Semester in Review, I: Politics
With the fall semester well over, I feel I can now write freely about the classes I took. (I always feel a little strange gushing about classes before final grades are in.) This post is the first in a series about what I was up to this fall. I was taking four regular classes and Ma'ayan's photography ExCo, pictures from which will be sprinkled throughout the more academic posts.
This fall, I took my first politics course, Mass Politics in a Media Age. I thought it would be fun to take this class during a campaign season, and boy was I right! Classes usually opened with at least fifteen minutes' worth of discussion about recent developments in the news. A lot of the time Professor Parkin was laughing incredulously as he threw out the prompt. One day in November he opened class with, "So: how long do you give Herman Cain?" Responses ranged from "he'll probably drop out today" to "he's never going to drop out himself, but the media might drop him out" to "if he hasn't lost support now, he never will." Lively debates ensued. If I learned nothing else from this class, I learned that politics majors love debating. (Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that people who cannot see a point without debating it tend to become politics majors.)
The course began with a study of how--or whether--American democracy works. We looked at a lot of demographic information about who votes and who doesn't, who votes for which party, and when which groups started what behaviors. For instance, the older people are, the more likely they are to vote; young people, such as the 18-24 and the 24-30 demographics, are more likely to vote for liberal candidates, but they are also increasingly likely to identify as liberal independents rather than Democrats; the South started going Republican when integration began to be enforced. Then we started talking about whether it matters that voter turnout is so low. Do the well-informed political junkies who do vote also take care of the interests of those who don't? Do people abstain from voting because they would be okay with any outcome, or do they do it as a protest, a way of saying they despise all the candidates?
Professor Parkin is Canadian, and he suggested that voter turnout is low here because we have so many elections: federal, state, municipal. He thinks we simply get burned out and/or overwhelmed. When it's too much work to vote in an informed matter, people vote at random or don't vote at all. In Canada, apparently, everyone votes for a party every four or five years. They don't elect the director of the local waste treatment plant or the person who oversees tap water quality. That makes sense--those aren't political offices, exactly.
From there we moved on to generating even more debates, by which I mean addressing the media's role in all this. If an informed electorate is important, is it the media's job to keep them (us) informed? Is it the duty of the political parties? Is it the duty of individual citizens to seek out varied and thorough sources of information? And how does the Internet affect all this? How are bloggers becoming part of the political process, and is this a good thing or a bad one? Which ones are good? Can we/should we/how could we possibly regulate any of this?
I enjoyed the discussion of bias. Several of our readings suggested that overt political bias is less harmful than the commercial biases of the news, focusing on novelty, drama, forceful personalities, and exciting storylines over well-rounded coverage and proper follow-up of yesterday's headlines. I rarely watch television news--a true twenty-first century student, I watch The Daily Show and listen to NPR via the Internet--but when I catch glimpses of it, it strikes me as nauseatingly over-the-top. I'm glad that political and media scholars agree with me.
Amid all this, we had two projects designed to give us a feeling of what the media actually has to do, hopefully instilling us with a little sympathy. As Professor Parkin put it, "Now that you've spent two weeks figuring out why the news is bad, let's see if you can do it better." The first task was to make a one-minute-long news story covering anything we wanted. The student senate had just held its fall election, which many of my friends just rolled their eyes about. The voting is held online for a period of several weeks, with e-mails containing links to the website sent out periodically reminding students to vote. The fact that this is necessary piqued my interest. My group decided to interview some student senators about whether and how student senate is relevant. (We also wanted to get records of how many students filled out the online ballot, but we never got a reply to our e-mail.)
Our interview was okay, but some of the other stories were outstanding. There were a few about environmentalism on campus: one about whether it stems from the student body or from the administration, the other about the Allen Memorial Art Museum's recent LEED Gold certification. There was one about theft from DeCafé, the little grocery/deli that you can buy things from with cash or meal plan "flex points," which was fascinating. I knew that theft has been a problem in the past, often in the form of people eating things before they get to the cash register. The group actually had footage of someone pocketing a candy bar, but they chose not to put it in the story (!). They did, however, have an interview with someone who had stolen from DeCaf. This person's face was in shadow and their voice distorted--a bit over-the-top itself, maybe, but also perhaps necessary; better safe than sorry. It seems that people steal because the line to buy things is too long, as well as because things are pricey at DeCaf. (To which I would argue, yes, but you can buy things with flex points, which aren't quite real money, and the reason prices have gone up is because people are stealing things!)
Each group talked a bit about the choices they'd made in making their story--whether they'd intentionally tried to avoid biases, whether they'd used the commercial shortcuts that we'd read and talked about, and so on.
Then we moved on to the relationship of campaigns to the media: how pervasive media has led to increasingly scripted campaigns, how scripted campaigns have driven the media to be everywhere to get a glimpse of the "real," "human" side of the candidate, how anyone with a cell phone can bring down a campaign these days . . . and then we got to the second project: we got to make a campaign ad!
The ads had to be thirty seconds long and as professional as we could make them. We could run ads for real or fictional people, attack ads, whatever. During the class period that we watched them, everyone had a sheet of paper and rated each one's convincingness. This was my second-favorite class of the semester. (We'll get to my favorite in a minute.) My group did one for Michele Bachmann in an attempt to do something very different from our actual beliefs. The only way we could do this convincingly was to avoid actual issues entirely. There were two silly ads about Professor Parkin that hinged on his Canadianness--one an attack ad, one a shamelessly corny song promoting his campaign for "govern-eh-tor." There was a clever inversion of the bright, hopeful Obama ads of '08 featuring dejected young people voicing liberal disappointment with the president against a white background (which was clearly a piece of butcher paper with crease marks where it had been folded, representing the decay of dreams, although that was probably unintentional). "He promised to close Gitmo." "I thought we were all going to get free health care." One person just sighed and looked down. This was only a thirty-second commercial, so everyone was sitting there thinking, "Yeah . . . but now who . . .? " When it ended, Hillary Clinton's campaign logo came up, photoshopped so that it read 2012 instead of 2008, and the class released an audible "Ah." It was very well done.
The ad I liked best, though, was reminiscent of the best of The Daily Show's media mash-up videos. It gave clips of the various Republican candidates' most famous gaffes, set to silly music (except for a long, silent pause after Herman Cain said, "Libya . . . .") and ended with a stunning photograph of President Obama facepalming at a podium. The group made two versions of this. One ended with a quote from Obama written over this picture--a joke he made once about not needing to run attack ads making his opponents look bad because they do that on their own--and one ended with just the picture. As a class, we decided the one without the quote was more effective. It lets the viewers make the connection on their own, giving them a sense of empowerment and superiority. Putting in the quote is unnecessary as far as helping people get the joke, and it could backfire by making Obama look condescending or smug. Moral: sometimes less is more.
Now, on to my favorite day of class! One way the political coverage has been changing is that comedians have been getting in on it. Many scholarly articles have been written about this. We got familiar with the literature and discussed it in class. That's right, we did a scientific study of The Daily Show.
Actually, it was more than that. We discussed "soft news" and politics in entertainment throughout the history of the media, beginning with Truman (long after his presidency) on a variety show. That was strange at the time, a former president in an entertainment setting. Then Nixon pulled strings and got on Laugh In to look more human, then ended up giving the world's most wooden "Sock it to me." Reagan, who was, after all, an actor, was very human and accessible on TV. Things really picked up, though, when Clinton, to get free publicity and to avoid a sex scandal, went on the entertainment circuit in 1993. Now it's obligatory for candidates to make the rounds of Sunday morning talk shows or late night comedy shows. Many of them even announce their candidacy or concede on these shows. Often they get more face time and more straightforward discussion of the issues on these shows than on the actual news, thanks to the Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite. Some supposedly soft-news interviews are harder-hitting than "real" news at times (see, again, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert). For those interested in such things, there are several books on comedians and politics.
Another advantage of the Comedy Central shows is that they provide meta-coverage. The mainstream media pretends it doesn't exist when it's covering events, even ones such as conventions and rallies that are scripted to death and held mostly for the benefit of the media. They try to be objective by removing themselves, but that can lead to playing along with a campaign's script rather than questioning and probing deeper. Those Comedy Central media mash-ups expose that. Jon Stewart, in effect, is sitting in the back of the audience watching the watchers and reminding us of the things we don't think to see. It's brilliant.
And then there's the history of politics in entertainment. The Smothers Brothers was a short-lived variety show that got kicked off the air when its very clean-cut, straight-edge hosts performed a song protesting the Vietnam War. Professor Parkin described Archie Bunker (of All in the Family) as "the original Stephen Colbert." I haven't seen much of the show, but the first five episodes or so tackle racism, women's rights, and homophobia. This was in 1971. And later, Vice President Dan Quayle attacked a fictional character, Murphy Brown of the show of the same name, for having a child out of wedlock. The show apparently shot back in-universe, although I haven't seen the show so I don't know exactly how that worked.
I could gush on for hours and doubtless give away a great deal of the class material (why Americans are more accepting of news censorship than other people; what role social media played in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement; a debate in the style of the British Prime Minister's Questions), but I will come to a close. I'm happy being a psychology major, but every now and then I find myself glancing curiously into the realm of Communications. This class was part of that. It was fascinating.