance and refused to abandon their first-hand experience with its benefits and promise (anyone who is interested in this evolution may want to check out CML’s Voices of Media Literacy Project, which features 20 media literacy pioneers active prior to 1990).  Yet in spite of these past efforts, we are at the beginning of the beginning, although Marieli Rowe, president of the National Telemedia Council and I have joked for years that “media literacy is just around the corner.”  So far it’s been a very long block to walk!!

 

Henry: There’s no question in my mind that the work we are doing today would not be possible without the work of the kind of media literacy pioneers you have been documenting and it is an enormous service to capture those voices and their memories of the early days of the media literacy movement while it is still possible to do so. There has been a tendency for those people who have jumped into this space in the wake of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiatives to forget this history, to see these projects as a new beginning, and as a consequence, we are losing much wisdom, not to mention the opportunity to forge a stronger alliance with those veterans who have much experience in the field of this struggle. This is why I have made a point of remaining connected to NAMLE and serving on the editorial board of the Journal of Media Literacy to make sure those links remain strong.

 

Once we wrote the white paper and turned our attention to developing our own curricular resources, our first major project, which became the book, Reading in a Participatory Culture, sought to bridge between the literary practices of the 19th century (those which gave rise to Moby-Dick), the traditions of the media literacy movement, and today’s remix practices, whether those associated with hip hop or digital media; we wanted to help teachers to understand the differences between plagiarism, fair use, and remix, and we wanted students to think not only critically but also creatively about the many different kinds of texts they encountered in their everyday lives as readers and writers within contemporary culture. Our goal was not about promoting new media per se; we wrote that we hoped to raise a generation which had a mouse in one hand and a book in another. And the approach we took was comparative to its core, seeking to identify connections across media as well as differences.

You are right to say that technologies are becoming more widely available (and thus, one case for teaching media literacy is that we need to help young people think critically about tools and practices that are very much part of their everyday environments.) We certainly still are finding cases where young people lack access to these technologies — or meaningful access — outside the classroom, so that having twenty minutes of restricted access in a public library does not equal the unlimited, anywhere-anytime access enjoyed by other youth. But, we are also finding other inequalities in access to skills and knowledge, mentorship, networks, etc. which result in gross inequalities of opportunity between different youth — this is what we called in the original report, the Participation Gap, and this also is why it is so vital to incorporate media literacy experiences, including experiences working with new media technologies, into every institution that touches young people’s lives, but especially through schools.  MacArthur’s original focus was on spaces of informal learning, which was an important first step, but increasingly, the DML folks are focused on “connected learning,” which emphasizes  building a more fluid set of relations between home, out of school, and in school practices. All of this is why I have shifted from talking about “a participatory culture” to “a more participatory culture” to stress the work which still needs to be done in insuring equity of opportunity.

 

Yes, schools often block access to the technologies which young people use outside of school: for some, this is not a problem, since they see value in a low tech learning environment. But, for me, the bigger issue is that they are blocking ways of knowing and processes of meaning-making which young people are using outside the classroom. In many cases, we’ve wired the classroom and hobbled the computers, cutting them off from any and all forms of participatory culture and learning practices, blocking social media, dismissing Wikipedia, stigmatizing games, and rejecting YouTube and other video sites. All of this means that we are not addressing the consequences of those tools through our teaching and thus losing out on opportunities to help young people develop more meaningful and ethical relations to these platforms and practices.

 

The one phrase here which gave me some pause was your term, “Critically autonomous.” On the one hand, yes, of course — the goal is to get youth to think for themselves, to critically analyze the messages which they receive, to question authority, to be skeptical of motives from other communicators, and to ask probing questions. This goes to the heart of what we both mean by media literacy. But, at the same time, I have called for a recognition that media literacy is a “social skill” having to do with the ways we interface with each other, how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. I fear that our schools place too much emphasis on the autonomous learner and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. This is perhaps a key way in which the new media literacies differ — we are focusing on notions of collectivity and connectivity more. Our emphasis on participation begs the question, participation in what? I’ve made this a key concern in some of my own recent writings, but the answer necessarily involves something larger than the individual, or it is by nature not participation.

 

Tessa: Hmmmm…you raise a lot of compelling points. I appreciate your exploring the question of “participation in what?” Maybe there are no set answers to this question — maybe our role in media literacy education is to help increase the capacity of participants to participate effectively in whatever they choose to engage with?

 

I certainly agree with you that media literacy is a social skill in regards to how we relate to each other and how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. Relationships are — and have always been — central to media literacy and media literacy education. First and foremost, through media literacy we explore our relationship with media itself. We engage with media and given its pervasiveness in our lives, divorce is not an option!

 

In understanding our media relationship, we come to see that there are relationships between the text, the audience and the producers/participants, and as technology has offered increased capacity for interaction and world-wide connectivity, that relationship becomes more and more dynamic and expansive. At the same time, our media relationship affects our very identities as individuals and as affiliative groups — we have private selves (what goes on inside), public/representational selves (how we extend and represent ourselves to others alone or as a group/entity) and what I call “commercialized” selves (that allow marketing and/or ideological elements, such as branding or big data, define who we are or whom we affiliate with and whom we are seen to affiliate with). These notions apply to individuals as well as organizations or groups.

 

I agree with you, that schools emphasize individual autonomy and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. (And I believe that higher education is the tail that wags the Pre-K-12 dog in this regard — SAT scores and college admissions departments reward individuals). But sharing is not a new idea — sharing has been part of enlightened media literacy pedagogies for many years. I quote Masterman’s 18 Basic Principles again because — well, he is my master (and I am continually wowed to see how his words resonate through the years): “Media Education is essentially active and participatory, fostering the development of more open and democratic pedagogies. It encourages students to take more responsibility for and control over their own learning…”

 

As technology has enabled the classroom walls to break down through more connectivity, good media literacy pedagogy becomes more and more feasible — and desirable — in both formal and informal settings. “Underlying Media Education is a distinctive epistemology” Masterman wrote. “Existing knowledge is not simply transmitted by teachers or ‘discovered’ by students. It is not an end but a beginning. It is the subject of critical investigations and dialogue out of which new knowledge is actively created by student and teachers.” This dialogue arises in many contexts, not just the formal classroom. And as you said (and it can’t be said enough!), we have a moral and economic challenge in our society to insure that these opportunities are widely and equitably available.

 

Because of the lack of education system imperatives to teach media literacy and to encourage critical autonomy alone and through groups — rather than to meet fill-in-the-bubble testing deadlines — it is difficult at best to deliver media education in a credible and evidence-based way.  Often, media researchers have no clue about what pedagogy is or how school systems work — and it is for this reason that we often say that media literacy is more about education than about media.  The education imperative is paramount:  the promise of the technology in putting power into the hands of the people is squandered if people don’t have the critical thinking skills and complementary new media skills to use technology wisely and to amplify benefits from its use.

 

But then the questions become, what skills are necessary and how do we help people gain media literacy skills?   Your 2006 white paper outlined new media skills that are needed — play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation.  These are sophisticated skills that are highly suited to the technology and the digital world that enables their use. They rest on the basic foundations of media literacy skills that are usually  missing for students, or that are taken for granted by media researchers who may already have a conceptual understanding of media representations, deconstruction and construction. However — and yes I repeat myself — this basic foundation is absent in American education systems.  Quite simply, teachers cannot teach what they do not know and what the system has not valued.

 

And so we — as educators and as citizens —  have skipped teaching and learning an enormous media literacy underpinning for new media  as well as for non-digital media like the logos on shirts, the billboards, the theater plays, the food packaging, the school posters.  And this lack of understanding of basic media literacy concepts translates from the playground to the Twitter feed.   And as you said, Henry, it also robs researchers of a rich base of knowledge that should inform their work  Yet it’s important to have unity as a field so that we can gain traction and scale our work in a significant way amongst the general population — to translate the Research & Development (R&D) into awareness and actions of use to citizens nationally and globally.

 

This translation goal has been the Center for Media Literacy’s (CML’s) mission since its founding by Elizabeth Thoman in Los Angeles in 1989 (and with CML’s predecessor organization the Center for Media&Values springing from Thoman’s work beginning as a USC Annenburg graduate student in the late 1970’s).  I applaud your work and that of others, to operationalize and to “package” these powerful media literacy ideas and practices into pedagogy and curricula available for all of our citizens and youth — so needed! We must always keep in mind that we are trying to reach and inspire millions of people and so our task is enormous — but other movements, such as the environmental movement, provide us with inspiration and hope for fulfilling our mission.

 

In the meanwhile, we have a foundation to lay, with an expanded repertoire of media literacy skills that are needed in the 21st century (thanks to your groundbreaking work). What are the media literacy fundamentals that have been so neglected these past decades?

 

Earlier I noted that Mastermanfocused on priorities for media literacy education by saying: ”Media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded)… The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us, and what we represent to others through media).”

 

He went on to say, “Without this principle, no media education is possible. From it, all else flows.”  This idea is as relevant to today’s media as it was to the media of Masterman’s time.

 

On Race and American Television: An Interview with NPR’s Eric Deggans (Part Two)

Broadcast and Cable News is over-whelmingly presented by older white men. What do you see as the consequences of these casting decisions? Why does it matter who “presents” the news and does this matter more in an era where news and opinion are mixed so fluidly than it did in an era where news was presumed to be objective?

There’s two effects here. First, news reports are delivered by people that news producers believe are liked and respected by the audience. Anchors are authority figures on their programs. The best of them exude a sense of expertise, gravitas and believability. If the news is delivered mostly by white males, the audience gets a not-so-subtle message about who in life is considered authoritative enough to deliver the day’s news, and who is not.

Beyond that, I know from my brief stint as a guest anchor on CNN’s Reliable Sources, that TV anchors exert a lot of influence over the content of their broadcasts, particularly on cable news. So restricting the field of anchors to white males also helps lock out a wider range of perspectives when it comes to picking story subjects, guests for shows and strategies for telling stories. it’s no wonder that a recent analysis of five weeks of select cable news shows found 84% of the guests were white; 90% of O’Reilly’s guests were white.

 

Near the end of your book, you stress the value of media literacy as a means of combating some of the noxious trends you identify. Many of my readers are supporters of media literacy education. What are the key lessons would you wish media literacy educators to take away from reading your book?

The biggest lesson here is that profitability and moneymaking guide the lion’s share of decisions made in TV and media. Roger Ailes figured out that most consistent viewers of cable news are older and more conservative, so he figured out a cable news channel to cater to their perspective in Fox News. TV producer Mike Fliess figured out how to get huge ratings among female viewers by building a dating shows around a princess fantasy, so The Bachelor was born. CBS found powerful summertime ratings by building up young, white stars within its Big Brother reality show and exporting them to other reality shows. And because the American public isn’t very tolerant of people who fail, news outlets do a terrible job of covering poverty and the poor. That’s why modern advocates for diversity in media are trying hard to show that TV shows with more diverse casts make more money; because if you can show that a certain strategy brings profits, it is much easier to get media outlets to try that strategy.

I wanted to get your thoughts on a controversy around race in the media that erupted after your book was published — i.e. the #cancelcolbert controversy, which in many ways illustrates many key themes you discuss, both in the role of cable television and the role of new media. How do you think this controversy reflects the ways racial politics is playing out in the media at the current moment?

I wrote about it here. Part of the problem with the cancelcolbert controversy is that it is complex. Suey Park, the activist who started the protest, admits that she doesn’t really believe Colbert’s show should be canceled because someone who manages comedy Central’s Twitter account for the show tweeted a joke without context that has Asian stereotypes in it. Her point is that using such stereotypes in a joke — even when the real joke is that the person using the stereotypes is an idiot — is still offensive. And she rightly doubts that anyone would tell a similar joke like that on a major TV shows about black people — because black people are more likely to object and raise a stink in a way Asians often do not.

So I think Park started this controversy as a way to make comedians think more about the jokes they were telling — not because she actually thought Colbert was racist. But that creates a situation where activists aren’t being totally honest about why they are starting protests, which leave them open to charges of unfairly race-baiting. Park may feel she has achieved her goal by starting the national conversation about Asian stereotypes she wanted. But I’m afraid future protests may fall on more resistant ears if people feel they can’t necessarily trust activists when they say why they are objecting to something.

There seems to be some concerted effort with the casting decisions for this fall’s shows to try to change some of the trends we’ve seen in recent years in terms of the lack of racial diversity on prime time entertainment television. You’ve been raising lots of questions about how racial stereotypes may or may not be reproduced through these series. What should we be looking for as the public gets its first look at these series? A student asked me recently whether it was better to be represented on television in a stereotypical manner or not to be represented at all. Clearly, there are other more desirable options than this binary, but it replicates logics I have heard from entertainment executives, so I wondered how you would have addressed this query.

Look for characters that seem like people and not a collection of stereotypes. In comedies, look for shows where the humor springs from who the character is, not what ethnicity they are. If a person of color is the star of a show, look to see if any other people of color are cast around them as spouses, lovers, friends or relatives. Often, TV shows cast one non-white person in a prominent role and surround them with white characters. Look to see if the characters of color have real lives; often characters of color mostly used to move the plot along or to help the white characters, sometimes to the exclusion of their own well-being.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

On Race and American Television: An Interview with Eric Deggans (Part One)

I wrote in the spring to share some of my experiences serving as a jury member for the Peabody Awards. One of the real pleasures of this process is getting locked in the room with a dozen really fascinating people from many different backgrounds who care passionately about television and who make arguments for and against programs. By the end of the process, you either feel very close to the guy across the table for you or you are not on speaking terms. In my case, for much of the time, the guy across the table from me was Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full time television critic, and the author of the recent book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. Not only did I find myself either agreeing with or convinced by Deggans’ arguments throughout the process but I’ve also regularly been catching up with his journalistic work ever since.  I find him an essential voice as we see ongoing struggles over diversity within American media — from last spring’s #cancelColbert brew-ha-ha to  what it means that we are seeing some increase in the number of people of color on entertainment television this fall.

Deggans’ book provides a big picture of a news and entertainment medium under change — or in most cases, a medium that urgently needs to change and yet refuses to do so. His discussion of racialized politics in American media spans from talk radio and cable news to reality television and fictional programs. He not only goes after the usual suspects — Russ Limbaugh, Fox News — but also shows how some of the same logics and practices surfaces on networks such as MSNBC or even PBS which claim to be more progressive and should know better. This book should be required reading for every media student in the country — both those who will be entering the media industry in some ways and those who are seeking to become better critics and more skeptical consumers. Deggans asks hard questions and doesn’t back away from a fight, but he also brings an insider’s perspective to help us understand what’s taking place inside the news room and production studio as bad calls get made and offensive comments reach the air.

Deggans was nice enough to let me reverse the lens and interview him about some of the book’s core themes and about some recent developments in American television. As we get ready for the start of the fall television season, not to mention this November’s mid-term elections, I hope that his comments will give us plenty to think about.

Let’s start with the word, Race-Baiter, which is the title of your book. What do you see as the stakes in this term — for you, for others who use it — and what does it help us to see about the arguments you are constructing across the book?

The struggle over the definition of the term “race-baiter” is a microcosm of the way some media outlets and political movements have sought to redefine words to serve their current polemical and political interests. In the same way some conservatives managed to turn the word “feminism” into a derogatory term, even for women who clearly believe in the ideas of feminism, others have sought to re-define the word race-baiter from its early uses in describing white politicians who encouraged racial hatred among white people to further their political goals. Now, some idealogues use the term to refer to people of color and white liberals who make allegations of prejudice or racism; the presumption is that these claims are unfounded and unfair — made mostly to gain political or economic advantage.
This is really a different struggle; a way to invalidate the idea of institutional racism or prejudice without ever really arguing the concept directly. Conservative media outlets such as Fox News generally behave as if the institutions of American society are currently fair and treat everyone equally. So, absent overwhelming evidence, they are severely skeptical of any claims that people of color have less wealth, are incarcerated more often, have a tougher time getting good housing or have a tougher time getting into good colleges because of institutional prejudice or racism.
If the term race-baiter can be successfully shifted to refer to people who try to raise questions about institutional racism, then they have created an effective tool for silencing people without ever arguing the concept directly. Because they create a situation where the argument begins with the assumption that American society is fair and people who talk about racism are simply doing so for selfish reasons.
I made it the title of my book because Fox News star Bill O’Reilly tried to silence me in exactly that way, calling me “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country” for my work as chair of the National Association of Black Journalists’ media monitoring committee. It’s a group which help develop suggestions of best practices when it comes to coverage of race by journalists and it also recommends nominees to the NABJ board for the group’s Best Practices and Thumbs Down awards. Guess which news outlet won the thumbs down award the year O’Reilly called me a race-baiter?    

For me, part and parcel of resisting such media outlets is redefining the term race-baiter and refusing to accept the new focus conservative media outlets have tried to attach to it. and that will mostly happen by educating the public on how race works in America, how media works, how political speech works and how some media outlets convert these prejudices and stereotypes in big profits.

 

The second part of the title, “How the media wields dangerous words to divide a nation,” implies a strong sense of intentionality. To what degree do you feel that the various media organizations in this book are intentionally seeking to be divisive,to what degree do you think they are indifferent to the choices they make? And does intentionally matter, given the consequences of this divisiveness?

I’m not sure intentionality is possible to discern or even necessary. One of the big problems in analyzing race-based controversies and issues, is that people too often try to peer into the soul of the person at the heart of the controversy and conclude whether or not they are a bigot. But such determinations are often impossible, requiring mind reading of one sort or another. What you can do is look at the actions of a person or institution and look at the results of their actions. If a news outlet consistently features a pundit who compares a black female congress woman to Whitney Houston and tells her to put down the crack pipe because he doesn’t like her political arguments; if another media outlet misidentifies a photo of a young, shirtless black man with his underwear showing flipping “the bird” to the camera, as slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin — and then has to admit the photo came from a white supremacist website — then you have to question how those media outlets handle reporting on racial issues.
Different media outlets are superserving the interests of their target audience in order to build loyal followings. But when those tactics include spreading stereotypes and misinformation to reinforce the worldview of one race over the perspectives of others, you have a problem — particularly in news coverage.  

You write early in the book about “the Tyranny of the Broad Niche,” suggesting that a key factor in how race gets depicted on television has to do with the ways some demographic segments are viewed as more economically valuable than others. Can you tell us more about how this “Broad Niche” logic works and what it’s consequences has been in terms of cultural diversity on American television?

Broadcast television in particular is struggling to maintain an audience and its advertising revenue. Advertisers pay most for audiences that are hardest to reach. So that means the most valuable audience in broadcast television per capita is young males, particularly young white males. That’s because more women watch TV than men and people of color watch TV proportionally more than white people.
This means a great many TV shows are aimed at the broad niche of young white men. So most late night comedy shows on TV are now hosted by white men popular with young white male viewers. Seth MacFarlane is a huge force at the Fox network because his animated comedy Family Guy draws a significant number of young male viewers. Unequal standard of beauty exist for women and men on TV shows. There is a lack of diversity among lead roles for network TV shows. In fact,  BuzzFeed featured a story showing that men are 49% of the population, but 57% of characters on the top four broadcast TV networks. White men are 30% of the population, but 50 percent of characters. Asian and Latino men are 11 percent of the population but less than 2 percent of the characters (there are as many robots and magical creatures on TV as Asian and Latino men). The perceived desires of this niche affect programming that everyone watches, giving us all a distorted idea of who gets to have a starring role in real life society, as well.

Eric Deggans is NPR’s first full-time TV critic, crafting stories and commentaries for broadcasts such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, along with an array of written contributions to NPR.org and the website’s blogs such as Code Switch, Monkey See and The Two Way. He came to NPR in September 2013 from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, where he served as TV/Media Critic and in other roles for nearly 20 years. A journalist for more than two decades, he is also the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, a look at how prejudice, racism and sexism fuels some elements of modern media, published in October 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan. He guest hosted CNN’s media analysis show Reliable Sources many times in fall 2013, joining a select group of journalists and media critics filling in for departed host Howard Kurtz. That year, he also earned the Florida Press Club’s first-ever Diversity award, honoring his coverage of issues involving race and media. He received the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists’ A&E Task Force, an honor bestowed to “seasoned A&E journalists who are at the top of their careers.” Eric also serves on the board of educators, journalists and media experts who select the George Foster Peabody Awards for excellence in electronic media.

 

 

 

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Three)

Henry: At a time when schools are also closing their arts programs, it is striking to read about how much importance were placed on children’s arts education during the Cold War era. Can you share with us what the rationale for such programs would have been?

Fred: It goes back to the notion that the personality of the individual mirrored and could actually shape the nation to which they belonged. The adults of the 1950s had seen a generation of Germans fall into line behind Hitler and many thought they were seeing the same thing in Russia with Stalin. Social scientists often explained these trends by arguing that these nations had inculcated authoritarian personality styles in their children. Authoritarian children were rigid, obedient, unable to reason or create independently, and above all, intolerant of those who were different from themselves. Democratic children were meant to be flexible, independent, reasoning, creative and collaborative.

In this context, the arts offered an ideal venue for producing the kinds of children who would grow up to be democratic citizens. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, not only created arts programs for local children, but took those programs to trade shows and fairs around Europe – particularly in formerly fascist Italy. They built these odd, aquarium-like rooms into which only children and a teacher or two could enter. Parents waited outside, watching their children make art together, through portholes. Foreign and American journalists who saw these environments thought they were marvelous examples of the ways that the next generation could escape the authoritarianism that haunted their parents’ childhood.
Henry: You close the book with the line, “the children of the 1960s did not only overthrow their parent’s expectations. They also fulfilled them.” Explain. What did they overthrow? What did they fulfill? Are there some senses in which the 1960s counterculture was less radical than its parent’s generation?

Fred: For a long time, I think we’ve imagined the years after World War II as a single, long episode of Leave It To Beaver – a colorless world, racially segregated, emotionally repressed, blind to the myriad differences between people, cultures, nations. And we’ve imagined that it was only in the 1960s that Americans freed themselves from its shackles.

As I hope this book shows, that story is at best half-true. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had an extraordinary impact on American life. But they could not have happened I think without earlier calls for sexual liberation from Margaret Mead, or for aesthetic democracy from John Cage and Herbert Bayer, or racial diversity from Ruth Benedict. These figures called for the very society that the counterculturalists of the 1960s tried to create: a creative, collaborative, individual-centered polity, designed to help every member achieve personal fulfillment. They also called for kinds of media that would help create that society. The New Communalists in particular knew these calls well and took them to the communes with them. So did the makers of Happenings and Be-Ins.

Along the way though, they also lost track of the radical political vision that animated so many in their parents’ generation. For the members of the Committee for National Morale, the Bauhaus refugees, and even key figures in the Cold War USIA, the goal was not simply to increase individual self-fulfillment. It was to build an America and a world that celebrated its diversity – racial, sexual, religious, political. And it was to do it by bringing together the power of the state, the power of the university, and the power of the corporation.

 

Fig 4 Human Be In Hippie

Hippie at the Human Be-In, January 14, 1967, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph by Gene Anthony©www.wolfgangsvault.com. Used by permission.

 

Within the New Communalist movement at least, the children of the 1960s turned away from embracing racial, sexual, and political difference. And they turned away from the state and to some extent, the university, as well. They turned toward personal style, a politics of expression, and to the world of business. There, I’m afraid, far too many pursued self-fulfillment as if self-fulfillment alone constituted social change. In that sense, the most expressively radical movements of the 1960s helped set the stage for the conservative neoliberal society we inhabit today.

Henry: What could today’s intellectuals learn from their counterparts during this post-war period? Are there virtues we as scholars have lost that are worth reclaiming?

Fred: Courage! And faith in the power of ideas.

I think that one of the legacies of the Vietnam era for our generation has been a fear that engaging with state policy or trying to directly influence public life will somehow harm either our ideas or the state itself. Having seen what happened at CENIS in the 1960s, I very much understand that fear. But I think we’ve taken it too far.

Our ideas, even our most academic ideas, can have a far wider influence that we think. In the 1940s, professional anthropologists’ belief that cultures had modal personality styles became the basis of very popular campaigns for creativity and democracy across the United States and Europe. The idea itself emerged within the research world; it travelled beyond thanks to the determined efforts of figures like Margaret Mead to speak to the wider world in a public idiom.

But it also travelled because Mead and others like her were not afraid to mix it up with people in power. Today we need to do two things I think: first, campus-based writers like you and I need to keep trying to speak outward, to the world beyond the walls, in plain English. Second, we need to work with and if necessary build new kinds of institutions to support the kind of society we want. New social networks, new peer-to-peer collaborations are nowhere near enough. What we need are places where people who are unlike one another can gather and work together, slowly, over time. We are far too entranced with the power of networks today. What we need are not better ways to contact others like ourselves, but better ways to work across our differences. What we need are not better networks, but better institutions.

With that said though, I’m hopeful. If the kind of civic imagination I’ve chronicled in The Democratic Surround could have flourished at the height of the Cold War, it can certainly come back to life today.

 

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part Two)

Henry: I was struck as I read your description of the aesthetic practices of the surround that you are evoking many categories that also shaped the aesthetics of new media — including notions of interactivity, nonlinearity, immersion, multimodality, and transmedia. These links are implicit in the book, but I know you think about new media, so I wanted to see if you might be willing to speak about the similarities and differences in how these ideas operated in these two periods.

 

Fred: Happy to. In many ways, the book is an effort to write a genealogical history of the categories you’ve named. In the time I’m writing about, the essential distinction was between immersing audiences and surrounding them. Walt Disney and his team, for instance, designed media to be like carnival rides. They tried to immerse their viewers not only in narrative, but in kinesthetic experiences that would cause them to disengage their critical faculties and just go with the flow. In 1958 they sent a movie about the United States to the World’s Fair in Brussels. It was shown in what they called “Circarama” – eleven film projectors showing the moving in 360 degrees just over the viewers’ heads. Journalists who saw the show were thrilled to see the bodies of the spectators all swaying in time together. To the Committee for National Morale or Herbert Bayer and his Bauhaus colleagues, people swaying together would have smacked of hypnotic fascism. The whole point of aesthetic experience in their view was to awaken the reason, to individuate citizens by creating aesthetic conditions under which they could have unique individual experiences, but together, as an egalitarian group. In that context, it wasn’t just what was on the screen that mattered; it was how viewers moved between the screens. In the propaganda exhibitions that Bayer designed for the Museum of Modern Art in World War II, visitors could see pictures overhead, at their feet, and at various heights along the wall. They came in all sizes and interspersed with text. They were quintessentially multi-modal media – and that was key. Bayer and his team wanted viewers to practice doing the linking work themselves. They were to engage, even interact with the whole pattern of images and not just any one message they might contain.   Fig 2 Cage Prepping Piano John Cage preparing a piano, circa 1960. Photograph by Ross Welser. Courtesy of the John Cage Trust.     The same thing was true later with John Cage’s soundscapes. You’ll remember that his most famous piece, 4’33”, features a piano player who sits down at the keyboard but never plays a note. Cage is asking his audience to see that they are surrounded by the sounds of their environment. He’s asking them to knit those sounds together in the way that would be most meaningful for them. No piano player, no conductor, no musical dictator demands their attention. The audience, like the sounds themselves, are meant to be free, interacting with one another on equal terms. In that sense, practices of interactivity, multimedia display and design, non-linear aesthetics – they were all tools meant to liberate and democratize the senses. They were meant to be alternatives not simply to commercial entertainment, but to the kind of media immersion that many – though not Walt Disney – still feared could produce authoritarians. The trouble is, these new modes for making liberated citizens also meant a new mode of management. In each case I’ve studied, a team of experts built an environment and selected an array – an often very rich array – of media for audiences to engage. Audience members moved freely, selected what mattered to them, congregated, dispersed – and based on all the archival records I’ve seen, many really did experience themselves as free in these spaces. But of course they weren’t. Or not completely. They may have had more control of their bodies and their senses and their reasoning faculties than, say, the swaying viewers of Disney’s Circarama, but the visitors to surrounds inhabited a thoroughly curated world. They could interact, but the terms of their interaction had been set for them, before they even entered the rooms. Even in Cage’s 4’33”, a designer hovered behind the experience – Cage himself. Today we’re surrounded by digital media and I think we’re just waking up to the quandary these experiences represent. On the one hand, we want the kind of individualized agency that surrounds seem to offer; on the other, simply entering those spaces opens us up to management and surveillance. Some of those modes are top-down – curators really can and do shape what we see, and some of those curators come from states and corporations with agendas that have little to do with democratizing our lives. Other modes are more psychological. If anything defines our historical moment, it’s the off-loading of the labor of production and self-management onto the individual citizen. You can see this in free-lancing and internships and any number of other places. But you can also see it in media. The modes of interactivity and multi-media storytelling that empower audiences to make their own unique sense of the media around them usually invite them to make sense of that media specifically – media which have often been pre-selected and pre-digested for them.   Fig 3 Moviedrome Interior of Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, Gate Hill Cooperative, Stony Point New York, circa 1963-65. Photograph by Stan VanDerBeek. Courtesy of the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek.         You can see this to some degree online. But you can see it much more clearly in the ways that so many material environments are becoming multi-media experience machines. Think of airplanes, with TVs on every seatback. Or think of sports bars, with all the games on at once. Or think of the apps on your cell phone. We’ve entered a world in which the interactivity and multi-modality that once promised to free us from fascism has in fact brought us into ever closer relationships with large institutional forces. Now, just to be clear: I’m not at all arguing that corporations or states are necessarily authoritarian. I am arguing that we need to see that the terms of our media freedom these days are a lot more constrained than we may think.

 

Henry: The Democratic Surround explicitly seeks to push beyond some of the encrusted ideological critiques of the Cold War and the idea of domestic containment. You want us to understand that in many ways, the leading thinkers and artists of this period were pursuing a progressive, even multicultural agenda, for whatever blind spots or complicities they might seem to display. What do you see as some of the most significant misperceptions about American thought during the 1950s? What do you see as the value of rethinking this period?

Fred: The history of the Cold War that we’ve inherited has largely been written by a generation of scholars who grew up in the 1960s and came of professional age in the 1980s. They witnessed the Vietnam War, the recession of the 1970s, the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. Out of those times, their generation has carried a deep fear of the government, a faith in the power of self-organized networks, and a belief that personal expression, properly organized, represents the highest form of politics. These beliefs have made it harder for them to see the complexity of the 1940s and the 1950s and much harder for all of us to deal with the complexities of our own time. The canonical story runs something like this: After World War II, America settled into a pattern of ubiquitous repression in its foreign policy, its domestic race relations, and its family life. When a new generation realized how personal politics could be, they took to the streets, and only once they got there did political change begin. This story contains some large grains of truth, but it misses crucial distinctions. World War II, for instance, gave rise to the military-industrial establishment, but it also sparked a radical critique of American racism. That critique flourished not only among disenfranchised bohemians, but among elite intellectuals and public officials. By 1948 or so, large numbers of Americans supported a very radical vision of world government. It wasn’t the Communism of the 1930s, but it was a deeply collectivist vision of global unity. That vision has been read in recent years as an oppressive universal humanism, an effort to turn the entire world American, white and middle-class. In the 1950s, the United States would certainly leverage that vision in an effort to contain Communism abroad. But the vision itself, then and now, contained within it the seeds of our own celebration of human diversity. A second belief: that the personal only became political in the 1960s. This claim seems to have been born out by the host of identity-based political movements that emerged in the 1970s. But it’s not true. The effort to distinguish America from Germany at the start of World War II set loose a critique of racism, anti-Semitism, and even gender conformity – in the late 1940s and early 1950s – that has largely been forgotten. Figures like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict believed that the personalities of a given culture made that culture what it was. Democracy in their view was always simultaneously a political and a psychological phenomenon. Freedom consisted in the ability to be oneself; a free society empowered individuals to fulfill their potential, together. What matters here is not only that the personalization of politics that we associate with the 1960s began a generation earlier. What matters is that it lived in the epicenter of American intellectual and political life. Writers who grew up during the Vietnam War, as I did, remain deeply suspicious of the state, for very good reasons. Yet governments are not monoliths. As I dug into the archives of America’s premier Cold War propaganda agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), I found extraordinary arguments going on about the nature of democracy, about the degree to which Americans should impose their agendas on others, and the like. During World War II, members of the Committee for National Morale advised President Roosevelt and his cabinet; at the height of the Cold War, John Cage lectured at the same 1958 World’s Fair at which the USIA was promoting our national goals – and he spoke in terms that would have been entirely familiar and congenial to the most ardent American propagandists. I point this out to show that during the 1940s and 1950s, the American intellectual landscape had not yet been cordoned off into countries of ardent Cold Warriors confronted by equally ardent strivers after civil and human rights. Nor had the state as a whole become an exclusively oppressive force, internally or even internationally. I don’t mean to downplay the tensions of the time. I’m well schooled in McCarthy’s witch trials, the race riots of the 1940s, the very real gender re-segregation that took place after World War II, and the darkness of the Cold War closet. But I believe that if we can jettison the notion that only bohemian, expressive politics lead to social change of a personal kind, we can begin to see our own lives in a new light. In our moment, it isn’t our personal expression that’s under attack. On the contrary, we live in an era in which the mainstream mass media celebrate our array of sexual and racial identities. Think of the TV show Modern Family, for instance. Right now, it’s our institutions that are suffering. Have you looked up at a highway bridge lately? Have you popped into a public school and counted the number of kids in an average classroom? Have you looked at more than a decade of war and wondered how it is that the government has been able to keep troops in the field so long with nary a peep from the American public? And how has the left responded to these events? Well, we had Occupy – a movement organized around the collective expression of identity in public places and the building of mostly temporary networks. Meantime, the right has had the Tea Party – a movement anchored in already existing institutions, often churches, aimed at building new institutions, and it has already had an extraordinary effect on our government. Occupy has certainly framed the debate – it’s important know who’s part of the 99% and who isn’t. But it’s the Tea Party that has actually changed – or really, paralyzed – government policy. I’m hoping that if we can look back into the 1940s and the 1950s, we can see a world in which it is possible to work for radical political transformation within and around the most powerful institutions of our day – including the media and the government.

Henry: Anthropologists, Sociologists, and Psychologists (not to mention early Communication scholars) play key roles in shaping policies in the United States during this period. Why were these disciplines so central to the thinking of the American government during the war and post-war years? What factors have shaped a shift in the status of these humanistic fields in the subsequent decades? Today, many universities are closing down their anthropology programs, for example, and our educational policies are very much driven by a STEM agenda.

Fred: These are pretty tough questions! I’ll do my best. I think the answer to the first question has to do with the kind of country America was at the time. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States was not yet a global hegemon. In a lot of ways, it was a somewhat backward place – largely rural, racially divided, and not yet even fully unified geographically the way it is today by the highway system. Within this world, anthropologists especially, but also psychologists and sociologists, seemed to offer a window on the world beyond our shores. They seemed to understand how things really worked – in far away Asia and Africa, in the urban jungles of our own cities, in the tropics of our minds. They also shared an understanding that individual personalities and cultures mirrored one another and that communication – mediated and interpersonal – shaped both. When World War II began, scholars in these fields seemed to have a uniquely sharp-eyed view of the international field in which the United States now felt compelled to play. They also seemed to understand how to motivate the American people to go to war. But that’s not quite enough to explain their appeal over time I think. For that, we need to acknowledge the technicist character of some of their analyses. Mead, Bateson, Allport, Fromm – they were humanists. But many of their colleagues committed acts of highly technicized social science – field and laboratory experiments for instance, quantitative content analysis, and the like. These sorts of scientistic activity produced the actionable results that government leaders needed. And even where they didn’t, they produced the image of social scientists as men of action (and yes, they were almost all men). How did such scholars lose their place at the table? Vietnam. One of the most painful moments I had researching this book came as I read through the history of the Center for International Studies (CENIS) at MIT. CENIS was a social science think tank funded partly by the CIA. In its papers, you can see social scientists like Walt Rostow and Ithiel de Sola Pool turning the pro-democratic tools of the 1940s into instruments for crushing Asian communism. It’s horrifying. I don’t think American intellectuals have quite forgotten what happened there. Some of the best and brightest social scientists of the 1950s and 1960s, working with the very best of intentions, helped mastermind a national atrocity. This is part of the reason that the historiography of this period remains so stark. The generation of scholars who grew up during Vietnam identified with personal liberation movements here and with post-colonial liberation abroad. Some even tended to conflate the two. This has created a slow-burning identity crises within several fields. If a field is designed to map more or less universal rules of social engagement and if the application of universal rules is an essentially oppressive, colonizing endeavor, then what is the proper job of a social scientist? You can see the legacy of Vietnam in the anxiety for scholars of culture, and particularly anthropologists of the 1980s and 1990s, to be “reflexive” in their work – that is, to so thoroughly disclose the biases of their own social position as to inoculate themselves against charges of intellectually colonizing the Other. For what it’s worth, I don’t agree that the social sciences have faded from view. I do see that the lion’s share of funding from the government now goes to STEM disciplines. I think that happens because the outcomes of training in those areas can be so clearly linked to things Congressman care about – jobs, profits, economic growth. But the power of STEM per se isn’t new. The space race and the Cold War drove research in that area to a level of funding and creative abandon that would be hard to imagine today except perhaps in the privately funded stratospheres of Google and Apple and Microsoft. Even with government funding down, the social sciences remain intellectually pretty hardy. Psychology in particular remains very strong. Communication has been reinvigorated by the rise of digital media. Anthropology’s role has certainly shifted — partly I think because America has changed. After World War II, we became a much more cosmopolitan nation, and as we did, we no longer needed anthropologists to manage our first contacts with foreign peoples. Sociology has split I think into a more technicist, campus-bound wing, and a more public-facing style. Just think of the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell – not a social scientist, but certainly a purveyor of sociology.

 

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The Democratic Surround: An Interview with Fred Turner (Part One)

I was lucky enough to have gotten to know the social-cultural-technological historian Fred Turner during some time he spent at MIT at the start of his academic career, and we have stayed in touch off and on ever since. I have lost count of the number of times I have taught chapters from his landmark book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, or the number of times that I have ended up citing this book in my own research on participatory culture and politics. It came out in a moment when there was so much focus on new media that it was as if the world had developed amnesia — discussing everything as if it had been invented yesterday rather than understanding the ideologies and cultures that had led up to the digital revolution. Turner’s book helped to place the utopian rhetoric I was hearing at MIT around “new media” in a richer, more nuanced, and more historically grounded perspective. It quickly became essential reading in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, which I headed at the time, and indeed, it has been core reading at programs all over the world.

Turner’s new book, The Democratic Surround:Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties expands the terrain even further, showing us how the counterculture itself emerged from the theories of media, culture, psychology, and political persuasion that took shape during World War II and achieved their greatest impact during the Cold War Period. As with the first book, Turner offers what might once have been considered intellectual history — a focus on key thinkers, who in this case, include anthropologists, psychologists, artists and art critics, musicians, communication scholars, photographers, curators, policy makers, and many others — but combines it with social, technological, political and cultural history. The book is full of fascinating people — from Margaret Mead, John Cage, Buckmeister Fuller, to Andy Warhol and Marshall Mcluhan — and he not only reminds us of their own contributions to society, but shows the strong connections across their work.

He shows us how the media (and especially museum and World’s Fair installations of the period) reflected larger aesthetic theories about the forms of perception required to foster a democratic personality, which were in turn shaped by new models of psychology and anthropology, all of which were put in the service of the Cold War. Beyond that, through, he transforms how we think about the politics of the period, pushing through the encrusted critique of the Cold War and the domestic containment of the 1950s, to identify the liberal/progressive impulses that inspired these thinkers, showing how they were more open to diversity, equality, and freedom than had been acknowledge by many recent writers. He doesn’t ignore the blindspots and complicity in their thinking, but he does help us to appreciate why Family of Man, say, was seen as such a transformative work at the time that it commanded the attention of audiences around the world. He challenges assumptions about the propagandistic use of media during the Cold War to focus on what people at the time understood as a more “democratic” approach to spectatorship and in the process, implicitly at least, he suggests some of the roots of the focus on interactivity, nonlinearity, multimodality, immersion, and transmedia in our own times.

Because of his journalistic background, he is an engaging, vivid writer, one who tells compelling stories, but he is also a first rate archival historian and a world class theorist and critic of media practices. His work is at once programatic — in that he now takes us on a history of media and politics from the World War II to the present — and also boldly original — constantly forcing us to look again at things we thought we already knew. I have no doubts that The Democratic Surround is going to be as important a book as From Counterculture to Cyberculture.  Everywhere I have traveled this summer, people have been reading and talking about this book, but if you have missed it so far, you are in for a treat.

I am proud to be presenting the following interview with Turner about the book and its implications for those of us interested in the contemporary media environment.

Henry: Let’s start with the title, The Democratic Surround. Can you explain this concept? In particular, can you speak to the connections your book makes between a political concept — democracy — and an aesthetic approach — the surround? How did these two concepts come together during the period your book documents?

Fred: Well, the book stretches from the late 1930s to the late 1960s and across that time, the thing I’m calling the “surround” took three forms: It was an actual, existing genre of mediated communication; a tool for producing more democratic citizens; and a model of how to organize a well-run democracy. To their promoters, surrounds could help Americans experience a deeply liberating alternative to totalitarian systems. Fifty years later, we can see that surrounds also gave rise to a new mode of management, a mode of self-regulation through media that dramatically shapes our lives today.
To see how the aesthetic and political came together the way they did, we have to go back to World War II. The story takes a bit to tell, but it’s worth it.

In the late 1930s, many Americans were terrified – and baffled – by the rise of fascism. Hitler had taken over Germany, Mussolini had grabbed Italy, Franco had overrun Spain, and Imperial Japan had invaded China. Everyone wondered: How had so many sophisticated nations fallen under the sway of dictators? And particularly Germany – despite World War I, Germany remained a beacon of culture for American intellectuals and artists. How had the home of Goethe and Beethoven fallen for Adolf Hitler?

A surprising number of Americans argued that it must have been mass media that had brought Hitler to power. First, Hitler had taken control of the German media and dramatically restricted what his citizens could see and hear. Second, many believed that the one-to-many dynamics of broadcasting and the print press themselves could turn people into authoritarians: Just being one of the many, tuned in to a single leader, forced you to practice being part of a faceless crowd.

If the problem was mass media itself, many feared could America go the way of Germany – especially because by the time Hitler invaded Poland, fascism had visibly metastasized in the United States. To take just one example, in February, 1939, twenty-two thousand Americans rallied in Madison Square Garden to support German-style fascism here. They cheered under a giant banner that read “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America.”

Fig 1 Bund Parade 10 30 39

German-American Bundists parade swastikas and American flags down East 86th Street, New York, October 30, 1939. Photograph from the New York World-Telegram. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-117148.

All of this left American leaders with a dilemma at the start of World War II: How could they use media to stir their citizens to take arms against fascism without turning them into fascists?

Two groups actually set out to answer this question, starting about 1941. The first consisted of about 60 social scientists who called themselves the Committee for National Morale. They were really a Who’s Who of American social science at the time — Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Gordon Allport, the list went on and on. Together they believed that every country drew its strength from the individual personalities of its citizens. And if mass media had produced authoritarian personalities in Germany, Americans would need to develop a kind of media that would that would produce a democratic personalities here.

In the Committee’s view, authoritarians were psychologically fractured, unable to reason, bigoted and obedient. Democrats, they argued, should be highly individuated and highly collaborative. They should reason and choose, and above all, embrace the diversity of American society.

To produce such personalities members of the Committee proposed creating exhibitions at museums and in other public halls, surrounding individuals with images and sounds, and freeing them to move among them. These aesthetic environments would give Americans a chance to practice doing the individual work of making meaning of the world around them, but they would do these things in person, together. Surrounded by images, they would collaborate in forming their own democratic personalities and at the same time, a mode of being together that was unified, not massified, American not German.

The members of the Committee didn’t know how to build these environments. But in the late 1930s, a generation of Bauhaus artists had just fled to the United States from Germany. They carried with them very sophisticated designs for multi-screen displays and immersive theaters, and they were more than happy to apply their skills to promoting American democracy. Throughout World War II people like Herbert Bayer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy designed museum exhibitions and media to promote the war effort. They created the spaces that the American social scientists had dreamed of – spaces in which Americans could practice moving their bodies individually together, looking high and low at the world around them, and arriving at a new mode of political unity in the process.

Once the Cold War began, the exhibition designs they created became cornerstones of two seemingly contradictory developments: American anti-Communist propaganda abroad and avant-garde art here at home. In the 1950s, America built a series of multi-media exhibition spaces abroad with the explicit intent of turning the psyches of potential allies and enemies in more democratic (meaning, pro-American) directions. The most famous of these was probably the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate. At the same time, artists such as John Cage opened up the soundscape and the world of performance, with an equally explicit desire to engage their audiences in a world of aesthetic democracy – a place in which every sound, no matter how lowly, would be equal to every other, a world in which the European hierarchies of the symphony no longer held sway. By the late 1960s, Cage’s experiments in particular had helped transform the pro-democratic propaganda aesthetics of the 1940s into the Happenings and the Be-Ins of the counterculture.

Henry: Many of my readers will know your groundbreaking work, From Counterculture to Cyberculture. In many ways, this new book represents that infinite regress that historians are prone to do. In many ways, you could have called it From the Cold War to the Counterculture. How do you explain the relationship between the two projects?

Fred: I hope the historical regress here won’t be quite infinite!
I began The Democratic Surround as a way to solve a puzzle I first saw when I was writing From Counterculture to Cyberculture. I’d always been told that the generation of 1968 had rejected the culture of the 1940s and the 1950s. But when I was researching the Whole Earth Catalog crew, I saw that they were steeped in ideas and books from those periods. When they headed out to build their communes, the New Communalists of the 1960s tucked books by their parents’ generation into their backpacks. They read Norbert Weiner, Buckminster Fuller, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson – and I wondered why. When I went back to those books, I saw the appeal. These thinkers were far more radical than we remember. They and other leading liberal intellectuals of the period challenged the prejudice that ran through American society. They called for the United States to become much more egalitarian, diverse and accepting than it was. Some, like Mead’s teacher and friend, anthropologist Ruth Benedict, called loudly and publicly for racial equality in America more than a decade before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Mead herself gained national renown in part by urging American women to become sexually liberated. And all of these figures saw the personal as political in a way would suffuse the countercultural movements of the 1960s.

By going back to these figures, I’ve been trying to do a few things. On the historical front, I want to de-mythologize the sixties. We’ve labored for too long under the illusion that hippies represented a break in American history and an alternative to mainstream American life. As I hope my last book showed, the New Communalists were in many ways an opening wedge for the hyper-individualized, tech-centered ways many of us live and work today. On the contemporary front, I want to decouple our claims about the social impact of digital media from the dreams to which they’ve become attached. Those dreams flowered in the 1940s, and not only in the technical worlds that brought us computers. They flowered in social science, politics, propaganda – all across public life. Today, we inhabit a multi-screen world in which we manage our lives in terms set by any number of organizations that remain invisible behind the screens. We often imagine that it is somehow digital media that have brought us this world. But they didn’t, or at least, they didn’t do it alone.

Fred Turner is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. He has written several books about media, technology, and American cultural history, including the widely acclaimed From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part Three)

We both agree that the Writer’s Strike represented a key battle in the struggle to define digital extensions as part of creative content and not simply as part of the promotion of a series. Some years out from the strike, what do you see as its lasting impact on the way the industry operates? What won what in these struggles?

The honeymoon period during which creators were given carte-blanche to experiment with the media corporations’ IP was short-lived. In the period leading up to the strike, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) stubbornly refused to acknowledge the creative labor involved in these short-form, content-promotional hybrids. The WGA strike of 2007-8 signaled an important response by the exploited members of the writing community that their creative digital labor needed to be rewarded with credit and income.

Disney launched the first volley across the bow of the WGA’s minimum basic agreements by engineering a deal with Apple iTunes to stream its TV series online; however, they failed to arrange an appropriate compensation package for the writers whose original work was being replayed on a new distribution platform. To make matters worse, the networks placed ads inside this digital content, which allowed them to earn additional revenues, thereby undermining their claim that this content constituted promotions.

In the period leading up to the strike, Cuse and Lindelof were able to use their considerable leverage during the making of Lost to negotiate on behalf of not just the WGA members, but also the other talent guilds to ensure that all creators received payment for their work on derivative content such as “The Lost Diaries” webseries. This precedent helped the WGA negotiate terms for all digital content created by guild-represented writers; however, the sanction lacked teeth, as more and more studios formed their own in-house social media marketing groups to oversee these “content-promotion hybrids” going forward.

While the WGA achieved a symbolic victory—an agreement to pay writers for their creative labor regarding digital content, they have lost out in two ways:  first, writers are still earning “digital pennies” for creating derivative content given the uneven measurement system associated with online entertainment; secondly, the big media companies are shoring up the infrastructural walls surrounding digital content by creating in-house social media marketing divisions and limiting creator involvement.

In many ways, transmedia is playing a secondary role in the industry’s current thinking to the idea of second screen content. What do you think is motivating this obsession with the Second Screen? What functions does the second screen perform for the industry? for audiences? Why is the second screen easier to comprehend and implement than the more ambitious ideas about wired television so many industry leaders have been promoting?

As Jennifer Holt and Kevin Samson explain in the introduction to Connected Viewing: Selling, Streaming, and Sharing (2014)  “connected viewing” practices eschew the top-down, bottom-up binary that has governed so much media industry scholarship around digital, in favor of what Michael Curtin has called “a matrix era”—namely, “a transition from the one-to-many distribution strategies of the broadcast networks to a moment ‘characterized by interactive exchanges, multiple sites of productivity, and diverse modes of interpretation and use.”  While one could argue that these interactive systems and multiple sites of productivity engender enhanced creative exchanges between production cultures and audiences, the industry’s current focus on “second screen” over “transmedia storytelling” experiences seems designed to help studios manage consumer data more efficiently via their infrastructural strengths: marketing and distribution.

Furthermore, by controlling marketing and distribution, the media companies are able to facilitate a disturbing trend—developing sophisticated analytics designed to harvest consumer preferences via algorithms and other, digital measurement strategies. In the last decade, Hollywood has fallen far behind their Silicon Valley counterparts—Google, Facebook, and Netflix—when it comes to managing the sale of big data to advertisers through products such as Adsense and Adwords. The latter, in combination with tools like Google Analytics, provided publishers with access to a composite portrait of consumer behavior designed to help advertisers deliver targeted online ads.

In contrast, transmedia storytelling strategies were creator-dependent activities designed to empower creators and audiences via “multiple sites of productivity” and “diverse modes of interpretation and use.” Teasers, trailers, and interstitial video already circulate between broadcast TV series; now, via second screen experiences, all of these new forms of online promotions and branded entertainment can be enlisted to access a composite of consumer information. By bringing these digital production activities in-house—hiring low-paid creative labor to execute all this digital, promotional churn—big media companies will be able to navigate the online advertising space more effectively, unimpeded by talent guild restrictions.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).