'Doing Newsmaking Criminology from within the Academy' was pubilshed in Theoretical Criminology (Spring 2007).
Twenty years ago next year, in a Justice Quarterly article, using the insights of Stan Cohen, Jock Young, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and others, and in accordance with a Gramscian approach to hegemony and class struggle, I introduced the concept and practice of ‘newsmaking criminology’ (Barak, 1988); referring to the ‘processes whereby criminologists use mass communication for the purposes of interpreting, informing and altering the images of crime and justice, crime and punishment, and criminals and victims’ (Barak, 2001: 190). More specifically, newsmaking criminology refers to the conscious efforts and activities of criminologists to interpret, influence, or shape the representation of ‘newsworthy’ items about crime and justice. Furthermore, a newsmaking criminology:
attempts to demystify images of crime and punishment
by locating the mass media portrayals of incidences of
‘serious’ crimes in the context of all illegal and harmful
activities; strives to affect public attitudes, thoughts, and
discourses about crime and justice so as to facilitate a
public policy of ‘crime control’ based on structural and
historical analyses of institutional development; allows
criminologists to come forth with their knowledge and
to establish themselves as credible voices in the mass-
mediated arena of policy formation; and asks of crimin-
ologists that they develop popularly based languages
and technically based skills of communication for the
purposes of participating in the mass-consumed ideology
of crime and justice (Barak,1988: 566).
A little background history is in order here. In 1987 when I wrote the article that would appear in JQ the next year, the U.S. was in the midst of the ‘cocaine wars’ on many of its urban streets and moving into its peak years, 1988 to 1991, for drug related killings. These were the beginning years of the golden era of crime coverage in local television news when if ‘it bleeds, it leads’. At the time, what was particularly striking to me across the media- and politically-dominated discussions of crime, violence, and justice on mass mediated television was the scarcity of social and behavioral scientists in general and the conspicuous absence of criminologists in particular; no less true of prime time, cable, or public access television. This situation has not substantively changed in twenty years.
Unlike other disciplinary areas of expertise, when mass mediated public discussions occur: about politics, audiences hear from political scientists; about economics, audiences hear from economists; about the weather, audiences hear from meteorologists. However, when it comes to public discussions about crime and justice, audiences do not generally hear from criminologists. This is not to say that there are not a handful of criminologists in the States who ‘pop up’ consistently. Probably the two most recognizable criminologists in the U.S. would be James Alan Fox and Alfred Blumstein. When they appear, however, they rarely, if ever, drive the story. On the contrary, they are usually being ‘used’ as criminological props to give some credence or legitimacy to the story. Moreover, seldom are any of these criminologists seen on any of the television news programming and talk show formats, whether we’re talking CNN, NSMBC, cable, Court TV, public access, prime time magazine news, or whatever that allow for the possibility of a substantive newsmaking exchange. In other words, the appearances of most ‘newsmaking criminologists’ rarely ever get beyond the ‘sound-bite’ effect; not very efficacious newsmaking if one desires to influence policies on crime and crime control in a progressive direction.
Typically, what was the case 20 years ago is essentially the case today, when public discussions about crime and justice occur, the mass media primarily rely: on agents of the state, from law enforcement and prosecution through adjudication and sentencing to punishment and incarceration; on attorneys, judges, and chiefs of police in particular; and, last but not least, on various politicos whether they be office-holders or seekers, or they be advocates for victims of crime. Hence, when I introduced ‘newsmaking criminology’ it was a call for criminologists to not only become ‘public intellectuals’, but also to ‘take sides’ in the Howard Becker tradition, and to do ‘newspaper sociology’ in the Alvin Gouldner tradition.
In short, newsmaking criminology was and is still a ‘call for action’ requesting of criminologists that they put aside their value-free ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’, and attempt to move the public toward ‘enlightened’ self-awareness about crime, justice, and society. I have always thought that this was (and is) a very tall order in the context of the political economy of mass media. In other words, I have never envisioned nor do I now that newsmaking criminology would ever have an easy go of it in the practical sense, especially within the bourgeois political and economic arrangements of laissez-fare and neoliberalism.
However, slowly but surely there has been a rising knowledge base and lessons learned about working with the news media. For example, understanding the motivations of journalists in general and of crime and criminal justice reporters in particular is fundamental to successful newsmaking as a criminologist. More importantly, is the ability of newsmaking criminologists to develop their own journalistic sources, connections, and associations with those folks in the business of reporting on crime and justice news. There are reciprocal and trusting relationships that need to be nurtured here. Newsmaking criminology, in other words, cannot be left to chance; it is not about responding to a phone call or an email from a local or national reporter ‘out of the blue’, but rather, it is about developing enduring mutually based conversations, if possible, with journalists who are involved with mediating crime and justice stories more generally.
Some of the information, method, and analysis associated with newsmaking criminology were first shared in a book by two leading criminological newsmakers, James Alan Fox and Jack Levin (1993), and in the edited volume Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime: Studies in Newsmaking Criminology by the author. One contributor Stuart Henry (1994) elaborated on four styles of newsmaking criminology, namely the criminologist as: ‘expert’, ‘journalist’, ‘subject’, and ‘educative provocateur’. In the same reader, Cecil Greek (1994: 280) asked whether or not newsmaking criminology was even possible. His answer was as follows:
My experience and that of others leads me to conclude
that trying to use the media to bring the findings of
criminological research to a larger audience and enlighten
the public is a more difficult task than originally envisioned.
It requires an understanding of how the media operate,
knowledge of how to communicate successfully in a variety
of formats and circumstances, and advance preparation.
Greek is essentially correct. As I have already indicated, his conclusion was no surprise to me. I know from both my own as well as the failed and successful attempts of many colleagues. The key to success, when it comes, usually does so because the newsmaking criminologist has a thorough understanding and appreciation for the particular format, frame, or genre and the associated workings of each. Thus, for some time now, one reflection has been to make sure that one is using the appropriate discourse or style of newsmaking for the particular kind or mode of communicative venue.
For example, I have argued that ‘the various communicative modes or frames of visual and auditory expression that are institutionalising the mass distribution of images and narrative texts on crime and justice, need to be fully examined and accounted for by criminologists and others. In other words, analyses of the frames and genres that are constantly re-constructing people’s perceptions of crime and justice, as well as their understandings of the ways in which these perceptions are differentially “opened” to or “closed” to the insertion of alternative meanings and articulations of law and justice, can help provide a means or a praxis for those wishing to engage with the mass media over the social construction of what constitutes crime and justice, or law and order’ (Barak, 2007: 101).
More generally, after twenty years of newsmaking criminology I have ‘concluded’ that the study of media, crime, justice, and society could or should be more inclusive, holistic, and integrative in its foci, and that the time has come to develop more culturally and materially nuanced accounts of the representations of law and order, or of crime and justice. This is not a particularly new argument, however, in an age of globalization and satellite communication, it has become even more relevant as the blending of genres and frames has become virtual and as crime and justice, law and order, are increasingly a cultural hybridization of materiality and hyperreality (Arrigo 1996). At the same time, there is still much to learn about the inter-workings of media, mass culture, and technological development. There is also the need for newsmaking criminology to adapt its praxis in order to successfully interact within the dynamics of these overlapping spheres of influence or interest.
With the exception of Simon Cottle (2006: 44) and his colleagues who have developed, for example, a ‘communicative architecture of televised news’, students of media and crime and/or justice have given scant attention to ‘exactly how mediatization is enacted in and through the media’s available communicative forms’. As a result, many ‘newsmaking criminologists’ have gone about the practice of newsmaking by trial and error, or by hit and miss; rather than by a systematic appreciation for how the media works very differently depending on the genres and frames of newsmaking in play. In different words, as difficult as newsmaking criminology is, understanding the architecture of news communication, allows one to tailor his or her discourse appropriately for frame and genre, to increase the likelihood of productively using the media (rather than vice versa), to get one’s points or policies across, and to preclude one from engaging in those newsmaking situations in the first place that are not conducive to criminological intervention, progressive or otherwise.
Even more fundamentally, I think it is important that the newsmaking criminology of the future pay particular attention to the changing nature of technology and mass communication. Adapting to the new forms of mass communications, by engaging newsmaking through the worldwide web, the blogosphere, or the podcast, I believe will be key in the development of a more democratic and progressive articulation of policy on crime and justice than currently prevails in mass media at large. In other words, in terms of the production and distribution of newsmaking criminology, websites and blogs with heavy traffic may, in fact, represent some of the ‘best’ venues for influencing mass dialogue and discourse not only in cyberspace but also in print, radio, and television. My own inclinations or biases in terms of criminological newsmaking today lean toward ‘self’ or public access production and distribution.
In the rest of this ‘evaluative thought piece’, I will briefly summarize the communicative frames used by television news/journalism as identified by Cottle. Then I will retrospectively explore or reflect on how I employed some of these and other frames in the context of successfully doing newsmaking criminology as a news/journalist with a twice a week, Tuesday and Friday mornings, radio ‘talk’ show from Ann Arbor, Michigan that for nine months covered ‘live’ the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. In this section, I divide the discussion, on the one hand, between expert commentary and newsmaking criminology, and, on the other hand, between mainstream and progressive frames or themes of reporting/reportage. Finally, I close this essay with some reflections on newsmaking criminology in relation to my O.J. experience and to some of the larger theoretical questions or issues raised by different types of criminological intervention.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF TELEVISED NEWS: COTTLE’S THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
In the business of television news/journalism, Cottle identifies a number of conventionally communicative frames, oriented toward either ‘conflict’ or ‘consensus’. Narrative frames of social conflict include dominant, contest, contention, campaigning, and expose/investigative; narrative frames of social consensus include community service, collective interests, cultural interests, cultural recognition, and mythic tales. While each of the former frames routinely structures the communication of conflicts in different ways, they all do so in terms of propositions, claims, counter claims, and arguments. By contrast, the consensual frames revolve around ‘cultural displays’ rather than ‘analytic deliberations’. Unlike the conflict-driven and analytical frames grounded in ‘rationalism’ and ‘objectivism’, the consensus frames tend to work as ‘expressive’ or ‘emotional’ modes of communication, moving from the semiotic to the symbolic and mythic.
Reflection: ideally newsmaking criminologists should prefer working in conflict rather than in consensus driven media or news frames. Cottle contends that in addition to the conflicting and consensus frames there are also two archetypal news frames: reporting and reportage. Consistent with the daily production cycles of television news, the classic or stock reporting frame functions in terms of information conveyance and surveillance of current events. This mode of communication delivers the cold hard facts; at best, these thin news accounts of events are typically without context, background, explanation or competing definitions. As Cottle (2006: 25) explains, reporting frames privilege ‘an epiphenomenal and disaggregated view of reality in which violent events and reactions, rather than underlying conditions, possible causes, or motivations, become the focal point’.
The reportage frame, by contrast, ‘represents a relatively elaborative and often powerful frame for the exploration of conflicts and their origins, dynamics, and impact’ (Cottle, 2006:34). This frame serves to provide the means for generating a deeper understanding, as it allows for ‘thicker’ rather than ‘thinner’ news reports. Reportage frames, given their affinity with documentary modes (Nichols, 1991), and unlike reporting frames, provide rich descriptions of reality, invariably moving the story treatment from ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be’. The point is that by employing film, video, and other visuals as well as testimonies, for example, reportage frames position themselves as well as viewers in the place or virtual space of ‘bearing witness’, moving beyond the more dualistic frames of fact and fiction, and into the emotional realms of human identification (See also Nassar, 2005). Reflection: although newsmaking criminologists might intrinsically prefer working in reportage rather than reporting frames, it is more complicated because each of these archetypal frames can variously draw upon both analytic/propositional (conflict) and aesthetic/expressive (consensus) modes of communication.
Similarly, as David Altheide (1987) pointed out twenty years ago in his comparative study of formats and symbols in the TV coverage of terrorism in the USA and the UK, there are basic distinctions between ‘event-type’ frames associated with regular evening news broadcasts and the ‘topic-type’ frames associated with interviews and documentary presentations. The former frames tend to focus on visuals, the aftermath, and tactics of terrorism; the latter frames are more likely to include materials about purposes, goals, and rationales. But here again, as Cottle (2006), Altheide (2006), and Kavoori and Fraley (2006) have all demonstrated, whether we are talking about the news coverage of terrorism in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe, or North America, in the contemporary world of globalism a mixture of event and topic as well as other frames for representing ‘terrorism’ or ‘counterterrorism’ can be discerned.
FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE: NEWSMAKING CRIMINOLOGY THROUGH THE O.J. SIMPSON TRIAL
The fundamental distinction between the architecture of radio news and the architecture of televised news is, of course, the formers’ lack of visuals. However, radio news or commentaries, especially traditional talk show formats, in the context of a mass-mediated visual culture of consumption, are supplemented by no shortages of circulating montages of ever ready or accessible images of ‘law and order’, or of ‘crime and justice’ in general, and of event-based topical news stories in particular. Reflection: these mass-mediated collective narratives on crime and justice can be and should be used or incorporated wherever possible by newsmaking criminologists.
In addition to these frames of reference, in the case of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial and my radio coverage from opening arguments to the verdict of not guilty, I was not only employing predominant frames of conflict and topic-type, but I was utilizing consensus and event-type frames of discourse as well. The radio coverage of the trial, especially over a period of nine months, was also conducive to both reporting and reportage types of framing. Ultimately, it was the ability to employ reportage type journalism that made for a successful newsmaking criminological experience, and it is radio type formats in general that I believe provide excellent venues for newsmaking interventions.
Expert Commentary and Newsmaking Criminology:
When it came to cashing in or making use of the power of the newsmaking mediums in relation to high-profile criminal trials such as O.J.’s, it has primarily been the case of a cottage industry of media trial experts. Greta Van Susteren, Leslie Abramson, Gerry Spence, and Nancy Grace, to name only a few had become familiar faces as armchair analysts on the network and prime time news shows. Some of these folks went on to have their own televised shows, whether on network stations like CNN or cable stations like Court TV. There is absolutely no reason why criminologists, or others for that matter, cannot join the ranks of these commentators, whether it be on prime time or public access.
For example, from 1987 to 1995, criminologist Ronald Kramer from Western Michigan University hosted and co-produced WMU Forum, a monthly Kalamazoo public access cable television program. Over an eight-year period, 85 programs were produced and broadcast. A sample of topical subjects included: Violence Against Women; Prison Overcrowding; Solid Waste Management; Crime Victims; Corporate Crime; Parental Consent and Abortion Laws; Psychological Aspects of Rape; Palestinian Conflict; and Michael Harrington and Democratic Socialism. As Kramer describes it on his online vita from 2004, this ‘half-hour program explored important social issues and current events, drawing on the Western Michigan University faculty, students, staff, and occasional guests to provide their insights and expertise’ (p.5). Of course, this monthly program provided Kramer and company with perhaps the ideal newsmaking forum for producing critical and progressive intervention on behalf of such topical areas as human rights and social justice for all.
Similarly, when it came to the high-profile case of O.J. Simpson it was ‘my contention that newsmaking criminologists can not only provide the blow-by-blow legal descriptions required by the media coverage [reporting], but more importantly, they can also provide the vitally omitted criminological contexts [reportage] that, by comparison, are far broader than the legal or organizational contexts provided by lawyers alone. Not limited to merely an informed discussion of the substantive and procedural aspects of criminal law like attorneys, newsmaking criminologists are also grounded in the disposition of crime, criminals, and punishment as these have interacted with the historical patterns of the institutionalized relations of class, race, and gender in the American experience’ (Barak, 1996: 114-115). The point being is that these types of criminological knowledge are only suggestive of the broader understandings of crime and justice, or of law and order, possessed by criminologists that are simply not part of the repertories of most other legal and social commentators. In the next section, I will explore these differences at some length.
In the remainder of this section, I would like to describe how this newsmaking opportunity came about and to further contextualize ‘my’ O.J. program that aired live twice weekly at 6:40 A.M. for approximately 6-7 minutes as a part of the regular daily Morning Show on 107.1 FM ‘Kool’ radio in Ann Arbor. During the pretrial hearings and in anticipation of the upcoming criminal trial of O.J., I wrote a couple of op ed pieces on domestic violence and criminal justice that were featured prominently in The Ann Arbor News. Then, one week before the trial was set to begin, a press release on Barak’s expertise about crime, justice, and the media was sent to print and electronic news sources from the Office of Public Information at Eastern Michigan University. The release included copies of the two op ed pieces and some provocative quotations from me about O.J. and the upcoming trial, the future of domestic violence, and the criminal law in the context of ‘multiculturalism’ and diversity. As a result, I was immediately contacted by radio stations in the area and did three broadcast interviews on the upcoming trial, two live and one taped, that were played some six times in the greater metropolitan Detroit.
One of the first live interviews I did was with the city of Ann Arbor’s only ‘oldies but goodies’ FM station at the time, the Morning Show that aired 6:00 A.M to 10:00 A.M Monday through Friday. At the time Lucy Ann Lance and Dean Erskin who had a large and loyal following hosted the show. Demographically aimed at the Baby Boomers, the Morning Show in addition to playing ‘oldies but goodies’ music, mostly from the 60s and 70s era of hard and soft rock, was interspersed with news, weather, traffic reports, local community service and public announcements, as well as occasional guest interviews. Fortunately for me, prior to the joint interview by Lance and Erskin, I had been a regular listener waking and driving to work mornings with 107.1 music in my head as well as the voices of Lucy Ann and Dean.
I knew something about the co-hosts of the Morning Show and the type of entertainment/news people they appeared to be. Lucy Ann and Dean were there to have a good time and to make themselves and their audiences laugh, but they also expressed a serious side or political consciousness appropriate for the Ann Arbor community. In other words, they were also about sharing their points of view on public issues and current events. I also believed that I knew something about their ‘sensibilities’ or ‘mind sets’ that at the time I would have described as falling into the Hunter Thompson’s ‘gonzo’ school of journalism (Barak, 1996). Although years later, I would have to say that that was probably not an accurate characterization. In any case, based at least, in part, on my knowledge of the co-hosts’ mentalities we were able to establish an instant rapport. After the first interview, they invited me back twice more to discuss the O.J. case, once before the actual trial began and one day after the trial had started. After the third interview, we then entered into an agreement that I would provide live O.J. trial ‘commentary’ on their radio program two mornings a week for the duration of the criminal trial.
Typically, a couple of minutes before I was to go on the air, Lucy Ann and/or Dean and I would confer over the phone about the trial ‘events’ that had occurred since the previous show. Together, at least initially, we would more or less carve out the parameters as well as the issues to be addressed on that day’s show. Within the framework of our pre-show discussion, Lucy Ann or Dean would return from a commercial break, set the stage for me by highlighting the O.J. ‘news of the hour’ with some kind of segue and what does ‘our very own expert and professor’ have to say about that. At the beginning of the trial, more often than not I engaged the co-hosts in a question/answer format, augmented by a playful back and forth bantering between the three of us. From the middle of the trial until the jury verdict, more often than not I filled the time with more and more commentary as my co-hosts were getting ‘bored’ by the repetition and length of the trial as it dragged on.
In a very short period of time—less than a month—I had gone from ‘outside expert’ to 107.1’s O.J. expert that you ‘can hear live on the Lucy Ann Lance and Dean Erskin Morning Show twice weekly every Tuesday and Friday at 6:40 AM’ as the commercial promos plugged their listening audiences several times a week. In terms of Henry’s classification of newsmaking interventions, I was no longer the criminologist as ‘expert’ or the criminologist as ‘educative provocateur’, but I had actually become the criminologist as ‘journalist’. In fact, as the co-hosts literally tired of the O.J. trial about six months into it, our pre-broadcast conferences became a conduit to provide them with virtually all of their opening remarks and questions for me for the given program. This allowed me to virtually guide the story lines, to introduce, for example, studies on jurors, domestic violence, mass media, gender, victimization, race and the administration of justice, class justice, and so on and so forth.
In a nutshell, the ‘power of the narrative’ became mine to construct over a fairly long period of ‘mediated dialogue’. This power of the narrative always has as much to do with what one omits from the conversations, chooses not to discuss or reinforce, or sets out to demystify or deconstruct, as it does with what one is actually trying to construct or establish as a ‘new’ foundation for contemplating if not confronting, in this case, ‘criminal justice in America’. At the same time, this particular radio format demanded of me that I juggle other ‘mediated balls’ as well.
In other words, keeping in mind that the format of the Morning Show was essentially one of infotainment, combing both news and entertainment, I did not ever fully remove myself from being a criminologist ‘as subject’ or ‘of interest’ to Lucy Ann and Dean who always seemed to enjoy my ‘radical’ take on things. I also had interjected a third personality into the show’s radio format as I was expected to mesh with Lucy Ann and Dean’s personas. At the same time, I was granted my own biases and points of view; though I was journalistically expected not to take sides in the case, but to be objectively reporting at the very same time that I was constructing a very different take on law and order, and on crime and justice, that departed significantly from most of my expert legal counterparts. In short, as a newsmaking criminologist I had become a journalist and disc jockey rolled into one.
Mainstream and Progressive Newsmaking: Themes or Frames of Discourse
My own handwritten notes and commentaries on the Simpson criminal trial that I prepared before each show are some 150 legal size pages in length. Moreover, there exists more than ten hours of taped radio broadcasts from ‘my’ show. What follows is not meant to be exhaustive, but merely indicative of two basic kinds of newsmaking discourse that typically surrounded the reporting and reportage of the trial of the 20th century. I am not arguing or even suggesting that these two different types of legal representation or narrative construction are mutually exclusive (Barak, 2004). On the contrary, to varying degrees, both the lawyer-legal analysts and the social science-criminologists engaged in overlapping narratives.
For instance, ‘by the time that closing arguments were underway, and up through and beyond the unexpected and sudden jury verdict of not guilty as opposed to everybody’s predicted, long and drawn out deliberations leading to a hung jury, the discourse between mainstream and marginal [voices] began to overlap in a much broader discussion of such socially topical issues as law enforcement and racism, class and the administration of justice, and gender inequality and domestic violence’ (Barak, 1996: 118-119). Comparatively speaking, however, the mainstream commentaries were framed primarily by legal considerations while the progressive commentaries were framed by both legal and social considerations. In terms of the potential for social change, the mainstream newsmakers’ discourse, at most, accommodates reform of the procedural, and less likely, substantive sides of the law. By contrast, the discourse of mine (and other progressive voices) examined the more fundamental need to challenge inequality and privilege, and facilitated or at least held out the possibility of reforming not only the administration of justice but the larger society as well.
The mainstream themes spoken on most radio and television shows and read in newspapers and magazines other than in alternative ones, confined their commentaries and analyses mostly to the criminal ‘law in action’. Attorneys who had once practiced or were currently practicing defense and/or prosecution work typically articulated these themes for mass consumption. For the most part, these criminal law attorney experts usually limited their remarks to evaluating how well the judge, the defense, the prosecution, and the witnesses were doing on any given day. The legal commentators often found themselves responding to questions about how usual or unusual a particular approach taken by the prosecution or the defense team was. These legal pundits relied heavily on cases from their own trial experiences or on other cases that they were aware of in order to establish some kind of context for their take on the O.J. trial. ‘Much of their time consisted of supplying endless criticisms and praises for the way the attorneys on either side of the issue had performed with respect to opening arguments, direct arguments, cross-examinations, re-directs, closing arguments, etc.’ (Barak, 1996: 118).
By the second or third month of O.J. coverage, this kind of ‘legal scoring’ on who was ‘winning or losing’ for that moment, became rather tired and redundant for both the legal pundits and the consuming public. In other words, the legal commentators and the listeners, viewers, and readers of O.J. alike could only stomach so many times the remarks such as: ‘each day is like a little battle, some days the prosecution wins, some days the defense wins’ or ‘the judge has to take more control of the trial and get tougher with the attorneys on both sides’. Increasingly, even the mainstream attorneys ventured outside the legal arena to discuss such topics as race, racism, and the wider administration of criminal justice, the strengths and the weaknesses of the jury system, or the relationship between domestic violence and gendered homicide.
Nevertheless, in general, mainstream legal commentaries were defensive of the criminal law and the administration of justice. After all, most of these experts were working attorneys within the system or once upon a time had been. As noted above, most of their commentary revolved around the ‘performances’ of the various legal actors on any given day. And, their critiques were also aimed primarily at individual execution rather than at the system or administration of justice as a whole. Even when these legal analysts broached issues of race, gender, or class, rarely if ever, did any of them address the differential impact of institutionalized racism, sexism, or classism associated with the administration of criminal justice in the USA. Had these legal pundits understood a bit more of the historical and sociological factors at work throughout the O.J. gavel to gavel very public trial, they would have been in a much better position as I was to explain either the jury verdict of ‘innocent’ rather than ‘not guilty’ as expected or the diverse human reactions that directly corresponded to the various matrixes of race, gender, and class configuration or to the social formations of identity politics at work in the evaluation of the administration of criminal justice in everyday life.
My agenda, of course, as a newsmaking criminologist was not so much about getting to the verdict of the O.J. Simpson case, as it was about using the case as a pedagogical tool for examining the relations between class, race, gender and crime, on the one hand, and the social realities of justice in America, on the other hand (Barak, Leighton, and Flavin, 2007). Moreover, as a ‘social critic’ more generally, I had no desire or interest to defend the administration of criminal justice as was often the case of legal pundits who seemed to be ‘obsessed’ with the legal exceptionality of the Simpson trial. ‘Armed with a more complex understanding of the history of crime and punishment in America, I was in a position to offer critical analysis and explanation of the relationship between high- and low-profile criminal cases…’ (Barak, 1996: 119-120).
In short, as a progressive newsmaking criminologist my discussions were largely concerned with demystifying crime and justice in America. For most of the nine months, I was busy trying to connect ‘crime and justice’ to the larger arrangements of social, political, and economic inequality. I was also trying to make sense out of the disparate attitudes and behaviors that were manifesting themselves across society both during the trial of O.J. Simpson and after the jury’s verdict had acquitted him of the double murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
CONCLUDING REFLECTIONS ON NEWSMAKING CRIMINOLOGY
Twenty years later, I still believe that it is important that our criminological voices be heard among all the other sounds and images associated with crime and justice, especially if these voices are resonating alternative rather than conventional themes. Do not misunderstand me; while I am not trying to be some kind of criminological snob here I do believe that as a ‘collective body of knowledge or expertise’ that criminology does not get the ‘respect it deserves’ (at least not in the USA). In the cultural and mass mediated age of CSI-like televised programming and serial type killers, one might have thought that there would have been some sort of transference or spill over to criminologists. However, the presence of criminologists in the public domain did not significantly change or grow before, during, or after the height of the ‘CSI effect’ (Shelton, Kim, and Barak, 2007).
Moreover, when it comes to alternative themes or progressive newsmaking criminology I have not meant to imply that other commentators—legalistic, journalistic, or politico—are not capable of tackling the same kinds of questions, issues, or problems that policy-oriented criminologists, newsmaking or not, address. However, there are differences between what ‘critical’ and ‘noncritical’ criminologists know, let alone between what criminologists in general know and what criminal lawyers and laypersons know about crime and justice or law and order. As Freda Adler (1994) noted at the annual meetings of a mid-nineties’ New Jersey Association of Criminal Justice Educators: ‘Everyone has an opinion about crime, if not their own, then it is one or the other of the positions constantly espoused by the media. These opinions are not the product of deep thought and reflection.’ I would echo that the same is true of the viewpoints on crime and justice held by most legalistic and journalistic commentators who have not been trained in one of the formal disciplines that traditionally study matters of ‘crime and punishment’.
Comparatively, the views of newsmaking criminologists who study crime and justice as well as media and culture are based on ‘reflection, insight and the analysis of factual complexities which are unknown to the general public’ (Adler, 1994). These complexities pertain not only to the administration of justice in relation to class, race, and gender, but also to the relations between crime, criminals, and crime control, and to the historical interaction of all of these constituencies in the social construction of ‘crime’, ‘law’, ‘order’, and ‘justice’. Armed with a knowledge of these intricacies, newsmaking criminologists find themselves in an especially unique position to analyze and explain the nature of the relationship between high- and low-profile criminal cases and the practices of criminal justice in everyday life.
In terms of this high-profile criminal trial with a mixture of news and entertainment values, the context of a radio infotainment show worked rather successfully as a newsmaking criminology medium. The format of the Morning Show program afforded me the combination of the frames of both reporting and reportage, which in turn, allowed me to ‘spin’ my criminological take on the People versus O.J. Simpson to tens of thousands of listeners twice weekly. What is more, radio is a ‘user friendly’ medium compared to television. Primarily because success on the radio requires basically the exclusivity of a palatable voice and the ability to ad-lib without the complication of TV’s prerequisite audience approval of the visual presentation of self, I was able to intervene in the public presentation of the O.J. Simpson trial from the comfort and privacy of my own home, sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by my yellow legal pads, jokes, and marked up newspapers spread all about.
Three more reflections on this unique newsmaking radio experience and its relation to newsmaking criminology and then on to some of the lager theoretical concerns or implications. First, from the perspective of newsmaking, it is important to realize that I was not just another sound bite heard occasionally in the context of all the other sound bites and noise. Quite the contrary. By the time of the criminal jury’s verdict, my recurrent voice on O.J. had been constructing an analysis of crime and justice for almost 10 consecutive months against a backdrop of an ongoing public discussion of some 16 months in duration, or since the double homicide occurred in June of 1994. In short, I had developed my own audience and following that was both about immediacy and a continuing long range listening relationship. Moreover, over the duration of the trial and the Morning Show’s coverage of O.J., as mentioned earlier, I had become an ‘insider’. In other words, my answers and comments were less about reacting to or confronting the newsmaking process, then they were about collaborating with ‘my’ co-hosts to produce a show with high ratings. What was particularly satisfying was that I was not only able to forge an analysis of crime and justice that converged around the intersections of class, race, and gender, but I was also able to anticipate from the trial’s very beginning the types of underlying social and cultural tensions that would inevitably surface during the course of the trial, regardless of the outcome.
Second, as a newsmaking criminologist I was sharing the knowledge bases of criminology, media studies, and the social and behavioral sciences more generally. Because of the uniqueness of the reporting/reportage and event/topical modes of newsmaking, I was able, when the mood struck or the situation called for, to introduce a wide range of relevant studies on jury behavior, domestic violence, and even mass media theory. From time to time, I also incorporated lessons in history, philosophy, and economics when I felt it germane to the discussions as ‘I’ defined them implicitly and explicitly in relation to social justice. Suffice it to say, this radio format provided me ample opportunities to influence peoples views, if not so much their images, of crime and justice or of law and order as these swirled around the Simpson spectacle.
Third, as already emphasized in my capacity as co-newsmaker with Lucy Ann Lance and Dean Erskin, I was able to interact with the media not in a reactionary or confrontational way but as a partner in the newsmaking process. This ‘consultative’ experience replicates other positive experiences that I as well as other newsmaking criminologists have found working within a variety of news media venues. When this occurs, newsmaking criminologists have the opportunity to ply the trade of proactive newsmaking where they can find the relative freedom to use their discourse choices and to frame crime and justice through the lens of alternative voices and/or progressive politics.
Opportunities such as covering the O.J. criminal trial rarely, if ever, come along. I subsequently tried to interest the Morning Show in doing a follow up program covering the civil trial. Despite our previous high ratings, I was told that people were tired of O.J. I, too, was tired of O.J., but I guess never too tired to ‘exploit’ the opportunity to do newsmaking criminology with a substantive consequence. So, if one is engaging in newsmaking criminology, one more reflective bit of advise: regardless of the media whenever a ‘good’ newsmaking situation presents itself, be prepared to seize that moment, for it may not come again.
Finally, in 2007, what do I think about newsmaking criminology and its value as a tool for influencing pubic policy on crime and justice? As I have viewed the relationship between newsmaking criminology and public policy formation for more than two decades now, it has always been a tenuous or indirect one at best. Nevertheless, newsmaking criminology as a perspective on the theory, practice, and study of mass communications and the representation or social construction of crime and justice, is still an invaluable approach for grasping as fundamental to the larger criminological enterprise in general and to administrative criminology in particular, their joint roles or ‘function’ in ‘playing out’ as part and parcel of neoliberal-bourgeois statecraft. At the same time, newsmaking criminology holds out the possibility of contributing to the development of a progressive politics on law and order, and crime and justice. As I envision the relative influence of newsmaking criminology in the future, it will most likely occur in one of the ‘newer’ rather than ‘older’ forms of mass communications.
Again, I am talking about websites, blogs, and podcasts as the preferred newsmaking criminological media of tomorrow. In fact, from an email exchange that I received on December 5, 2006 from Paul Leighton on the future of newsmaking criminology, he wrote:
The next generation of newsmaking criminologists will
be the persons who understand mobile computing. They
will be able to send text messages on breaking topics and
engage viewers through video downloaded to cell phones.
In between will be the YouTube commentators who achieve
followings through viral videos (forwarded by viewers,
rather than distribution via an ‘old’ media outlet) and blog
posts distributed through social networking sites like digg
Interestingly, there have been relatively few criminologists who have developed substantive websites on crime and justice that can be used by students, academics, journalists, researchers, consumers, workers, citizens, lobbyists, advocates, etc. Those academicians who have developed such websites find that their ‘readership’ can quickly move into the tens of thousands annually. That has been my experience at www.greggbarak.com. In criminology, probably the most visited websites of substance are Leighton’s www.stopviolence.com and www.paulsjusticepage.com, together they receive about a million page requests per year.
One need not be a Webmaster (or even a ‘criminologist’ if you ignore what I stated at the beginning of this section) to do newsmaking criminology on the worldwide web. All one has to do is write an ‘op ed’ or commentary piece on virtually any crime and justice related topic and send it off to a blog, an online newsletter or listserve. Before one knows it, his or her revolutionary ideas will be circulating in cyberspace competing head-to-head so to speak with the world of bourgeois domination. For example, one highly recommended electronic newsletter, published daily, is www.countercurrents.org. A sampling from 01 December 06 included Phil Rockstroh’s Wal Mart Nihilism Versus The Punk Rock Of Blogging that began:
The Holiday Season has arrived, unfolding before us,
like a cheap vinyl wallet, here in The United States of
American Express. The days spill forth, their hours
comprised of shopping and shooting sprees, of retail
and retaliation. Jingle bells and the crackle of gunfire.
This is the way an empire falls, with armies of confused
killers abroad and legions of killer clowns at home (p.1).
The point is that the era of the ‘citizen-journalist’ has already arrived vis-à-vis the blogosphere. There is absolutely nothing stopping newsmaking criminologists from doing the same. Anyone today, can ‘speak truth to power’ and can ‘be heard’ doing so.
On the other hand, theoretically this is not to say that I do not for a minute recognize the power and influence of the monopolies of the National Entertainment State, including mega-corporate conglomerates the likes of General Electric, Disney/Cap Cities, Westinghouse, and AOL/Time Warner, that not only serve as advertising conduits for the stimulation of mass consumption of goods and services, but also for the marketing of particular life styles and values; not to mention the virtual colonizing of American culture in the process, complete with its views on law and order, crime and justice, human rights, the United Nations, terrorism, AIDS, and so on and so forth. But the blog allows the blogger to once again ‘speak truth to power’ and to challenge conventional wisdom and ideology at the same time.
In the context of the dialectics of mass communications and bourgeois capitalism (Schiller, 1973; 1976) and in terms of a fully extended analysis of media, intellectuals, and crime, let us now return to Gramsci’s approach to hegemony that assumes that the prevailing orders of political economy depend on both the passive and active content of the governed, and on the collective will of the people in which various groups within society unite and struggle. In other words, hegemony includes not only the dominating classes’ worldviews but also the worldviews of the masses. In the everyday social construction of the ‘wired’ electronic age of information and instant message, the role of mass communications is thus central to the contradictory relations of hegemonic domination.
In the postmodern age of ideology and technology, mass communication about crime and justice or law and order, whether as literature, audio, video, or cyber messaging, are all integral to accumulation, legitimation, and repression in capitalist society (Gouldner, 1976; Mosco, 1986). Dialectically, of course, mass communications represent an essential framework for social and political struggle. Regarding its crucial application, mass communications have been used increasingly by the state to manage and mitigate the consequences of the widening conflicts and contradictions of monopoly and multinational global capitalism. For example, ‘disinformation’ campaigns are an obvious illustration of the way in which state-mediated conceptions of official reality are used to misrepresent reality. In the area of crime and crime control, for example, there are the police wires or news dispatches that are released daily, and the semiannually released reports in the States by the FBI that officially track and disseminate the magnitudes and rates of street but not suite crime (Barak, 2007a).
In opposition to this kind of political and cultural hegemony are a myriad of various struggles involving the poor and the working classes, women, people of color, homosexuals, and other powerless groups, opponents of domestic violence, nuclear energy, and environmental destruction, and those who support a variety of peacemaking projects in general and in relationship to restorative justice, punishment, incarceration, and community re-emergence in particular. Linking up with these social movements and other concerned citizens whether in street or virtual reality today becomes one means in which newsmaking criminologists can ply their trade, as it were. Working with those involved in the ‘struggles for justice’ allow newsmaking criminologists to help shape the ‘progressive’ discourse, language, and representation of crime and justice, and ultimately the policies that are adopted and acquiesced to by societies in their ‘fights’ against crime and injustice.
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