April 26, 2005

Paging Howard Beal


This post is not going to tell you anything you don’t already know.  That said, it probably says a few things about what we see and how we are trained to look.

The radical Christian Conservative “anti-filibuster” telecast, “Justice Sunday,” was broadcast this weekend.  If you haven’t been following this story, the religious right put on this show to organize grass root support to change U.S. Senate voting rules. These reactionaries want to prevent the Democrats from blocking extremist judicial nominations by eliminating a long standing institutional parliamentary procedure.

Boy, did that show earn some press.  In fact, this shot was the lead image on the cover of yesterday’s NYT (not to mention, still another photo inside).  There’s Bill (“Brother, Can You Spare A Cat?”) Frist up on the screen, like Big Brother (or the Creator himself), almost single handedly breaking through the church-state barrier.  He is framed next to a flag and against a background of what looks like law books. 

When it comes to the culture war, these crusaders do a wonderful job massaging the message.  In varying accounts of this program, I’ve seen it described primarily (by an all too malleable press) as a rally or a religious meeting.  These terms are specifically reinforced to convey legitimacy and associations to sanctity.  Except, this was not anything close to a service or a rally, it was a political infomercial. 

From the news images and the news reports, you might also think it was held in a church.  Technically, it was.  But this edifice — the Highview Baptist mega-church in Louisville, Kentucky — is as much a broadcast facility as anything else — with walls, balcony, and ceiling filled with sophisticated lighting, sound and staging systems.  In examining these houses of worship broadcast, what we are really witnessing — especially with productions like this — are studios reminiscent of churches filled with studio audiences reminiscent of parishioners.

Of course, even a simple broadcast in a church is going to reveal some signs of production.  There are elements you find here, however, that strip off much more of the religious veneer.  One hint, for example, is the guy slouched against the near lower wall.  If he was an usher, he would at least be feigning attention.  And even if he was just a production guy, in a more formal event, it’s hard to imagine he would be resting his foot on the wall.


Then, of course, there are the handlers.  Completely invisible when you take a quick glance at a shot like this, there’s this guy up in the balcony hovering at the rail, his posture fitting a director.  Like any production team just beyond the camera, there are also a number of such heads dotting the balcony line.


If there was any point, however, where the press got finessed into representing this as a legitimate local event, it was in the way they characterizing the attendance.  Twice the NYT article (link) described this gathering in the proud town of Louisville as “packed.”  Well, I looked at the image pretty closely, and it’s not packed. 

Here is the section second from the top.  It’s a little hard to see at this scale, but the arrows I inserted indicate a number of empty seats toward the back of this section.


Also, there are two other sections on the floor — the one’s at each end — that also have plenty of open seats. 



Which takes us back to the semantics, and the subtle way in which the media got spun. 

Think about it this way.  If you are going to characterize this event as primarily a staged political infomercial, than the place was packed.  (In this media age, everybody understands a studio needs space to establish site lines for cameras, and that a t.v. show typically condenses an audience into the middle to make the place seem full.)  If what you’re trying to conveying is a rally in a church, however, you can’t say this place was nearly full.

(Photo headline and caption:  In a Rally in Church, Fighting Filibusters: In  a videotaped statement at an evangelical Christian rally at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville yesterday, Bill Frist, the Republican leader, renewed his threats to change Senate rules to prevent Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees.  The telephone numbers encouraged people to call lawmakers.)

(image: Patti Longmire/APApril 25, 2005 in The New York Times)

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Michael Shaw
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