Sep 29, 2009

On regulation and artistic choice

I found this week’s readings on the nature of media regulation much more interesting than I originally expected, such that as I sit down to write this blog, about a million thoughts (mostly in the form of questions, rather than conclusions) are going through my head. I’ll try to parse it out into some coherent strands…

Discussions about access to media production resources and broadcasting for developing and undervoiced groups make a compelling argument for regulation. That is, we need regulation to ensure equitable access for anyone who desires to air their views. It is not so much diversity as an inherent good that needs to be propagated as it is making sure that no one single discourse dominates the media landscape to the exclusion of others, so long as other viewpoints exist.

That said, to what extent does regulation, whether by government or market forces, actually limit the diversity that is represented? Can we trust either the government or market forces (generally dictated by the majority) to know not only what we want to see, but what we should see? Should “what we should see” even be a consideration, or should a concerted effort to show a variety of things and leave the choice aspect to the viewer be enough?

Government governance, presumably working in the greater public interest, can ensure a certain amount of education/Culture (with a capital C!) components to media. It can also ensure that no single interest dominates. Governance by the wrong government, however, can have negative effects on freedom of expression, and can also be susceptible to lobbying interests. Historically, government governance of the media has not spoken to "what the people want," as evidenced by the triumph of commercialized television throughout most of the world.

Government governance also has the effect of dictating a moral code to programming. Moral codes vary by individual, but rather than risk offending anyone, regulation skews towards a more conservative approach. Siochru and Girard mention "prohibitive content regulation" as part of their broader treatment of societal regulation, and note that "normative boundaries are not fixed in the same place in all societies". I would also argue that in a country as large and diverse as the United States, normative boundaries are not fixed in the same place in even a single society. To the extent, then, that representations must adhere to a moral code that may or may not be one’s own, does regulation of things like language or nudity or violence constitute a form of censorship of the artist or producer? And how does that affect the “art” of media?

A personal anecdote: while studying abroad in Edinburgh, my American flatmate and I were in awe of what could and couldn't be shown or said on British television as opposed to American TV. Boobs, butt, curse words -- all were readily available on TV (though generally only after a certain time). In my opinion, liberalization from these content restrictions enhanced these programs because the use of certain language or nudity became an artistic CHOICE. When anybody can show some flesh, the viewer is better able to analyze how and to what effect it is or isn’t used in a way that can’t be asked if there is no choice involved.
When I step back and think of media less in terms of journalism (dominant discourses of FOX vs. MSNBC, New York Times vs. The Economist, etc), and more in terms of cultural entertainment, the freedom of expression advocate in me balks at the idea of regulation, whether by government or corporate interests, or even some kind of civil society board presumably acting on my behalf. Siochru and Girard talk about the "public sphere" as an open, transparent forum where people can be "convinced by reason" rather than by propaganda or through "suppression or distortion of information." They discuss the public sphere in relation to democratic ideals, but I think it relates to access to art as well. I balk at the idea of someone else telling me what is art and what isn't, or, to put it less polemically, what is entertainment and what isn't. I'm sure we've all had the experience of having a favorite show cancelled based on either not enough people appreciating it the way we did, or by suits in New York and LA who take issue with some part of it. I want to make my own decisions about entertainment, not to have someone else, not even another consumer, do it for me.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with Siochru and Girard’s assertion that media products require some amount of regulation because “in important respects they also ‘produce’ us”. While they are not strictly cultural imperialists, noting that media has the ability to empower the viewer towards participation and to effect change in society, this comment seems to draw upon the idea of the viewer as passive and without any media interpretation skills of one’s own.

I think it was Judy who pointed out the need for media literacy last week in class, and it is to that that I draw my conclusion from this week's discussion of regulation. Regardless of who controls the media and who produces it, we as a civil society need to understand its processes so as not to get absorbed in the propaganda or the glitz and the glamor. We need to understand in what ways regulation, by government or by market forces, constrain what we see. We need to understand that Fox News (to take the often-cited case) is propelled both by its conservative viewership as well as by Murdoch's own political views. From the small level of understanding the concept of product placement to the larger understanding of the complex conglomerates that currently dominate the media landscape, we need to have a better grasp of the forces behind the escapist entertainment that we consume.

1 comment:

  1. Yay for media literacy! If people learned how to consume media responsibly, maybe there wouldn't be such an appetite for sleaze.

    I also feel that education on how to produce media responsibly should be added to that. If more people could learn how to create coherent arguments instead of just uploading everything that pops into their mind in a blog, we'd have a lot less to weed through.