Discussing scandals with James Lull

28Lok07

Edited by Pasi Kivioja, 2007 

jameslullbypasikivioja.jpgThe editor of the book of ”Media Scandals” (1997), James Lull, visited Tampere, Finland, on Oct 22, 2007. He was going to lecture on his latest book ”Culture-on-demand” at University of Tampere. I had an opportunity to discuss scandalogy with him before his lesson. Here is the edited transcript of my conversation with professor Lull.

PK (Pasi Kivioja): You know, I’m currently examining how media scandals have evolved during the last three or four decades of the media age.

JL (James Lull): What do you think?

PK: Well, they’re definitely getting faster and much more into details than before. You had Bill Clinton’s Monicagate in 1997-98 in the US. We’re going through a similar phase in Finnish journalism now – ten years after the Clinton case. We’re given detailed information about our prime minister Matti Vanhanen’s sex life, and many people insist that you can’t do that – you just shouldn’t write things like that about politicians.

PK: Have you written any articles or done research on scandals after the book of ”Media Scandals”?

JL: Not really. I haven’t done any academic essays, but I have written popular essays and I’ve also done a lot of radio and television interviews in the United States and other countries, too. Because this concept of media scandals… it did catch on. The book is ten years old, but I still get requests. I had a long discussion with a reporter from Stockholm’s leading newspaper Aftonbladet just a couple of weeks ago. People do Google searches on media scandals and my name comes up. So, I have had an ongoing discussion with this ever since the book came out. But I haven’t continued with that theme so much.

PK: I guess there’s not that much academic research on scandals.

JL: No. In a certain way the concept of scandal shouldn’t be in the academic world. This is the problem we’ve always had with popular culture. Even television wasn’t supposed to be studied because it’s not serious. Popular music – not serious. Even though it’s extremely serious! You have the old alignments of the disciplines with literature, classical music, ballet and the fine arts. So scandal falls into that category of the unmentionable popular world. Even worse because you take that popular form and somehow distort or play with it or sensationalize it. So it’s like a double crime. 

The thing that made our book successfull was that we didn’t just take the conventional interpretation of scandal as bad. We turned that around and tried to show why we thought that actually scandal is, in general, good. To get things overly distorted or sensationalized can be wrong. It’s a matter of proportion, not so much the content itself but the amount of content. That’s where I would draw the distinction between where scandal is serving society and when it tends to do something different than serve – if it’s too much detail, too much information. 

Is there life after the scandal?

PK: What are the good sides of the scandal?

JL: We try to say in chapter one of the book that the good side of the scandal is raising moral issues and giving people material to moral clarification. You know, I studied China for a long time in the 1980’s and I did a book on China as well. They cannot control the press, the internet, the media, the film industry, but they try. The attempt to overly manage the news and to hide the scandalous aspects… that’s where the crimes really are. The exposing and leaving it more or less up to the consumer to decide how much time to read or to buy a newspaper or not… I prefer that model even though there are flaws there, too.

I don’t just automatically side with stars when they complain: ”Oh, my privacy is being invaded”. I think that argument has some merit and there should be some restrictions of course. But on the other hand if you’re in public life… we need to have a good focus on people with power. Whether they have political, economic or cultural power. That’s where scandal can be useful to a point.

PK: They don’t have many scandals in communist China, do they?

JL: No. The interesting thing is that in Chinese culture there is a lot of scandalous talk. So it’s rather natural. In some way the scandals that are not mediated are more vicious, because the mediated scandals can sort of display the contours and the characteristics of what is being discussed as scandalous.

PK: Are you familiar with any Finnish media scandals?

JL: Ummm… Let’s see… Finnish media scandals… no.

PK: (Describes the Irakgate scandal of the former Finnish prime minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki). There’s this weird phenomenon in Finnish politics. We do have some political scandals every now and then which may have serious consequences for those who are responsible. They may resign, but having gained an enormous success within the voters they come back to politics. We tend to think it’s so typical of Finns to vote those who have lived through a scandal. What’s this thing about? Do you see anything like this in the US politics?

JL: Absolutely. Especially in the United States. We think it’s almost a cultural characteristic. If you even look at Bill Clinton – he’s so popular.

PK: Why?

JL: The things about him… People liked and voted him. The same characteristics that attracted the public to him… the charming quality, the intelligence, the friendliness. Those things don’t go away. In the US we have this thing that if somebody’s been beaten down, we want him to come back up, to have a second chance. It’s really true with sports people. They have drugs and get almost kicked off the team. They’re so terrible and embarrassed. They promise to change their ways and everything – and people love them more than ever. Maybe it’s human nature to credit individuals who have been damaged somehow and to help them recover. Like her (former Finnish prime minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki) becoming part of the EU parliament. She’s recuperating her dignity as human being.

The new ways of scandal

PK: Where did your interest in scandals originate from?

JL: I think it’s just my interest in general in media programming. Steve Hinerman (the co-editor of ”Media Scandals”) were good friends and would talk a lot about the latest story, whatever it was, that was going on in the media. We just kind of discussed sitting in the office that wouldn’t it be fun to do a book on scandals. That’s how that happened. And John Thompson, who has a piece in there, was at that point also developing the book on political scandal. He was getting some material ready for that book. I know John quite well. He’s one of the owners of Polity Press which published our book in England. So it’s a kind of snow ball effect.

PK: The ”Media Scandals” was published in 1997. Have you seen any change in scandals since then?

JL: The intertextuality of the various media and how they feed each other. Also the convergence of mainstream newspapers with tabloid newspapers. At least in the American context I don’t think we can even begin to understand the impact that the internet has had on scandal and on everything else. I mean there are so many more starting points now for the scandals. Today that starting point could easily be somebody’s blog, and you have so many internet sites that are dedicated to different kinds of scandalous discourses. Both time and space have been reoriented now, reconfigured for the mainstream media, including the tabloid press.

PK: What’s the lesson that the American media learned from the Monicagate?

JL: I honestly think that if there were another kind of Monicagate, it would be covered in a similar way. I don’t think they would say ”Oh, we made a mistake – we shouldn’t do that!”. There was a famous American tv-commentator called Keith Oberman who quit during the Monica period from MSNBC, which is cable NBC, because he couldn’t stand what was going on with the beating down of the president over what he considered to be something not important. Come on, man! Sex is always going to sell. It’s always going to interest people. So if you’ve got a president who’s having sexual relations with his intern under the table in the White House, that’s always going to be news.  

The other side of it is… instead of what the press has learned… it also has to do something with what politicians have learned – and even the public. Nobody would want to run for president, because his whole life would be exposed. So what kind of people are you going to have? We want real people there! That’s a kind of a problem I suppose. It holds people to a standard that we’re not capable of maintaining. That bothers me.

PK: What’s the state of privacy of American politicians now?

JL: I think that their lives are less private than before. We’ve had a number of various scandals around public figures, politicians and others. We have this double standard with the kind of moralistic view taken by the conservative politicians, and then they’re exposed as being hypocritical. I think that’s healthy for the political system. Maybe some people think that we lose all our confidence in everybody. I’m big on information. I’d rather have the full information and let me sort of make my decisions.

It isn’t just the practice of journalism. It has also to do with the technological development. There are cameras everywhere. Do you remember the Rodney King incident?

PK: Yes.

JL: There you had many years ago one of the first examples of sort of citizen journalism with a guy with his video camera, when video cameras were just becoming consumer items in the house. He just happened to be nearby and he could take that footage. And that changed the nature of police work permanently.

PK: We’ve had similar cases in Finland, too. People have put out videoclips on YouTube of for example security guards kicking and beating other people. Many scandals break out from YouTube these days.

JL: Here you have this intertextuality. They spring from YouTube… but then they’re picked up by the media and they’re circulated on a global scale. It was the same thing with the Abu Ghraib prison pictures. One guy with a camera phone, unauthorized, taking some shots that change the world.

The search for the burnout factor

PK: What kind of cultural differences do you see between the American and the British media scandals?

JL: The British tabloids are more vicious. I love British culture, but they’re ready to hammer you. There’s a certain quality to the text over there. The way that they go about the tabloid reporting. That is so insulting. Okay, it has to do with British humour also, the sense of ironic. I think the American tabloid press is more fun-loving, somehow a little lighter.

PK: What is there yet to be learned about scandals? What should be researched closer in them?

JL: The introductory chapter we wrote lays out a number of concerns like what is a scandal. We have ten defining characteristics of the scandal. I could see how somebody could take some of our definitions of it, begin working on those definitions to some extent, trying to refine the theoretical approaches. You can go to a lot of directions with it… you can go way back… you can look at evolutionary history and see how scandal fits into community building or you can look forward into the typological explosion… and how the multiple levels of technological intervention on particular news stories change the stories and so on…

PK: As for my research, I’m planning to look into those points where the public gets sick and tired of particular scandal stories. I may study the daily sales figures of the tabloid and ask people why don’t you want to read about it anymore.

JL: That’s very similar to how music is rotated in the popular music station… at what point you get to the so called burnout factor where the content is risking losing the audience… when is that content going to be insufficiently attractive to the audience.

PK: What an interesting analogy. Thanks, I’ll write that one down.

James Lull is Professor Emeritus (PhD) of Communication Studies at San Jose State University, USA. Pasi Kivioja (MSocSc)  is a journalist on leave from Finland’s second largest newspaper and the leading news tabloid Ilta-Sanomat. He is currently researching the tabloid press and tabloidization in the Finnish mediascape at University of Tampere. He is also a PhD student working on his doctoral dissertation on evolution of media scandals.

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