Media Policy [August 23-27, 2010]

Avi Santo's picture

Monday August 23, 2010 – Bill Kirkpatrick (Denison University) presents: Please Feed the Trolls: 4chan and Vernacular Media Policy

Tuesday August 24, 2010 – Joshua Heuman (Texas A&M University) presents: Unsettling Accounts: The Cultural Life of Hollywood Economics in Johnson v Rysher, Celador v Disney, and so on

Wednesday August 25, 2010 – Jennifer Holt (University of California, Santa Barbara) presents: Access of Evil: Google, Verizon and the Future of Net Neutrality

Thursday August 26, 2010 – Allison Perlman (New Jersey Institute of Technology/Rutgers University-Newark) presents: The Politics of the “Same Level Playing Field”: Race, Citizenship and Net Neutrality

Friday August 27, 2010 – Tom Streeter (University of Vermont) presents: Law in the Text


Theme week organized by Karen Petruska (Georgia State University)

Picture from Holly Deakyne via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License permission and altered with permission from the photographer.

  • Please Feed the Trolls: 4chan and … by Bill Kirkpatrick

  • Remember the 1910s tropes about “little boys in short pants” pranking the nation via wireless? These brats supposedly redirected ship traffic, sent rude messages, and generally turned the new medium into a dangerously immature schoolyard. They became an easy target of early radio policy; federal licensing is, in the first instance, about making wireless operators knowable (and thus accountable) to authorities.  Step One in official media regulation, at all times and in all places:  reduce anonymity.

    What does that have to do with today’s clip?  In the eternal recurrence familiar to media historians, today’s little boys in short pants are the “cyberbullies” of 4chan /b/ (NSFW). In “good trickster” mode, 4chan sent Justin Bieber to North Korea, took on the Scientologists, and gave us LOLCats.  But in “bad trickster” mode, they occasionally unleash the full Loki on harmless individuals.  This clip comments on the Jessi Slaughter case, in which 4chan rained ever-escalating torment on a puckish 11-year-old girl (who seems to have enough problems without bearing the vast meanness of the internet as well; back story here).

    What interests me is 4chan as both “vernacular” policymakers and targets of official policy. The person in this clip might not participate on 4chan, but he articulates clear policy stances about the legitimacy of anonymous online speech and the proper role of parental vs. governmental authority in monitoring children’s internet usage—policies that 4chan enacts and enforces every day. 4channers police the internet far more vigorously than the FCC, using their authority to regulate the behavior of millions (often regardless of law or justice).

    In this sense, 4chan is close in spirit—and effect—to the shakedown trolls of the RIAA and the moralists in Congress forever passing limits on speech.  What if the only real difference between the rough justice meted out by 4chan and that pursued by, say, corporate copyright-holders is that one is dignified and protected with the word “policy” while the other is legislated against as ”cyberbullying”?

    4channers also shape regulation dialectically, by symbolizing problems for top-down policy to solve. Their antics are the background noise of the Lori Drew case, the excuse for corporate control of social spaces, part of the context for why Facebook—led by another ruthless young punk—lacks substantial clout on policy issues.

    In understanding media policy, then, the bottom-up regulatory practices of online brats are at least as important as official, top-down regulation.  If we end up, say, losing anonymous online speech, it will be because we refused to appreciate policymakers like 4chan, mostly because they make little kids cry. In other words, to preserve a free and open internet, we need to be more gracious with 4chan than they would ever be with us.

  • Unsettling Accounts: The Cultural … by Josh Heuman

  • In a big day for entertainment lawyers, July 7 saw decisions in two contract disputes over participations in under-reported profits. In Johnson v Rysher, Don Johnson won his share of profits from co-ownership of Nash Bridges. In Celador v Disney, Celador won its share of profits from licensing the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? format. Despite occasional JD fantasies, I don’t work in entertainment law. But the two cases and others like them suggest interesting conversations across fields, about domains and approaches in the study of media regulation.

    Studies in entertainment law (and economics) give careful attention to the day-to-day life of media industries and their regulation. In particular, they suggest the determinacy of dealmaking, contract, and industry organization, as a mode of regulation continuous with state law and policy. They tend to leave parts of the story untold, however, in understanding industrial relations as relations among already formed economic actors. In the trades, for example, Johnson and Celador were framed as demystifications of “Hollywood accounting” that distorted otherwise straightforward contractual relations. That frame captures much of what’s interesting about the cases (not least for anyone on Johnson’s or Celador’s Christmas lists). But it also neglects how industry roles and functions are constructed in regulated industrial relations. Cultural economics suggests the relative difficulty of assigning value to inputs and outputs in cultural industries. This difficulty leads toward often very entrepreneurial negotiations of the economic and cultural value of industry roles and functions. Contracts and cases that follow from those negotiations might not only reflect relations among already formed actors, but also crystallize particular moments in their continual formation.

    This point lurches around themes developed much further elsewhere (right now I’m thinking of Sean Nixon and Jon Kraszewski). But entertainment law might be a good place for lurching around them. In defending his share of Nash Bridges profits, Johnson justified claims to ownership with provocative claims to authorship. As originator of the Millionaire format, Celador claimed an economic and cultural authority much more problematic than Disney’s accounting (Fox might’ve simply developed an unlicensed knockoff). Around the same time as Johnson and Celador, Lady Gaga’s and Ke$ha’s ex-managers came out (of the woodwork?) claiming breaches of contract that disrespected their participations in the stars’ careers (Maria Sanders and Matt Stahl have written fascinatingly on industrial authorship in pop-stardom). Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane revisited claims and counterclaims to authorship and royalties in their collaborative work on Spawn (fans were very savvy to the cultural problems raised by the case). Besides skipping over Eric Dane’s claims to authorship and ownership, this short list only scratches the surface of The Hollywood Reporter’s Esq blog, and doesn’t even touch daily dealmaking reports across the trades (what’s an overall deal, and what’s it have to do with exclusive contracts for comics writers?). Across the domain of entertainment law, economic forms carry interesting cultural freight. Contracts and cases raise questions about struggles over those forms, but they give no final answer.

  • Access of Evil: Google, Verizon and … by Jennifer Holt

  • Google and Verizon recently released a 2-page immodest proposal, a “policy framework” for FCC consideration, outlining their vision for the future of net neutrality. Net neutrality is the current principle requiring Internet service providers to adhere to the rule of common carriage and treat all communication moving through their pipelines equally. Those advocating against it (e.g., those same service providers) would like to create a “tiered” Internet – one which treats the content of high paying customers differently, transporting it in a digital “express lane” while everyone else waits…and waits…and waits. The Google-Verizon proposal is a combination of decent ideas (such as advocating for certain measures of transparency) undercut by terrible ones that would severely threaten the future of an open Internet (exempting the wireless arena from net neutrality regulations). The fact that these companies are actually purporting to help the FCC write and set policy would be hysterically funny if it were not being taken so seriously by the press, lawmakers and even those charged with regulating the Internet.

    Given their often-competing interests, these companies are strange bedfellows indeed. Their newfound alliance would not be possible, were it not for Google’s dramatic about-face on the issue of net neutrality. As recently as 2006, Google was rather active and innovative in their appeals to the public to join the fight to preserve net neutrality. Columbia law professor Tim Wu and others have argued that without net neutrality, Google might have been crushed by Microsoft before the company ever got off the ground. What a difference four years in a deregulated telecommunications landscape makes.

    In addition to busting Google for shifting positions on net neutrality and going over to the dark side in this clip, Jon Stewart highlights the free-range consumer ignorance and paucity of informed media discourse that threaten to take down this critical issue of cultural policy. Granted, regulatory debates are difficult to explain and don’t usually make for great television. Even comedian and former SNL star Senator Al Franken could not inject enough energy into a recent interview about the future of net neutrality to keep the most engaged viewer from falling asleep. Thankfully, the “fake news” of The Daily Show provides regular wake-up-calls like this one.

  • The Politics of the “Same Level … by Allison Perlman

  • If you attend a media reform event, there is a good chance you’ll hear the slogan,  “if you’re first issue is x (racism, sexism, pacifism, environmentalism, etc), your second issue should be media reform.”  The slogan, though catchy,  presumes a synergy of interests and confidence that “media reform” will elicit analogous priorities across activist groups.  Yet fissures have emerged between organizations over how to pursue public interest goals.  Net neutrality has been one of those issues.

    Free Press, who produced this video, is a media reform organization whose most active campaigns have been against media consolidation, and for net neutrality and an invigorated public media system. Though it advocates for media diversity, and has penned two important studies on minority and female ownership of broadcasting stations, it has been accused of an insensitivity to the pressing media needs of minorities and women, its focus on structural change occluding how racism and sexism still inform media content and the construction of the public on which policy is built.

    While net neutrality has garnered the support of civil rights groups like and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, others like the NAACP and LULAC have been more tepid. People of color consistently have had lower levels of access to broadband than white consumers, and thus the primary Internet policy concern for them has been to bridge the digital divide. It’s a frustrating position for Free Press, who has tried to debunk the belief that in the absence of net neutrality ISPs will invest in broadband in minority communities or lower costs.

    It’s within this context that I am interested in the visual iconography of this video, which opposes faceless (or green-faced) media corporations and an embodied, unified public and which instantiates the “everyday citizen” as an African American boy. One could read this cynically, as intending to conceal the tensions among reformers or to persuade that the primary Internet civil rights issue is access of content, rather than access to broadband itself; I’m inclined to be more generous, and to view it as a sincere gesture for inclusion. Even so, I cringe when the voiceover intones how “everyone is connected to each other through the same level playing field” against the image of the “everyday citizen,” which feels like a thumb in the eye to activist groups concerned about uneven rates of connection. 

    We should remember that the 1980s and 1990s were a pretty devastating time for minority media rights, as policies to promote diversity and redress historic inequities were gutted or vacated, victims of both deregulation and a conservative culture war discourse that presumed an equal playing field for all citizens. All this made it tougher for civil rights groups to get a toehold in the policymaking process, and enshrined a race-less construction of citizenship insensitive to the realities of inequality in myriad forms of access. 

    I don’t suggest here that Free Press has indulged in analogous forms of whitewashing. Instead, I hope to question how media reformers can proceed forward by challenging, rather than replicating, the notion of a unitary and knowable public, one that has the potential to efface the continuing discrepancies in power amongst citizens even as it highlights those between the public and media corporations.

  • Law in the Text by Tom Streeter

  • For media studies, law is usually treated as a background factor, not as central as the details of the text, the times, or the hearts and minds of the audience. But what if textual pleasure is conditioned by things not in the text at all? What if it is linked to, say, ownership, that is, the coerced flow of resources from some to others, to the legitimized violence of the State? By placing discussions of legal issues next to film clips, an IMR theme week on policy raises intriguing questions about the role of coercive social power in the production of textual pleasure.

    Consider the closing credits of It’s a Wonderful Life (here, run backwards, for reasons that will soon become clear). The film, certainly popular by any definition of that term, was by most accounts burned indelibly into American popular consciousness because of a legal mistake: not particularly successful at its theatrical release in 1946, the film fell into the public domain when the studio accidently failed to renew its copyright in 1974. According to the common wisdom, television stations across the U.S. then got in the habit of running the film in heavy rotation during the Christmas season as a cheap way to fill their airwaves. So the film became part of the cultural background of a generation of Americans, many of whom still tear up at the end when war hero Harry Bailey appears, offering a toast “to my big brother George. The richest man in town!”

    In the early 1990s, industry lawyers mobilized some thin legal excuses  to recommodify the film; copyright of colorization, soundtrack, and the original novel were said to be enough to assert control over the whole thing. This defining text of American sentimentality and nostalgia cannot be reduced to economic forces. Yet without these machinations of property law, American sentimentality and nostalgia might well have been defined differently. Why, apart from a mystical attachment to a transcendant subjectivity, should a materialist analysis of culture treat that fact as somehow external to the “essence” of the text? I love this movie, but why should textual form or lived experience be more important to explaining my love than the legal technicalities? 

    Is there a way of reading culture that brings legal force out of the shadows? Running the clip backwards, foregrounding the normally ignored legal assertions of the closing credits in the text, is an admittedly gimmicky effort to gesture towards some as yet undefined mode of reading that refuses to separate the sinews of power from the experience of the text itself.

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 23 Aug 2010 04:00:14 +0000