Media monstration, the politics of small things, and The Daily Show —

Daniel Dayan and I are teaching two courses at The New School this semester, Media and Micro-politics and Theories of Publics. Both courses combine his media theory of “monstration” with my work on “the politics of small things.” The discussions have been illuminating for the two of us, and it seems that the students also are both enjoying themselves and learning. I write here the first of a series of our responses to the discussions.

Ours is an ongoing dialogue about “the ironies of consequence,” considering how the big and powerful may become powerless, and how the small and apparently insignificant may come to prevail, and analyzing the role of the media in this. I focus on the details of social interaction and social gestures. He focuses on the details of how things come to appear.

We had our first debate last week. I am much more skeptical about the power of “The Media” than Daniel is. Where he sees a center of power that is often arrogant and abusive, I am often struck by the powerlessness of the media powers, as they face the power of social interaction, often mediated. He thinks the media set the agenda more thoroughly than I think actually happens. I see not only the possibility, but also the reality of resistance, even when it doesn’t prevail. The power of big media is great, but it is something else completely if it faces persistent resistance.

Much to explore here, an outline for a dynamic political sociology of media. I am thinking about a kind of political field. Big media received by individuals and groups, yielding expected and unexpected results. Groups enhanced by small media, not only responding but often setting the agenda for big media, or not being able to accomplish this.

But, I admit, Dayan makes a central point. The Media do frame the news and set the agenda for the public, using their power to show some things, conceal others, as he puts it the power of monstration. Indeed, the media constitute the public sphere, as Dayan understands it, the zone where the public agenda is set. Media monstration matters. And consequently, they are a power unto themselves. The media both serve the powers that be and are an independent power, with their own interests. While I emphasize the limits of big media power, he emphasizes how much can be done and how media power is abused within those limits. As a critic of the French media, he is a forthright critic of this power. He will be presenting some key examples this week to the next Media and Micro-politics session.

As I look at American media, I know that Daniel makes some telling points, but also see humor in this, thanks to the satirical prowess of John Stewart and Stephen Colbert of the Comedy Central cable network. And the humor has a consequential side.

Stewart was particularly sharp last week on French – American relations, as it happens. See from minute 9:26 in the the video of last Tuesday’s show.

Note: only Aljazeera America reported the state visit of French President, Francois Hollande’s straight, as a matter of the public issues of the day, the shared interests and commitments of two nations and their conflicts. All the other clips, Stewart showed, a cross section of cable and network TV, focused on the scandal of Hollande not traveling with Valérie Trierweiler, his partner of the past seven years, after it was publicly reveal that he is cheating on her with a new mistress, Julie Gayet. They presented Hollande as a character in a soap opera, and super seriously examined how the White House is addressing the etiquette challenges of the awkward private life of the French President. Accompanying the clips and Stewart’s responses, the slogan “Homme Alone” split by a White House image was shown. Stewart was pretty amusing as he demonstrated how the media confirmed Neal Postman’s thesis about television, that it is “amusing us to death.”

It was funny stuff, until the final frames: the CNN closing of the story and Stewart’s response. The CNN reporter noted that there were important topics like Syria and Iran on the table, but then asserted: “But at least for now foreign affairs are being overshadowed by affairs of the heart.” And Stewart observed: “Yes they do seem overshadowed, because you are blocking all the light.” The show on Comedy Central is deadly serious.

Stewart stands as a critic of the power of the media, as Dayan understands it. Stewart and Dayan both understand the power of monstration. Yet, Stewart also reveals my point, that there is a power of responding. In his case, as an agent in a media institution, giving life, not death.

My role in our discussions about media last week was to emphasize this agency. Media institutions are not just machines. As in all institutions, they are constituted through organized social interactions: producers, directors, editors, reporters, actors, videographers, investors, marketing agents, etc. work together. They work together to produce communicative ends – the news in the case of cable and network news programs, “the fake news” in The Daily Show and “fake commentary” at The Colbert Report. There are rules and norms, enforced by various kinds of controls, that make certain results likely, e.g. “fair and balanced news,” as Fox defines this, or “all the news fit to print,” as The New York Times understands this. But there is a struggle to achieve the results, a struggle that is both cooperative and conflictual. That there is a predictability in the results is revealed by the same consequence of the interactions in all the major media presentations of the French President’s state visit. The exception of Al Jazeera proves the rule. Perhaps it is just because they are the new kids on the block and haven’t yet learned the rules of the game, as Jon Stewart sarcastically asserted. But intentionally not learning the rules is a result of social interactions. It proves that there will be exceptions. A task for future discussions will be to account for both the rules and the exceptions.