Revisiting the scenario of representation of politics.
Lima describes Brazil at the end of the twentieth century as a fully media-centric country. He defines a media-centric country as one that has: (1) dominant national commercial television systems that function as the major sources of information and entertainment for citizens; (2) at least one full generation of voters raised in an era of video politics; and (3) presidential elections where the candidates compete via national television advertising to position themselves at the dynamic centre of the social order (Geertz, 1977). Lima predicted that a candidate and party that adapted to the dramatic narratives found in the scenarios of representation of politics in mainstream media would win the election. He proposed that at certain historical moments there may be a greater tendency to develop a set of collective representations that conform to a society's idea of itself (Durkheim, 2004), and suggested that the 1989 presidential election in Brazil was such a moment.
The countries in the Americas are, with few exceptions, media-centric consumer cultures, dependent on commercial media--particularly television--for information about politics. Further, advertising of political candidates in the Americas conforms to the machinery and regimes used to advertise products on the commercial media. Lima points out that the dominance of commercial television in the Americas, with its consumer-focused strategies and practices, unites otherwise quite different countries. Hence it is necessary to examine the commercial media as the most efficient apparatus of hegemony in politics in the Americas. Lima's method was used successfully by Porto (1998) in his analysis of the role of the telenovela in the 1994 Brazilian presidential election.
Contemporary work in Northern Europe on the mediatisation of politics is congruent with Lima's contentions about media and politics in the Americas. Stromback (2008: 234) defines the mediatisation of politics as follows: the media constitute the most important source of information on politics; the media are independent from political institutions; media content is governed by media logic; and political actors are governed by media logic. Hence the media shape the way political communication is played out by political actors, covered by the media and understood by the people (Stromback, 2008: 234).
As a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Brasilia in 1995, Reilly (1995) applied Lima's scenario of representation to Ronald Reagan's campaign for the US presidency in 1980. She examined The Waltons (CBS), Little House on the Prairie (NBC) and Happy Days (ABC), which were the most popular network television shows in the United States during that election campaign (Reilly, 1995). Emerging from the tumultuous 1960s and facing an uncertain future epitomised by the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons reflected a desire to return to a past when adversity could easily be dealt with by individual effort, Yankee ingenuity, family unity and trust in God. Happy Days portrayed two North American stereotypes: the rugged individual who defies social norms and the good law-abiding citizen, working together to solve problems in their community. Candidate Reagan approached the audience on a personal level, suggesting that troubling world events could be taken care of by applying simple, commonsense solutions that worked in the past. The scenario of representation chosen by Reagan and his political advisers suited a particular historical moment reflected in the popular media, and proved to be successful. Ronald Reagan became the 40th President of the United States.
Lima expanded his theory of the scenario of representation of politics in his book, Media: Teoria e Politica (2001), identifying it as a phenomenon occurring with increasing prevalence throughout the Americas as commercial television became the major expository force in political life. The purposeful alignment of a political agenda with the scenario of representation of politics found in popular media allows politicians to become part of a dialectical process of shaping consensus while operating within it (Hall, 1982). Lima suggests that this process has become ubiquitous in all political campaigns in the Americas, not just presidential elections. Since Hall's description of scenarios of representation is informed by Gramsci's idea of hegemony, Lima contends that it is possible to unpack hegemony for analytic purposes by revealing the scenarios of representation of politics. In order to realise democracy as more than a utopian project, Lima concludes that the construction of counter-scenarios of representation of politics must become part of a hegemonic struggle. In order to be effective, these counter-hegemonies need to be presented via the commercial media in order to reach the same national audience (Lima, 2001).
The United States was the first fully commercial media-centric country in the Americas, and it is not surprising that it is the place where political campaigns based on advertising techniques are no longer limited to presidential elections, but are now routinely deployed not only by political parties but also by governments to persuade citizens to support a variety of political actions. In this case, the counter-hegemony was launched by a former drama critic turned opinion writer, who used the plot-lines from popular motion pictures, television shows and stage plays to critique the US government's attempts to persuade citizens of the success of an increasingly unpopular war. The historical moment was the aftermath of 9/11. The political campaign consisted of a series of stories released to the media by the George W. Bush Administration to convince the public that the continuing war on Iraq was necessary, even though no weapons of mass destruction (ostensibly the reason for the war) had been found.
Frank Rich was a New York Times opinion columnist from 1994 to 2011, after serving as the newspaper's chief drama critic from 1980 to 1993 (www.nytimes/ref/ opinion/RICH-BIO). In 1999, he began writing opinion pieces that ran every other Saturday. By 2005, he was writing essays that were twice the length of traditional op-ed columns for the Sunday Week in Review. Rich (2011) states that he 'looked for the narrative in many competing dramas unfolding on the national stage'. His experience as a theatre critic influenced his political criticism and provided clear examples of Lima's call for counter-scenarios of representation in popular culture to be used as part of a hegemonic struggle for democracy. This article presents four examples that illustrate Lima's theory of the use of scenarios of representation of politics in the media and their counter-hegemonies.
Operation Iraqi Freedom, as it was called by US broadcast and cable networks in 2003, was a media spectacle launched on 19 March 2003 with an elaborate televised bombing campaign called shock and awe (Kellner, 2004). CNN's coverage of this event can still be viewed on YouTube. US news coverage of the war was enhanced by embedded reporters, who sent back live pictures of military advances while military commentators on television news programs explained tactics. Steve Schifferes, of BBC News Online, reported on 18 April 2003 that the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News cable channel increased its audience by 300 per cent to an average 3.3 million daily viewers during the conflict.
As the war progressed, Frank Rich's columns became increasingly critical, and in 2006 he published The Greatest Story Ever Sold. The book's title was a play on the title of an epic Hollywood film, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), about the life of Jesus Christ. Rich described his book as:
a critical retracing of the sophisticated steps by which some clever people in the White House, handed an opportunity and a mandate by the shocking events of 9/11, unfurled a brilliantly produced scenario to accomplish a variety of ends, the most unambiguous of which was to amass power and hold on to it. While the controversial policy choices made by the Bush administration are well known, equally important is the way it dramatized its fable to the nation and made it credible to so many, even when it wasn't remotely true. The chronicle of how a government told and sold its story is also a chronicle of an American culture that was an all-to-easy mark for the flimflam. (Rich, 2006: 2)
Rich's use of the phrases 'brilliantly produced scenario' and 'dramatized its fable' is an indication of the influence theatre criticism had on his opinion writing. In his weekly op-ed columns, he reviewed the Bush Administration's interpretations of events related to the war in Iraq as if they were episodes in a television drama. He repeatedly referred to familiar scenes in movies, TV shows and plays to help his readers visualise his attempts to counter the intent of the war propaganda.
Two weeks into the US invasion of Iraq, John Broder broke the news of Private Jessica Lynch's daring rescue from Nasiriya, in a front-page article titled, 'Commandos Rescue Soldier; She was Held Since Ambush' (Ven York Times, 2 April 2003). Broder quoted Brigadier General Vince Brooks' statement, 'Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a US Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq.' In a front-page story titled, 'She was Fighting to the Death' (Washington Post, 2 April 2003), Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb reported that Washington-based intelligence sources had revealed that Private Jessica Lynch had fought heroically during the Iraqi ambush, sustaining both gunshot and stab wounds, before being captured. Private Lynch, a young, petite, pretty blonde, became a national hero. Her smiling photograph in an army uniform was repeatedly shown on television news programs. Discussions of her bravery were ubiquitous on radio and TV talk shows.
In 'NBC Plans Movie on Ex-POW' (New York Times, 10 April 2003), Rick Lyman reported that television network NBC was planning a made-for-TV movie about Private Lynch, who Lyman called 'the Iraq war's most famous prisoner of war'. Alessandra Stanley covered a special presentation on the A&E cable channel about Private Lynch in her article titled, 'Hoopla Over a POW, A Mirror on US Society' (New York Times, 18 April 2003). Stanley reported that, although the details of Private Lynch's capture and rescue were not clear, 'Private Lynch provided the nation with a made-for-television catharsis'. She revealed that Jessica Lynch was not the only female soldier in the convoy who was wounded and captured. Private Lori Piestewa, an American Indian, subsequently died from her injuries, and Private Shoshana Johnson, an African American, was rescued along with Jessica Lynch.
Reporting from Iraq, in 'Rescued Soldier's Iraqi Doctors Doubled as Her Guardians' (New York Times, 21 April 2003), Alan Feur interviewed Harith Houssana MD, who told Feur that Private Lynch was delivered to Nasiriya General Hospital by Iraqi military doctors who treated her in the field after the ambush. Dr Housana described Lynch as a sweet girl who loved orange juice and 'enchanted' the doctors and nurses. Dr Housana said that when the American Special Forces came to the hospital, they recovered the six soldiers who survived the ambush of the American convoy and the bodies of nine who did not survive, without resistance.
In 'Sometimes Heroism is a Moving Target' (New York Times, 8 June 2003), Mark Bowden reported that 'the feel good story of the Iraq War, the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, may not have the plot line of a made-for-TV movie'. Bowden continued that all the information about Private Lynch from the US military was second or third hand, and contained errors and contradictions. He continued, 'What emerges from the fog [of war] is always incomplete, and often wrong.' It seemed that Private Lynch was not shot and stabbed defending herself in a firefight, although she was severely injured. She was not mistreated in captivity and the doctors at Nasiriya General Hospital gladly handed her over to her rescuers. Joseph Campbell (2010: Chapter 9) provides an extensive analysis of 'intermediate agenda-setting' in the media coverage of Jessica Lynch. He demonstrates how large news organisations set the agenda for small news outlets, which often repeat stories without checking on their veracity.
Five months later, on 9 November 2003, the eve of NBC's long awaited made-for-TV movie, Saving Private Lynch, which was coordinated with the beginning of a promotional book tour for I Am a Soldier, Too (ghost-written for Knopf by Rick Bragg), Frank Rich wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times Week in Review titled, 'Pfc. Jessica Lynch Isn't Rambo Now' (New York Times, 9 November 2003). Rich critiqued the Jessica Lynch story as if it were a fiction film. His review was not positive.
Initially, Rich referred to the war movies, Rambo: First Blood II (1985) and Top Gun (1986), which depicted the heroic actions of Vietnam-era soldiers and pilots, to help the reader recall the kind of images that he surmised the government-based intelligence sources intended when they released the story of Jessica Lynch's noble fight to the press. Then Rich evoked images in The Deer Hunter (1978) to illustrate the tragic results of war by revealing the post-traumatic stress of soldiers who returned alive. Finally, Rich suggested that NBC's Saving Private Lynch's true visual comparison was with The Elizabeth Smart Story, another made-for-TV movie scheduled on CBS on the same night at the same time as NBC's Jessica Lynch movie. By introducing Elizabeth Smart, a young white, blonde teenager who was kidnapped and sexually abused and finally rescued, Rich suggested that Jessica Lynch was used to promote the war in Iraq in the same way that young white, blonde girls are used to generate viewer interest on US commercial television news shows. The force of Rich's critique was enhanced by readers' familiarity with the extended television coverage of the Smart case. His review of Saving Private Lynch concluded that the Jessica Lynch story was an unfortunate stereotype used to pander to audience attention and not a genuine recounting of military heroism in Iraq.
A year into the war, sectarian violence was complicating US plans to execute a democratic election in Iraq. On 18 April 18 2004, Frank Rich wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled 'Lawrence of Arabia Redux'. The 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, was an adaptation of an autobiographical novel about the British involvement in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, which--although initially successful--ended in sectarian violence. Rich related that the British commander in the movie tells the people of Mesopotamia, 'Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.' He compared this to George W. Bush's justification for the US invasion of Iraq which, in addition to finding WMDs, was to liberate Iraqis from a cruel dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Rich described the dismay of the British liaison officer, played by Peter O'Toole, when he realised that none of the warring tribal leaders would be able to lead a unified nation. Rich pointed out that, in reality, after the country of Iraq was created by the League of Nations in 1920, it was run by a British civil commissioner, Sir Harold Wilson, whose administration consolidated Assyria (Sunni) and Babylonia (Shia) without tribal support. Rich juxtaposed this historical situation with that of Paul Bremer, US Administrator of Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority, interviewed by television journalists earlier that week. Bremer was asked which Iraqi would replace him and lead the country, and Bremer replied, 'That's a good question."
Rich related a series of US cultural insensitivities, like Donald Rumsfeld's 'stuff happens' response to the looting of the Baghdad National Museum and the US Army's distribution of photographs of the corpses of Saddam Hussein's sons to the international press, and compared them with the British colonial hubris depicted in the movie. Finally, Rich quoted Richard Holbrooke, former ambassador to the United Nations, who said, 'Once liberators turn into pacifiers, they've lost.'
On 3 October 2004, a month before the US presidential election, Frank Rich wrote a column for the New York Times titled 'Now on DVD: The Passion of the Bush'. The title alluded to the controversial film directed by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ (2004), which had been criticised for being both gory and anti-Semitic (www.nytimes. com/2004/02/25/movies/25PASS.html) Rich reported that the film George W. Bush: Faith in the White House (2004), produced and directed by David Balsiger, was first shown that summer at the Republican Convention in New York. Rich suggested that the producer intended to distribute 300,000 copies of George W. Bush: Faith in the White House to Christian churches in the United States before the election in order to provide a counter-narrative to Michael Moore's recently released documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), which enjoyed theatrical circulation. Moore's film was critical of the Bush Administration's handling of the Iraq War. The Balsiger film was a documentary about George Bush's life, focusing particularly on his conversion to evangelical Christianity on his 40th birthday with the help of the Reverend Billy Graham. Rich described the end of the film, where President Bush, with a flag as a backdrop, appeared in a split-screen tableau with Jesus, as the narrator posed the question, 'Will George W. Bush be allowed to finish the battle against the forces of evil that threaten our very existence?'
Rich concluded that Bush's Christianity was portrayed as more important than his political competence. He reminded readers of Bush's many references to the Iraq War as a kind of divine mission. He revisited Bush's statement to the press that Jesus was his favorite 'political philosopher'. Rich reintroduced Bush's use of the word 'crusade' in reference to the 'war on terrorism' and repeated Bush's reference to Saddam Hussein as an 'evil-doer' in the 'battle between good and evil'. Finally, Rich returned to Mel Gibson's harsh portrayal of Jews to chafe at the film's insinuation that America was a Christian (not Judeo-Christian) nation. In this column, the narrative structure of a film review became the vehicle for Rich's political commentary.
In an op-ed column written during the prelude to the next US Presidential election, Rich reviewed a trip taken to Iraq by a presidential candidate and his political supporters. The story was initially reported from Iraq by Kirk Semple, '4 GIs Among Dead in Iraq; McCain Cites US Progress' (New York Times, 1 April 2007). As causalities were occurring elsewhere, Semple wrote that Republican Presidential candidate John McCain, along with a delegation of Republican Congressmen, visited a Baghdad market to demonstrate that the war was making progress. The politicians wore body armour and travelled in a convoy of military vehicles accompanied by heavily armed soldiers.
In a follow-up article, 'McCain Wrong on Security, Merchants Say' (New York Times, 3 April 2007), Kirk Semple interviewed a shop owner in the market that McCain had visited the day before. Ali Jassim Faiyad said, 'They paralyzed the market when they came.' Semple reported that the US delegation arrived after soldiers redirected traffic from the area and posted sharpshooters on the roofs of surrounding buildings. One hundred soldiers in armored Humvees, accompanied the politicians and attack helicopters, hovered over their heads. In a news conference held in the Green Zone immediately after the visit to the market, Semple quoted McCain as saying, 'Things are better and there are encouraging signs.' He added, 'Never have I been able to go out into the city as I was today.'
The following Sunday, Frank Rich's op-ed column was titled 'Sunday in the Market with McCain' (New York Times Week in Review, 8 April 2007). The title referred to the Stephen Sondheim play, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), about the action surrounding French pointillist George Seurat, as he paints his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The play developed the relationships between the people Seurat painted in the park. By the end of the play, all of the characters fight viciously with one another while Seurat paints a calm, idyllic scene. This plot frames Rich's review of the politicians' visit to the Baghdad market.
The first images that Rich called to the reader's mind were in the movie The Wedding Crashers (2005), a comedy about the escapades of a group of young men who go to weddings to which they have not been invited in order to meet women. (John McCain actually made a cameo appearance in the movie as a colleague of the father of one of the brides.) Rich's critique juxtaposed McCain's and his colleagues' visit to the Baghdad market with a group of buddies in a theatrical farce. Rich continued by recalling three examples of disastrous visual political mistakes--one by a sitting president and two by past presidential hopefuls. The first was George W. Bush's 'mission accomplished' appearance in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier years before the Iraq mission was accomplished; the next was Michael Dukakis's helmeted ride in a tank in which he looked like a mouse in a mouse hole; and the third was Howard Dean's scream at the end of a speech following the Iowa caucus in which he seemed to be emotionally out of control. Each example reminded the reader of political handlers' attempts to convince voters of a politician's authority that resulted in the politician's humiliation. In Rich's opinion, McCain's walk in the Baghdad market was intended to show brave politicians demonstrating the success of the war, but instead showed frivolous politicians wasting military resources.
Frank Rich's weekly columns repeatedly provided the counter-hegemony that Lima had proposed in Midia: Teoria e Politica (2001: Chapter 7). Rich's reading of political events utilised the machinery and regimes of representation in popular culture in a media-centric society to critique the dominant ideology. From his unique vantage point as a former theatre critique turned op-ed writer for the New York Times Week in Review, Rich had the ability to provide a running counter-hegemony that laid bare the government's manipulation of the media to convince citizens of the correctness of its military actions. Although Rich's popularity as a newspaper columnist continued from his days as a theatre critic to his role as a political opinion columnist, his reliance on popular culture was not appreciated by everyone. For example, The New Republic (www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/96141/over-rated-thinkers) considered Rich an over-rated thinker who only knew what he'd learnt from the popular media that week.
The purpose of this article is not to present Rich as an idiosyncratic actor, but rather to use his work as an example of effective counter-hegemony. As Hall (1977) reminds us, hegemony is not a permanent state of affairs: it can be challenged and it can be lost. A good critic can appropriate popular culture to provide counter-hegemonic readings of events designed by dominant ideologues for presentation in the mainstream media. This is what Lima called counter-scenarios of the representation of politics.
In the Americas, it has increasingly become the case that political campaigns, following the example of advertising campaigns, are presented in the commercial media as dramatic fictions containing collective representations that conform to a society's idea of itself, with the intent of creating a dynamic core of favourable public opinion. Frank Rich provides an example of how a critic can use popular culture to counter such attempts. As countries with formerly strong public service radio and television or state-run media systems become commercial media-centric, the necessity of engaging in mediated counter-hegemony may become part of the struggle for democracy.
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Susan Smith Reilly is a Professor in the School of Communication & Multimedia Studies, Florida Atlantic University.
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|Author:||Reilly, Susan Smith|
|Publication:||Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2015|
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