Thursday, December 12, 2013

How the other half lives

You might indeed have awakened on some planet with twelve ammonia-fueled suns, whereon the feckless Kenyan's handshake with the murderous dictator of Cuba was dwarfed only by the "international incident" he and his friends created with somebody's iPhone:

Call it the selfie seen 'round the world.

No, don't. Has no one at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network even heard of the list of Forbidden Ledes?

Among the enduring images from Nelson Mandela's massive memorial service in Johannesburg Tuesday will be one of a jovial President Obama taking a cell phone pic with his seat-mates, Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Britain's David Cameron.

As the three of them smile for the camera, a stern-looking Michelle Obama can be seen staring straight ahead, hands clasped. As if to remind anyone who sees this photo years from now that it was, after all, a memorial service for one of the great human rights leaders.

More about that in a minute, because we're skating up to the point at which the goofy theoretical stuff actually starts to explain the practical stuff fairly well. But first, this:

The tsk-tsk-ing could be heard across continents.

"What on earth is going on? Why do world leaders now behave like this?" The Daily Telegraph's Iain Martin wrote. "Perhaps it is just that the current generation -- my generation -- is so appallingly spoiled that basic notions of decorum have been shot to pieces."'s Erick Erickson tweeted: "Thank you Mrs. Obama for knowing how to behave at a funeral."

Stop the tape here for a second. "Across continents," meaning -- one blogger for the Torygraph (initially quoted by the New York Post) and the hapless Erick Erickson? Sounds like we need to go to the Post itself:

Looks as if somebody will be sleeping on the Oval Office couch for a while.

First Lady Michelle Obama gritted her teeth in rage Monday as her husband treated Nelson Mandela’s memorial like a Justin Bieber concert, openly joking with the pretty blond prime minister of Denmark in the middle of the services.

The first lady’s icy glare seemed to be sending the message that the president’s antics were not fit for a solemn service for the world’s most respected human-rights leader.

But all of Michelle’s angry looks couldn’t kill her hubby’s inappropriate behavior — as he continued to laugh, flirt and whisper with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

"Antics," of course, was the headline term of choice in the nation's capital, where the Times was chiefly concerned with the Handshake of Satan:

The spotlight on President Obama’s day in Johannesburg marking the life of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela was stolen by a controversial handshake and an oddly timed “selfie.”

The Times is placing another brick in the layer of assumptions about the real world. Somehow the handshake and the selfie seem to have become the  day's most earth-shattering story, regardless of how shaky a foundation of teeth-gritting, icy rage and angry looks they rest upon. The whole perspective -- Fox, Post, Times -- makes sense if you look at it under James Carey's conception of communication as both transmission and ritual. In the latter sense, reading Fox* (or the other Murdoch products) is like going to church. You don't do it to learn new things; you do it to be reminded of why all the stuff you already know about communists and liberals and Negroes is still true.

But, you note, these are actual IMAGES!!! Of REAL STUFF!!!! Check out Paul Messaris and Linus Abraham's explanation of how visual framing works, especially the idea of "indexicality."** Photos work because -- of course! -- there's an objective machine interposed between us and the event, and we all know machines never lie. Whatever thousandth of a second you might have captured, it's as true as anything else, because it was captured by a machine. Who cares what might have gone on the other fifty or sixty minutes when you have a photo that -- you know, photos!

And that, in its way, is why you can probably learn more from the reader comments than from the stories themselves about why Fox and the Post and the Times were so obsessed with these images. Put on your rubber gloves and have fun; I have to go grade for a while.

* Carey would point out that the same idea holds to some degree for news organizations in general. That's true, though I think it's healthy for grownups to admit that the Murdoch empire fundamentally differs from places where the governing ideology comes from an evidence-based planet.
** Which they borrow from C.S. Peirce, but that's theory for you. 

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