Introduction: Unpacking Events
Issue #23, December 1995
When the commercial satellite was developed in the 1960s, it became possible to broadcast TV signals around the globe instantaneously. This technology has changed the way we look at the world. Even if a story only has national or local interest, the media handles it with the same techniques developed for the hallmark global events of the satellite era: the moon landing, the Olympics, the World Cup, and the various televised wars. The most superficial news item of local TV newscasts is packaged as an 'event'. Live feed, interviews with bystanders, newscasters' remarks all scream out the significance of what is being reported. Although we may not realize it, we live in a world where experiences are only considered meaningful if they can be constructed in relation to a media event.
Experiences become media events because their packaging distinguishes them from the rest of everyday life. In other words, events don't just happen: they are made. And increasingly, they are made by the media. If something important happens, it may invite being transformed into an event. Yet, without the media packaging, it will be ignored by most. Wars can take place without receiving the slightest media attention. Conversely, a minor squabble can grow into an earth-shattering event — if it is packaged right. Take the British Royal Family for example.
In the best tradition of Bad Subjects, the articles here approach our event-obsessed culture from unexpected angles. Imagine one of those endlessly repeated live shots on the nightly news. The reporter faces the invisible camera head on. She fills the center of the image, imparting stability to the scene of the crime or celebration. Because we see this kind of shot so much, it has come to seem 'normal,' however much it leaves out. Now imagine a different shot, showing you not only the reporter, but the media apparatus that makes that first shot possible. Or a long take focusing on one of the bystanders that doesn't just get a 5-second sound-bite, but a 10-minute discussion of how that person came to perceive the 'event' in question. Or even a special documenting someone's living room, with the media's segment on the event droning on the TV. This issue of Bad Subjects is filled with such 'abnormal' shots.
Annalee Newitz and John Brady's articles look at two of the events that have dominated the American media in recent months. Both show how the media's packaging of these events hides as much as it reveals. Annalee argues that the "Million Man March" organized by Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam had important affinities to mens' movements of the sort inspired by Robert Bly's Iron John. The bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building inspired a spate of dire analyses of the American heartland. By placing this incident in the context of other assaults on centralized state power, John is able to give a different take on its meaning.
The recent explosion of conservative talk radio has forced us to reexamine what passes for accuracy in the media. What would once have been considered humor is now offered as a 'truth' suppressed by the so-called 'liberal media.' Patrick Burkart explores this ingenious repackaging of mainstream news items, contending that it forms an important part of a comprehensive conservative strategy.
Freya Johnson turns to a different sort of media event: the blockbuster movie. Back in the late 1980s, the marketing of the first Tim Burton Batman film made the creation of product tie-ins an indispensable part of movie marketing. It is no longer enough for a blockbuster to sell as a movie alone: now it has to sell as a media event too. Bearing this in mind, Freya discusses a different sort of 'packaging' in the most recent film in the Batman series, Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever. She argues that the homoerotic dimension that permeates this film constitutes a trojan horse, concealing an altogether different message about 'good' and 'bad' captitalism.
Jeremiah Luna and Cynthia Hoffman focus on alternatives to the sort of mass events that fill the airwaves. Jeremiah describes his arrest at a San Francisco demonstration in support of death-row intellectual Mumia Abu-Jamal. The actions of the police department that night received little media attention. As Jeremiah makes clear, however, those actions should have received more coverage. His article suggests how leftists might go about packaging unreported incidents as important events. Cynthia discusses another unreported action: the Oregon Country Fair. This gathering is designed to counteract the negative effects of our media-dominated culture by creating an 'event' of a different sort, one whose significance does not depend on its packaging by the media.
Finally, Joel Schalit offers his first effort in the confessional mode used in such memorable Bad Subjects pieces as Matt Wray's "Apocalyptic Ecstasy" and Kim Nicolini's "Streets of San Francisco". Joel explains the development of his particular attitude towards religion by narrating some significant events in his childhood. In the process, he also shows how individuals' attempts to understand themselves in the present depend on the ways in which they package — or repackage — their past.
The editors would like to thank the Reverend Doctor Kritikal Dubbs for his cover graphic and Mike Mosher for his image of the "Million Man March".