“You Said to Be Cool, But I’m Already Coolest”: Who Are the Real ‘Merchants of Cool?’

“Teens are the most studied generation in history” (00.39) by advertisers. Merchants of Cool is a PBS documentary film that explores the various ways in which brands study these teens in order to successfully market their product. This documentary argues that teens are living in world made of marketing specifically for them. With that being said, the film makes the claim that “the average teen will view at least 3,000 discreet ads in a day and ten million by the time they reach eighteen” (04:18). These numbers directly depict the influence the media has, especially with younger viewers, and the marketing power that comes with it.

How are companies in a dynamic capitalist society competing to win the favor of the younger generation; or more specifically, how are companies able to pinpoint what youths consider to be “cool” — and therefore maximize their profit — in a culture that is becoming increasingly fragmented, or divided in terms of specific interests and media preferences (Baran 2014, p. 336)?  An attempt at a solution that Merchants of Cool shows are companies’ utilization of coolhunters: experts whose job it is to conduct field research and ultimately anticipate what it is youths will think is cool or the Next Big Thing (6:30).  One of these coolhunters shown in the documentary, DeeDee Gordon, explains that trendsetters among teens will “influence what all the other kids do,” and that for the best results, she must find “the twenty-percent that will influence the eighty-percent” (6:45).  If coolhunters are able to successfully pinpoint upcoming trends, their clients can utilize these trends in their products or advertising campaigns, which will ultimately lead to maximum profit — clients’ main goal.

For example, the people behind Sprite’s advertising, before anyone else, realized that teenagers were catching on to their advertising tactics: “What we found by talking to teens is that they had seen so much advertising that they were on overload, and became very cynical about that traditional approach to advertising” (10:30). Because teens make up such a huge portion of the consumers targeted by Sprite and other ad companies, Sprite fought back with “anti-advertising,” or advertisements that directly made fun of traditional styles of advertising. Baran et. al. discusses what is called the “unique selling proposition,” which is defined in our book as “highlighting the aspect of a product that sets it apart from other brands in the same product category” (Baran 296). While this definition primarily applies to products with unique aspects, it can also be applied to a process, like advertising. Sprite took their product, which has many competitors in the same industry, and made it unique by advertising in an entirely different way. Teens appreciated the honesty with which they criticized advertising, and made Sprite a product that they ultimately may have considered “cool.”

Many may consider the targeting of teens by advertisers upsetting, as does one of the main documentarians in the movie: “The thing we called ‘youth culture’ wasn’t something that was just being sold to us, it was something that came from us, an act of expression, not just of consumption” (14:30). Rather than creating their own culture, teens have let the media and advertisers determine how they spend their time and their money. Some, however, have rebelled against this trend, completely inventing their own form of anti-society expression. An example given in this documentary are the “Juggalos,” who are all fans of a new genre of music called rap-metal. These fans of the rap-metal band “Insane Clown Posse” are mostly young men who feel disenfranchised by society telling them what to do. “To hell with society,” one young fans says, “they control what goes on in our bedrooms, what we dress like, what our hair color is, why let them control it here?” (44:00). Expression and consumption can often become confused with each other in this day and age; expression, however, is original, while consumption is pre-created and encouraged.

Social cognitive theory, according to Baran, argues that people model behaviors they see. Thus, this modeling happens in two ways. The first one is through imitation. That is, individuals are directly replicating the behavior that is being observed. On the other hand, identification – the second form of modeling – is a special form of imitation in which individuals do not directly copy what is being watched, instead they react in a more generalized way. (Baran 332) Throughout the PBS film, we learn how teenagers partake in this behavior. With that being said, we learn how the media and the teenage population are in a two-way relationship. The teens feed off of what is shown on television and other media platforms, while the media is constantly trying to find what “cool” is in order to keep their viewers ‘hooked’. As the narrator says: “Welcome to the machine” (52.20).

This two-way relationship is called a feedback loop, which the narrator describes as a phenomenon where “the media watches kids and then sells them an image of themselves, then kids watch those images and aspire to be like [what they see] in their TV set — and the media is there watching them do that in order to craft new images for them and so on” (42:15).  If media are constantly creating new images of cool that serve as models for youths, can it truly be determined that youths themselves determine what is cool?  This area gets grayer and grayer with every passing second.

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Spinning the Truth: The Role of Public Relations as seen in “Wag the Dog”

Wag The Dog (1997) • Barry Levinson [Director]

Starring Robert De Niro, Larry Beinhart, and Hilary Henkin

Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, and Macklin Brigham

Date: November 08, 2016

Spinning the Truth: The Role of Public Relations as seen in Wag the Dog

Wag the Dog, a film produced in 1997 and directed by Barry Levinson, directly depicts the power that public relations can have on its audience. To simply state background information regarding the film, Wag the Dog follows the story of how a group of people come together to change the audience’s focus of attention. “Change the story, change the lead” (8:21) That is, they are trying to shift the American’s views from the sexual misconduct the President was accused of being in and moving them toward focusing on something else, something bigger. In this case, a war with Albania. According to Baran, “There is no universally accepted definition of public relation because it can be and is many things – publicity, research, public affairs, media relations, promotion, merchandising and more” (pg. 266). With that being said, public relations grows on trust that it builds upon and with its viewers/clients. Its power to transform an idea, no matter if it’s the truth – “what does it matter if it’s true” – (4:30), and mass market it to the people is quite the phenomena. This leads into discussing how De Niro’s character was a spin doctor, or as he is directed in the movie “Mr. Fix it”.  

Spin, in relationship with public relations, is outright lying to hide what really happened (Baran 277). Having seen and discussed the film, we become aware of how exactly De Niro’s character fits into this definition of being a ‘spin doctor’. He manipulates information and lies to capture people’s attention. In his case, he was trying to shift people’s attention away from the scandal that was happening with the president. With the help of a talented hollywood producer and his dynamic team, he was able to do just that.

A Pseudo-event, as Baran defines it, is “an event staged specifically to attract public attention” (Baran 267). In Wag The Dog, the “spin doctor,” Conrad, staged several events to draw attention away from the sex scandal surrounding the President. The first event was the Press Conference, which served to establish the false rumor that America was going to war with Albania (14:00). This war with Albania was the main pseudo-event of the movie around which all of the other events were framed. The PR team also created a P.O.W., “Old Schu,” who stood as a kind of symbol of the atrocities that the Albanians were supposedly afflicting on their people and on ours. A pseudo-event was created when “Old Schu” was to be brought home as a hero, but this was soon foiled when the team found out that the man who was the face of Old Schu was a convict (1:11:00). When the convict was shot and killed by a farmer whose daughter Old Schu was assaulting, the PR team created another pseudo-event- the funeral of a war hero; as Conrad says, “What is better than the triumphal homecoming of a war hero?”(1:25:00). These pseudo-events successfully distracted the public and the media from the scandal that the President created.

In addition, the PR team was heavily involved in lobbying the President; Baran defines lobbying as “directly interacting to influence elected officials or government regulators and agents” (274). For example, at 14:35, Conrad and Stanley call the agent who is speaking for the President (who is still in China) to tell him exactly what to say during the press conference. This shows that Conrad and Stanley truly have the President’s ear directly.

Edward Bernays is considered by most to be the father of public relations.

Edward Bernays is considered by most to be the father of public relations.

While Conrad and Stanley’s accomplishments were truly impressive, it is easy for the audience to devalue their feats since the film is a work of fiction.  Yes, the events in this Wag the Dog never actually happened in real life, but one should not underestimate what very real spin-doctors like Conrad can do and have done in the United States.  Take public relations pioneer Edward Bernays into account, for example.  Bernays is lauded by historians for being one of the first men in the business to emphasize the value of assessing the public’s feelings toward an organization and, as a result, he had a major role in the formation of two-way communication in PR — talking and listening to the American public (Baran 2014, p. 269).  He is famed for being the “father of public relations” (Baran 2014, p. 282)

As a result of the "Torches of Freedom" campaign, women no longer felt pressured to hide their smoking habits.

As a result of the “Torches of Freedom” campaign, women no longer felt pressured to hide their smoking habits.

In the 1920s, most of the female population did not smoke cigarettes — and those who did certainly did not dare smoke in public.  Cigarette companies saw women as means to increase profit exponentially, they just had to find a way to break down the taboo.  That was where Bernays came in; he hired women to march in the 1928 Easter parade smoking cigarettes, or as he had the women call them, “Torches of Freedom.”   Thus sparked a feminist movement — now smoking was a way to exercise your freedom! — and by 1965, every 1 in 3 women were buying cigarettes, a huge increase from the mere 5% who did in the early twenties.  And to think this movement of “freedom” had been started by greedy cigarette companies…

If this real-world example is not enough to convince critics, think back to one used by Conrad in the film.  While on the plane to Chicago, he explains to Winnie, “Don’t worry, it’s nothing new. During Reagan’s administration, 240 marines were killed in Beirut. 24 hours later, we invade Grenada. That was their modus operandi: change the story, change the lead. It’s not a new concept” (8:00).  While the events that occur in Wag the Dog are dramatized, it is important to keep in mind that our government has and will continue to spin the truth to manipulate our views.  It is only through becoming media literate that we can challenge their actions — but will our voices ever truly be heard?

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The Dominant ‘Social Network’: How the Film Shows that Facebook has Still Got It

The Social Network (2010) • David Fincher [Director]

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake

Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, and Macklin Brigham

Date: November 1st, 2016

The Dominant Social Network: How the Film Proves Facebook has Still Got It

The Social Network, directed by David Fincher and based off a moment of the life of Mark Zuckerberg, is about the creation of one of the biggest platforms of all times: The Facebook. It follows Zuckerberg’s process and decisions in creating a website that had – and continues to have – such a big impact on the internet world. All in all, Facebook is a social networking site where people can keep in touch with those around them. As Baran discusses, social networking sites are websites that function as online communities of users (p. 242).  As Mark said to Eduardo: “People want to go online and check out their friends, so why not build a website that offers that?….. I’m not talking about a dating site, I’ talking about taking the entire social experience of college and putting it online”.(27:27) This shows how Mark, even before he knew what he was capable of creating, wanted a platform available for students to express themselves.

This leads into Baran’s concept of global village. As discussed in our book, this McLuhan’s concept depict new communication technologies that permit people to become increasingly involved in one another’s lives. With that being said, this is exactly what Facebook was providing students to do. As Sean Parker stated: “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” (1:48:45). This is an important quote to always come back to because it exposes us to the world we have entered too. Our generation and those that have yet to come, will become so dependent on platforms like Facebook. This also ties into the idea of globalization that has been a recurring theme among all movies watched. As noted throughout the film, Facebook was rapidly conquering the internet world and becoming exposed to various people from around the world. A scene in the film that provides an example of this phenomena is the following: Marylin Delpy: “What are you doing?” Mark Zuckerberg: “Checking in to see how it’s going in Bosnia.” Marylin Delpy: “Bosnia. They don’t have roads, but they have Facebook.” (55.40) This shows how people are more invested in being able to be in trend with whatever circulates the internet than, in Bosnia’s case, create roads.

Can we consider Facebook a technological revolution, or an evolution? It evolved from Friendster, MySpace, and depending on who you believe, Harvard Connection. In this way, FaceBook was the result of gradual process of development. The whole appeal of Harvard Connection, however, was that it was “exclusive” to those with harvard.edu email addresses (24:08). What is revolutionary about FaceBook, though, is its scope- rather than just encompassing Harvard students, it reaches across the world to Cambridge and other schools in England (1:28:18). And now, in the current age of Facebook, it is worldwide, available wherever the internet is available.

Continuing with the themes of revolution and evolution, revolution pairs with technological determinism, which according to Baran is the fact that it is “machines and their development that drive economic and cultural change (16). Revolutions flip the current state of affairs over in a short time, but is it fair to say that Facebook changed our culture in a very short period of time, and can we say that it drove any cultural change? One could say that it was revolutionary because it allows us to communicate with people across the world with minimal effort, and it also changes the way that people communicate. Most people are friends on Facebook with people who they may vaguely know, but have never met. In this way, anyone who is friends with any person can see intimate details of that person’s life, regardless of whether they know them or not. This is a huge change from Harvard Connection, which was purely for Harvard students.

It can also be said that evolution pairs with social determinism, which states that human sociality drives change, not technology. In this way, Facebook can be viewed merely as a tool to be used in any way by anyone. While Facebook gives us the tools to communicate with people across the country and across the world, we don’t have to use it that way specifically. It can also be used to communicate with your fellow classmates, or your mother. It can be used purely to obtain the daily news, or to communicate within a club or a group. We have the capability to use it how we wish, but the capabilities that we have aren’t driven by the technology, or our cultural change- they are driven by humans.

But how do we know that Facebook is driven by humans?  An overgeneralized, understated answer to this question would be that the fate of the website as a whole hinges entirely on its users, but how is this possible?  How does Facebook utilize its users to survive?  For starters, Facebook is almost entirely composed of user-generated content, or any form of content — including posts, discussion forums, and podcasts — that is created by users of an online service.  Simultaneously, Facebook provides a space where its users can freely express whatever they want to while also offering extensive privacy options to create a safe space.  In the film, an example of the former idea can be seen that depicts the creation of the “relationship status.”  “This is what drives life at college,” Mark declares,

The addition of a 'Relationship Status' section helps send specific signals to potential Facebook friends, and therefore keeps people more interested in the site.

The addition of a ‘Relationship Status’ section helps send specific signals to potential Facebook friends, and therefore keeps people more interested in the site.

“it’s why people take certain classes, why people sit where they sit, why they do what they do” (36:36).  Through giving its users the means to express their relationship status, Mark had found a way to help keep them captivated — and, more importantly, on the site.

Why is it important that Facebook users stay on the site?  Ad revenue. Through the use of cookies, or identifying codes added to a computer’s hard drive, a website can store information about its user (Baran 2014, p. 255).  Facebook does exactly this in order to increase ad revenue.  Through gauging your searches on the site as well as the pages you “like,” Facebook acts as a gatekeeper that chooses what advertisements you are exposed to; if you are a skiing enthusiast, chances are you will see ads for extreme sports shops near your area.  If you are exposed to ads that suit your desires, there is a higher probability that will click on those ads — an act that will earn Facebook more money.

In closing, through applying course concepts to The Social Network as well as the function and actions of Facebook in everyday life, one can see why even over ten years on the Web later, Facebook continues to be a dominating force in both social media and internet users’ lives.  

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“The Iraqi Mindfuck”: What is Truth in ‘Live from Bagdhad’?

Live From Baghdad (2002) • Mick Jackson [Director]
Starring Michael Keaton, Helena Bonham Carter and Joshua Leonard
Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, and Macklin Brigham
Date: October 24, 2016

“The Iraqi Mindfuck”: What is Truth in Live from Baghdad?

From the moment that Robert Weiner informs his superiors that “we’re a 24 hour news network looking for a 24 hour story, and one just fell from the sky” (0:02:33), a media literate viewer should be able to conclude that Live from Baghdad is about much more than the start of The Gulf War.  In fact, the events leading up to the war in the film only truly serve as devices to further the reputation of CNN, which, as Weiner quickly points out, could use the ratings boost.  To a media literate viewer, it’s how Weiner and his crew as well as the other reporting teams in Baghdad handle these devices — how they perceive situations and choose to present them to the American public — that is more important to take into account.  Is his team perceiving and presenting these events correctly; that is, are they doing their duty to remain true to the American people as well as those in Baghdad?  Given the conflicted motives of the United States and Iraq, is that even possible?

One of the main conflicts driving this movie was the hunt for a good story- or hard news. As defined in our textbook on page 92, hard news is: “Stories that help citizens to make intelligent decisions and keep up with important issues of the day” (Baran 92).  What was going on in Baghdad was of extreme importance to people back in America, and CNN was the most dedicated network to getting informational, quality stories. There were times, however, when CNN struggled to get a good story, or were tricked into overlooking the hard news. For example, when the team of Robert Weiner, Ingrid, and other reporters made the extremely dangerous trip to Kuwait, they went explicitly to investigate the report that the Iraqis were removing infants from hospital incubators and leaving them to die:  “More allegations of Iraqi brutality emerged today…as Kuwaiti refugees testified before a Congressional committee: ‘They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the children to die on the cold floor.’ Other witnesses told of torture and violence at the hands of Saddam’s troops.” (38:07).On the way to Kuwait, the reporters witness the carnage of the Gulf War in its rawest form: dead bodies littering the desert, abandoned tanks, and undernourished children running around (45:00).  It is this terrible scene that is the hard news; however, when the team reaches the hospital in Kuwait, they discover all of the babies in the incubators, and the doctors denied any sort of murder (45:50). Soft news is defined by Baran as “sensational stories that do not serve the democratic function of journalism” (Baran 92). The soft news in this situation was that nothing had happened to the babies in that specific hospital. Before the reporters could inquire about the other two hospitals, however, they were rushed out by Iranian soldiers. They recognize what has happened to them when they hear on the radio that there was no truth to the claims of Iraqi cruelty, as reported by CNN; the only issue is that no one from CNN had filed the story- they were tricked by the Iranian government, who did not want the story covered. Ingrid exclaims, “You know what just happened? We just became the story.” (47:30). Though the team did see the carnage of the war, Weiner says, “We didn’t shoot it, we can’t report it” (48:58). In this case, with an important story on the line, the Iranian government foiled the story in order to hide their corruption and murder.

Putting aside the concept of hard news vs soft news that can consistently be seen throughout the film, one has to acknowledge the fact that the media -whether from the Iraqi or the US government – is being monitored and manipulated in Live from Baghdad. As noted above, Weiner and his team flew to a location that was filled with hard and audience-capturing ‘stories’ (Kuwait), however, they were limited to only covering a story that wasn’t even necessarily true. Thus, making the Iraqi government, especially Naji Al-Hadithi, the gatekeepers for this scenario. In other words, they are filtering the information that will be passed on to outside countries. This also leads into discussing the degree of which citizens of the world outside of Baghdad are being properly informed regarding the city’s turmoils. A moment taken from Bob Vinton, an American kept hostage in the city, was interviewed on his views of his extended stay. Although Vinton did not mention any downsides and reported everything was great, his gestures expressed otherwise. Subsequently, he has taken away and the audience is left to assume he was being scolded by the government by sharing information that may not have been ‘pre-approved’. While Baghdad and its citizens were living through a rough time, the outside world knew close to nothing on the truth behind its turmoil. As expressed by Baran, aliteracy is possessing the ability to read but being unwilling to do so. This can be seen throughout the film, especially regarding America’s public media. Due to the fact, that most of them are not sure of what is happening, it becomes difficult on their part to interpret a meaningful interpretation.

Through both the production crew’s use of gatekeeping and the American public’s media aliteracy (in this case, their failure to fill in the blanks as Ingrid had initially expected them to) CNN helped maintain if not increase the United State’s soft power over Iraq.  When one country has soft power over another, their media outlets — CNN and other American news sources in this case — have the potential to change the image perceived by their own culture of the other country and its culture.  As our class learned from Reel Bad Arabs, this soft power over Iraq and Arab culture in general is created and held through the use of stereotyping, or the application of a standardized image or conception applied to members of certain groups, usually based on limited information (Baran 344).  

Applying this definition to the film, the “limited information” is exposed to Americans through their own aliteracy and CNN’s use of gatekeeping.  For example, in the scene

Even something as simple as word choice can change how a certain culture or country is perceived.

Even something as simple as word choice can change how a certain culture or country is perceived.

where Weiner and his crew formulates the segment on Saddam Hussein’s “photo op” with the British boy, he makes his writer change his description of the people being held from leaving Iraq from “guests” to “hostages” (14:38).

 

 Regardless of whether or not these people were in fact hostages, Weiner changes the otherwise neutral description

Arabs portrayed in "Death Before Dishonor."

Arabs portrayed in “Death Before Dishonor.”

into an emotionally-charged description biased against Iraq.  Liberties like this taken by CNN combined with Arab stereotypes accepted by a culture of aliterate Americans — such as the idea that all Arabs have terrorist ties like in Death Before Dishonor (Reel Bad Arabs 19:00) — helped increase the US’s soft power over Iraq in the early ‘90s.

Something that our group though of was that this movie was produced and released in 2002- just after 9/11 and just before the Iraq War. The mindset regarding Middle Eastern countries and their people was a very negative one, and we discussed this fact in relation to the way Iranians were treated in this film. The government is portrayed as corrupt, and Saddam Hussein is portrayed as a monster. Whether or not these portrayals are accurate is a matter to be considered, but this movie does an excellent job of showing America’s opinion at the time, and their fear of terrorist attacks.

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Guilty by Suspicion: Social Constructs, Institutions, and Censorship in a Time of Mass Paranoia

 

Guilty by Suspicion provides a dramatized insight into one of America’s darkest times: the era of McCarthyism.  With the approval of Congress, Senator Joe McCarthy headed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in response to the Red Scare in the 1950s, the goal of which was to “investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the parts of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of Communist ties.”   Although its intentions were good (and even justified, given the postwar American public’s overwhelming fear of a Communist coup d’etat), things quickly spun out of control.  In order to save themselves from imprisonment, those accused had to name other Communists or sympathizers, but many of those named were neither.  Lives were ruined, friendships were lost, Constitutional rights were overlooked all in the name of democracy — and no organization was hit harder than Hollywood,

 

This is where Guilty by Suspicion comes in, telling the fictional but historically-inspired tragedy of Hollywood director David Merrill, his wife, and his close friends — all of whom are accused of being Communist sympathizers.  However, Guilty by Suspicion is not simply about a bunch of people in Hollywood losing their reputations; it is about institutionalized prejudices, it is about government groups abusing their power, it is about the dangers of government censoring the people it is supposed to serve.  How can concepts discussed in Media Industries help the audience see this?

An example of the propaganda against Communism that would have been mass-produced in post-WWII America for the public to consume.

An example of the propaganda against Communism that would have been mass-produced in post-WWII America for the public to consume.

The first concept that needs to be discussed to gain a better understanding of Guilty by Suspicion is the idea of a social construction of reality: the theory for explaining how cultures construct and maintain their realities using signs and symbols, and argues that people learn to behave in their social world through interaction with it (Baran 2014, p. 337).  In the film’s case, the idea of Communists, Communist sympathizers, and Communism in general is being socially constructed.  Regardless of whether or not Communists are actually “bad people,” HUAC capitalizes on the American people’s fear of the idea of Communism and does everything in their power to make them and even their sympathizers look like the worst people in the world.  In the film’s final scene (1:30:00 until the end credits) the committee presents a picture of David and his wife at a rally protesting the atomic bomb and distorts the truth, declaring that the peace rally has “only one purpose: to disrupt public opinion on the matter of the atomic bomb long enough to give the Soviet Union its chance to complete its preparation for war” (1:34:32).  HUAC was so paranoid that Reds were infiltrating American borders  that they felt the need to deem a simple peace rally — anything that went against the conservative administration — as part of the Communist agenda.  Even though they did nothing wrong, David and his wife were no longer respected members of society, they were traitorous Communist sympathizers.

Certain members of the government were so determined to eliminate Communism in America that they too often sacrificed the rights of American people. In Guilty by Suspicion, David is fired from his job as a movie maker, and is persecuted by the government. One other woman, Dorothy, has her child taken away from her for being associated with the Communist Party (33:19). She later kills herself out of grief (1:07:00). While these atrocities sound like they could have happened in a Third World country, this modern day “witch hunt” took place right here in America.  Disregarding the basic right of Americans to assemble where, when, and why they wish to assemble, government officials like Joseph McCarthy rounded up all of the Americans he could find who once had a tie to Communism. David and his wife, as well as some of his friends, did, in fact, attend Communist meetings. However, they attended these meetings at a time previous to McCarthyism, at a time when Communism was popular in Europe.  Regardless of the fact that David was no longer a Communist at the time of his mccarthypersecution, he was brought to trial as if he was (1:25:00). McCarthy and other individuals, using their power as government officials, created an environment of hysteria and fear. This movie very much reminded me of our last movie about Richard Nixon and the lies he told regarding the war in Vietnam- much like McCarthy, he controlled the press and the media like a puppet-master, forcing them to portray the political climate as something that it wasn’t.

 

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Nixon vs. America: The Government, the Pentagon Papers, and Informed Citizenship

The Most Dangerous Man in America • 2010

Rich Goldsmith & Judith Ehrlich  [Directors]

Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, and Macklin Brigham

Date: September 27, 2016

Nixon vs. America: The Government, the Pentagon Papers, and Informed Citizenship

First and foremost, we need to understand what communication is. After all, this becomes an ongoing crucial element in this film. In its simplest terms, communication is the process of creating shared meaning (Baran 4). However, there is so much more to look into rather than its superficial meaning. In a more complex understanding, communication is a symbolic process whereby a reality is being produced, maintained, repaired and ultimately transformed. By knowing this, we can note how communication, or miscommunication might have been transformed by certain authorities – especially the government- in order to mold it to their “liking”. This act can be seen when the media and newspapers were being fooled to. That is, they (the higher authorities)  were “lying through their teeth” and how it was “black and white, no way of denying it” (52:20). By being misinformed, the newspapers were misinforming the citizens which created and endless cycle of the wrong information making itself around. Furthermore, this phenomena can be closely tied to a previous film we recently saw, Reel Bad Arabs, in which the government, in direct relationship with Hollywood, produces and transforms the idea of what Arabs are “supposed” to look like. Throughout the film, we are constantly exposed to how the government took advantage of their power and shaped all information sources to appeal to their preferences.

The Vietnam war was a time of extreme disconnect between the government and the American people. The newspaper, which has been the pinnacle of democracy since the founding of our country, was falsely telling Americans that we were succeeding in the war, simply to keep the peace at home. However, Dan Ellsberg soon uncovered the gory truth, and released the secrets of the Nixon administration to the people. Ellsberg was a military analyst for the United States government, and was thus privy to secret documents that others had never seen. He was helping to build a war in Vietnam. When he met Tony Russo, however, he would begin to deconstruct the war. Tony Russo had spent extensive time in Vietnam, and had become more radicalized than other Americans. He played a huge role in releasing reports of torture that ultimately got him fired from the analytical company, Rand. He revealed to Ellsberg that he had seen blatant lies in studies conducted of the war, and wondered whether these should be taken to the press (40:15). Ellsberg released these papers, and the truth about the war found its way into national newspapers.

The first amendment, which indisputably defends the right to free press, was violated egregiously when the United States Government served The New York Times with a “cease and desist” order to cease all articles about Vietnam. The United States Supreme Court also banned further articles about the war from The Washington Post, but in solidarity with The Post, other newspapers began printing the same information, making it impossible to censor all of them (1:05:00). At one point in the film, James Goodale, the former vice president of The New York Times, deems the paper’s risk and role in this moment in history as a “life or death risk of an institution…the leader of the institutional press in a free country” (56:26).  As a news source whose content was supposed to be protected by the First Amendment (freedom of the press) and was the face of an American social institution that one, had been around for hundreds of years and two, was arguably the second-most popular medium with American masses at this time in history, The New York Times had a lot of power and perhaps even more influence.  If the government were to effectively shut it down after it had leaked part of the Pentagon Papers, the entire newspaper industry as well as the interpretation of the First Amendment would never be the same.  The meaning of informed citizenship, the democratic principle, in the U.S. would have lost its meaning.

Daniel Ellsberg both took the risks necessary to get the Pentagon Papers into the American public’s hands and willingly accepted the consequences for his actions because he believed in informed citizenship above anything else.  Inspired at the time by a young man named Randy Kehler who had been arrested for resisting the draft, Ellsberg decided to stop being a servant to the government and start being a servant to the American public; “I thought, ‘okay, now what can I do to end this war now that I’m ready to go to prison?’” (37:40).  He was willing to spend the rest of his life in jail — once he had turned himself in, he was facing 115 years in jail — if it meant that he upheld his nation’s democratic principles by keeping its citizens in-the-know.

Despite Ellsberg’s efforts to reveal and take care of the corruption in the U.S. government, President Nixon was reelected in 1972.  After exposing such a huge scandal, Ellsberg said, “you learn something ultimately about your fellow citizens that you won’t like to hear, and that is that they hear it, learn it, understand it, and proceed to ignore it” (1:20:00).  Does this show that the American public prefers soft news, or sensational stories that do not serve the democratic function of journalism, over hard news, news stories that help readers make intelligent decisions and keep up with important events.  If this is true, is there even such a thing as informed citizenship in the United States anymore?

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The Name of the Rose: The Book Which Kills

The Name of the Rose • 1986 – Jean-Jacques Annaud [Director]

Starring Sean Connery, Christian Slater, Helmut Qualtinger

Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, and Macklin Brigham

Date: September 20, 2016

The Book Which Kills

The Name of the Rose, which was based off the book written by Umberto Eco, is a 1986 film surrounding the concept of darkness followed by religious superstition beliefs. Under these terms, we analyzed a variety of topics that interrelate with each other. For one, we discussed the difference between William’s ‘new’ reasoning skills versus Religion. More precisely, how religion was seen as the dominant social construct , and therefore controlled the means of censorship. This led us into discovering how intertextuality was seen throughout the film. Finally, we touched upon technological determinism, which led us into the discussion of the printing of the books. Thus, analyzing how technology alone does not determine nor bring social change to history.

One of the biggest themes that runs throughout this movie is religion, which is a social construct. A social construct is an institution that serves to set cultural norms and values (Baran p. 337). The Catholic Church in the Medieval ages was the main ruling institution throughout Europe, particularly in Italy, where the movie takes place. You can see the influence of the Catholic institution both in the abbey, and in the lives of the peasants, who at approx. 17:00 into the film are shown fighting wild dogs and each other to take the food that the abbey is throwing out. You can also see this hierarchy when the monks are seen at 15:48 taking food, tools, and other items from the peasants who are steeped in poverty.

Within the abbey, the power of the Church is seen as well. The monks are not allowed to laugh or speak their minds; as they are sitting to eat their meal, these rules are read aloud to them in Latin: “A monk should keep silent, he should not speak his thoughts until he is questioned. A monk should not laugh, for it is the fool who lifts up his voice in laughter.” (19:00-20:00). A particularly important scene is when William of Baskerville is challenging the Venerable Jorge’s opinion that laughter is a sin: “laughter is a devilish wind,” and “Christ never laughed.” William responds to this with Aristotelian reasoning, asking Jorge how he knows that Christ never laughed, considering that there was nothing in the scriptures that said he didn’t laugh. William even says that Aristotle sees “comedy as an instrument of truth” (34:30).

Since religion was the dominant social construct during the time period in which The Name of the Rose is set, those who had the most power during this time were religious leaders.  Throughout the film, the audience sees more and more how this power has corrupted the religious leaders in the abbey — and this corruption leads to paranoia, which is ultimately the motive for the murders.  Venerable Jorge hid away Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics and claimed it did not exist, then poisoned the edges of its pages so any who dared read it would die a painful death because he loathed and feared comedy.  During the scene (starting at 1:56:30) where William and Adso confront Jorge about those murders, William asks “But what is so alarming about laughter?” to which Jorge replies “Laughter kills fear, and without fear, there can be no faith. Without fear of the devil, there is no need for God.”  However, the audience can tell that Jorge’s paranoia stems not from the lack of need for God, but from the lack of need for the Church as a whole.  Books can be powerful agents of social and cultural change (Baran 2014, p. 52); he fears that comedy and laughter would lead people — in this case the nearby peasants — to question how religious leaders govern everyone else, and therefore take away his own power as one of the heads of the abbey.

To stop this from happening, Jorge utilized censorship; that is, he used his authority to limit access to Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics (Baran 2014, p. 53).  This is where lying about the book’s existence and poisoning the pages comes into play.  If those who actually manage to read Aristotle’s words die when their poisoned fingers make contact with their tongues, then Jorge has ensured that word does not get out about the book and its existence, as well as secured his position of power.  However, this devious act shows the audience why censorship is immoral: if we as a public allow censorship, then we are consciously granting the dominant social construct (now media, not longer religion) control of our lives.  We are letting the bad guys win

The book's poisoned pages are an extreme form of censorship

The book’s poisoned pages are an extreme form of censorship

This shot draws a comparison between the severity of burning books and burning people.

This shot draws a comparison between the severity of burning books and burning people.

But perhaps the most eye opening moment for the audience is the quick shot of the two lit stakes with the library tower blazing in the background.  One cannot help but make a comparison between the two sets of fires — one destroying people and one destroying books.  On top of being powerful agents of social and cultural change, books can also be great sources of knowledge (Baran 2014, p. 52).  This shot is showing the audience that burning books is no better than burning people; by burning books, one is halting social and cultural change and hindering the spread of knowledge.

Theseus killing Minotaur.

Theseus killing Minotaur.

The recurring concept of intertextuality can be seen present in the film. For one, intertextuality occurs when a media text makes reference to another text. Thus, appearing to be unique and distinct on the surface. This can be seen at play when Adso uses part of his robe as string to allow him not to get further lost in the library maze. This story can be originally traced back to the Greek mythology story of the Minotaur and Theseus, where Ariadne helped him (Theseus) navigate the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread. This action, ultimately led him to retrace his steps and kill the Minotaur. Further tying it back into the movie, William acknowledges Adso’s decision of retracing the steps and comments: “Your classical education serves as well” (1.22.56). The action itself, and the supporting comment made by William, are two examples of where intertextuality can be seen in the film.

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“Reel Bad Arabs”: The Micro Picture

Reel Bad Arabs • 2004 – Sut Jhally [Director]

Written by (the film) Jack Shaheen, Jeremy Earp

Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, Macklin Brigham

Date: September 13, 2016

Although it is a fictitious film, watching The Truman Show with a critical lense helped us put into perspective just how much influence media of all kinds have on our lives (watch the trailer here).  News platforms dictate what stories we are exposed to (would potential readers be more interested in learning about natural disasters in foreign countries or Kim Kardashian’s butt?), billboards are constantly catching commuters’ eyes on their drive to work, radio advertisements’ jingles are constantly getting stuck in our heads, to name just a few examples.  These ideas and all other ways media can possibly control the public’s lives combine to make the big picture; that is, The Truman Show shows how media as a whole greatly impacts all of our lives.

aladdinReel Bad Arabs, however, only focuses on one sliver of this idea of media control over society: lecturer and writer Dr. Jack Shaheen explains how Hollywood as well as Western film and television as a whole have reduced the Middle East and the Arab peoples who reside within it to harmful, offensive stereotypes (watch the trailer here). terrorists Stereotypes are standardized images or conceptions that are applied to members of certain groups and are usually based on limited information (Baran 2014, pg. G-8).  Some of the standardized images discussed in the film include “Arabland” — a fictitious, brutal desert chock full of sand dunes, villages whose cultures appear to have been sub wifepreserved for centuries upon centuries, and the occasional lush oasis; Arab men portrayed as either greedy Sheikhs or animalistic, war-crying terrorists; and women seen as either über submissive, oppressed wives or vengeful, heartless killers.  An example of such stereotypes in popular Western film is Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Arabland is presented in all its glory; even though the film takes place in 1936, the village people found in Arabland are still stuck in a period centuries old (why are all the bad guys wielding scimitars, not guns?).

In reality, most Arab and Muslim people are not terrorists or scimitar wielding bad guys; the underrepresentation of their true identities influence Western culture’s perception of them, and people’s perceptions influence their behaviors (Baran 2014, pg. 344).  So why is the first image that comes to mind when the word “Arab” is mentioned usually a terrorist?How have stereotyped and generalized that part of the world, and what is it that is feeding to this idea? This is where cultivation theory comes into play.

In Baran, on page 323, Cultivation analysis is defined as “the idea that people’s ideas of themselves, their world, and their place in it are shaped and maintained primarily through television” (Baran 323). This ties into cultivation theory, because it is innocuous movies like Aladdin, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Father of the Bride Part II that help to reinforce (unconsciously on our part) the stereotypes of Arabs as “backwards, violent, mystical, lascivious, hateful, prejudiced, and misogynistic” (Reel Bad Arabs). According to cultivation theory, it is not one movie that cements the stereotypes of Arabs and others into our young, impressionable heads; it takes several generations, thousands of movies, TV shows, and news reports to produce a stereotype. Stereotypes are CULTIVATED- we (as an audience of the media) feed them and they grow. Take the example of Aladdin’s original opening song – keep in mind that this movie is a Disney production. In fact it is one of the movies they (the producers) are most proud of-. The following lyrics: “Where the caravan camels roam./ Where they cut off your ear/ If they don’t like your face/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” depict exactly what the media wants us to know about these “people”. Moreover, the Disney produces are using a medium that is primarily targeted for children, essentially under the ages of 8. This period of time in which were being exposed to such lyrics is being immediately absorbed and begins to grow and get cultivated in our brains. Furthermore, in our lifetime, we have grown up through 9/11 (whose 15th anniversary was yesterday), the Iraq war, several international bombings, attacks from ISIS, and countless other tragedies that give us an awful picture of the Arab and Muslim/Islam community. This, although incorrect, simply feeds the negative picture we have towards arabs. Thus,  while we know that not all Muslims are bad, our exposure to TV and other media, as well as these events make it hard for us to make this realization.

 

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Media Literacy and The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show • 1998 – Peter Weir [Director]

Starring Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, and Natascha McElhone

Written by: Raquell Muniz, Katie McGarrity, and Macklin Brigham

Date: September 5th, 2016 

TTSAre we “trapped in a fake world?”

Media is everywhere. We post everyday on FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and many more forms of social media- what we are doing that day, what we are eating that day, funny pictures of our friends, of us. Are you single? FaceBook will tell us. Are you in a relationship? FaceBook knows.  Almost every aspect of our life is out in the world for all to see. Even our budding professional careers are displayed on sites like LinkedIn, which lists all of our accomplishments, endorsements from others, and the extent of our education. Try to think of an aspect of your life that isn’t somehow posted on the Internet. I can’t. How, then, is that different from Truman’s world? Everyone knows of his marriage to Meryl, but they also know that he is in love with Lauren. Everyone knows his morning routine (“Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”), what he eats, what magazine he buys each day from the newsstand, and so on. While our world is obviously not scripted for us by a TV production company, all of our lives are more visible to our friends, and even to complete strangers, than ever. However, for all of the time and effort that we spend on social media, our media literacy (hyperlink), I would say, is low. The most common theme among Baran’s 7 elements of media literacy (hyperlink) is awareness- awareness of the process of mass communications, of the impact of social media on us and on others, of responsible production skills, and most importantly, an awareness of the ethical and moral obligations of media practitioners. Do we really think about the process of communicating what we had for dinner last night? Do we always think of how a certain picture posted on FaceBook may affect our ability to get a job later on in life? Do we think about the ethical nature of the creators and CEOs of FaceBook? I would say that not many of us do. We know how to display our lives on social media, but your average person between the ages of roughly 18-29 will not ponder the moral questions brought up by their online activities. Our entire lives are on social media, and in that way, we are all “trapped in a fake world.”

Within the ‘trapped world’ that Truman lived in can be in close relation to the world we live in today. More specifically how everything can be tied back to product placement and hyper commercialism. When you think about it, everything and everyone around us aids to the concept of ‘product placement’. Take what Christof, the ‘creator; of The Truman Show said: “Yes, everything you see on the show is for sale – from the actors’ wardrobe, food products, to the very homes they live in-”and apply it to the world we live in now. If one sees another person wearingPP2 or owning an item that appeals to their liking, they might go home and purchase it for themselves. Thus, living and become active members of this endless cycle where we have become both the product placement for some items and consumers for others. As the movie unfolds, the hyper commercialism taken place in The Truman Show becomes more and more obvious. One of the most noticeable scenes -and where Truman finally begins to catch on that his reality might be altered- is when Meryl is talking Truman into making him a Mococa Drink. She proceeds to say: “Cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua” while strategically placing the product in perfect camera view for the entire audience to see. In our lives, it may not happen so noticeably, however, seeing a peer with the most updated iphone or a fellow classmate with the nicest shoes is all under product placement. The worst part? We don’t realize what the media and society have ‘hired’ us to do for them. Every time we purchase something, we are falling into the same trap that the audiences from the movie had when watching The Truman Show. 

 

Another concept we focused on was the final scene and what is significance played not only in the film, but also to its viewers. For most of The Truman Show’s second half, Truman is aware that something is very, very wrong in the otherwise pristine town of Seahaven.  Stage lights are falling from the sky, men on the radio are tracking his every move — and for some reason, no one wants him to leave.  Of course, Truman is not one hundred-percent certain that he is living in an altered or false reality; every one of the events mentioned above that lead him to believe that his life is not his own are quickly brushed off as something else: the rogue stage light is a broken light that fell off an airplane, the men overheard on the radio are from a foreign frequency resulting from a power surge at the radio station, and Truman can’t drive away from Seahaven because of a spill at the local nuclear power plant.

It’s not until he crashes through the end of the dome under which he has unwittingly lived his whole life (no doubt a symbolic display of “breaking the fourth wall,” when a character in a performance acknowledges that there is an audience watching his or her every move) that he knows for sure that yeah, he’s not living in the real world.  For a moment, he is overwhelmed with emotion, but then he swallows his relief (and sadness too, probably), stands up from the deck of his boat, and walks on top of the shallow water of the fake ocean to the dome’s exit.  Sounds familiar, right?  The gist of this occurrence in The Truman Show is an allusion to Matthew 14-22:33 in the New Testament of the Bible where Jesus walked on the surface of a lake to meet with his disciples. Why would director Peter Weir decide to add this sequence?  What does it mean?

Our interpretation of this scene is that by penetrating the wall, Truman finally becomes aware of his status as a being: in this world created for him, he is a Christ figure, and Christof is his God (this idea of Christof’s God-like power is reinforced by the shot of the sunlight shining through the clearing clouds, a common portrayal of God).  Ironically, Truman’s mediocre life (mediocre from the perspective of us, the audience) is what elevated him to Christ-like fame in: seconds before he leaves through the exit, he asks his Creator, “Was nothing real?”, to which Christof responded, “You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.”

the truman show - creatorimages

But where does media literacy factor into all of this?  Well, media literacy is the ability to effectively and efficiently comprehend and use any form of mediated communication (Baran 2014, p. 27).  Through exiting the world he has lived in for thirty years, this media bubble filled with thousands of hidden cameras and catalogued products ready to be bought, Truman demonstrates media literacy — how else could he have left had he not had some inkling of suspicion that his life was being controlled by a higher power, and that that higher power was basically extorting him for ad revenue?  Through examining The Truman Show in terms of media literacy, the film’s message takes on a new meaning: you are only truly living life when you become aware of the media that control you and when you take action to liberate yourself from their influence.

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