20 Apr Launch Symposium: Entertainment at Risk
The following transcript is from a panel discussion on entertainment risks at the Center for Media at Risk launch symposium in April 2018 at the University of Pennsylvania. Moderated by Jim English, panelists include Marjorie David, Jeffrey Jones, Maureen Ryan and Nancy Wang Yuen.
James English: I’m Jim English. I teach over in the English department in the School of Arts and Sciences. Yeah, I know. They call it an aptonym. A surgeon named Cutter, right? Banker named Cash. And I’m also the Director of the Wolf Humanities Center and the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.
I wanted to start by just thanking Barbie for including me in this multi-day launch of the Center for Media at Risk, and more than that, for undertaking the work of building, of institution building. You know centers and other entities in academe don’t just happen; they require the determined work of individuals and coalitions, often not the individuals and coalitions we might wish. But in this case, Barbie’s the right person with the right vision and she’s really given us something here at Penn that will help us to focus our energies and our resources on matters of increasingly urgent concern.
This particular panel addresses itself to the entertainment media. That might seem to some to promise a more happy-go-lucky session than this morning’s brilliant and embracing discussion of pro-democracy activism in the algorithmic age. But I hope none of us here is naïve enough to imagine that when we step out of the sphere of entertainment, we are escaping from this basic politics. Really there’s never been a moment in my lifetime when we seem as a society more hell-bent on collectively enacting the title of Neil Postman’s classic critique, Amusing Ourselves to Death, subsuming our politics, as he put it, under the paradigm of entertainment. So this panel continues with the serious business of the conference thus far.
I’m going to introduce our distinguished guests all together now. To avoid a lot of up and down they’re each going to speak for no more than ten minutes, guys, and that will leave us with a comfortable stretch afterwards to discuss these matters with you.
Marjorie David. Marjorie David is a writer, a scholar, a producer. Her credits include Chicago Hope, and Life, among many others. She’s currently the vice president of the Writer’s Guild of America West. She teaches at the American Film Institute. She’s going to address concerns of censorship in the entertainment industry.
Jeffrey Jones is Lambdin Key Professor in the Entertainment Department at Grady College of Journalism, the University of Georgia, and he’s the director of the Peabody Awards. He’s a specialist in TV satire. Professor Jones will be speaking about the politics of late night comedy television.
Maureen Ryan was TV critic at the Huffington Post and lately at Variety, where she was the chief TV critic until just last Friday, she tells me. She’s won multiple awards for her TV writing, has been called the best TV writer in America, and she is eminently well-positioned to discuss forms of pressure and constraint involved in the process of entertainment reporting.
Nancy Wang Yuen is professor and chair of sociology at Biola University in California. Nancy is a scholar of race and ethnicity in film and TV, and the author most recently of the book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, which is out on the table upstairs. Professor Yuen will address the concept of freedom of speech as it operates in Hollywood.
That’s the order in which our speakers are going to go, so we start with Marjorie David.
Marjorie David: Well, first, we’re following on the heels of digital experts, and I just want to say that this is as close to an improv speech as you’re going to get, because my entire computer system went down before I left Los Angeles and then I was going to retype everything on the iPad and that broke. So I’m like that guy from The Who that smashed his guitars, like all my equipment breaks. So if you see me shuffling through sloppy handwritten pieces of paper, that’s why.
I’m not really talking about censorship, although that’s what it may come to. I wanted to concentrate on the issues of net neutrality and media consolidation, specifically as they relate to people being employed in entertainment. I don’t know that entertainment itself is ever going to be at risk. People want to be entertained. But the kind of entertainment you get and the way you get it are at risk. So I’m also speaking in my capacity as the vice president of the Writer’s Guild of America, and in the last session also discussed was, are there organizational forums that can actually help people organize against this juggernaut of authoritarianism? And yeah, there are unions. They’re being smashed and destroyed at an unbelievable rate, and I don’t know that they can be brought back or brought back in an effective form. But some of us continue to operate through the system with some success.
And one of the things I think that digital media can do is support unions in a way that they are not necessarily supported through the mainstream media any more. I think it was almost like the last election, where because people expected a lot from unions, there was a huge flood of information about how too much money was being spent and how unions had gotten, I don’t know, “uppity” was the word, and you know, asking for more than they should get. But what happened was that there was a tremendous amount of corporate consolidation, and the unions were helpless as court rulings came down and eroded our powers, ate into our pensions, everything else.
Well, I’m here to say I’m from one of the last unions that has a fixed pension benefit, which may mean nothing to anybody anymore, but it sure means a lot to us. And we represent 8,000 writers who are professional writers, who work under contract in movies, television, digital media, news, and—I think that kind of covers it. And there are actual wages we’re supposed to be paid, there are rules people are supposed to follow, and it’s, you know, it’s a real thing.
What we have experienced in the past few years is a tremendous boom in entertainment and choices through the rise of the internet. When I first came out to California, it was the 1980s. There were 55 individual studios. This was way pre-internet, where you could come and try to sell a story, sell a show, sell a movie. And in 1994, there was something called the end of the financial syndication laws. Financial syndication laws made the media world as you experienced it as an employee, something like: what movie theaters and movie producers are. Like, movie theater owners can refuse to show something, but they can’t produce anything. This is all changing because everything is—all the separations of things are falling apart.
But it used to be that if you were a television network, say, or a movie studio, you were not allowed to be the person who brought the content, who developed the content. Well, cable television arose in 1994, and somehow the studios started, and networks went, “Oh, oh no, we’re going to go out of business, there’s going to be too much competition against our three wonderful networks. We don’t know what to do. We have to be allowed to produce our own content.”
So people interested in that came to Washington and somehow talked Newt Gingrich that—they call him the dumb people’s idea of a smart person—into the idea that this is all true, and they—and the wall between content and distribution broke down. There were sort of fake temporary guarantees that independent producers would still be honored because how in the world could the networks and studios produce all of that content. Well, soon networks began to demand a profit participation in any television show that an independent brought up and ownership left the hands of individuals and went into the pockets of the networks. The networks began to consolidate, and now they produce everything.
And everybody else becomes an employee. Ownership is only in the hands of very big media corporations. So where there were 55 people to pitch a project to in the past, there are now six places. They have subsidiaries, you know. USA is not the same as NBC, but they’re all owned by Comcast Universal. It’s all just one big, lumped-in pile of money collection. They made an aggregate profit of $51 billion, I think the last reporting date was 2015, and yet the depression on wages for writers specifically, even though employment is up tremendously, there was an overall wage depression of 23% because they control almost the entire market.
Well, the one bright light in the midst of all this smushing together, because I’ll get back to that, was the internet. Suddenly there was no rule about who would create content, and there was a very open bunch of places where it could be put out. So you know, you start that on a very low financial level. It wasn’t a way to make a big ton of money, but in terms of creation, people do—they’re not just in it for the money. They want to do something that means something, or which is about something interesting. And the market itself segmented, so that you could do something for a smaller group of people, you could still manage to support it somehow. Advertising flowed to people who would be specifically interested in that kind of advertising. There’s such a big lump of stuff that I want to tell you, and I can’t get it all into ten minutes.
But there was just a wide market, a lot of places to write, a lot of things to see, and in 2015 Chairman Wheeler of the FCC actually ruled for an open internet under Title II, and this was affirmed twice by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, even though the big media companies argued against it, and everything looked great, and then blam, we get this new administration, and Ajit Pai, who is now the head of the FCC, felt free to pretend that someone was being harmed by the open internet and wants to reverse this ruling and allow individual content providers, content distributors, to control how much content gets to you, how fast, and when.
These are called ISPs, if you don’t know. Internet service providers bring you all the information that you see over the internet. Well that brings you back down to the original six media conglomerates, the big lumps. It would basically close that vast internet.
I don’t know if you remember AOL. Remember when AOL started, it was so exciting because we could get on the World Wide Web through the portal of AOL, so suddenly you could tune in to AOL and AOL would say, “Here’s a beautiful shirt you can buy,” because advertising attracted people and so did porn. Those were the two big things that began to flow out. But you always went through that conduit of AOL, and you got what they wanted you to see, and you saw what paid the most to advertise on AOL. And then suddenly people went, “Oh, wait a minute, I can get on the internet without that.” So you’ve got a browser, and you started to look at everything, and you could look at whatever you wanted to look at.
Well by foreclosing that open internet and breaking down rules that said that all content has to be delivered at the same rate and without favoritism, you’re going to get put back into that AOL portal system. And it will be by the people who own the pipes. It was as if the people who owned the telephone lines can charge you for using them.
So this is a big change. I hope I’m not being confusing. I feel like I have more stuff spilling out of me, because I don’t have my talk. Anyway, we actually have some hope in this area, because if the same D.C. circuit court that affirmed net neutrality, affirmed it the last time, there’s no reason why they’re going to—
Oh, I have one minute?
I haven’t even talked about media consolidation. Man, blah, blah. Well, let me just quickly say, there’s another issue at stake which is, there are two big issues of integration that are a big problem. One is an AT&T- Time Warner deal. AT&T already controls Direct TV, and something like—and if they get all the content material from Time Warner, and I’m sorry, I don’t have my numbers in front of me, but if you ask me later I’ll tell you. They’ll control a huge amount of the market of things that you see. Disney-Fox is another terrible merger. That will bring us down to four major media companies.
Disney’s practice is to produce less, only of big tent-pole movies. So that means that many things that people are interested in, if you’re talking about restricting entertainment, are going to be pulled down even further.
It will also throw, across the board in every aspect of work, not just writers but people who work on crews, people who work in studios—the estimate now is that 5,000 to 10,000 jobs will be lost in that murder—merger. I said “murder” by mistake. And so that’s something else to watch out for. The Justice Department is moving against AT&T, probably because Trump doesn’t like CNN, the AT&T- Time Warner. But Fox-Disney, I’m not sure what will happen. We’re opposing these things really actively in Washington. We have a very active political action committee. I’m out of time. I can talk to you about how much Congress people know. It’s more than they used to, but it’s also a different Congress. So that’s my thing, as best I could do.
Jeffrey Jones: Good afternoon, and thank you Barbie. This is awesome. We were talking about how awesome it was in the hall. So I’m here to talk about the moment of comic resistance, if I could be normative and, as my colleague Jonathan Gray, has called it, TV comedy as a space of political talk, if I could be neutral, or risk and political humor, to really address the subject of the conference. So let’s start here. Historically, satire and political comedy has not been robust in U.S. TV history. We know the examples of the Smothers Brothers in ’68, we know the example of 30 years later—30 plus years later—Bill Maher being pulled off. And so generally, the thought has been that networks and advertisers and audiences in late night network television have been squeamish about overt political talk.
And not in that order. Audiences get nervous, send in letters; advertisers get nervous, network executives shut it down. And so that fit well with a mode in which Johnny Carson was uncomfortable with politics and Jay Leno, etc. But then cable comes along, and of course Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but it has blossomed now, where Robin Thede, an African American woman is on BET. The Larry Wilmore show for a while ran out of Comedy Central. Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, John Oliver. It is the heyday in the cable marketplace of political satire.
But what has really happened also is this transformation of the network talk show. So Stephen Colbert goes to CBS and is flailing in the ratings, and then Donald Trump happens. And Colbert smartly goes back to what got him there in the first place. But I do remember, and you may too, those first few episodes where he’s literally wondering if the CBS execs are going to pull a hook and take him off the stage. But no, they didn’t, and guess what, it turns out Trump and political humor are good for the bottom line and are profitable.
So comedians we do know have this special license to speak about politics, and Geoff Baym and I have done a book about satire—and how many countries did we do, Geoff? 12, 14 around the world?—where comedians across different political regimes have a special license where they can get away with political talk in ways that for the more polemicist speakers don’t work.
But let’s go to Jimmy Kimmel. So Jimmy Kimmel is drawn in to the political sphere with a very personal story about his son, and how that is—who was born with a preexisting condition, which fits really nicely with the current debate about killing Obamacare in Congress. And he’s very emotional, and it’s this long piece, and it does move the needle on the conversation happening in the country about the repeal of Obamacare. Then Las Vegas happens, which is where he’s from, and he gets really emotional about the massacre, the biggest massacre ever, on the air, and then one that you may not have seen is, very straight faced, there’s not a comedy, hardly a comedy line in it, where he takes on DACA in 2018 and he brings on a woman who’s going to be or in threat of being deported and her American citizen husband, who is also about to be deported to the theater of war as a National Guard member. And then he puts a bunch of Trump supporters up there.
And my first—and the Trump supporters are, “Yeah, keep him, keep the babies here, kick her out,” you know. It’s this brutal piece. Anyway, Jimmy Kimmel has now moved squarely into this space of political humor. The risk here is audiences, tribalism. This moment we are in, in which the tribes can only see their kind and want blood, and late night is supposed to be this big tent show. And sure enough, conservatives walked away from Kimmel, but guess what, other audiences came in, so his ratings are actually up by doing this. And CBS interrogates him and he says, you know, she’s really pushing on him hard, “Are you saying to these conservatives good riddance?”
And Kimmel says, “I’m not saying good, I’m just saying riddance. They’re gone.” And he said he wouldn’t do it—he would do it again in a heartbeat.
So politicians in this moment are not the risk. Stephen Colbert, just let me see if I can read this to you real quick. Colbert says, on air on May 12, 2017, “The president has personally come after me and my show, and there’s only one thing I can say. Hehehe, yay,” and he blows kisses.
Don’t pick a fight with a comedian. You’re going to lose. The same thing with Jimmy Kimmel, who, as we’ve seen, has gone after Roy Moore, has gone after Sean Hannity, most recently. I mean, you pick a Twitter war with a comedian, you’re going to lose, and they know that that’s very good for business.
So political attacks are good for comedians. What is at risk I would argue, and I’m going to be provocative but stick with me, is journalists. Journalists. The norms of political partisanship, as Amy talked about this morning; the assumptions of a two party system—that if Jimmy Kimmel is attacking the norms of Donald Trump, he must be a liberal. And again, let me build toward this. So, of course the New York Post is going to take them on.
But CBS—Time magazine’s cover, “The Seriously Partisan Politics of Late Night Comedy”; The Atlantic, “How Late Night Comedy Fueled the Rise of Trump.” Here, let me quote from The Atlantic. “No wonder so many Trump followers are inclined to believe that the only things that he or his spokespeople tell them directly”— excuse me, I didn’t do the inflection right. “To believe only those things. Everyone else on the tube thinks they’re a bunch of trailer park, oxy snorting half-wits, who divide their time between retweeting Alex Jones’ fantasies and ironing their Klan hoods.” Are you kidding me? Anyway. So journalists are the ones that are attacking this change in late night. And what I’m trying to suggest is that what they’re missing, and what Amy was telling us this morning, is that this is not partisanship, it’s a defense of political norms.
So let’s do this. Satire is typically defined, or I’ve found one definition that we’ve used repeatedly, is: satire is a verbal attack that passes judgment in the process of play invoking laughter. So let’s think about, a verbal attack that’s made acceptable through play, but it is a moral passing of judgment on these people who violated social, moral, political norms, and the laughter is the communal rebuke of those who violated those norms. So that’s one definition. And Trump—Amy, again, how many violations of social norms? She has, what’s the count, 163, 168? So here is a character who is emerged on the stage who is— unprecedented doesn’t even begin to get it. He violates the basic political norms of the system, much less the social norms related to prostitutes and playboy models.
So what I want to come back to when I say journalists are the threat, they’re not really. I want to point out, as did Soraya last night, it’s structure. Structure. One of the structures that should enter the conversation this weekend is the two party system. The winner take all. The lack of a proportional system representation of government. And what we get is we only have a cognitive schema that allows for two parties. So if the late night hosts are really trying to protect democracy, they’re attacking the norms, or the lack thereof, that Donald Trump is engaged with. The journalists can only keep operating in this binary way of thinking. And this is something that Geoff Baym and Jonathan Gray and I, time and again for the last—how many years have we been doing this, guys? 15 years? Mike, well maybe you too, because this is the progenitor of this field—is, we talk to journalists and they come in with the frameset that is very much this, and we spend 45 minutes trying to talk them off that to suggest that satire is doing something else. But to me and all of us I think I can speak for, it’s very grounded in a two-party system.
So let me conclude, I’ve got one minute. The conclusion, the irony is that the point that American TV finally gets political, it isn’t the networks or advertisers who are squeamish, it’s journalists, in using this cognitive frame. And then finally to wrap up, and as we move toward more discussion, I’m happy to talk about John Oliver, who just won his second Peabody award for really crafting something different. Zeynep this morning talked about creating media that people are interested in. We can’t go back to the old gatekeepers.
So here’s a guy who’s taken on breaking the story on Sinclair Broadcasting, who’s advancing the conversation deeply about Murray Energy Corporation, and the whole coal miner country Trump thing, and then two pieces on net neutrality. He does 22 minutes. He’s doing a form of media we’ve not really seen before. But he’s not a late night talk show host; I did want to frame the Kimmel thing.
That’s all I’ve got. Thank you so much. We’ll talk more.
Maureen Ryan: I don’t know if this goes high enough for me, but hopefully. Hi. So this is so interesting to me. I occupy a weird space in all of this. I am a critic. I’m a reporter, and I’m a woman on the internet, so that’s a lot of stuff going on there. So one thing that I wanted to talk about—there is media consolidation. It’s hugely concerning. It definitely affects what you see and how you see it, but we’re also in this era of—the term that has been coined is “peak TV.” And—how do I do the thing with, where’s the mouse? To like get the chart up, where is it at? What’s that? There’s a drawer. Oh, gotcha. All right. I can do this. There it is.
So that’s the estimates of the number of TV shows. We’re heading toward 500, and that’s just scripted TV. And so, well, why does that matter? Well, who’s on TV, the stories we’re telling, I would argue that every day, all day—and anyone who knows me knows that this is basically how I operate 24-7—this really matters, because it shapes our perceptions so radically. Will and Grace helped bring about the marriage equality movement. The Apprentice convinced some people that Donald Trump was a savvy and knowledgeable business man, and I think—a few regrets about that one.
So one thing I want to talk about, though, in relation to this chart is that, what people don’t see when you see that chart is—imagine for every show there are ten publicists. Because I’m not thinking just about the scripted shows that this chart is talking about. There’s news series. There’s documentaries. There’s children’s TV. There’s any number of reality shows. So there are many thousands more TV shows than this. And attached to every TV show is an apparatus of power that is trying to get the media to write a certain thing or say a certain thing or not say a certain thing.
So, you know, someone in a recent book described being a TV show runner as being beaten to death by your dream. That is also a good description of being a TV critic. Because I think it’s important as a critic too—why does this story matter? Why do the moves that this network is making matter? Why does John Oliver matter? Why is Kimmel’s statement, which I, in a column, hearken back to the sort of folksy characters that you would see in, like, sort of the crusading attorney dramas of the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s—you know, the Henry Fonda part or the Jimmy Stewart character. Why has that struck such a deep chord with people? Why do you pick apart what the stories are saying?
Well, I don’t know. In the time that I’ve been a TV critic, we’ve seen a host of dramas that celebrate transgressive men who hurt other people. And I loved a lot of them. But I think that when you look at the Me Too movement— Hollywood as a structure is not democratic. If you look—if you walk on any set of a TV show or film, Hollywood doesn’t care about democracy. And I think this is an enormous thing that I would actually love to talk about more all weekend or today or at this panel. I’m talking “small-d” democracy. You might think that people in Hollywood, “Oh, they’re liberal. They’re progressive. They’re hosting fundraising dinners for Democratic candidates. They’re giving to progressive causes. They’re going to marches, they’re doing this and that.”
That’s all accurate. There are some conservatives in Hollywood. There are people of all different persuasions, that I would also say is a definite thing. But the structures of power in Hollywood—it’s autocracy. You know, think of the stereotype of the 1930s director wearing a beret and carrying, like, a riding whip, you know what I mean? The structure of any entity in Hollywood, a studio, a film set, a TV show, show runner structure, and how they treat their writers: there’s one vote that matters in the writer’s room. This is something I have to tell people over and over and over again. It’s not a democracy. There can be 12 writers on staff, and if the show runner wants to make this choice with a story, that’s the one that gets made. There’s no democratic vote anywhere in Hollywood.
So I think that’s really important in how we look at how entertainment gets made, and why it’s so important who gets to make it. So let’s go back to the chart. 500 scripted shows being made. Let’s just really conservatively say that that means there are 3,000 TV shows, 4,000 hours of TV, that the DGA will record in a given year. There’s a lot of content out there. So it matters that— there’s a website called Metacritic. I’ve talked to them about this. They record, or they have records of, about just under 50 sites or publications that regularly do television criticism. And that’s not changed a ton in the last ten years. I’m on the board of the Television Critics Association, and every—twice a year, we have a big confab, and actually one of the great things about that is that TV executives come to us in a forum very much like this, and we, generally speaking, hold their feet to the fire and it’s really, really fun.
But there’s—you know, we do all sorts of reporting there at that kind of thing. But TCA has remained steady at about 220, 230 members for the past ten years. So that’s not all the people who write about TV, as business reporters, as critics, as anything else. But that’s—the number of people covering television in any capacity is a few hundred people in this whole country, and that number has not substantially changed, while the amount of TV goes up and up and up.
So how do you, as a critic, keep up with it? How do you as a reporter find the stories that need to be told and that will illuminate all these things we’re talking about, which is, you know, people are saying, “We need to have media literacy.” Man, I am trying. My adult life has been spent on that. And so it’s a little hard for me to hear that we’re a monolith and that we just do the lazy thing or we do the thing that’s easier. We’re trying to stay employed, you know. Honestly, to have a career in the media for 25 to 30 years as someone who makes, who’s a salaried person—don’t start me on freelancing, because freelancing rates have gone down. It’s kind of like being a working writer in Hollywood. To remain employed in any capacity is just a miracle. So please don’t hate on that person making the “listicle” with cat gifs to illustrate why Game of Thrones is terrible. That person is trying to get paid, and I respect it, you know.
So I feel really lucky that I have written about sexual violence on television, the use of rape in entertainment. I have written about the poor record of studios and networks and individual shows on inclusion when it comes to directors behind the scenes and in front of the camera. I’ve written about that stuff for years. I’ve had people scream at me. I’ve had bosses protect me from people screaming at me. I’ve had more people scream at me. And then I just turn off my phone. So, you know, and it comes from not just studio heads or executives or various people who don’t agree with me, it can come from the internet.
I’ve had stalkers. I’ve had people target me for hate online. Do not open your inbox the day after you write about rape on Game of Thrones. Just don’t do that.
So you add all that, trying to do something serious, trying to do something real, with being on the front lines of media turbulence for the last 20 years, which has been a trip. It’s been crazy. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years. 20 years ago I was at the Chicago Tribune and my first couple years there, we got paid like a dividend. Like you got $200, like, for no reason, and that was like, “What is this fantasy land that I’m in?” Doesn’t it feel like that’s a million years ago? Like the Tribune is now Tronc, which—it both makes me laugh and makes me cry every single time.
So let me tell you just a little bit about Me Too. I just have a couple more examples. How much time do I have?
Megan Genovese: 90 seconds.
Maureen Ryan: 90 seconds. Okay, I will—this is the “All England Summarize Proust” competition. No, so I—everything that I did for Me Too, I did stories reporting out about certain show runners and people who were—many, many dozens of people came forward to talk about the abuse and harassment they suffered at their hands. I did all of that—and I’m not saying I’m a martyr, I think most people did this—on top of my normal duties. I mean, I spent many months not sleeping. I spent one day where I talked to 12 survivors of harassment and abuse, and as someone who has PTSD from sexual assault myself, it was really hard. So I am enormously proud of what my colleagues have done in the media, and what all of us did at Variety, honestly. We all did it on top of what we were normally expected to do day-to-day, and so it meant 120-hour weeks for a lot of us.
So I think that we’re trying very hard to do our jobs, but the number of people doing those jobs has not expanded with the enormous array of content out there. So if someone can fund more media outlets that will pay people a living wage, that will allow people to get their kids, to take them, to get to the dentist—this is what I’m talking about.
If you want media literacy, there has to be a media, a functional media. Because the armies of spin doctors—I’ll just give one really brief example. My colleague Dan Holloway, who’s just a star, he’s an incredible guy. All of my colleagues, I’m very proud of and happy to know them. He did a number of stories on Suzie Hardy, who had a history with Ryan Seacrest. You can go read Dan’s stories. Both sides are given. It’s incredible investigative reporting. She used her own name to talk about the HR investigations that ended her career as his stylist.
So what I will tell you is whenever I’ve tweeted about this, what I get tweeted back at me is, “She asked for money, and it was found independently that he did nothing wrong.” NBC Universal hired an outside firm to do its own investigation. I do not think that a company that’s getting a check from his employers is independent, but that’s just me. And they did not find that nothing happened. They found that, let me see, let me find the exact quote, “There was insufficient evidence to support the claims.”
Now you can think whatever you think—want to think—about what happened between Ryan Seacrest and Suzie Hardy. I would urge you to look at the material that’s out there, his op eds, our stories, all of it. What’s indisputably true are two things. His spin doctors got the public to think that she was asking for money, and this was a shakedown. And he still has every job that he had before any of this came out. And maybe that’s the right outcome. But Suzie Hardy does not have the power of Ryan Seacrest. The entire business pivots around that kind of resource and reach swarming and helping and supporting someone already in the position of power. And that dynamic has not changed, despite everything that has happened the last six or eight months.
So that’s— am I done? I keep staring at you, I’m really sorry. So I think my time’s up, but happy to talk more about all of that. Thank you.
Nancy Yuen: Hi everyone. I am going to be giving a little bit of the history of how Hollywood has dealt with the under-representation of people of color, and women as well. And if there’s time I also want to make a case why entertainment is really important as a medium to study. In fact I would argue it’s probably most the important, just because people don’t see it as that.
And so, anyhow, so I’m going to begin with—so, if you didn’t know that post- civil rights, the EEOC in March, 1969 actually held a one-day hearing in Hollywood to address the clear evidence of a pattern or practice of discrimination in violation of Title VII. And so this is really important, because they actually presented evidence that people of color were excluded from nearly all the jobs except the lowest paid and lowest skilled. And in response, the Justice Department actually prepared lawsuits against six of the seven major movie studios at the time.
However, the film studios successfully lobbied against this, and to this day the industry continues to have discriminatory hiring practices. And so, in fact, the head of EEOC at the time, Clifford Alexander, was replaced, was called before a senate hearing and then replaced a week later by Richard Nixon. So this was major. And had it gone to trial, it would have been the first case against industry-wide discrimination since the 1964 act was passed, and so this didn’t happen.
So fast forward to today. Hollywood producers use the protection of the First Amendment in order to bypass nondiscriminatory hiring laws. So this is a clause from the SAG-AFTRA National Code of Fair Practice, so it’s actually—this is part of the clause that’s actually encouraging the studios to hire equitably, right? So if you read it, it’s about representing the American scene. But I highlighted the clause that’s essentially the First Amendment, that “Producers shall retain its exclusive, creative prerogatives.” Meaning that, if they wanted to hire only white men, then they could justify it by saying, “Well, it serves the story.” Right, this is a story about—I remember we were on a panel, or I attended a panel about Game of Thrones, right? Game of Thrones.
It’s like supposed to be some sort of ambiguous European thing, and then you (Maureen Ryan) mention, “But there’s dragons.” Right? There’s dragons. Why can’t there be people of color if there’s dragons? But they can easily say—they can easily just say anything, and say well, “This is my creative prerogative. This is my freedom of speech,” right?
So this is very—this clause has been around forever, and this is the clause for national broadcasting, which can and should be, I would argue, regulated by the government, but it’s not.
So one bright spot, and most of you might know, that the EEOC did respond to an ACLU lawsuit about women directors in Hollywood. And so in October, 2015, there was this investigation and now it’s over, it’s moved into settlement. And I haven’t—if you guys know more about the information, this is all I could get to in my research—I just found out they were in settlement stages and so that they will be somehow making the studios comply with hiring more women directors. And I did notice that, and this is again like a handful, that some future Marvel and D.C. projects are now going to be helmed by female directors and women of color directors, which is exciting. So this is a bright spot, but I would—I think this is the only bright spot in terms of government intervention, in terms of oversight.
I also want to talk about equal pay. So I think the wage gap is something that is, I think, post Me Too, post Times Up, it’s been—but I mean, the first that I think we talked about it, at least that I remember, in terms of public acknowledgement, was post-Sony hack, when it was revealed that American Hustle—there was this major discrepancy between the women and the men in that movie. But unfortunately the Trump administration has halted the kind of Obama era role to try to shrink the wage gap, and one of them was pay secrecy and salary transparency. And so I would argue that this puts the burden on individuals to disclose their salaries rather than companies reporting, and therefore having, again, more oversight and more accountability.
So in the history of Hollywood, women and women of color have—and people of color have done this, right?—they have advocated. So even as early as Hattie McDaniel, who was the first black actress to win an Academy Award, she said, “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid then earn seven dollars a day actually being a maid,” right? And Taraji P. Henson, in her biography, talked about earning only two percent of what the major actor Brad Pitt earned, and she actually had to pay for her own room and board when they were filming. And we have Michelle Williams—this just recently came out, about earning, like, I think $1000, $1200, $1000, and then Mark Walberg getting 1.2 million for coming back to reshoot. And then even Tracee Ellis Ross, talking about her salary discrepancy on Blackish.
And so yeah, actors have been bearing the burden of disclosing their own salaries, right, in order to kind of bring light to this problem. And actors have absolutely taken a stand. Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim—I remember being very surprised, but also proud, that they stood up and said, “Hey, we want to be paid the same as our white coworkers.” So this is Hawaii Five-O, set in Hawaii, and they’re underpaid compared to the white costars. And I got a lot of hate mail, like, “But they’re not the main characters.”
And I guess the question is, “Why aren’t they?” You know, why aren’t they? And look at the advertising. It sure looks like they are all part of an ensemble cast, right. And so they walked away from potentially about 2.5 million dollars, and this is the eighth season. And they just wanted to be paid the same, and they wouldn’t do that. So that was a big risk in terms of doing that, and I think that I would argue that Grace Park, I haven’t seen her, and Daniel has, he’s now producing and he also has this amazing, the Hell Boy story, which I’m happy to talk about, that he was cast in.
And also the recent—Octavia Spencer said this is about white actor allies as well. Jessica Chastain, she heard about Octavia Spencer’s very, very low wages. She offered to tie their salaries together, and they ended up getting paid five times what they asked. So that’s—you know, those are all things that actors are doing, right? So the risk is, I would argue that the government hasn’t done enough on behalf of equal employment opportunities. So when the government accepts Hollywood’s invocation of freedom of speech as a way to avoid hiring people from marginalized groups, it’s really failed to prevent discriminatory hiring practices.
In Hollywood—the entertainment industry is huge, huge. It’s bigger than gambling, bigger than sports. So this is a major employment sector of our country, and coming from California it is the major, kind of, game in town. And furthermore, the rolling back of pay secrecy laws as well as salary transparency removes accountability on industries like Hollywood where everything is contract based. There’s really no predefined pay structure in the way that other industries are. So this really allows bias to become completely rampant.
Do I still have some time left? Okay. So the argument, why I studied Hollywood—I mean, when I was getting my Ph.D. in sociology, I remember there were people who looked at me askance like, “Hollywood? I can’t take that seriously.” Just because—you know, because people enjoy it. Something that’s pleasurable. But I would argue that because it’s so enjoyable. I do this with my students that—most of the time we consume entertainment completely unfiltered, right? So social psychological influences are that if you are watching—if you have no contact with people of a certain group, your only kind of ideas of them will come from entertainment, as well as news.
So one study showed that when people don’t have contacts with Latinx, they see them on the news, they see them on TV, their opinions and voting patterns in terms of immigration are negative. Uniformly negative. And for people of color, self-esteem actually goes down. There was one psychological study that showed that—it was on black boys and girls and white boys and girls—that for each additional hour of television watched, black boys and girls and white girls, their self-esteems went down. While for every hour of additional television watched, white boys’ self-esteems went up. And children, as we know, are highly—essentially, the screen is their baby sitter, right?
And so where—we’re in a media-saturated world, so if we care at all about the future of our country, I think the entertainment industry should not be dismissed at all; in fact it requires more study and more, deeper critical literacy, as we talked about. Thank you.
James English: All right, thank you all. We are on time, thanks to Megan Genovese, the one with that 1-minute sign back there, so we do have plenty of time for questions and answers. Just put your hand up if you’d like to start us off. Over here.
Jay Rosen: Your anecdote about journalists describing Jimmy Kimmel as moving left when in fact he was simply a critic of ending democratic norms, was extremely interesting to me, and certainly his behavior. I’ve observed this behavior many times in the American press. I have an interpretation and I have a question for you.
My interpretation would be that for journalists, a world in which there’s left and there’s right, and we have a stable political system and the two parties are competing, and sometimes one wins and sometimes the other one wins, is safety, because then they can occupy this position in the middle and they know how to do their job.
A world in which democratic norms are being eroded by the people in power, and democratic institutions are under attack, is not a safe picture, because it might imply that journalists themselves have to defend democratic institutions as opposed to just bringing us the story of left and right. So they are seeing the world as comedy in the way they do because they want to see the world of journalism in a way that makes it easier enough to do their job, and less risky to go out in defense of government norms.
Okay, so you said you occasionally have situations in which you talk to journalists about these kinds of issues. I’d like to know more about that. What do they tell you?
Jeffrey Jones: Well, we—so Jonathan Gray, raise your hand, and Geoff Baym, and these are colleagues where we’ve written a lot together, books and articles and—starting with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but Saturday Night Live and others. I’ve had calls, I’ve talked to the New York Times and CBS and Baltimore Sun, and the response always, I feel like, is they’ve walked in with a writer’s set of assumptions about what this is, and they’re looking for a quote that reifies that. So you can spend, and you guys should—you’re both interlocutors here too— you spend this time kind of arguing with them.
Well, you might want to think about that differently. And so the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that happened in Washington, there was a dominant narrative that emerged amongst journalists that this was two days before an election, so therefore what are the—how are they trying to influence the election? Whereas if you were at that rally, you realized it wasn’t anything about that, it was about civil discourse.
And so there was just the—a cognitive schema, it seemed to me, that they—I always encounter with reporters doing stories on comedy, and really almost without exception, I would say maybe one out of five or six times—you get off the phone and go, “Okay, well maybe they’re willing to listen to me and not just get the one sentence expert voice that they want.” So it’s always been deflating, and we feel as if we’re—the journalists, you know, your work uses the words “fortress journalism,” that they’re protecting their tribe and therefore these biased political speakers. You just said it: it keeps them in a position of being the ultimate arbiters of the political universe, and that these are somehow imposters in it.
And Jonathan, or Greg, Geoff, you want to add? I mean you’ve given these, Geoff, you’ve given these things a thousand times too.
Geoffrey Baym: Yeah, I just talked to a reporter though a couple of weeks ago from Variety about that. Oh I’m sorry, I’m Geoff Baym from Temple University. I talked to a reporter from Variety when John Oliver’s new season began, and what I was struck by was the question, and Chuck Todd asked Jordan …
Jeffrey Jones: Clifford.
Geoffrey Baym: Clifford, thank you. The same question, are you a journalist or are you an entertainer? And the question I was posed by Variety was, is John Oliver a journalist or is he an entertainer? And now Jonathan, Jeff, Michael, and myself and a whole bunch of other people have been arguing for almost 15 years now that that binary is not representative of the world in which we live. And yet most journalists are asked, I mean, the same questions that I think we’ve been asked for 15 years, I got asked a few weeks ago. So there is a measure of fortress for self-protection there, just an unwillingness, I think, maybe, to really think carefully about the things that a lot of folks in this room have been, points we’ve been trying to make for a long time.
Jeffrey Jones: But Jay, I like you’re—this is the universe that was normal for a long time, and they’re comfortable in that positioning, and now that it’s been turned on its head, what are they going to do about it? And I think Mo [Maureen Ryan] was right, you know—Kimmel was speaking as someone who kind of got drug into this, the personal and the political, and he—I think you’re right in your analogy, that there was that Jimmy Stewartish voice there.
Maureen Ryan: Yeah, I mean if you look at the films of Frank Capra, they have a point of view.
We think of them now as like, these sort of, a certain kind of Americana. But that certain kind of Americana reinforced a set of civic norms that are being ignored now. And in my job as a TV critic, I’ve had to write a lot of media criticism in the last few years, and it makes me crazy. I call it—I look at what I see so much of the time, and I say, “You’re going to ‘both sides’ us into the abyss.” “Gotta hear both sides!”
No you don’t. You really don’t. I think that you’re being really false as a media critic or as a media person if you don’t own up to—you’re a human being that exists in the world, right? Like you have a background. You have a culture, you have a point of view. This myth of objectivity is—like the Chuck Todds of the world, honestly, the Chris Cilliza of CNN—I like literally want to take a brick and hit myself over the head when I read some of the stuff that they say and write. They believe in this mythical Avalon of the perfect democratic sphere, where, as you say, it’s balanced on this wonderful thing of like, everybody in the middle is a fair person who has only good intentions. There’s no bad actors here. There’s no intentional manipulation.
I’m like, I would love to live in that fantasy world where you live, because it’s— honestly, especially for people of color, for marginalized communities, that world has never existed. So in what I try to do and what I see other media critics that I respect try to do—here’s my argument, and I will defend it, and I will defend it from a certain vantage point. And the vantage point that I have is not that I’m a communist, as my father would have had it. I do think that at a certain point, as a journalist or a critic or whatever you want to call yourself, a John Oliver, a Jimmy Kimmel, what do you believe in? You can’t hide behind this pose forever. You have to believe something.
And if you’re in the media ,you’re in an enormously powerful position, and you decide that if this—if these are the poles, and these were where the poles were in 1985, and now the poles are over here, and one of them’s way over here; if you just ride the middle every time, then you don’t believe in anything, and you’re just a patsy, and you’re just going to be easily manipulated, and that’s how a lot of people have ridden to positions of power in the media. Ride the safe middle.
But I think that you make an argument, make it with a point of view, make it with information and facts, and defend it, and people won’t agree with you. And that’s how civil discourse works. You might be convinced by someone else or they might be convinced by you, but do not just ride the middle, because at some point you’re going to go over the edge and we all go into the abyss.
Jeffrey Jones: Can I make one more comment on this: is that Fox News is supposedly journalists, right? And they’ve made bank on this. I mean, they’re the number one most watched cable channel. Not news, cable channel, in all of television, for several years now. And they’ve really exploited that. But I do want to not lose sight of this, the cognitive structure, the schema that journalists have supported—that the two party system, or the winner take all system— produces. And it effects how we talk to each other, and so how many of you for the last two years on Facebook have gotten into this thing with people who have to think in that binary? And it infects our common political language, and how we think and how we talk, that, “Oh, well then,” they’re going to bring up, well, Hillary. You bring up one thing, “Oh, well Hillary did …” you know?
It’s just this binary.
And so maybe journalists are as much guilty of doing that, but it’s a maybe a natural American tendency to want for all politics to fit comfortably in that, “Well, if you’re not that, then you’re that.” And I think it’s one of the more pressing things at risk, that we as a country have to deal with, and I’ve had this conversation with Jonathan for years now, because Jonathan’s not an American citizen, he’s from around the world, and he’s the guy I complain to the most.
James English: Marjorie or Nancy, did you want to jump in on this, or—
Marjorie David: No.
James English: —or wait for the next question?
Marjorie David: Well, I actually was—I’m not, I don’t know that it actually is such a strict binary any more. I feel like it’s weirder than that. Because there’s so much atomization, just in terms of, you know, as somebody talked about, everybody goes to their corner, there are all these different places to get news. This is the reason why I can’t figure out how we come to any kind of common understanding. I almost wish people would read a newspaper where there were only two sides. Instead you go to Fox News and you decide, “I’m on the Fox News side, these are our facts,” or you go to someplace else and there’s another kind of fact. So I feel like we’re wailing on journalists when, in fact, it isn’t their fault. I don’t know how to—I’d like to have some idea of people believing the same thing is true. Am I making any sense?
Jeffrey Jones: Well I think the tribalism is pretty—I mean, look at some Pew charts, surveys.
It’s a pretty deep crevice of the camps.
Marjorie David: Yeah, because I—because CNN isn’t the “be all and end all” of news, and Fox isn’t the “be all and end all” of news. People are getting their news from very specific, different organizations, I mean—
Jeffrey Jones: Yeah, I mean, I’ve argued for a long time we’re media grazers, in that we place way too much emphasis—like young people today get their news from late night comedy. You know, they get all kinds of stuff from all kinds of places, and that’s, in fact, the aspect of the flow. What I’m trying to describe, though, is something about American political culture that is if, in this moment, in which a Trump administration and the Republican party in particular, have doubled down on “you’re either with us or against us, you’re a traitor, and you print a story that I don’t like,” see and then you’re fake news. That’s a real binary way of thinking. That’s a rhetoric coming out, and I see it replicated in the body politic, and it’s—you begin to try to say “why?”
Why is that a comfortable language when people are arguing on Facebook that they’re replicating something I see somewhere else.
Nancy Yuen: I can say something about—it’s sort of related—but I’m thinking about how Hollywood thinks about, especially network television, but also film, reaching the broadest audience, right? And I think, historically, Hollywood has thought about middle America, which has always been the more conservative, homogenous, idealized audience, right? But now we’re in this phase where, like “diversity of ideas.” And I think that post-Trump, there was—I had a friend who works at ABC audience research. They were saying, post-Trump, “Oh my gosh, there’s this unreached audience of Trump supporters, right? Unreached.” And when I read that I thought, or when I heard that, I was about, “This has been your traditional audience always,” right? But then it’s cool to, I think, use this idea that “We haven’t thought about the red states.”
And so I read a tweet by Resa Aslan, who said that they ended up choosing Roseanne and dumping his, I think it was a Middle Eastern immigrant sitcom, right, and so they chose Roseanne because somehow Roseanne is now this underrepresented voice. But in fact, what’s been popular in Hollywood is the rehashing of old stuff, right? And so what is, is this really diversity or is this the same old—but it’s packaged, right? It’s taking what’s been traditionally conservative and repackaging it as something new.
James English: Thanks. I want to just invite Michael to jump in on this, since he’s written about this and been invoked here a few times.
Michael Delli Carpini: I mean, I think people have made—I’m Michael Delli Carpini—I think people have made a decent point. I think the discussion that we just heard about, is the media now fragmented and opinionated or are they still standing by the traditional left, right, be in the middle?—I think both of those things are going on at the same time. I think when we say that they’re still following those rules, that’s the legacy media, the heritage media, that we’re thinking about. They try to impose those rules and live by those rules in a world that has completely changed, and that’s when it gets really awkward.
The only other thing I’d say is that I don’t think that that model that Jay mentioned, that traditional model, I don’t even think it’s that the journalists see themselves in the middle. They see themselves, I really got this from you, outside of the thing entirely, just watching it from the middle, or the “view from nowhere,” as it was once called. And I think until we figure out what the role of a professional journalist is—and that’s the theme that we talked about throughout the day—in this environment, where there is no—it’s not two-sided, and it’s not two points of view. I think we’re going to remain in a kind of chaotic state very like that.
Jay Rosen: There’s a new development, Michael, is that that position outside and above is now a risky position—
Michael Delli Carpini: Oh, absolutely.
Jay Rosen: In a way that it wasn’t before-
Michael Delli Carpini: Absolutely, absolutely.
Jay Rosen: And your position of, “here’s where I’m coming from: accept it, reject it,” is actually becoming the safer position.
Michael Delli Carpini: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah, I think that’s great.
James English: Back here, say your name.
Sarah Banet-Weiser: Sarah Banet-Weiser from the other Annenberg. I have a question—thank you for this—I have a question for Maureen, and also coming off of Jay’s idea of the middle. You mentioned bad actors, and also the coverage that you did and your colleagues did about the Me Too movement, which I’ve written a lot about. And I’m increasingly dismayed, I was really bolstered for a few moments with journalism and the media when I just saw story after story, and actual women— you know, humans—come forth and tell these stories, not clicks, not likes, not just retweets, but actual people that were getting covered in the media. And now it seems that that’s waned a little bit because some of the stories, you know the urgency of those stories, it doesn’t seem quite as urgent.
But what’s happened is, and I don’t know—and this is my question—I don’t know if it’s in this fantasy of objectivity or the middle or two sides, but what’s happened now is that the media has turned their attention to the accused in a way that is oddly sympathetic. So you know, there is the B.S. story the other day about Matt Lauer’s making his comeback. You know, in the middle of a New York Times story where there was, again, another list of women in the media industries and the news industries who cannot find jobs, who were fired from their jobs or quit their jobs because of sexual harassment, and now can’t find jobs, but we should be celebrating Lauer’s comeback because, you know, after all, that’s a great thing for us to celebrate.
We should really be listening to Ryan Seacrest and his side. And I don’t know if it is this fantasy of objectivity that makes us now pivot and focus on the perpetrators, and since you have recognized both the lack of democracy in Hollywood and write about this, I just wanted to see what you had to say.
Maureen Ryan: Well, I’ll give two answers, and maybe I’ll “both sides” myself. I’ve been writing about issues of representation, gender, sexual politics, race, culture—I mean, to me, it’s just always been really interesting, like, who speaks, who gets to have a point of view, and why. So there’s a few things about—man, last fall, for someone who’s been covering that stuff for 25 years, it was like Woodstock. You know? It was like, holy crap, people care about “wait, what now”? So that’s why I worked 120 hours a week. I was like, “This window will close or partly close, and I’m going to go full bore while people are listening.” And I think a lot of people felt that way. A lot of women felt that way. A lot of men and women of color felt that way.
So I think that one thing that was really heartening was that a number of people, many of them women, wrote pieces that said do not mourn for these men who received—very wealthy men, typically—who received what will emerge to be temporary consequences in the most cases. Don’t mourn for them, mourn for the women who didn’t get jobs or left jobs, or who didn’t get to create, or didn’t get to tell stories, whether it was in the news media or in entertainment or hotel workers or—all the women who have been harmed, all the LGBT individuals who’ve been harmed, all the people who’ve been marginalized and further distanced from having any kind of power.
So that was much more centered in the discussion last fall than I ever thought it would be. Because every time someone tried to do a like, “Well, but what about Louis C. K.?” people would be like, “Oh, hell no.” I liked Louis C. K.’s show, don’t get me wrong, like I—but there was a lot of actually problematic stuff to do with gender in that.
Anyway. So I’ve always been terrified of when the door will slam shut, from day one. From day one, I’ve been terrified, and so I’ll give you—I reported on a well- known writer-producer named Andrew Kreisberg. He was fired from Warner Brothers after my story came out, and I could do another five stories on him, alone, based on what I found out afterwards or what I couldn’t fit in the first stories. So I don’t doubt that at some point, someone will try to rehabilitate his career, and I—I don’t know what happens when that happens. It will happen with Matt Lauer. It will happen with any number of people. It will happen with Louis C. K. People are putting those toes in the water now. People are writing those stories now.
And it scares me a lot, because one of the other major people that I wrote about was a guy that had multiple HR investigations. He—the story I did on this executive producer, NCIS New Orleans, Brad Kern, I was actually really—it really mattered a great deal to me, because it got into discrimination against breast- feeding women. It got into discrimination with racialized comments, and it got into issues with working parents, in addition to straight up misogyny, which is the main thread. But he was not—he faced no disciplinary action of any kind. From what I understand, there was a break in the writers’ room of 30 minutes for people to read the story, because everyone knew when it was coming. And then everyone went back to work and that was that.
And from what I understand, I don’t have this confirmed independently, but it is very likely that his deal will be renewed by CBS, and he will continue to be employed. And my issue with that story and with that example is that, in the course of reporting that story, I must have talked to 30, 40 women and men who could have run that show and not been extremely damaging and difficult to work with. And damaging to people’s career and morale and career prospects.
Because the forces at work here—my biggest concern is that we need to continue to highlight people who are harming others, for sure, in all spheres of life. It matters in entertainment because when toxic people tell stories and enter the ecosystem, they make that—everything around them—toxic, and they tell stories that are harmful and damaging. So Hollywood, there’s just—what’s that, it’s a force multiplier. Toxic people are damaging in any context.
If they get into a position of power in Hollywood, they have a potential to change the media that my son is consuming, and maybe make him think about the world differently, so it matters to continue to do that work.
But the bigger issue is, institutionally and systematically, what has been done to give people more resources to report the Matt Lauers, the Louis C.K.s, all of that. There are hotlines now, for sure. Anyone who says, in Hollywood, who utters the word “human resources,” I just stop listening. Because you do not have any clue what you’re—that’s nowhere. That’s not a solution. But institutionally, what mechanisms are there for serious investigations? I do think it’s really important to be incredibly thorough with these investigations, because people’s lives and careers and reputations are at stake. And for every story in this alleged witch hunt that you’ve heard, everyone I know working in this area has 50 stories they haven’t done because they’re not journalistically responsible at this point, or maybe never will be.
But what institutional mechanisms are available to those who are victimized and harmed? In Hollywood right now, that’s the area I know about. I don’t think they’re significantly better. And I do think that attention is turning away. And if we don’t hold the industry’s feet to the fire, it has a 120-year history of getting people off their back. With the regulation reform. With lobbying. With copyright. They wait for people to get distracted by something shiny. Oftentimes, they create that shiny thing themselves. And then people lose interest. And I don’t know what the answer to that is.
Marjorie David: Can I say something? Because we’re trying to keep people’s attention on this.
We would be nowhere if the press hadn’t reported it, and what the pattern usually is in Hollywood is—and that’s why HR, it’s like people actually laugh if you say that.
Because someone has a complaint, a woman, say, and goes to HR, and HR for the big corporation says, “Well, we’ll take care of that.” Then they go to, say, the show owner being complained about or the producer, and they have a talk. And the producer comes back—
Maureen Ryan: “We talked to him” is my favorite. “We talked to him.”
Marjorie David: —”We talked to him,” right. And he’s going to be fine. And then he goes back in the room and says, “I don’t know how to talk to you anymore.” Then you get to the end of the complainer’s contract, which is not picked up, and she is not renewed.
Then the next person who wants to hire her calls up the, you know, showrunner, and says, “Well how’s so and so,” and he goes, “She is such a pain in the ass. She’s impossible to work with.”
Well, we’re trying to find a way to short-circuit that process and get around that process, and I have to honestly say that I personally have spent day after day tearing my hair out trying to figure out how to do that, and I’m not the only one. So as writers, we’re working on it. One of the things that we can do is move into teaching people, when it’s another writer, how to manage a room full of people. I mean it is true that it’s run with someone at the head. For one thing there should be more power distribution among women and people of color in terms of running rooms. That is actually getting better, I have to say.
But writers end up—you know there were people who sit in a room and go “blahhh” on our little page, and suddenly we’re in charge of a giant production and 300 people and a room full of writers and we don’t know how to talk to them. There’s no other business in the world where people who don’t understand management are thrown into management positions with absolutely no preparation.
James English: That would be academia. [audience laughs] You’re playing to a sympathetic crowd. So you keep going, keep going.
Marjorie David: No, it’s completely true. But the money situation is kind of different.
James English: Just a little bit.
Marjorie David: So we’re still trying to work on it. I’ll just say one more thing about that, because I’m just so obsessed with this too. There’s an all-industry task force, which is moving really slowly. And which is supposed to be funded from everyone—the studios, the agencies, you know, bla bla bla. They’re putting so much money into their COO and CEO and CFO, and they have Anita Hill working part-time for a very, very large sum of money. And all of the people who do the research, the committees, figuring things out, $50,000. All together. Volunteer, from all these different places. And not only that, the studios are resisting anything that would cover them all overall, as like an overall contract, because they don’t want to give up their autonomy in terms of who they hire. But they’re not allowed to tell each other which show runners are breaking the rules—which producers, which casting people, which anything—because they’ll get sued by those people that they tell the story on.
So it’s a tangled web, but I do want to say, we’re not dropping this. We are not dropping this. It may fall out of the immediate news but it’s not going away.
James English: Bunch of hands keep going up so I want to get to some of these people. In the back there, can you identify yourself?
John Vilanova: Hi, yes, my name’s John Vilanova, I’m a Ph.D. student here. Thank you all so much for being here.
I wanted to return a little bit to what we were talking about before, but more specifically with regard to something that Larry Wilmore said. When he began his political—his coverage of the 2016 election—he said, “The 2016 election, the unblackening,” with the idea being that this was a sort of cultural moment in which we were going to get—the black president would be taken out of office. And I think that what followed, right, was a sort of understanding or interpolation of representation of black and brown people and of minoritized people on television, any representation at all began to be understood as over- representation.
Jeffrey Jones: By whom?
John Vilanova: By, like, perhaps the New York Times. Like, “Oh, we need to make sure that we’re covering these Trump supporters.” Right? So the argument would sort of go along the lines that any sort of hard won gains in representation of minoritized people—there was this letter to the editor that was written in an Arizona newspaper that got a lot of coverage, where it was just a man who wrote the newspaper and said, “50% of the people in my commercials are black people.” So I’m curious about this sort of concern, because what I think that we’re seeing in some of those sorts of representational conversations is that many people see any show that features black leads as a kind of social justice project, or as a kind of reparative or restorative project. And how do we sort of rhetorically push against that idea, that what we’re seeing is broader and more diverse representation that isn’t necessarily compensatory?
Nancy Yuen: So I think that’s not new. I feel like all of Hollywood has always seen any projects starring people of color as “the black film,” or the—I think Aziz Ansari in his first season had this episode where he’s like, “If there’s more than one” like if it’s Indians on TV then it’s a Bollywood film, or it’s international. In my study of Asian Americans on TV, they’re tokens, right, there’s only one. But 96 to 98% of shows have more than one white person, but no one ever said that that’s “the white show,” right? So I think this idea of over-representation is that whenever you see a person of color, if there’s more than one, then that’s over- representation, because we’re a racialized country where we see race only as people of color. We don’t see whiteness as race, right? So I think that the narrative is just, like I said before, it’s just reframing what has been the status quo in a new way. It’s like reverse racism, right? It’s just taking what’s been, or what’s been useful in terms of, “We need more diversity,” and then kind of flipping it.
James English: Here in front?
Judith Matloff: Judith Matloff, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I just wanted to give a fresh perspective, from an insider point of view, of the assertion that the media’s trying to keep a safe place in the middle. I think, I mean I’ve been practicing journalism for 40 years, I’ve been teaching it for 20, and I actually see a gigantic shift in terms of giving oneself permission to not be objective. And you know, when I think about when I started in the ’70s, it was anathema in mainstream media to use the word “I.” And think how often we see it now. It would have been unthinkable that we’d have impassioned, enraged op eds and editorials like you have from Charles Blow.
And I just think the media has—“the media,” which of course is not monolithic—has gone through such a groundswell of change in terms of giving ourselves permission to actually have opinions. And you know journalists now are really public persons. I mean, we all have private views that we share with the public. And so this notion that we’re in a safe space trying to be objective I think is actually quite erroneous. And I think it’s easy to lose sight of that because we’re in a polarized political situation, but I think actually—
You know, I’ll just give you an example. When Trump came in, for the first time in Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, my colleagues were discussing whether or not they could give themselves license to go to political protests. In the past we were not allowed to do that. Like when I was at the New York Times, you could lose your job if you were seen at a protest. That doesn’t exist anymore. People are taking sides. People are doing—they’re actively—I remember for the Hillary campaign, there were a lot of journalists in the phone banks. That would have been unthinkable five years ago.
I think things are changing, and I think it’s very easy from the outside to see the media as being, striving towards a very safe place, but I think actually they’re taking a lot of risks now.
Jeffrey Jones: I think Jay and Maureen can probably speak to that better than anybody.
Jay Rosen: We’ll hear about it tomorrow? I mean it’s true, what you’re saying is true, I think what you’re saying is true. There’s been a tremendous change over time, and there was a specific emergency that Trump brought that has changed a lot of behavior. It’s a symbol of which was breaking [inaudible]. That’s really just a tiny part of it. However, even though the rules have loosened up, I don’t think we’ve adopted a new ideology to replace the one that Trump broke, even though there’s more space than there used to be. So I think we’re still in the middle of this process. Everything you said, I’ve observed.
James English: Over here?
Carolyn Marvin: Well, to continue that conversation, I’ve been thinking about what does a journalist think about that problem of, fair is not the issue. And it seems to me that there are other—there’s one more term besides “fair” and “objectivity,” and that’s humility. And there’s a way in which, you know, any kind of polarization, and I think what’s so dangerous about tribalism—and even when we acknowledge that tribalism is a problem—then we still recreate a binary, which is it’s democracy versus the enemies of democracy, fascism versus democracy, well, Republican and Democrat, obviously. But to me, part of the important moral responsibility that journalists have is humility. Which is the possibility that you might be wrong. All tribalism and all binaries work against that, because then you have to subscribe to one or the other. And so I would not use the term “fair.”
I would not use the term “objective.” I would hold on to the importance—it’s a big world, and a lot of values can be held at the same time—but I would hold on to “humility.” Because the ability to remember that you might be wrong is not a bad virtue to have when you’re a journalist, and that you don’t want to get rid of.
Maureen Ryan: Can I just add something to that? It’s sort of a little bit of a pivot. But also, facts are really handy, and you know—I find one of the things that Nancy’s done in her work, a number of people have done in their work, is just look at what people say versus what they do in their stats. The Writers Guild of America keeps stats on who’s employed where, and what—you know, the race and gender and makeup of writing rooms. And so one thing I’ve really found is that there are these armies of people wanting to spin you, or armies of people paid very highly to say this or to get you to say that.
But if you say to a network, 90% of your TV directors are white men, they don’t have a response to that except, “We’re going to try to do better.” And then regardless of your political affiliation, your cultural background or anything, two years later, if they haven’t done any better, then that’s a fact. You know what I mean? I actually find that there’s—you know, sometimes I give my opinion, sometimes I’m writing a column, but when I’m doing sort of data-based reporting, it’s so much easier. Because it’s just columns of numbers. And Hollywood is one of the most statistically studied organizations in the world, so we have these numbers.
The SAG keeps numbers. The Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Geena Davis Institute, the Women’s Media Center. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, which has been doing incredible work. USC Annenberg, the multiple Annenberg entities.
So, like, all of these things are findable, and so what I find is, like, if people have stated that they want to be inclusive or they want to be reflecting of America, and you typically get executives—the media’s base is talking about these things. They want to reflect both the Trump voters and the new demographic realities, and all the things. Okay, that’s great, but let’s see where the numbers are with that. And you can’t fight math.
James English: Did you want to respond to …
Michael Delli Carpini: Yeah, I just thought of this larger issue in the spirit of having facts. I mean yes, I think the mainstream media has changed, but this is from the Columbia Journalism Review just before the Women’s March in January of 2017. “This week, countless American journalists have been weighing the costs of joining the Women’s March in Washington, DC.
“Staffers coast to coast, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times, have received specific edicts against attending. Others likely know the tried-and-true rule, handed down from standard-setting organizations like the AP: Journalists are not allowed to join protests or demonstrations, in order to avoid appearance of bias.”
So yes, there is discussion about it and even change, and maybe, within the space of the last year, changed even further, but at best it’s being discussed. The idea that it has changed in any real dramatic way I think is still an open question.
Judith Matloff: But if I can just add, most people, I think, that I know in the industry, didn’t respect those edicts.
Michael Delli Carpini: Yeah, that’s … I think that’s a sign of the kind of the breaking of the laws, exactly, that’s right. But that’s different than saying it’s okay to do it, right? It’s the—realizing we’re in a different situation in a grass—almost a grassroots effort to change.
James English: We started a little late, so we’re going to go a little after 3:00PM. We have time for maybe three, four more questions.
Barbie Zelizer: Maybe bundle them?
James English: Yeah, why don’t we do that. We’ll take three questions. We’ll start with these three in back, then I’ll come over to this side and get your three questions, and then let the panel deal with them on block, all right? So remember to identify who you are first. We’ll start here.
Jasper Jones: Jasper Jones, 88.1 FM. I graduated from the university a long time ago. What has not been put on the table is how the media shapes the reality of people. Because what we have is the fact that the mind can’t distinguish between reality and simulation, so what we have is edutainment. So can we have a discussion about how that shaping was going on in our society for a minute.
James English: Good. Next, yeah?
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Yeah, Ruth Ben-Ghiat from NYU. To speak to the Me Too coverage, and the fact about the start of that and the back story with Matt Lauer—I find that these are the kind of cultural stories that we’re all very attached to, including the media, and one is the comeback of the beleaguered male. And this gets recycled over and over again. The other is this more general kind of glamorization of male power and the bad boy. And these, I just see these coming in every time—and there’s no equivalent female narrative. We don’t have a female narrative of greatness. We don’t have a female—we don’t know what to do with women once they are victims of sexual assault, we don’t have a comeback narrative for them.
So I’m always frustrated that, is it laziness, is it like being overwritten by cultural archetypes, by cultural norms, but the same narratives keep structuring the way we tell these stories, even though the stories individually are very different. And so that’s a big problem. And it extends all the way to the assaulters-in-chief. When the New York Times did a story—it’s maybe a year and a half ago—on Putin’s soft side—so that’s another part of this—where he was playing the piano in Beijing. I was like, “Oh, really?”
So I’m writing a book on strong men, and so I’m covering over 100 years of these narratives of assaulters having a soft side and the comebacks, and so I really think that this is a big problem that is just, it requires a little bit of careful thinking before you sit down and write your piece.
James English: Thank you. And, yes?
Danny Kim: Hi, I’m Danny Kim, a third-year Ph.D. candidate here, and I kind of want to go back to something that Dr. Jones mentioned, that you kind of touched on earlier about how, what late night comedy is doing. It isn’t partisanship but the facts of the political norm. So a lot of, like, how the Trump campaign ran things, I feel like was based on this idea of, you know, changing how politics is done, draining the swamp, and going against established political norms. So given that, isn’t a defense of political norms in and of itself a partisan move?
James English: Okay. So we have three questions. Anyone want to start us off here? Respond to one or another?
Jeffrey Jones: Well, I’ll take on the entertainment from Jasper. I mean, Nancy suggested as much. I know Mo well and Mo has done it too, that you’ve offered a term that by itself implodes, or is an oxymoron, right. The “tainment” is supposed to conflict with the “edu” part, and as somebody that runs the Peabody Awards and has a mantra of stories that matter, I repeatedly tell people, “I don’t give Amy Schumer”—not me; Barbie, and Jonathan and Mo—we don’t give Amy Schumer an award just because she’s funny. We give her an award because, through entertainment, she’s telling us stories about misogyny and sexism in the industry and rape in the military.
And so as Nancy said and Mo has written across her whole career, education is concomitant and part of the televisual entertainment experience. And in fact, there are lots of empowering stories daily in the media. And you know, they’re complex. And as Mo showed with her graph, they get more complex by the day. So what do you do with a show like SMILF, where now you do have a female antihero? Or UnReal, where you do have a critique of this ridiculous thing called The Bachelor, but yet these women antiheroes? Where is that? It doesn’t fit in comfortable binaries. They’re shows that are doing something new and fresh, and so the Peabody Awards, in particular, are about the ways in which even entertainment does something that is educational, that is uplifting, that is telling the stories of our day in new and compelling and subjective ways. So, that would be my response.
Maureen Ryan: Yeah, I definitely think, you know, sometimes as a critic you’re accused of having an agenda. Yes, I have an agenda. Ask me about it any time. Don’t you—every single person in this room has an agenda, whether it’s your to-do list for the day or what you believe socially or culturally, what you want to do in your personal life. People have agendas, there’s nothing wrong with an agenda.
My problem is when people try to hide their agenda or take the position that they don’t have one. But I’m sorry, if you’re a night-time procedural, and the basis of your procedural is that women get murdered a lot while wearing their underwear, I think that you have an agenda. “Well, we’re just trying to highlight crime.” Well, do they all have to be co-eds who look a certain way? Like that’s— everything has, in a way, an educational agenda, I think.
And I think if I were to return to one of the other questions about the narratives—thanks for summarizing 20 years of my career. Honestly, that’s what I’ve been writing about. Like Don Draper: why are we—we feel bad for him. I get that. I loved that show, I love Mad Men. But we have built up the male transgressor into someone who, like Breaking Bad—writing about Breaking Bad is: he’s a transgressive man who hurts people and breaks the law and murders people. “But you don’t understand, he did it for his family.” The writers of the show did not defend that position as vociferously as a certain subset of fans did. Vince Gilligan thought his hero was a bad person, or his character.
So I mean, just to sort of break through and maybe unite a few of these questions, 80 to 85—depending on the network—75 to 85 to 90% of showrunners, which is the chief—sort of the CEO of any TV is the showrunner— are white men. Nothing will change until that stat changes for TV, which is what I know about the stats. You know what we like to say in TV? “We’re slightly less terrible than film, woo.” You know? So what has changed in the last five to ten years, and Jeff I think you can speak to this as well, the submissions that we get, that you got for the Peabody Awards. You’re getting narratives about queer men and women, their interior lives. You’re getting Atlanta: what is it like to be Earn Marks, trying to earn a living in Atlanta as an African American man in a place where your physical well-being is always in jeopardy. You know like, what is it like to be the women on Broad City, getting high a lot and engaging in shenanigans?
You know, I love the fact that we—the first decade of the 0’s was, you could expand what a protagonist could be as long as it was a white guy. And now it’s who a protagonist can be has been expanded. And I really think that “stories that matter”—I loved being on the Peabody jury, I loved that slogan, because I really think that these are life and death matters. And right now—we’re seeing that right now, we’re seeing people die at protests. If we cannot understand each other and understand that people have an innate dignity and we should have an innate respect for their humanity, fictional storytelling on television— television’s something we now take with us.
I have it in my pocket. You take it with you and you live with a show for seven years, or three years. It’s very intimate. It gets into your head in a certain way. And so if the perspective, if the default is typically just one subset of human beings, we’re not going to get to where we need to be as a society. Sorry. Ranting.
Marjorie David: Well I have something positive to say about that. I do think it’s changing. I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna, but there’s been a lot of active attempts to change— you mentioned Earn and you mentioned—you know even a silly show but it’s quite wonderful called Glow, about women wrestlers. I think it was in the ’80s?
Jeffrey Jones: Oh, yeah, yeah, you’re right.
Marjorie David: Yeah, it’s a great show. I mean, and so there really is a pivot and a change, and I do think that thing about—I don’t think it’s 90% male show owners any more, I think—
Maureen Ryan: It depends on the network. It really, the broadcast networks, cable, streaming—
Marjorie David: Yeah, yeah, but what the broadcast networks are—listen, I read a pilot. I read a pilot that’s in contention for this year on one of the networks, and it’s about an airplane that gets caught in a time warp in 2013 and they land completely the same as they were before in 2018, and then they have sort of, I don’t know, telepathic powers, but nobody mentions that you land in that airplane and come out and Donald Trump is the President of the United States. And they never say that or think about it or anything, and that’s a broadcast network show. I mean, that’s what they’re trying to do. Just like, forget about it, it never happened. It’s like you have telepathic—and you can solve crime.
And so, there isn’t enough crime in the world to solve. Somebody once calculated that in a year of Law and Order’s there were more crimes committed on all of the Law and Order’s than there were in New York in three years. But I think people get sick of that stuff and that it’s actually coming into a positive change. And if the fans of Breaking Bad are so out of it that they didn’t understand that Walter White was a bad guy by the end, that show had sort of brilliantly taken your brain and made you understand that you may sympathize with this creep but in fact, he’s a creep. And he likes it. And that was what it came up with by the end. And so he didn’t die any kind of hero. I mean, that was that, you know. Jesse got away, that was basically the end of that.
James English: I’m going to jump in and get three more questions lined up—
Jeffrey Jones: I going to take, answer the “drain the swamp”—this is really quick. So “is ‘drain the swamp’ connected to the violation of political norms?” was your question, and the answer is, substitute political with democratic norms. What’s going on is a defense by Jimmy Kimmel and others of democratic norms. I don’t think what Donald Trump does in any way with his rhetoric and his actions have any cogency. It’s just all a cluster-you-know-what. But the bottom line is that what he is doing, whether it’s draining the swamp, is an attack on democratic norms, and that’s what the comedians are pushing back against. So thanks.
James English: Okay. Yeah, back there?
Lisa Henderson: I have a question for—
James English: Your name please?
Lisa Henderson: Oh, I’m sorry, my name is Lisa Henderson from UMass, and my question is for Marjorie. Since Janus versus AFSCME is at the Supreme Court right now, which is a case that’s trying to shake down unions—Janus versus AFSCME is at the Supreme Court right now. I wondered if the WGA works in coalition with other unions—
Marjorie David: Yeah, we do.
Lisa Henderson: —since there is this decision pending, and I can describe it if people want to know what it is—
Marjorie David: It’s about public, I think—it’s hard to hear you—but it’s about the right of public sector unions to demand that people who aren’t union members pay dues in order to maintain those unions, which do the bargaining for them. And that’s probably not going to end well, given the makeup of our current court. It’s scary for us. I think we always file “friend of the court” briefs in situations like that. It’s a public sector case, so we can’t directly intervene, but yeah, we’re worried about that. Yes. I mean it’s one reason why I went off on that little tear, which wasn’t on my printed form that I lost, about “But there are unions.” Because, you know, people forget, and unfortunately—yeah. But thank you for asking.
James English: Megan?
Megan Genovese: Hi, I’m Megan Genovese. Thank you all so much for your presentations. I wanted to ask—unfortunately, they are big questions, since we’re trying to come to a close—about structures, and kind of take us back also to Soraya’s presentation last night, and sort of these—the classification of these old prejudices and these old biases into media as it all centralizes into huge conglomerates, as it is also trying to get into new media—into online streaming, into other areas. And I wanted to ask about the issues that you see are ultimately an opportunity, Marjorie, and Nancy especially—to highlight the issues you see in the centralization of power in companies in Hollywood, and how that gets exercised against individuals trying to get justice for themselves and activists trying to get justice for whole groups of people who have been discriminated against but then marginalized from the power within the industry and who have been not seen.
James English: Before you answer, I’m just gonna bundle three questions, and then these will be our last questions. This gentleman has had his hand up for a while, yeah?
Jeff Goldfarb: Okay, so—
Barbie Zelizer: Identify please?
Jeff Goldfarb: Oh, sorry. Jeff Goldfarb from the New School for Social Research. I want to observe that one word wasn’t uttered in this whole discussion, which I think is actually very, very important. That one word and its associate, art and artistry.
So it seems to me that one way that the tension that exists between entertainment and journalism, news coverage, actually has to do with artistry, and we should kind of recognize that. And you know some people who make that, who try to address that issue, are kind of pedestrian, and some, such as John Oliver and Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report, are actually great artists, and we should kind of realize that one way to respond to the crisis of our times and to the attack on media is artistry.
And then I’d like to make another observation, that the tendency that—the longing for the center makes some sense if the center is the place where serious differences are actually, confront each other. And that, I’d like to say, two cheers for one of one binary—or three cheers for one binary—and that’s the binary between democracy and authoritarianism. And as far as journalistic practices go, when the New York Times sent someone to the Soviet Union, or alas not in the 1930s, when they sent someone to the Soviet Union, they should recognize the difference between democracy and dictatorship. And what the crisis of our times, domestically now, is that journalists now also have that responsibility. Journalism-as-normal can proceed because there is actually a threat to democratic norms. So I think that all of these discussions—the discussions of inclusion, again, representation, presence of voice—all of these issues are really important issues, but they’re—we’re confronting them in the shadows of a looming, if not an existing, authoritarianism.
James English: Thank you. And we’ll let Barbie Zelizer add a final question, and then we’ll have final remarks from our guests.
Barbie Zelizer: Again, thank you for terrific presentations. It strikes me that when I’m thinking about media at risk, there’s a little bit of an irony here, in that one of the things that many of you actually pointed to, if not underscoring directly, is the question of sharpening media literacy—creating a kind of critical media literacy moment, right, for the population at large. When you think about entertainment in conjunction with the other environments that we’re talking about, you’ve got the public, right? You’ve got the public where journalism, documentary, and digital practice even, do not.
And so is there not a kind of gain to be had by thinking about media literacy in connection with the entertainment industry? And I have one more half question. Jeff, I can’t let you go as chair of the Peabody Awards without saying, you are the representative of my favorite media award, I am biased but there are many in this room that are biased, but we win. I wonder if there’s not something that the awards systems can do? In this moment, beyond just selecting content and awarding content, but figuring out different kinds of mechanisms that will point folks toward a more engaged population? I mean engaged not in a negative away.
James English: Colossal questions. Who wants to answer?
Nancy Yuen: I want to maybe combine all this. Thinking about artistry, right? Artistry’s such a pure, lovely idea that we all want to aspire to, but in my—and as a sociologist, just the misuse of that term. Because I did point out creativity, creative prerogative, that is used in Hollywood to continue to disregard marginalized voices. Because what has been seen as, and upheld as great artistry, has been one-sided, right? And so if you continue to like—the award systems, the Oscars, right?
It continues to reward certain groups.
Then we think that that is artistry, right? And because we haven’t let anybody into that who are on the margins, then they’re not seen as artistry. And so I think that that’s one thing, even though I believe that there is obviously technique and all sorts of stuff, but unfortunately it’s been mismanaged, I think, in Hollywood, and it’s often used— like, I interviewed a top talent agent who said that, “Oh, yeah, diversity’s terrible in Hollywood. But I’m not interested in diversity. I’m interested in brilliance.”
Marjorie David: Because there aren’t very many smart people?—
Nancy Yuen: Right. So, for example, I grew up—I loved Hollywood musicals. And they were all white, right? The old stuff. And in terms of media literacy, I feel like—La La Land, right? It was basically those old Hollywood musicals but rehashed. I could not enjoy them the same—I could not enjoy it the same way. I think if I watched it in my youth I would have been like, “This is perfect, this is beautiful.” But now, knowing what I know about what Los Angeles looks like and the fact that, you know, Ryan Gosling is the upholder of jazz—I mean these kind of tropes didn’t make sense to me anymore.
But when I critiqued it on a podcast and in writing, I had a lot of backlash. Because that is still that image of artistry or nostalgia, it’s still sacred to people. “Why are you attacking these lovely young people?” You know? And I was like, “But, but, don’t you see”—but they could not see it my way, because we are looking through specific lenses and perhaps with different levels of media literacy, and I think what’s so important about studying media is that people really feel very passionate about their favorite shows, about their favorite movies. I mean there was so much pleasure—they’re not seeing that they’re biases and their preferences kind of are shaped into that. They see it as objective, right? So I want to make it—I wanted people to understand that’s subjective, and really make that clear.
Maureen Ryan: I just want to really, briefly, try to be brief. Megan, your question. This is really like maybe too insider baseball. The hidden hand in all of this is the talent agencies.
Marjorie David: I was just going to talk about that.
Maureen Ryan: And they are hot beds of everything terrible. I’m serious. I mean, I—like, the amount of complicity that is baked into the talent agencies is revolting to me. And those are the gatekeepers. They are, they really are. If you don’t have representation, good luck. And who are they looking for to get representation? People, many people I know, or people in the margins, cannot get representation. You cannot get an agent, or a whatever. Directors, this is a problem, a constant problem, because they want the people that already make money. Well, how do you get to make money? You’re in these informal and formal networks of power and influence, and those are dominated by the same people over and over again.
Hollywood is really the ultimate gig economy. And I understand the fear and paranoia and everyone’s fears for their next job or fears for their career, all the time, every single person. But the talent agencies function is—their greatest super power is waiting for people to stop paying attention to them, and it works every time. But they are enormously influential gate keepers, and they fade into the woodwork. You know that internet .gif of Homer Simpson fading into the foliage? That’s the talent agencies, but they’re incredibly powerful and they are the hand on the—the thumb on the scale all the time, in all these issues we’ve been talking about.
Marjorie David: Okay, you do know that we just opened up the talent agency agreement after 40 years of not negotiating with them? Because of their vile conflicts of interest. They’re consolidating at a rate even faster than the big corporations now, and they are big corporations in themselves, so why they’re even in artist management and representation, I don’t even know. I mean they’re not representing artists, writers, directors, actors—anybody particularly at all any more. They’re producing, which should be against the law, but because they have subsidiary companies. What we need is antitrust. We need antitrust across the board. There’s like—it’s very hard to find recourse. They’re doing stuff that’s basically against the law, sort of under the radar, and there’s something called packaging, which I won’t go into now, but which is where the agency makes money even when they don’t, and they also bargain with themselves for your services. I can’t even begin to say. They’re a giant, giant problem.
And another thing about media consolidation that makes it difficult for people to have recourse is that it’s hard to bargain with these great big entities. Like if you had ten studios to talk to at the same time, then you can break somebody off. Like they’ll sign a side agreement, or they’ll agree to represent somebody or whatever you need. But now they’re big monoliths that you’re coming up against, with, you know, they don’t actually see individuals. It makes it difficult. And what I said about HR also applies there.
The artistry question confuses me a little bit because I think there’s a difference between artistry, which is kind of craft, or are you talking about art?
Jeff Goldfarb: I was talking about art.
Marjorie David: Well, art—
Jeffrey Jones: I want to address that, but keep going.
Marjorie David: Yeah, but art is a loss leader. And the one good thing for art right now—well, because the first thing they said to me when I came there, I used to be, you know, a novelist, and they’d go like, “They don’t call it show art. They call it show business.” You learn that lesson really fast.
However, sometimes something happens, like The Wire. And The Wire is a brilliant work of art. It is like one of the great novels, and it also is one of the great acts of inclusion in entertainment. And not that many people watched The Wire. And HBO somehow stuck with it for a long time, but now it is—it has what’s called a long tail, which means that you can still watch it, and it’s— people tell me every day, “Oh my God, have you seen The Wire, have you seen what”—and so art does have that staying power, even if it doesn’t make a lot of money up front. And so it does exist, but it’s almost like in a little niche in the entertainment world. But it’s there, and the great thing is that you can still see it the way—you can see old movies and things that really count as serious materials.
Jeffrey Jones: So I can bring these three things to a close. So I’m so glad you brought that up. I mean, this is Peabody’s problem, if you will. It’s like creating an advisory board that’s Ted Sarandos and Rick Rosen and all of the people who run the entertainment industry. And the value proposition, as Marjorie just said, in the entertainment industry is money. And I want their money. And my value proposition is art. And it’s hard to sell art in Hollywood when that town is geared toward money. So Marjorie’s point—
But it is the ultimate aspect of what we are seeing in entertainment now—is it is rising and The Wire’s a great example. And maybe it has a little commerce in that there—no, no, not The Wire, Deadwood, another piece of art, has now got a feature film coming out.
Media literacy, you know, those of us writing on political entertainment television have for a long time argued that what Jon Stewart and Colbert, but even now Robin Thede and Sam Bee, are doing, is teaching people how to read media, how to read the politics and how to be critical. How to deconstruct images. How to hold people’s feet to the fire. And we’ve argued that it is a project of media literacy for a long time.
And then finally your question about how can Peabody, which does recognize stories that matter, be more than just an awards. And that is precisely why— and I was telling Susan Douglas and Lisa Henderson at lunch today—why we created the Media Center, of which you’re (Barbie) a fellow and Jonathan is. We’re precisely trying to say that these are stories that matter, and how can we extend the social conversation around them—indeed, maybe how can Peabody join in with broader movements and mobilize our resources of talent and show runners to be part of the narratives, the strongest narratives, that are appearing there in that movement.
So for example, in the last four years, Peabody has given 14 awards to such pieces of documentary, entertainment, news, podcasts, on sexual assault and harassment. 14 in four years. That stacks up. And so when you start to put that together, can the Media Center—through its digital production arm, but also events—in joining with movements and foundations that are working for change in this area, we have the best storytellers across genres and across platforms. So to me, we’re at a university, University of Georgia, sitting on something that can go to the next phase. I don’t see it as my job just to say, “This is art.” I think art can work for politics and it should, because that is what true artists are really trying to do.
James English: Thank you. Kudos to our panel.