Robert Samet on his book, Deadline

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/D/bo38871952.html

Interview by Alejandro Velasco

Alejandro Velasco: Venezuela is in the news these days, but that wasn’t always the case. For decades Venezuela seemed relatively understudied, considered “boring” and uneventful in contrast to the rest of the region. Then Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, and academic – and media – attention gradually took off. What drew you to study Venezuela, and the media in particular?

Robert Samet: Like many people, I was initially drawn by the grassroots political project that coalesced around Hugo Chávez, but it was the extraordinary media environment that made me choose to do fieldwork in Venezuela. Before graduate school I worked in advertising. My master’s thesis dealt with terrorism preparedness campaigns in the United States, something with which I had experience. For my doctoral research, I wanted to continue working on media and democracy but in a different setting. Venezuela was perfect. It was the most diverse and arguably the freest environment for journalism in the Western Hemisphere. It was also the most polarized. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the media battles playing out in Venezuela were a precursor to what has become the new normal in much of the world.

Alejandro Velasco: As you describe in rich and dynamic detail in Deadline, the media was an early, crucial, and sometimes even literal site of political struggle in the Chavez era, not just a flashpoint but a platform for chavistas and anti-chavistas to seek to impose deeply divergent visions of the country and gain control over its future.  But your book takes a surprising turn. It focuses on a specific subset of press coverage – crime beat reporting – that at first glance seems to stand outside the fray of the larger media battles that have shaped the Chavez era. Why did you decide to focus on crime reporting, and how do you think this specific focus sheds light on broader media struggles in contexts of bitter polarization?

Robert Samet: Crime journalism was not part of the original plan. I’d intended to do participant observation with media producers on either side of Venezuela’s political divide, but after a few weeks the research stalled. It wasn’t a problem of access. Most of the news organizations were happy to open their doors, and being a gringo from a prestigious U.S. university didn’t hurt. The problem was that people kept repeating stories I’d already heard. Either the private press was part of a vast anti-Chávez conspiracy (chavistas) or the Chávez government was a corrupt dictatorship intent on ending press freedom (opposition). Back and forth. I decided to start working with crime reporters because violent crime was an issue on which there was an emerging consensus. Focusing on crime allowed me to provincialize Chávez. I could see how reporters went about the business of finding cases, gathering facts, and framing stories. I also observed how they used crime stories as a platform to mobilize grievances, apportion blame, and propose solutions. A distinct pattern emerged. After a few months of working the Caracas crime beat, I started to see a broader logic that governed the practice of journalism in Venezuela.

Alejandro Velasco: Populism is much in vogue as an explanatory device but the term is fraught, seeming at times to mean everything and nothing. One common and contradictory trope is that the press is both a catalyst for and a bulwark against populist politicians who rely on media coverage – positive or negative – to attack freedoms and staid institutions. Your book offers a refreshing and important contribution, viewing “populism” less as a political phenomenon than as a category of analysis to understand fields of cultural and political contestation. How did you arrive at populism as a theoretical framework, and what do you think Deadline adds to debates on what populism is and isn’t?

Robert Samet: Thank you! I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. Populism is a term that is frequently misused. Much of the current scholarship has adopted a top-down definition that confuses populism with the discourse of charismatic leaders. That’s one of the reasons anthropologists have largely avoided the topic. I only turned to theories of populism because I was trying to explain the mobilization of “denuncias” (denunciations) by Venezuelan journalists. Denuncias are crucial for understanding the style of journalism that came to dominate Latin America in the late twentieth century. I expected to find a large literature on the topic, but there was virtually nothing on denuncias in English or in Spanish. I had to create my own theoretical framework. Around this time, I picked up Ernesto Laclau’s book On Populist Reason and found a lucid explanation of the practices I’d observed on the crime beat. Although I have issues with some of Laclau’s normative assumptions, his work allowed me to formulate an empirically grounded analysis of the role that media plays in populist mobilization, a topic on which Laclau himself is silent. In this regard, I think that my book can serve as a roadmap for thinking about the relationship between media and populism more broadly. Instead of starting with a check list of attributes by which to quantify the relative populism of different leaders (ala the work being done by “Team Populism”) we have to start with the grievances of ordinary people and the channels through which these grievances are mobilized.

Alejandro Velasco: Venezuela is one of the world’s most violent countries, even as you also observe, there is much debate about what precisely that means, with wildly divergent statistics often thoughtlessly tossed around in leading media accounts. That leads to an important meditation that runs through Deadline, about the meanings of violence beyond figures, but also and perhaps more importantly, about larger epistemological tensions in a world where not just policy making but most decision making and reporting about it is increasingly dominated by “hard” numbers.  As someone who is not an anthropologist I’m curious: what do you think a book like Deadline – and the discipline of anthropology more broadly – has to say about how the value of ethnography and qualitative methods at a time when these tools seem increasingly to be questioned as valid or important?

Robert Samet: I’m secretly fond of numbers and spent a lot of time pouring over crime statistics. Violent crime in Venezuela is exceptionally bad by any measure. Because it was a political flashpoint the numbers were weaponized. Organizations associated with the opposition often inflated the homicide rate, while the government went to great lengths to hide it. This is a pattern with which criminologists are familiar. The solution is not better numbers. It’s better context. That is what good ethnography and good journalism have in common. That is also one of the things my book provides—a nuanced, empathetic, and policy-relevant description about struggles to control perceptions of crime. However, ethnography is much more than mere context. It is a resolutely empirical methodology, one that is far better suited to studying moments of political and socio-economic upheaval than quantitative research. As I learned in my advertising days, quantitative data is great for predicting behaviors within a closed system, but it is not particularly useful if you want to understand how individuals or groups will react to something radically new. For that you need a methodology with a stronger grounding in peoples’ lifeworlds. To return to the subject of populism for a moment, data scientists were not the ones who foresaw the current wave of upheavals. It was scholars whose research was close to the ground and whose work had an ethnographic sensibility. For anyone who wants to understand where things are headed, I’d argue ethnography is more relevant than ever.

Alejandro Velasco: You write that fieldwork for what became Deadline began in 2007, continuing through multiple research visits of different length until just recently. That means you have witnessed Venezuela arguably at the height of chavismo’s popularity and power, through Chavez’s death, through Nicolas Maduro’s first years in power, and more recently, during the country’s dramatic economic collapse. As an ethnographer, what special challenges do you feel you’ve encountered researching and writing in such a fast-changing context? And based on your research and writing on Venezuela, what has surprised you – and what has failed to surprise you – about the turn the country has taken in recent years?

Robert Samet: So much has changed over the past decade. When I started out, Venezuela was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak world. Today it is in crisis. For an ethnographer, the speed of change definitely posed a challenge, but it was compounded by the political stakes. Ever since I started working in Venezuela, the situation has been misrepresented abroad. In the United States, for example, the GOP is using Venezuela as an example of the dangers of socialism, a move that even The New York Times flagged as baldly misleading. Back in 2007, it was easy to counter partisan assertions about dictatorship, censorship, or political persecution; fast forward to the present and it’s more difficult. Take the issue of crime control. Under Chávez, the Venezuelan government rejected tough-on-crime policies as instruments of racial and socio-economic oppression. Under Maduro, it has embraced them. Tough-on-crime policies have been the hallmark of rightwing populism since the 1980s, so it’s troubling to see an ostensibly leftist movement champion tactics similar to those we see in Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro or the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte. I would not call Maduro’s punitive turn surprising—if anything, I was amazed that Chávez managed to hold out against pressure to move in this direction for so long—but it creates a real conundrum. How do you write honestly about a topic that has become the object of political football? As someone sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Venezuelans as well as the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution, I’m acutely aware that my critiques could be used to justify brutal sanctions or to make a case for war. That’s what made this project so challenging. There is a very narrow tightrope that I’m trying to walk.

Alejandro Velasco: One of the more provocative contributions Deadline makes is identifying the multiple pressures beat reporters face in climates of intense of polarization, pressures that go well beyond a simple state versus independent media binary.  Instead you show how beat reporters are susceptible to both overt and subtle forms of manipulation by management, by colleagues and interlocutors caught up in the fray of polarization, and of course by larger political tensions as they affect daily life, the object of their reporting.  That seems to echo another recent book on the media in Chávez-era Venezuela (Naomi Schiller, Channeling the State, Duke 2018) by noting that debates about press freedom – in Venezuela and elsewhere – often miss power relations in the press itself, power relations that are compounded but also obscured when the dynamic becomes one that pits “the state” versus “the media.” What contribution do you want Deadline to make to debates about the role – and the power – of the press in society, and about how we should think about the relationship between state and the media, as seen through the eyes of beat reporters?

Robert Samet: Here in the United States we are slowly waking up to the fact that press freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be. The myth of press freedom obscures how corporate entities have been remaking the state in their image for the better part of a century. Nowhere was this vice grip on the media challenged more imaginatively than Venezuela. Deadline looks at how private interests shaped political speech. Channeling the State describes how grassroots media projects set out to democratize access to cultural production. I think that the two books are complimentary. They show, albeit from different angles, that the media is a platform on which state-making projects are staged. In this respect, Naomi and I both challenge anti-statist assumptions that became prevalent in the critical humanities and social sciences from the 1980s onward. I hope that my book encourages a new generation of students and activists to work to change the nation-state rather than formulating newer, ever more sophisticated critiques of it. Among other things, I want readers come away with a greater appreciation for limited government regulation of things like online hate speech or the circulation of deliberate falsehoods. In the United States, these have become the vehicles for white nationalism. It is time to shut them down.

Alejandro Velasco: The book is at once engagingly written and theoretically rich. It also is both deeply situated in the Venezuelan experience, while resonating loudly in debates that extend well beyond Venezuela – about the craft of journalism, the meanings of populism, the work and policy of urban policing. It also strikes me as a book that makes an overarching argument, but whose chapters can also stand alone. That’s all to say, I can see it adopted in many different courses and settings – from introductory courses in Latin American culture, to political theory courses, to public policy course in urban planning, to advanced journalism seminars, and more. Can you give advice on a few ways someone wanting to incorporate Deadline might teach it productively? Or perhaps a more difficult question: How would you teach your book to undergraduates?  Are there chapters that are particularly well suited to teach independently? If read in full, are there auxiliary materials you would pair with it?

Robert Samet: Thank you! I teach at a liberal arts college and I wanted to write an ethnography that was relevant to my colleagues but also accessible to undergraduates. You’re right to observe that Deadline is constructed around a central argument, however there are also chapters and sections that stand alone. For example, I’d recommend chapters 2-4 for anyone who wants a depiction of how the stigma of criminality is stamped on the urban poor. These are the book’s most accessible chapters and I think they are conducive to undergraduate teaching. For graduate instructors who are interested in the book’s theoretical contributions, chapters 5-8 probably hold the greatest appeal. This is where I take up theories of media, democracy, populism, and representations of violence. For someone trying to explain how the Venezuelan landscape changed over the last twenty years, then the book’s first two chapters and the conclusion are probably the most important. How would I teach it? I think that Deadline is best suited for unsettling received wisdom about Venezuela and the relationship between media and democracy. I’d introduce the book by having students look for examples of how Chávez and Venezuela are portrayed by the international press. Then, I’d have them watch Kim Barley and Donnacha O’Briain’s 2003 documentary The Revolution Will Not be Televised. After that I’d dive into the book itself. I think that it pairs particularly well with journalistic accounts of Venezuela, like Jon Lee Anderson’s “Slumlord” published in The New Yorker (2013) or Frontline’s “The Hugo Chávez Show” (2008). But I think that it’s even more interesting when you pair it with contemporary discussion of social media, fake news, and ideals of journalism. In my opinion, Deadline is the best available case study of how populism operates in and through the media. It avoids the hype about new media as well as the liberal handwringing about evils of populism. I want students to come away with a nuanced understanding of a pattern that is built into the very fabric of our democracies.

 

 

Sarah Mitchell takes the page 99 test

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m going to start my reflection on my Page 99 with a quick nod to the blog’s editor. When Dr. Gershon started the Page 99 series on the CaMP blog, I was acting as the blog administrator. We had chatted about the concept and structure of the series and at some point, she expressed a concern that people would start ‘gaming’ the series so that they purposely made the 99th page an exceptionally good page from their dissertation, to make it more coherent or smart-sounding. Of all people, I’m probably most susceptible to this temptation. Well, I just want to assure her and the readers of the blog that while I am particularly pleased with what my 99th page wound up being, I did not do this on purpose. I must give credit to my committee that requested further theoretical discussion at the beginning of the document after reading the first draft and thus pushed this page into its current position. If that hadn’t happened, you’d likely have read something about TIFF’s scandalous history…who wants that? Instead, my Page 99 comes from my third chapter in a section I labelled, Glamorous Work: A Geertzian Turn.

After laying out the scope of the dissertation in the introductory chapter and elaborating the key concepts in the second, this third chapter is where I place those concepts in context. I focus on a particular night in 2014 when my husband and I were conducting an interview with film director Kevin Smith and we get into trouble with the red carpet coordinator. I use this particular incident to illustrate the central social relationship of the film festival that exists between filmmakers, film audiences and the film festival organizers who act as special intermediaries between the first two groups. In this final section of the chapter, I reveal that I am purposely echoing the structure of Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” because I viewed this social relationship as akin to the one described in Geertz’s essay (1977). As I describe a few pages earlier, Geertz argues that the cockfight is play because the risks involved are ‘really real’ for the birds and only symbolically real for the bettors. But I see the inverse on the red carpet. The really real risk does not lie with the single film or even single film screening but with the filmmakers, film audiences, and subsequently, their intermediary, the film festival organizers. This page outlines this risk. As the page concludes, in terms of economic and status risk, I argue the highest risk lies with the organizers, the few that connect the many at the festival. And, in this sense, what they engage in is not ‘deep symbolism told in meaningless play, but material work performed in glamorous iconography’. As I end the chapter a few pages later, I set up the subsequent chapters where I dive further into the intricacies of this work in this context. But before moving forward, I suggest that this glamorous work is perhaps not unique to the film festival setting but extends upward through the ‘prismatic distortions’ of global mediascapes (Appadurai 1990).

It is admittedly an ambitious chapter and this page highlights some of its grand assertions. But while the attempts to connect my own theory to cultural anthropology luminaries is perhaps too aspirational for a dissertation, as someone who has spent years in media pens elbowing my way into position for a clear shot of the celebrity du jour, the distance between red carpets and cockfights is not as far as one might assume.

Sarah Mitchell. 2017. Glamorous Work: An Ethnographic Study of the Toronto International Film Festival. Indiana University, Phd.

 

Ieva Jusionyte on her new book, Savage Frontier

Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border by [Jusionyte, Ieva]

Jusionyte, Ieva. 2015. Savage Frontier: Making News and Security on the Argentine Border. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Interview by Ilana Gershon

What led you to study the conjunction between security and news reporting in this particular town?

I have first heard about the region encompassing parts of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay–commonly called “tri-border area” or “triple frontier”–through the media. It was portrayed as a dangerous place, a haven of organized crime, where trafficking of drugs and people, contraband, and money laundering were rampant. Having worked as a news reporter, I was aware that journalists tend to write stories that fit into larger narratives, which media organizations adjust depending on market logic as well as on their relationship with the government. We know that the media can both work as a propaganda machine, serving to uphold state ideologies, and it can be used as a watchdog on the political and economic establishment. My decision to go to the tri-border area was motivated by a wish to understand how local journalists, who live in the town about which they write, maneuver and maintain the boundary that divides illegal activities into two categories: those that can be made into news and those that must remain public secrets. Unlike reporters sent by national or international media, who come to the border looking for sensational stories and often reproduce the narrative of the violent and savage frontier, local journalists are also residents of the area, so they are directly invested in solving existing problems of crime and insecurity in their neighborhoods at the same time that they seek to depict the place as a safe destination for tourists. In the book, I show the day-to-day realities of journalists, as they balance between making news and making security, and argue that media practices in a remote border area must be understood within the historical context of state violence in the region.

How does turning to news-making as a fieldsite illuminate a distinctive connection between national identity and national security?

News-making is a key site in which national identity is produced and through which it is circulated. The idea that the press serves as a vehicle for creating nations as “imagined communities” is attributed to Benedict Anderson, and although his thesis has drawn criticism regarding the historical accuracy of his claims as they apply to Latin America, it continues to illuminate the process and the conditions of nation-building. Perhaps nowhere is this as clear as it is in the borderlands, at the edges of nation-state sovereignty, where the airwaves of one country compete against those of its neighbor’s. In the second half of the 20th century, when Argentina, Brazil, and other states in the region became concerned with national security (this was especially notable during the military regimes), the governments began paying much more attention to media broadcasters in border areas: investing in radio and television infrastructure, as a means to spread political discourses emanating from the state’s capital, was akin to defending the nation against a foreign invasion–one that was not carried out by an army of soldiers but advanced by cultural programming. In the tri-border area, this competition was between Argentine and Paraguayan media, transmitting in Spanish, and Brazilian media, transmitting in Portuguese. This battle over airwaves is still ongoing: complaints that signals from more potent Brazilian antennas were interfering with Argentine radio and television broadcasts were recurrent issues debated in town council meetings during my fieldwork–a proof that in the border region questions of national identity and national security continue to be highly contested to this day.

How do journalists’ symbiotic relationships with security forces such as police and military officers affect how crime is reported?

Security forces have a strong presence in the border area and they provide a substantial amount of news material for the local media, covering a wide range of topics, from routine crime investigations to military ceremonies and parades to large-scale intelligence operations. It is a symbiotic relationship because journalists need stories (reporters are often asked to produce half a dozen news pieces per day), while security forces want good publicity of their work and readily provide the media with interviews and press releases. However, this convenient arrangement means that journalists rarely ask difficult questions, for example, regarding police impunity, corruption, and complicity with criminal actors and organizations. Usually, crime stories are authored and authorized by the security forces, with the media serving merely as the outlet for circulating the official version of events to the public. But not all towns in the tri-border area are alike. Compared to the Argentine border town of Puerto Iguazú, where local news organizations are rather weak, do not have resources or training to do investigative journalism, and cannot protect reporters if they decided to pursue such stories, some media companies in Ciudad del Este, a larger city on the Paraguayan side of the border, have done important investigations into organized crime. Nevertheless, due to corruption that entangles politicians, business owners, law enforcement, and even the media, critical crime reporting remains severely limited in the region.

Often what is illegal is still socially acceptable, and especially in your fieldsite of a border town. How did journalists engage with this tension?  Did the medium the journalist was using – text or video – affect how they negotiated this tension?

Difference between practices that are legal or illegal and legitimate or illegitimate was very important for my attempt to understand how journalists decided what became news and what information was to remain off the record, as a public secret. Socially legitimate, albeit illegal activities, such as food contraband or smuggling of fuel, were rarely covered in the media. Journalists did not report on practices in which they (or their families, or neighbors) frequently participated. Even the tools of media production–cameras, cassettes, computers–were regularly bought in Paraguay and brought across the border into Argentina illegally, avoiding taxes and other import prohibitions. On rare occasions, when illegal and socially legitimate activities became the subject of news stories, the print media had an advantage over television and even over radio. I learnt this while working on an episode about irregular adoptions and child trafficking for an investigative television program “Proximidad”: people were more willing to share what they knew when the interaction between journalists and residents did not entail the use of cameras or voice recorders.

One of the themes in your book is a running comparison between being a journalist and an ethnographer, and you managed to be both in this Argentinean border town.  You also talk a great deal about how difficult it was to move knowledge that was generally known but not openly discussed into the public sphere.   Could you discuss whether it is a different process for a journalist and for an ethnographer, and if so, how?

Anthropologists and journalists both face the challenge of making knowledge that is familiar to few available to others, but it is important to recognize that our work follows professional standards and ethics that may diverge. Journalists must protect their sources, just as ethnographers promise confidentiality and anonymity to their research participants, so from the point of view of those asking the questions and observing behavior the difference is not that obvious. Yet people who agree to disclose sensitive information, to share their private stories, see a difference between a reporter and an ethnographer. On the one hand, people are more familiar with news media as a genre of representation, and this familiarity can help build trust, although it could also undermine it–people are aware that the media sensationalizes issues. Anthropology, on the other hand, is a mystery. When I arrived to start ethnographic fieldwork, people were reluctant to talk to me about anything illegal because they did not understand what the information would be used for: Would I give it to the media, to the police, or to the government? Would the effects of making it public hurt them? With time, as research participants begin to trust the anthropologist, they are more comfortable sharing what they know. But then it is up to the anthropologist to decide what to do with this newly acquired, sometimes dangerous knowledge. Unlike journalists, who publish stories in order to draw attention to an issue, such as drug smuggling or domestic violence, in hopes that public knowledge about it would lead to changing social or political circumstances that make it possible, anthropologists often use the knowledge they gather to engage in internal theoretical debates with other scholars. This scope of our work, limited to circulating the findings within the academe, is not always clear to the people who share their lives with us, sometimes in anticipation that their knowledge could change the status quo. Of course, there are anthropologists–sometimes called engaged anthropologists or public anthropologists–who try to reach out to broader audiences, make their publications part of public debates on current issues, and push for policy changes, but this public engagement is not (or not yet) considered a defining feature of the discipline.