JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

7. Liveness as a game of violence

As indicated above, the economy of abandonment and dehumanization operating in the production, distribution, and reception of Jones’ death resulted in a gain of the responsibility for control by the television networks. Between the reception of shock and the formulation of television ethics and procedures, the story of Daniel Jones was processed in a rehash of ongoing debates on the competencies of televisual subjects and spectators, framed as concerns around children’s exposure to television violence, the race for high ratings during sweeps week, and the implications of technological convergence. Media discussion of Jones’ suicide indeed focused on whether the event should have been televised, how technological solutions could provide safeguards against this kind of situation, and why editorial policies allowed such sensationalism. But television news also demonstrated evidence of the ways its goals and procedures were undermined by Jones’ actions.

Most of the print and television reporting surrounding Jones’ death gave the impression, contrary to the responses cited above, that audiences interpreted the event as a call for television to more effectively censor itself. These producers apparently see audiences as volatile qualities. They seek information and entertainment violent in appearance, but are angered by the spectacle of self-destruction when it appears too real. (In fact, as I will further clarify below, audience postings to web forums and letters to editors of local newspapers suggest no such consistency.) In keeping with this perspective of official media producers, roundtable discussion ensued on NPR[15] and ABC’s Good Morning America[16] attempting to pinpoint journalists’ responsibilities, some ethical safespot for television broadcasters, and technological solutions. MSNBC took action by implementing a longer delay (by several seconds) between capture and broadcast, giving the network even greater editorial control in streaming live reports to the public. The measure of liveness was being redefined.

Yet the quality of liveness in television shows such as Good Morning America, Jane Feuer argued in 1983, always emerges as an ideological construction somewhere between a media “effect” and “unconscious work.” Rather than being a function of temporal limits, liveness as an ideological construction works to unify a diverse audience as “family” or “nation.” Amplifying Feuer’s point, Bersani (1988) argues that in relation to the coverage of HIV/AIDS on national television,

“The ‘general public’ is at once an ideological construction and a moral prescription. Furthermore, the definition of the family as an identity is, inherently, an exclusionary process, and the cultural product has no obligation whatsoever to coincide with its natural reference. Thus the family identity produced on American television is much more likely to include your dog than your homosexual brother or sister” (203).

Bersani is concurring with Watney’s (1987) close documentation of this dynamic of exclusion observed in British television coverage of HIV/AIDS.

I’m as concerned here with the broadcast of Jones’ suicide as the subsequent reporting of it in various media forms, but Feuer, Watney, and Bersani’s discussions help us understand the slippage from Jones’ experience into the media debates that ensued. Television attempted to refine the rules for its privatized censorship in terms of a moral prescription to defend the family and to exclude its others. And so a violent political protest against inadequate healthcare becomes a discussion of the responsibility of commercial television to “protect” children, its own technological capacities, or its ability to differentiate “exploitive” local news from “serious” national journalism which can make, as CNN believed it had, the “right call.”

But there are important critical and historical differences here. Feuer analyzed Good Morning America, a show regularly scheduled as a live event. Bersani and Watney were observing, similarly, scheduled news programming. In the case of Jones, in an age in which reality coverage had already emerged to compete with more traditional news and talk offerings, an unprogrammed live event pre-empted regularly scheduled features in a landscape of digital convergence, expanded cable television, and of course, continuing media tendencies to neglect the experience of those suffering HIV/AIDS, but increasingly manageable and visibly marketed combination therapies. In this changed environment, live television begins to attempt to rescript Jones’ death, but the contradictions inherent in a live interrupt coverage planned outside the system of television production were harder to mask successfully.

Local channel 11 pre-empted an episode of Power Rangers to provide coverage, and for many parents, some of whose reactions were posted to CBS’ web-based forum on the event, the televisual montage of children’s programming with freeway showdown was especially threatening. Local channel 4 interrupted a broadcast of The Rosie O’Donnell show. Then-closeted lesbian O’Donnell’s Emmy-award winning talk show was marketed to parents and children, so pre-emption here takes on particular ironies as programming shifted to coverage of a visually horrific protest suicide by a person with AIDS from the comic’s humorously earnest presentation of may have been a more socially inclusive “prescription for family” than that which Bersani observed. For those viewers that saw the event as simply more of TV’s increasingly common reality programming, the shunting aside of syndicated game show Debt on local channel 2 might perhaps have been only somewhat more of a disturbance than their own channel surfing.

For television producers and spokespersons’ parts, apologies for and defenses of the broadcast began the night of the event as news programs attempted to assuage the massive insult some viewers vocalized. This reversal on the part of television professionals from provocation to contrition indicates that coverage of Jones worked to express unwanted contradictions, not to suppress them. Rather than the bonds of the social imaginary being successfully addressed to the public as “family” or “nation,” the legal, medical, and mediatic performativities of Jones’ actions gave the news a dramatic instance of the violent exclusion of the “dysfunctional” other whom television news had long pursued but for whom the news had most often provided a more reassuring conclusion in the observation of his apprehension by police.

Here, then, the “disturbed individual” is the negative image of the ideological coherence of the nuclear family in an age of increasing media traffic between domestic and work spheres. An “outsider” to the family home had not only terrorized domestic space but had stopped home-bound traffic. While on one level, the bogey man was back, the most important difference here was that in this case, the outsider was more lure than fugitive, situated in a scene he had scripted himself. Even for live-interrupt coverage, this scene was an exceptional and confusing state, for after all, while constituting a bonafide emergency, this interruption had been planned—but not by news producers.

News professionals struggled to articulate direction amidst the state of exception precipitated by Jones’ actions. Warren Cereghino, executive producer for Chris-Craft TV, the Los Angeles production company which owns KCOP, appeared on the May 3 1998 edition of Good Morning America to insist that while the Jones suicide “fell through the cracks” of what he felt was justifiable coverage of “chases, … fires, riots, [and] earthquakes,” nonetheless, coverage was “inevitable” given the informational needs of a sprawling megalopolis and television market demands. The suggestion is that violence that can be secured by successful police action or that results from “natural disasters” would not give such offense. Daily Variety television critic Ray Richmond’s response was that while Jones’ televised death was “revolting, and it hurt to watch,” still, he admits, “violence is part of the game.”

“I mean, [news producers] are apologizing on the one hand, and on the other hand, this was the money shot that they’ve all been waiting for. This was the ultimate moment for them. I mean, … here we had some—a man doing the ultimate momentous act right there on their screen.”[17]

Prompted by the uncertainties in the economies of liveness and authority, the rationality of censorship was directly pitted against the claim as to the subject’s unreason. The debate that raged, like the responses above, continued to paint Jones’ act as senseless. While the Internet postings discussed above indicate the injury to the social that the spectacle of Jones’ death produced, media authorities’ responses are more revealing of the ways television’s capacity to communicate the historical event was undermined.

Los Angeles Times television commentator Howard Rosenberg depicted the story as “a massive traffic tie-up before it spun out of control.” After noting that the anti-HMO banner Jones displayed for news helicopters indicated that the actions were planned for television, Rosenberg borrowed from Jones the figure of the gun but turns away from Jones’ overtly political act to question the broadcasters’ technical and editorial capacity to assure program quality. Rosenberg commented,

“Live coverage of a volatile situation is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette,”

He stated this in a particularly callous granting of all agency or responsibility even in chaotic or random situations to the very networks, whose role had been limited by Jones as relatively passive “ambulance chasing.” He continued on to insist, as numerous other commentators had insisted, and as MSNBC already had taken steps to achieve, that broadcasters maintain the ability to pull back to safety to avoid televising violent accidents.[18] The discursive point here, of course, is to make violence a certain kind of thing. Something that is visual can play out on or against an individual body in a localized place: a body which television can frame.

In this account, violence does not begin with the refusal of medical treatment that resulted in Daniel’s ruptured appendix some years earlier. Nor does violence here begin with seroconversion to HIV positive status or the general emergence of the AIDS pandemic. Nor does it begin with institutional intransigence in the face of this health crisis. Rather, this account places the event of violence at a point within live television’s scope, a point that like any other could only have been predicted afterwards, given Jones’ tactically unpredictable behavior. In this account, that point of violence should have been indicated at some point in the broadcast. Accordingly, MSNBC redefined its live broadcast standards as if the violent event in question could be pinpointed precisely. But Daniel’s freeway occupation lasted forty minutes, and in fact, the duration of this event, as opposed to its momentariness, provided the appeal for news broadcasters.

Rosenberg’s suggestion that there was a point when this “traffic tie-up” turned into a violence too horrific to witness can not be specified, really. This desire for a constraint on mediated violence is on the one hand suggested by the competing regimes of law, medicine, and mediation attempting to produce a strained visual order for this violent event, and on the other hand, this desire is countermanded by Daniel Jones’ staging of the co-occurrence of the legal, medical, and mediatic regimes locating the corporeal subject. Rosenberg’s demand that the line be held against violent spectatorship indicates a critical fantasy rather than an action-item, and that fantasy is further indexed by Rosenberg’s appropriation of Jones’ very terms of articulation. Suicide by firearm slips from being Jones’ chosen means of making his point and moves into place in Rosenberg’s argument as “Russian roulette”—a “loaded dial” of sorts that turns violent intent against the self, that turns the situation of the body into a televisual numbers game.

Rosenberg’s fantastic appropriation of Jones’ method of action doesn’t stop there. In December 1998, Rosenberg advocates broadcasting state execution of capitol offenders in order to incite the public against the death penalty, but his logic again revolves around Jones and the firearm. Rosenberg reconciles his position that coverage of the suicide should have been cut off with his support of televised execution of death-row inmates by claiming once more that Jones’ act was “Russian roulette, a reckless, high risk spin of the chamber by TV news that just happened to end violently.”[19] The firearm that first established Daniel as a threat to order comes to rest finally, in Rosenberg’s continued revision of the event, in the hands of television journalists and producers. Over time, Rosenberg attempts to lay Jones’ story to rest as but another act of random roadway violence, everyday bad traffic gone horribly wrong. At the end of the day, Rosenberg’s metaphorics delimit a fantasy according to which it is the networks who hold the gun.

Because of the frightening proximity of “disturbed loner” and “domestic security” revealed and relayed between the freeway and the home, local television on the crest of the act, however insincere the later apologies or justifications, was positioned in a very different way from the secondary revisions of Good Morning America. Local framing of the event was indeed an issue, as Rosenberg claims, not because technology outstripped editorial policy, but rather because of Jones’ tactics. Jones framed his act for aerial capture as well as for freeway viewing. His banner was spread out on the roadbed of the freeway overpass itself. He made obscene gestures at the police who maintained sharpshooters at ready with Jones in their sights. Jones’ actions were directed at Los Angeles, the Los Angeles of OJ’s flight in the white bronco, the Los Angeles of the riots, the real and virtual Los Angeles.

There’s no way, for example, that anyone could say about Jones what is sometimes said about snuff films or the moon landing: that the events portrayed are only a Hollywood fabrication. The interruption in the transportation network and the television networks guarantees that the actuality of Jones’ claims goes recorded. This tactical synchronization between the orders of the real and the virtual ensure that each order warrants the operation of the other. That synchronization was an effect of the detailed mise-en-scene Jones supplied to the mise-en-cadre of news cameras and police rifles.

Jones was outfitted with Molotov cocktails, a can full of gasoline, and a shotgun. He set fire to his truck but jumped out to extinguish his burning clothing. He stepped up on the freeway wall to jump to his death, but turned away from the brink. Finally, he shot himself. Why the gun? Perhaps he recognized that had he jumped to his death his body would be difficult to track as he fell, or that the sight would be too easy for cameras to pull away from before he actually died. Fire was too painful, clearly, but moreover, in a fire he might have disappeared into the smoke and flame, out of camera view. Perhaps by shooting himself he provided the least painful, as well as the most graphic, the steadiest shot, of his death. This way, he might make his death appear most intentional, but it would also be fast. Finally, his body lay destroyed near the banner that broadcast the words that no journalist’s microphone could ask him to speak.

His careful scouting of locations, his display of last words, the videotaped message, his anticipation of “live interrupt,” his rush hour timing. In anguish, Daniel Jones scripted his actions carefully, with insight, expertise, and any viewer’s knowledge of exactly what TV might do with the image of his death. And something happened to television’s operators as a result of his actions, something which explains why television was so slow to pull away, and which leveled the differences between news producers and consumers. Said KCOP news director Steve Cohen:

“Many of us became observers instead of journalists.”[20]

More than the moment at which the traffic situation became a violent suicide, it is this moment that matters. In this moment, television producers became receivers.

By making himself both receiving subject and primary producer of television’s violent symbolic processes, Daniel made spectators of those lives intending his death as spectacle. All the ways that television, print and web-based media tried to regain control of itself from his grasp—by monitoring but not broadcasting, by calling him crazy, by increasing censorship, with edited and editorialized versions of his death, by offering apologies and crocodile tears, even by attributing his actions to his sexuality or his HIV status—all of these gestures only became necessary because even as television rechanneled his life story, he had already succeeded in telling it.

Daniel’s performance was not foiled by television’s reactions to it—far from it. Television’s reactions were only the least of the results that he planned. These reactions appear to have prompted Jones’ choice of elements in his hijacking of the live broadcasting of Los Angeles. Television’s injury was the degree to which it became a passive witness instead of a forceful narrator. The news only marshaled gains in its capacity for self-censorship as a result of having lost the authority to enunciate the meanings and implications of the event.

While television news never accurately reported or responded to Daniel Jones’ political claims, Jones’ message was received, even given television’s predictable distortions of it. The public reaction was not only, as television editorials would have it, outraged at a vision of human self-destruction ported into the home. In fact, the public response went far beyond either censorious demands for the protection of domestic space or gleeful nihilism. “Tamara Tate,” a respondent to CBS’ web query (mentioned above) suggested that the media take responsibility for the representation of violence:

“NAME THE HMO and let the burden of proof be on the HMO. […] I, too, am the victim of an HMO doctor and it’s about time the HMO’s carry the burden of proof.” [21]

Response to the violence inflicted on Jones’ body took more empathetic forms as well, in a small number of letters to the editor and email postings. Lois Yung of Downey wrote to the Los Angeles Times of her experience of alienation and despair when receiving treatment for fibromyalgia. Yung suggested that she could understand “a little of what he may have felt”:

“There is no soul in medicine today, and this is most evident in HMOs, where profits, not patients are their main concerns. I hope that Jones’ dramatic suicide was not in vain and that, perhaps, some changes in medical care will come as a result of it.”

In the same edition of the Times, another letter writer proposed that the public should join together to ban HMOs just as people should unite to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In other words, both HMOs and nuclear weapons kill, en masse.[22]

As these responses make clear, Jones wasn’t only talking about HIV treatment. Significantly, a year after his death, national studies on the efficacy of HMO-based healthcare confirmed Jones’ claim that these enterprises sacrifice treatment for profit. Studies commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the National Committee for Quality Assurance found HMOs to work most effectively for those who are healthy, not those who are sick.[23]

Jones death occurred as a contradictory instance of authorial agency working between the levels of the built and the mediatic city, the local and the national, the public and the private, to transform potent silences into plural responses. It’s necessary to see this medial agency at work in Jones’ actions, not only in order to understand his power grab of the regions thoroughly troubled real and imaginary systems of place, but in order to understand the reactions it provoked as well. Against the performativities of abandonment motivating Jones’ death and accumulating in its wake, empathy responds across differentials of identity, to the point of demanding the elimination of HMOs.

Section 8, full text:
Transformations of hope: queer artists and AIDS activism

Section 8, abstract


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