Monthly Archives: November 2008

The Yes Men Strike Again!

There is a tendency among scholars interested in media and social activism to focus on how social movements make instrumental use of mass media to enhance organization profile, to change public policy, to foster a sense of collective identity, or a combination of some or all of these things. Yet, before today’s media savvy activists were holding news conferences, the most accessible and fundamental mode of radical expression was public speech, and oftentimes ironic and satirical speech.  

Few activists are as effective in blending the spirit and practice of satire and radical rhetoric as the Yes Men, a group of pranksters who have successfully impersonated and thus “corrected” the identities of the rich and powerful. Posing as ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council (NPC) representatives, Yes Men activists delivered an outrageous keynote speech to 300 oil barons at GO-EXPO, Canada’s largest oil conference, held at Stampede Park in Calgary, in June 2007. In November 2004, taking on the persona of a Dow Chemical executive, Yes Men pranksters conducted a live video interview with BBC News announcing that at long last the company was admitting its negligence in the 1984 Bhopal disaster that immediately claimed the lives of 3,000 people and contributed to the deaths of at least 15,000 more.

After a year of quiet, the Yes Men have struck again, and this time at the heart of the American media machine. New Yorkers awoke this morning to news that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq war had ended, that the U.S. government had established national public health care and education, abolished corporate lobbying and placed a cap on CEO salaries. The Yes Men arranged to have 1.6 million fake copies of The New York Times printed and delivered to several key locations across the Big Apple, where volunteers recruited through the prankster’s website were on hand to distribute the news.

The Yes Men’s pranks are a prime example of culture jamming, a form of radical speech which involves efforts to disrupt existing transmissions of information. Using a combination of hoax and banditry, the Yes Men endeavour to trip up, jam or block what they see as the overwhelming power structures that govern and control what we think and how we feel. In contrast to other media activists who wish to deny and denounce with a view of negating the cultural influence of mainstream media, pranksters like the Yes Men prefer to play with and subvert the hegemonic power of conventional thought. As Christine Harold puts it in her excellent paper on culture jamming, pranking is more about the “artful proliferation of messages, a rhetorical process of intervention and invention, which challenges the ability of corporate discourses to make meaning in predictable ways.”

While culture jamming is often celebrated as a postmodern phenomenon rooted in the Situationist Movement of the late 1960s, there is something quite medieval about the Yes Men’s use of irreverent laughter. In his notoriously grotesque novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, published in the 16th century, Francois Rabelais reproduced and valorized the speech of the village marketplace, a language quite remote from the purities of the literary intelligentsia, clergy and courts of the time. With mockery and humour, Rabelais celebrated those moments when the solemnities of religion and authority were ritually inverted by the common folk. Writing about Rabelais and his world, Mikhail Bakhtin said of laughter that it “clarified man’s consciousness and gave him a new outlook on life. This truth was ephemeral; it was followed by the fears and oppressions of everyday life, but from these brief moments another unofficial truth emerged, truth about the world.” 


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Healthy Cities, Governable Subjects

Ever wonder what it would be like to live in a city where everyone was healthy, wealthy and wise? A city where there were no Big Macs, where everyone rode their bicycles to work and people just seemed to be in better spirits? If you are looking for such a utopia, Manchester England may be your Xanadu.

The newswires were abuzz yesterday with reports that Britain’s National Health Service has cooperated with local authorities in Manchester to provide incentives to citizens to eat more fruit, spend more time at the gym, engage in more preventative health measures and just lead a more productive and healthy lifestyle. Manchester is hoping to fight the fat with a reward system that will operate, for all intents and purposes, like a retail loyalty card program. But rather than earning credit for opening their wallets only, citizens will earn points for spending their hard earned dollars on fresh fruits and veggies and their leisure time doing pilates.

According to a report in the Associated Press, Manchester residents will be able to “swipe their rewards cards and earn points every time they buy fruits and vegetables, use a community swimming pool, attend a medical screening or work out with a personal trainer. Points can be redeemed for athletic equipment, donations to school athletic departments and personal training sessions with local athletes.”

It’s a public health craze that appears to be gaining traction in the UK. Tower Hamlets, the third most deprived London borough, will be undergoing an extreme makeover of its own — according to a report by the BBC, almost £10 million of government and local money has been earmarked for a “Healthy Cities” initiative that will turn the community into a place where people will find it easier to exercise and choose healthy food: walking and cycling routes will be extended, food co-ops will be established and fast food outlets will be enlisted in a campaign to offer more healthy meals on their menus.

With below average life expectancy, low exercise rates and unhealthy eating habits, the people of Tower Hamlets are thought to be at the centre of what the local primary care trust calls an “obesity epidemic.”

Beyond Manchester and Tower Hamlets, towns in other countries have tried similar programs. Varallo, a small town in northern Italy, offered cash rewards for residents who lost weight and kept it off for 12 months. Some U.S. companies wanting to keep health care costs down have also established reward programs for their staff through what HR types would call value-added employee assistance programs. For example, the Michigan-based Freedom One Financial Group sent 21 employees who met weight-loss goals on a four-day Caribbean cruise in 2005.

What does all of this tell us about the politics of public health today?

In The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century, Michel Foucault accounts for the emergence of a medical services market, the professionalization of medical practitioners, the development of benevolent associations and learned societies concerned with the observation of social conditions and innovation in medical techniques, among other things. While the state plays a variety of roles in relation to these developments, he argues, the ways in which health and sickness became matters of problematization ‘beyond the state’ contribute to an awareness of them as elements of population management.

Central to the politics of health in this period is the emergence of concern for the well-being of the population as an essential objective of political power – this is a view of power that concerns itself not with the capacity to dominate and repress but to produce things, to manage conduct and coordinate new ways of thinking and behaving. This shift towards policing the social body that Foucault argues was peculiar to the 18th century was related to the broader consequences of the industrial period’s demographic transition, in which an urgent need arose to rapidly integrate increasing numbers of people into the apparatus of production and to control them closely. It was these forces, he argues, that made the notion of “population” appear not just as a theoretical concept, but “as an object of surveillance, of analysis, of intervention, of initiatives aimed at modification.”

The cases of Manchester and Tower Hamlets, Varalla, and many others illustrate not only Foucault’s argument that the exercise of power is concerned increasingly with managing and channeling human conduct (rather than dominating or repressing it) but it also show that while non-governmental bodies play a key role in contemporary health politics, the state also plays a fundamental role in terms of ensuring that “the state of health of a population as a general objective.” Whether this is a good thing, a bad thing or something more dangerous remains to be determined.

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Filed under Health Issues, Health Promotion, Lifestyle Risks, Public Health, Surveillance

Vaccines, Autism and the “Liberal Media Conspiracy”

In a media release dated November 11, the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest (CMPI) accused CBS Evening News, and singling out its lead anchor Katie Couric, for leading a witch hunt against vaccine makers and perpetuating a myth that there is a link between vaccines and autism. According to the CMPI, “CBS Evening News has aired six stories over the past two-and-a-half years that included extremist views of vaccines and autism.” The Center’s President and Director of Programs, Dr. Robert Goldberg, also alleges that CBS intentionally ignored an announcement by the California Department of Public Health that cited a lack of peer-reviewed scientific evidence supporting the link between thimerosal (a preservative found in vaccines that are commonly given to children) and autism. According to a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 5,000 U.S. families have filed claims through the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program alleging autism was caused by vaccines containing thimerosal; the majority of these claims are still pending.

There are several noteworthy observations to be made here, but I’ll restrict myself to three: 

First, there is no question that the national media in the United States has given considerable attention to claims that vaccines may be linked to autism, whether in fact there is unquestioned scientific evidence to support their claims or not (since when has media coverage of health issues ever been based on the principles of science!). Although autism advocates and parents of autistic children have long crusaded for more media publicity and federal resources to better understand autism and provide meaningful supports to autistic children and their families, it took Jenny McCarthy, a mother of an autistic child, but also a former playboy bunny, actress and now best-selling author, to thrust the issue into the media spotlight. The clip below is an excerpt from McCarthy’s interview on CNN’s American Morning, but was part of a much bigger media tour in which she also appeared in a 20-minute spot on Oprah, Larry King Live, WWE Smackdown (a professional wrestling show) and several other high profile news programs. 

McCarthy was and remains an effective advocate not just because of her lived experiences but also because of her status and reach as a Hollywood celebrity. She joins a long list of tinseltowners who have leveraged their access and appeal to both political elites and citizens to influence public opinion and policy. But while the moral commitments of some celebs have been questionable, those with the capacity and willingness to engage in the cut and thrust of political argumentation have succeeded in not only keeping the issue alive but in actually influencing hearts and minds. This is the case whether they are correct or wholly inaccurate in their claims making activities. McCarthy’s appearances have included not just media but also medical and associational conferences.

Second, CMPI’s accusations of a liberal media bias against news corporations is nothing new, certainly not to communication researchers. In 1986, political scientists Robert Lichter, Stanley Rothman and Linda Lichter published their seminal book The Media Elite: America’s New Power Brokers, which reported survey data about the political leanings of journalists at such national media outlets as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and New York Times, plus several broadcast networks (including CBS Evening News). A review of the book can be found here. In general terms, Lichter et al. found that most journalists were Democratic voters whose attitudes were well to the left of the general public on a variety of topics, including abortion, affirmative action and gay rights. The researchers then compared the journalists’ reported attitudes to their coverage of controversial issues such as the safety of nuclear power, school busing to promote racial integration, and the energy crisis of the 1970s, and found that coverage of controversial issues reflected the personal attitudes or reporters, and because political liberals were dominant in newsrooms that helped to explain why news coverage tilted in a leftist/liberal direction. The study was embraced mainly by conservative columnists and politicians, who adopted the findings as scientific proof of liberal media bias. It’s clear from the recent election campaign in the U.S. that many Republicans still believe these results to be true, or at least feel that their base believes this to be true (for similar findings in a Canadian context, see Barry Cooper’s Sins of Omission: Shaping the News at CBC TV (U of T Press, 1994) and Lydia Miljan and Barry Cooper’s Hidden Agendas: How Journalists Influence the News (UBC Press, 2003)).

And third, those who have tended to pitch accusations of a liberal media bias or conspiracy tend to operate from a position of political or material self-interest. Canadian political scientist Barry Cooper is reported to have deep ties to the Conservative movement in Canada and its financiers in western Canada’s oil and gas sector. Conservatives and those in the fossil fuels industry have consistently maintained that Canada’s liberal media (led by the state-supported CBC) is driven ideologically by a socialist agenda to steal hard-earned money from the western provinces to subsidize the myriad social engineering projects (e.g., Kyoto Protocol) supported by the vote-rich regions of Ontario and Quebec. In Cooper and Miljan (not to mention many others) they have the institutional credibility and legitimacy that academe sometimes affords.

Lichter and Lichter parlayed their academic careers into a business of providing research and consulting support for some of the most influential conservative organizations in the United States when they founded the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). According to Media Transparency, CMPA received 55 grants totaling almost $3 million between 1986 and 2005, the majority of which came from three donors all with deep ties to the religious right in the U.S. 

The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, finally, describes itself on its website as committed to discussing, debating and demonstrating how “exponential and accelerating technological progress coupled with smart public policy will enhance and advance 21st century health care by predicting, preventing, diagnosing, and treating disease with greater speed, more precision, and less cost.” This may very well be true; yet, according to PBS News, it is funded by some of the biggest pharmaceutical corporations in the world, many of which make the very vaccines it has recently come out publicly to defend. This too shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that CMPI was established by The Pacific Institute, a think tank founded in 1979 whose mandate is the promotion of “the principles of individual freedom and personal responsibility … through policies that emphasize a free economy, private initiative, and limited government.” 

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest may have a compelling case for media bias. The news and entertainment media in the U.S. may very well be guilty of providing insufficient attention to the scientific debate about autism. On these grounds many advocates and parents of autistic children, and public health advocates in general, may actually find some common ground. Nevertheless, when an organization like CMPI sets out to accuse media organizations of supporting what it describes as extremist and partisan views it will need to open its own practices and positions on issues to similar scrutiny.


Update: See this New York Times editorial (13 February 2009) exonerating the medical and pharmaceutical establishment from the claims by McCarthy and others of a causal connection between vaccines and autism

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