What did it reveal?

The super bowl breast business was an amazingly revealing moment, JJ’s right breast being the least of it.

First the language.

Jackson said in her statement that the decision to do a “costume reveal” was made after the rehearsals. Timberlake blamed it all on a “wardrobe malfunction” and Jackson’s publicist said there was “some kind of collapse in the garment”.

They sound like they are talking about some failed military strategy or a rocket that didn’t make it though re-entry.

And that’s really the question. What texts have been allowed to land with this one?

There’s been plenty of common sense comment from media scholars and the less up tight columnists.

“For the league to say, ‘We are shocked,’ over the exposure of a woman’s breast is the height of hypocrisy on multiple levels,” Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, told USA Today’s Ian O’Connor

As he goes onto comment:

The NFL’s beer sponsor, Coors Light, spent the postseason blitzing viewers with yet another mindless commercial featuring buxom barmaids and cheerleaders, an ad hardening the notion that women who dare to step inside America’s testosterone-crazed football culture are to be seen exclusively as sexual playthings.

Don’t blame Justin Timberlake for trying to one-up his ex, Britney Spears, who locked lips with Madonna before poor Justin’s saucer-sized eyes. Timberlake was only behaving the way men are encouraged to behave in your average NFL beer ad, where male fans either get drunk and fantasize about mud-wrestling bimbos or get drunk and fantasize about twins.

“There are so many things going on in those ads more disturbing than a quick glimpse of a naked breast,” Thompson said. “This quick exposure was a tiny drop in the bucket. … The NFL didn’t know this would happen, but the league was fully aware of the rest of the halftime show. The bumping and grinding. The costumes. The fact it was put on by MTV.”

And there was plenty of comment along those lines. As the editorial in the same paper concluded:

The Super Bowl halftime show was a victim of its own conceit — that it could put an “edge” on the broadcast. The result was tacky and artificial, a public display of affectation. The public display of Jackson’s breast was only part of the problem. The nation has seen better as well as worse.

But this didn’t stop the circulation of outrage.

Bush administration head media regulator Federal Communications Commission chief Michael Powell called the incident “classless, crass and deplorable.”

And of course all of the organisations and individuals concerned have spent the day apologising.

Others tried to quell the outrage.

“There’s no story here,” University of Southern California journalism professor Joe Saltzman told the SanFrancisco Chronicle “People have seen a breast before.”

He is right of course but he’s also wrong. There’s a very big story here. The nerve that was touched is raw – fleshy and awkward

Powell’s full statement tells some more of that story:

“I am outraged at what I saw during the halftime show of the Super Bowl,” said Powell, promising a swift and thorough investigation. “Like millions of Americans, my family and I gathered around the television for a celebration. Instead, that celebration was tainted by a classless, crass and deplorable stunt. Our nation’s children, parents and citizens deserve better.”

Here we see the ritual context of the scandal: families gathered to watch their gladiatorial heroes demonstrate the sportsmanship, athleticism, courage and manly competition that lies at the heart of the American dream. What was revealed in amongst this manly chest puffing and preening?

A black amazon’s breast.

But this is more than fear of female sexuality. This is fear of the MTV generation. This is fear of the performative. Fear of accidents. Fear of a new world where home is an unfamiliar place.

Janet Jackson’s breast revealed that the Super Bowl pantomime, Joe DeMagio, field of dreams America is no more: a mirage that never was.

Mad Vow Disease

I’ve neglected this blog for a couple of months now. Mainly because I am trying to finish off my Master’s thesis.

But I want to get back into the discipline of regular posting. So to begin here’s an excerpt from a talk I gave recently about media naratives of same sex marriage. I’ll post some more over the next few weeks because it’s obviously a red hot issue at the moment. Lesbian comedian Kate Clinton recently called it a bad case of mad vow disease!

In the piece below I take a step back and ask what is the general way that marraige is portrayed in the media.

My initial explorations would suggest that the two dominant media stories about marriage present it as either a fantasy or as a social problem. It is either a fairy tale romance of a princess or movie star or it is a story about divorce rates, the problems of working mothers or child custody battles.

There is also a third narrative about marriage, which is part of a wider discourse, that I will call the “new world” or the “new adventure”. It includes articles like one in the Melbourne Age (2/10/03) that explored couples who are also business partners or an article from the Good Weekend (1/2/03) that explored new extended families, where the new and old families of divorced partners – including both sets of ex-partners and their new partners – form a friendly relational unit. This is part of the wider media discourse about emerging social trends and the advent of a “new world”. It is partly utopic and partly dystopic and thus embraces elements of both the fantasy and problem narratives of marriage. This story about new forms of social organization is where narratives of gay marriage intersect with the general media stories about marriage.

In the single biggest media story of a marriage in recent times: the story of Diana of Wales, we can see the intersection of all three marriage story types. It was, at different points in its trajectory, presented as both a fairytale and a problem and was also played out against a story of changing social forms in regard to marriage, the monarchy and the media.

In recent times we have seen the emergence of another princess fairytale in the news. On 9 October 2003 Sydney Morning Herald – and most other Australian papers – led with the story of Mary Donaldson the real estate agent from Tasmania and her engagement to Prince Fredrick of Denmark.

The keynote of the stories published about Donaldson over the weeks surrounding the announcement was the motif of “transformation”: of a commoner into a princess, of an English speaker into a Danish speaker, of a woman fond of “sporty” attire into a wearer of haute couture.

These stories clearly represent an institutional discourse about marriage even when this is cloaked by the fantasy of the lucky princess. This is nowhere clearer than in the stories that have emphasised that “her main job” in the immediate future will be to bear an heir.

The headline of the main announcement story (SMH 9/11/03) is revealing: “Danes denied a kiss but still love Aussie Mary”. This is a romance without visible passion.

In the same issue of the Herald another power couple were featured: victorious Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver. If anyone was in doubt that this was an American dream sprung to life you only had to listen to Schwarzenegger’s victory script: “I came here with absolutely nothing and California has given me absolutely everything. I want to be the people’s governor”, Schwarzenegger said. He called for support to make “the tough choices ahead” so that “together we can make this again the greatest state in the greatest country in the world”. (SMH 9/10/03)

Shriver is an integral part of that dream. She comes with Kennedy family pedigree and thus links this story with the Kennedy story, with the Camelot myth, with the story of Jack and Jackie.

But this is not really about romance, it is about a pragmatic alliance. The “telegenic and politically astute” Shriver as one report (SMH 9/10/03) called her, is an important part of Arnold’s political strategy. He makes this clear in his thank you speech. The report continues:

Mr Schwarzenegger fought back against the groping allegations with the help of his wife, who is recognised as a talented television journalist. Ms Shriver was the first person the actor thanked for his victory. He told her in front of his supporters: “I know how many votes I got today because of you.” (SMH 9/10/03)

If Shriver’s relationship to the Kennedy’s immediately summons up the vestiges of the dream of Camelot, this defence of her husband immediately summons up another contemporary political marriage: that of Hilary and Bill.

If in the story of Fredrick and Mary we see the fantasy meeting the institution with Schwarzenegger and Shriver we see the dream meeting pragmatism.

What is strikingly obvious from both these examples is the extent to which current media discourse on marriage is still embroiled in traditional narratives of gender and linked directly to other narratives of political power.

Marriage itself is a narrative ritual act. The form it takes is a story that two people tell to one another as a sign of their commitment: to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, till death do we part.

This story is told in the context of a particular national and particular institutional setting, it is told against the stories of others who have been married before, and it is a story that often contains both dream and pragmatics, both fantasy and problematics, romance and politics.

It is in this context of an institution that is at once idealised and problematised that we need to situate any discussion of same sex marriage.

Just the facts

Three very different stories from today’s newspapers show the difficulties that journalists have negotiating “facts”.

To begin on a light note a German constitutional court has finally resolved the tiff over whether the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, dies his hair – he doesn’t. The court said the original suggestion, which came from a political consultant and was broadcast by a German news agency, was not the crux of the case. The news agency was given a slap over the wrists for what the court called the agency’s lack of “scrupulousness in checking the accuracy of opinions expressed by third parties in interviews.”

It seems to me it would have been far more appropriate if the court had told both the news agency and the chancellor to get a life! This is a fine example of journalism being measured against the wrong yardstick. The primary issue here is not facticity but relevance. The myths of objectivity and factiticy hold such sway that they have become the dominant framework for popular media criticism. The prior question of relevance is not even asked.

In a very different way the evidence under dispute at the Hutton inquiry is also being reduced to the wrong issues. From a big picture point of view yesterday’s Guardian leader argues that the focus should have not been limited to Dr Kelly’s death but should have included an inquiry into the whole case for, and conduct of, Britain’s war against Iraq. But even on a micro level the issues are being massaged and distorted.

For an enquiry which has given Gilligan such a hard time for distorting or embellishing facts it’s ironic but not surprising how partisan the closing arguments were.

The QC representing the government in the Hutton Inquiry suggested in his final evidence that the wrong lessons were being drawn from the evidence before the enquiry.

“We are, I suggest, in danger of trying to learn general lessons from appalling but wholly exceptional and unpredictable events,”said Jonathan Sumption QC referring to Dr Kelly’s apparent suicide.

“What is much worse than that is we are in danger of learning the wrong lessons.”

It was perfectly possible he argued to express genuine sympathy to his family, “without at once turning aside in order to hunt for other people to blame”.

Sumption’s point about blame is poignant but fails to recognise that this has been a blame game from the beginning – so much so that it is now almost impossible to unravel.

While Dr Kelly’s death may be an “appalling but wholly exceptional and unpredictable event,” the conduct of government, as revealed in the unprecedented evidence from politicians and civil servants, was shown to include thoroughly predictable “Yes Minister” style behavior.

When it comes to Gilligan’s version of the facts, he did prove a problematic witness and provided a paradigmatic lesson for all journalists about keeping your notes in order.

However the reality is that Kelly had similar conversations with three reporters. Gavin Hewitt’s notes show Kelly saying: “some spin came into play” over the dossier’s development. He expressed concern to Susan Watt’s over the 45 minute claim and identified Campbell and the No 10 press office as party to the controversial claim’s inclusion. Watts concluded that this was a “gossipy aside” and did not use it. She also notes that Kelly clarified his reference to Campbell by saying: Campbell was “synonymous with the press office because he was responsible for it.”

Here we see a number of interesting factors come into play.

There is a clear contrast between Gilligan’s style and Watt’s careful traditional journalism that doesn’t necessarily weight all parts of a source’s conversation equally and is careful to differentiate between solid argument and speculative asides. Gilligan took what he had and ran with it in order to try to ignite discussion. I think overall the inquiry backs up Gilligan’s facts but call’s into question some of his “tabloid style” journalistic practice.

The issue of personalisation is also highlighted, Kelly clearly sees Campbell and the No 10 office as “synonymous”. This is in fact a common journalistic ploy saying “Campbell” when we mean the press office or “Blair” when we mean the government.

But if any one has any doubt that Campbell both directly and by proxy “sexed-up” the dossier have a look at this article from today’s Guardian: “10 ways to sex up a dossier

Whether he made specific changes knowing them to be wrong, as Gilligan first reported, is open to interpretation. But it is clear that as a PR professional Campbell would be acutely aware of the different implications in the change to the dossier’s executive summary. It originally claimed that Iraq “could deploy” or “could be ready” to deploy weapons in 45 minutes, in the final version this became weapons that “are deployable” within 45 minutes.

BBC barrister Andrew Caldecott QC presented evidence in his closing argument that Jonathan Powell, the prime minister’s chief of staff and Alastair Campbell had intervened to change parts of the WMD dossier.

“This was not cosmetic. It was substance,” said Mr Caldecott. “Mr Powell realised that this wording advanced a powerful argument against war.”

All of this reminds us of the very direct and simple power of words, facticity is not the only determination of accuracy. Narrative frame and language shape fact.

Politics is not the only realm where facts are under dispute. Today’s Australian includes an interview with the Danish environmental skeptic Bjorn Lomborg. The campaigning statistician has been at odds with the world’s environmental scientists over such issues as pollution and global warming since the publication of his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist. He claims, amongst other things, that population is slowing, air pollution is falling in rich countries and the answer to third world environmental problems will come with economic growth. Scientific America presented an impressive array of evidence against his arguments last year and the Danish Research Agency earlier this year concluded its own investigation calling the book “scientifically dishonest”. Lomborg remains defiant and has answered his critics back.

Today’s article (unfortunately not online) does little justice to the complex arguments and focuses on the “global stoush”. The content of the article is conflict, not the environment. In an extraordinary dismissal of a conflict which is about the earth’s very survival the journalist Leigh Dayton concludes:

Regardless of Lomborg’s protestations, the Danish parliament has called for an investigation into eight environmental analyses conducted by his institute. One concluded that the country’s recycling scheme for cans and bottles cost far more than incineration and produced minimal environmental benefit.

It does all seem much of a muchness. Dispassionate observers may be excused for feeling they are witnessing a schoolyard brawl rather than a healthy scientific disagreement. Certainly, as the arrows fly back and forth, it’s hard for outsiders to follow developments.

It does all seem much of a muchness.

What an extraordinary, stupid and reductive statement.

Our intrepid reporter then goes on to completely misrepresent one of the only significant insights in the article.

Perhaps some insiders are also confused, suggests CSIRO atmospheric scientist Barrie Pittock. He points out that statisticians and economists and natural scientists speak different languages. One group speaks numbers, the other ambiguity.

“For instance, I think a lot of people [like Lomborg] tend to treat climate change research as a matter of dogmatic truth or falsity when in fact there are uncertainties about the observations and the interpretation,” says Pittock, a lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of hundreds of international scientists whose findings link human activity to global warming.

Pittock’s point is critical: scientists in complex areas are prepared these days to admit to uncertainties and ambiguity, which are not well represented in Lomborg’s statistical model. Dayton dismisses such complex ambiguity as confusion rather than the nuanced insight that it is!

Here we have the ideology of facticity at its most blatant and most banal.

For my take on a 60 Minute’s segment on Lomborg as Hero and Heretic see my essay on news and myth.

A messy draw

The Guardian’s latest report from the Hutton inquiry shows how high the stakes were at the height of the Gilligan/Kelly affair.

An excerpt from Alastair Campbell’s diary has the spin miester writing that “It would fuck Gilligan” if David Kelly proved to be the BBC journalist’s source for his controversial WMD dossier story.

The tussle between the BBC and No 10 was definitely a fuck me/fuck you battle, which in spite of both sides protestations to the contrary was never about truth. It was all about political and journalistic performance.

Campbell also admitted under cross-examination that he wanted the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the affair to be “a clear win, not a messy draw.”

Both sides are again desperate to win the Hutton inquiry. But there will be no clear winners.

Conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan calls the Independent’s recent tally of evidence a “devastating analysis of the BBC’s fabrications against the Blair government”.

That’s not the way I read the same article. Sure Gilligan was guilty of exaggeration for effect in his live radio spots.

But the Independent concludes that Gilligan’s assertion that the 45 minute claim was unreliable, and included in the dossier against Kelly and his colleague’s wishes, was sound.

This, the guts of the Gilligan claim, has been vindicated by the inquiry evidence. The inquiry heard this week that a memo was written on behalf of the DIS by Dr Brian Jones, head of its WMD section, objecting to the claim as it appeared in the dossier. Dr Jones and his chemical expert wrote further formal complaints.

This is surely the nub of the matter, not whether Gilligan should have called his source an “intelligence source” when Kelly actually worked for the Ministry of Defense.

The transcripts of the Hutton inquiry make fascinating reading.

I am left wondering who’s reporting would be left undamaged after hours and hours of cross-examination by ruthless barristers who also want a “clear win not a messy draw”.

The whole affair is a fiasco that in one sense tells us a lot about the state of journalism and at another level tells us nothing at all. Gilligan has been described as a hot shot brought onto the Today program to make it more controversial and hard hitting – he certainly did that. But as Today program editor Kevin Marsh said very early on:

“This story was a good piece of investigative journalism marred by flawed reporting. The biggest millstone has been the loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of the phraseology.”

This was of course a very important story – a leader misleading the people about reasons for war – so more care than usual was required. Gilligan’s sloppiness will no doubt confirm many people’s worst fears about the state of journalism. But in effect he did his job: he raised important questions and began to unravel some of the answers.

Could he have done this more carefully and more thoroughly? Probably. But the source game, the fair comment game, the checks and balances game, is precisely that and no more: a game. As Gaye Tuchman described it 30 years ago: objectivity is a “strategic ritual” that journalists engage in largely to protect themselves.

And as Ariel Hart recently pointed out in the Columbia Journalism Review all journalists make mistakes all of the time. As a freelance fact checker she says she’s never checked an article that didn’t contain some errors. She says journalists should get over their “delusions of accuracy”.

The myth of objectivity has been the corner stone of the liberal democratic model of journalism but as the world changes, and journalism changes to keep pace, it has the potential to become a millstone around our neck. In the public mind it holds us to a level of accuracy that we can never deliver.