The LA Times recently covered a new service called Tugg that allows individuals to schedule and promote digital film screenings at their local multiplex. The idea is to provide self-selected audiences with an opportunity to view movies that major theater chains don’t deem commercially viable for extended runs.
[t]he organizer selects a local theater, locks in a date and then aggressively promotes the event using Facebook, Twitter or other social media. If people reserve enough tickets — a screening typically requires a minimum of 50 advance ticket purchases — Tugg then books the film in one of the theaters that have signed up for its service. (LA Times)
Tugg is still in beta and the ability to organize a screening is not yet open to the public. I wasn’t able to determine how the catalog is curated, but my hope is that there will be relatively few filters for producers (and other rights managers) who want to make their films available. I’d also like to see smaller (art) theaters be included as potential venues. But the underlying logic of Tugg’s platform is compelling.
Tugg holds potential for producers working in the margins because it adds another avenue of distribution and revenue generation to the mix. But Tugg also offers new possibilities to civil society organizations. In addition to asking individuals to download and view a movie individually, or host a screening in their own home, organizations can bring together larger crowds and make use of the opportunity to host discussions and generate further collaboration in relation to campaigns and other initiatives. Of course, this kind of thing has been happening for decades in schools, libraries, and other public venues, and there may still be advantages to choosing those locations. But Tugg enables a new social viewing space that combines the ease of over-the-top, video-on-demand delivery with the quality, comforts, and convenience of the theater. That mix might help to attract larger and more diverse audiences.
In short, Tugg seems to offer a new set of possibilities for the cinema to serve as an articulating mechanism of civil society. I will be watching to see if community media producers take advantage.
Ninety faculty members and priests at Georgetown University have “skewered” the federal budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). While normally not the kind of thing I would post about on this blog, the exchange between Ryan and the Georgetown group turns on the issue of subsidiarity, which is a vital concept in my vision for participatory media structuration. I became familiar with the concept of subsidiarity through Michael Albert’s writings and interviews on Participatory Economics. For example:
…you should give priority to do things locally, if you can, and if you cannot do them locally, you of course have exchange at a regional, national, continental or even global level. This is called subsidiarity.
In discussions of participatory economics, subsidiarity is linked to a long line of anarchist libertarian thinking.
Ryan, however, has claimed that his budget proposal is predicated on the concept of subsidiarity as it derives from Catholocism:
To me, the principle of subsidiarity, which is really federalism, meaning government closest to the people governs best, having a civil society of the principal of solidarity where we, through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good. By not having big government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.
Those principles are very very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence.
I hadn’t been aware, but apparently the Catholic church incorporated subsidiarity into its social teachings throughout the course of the 20th century. Here’s the (very good) definition that appears in the catechism:
…a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
Well, apparently the learned folks at Georgetown disagree with Ryan’s interpretation and application. Rather soundly, in fact:
While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on “subsidiarity” as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching. Subsidiarity is not a free pass to dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices. This often misused Catholic principle cuts both ways. It calls for solutions to be enacted as close to the level of local communities as possible. But it also demands that higher levels of government provide help — “subsidium”– when communities and local governments face problems beyond their means to address such as economic crises, high unemployment, endemic poverty and hunger. According to Pope Benedict XVI: “Subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa.”
Ryan wants to employ the concept as part of an individualistic libertarianism, but Benedict’s emphasis on solidarity derails his attempt. It’s worth noting, in this context, that the definition in the catechism talks of higher- and lower-order communities, without mentioning individuals. It therefore better justifies the interpretations of subsidiarity that inform Christian Anarchism, as practiced within the Catholic Worker Movement, and Liberation Theology (through which participatory communication became an important component of Sandinista policy in Nicaragua). I would say it also justifies the interpretation manifest in Participatory Economics, though you can read a dissenting view here.
So what does all this have to do with participatory media structuration? It means that decision-making for media production should accord with the principal of subsidiarity. To the extent possible, “lower-order” communities should produce their own media. Since we need media to inform us about and comment on phenomena that take place beyond the local level, however, a media system must be scalable and co-ordinated by “higher-order” communities. Among other things, this framework offers new possibilities for thinking about the question of funding, since instituting subsidiarity is crucial to enabling state funding of media production while maintaining editorial autonomy, a proposition that is often dismissed as impossible in arguments for capitalist control of the media.
Media reform will be more effective to the extent that reformers can offer a vision for what an alternative media system might look like. This is why it’s important to articulate a scalable model of participatory media based on the concept of subsidiarity. If we do so, and if libertarian-minded republicans are already bandying about the term, then it might be possible to hoist them on their own petard. In a best case scenario, we might find unexpected common ground for truly democratic media policy. More likely, they would dig in their heels, but at least some of the contradictions of their rhetoric would be revealed. Either outcome would be positive.
Theater of the Oppressed, Participatory Budgeting, and the Dialectic of Meaning- and Decision-making Public Spheres
Public sphere theorists do not properly account for the difference between meaning- and decision-making spheres. As I discussed in my previous post, this distinction was identified by Fraser but has remained underdeveloped. That baffles me, since the dialectic between meaning- and decision-making public spheres is a (if not the) primary axis of democratic practice. It’s what we talk about when we talk about accountability, and it seems like theorists could make better use of the conceptual distinction in order to model democratic practice and structuration.
The difference between these types of public spheres is simple. A public sphere that determines binding and actionable decisions is a decision-making public sphere. Examples include sovereign parliaments, boards of directors, or a conversation among colleagues about where to go for dinner. Meaning-making spheres, on the other hand, may indirectly affect decisions, but they do not produce them. So a public sphere that plays out in the press and other media outlets, as well as lobbying and constituency networks, is a meaning-making sphere that ultimately plays an important role in the decision-making sphere that is a sovereign parliament. Corporate boards of directors also pay attention to meaning-making spheres, especially those constituted by the business press, consumer feedback and opinions, and personal networks comprised of other corporate executives. And those colleagues going for dinner bring knowledge about restaurant options that they’ve perhaps culled from meaning-making spheres including conversations, reviews in the press, online gastronomy fora, etc.
The boundaries of decision-making spheres are, by necessity, much more rigidly constructed than those of meaning-making spheres, which are typically fuzzy and in flux. We can conceive of the latter theoretically, but in most cases can not pin them down in reality. That’s why we must understand public spheres (of both types) within a scalable, modular, and interpenetrated model.
The latest issue of Latin American Perspectives has an article by Ariane Dalla Déa that nicely illustrates the dialectic between meaning- and decision-making spheres, though it doesn’t invoke public sphere theory at all. The article discusses “Representations of Culture in Theater of the Oppressed and Participatory Budgeting in Brazil” and finds that “[b]oth forms claim sociopolitical change as their main objective, and the difference between them is in the possibility of realization of that objective” (54). Participatory budgeting (PB) meetings – as I understand them – are not actually decision-making spheres, but are meaning-making spheres specifically constructed and tightly circumscribed in order to directly inform budgetary decision-making. Here the dialectic of democratic accountability is highlighted and concretely addressed. In Theater of the Oppressed (TO), a meaning-making sphere is constructed from the actors and spectators, and particular emphasis is placed upon their interaction. In most cases, however, it is not tethered to any specific decision-making sphere:
Aside from representations confined to the stage, I have never seen anyone actually acting out a Theater of the Oppressed solution in a community to produce real change. The expression of these experiences seems to be simply an exercise that produces awareness of one’s status in society. Whereas individual experiences in participatory budgeting offer solutions for the community, Theater of the Oppressed works on private issues in isolation from their history and the cultural forces surrounding them and combines an array of individual experiences in ten-minute presentations of fictionalized stories. It is a ritual that carries cultural symbolism. (58)
I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to say that TO is isolated from the history and cultural forces of private issues. I’ve always understood one of the goals of TO to be the elucidation of the links between private issues and historical/cultural/social contexts, with the idea being that participants bring those contexts to the fore through theatrical reproduction (which Dalla Déa discusses as mimesis). So while I’m not as dismissive of TO as Dalla Déa sometimes seems to be (her account is somewhat ambivalent), I agree with her distinction between its role and that of PB:
In the budget meetings, accounts of experiences with lack of services, which tend to carry an emotional load, actually break with a pattern of exclusion in Brazilian society, temporarily eliminating social distance as citizens address their concerns to the agents of power. This is the redressive action of social drama. In participatory budgeting reintegration occurs when the services are delivered to the community. In Theater of the Oppressed there is legitimization when the audience and actors agree that there are possible solutions, but there is no reintegration. One presentation alone does not have the power to take the social drama beyond the stage. (58-9)
This is not to say that TO can not influence decision-making spheres, “but change at this level is slow and may take more than a generation to begin showing its effects at the community level” (59). Agosto Boal, the founder of TO, attempted to speed up this process by more tightly incorporating TO into local governance. “When Boal was elected to the city council in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, he attempted to recreate it by renaming it ‘Legislative Theater’ and attaching it to the new political movement of participatory democracy” (60). Dalla Déa tells us that this attempt was derailed around 2004, when the program was relocated to the city’s communications department, but doesn’t detail how it worked out over the previous decade. I’m not sure that TO is worthy of special treatment, but I can support the impulse to more tightly integrate cultural activity with democratic governance. Without a strong theoretical model for the dialectic interplay of meaning- and decision-making spheres, however, such attempts are likely to be more effective at legitimizing hegemonic structures than effectively channeling citizen participation into decision-making procedures.
Nancy Fraser’s 1992 essay on “Rethinking the Public Sphere” (a version of which first appeared in 1990) has to be one the most highly cited articles in communications studies, and deservedly so, as her critique of Habermas elucidates several crucial points upon which the continued advancement of public sphere theory depends. Most scholars, however, have focused on her discussion of “counterpublics”. Almost entirely ignored (at least, as far as I know) has been the distinction she makes between “weak” and “strong” public spheres.
A sphere that does not produce binding decisions is weak; one that does is strong. As an example of the latter, Fraser offers a sovereign parliament. I have preferred to refer to these types of spheres as “meaning-making” and “decision-making” spheres, respectively, both to avoid the tacit hierarchization of Fraser’s terms and to emphasize the communicative aspect of the work being accomplished in each.
When communication scholars talk about public (and counterpublic) spheres, they almost always talk about meaning-making spheres, assuming but leaving almost entirely implicit the necessary relation between the two in a democratic society. I find this odd. We spend all our time questioning the way meaning-making takes place, yet frequently act as if the decision-making processes of liberal representative democracy and corporate hierarchies are givens. This is all the stranger considering that the goal of questioning meaning-making is often tied to a very real desire to change the decisions that are being made. Don’t get me wrong – I’m certain that most critical communication scholars have a deep sense of the inadequacies of decision-making in our “actually existing” democratic states. Nonetheless, I find an insufficient emphasis on the dialectic relationship between meaning- and decision-making spheres. The distinction between these two types of spheres needs to lie at the heart of any model that purports to explain the functioning of public sphere deliberation.
I’ve got plenty to say about that, and some of it will come out in the last chapter of my dissertation. I expect that, if I persist with an academic career, my writing will continue to revolve around this issue for a long time to come. How could it not? It is, after all, the core mechanism of democratic practice. For the moment, suffice it to say that I’m backing a scalable, modular model of multiple and interpenetrated public spheres organized according to their meaning- and decision-making functions.
In any case, the Nieman Journalism Lab just posted an article about Politico Pro, which is a premium version of Politico tailored to government officials, congressional staffers, lobbyists, and anybody else who can pony up thousands of dollars a years to receive extremely detailed and lightning fast updates on the minutiae of Washington sausage making. The information they serve up is so finely parsed that subscriptions are sold to only one of four (soon to be five) “verticals” at a time; currently, you can choose from technology, energy, health care, and transportation.
I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer or more focused example of the dialectical interaction between meaning-making and decision-making public spheres and the role that journalism can play therein. Politico Pro is serving as an articulating mechanism for four very specific meaning-making spheres, each of which is tied into the same decision-making sphere (ie. congress). These specific meaning-making spheres also exist within multiple larger meaning-making spheres. The (non-premium) Politico serves (articulates) the next scale of meaning-making – still rather restricted to those who pay close attention to politics, but not close enough to merit shelling out a few grand for even more granular and rapid information. Zoom out to the next scale and the representative press outlet might be the Washington Post or NY Times; one more and it’s perhaps USA Today, at the level of the “national” public sphere, or The Champaign News Gazette (or whichever “hometown” rag), at the level of a “local” public sphere. Or it might be a press release from Free Press, which picked up on a Politico (or some other) article about some nasty new legislation coming down the pipe, in which case the meaning-making sphere is no longer geographically bounded, but determined by a different criteria of identity (in this case, media reform activism). I could go on – in an interpenetrated, modular structure, the examples are truly infinite.
To be clear, I’m not saying – by any means – that Politico Pro represents an ideal for this type of dialectic interaction. In fact, as an exclusive form of commercial journalism that further entrenches the pro-capitalist lobbying structure that has so severely corrupted our already limited “actually existing” liberal democratic state, I find it highly problematic. Commercial journalism is beholden to hierarchical decision-making in a private sector oriented toward commodification and capital accumulation. I’m interested in a non-profit, participatory media apparatus that serves democratic decision-making within an autonomous civil society, and community media is a great place to start building.
I’ve been marinating this public sphere model for a few years now and only now am I starting to feel like I can articulate it in a way that makes some sense and holds some practical potential. Hopefully this post has begun to convince you…
The Mexican Senate has recently passed an amendment to the federal constitution that would make crimes against the press subject to federal jurisdiction. The idea, apparently, is to bypass state and local authorities that are prone to corruption. The amendment needs to be ratified by a majority of Mexican states, which Senators expect to happen by June. I’m guessing it will take longer than that, but hopefully it will happen. More journalists were killed in Mexico than any other country and violence against the press tends to go unpunished – Mexico’s impunity rate ranks eighth worldwide and second in Latin America. Keeping journalists safe should fortify and embolden the press, which might just have a salutary effect on Mexican democracy.
I would argue, of course, that Mexico would benefit more from a citizens’ press, anchored in civil society, than from a commercial press oriented toward capital accumulation. That’s why the wording of the amendment, as Danny O’Brien has pointed out, is especially encouraging. The amendment states that the feds will have jurisdiction over any offense “against journalists, people, or outlets that affects, limits, or impinges upon the right to information and freedom of expression and the press” (“contra periodistas, personas o instalaciones que afecten, limiten o menoscaben el derecho a la información o las libertades de expresión o imprenta“). With this wording, enforcement won’t necessarily hinge on a victim’s standing as a journalist, a determination that has proven contentious time and time again (and again), largely because it has been bound up with a nineteenth century model of professional journalism.
Of course, the proof is in the proverbial pudding and, as O’Brien points out: “constitutional amendments are allowed a little more leeway in their language than the laws and court judgments that spell out how they should be enacted. And the effectiveness of Mexico’s press protections will depend far more on the secondary legislation and the vigor of its investigating prosecutors than the letter of the law.” But constitutional recognition of a “right to information” is a definite positive. In other Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Venezuela, similar constitutional guarantees have been used as the basis for legislative frameworks that enable the provision of resources for the creation and maintenance of community media outlets.
Does a public access participant journalist have the right to record public police activity? Does anyone?
The first chapter of my dissertation – on which I’m (more or less) hard at work these days – includes a review of the various discourses used to talk about community media during what I’m calling its “golden era” of experimentation, the 1960s and especially 70s. I won’t go into details here (why drive down the market for my book, right?), but suffice it to say that I’ve been learning more about the history of cable/public access TV, a really great concept that rightly or wrongly (mostly the latter) became known, if at all, as a marginal space for the kooky, radical, and allegedly obscene fringe. So I was gratified to read a post by Jonathan Peters at The Nation that mentioned a public access participant journalist, Jerry Edmon Fordyce, who was arrested at a protest all the way back in 1990 and went on to file a civil suit that has some potentially important implications.
In relation to the arrest of 36 (and counting?) journalists covering Occupy events around the nation, Peters presents a FAQ regarding journalist rights while covering protests. I was especially interested in Peters’ response to this question: Do reporters have the right in public places to record police activity?
Over the last several years, as video cameras have become smaller and less expensive, the likelihood of any noteworthy (or not) event being recorded has risen steadily. Citizen/police officer interactions are particularly apt to be recorded, and I think that’s a good thing. Many police officers, however, don’t, and they have occasionally arrested the videographer for violating state wiretapping or eavesdropping laws which stipulate that all parties must consent to the audio recording of a conversation. The laws are worded differently in different states, and interpretations of those laws by the police and courts have also varied. If you’re thinking about recording the cops in Massachusetts, Maryland, or Illinois, though, you may want to find a lawyer ahead of time.
If you live in Washington, however, you can rest easier, thanks to Mr. Fordyce. While both documenting and participating in an August 5, 1990 protest march in Seattle, Fordyce had at least two encounters with the police. He testified that in the first, “his camera was deliberately and violently smashed into his face by Officer Tyler Elster while Fordyce was publicly gathering information with it during the demonstration.” Then, later in the day:
Fordyce was videotaping people on the streets of Seattle [and] simultaneously audio-recording them as well. Prior to arresting Fordyce, an officer asked him whether the videocamera was recording voices and warned him that a Washington State statute forbade recording private conversations without consent. Fordyce refused to stop videotaping two boys after an adult relative supervising them asked him to stop and complained to the police. The police officers also asked Fordyce to stop, but he refused. He was then arrested for violating Wash.Rev.Code Sec. 9.73.030.
Fordyce spent the night in jail, but the charges were ultimately dismissed. Then Fordyce filed suit against the city of Seattle and eight of its police officers (including Elster) in Washington District Court.
He sought, in addition to damages, an order enjoining the defendants from applying the statute to arrest or prosecute persons who record communications in public places with readily apparent video or recording devices…. Finding that declaratory relief would be less intrusive than an injunction, and that no injunction was necessary, the court entered judgment declaring that RCW 9.73.030 does not prohibit the recording of a conversation held in a public street, in voices audible to passersby, by the use of a readily apparent device.
As I understand it, this means that the court chose not to actively prohibit the city from arresting people for recording in public places, but it did “declare” that the law couldn’t be applied in order to prevent someone from doing so. In the end, that was the final decision, although, as one might expect, both sides appealed certain aspects of the case (which had more facets than I’ve presented here), and I can’t help but relate the seeming superfluity of what happened next.
In relation to RCW 9.73.030 (the “eavesdropping” law), the City argued that the District Court should not have granted declaratory relief because Fordyce failed to properly notify the Attorney General of Washington State about his complaint. As a result of this technicality, the Attorney General was supposedly prevented from voluntarily appearing to defend the applicaiton of the state law and instead was only able to file an amicus curiae brief. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and vacated the declaratory judgment. This decision was then appealed to the US District Court, which (apparently unlike the Ninth Circuit Court) took the trouble of asking the Attorney General’s office if it felt wronged for the lack of notification:
The State of Washington filed a response declining to intervene, noting that the original judgment “was consistent with the observations of the Attorney General participating as an amicus curiae,” and concluding: If the Court decides that it should grant declaratory relief, the Court should reaffirm the interpretation of RCW 9.73.030 made in its previous Order on Motions for Summary Judgment…
And that’s just what happened. The City finally (in 1995) agreed to stop opposing the commonsensical interpretation of the state law and the District Court reissued its declaratory judgment. So today, thanks to Jerry Fordyce, a participant journalist for Seattle community access television, citizens of Washington State can hold their police officers and other public servants accountable by recording the public performance of their duties. (Fordyce also received a $1500 settlement in relation to the assault allegation against Elster and had his attorney fees and costs covered by the City.)
Will the courts reach the same conclusion in other states? They apparently did in Maryland, where the case described in the link above was ultimately dismissed (though apparently without a declaratory judgment). The state of Illinois is proving to be more obtuse, however. (Also see the previous link.)
Meanwhile, the Fordyce case has been influential in shaping the outcome of at least one civil lawsuit, which was filed in response to a Pennsylvania arrest (where the charges were later dropped). In that case, according to Elizabeth Spainhour, the Third Circuit Court found that “videotaping the police with an expressive purpose may be protected by the First Amendment, while videotaping the police without an expressive purpose may not be protected”. Spainhour goes on to note that, “[f]or the average citizen, demonstrating that videotaping the police was done with an expressive purpose may be a challenge, but, presumably, posting video to a blog or YouTube would meet the threshold.” I’d say public access television would, too.