While there may be some debate over whether Russia’s or Canada’s version of “Naked News” came first, for many social observers the beginning of serious news delivered by naked women or women in the act of stripping indicates a crisis in the practice of journalism. To say that the boundary between journalism and entertainment has been breached, if not swept away, is for many not a debate at all. It is a simple observation of the dramatic transformations in the practice of journalism that have taken place in the so-called “modern” western industrial democracies.
More interesting is the debate over whether there ever existed a wall between journalism and entertainment, journalism and popular culture, or journalism and ideology, for that matter. Conservative commentators, particularly in the United States, bemoan the loss of objectivity and balance to a rise of a press dominated by liberal ideology. Liberals challenge the idea of a liberal press as a myth propagated by conservative ideologues, counterclaiming that journalism in the United States and increasingly other countries that have come to embrace the ideology of free market capitalism (increasingly known as neo-liberalism), applied to more and more aspects of social, political, and economic life, has curtailed the democratic functions of the press and is moving the United States and other “free market” countries to a new and dangerous form of corporate–government partnership.
Reconsidering The Categories Of “News” And “Popular Culture”
This may seem like creating much ado about the simple juxtaposition of the two terms “news” and “popular culture,” but both terms have complex histories that are ideologically informed and deeply intertwined. Examining the idea of “news” in relationship to the idea of “popular culture” highlights a number of critical issues. The first is that the two terms have often been used as contrasts, “news” referring to the serious side of mass mediated culture while “popular culture” has often been evoked to identify the softer, chaotic, and entertaining dimension of mass-mediated communication. This opens up questions regarding the historical claim of news to a quasi-scientific form of objective truth, and as to whether the “popular” in “popular culture” refers to media of and from “the people” or to mass-manufactured cultural products designed for a consumer society.
A second and related issue concerns the common roots of both “modern” mass-produced news and popular culture. Both are communication products that came into existence in the rise of the “modern” era of expanding industrialization, democratization, and transformation of communication and culture into commodity forms. The irony in the contrast between news and popular culture, in this sense, is that while both are popular forms of communication in the sense of being mass-produced, news was forced, particularly in the United States, to hide its commercial foundation for fear of being perceived as a vehicle of propaganda for the industrial/corporate sector of society. Another irony was that news, particularly by the 1920s in the United States, was being framed as a value-neutral form of information aligned with a scientific worldview, which was generally accepted as a positive outcome of a union between liberalism and technology. The irony was that news at this time was also both claiming and attempting to serve an ideological position, promoting democracy by contributing to the formation of an active public capable of self-government, particularly as contrasted with the idea of the public as a dangerous mob capable of destroying society, say, in sense of the Russian revolution and the revolutionary uprisings taking place across Europe.
So the news in the US in the early part of the twentieth century, founded on capitalist economics, legitimized as value-neutral by its commitment to scientism and progressive professionalism, was promoting a vision of an active public capable of democratic self-government. At the same time within the commercial sphere, the potentially dangerous public, the public as dangerous mob, was being engineered through marketing and public relations to view itself as committed to the “popular,” in the sense of desiring mass-produced culture and material goods as the means by which it would see itself as a unified culture with common, increasingly commercial goals. The echo of the mass society debates engaging social thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, Ortega y Gasset, and members of the Frankfurt School, can still be heard in this intersection of the news and popular culture in the debate over the viability of participatory democracy (Calhoun 1992; Bybee 1999).
A third issue concerning the link between news and popular culture, again related, but not as theoretical or central to those above, examines the representations of news, journalism, journalists, and reporters, in the popular cultural forms of the novel, film, and television. These examinations shed light on the changing nature of the commodified vision of the press as it was represented in the public imagination throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century (see, e.g., Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC) website at http://ijpc.org/).
A fourth issue that is brought into visibility when news and popular culture are considered in relationship is how news, as the serious form of popular, corporate culture frames reality in a way that complements or challenges softer corporate popular culture representations. It is in this sense that media observers such as John Fiske, Peter Dahlgren, Barbie Zelizer, John Fowler, S. Elizabeth Bird, Colin Sparks, and Gunther Kress view news as joining a cultural battle with other forms of popular culture over which reinforcing web of representations will emerge as the dominant frame for constructing reality; or, in the view of philosopher Michel Foucault, which discourse will emerge as dominant. Cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall defines Foucault’s idea of discourse as “a group of statements which provide a language for talking about . . . a particular topic at a particular historical moment . . . discourse, Foucault argues, constructs the topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about” (Hall 1997, 47).
Certainly agenda-setting research, the way in which news media can set the agenda for what is to be considered important and talked about, coming from the mainstream of US and European media studies, could be understood as sympathetic to this view. However, it failed to situate this observation within a more encompassing system of interrelationships between culture as a system of meaning and the social, political, and economic institutions that held in place a particular worldview; from the most humble elements of daily living to the most concrete institutional embodiments, not of a reality, but of a naturalized view of what constituted reality. This is, of course, the power of coupling news with popular culture, because in the domain of popular culture, the observer, whether academic, professional, or amateur, is more willing to follow the idea of constructivism: that “pop” culture is a series of artificially constructed fads and diversions.
To apply this same constructivist thinking to serious “political information” requires a theoretical step that most, not having followed the disciplines of epistemology, hermeneutics, structuralism, and political theory as necessary domains of understanding to make sense of media as a cultural phenomenon, are unwilling to follow. It is here, of course, that the insights of viewing news as not distinct from popular (commercial) culture, but as another genre of it, begin to provide the groundwork for understanding such current popular culture media fare as “reality television” where the stakes are pitched at the very level of what constitutes “reality” and from whose point of view.
Finally, but not exhaustively, another related critical issue raised by the juxtaposition of news and popular culture is the complex dynamics running through the whole modern period and continuing into the late capitalist or postmodern era of commercially produced culture, labeled “serious” or “light,” “soft” or “hard,” or “news” vs “entertainment,” “news” vs “fiction,” or “news” in the dialectic domain of the “popular” as simultaneously a corporate production and an expression of the “popular” view/will of the people which has been excluded from access to corporate media production and distribution.
In this issue we find discussions of the potential for popular resistance, challenge, and reform to a corporate media worldview. One might call this, following Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, a “liberatory” view of popular culture (Freire 1972): as a culture for and of the people, capable of not only seeing through the mystifications of power, but also of understanding and acting on the democratic principles of inclusion, dialog, and participation in the process of achieving social justice. This view of a liberatory popular culture has been expressed through the news form taken to excess (as in tabloid journalism), the parody of news and journalistic practice (consider the popularity in the US of Jon Stewart’s parody of network news called The Daily Show), and the phenomenal rise of alternative/radical media forms (consider the rise of IndyMedia, or more formally the Independent Media Center (2007), which operates in eight languages). These approaches, more horizontal (people-to-people) in form, and involving both “information,” “entertainment,” and imaginative blends of the “information/entertainment” divide, challenge the dominant categories and re-engage a growing number of people as citizens rather than simply as consumers.
This growing ideological war over the health of the media and the political state can be seen in individual countries as well as in the more general challenges to free-market globalization. A particularly dramatic example of a moment when commercial news, liberatory popular culture, and spectacle were united is arguably illustrated by the speech of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as he stepped to the same UN podium in September 2006 after President George W. Bush had delivered his own address there the day before. President Chavez remarked that “the devil” had been at the spot the day before and that it “smells of sulfur still today” (CNN 2006). Chavez then went on with an enthusiastic and detailed endorsement of a new book by noted US left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or survival: America’s quest for global dominance. Critical of US foreign policy and strongly endorsed by Chavez, the book hit the number one spot on Amazon’s US bestseller list two days later (Rich 2006).
News In The Service Of Democratic Culture? Popular Culture In The Service Of An Enlightened And Engaged Public?
It is in this light, the territory of the news as popular culture, that a phenomenon like “Naked News” can be regarded as revealing more than flesh. What it reveals is the nakedness of the emperor and the empire-builders in their control over defining the political, economic, and social situation. Perhaps most notable in such parodies of the news, or in the resistance or liberatory news, is a reflection of how widespread are the market failures of global capitalism unleashed.
Commercially produced news itself appears to be one of the more significant examples of market failure. Commercially produced news, particularly in the arena of broadcast news in the US, was once viewed as a necessary money-losing proposition, required to demonstrate good faith and the commitment to the general public interest of the corporations who made their profits from the use of public airwaves. However, to stay with the US as an example, in the mid-1970s it was found that broadcast news programming did not have to be a money loser. As demonstrated by the popularity and growing audience size of the CBS Network’s 60 Minutes series, a weekly investigative news magazine program, news could be a new and valuable profit center. With this realization, television news in the later decades of the twentieth century underwent a radical transformation, and began pushing whatever contributed to the market value of what was now reconceived as a new commodity, branded “news” or “information,” or even “infotainment.”
The outcome, both in the United States and in other nations, has been deeply injurious to the supposed democratic function of news as the vehicle for both contributing to the constitution of an active, engaged citizenry and to the public debate on issues of critical importance, not just to the corporations, to citizens as consumers, but also also to citizens as members of a democratic culture that goes beyond the formal institutions and roles of politics to all places where power is exercised. The audience for what is increasingly viewed as news as corporate-speak is tuning out in record numbers (Mindich 2005). Morale among journalists has been plummeting as the corporate bottom line has become the operative rule as to what gets covered, how it gets covered, and what gets left out. In June 2007 even Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, in a speech hosted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, compared the hyper-competitive, profit-driven news media to “a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits” (Sullivan 2007).
The juxtaposition of news and popular culture has been and can continue to be an enormously productive area of research and understanding of the dynamics of twentyfirst-century cultural politics and power, particularly if the relationship is viewed with the complexity it requires, holistically, and with the commitment to go beyond isolated, reductionist economic analyses that simply reify “infotainment” and the outcome of market forces and call for a return to a simpler cultural past that never was. Perhaps the most critical new direction the news/popular culture contrast suggests is investigation of the deteriorating stock of public meaning which provides the foundation for democratic culture.
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