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Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism

Sarah Sobieraj
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 234
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    There is an elaborate and often invisible carnival that emerges alongside presidential campaigns as innumerable activist groups attempt to press their issues into mainstream political discourse. Sarah Sobieraj's fascinating ethnographic portrait of fifty diverse organizations over the course of two campaign cycles reveals that while most activist groups equate political success with media success and channel their energies accordingly, their efforts fail to generate news coverage and come with deleterious consequences. Sobieraj shows that activists' impact on public political debates is minimal, and carefully unravels the ways in which their all-consuming media work and unrelenting public relations approach undermine their ability to communicate with pedestrians, comes at the expense of other political activities, and perhaps most perniciously, damages the groups themselves.

    Weaving together fieldwork, news analysis, and in-depth interviews with activists and journalists,Soundbittenilluminates the relationship between news and activist organizations. This captivating portrait of activism in the United States lays bare the challenges faced by outsiders struggling to be heard in a mass media dominated public sphere that proves exclusionary and shows that media-centrism is not only ineffective, but also damaging to group life.Soundbittenreveals why media-centered activism so often fails, what activist groups lose in the process, and why we should all be concerned.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8858-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 What If the Whole World Isn’t Watching? Activism, Presidential Campaigns, and the Thorny Struggle for Visibility
    (pp. 1-22)

    During The 2000 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Philadelphia, a network of activists from across the country used human blockades reinforced with PVC piping and steel to close down five major traffic arteries for nearly two hours during rush hour. As I observed, a school bus filled with police officers in combat gear arrived, a gas truck rolled in, and loud, low-flying news helicopters hovered overhead while officers worked to dismantle the human roadblock. Activists who were not part of the blockade filled the streets and faced the barricade of protesters, dancing, drumming, and playing makeshift musical instruments in the...

  5. 2 Campaign Events as Catalysts: The Politicization of Public Space
    (pp. 23-52)

    WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY IN St. Louis hosted the final televised presidential debate of the 2000 election. The night before the debate, a plane crash took the life of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan. Stunned, many voluntary associations cancelled or toned down their planned activities in response to the tragedy. A smattering of protests, workshops, and panels went on as planned, but the relative quiet following the governor’s death served as a poignant indicator of the elevated level of activity to which I had become accustomed. This was the fifth host city I had visited in four months, and it was remarkably different....

  6. 3 Streets as Stage: The Many Faces of Publicity
    (pp. 53-67)

    WHAT DO ACTIVIST groups look and sound like when they attempt to court the news media? I have used adjectives such as “carnivalesque” and “colorful” in reference to the activity that swirls around national nominating conventions and televised debates. These descriptors are appropriate not because they capture playful iterations of attempts at publicness, but because they point toward the cacophony of approaches cobbled together in these geographical and temporal spaces. In fact, sometimes the tenor of the association efforts was anything but playful. The organizations used many techniques, creating some events that were comedic and others that were somber, melancholy,...

  7. 4 “Apparently They Don’t Like Succinct and Articulate”: Journalists, Activists, and the Battle over News
    (pp. 68-106)

    PUBLIC SPHERE THEORISTS have long pointed to the centrality of the mass media for public discourse. Whether the mass media’s ideal role is conceived as a marketplace of ideas, a force that facilitates political participation, an arena that promotes public deliberation and consensus building, or a tool to ferret out and represent marginalized interests,¹ theorists share a vision of the mass-mediated public sphere as central to expanding discussions of matters of common concern beyond their geographical and temporal boundaries.

    While the mass media are crucial facilitators of public discourse in general, they are particularly salient for publics whose concerns or...

  8. 5 Wait, Isn’t That a Bird in Your Hand? Pushing Bystanders out of the Way in an Effort to Reach “the Public”
    (pp. 107-128)

    ONE MORNING DURING the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, I walked out of the Park Street subway station and did a double take. A barefoot woman in white, blood-spattered clothing sat stiffly in a straight-backed wooden chair, her arms tied down with rope. Two men wearing dark sunglasses, dressed from head to toe in black, stood at her side. One held a funnel high in the air, raising the end of the attached hose to her mouth, simulating force-feeding.

    All three people were completely still, posed like mannequins. Immediately adjacent to this disconcerting trio, a woman in similar white,...

  9. 6 What About Us? Bittersweet Residues of Mobilization
    (pp. 129-166)

    IN LOS ANGELES, a coalition of voluntary associations, including Christians for Families and Rights Now, organized a march for immigrant rights. The late afternoon event was poignant. Large white crosses, each one carried to symbolize the life of someone who had died as a result of U.S. immigration policies, punctuated the sizable, intergenerational, multiethnic crowd. On a flatbed truck, a young woman of color holding a microphone shared her experience working at a Gap factory outside the United States. She described being beaten and fired when the supervisor learned that she was pregnant. Meanwhile, the march wound its way through...

  10. Epilogue: Web 2.0 and Election 2008
    (pp. 167-178)

    THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL election felt different somehow, ripe with possibility for activist voices. New information and communications technologies (ICTs) supporting self-publication and group coordination had flooded into the mainstream since 2004, and the news media seemed to be interested again in activism, eagerly covering the young activists mobilized by the Obama campaign. Yet a closer look reveals that the new ICTs do little to resolve the issues of marginalization that haunt activist organizations or to unseat (old) media-centrism. What’s more, the heightened visibility of activism was actually the heightened visibility of electioneering, showcasing the work of party and candidate volunteers,...

  11. Appendix: Methods
    (pp. 179-186)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 187-198)
  13. References
    (pp. 199-210)
  14. Index
    (pp. 211-222)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 223-223)