The media are not always an activist’s friend

While Mizzou university students may have secured a huge organizing victory by ousting their university president through protest tactics and some serious muscle-flexing from the football team, much of the attention since has focused on an incident that occurred on the university quad just yesterday.

A large group of students forming a wall around their protest camp blocks U of M student and photographer Tim Tai from entering and they argue. Voices rise and tensions flare, they push one another back and forth, but the confrontation stops short of a shouting match or fight. (Having had my fair share of heated arguments in college, I thought this was relatively tame.)

Due to the nature of the debate around speech, “safe spaces” and political correctness right now, this brief confrontation has received widespread attention online. The last 5 seconds in particular, in which media studies professor Melissa Click asks the crowd “Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” garnered coverage from the likes of Gawker, Breitbart, and the Federalist. These posts all suggested that, since Dr. Click is a media studies professor, she should have known better than to physically obstruct the media from “doing its job.”

Melissa Click, screenshot via YouTube

Melissa Click, screenshot via YouTube

To this point, The University of Missouri School of Journalism is considering revoking Click’s courtesy appointment in their department, although her post in the College of Arts and Sciences does not appear to be in jeopardy.

What these articles seem to miss is that her position is entirely consistent with how a media studies professor whose research agenda focuses on “popular culture texts and audiences, particularly texts and audiences disdained in mainstream culture,” would conceive of mass media.

To start with, it’s worth pointing out that the idea of a safe-space or media free zone is not at all new in organizing, as a discussion I joined in on Twitter pointed out:

In other words, activist spaces have long sought to control media access, particularly when planning an action. As much as media can be friends to activists, they can just as easily be a foe when those activists challenge the status quo. Media are, after all, very much an active participant in forming the narratives undergirding said status quo.

Consider the way ACT UP activist Maxine Wolf describes the dominant narrative in the media that women, sex workers and gay men were “responsible” for the AIDS crisis in the context of planning a major action at the Mets’ Shea Stadium in 1988:

Part of this was about the difference in status between women and men at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, even though they were both sick. Women were erased totally… It sort of reminded me of my own growing up, and it was the woman who always had to be the one responsible. We said that we wanted to get the message out that heterosexual men are responsible; that they’re the only people being let off the hook in this epidemic by the media. Gay men are being put down; prostitutes and women are being told they have to take condoms along. What is anyone asking from straight men in the world? Nothing.

The idea for a protest action at Shea Stadium, Wolf explains, emerged out of a desire to reach a heterosexual audience and shift the discussion. But when word broke out that they were planning an action thanks to an article in the Village Voice, it very nearly jeopardized the action and endangered protesters:

[A police] officer was saying, “Did you hear? These crazy people are coming to the ballpark next week–these ACT UP people–and they’re going to rip up the turf and they’re going to do this and we’re going to do that.” And we thought, “Holy shit, we’re going to show up, and they’re going to be in riot gear!” And we weren’t even doing anything that provocative, from our point of view.

It is well worth taking the time to read the interview with Maxine Wolf on ACT UP’s early tactics in full. After some damage control the action was able to move ahead and was a major success. But where it concerns alerting the police, for instance, media coverage is not always desirable from an organizing standpoint.

Media themselves, furthermore, are often complicit in propagating narratives that activists seek to dispel.

One of the most famous theorists working in the area of media representations and stereotyping was Stuart Hall, widely regarded as a foundational thinker in media studies and cultural theory. Here he is on racist tropes in British television:

As he said:

…the television professionals may think ethnic jokes about blacks who work to hard, scrounge off the dole, and live two families in a room is “just entertainment,” but the fact remains that in Britain today this is what most white people believe about blacks. And the fact that television is always making jokes about it makes them feel justified about despising black people.

As I wrote last week, cultural studies and the academic study of popular culture and texts such as 50 Shades of Grey (about which Melissa Click has written) has long been disdained by the Right. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was originally a broadside aimed at attacking this opening of the academy. As Bloom himself wrote:

Openness was designed to provide a respectable place for these “groups” or “minorities”—to wrest respect from those who were not disposed to give it— and to weaken the sense of superiority of the dominant majority.

Incidentally, a group of individuals who claim to be Yale alumni are planning on sending a hundred copies of Bloom’s book to the school, as the National Review’s Eliana Johnson tweeted:

Of course, they’ve barely secured a quarter of the funding they’d need to send every Yale administrator a copy of Bloom’s screed (and that’s 100, not “1000,” as Johnson claims), but, then again, facts have never gotten in the National Review’s way, have they?

At any rate, I suspect that Melissa Click is well acquainted with the complex nature of the debate over media representations, activism, and organizing, and that that is why she sought to remove the young man holding the camera from that space — however overblunt or out of line her delivery may have been.

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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