An interesting spoiler war

14Mar08

I’ve been swamped with tasks that have prevented me from blogging what I’ve wanted to talk about – the finale of The Wire (which was utterly satisfying, of course), the brief run of Breaking Bad (in which Bryan Cranston becomes the most compelling actor on TV), some post-SCMS thoughts – but I read an interesting exchange I couldn’t resist exploring a bit tonight.

My good friend Michael Newman got into a bit of a scuffle with Vulture, the New York Magazine entertainment blog. Vulture has been blogging with spoiling headlines for TV shows, especially The Wire. Mike ripped them for that. Vulture laid out a manifesto proclaiming that TV shows can be discussed openly shortly after airing, and a chart outlining the statute of limitations for spoiling across media. Mike schooled them further, highlighting how Vulture is not adapting to the realities of TV-as-file, as they’re stuck in TV-as-flow. Vulture responded by mocking Mike and his high-falutingness, which also yielded an interesting debate in the comments thread, mostly among Vulture writers.

I’m not too invested in who is right or wrong in this debate – although I agree with Mike and a number of the Vulture writers in the comments that spoiling in an article headline is simply wrong, with no upside beyond agitating readers. My own interest in spoilers is more of a meta-interest, looking at why people try to consume them (as covered in this essay on Lost spoiler fans), not the ontology of spoilerdom itself.

But what I find particularly interesting in this exchange is the relative perception between the journalists on Vulture and Mike as academic – both seem to see the other side as more of an empowered authority than themselves. The Vulture journalists regard Mike as an elite academic, laying down ‘power-knowledge’ from on high. Mike sees the Vultures as part of a media industrial elite, monetizing eyeballs and fighting for an old-media paradigm. It’s a battle of the underdogs, each claiming less power than their foes.
Being a pop culture academic is an odd hybrid – we are certainly imbued by the power of the academy to profess and pontificate with a degree of authority (and compensated adequately for doing it). Yet we rarely have the ability to connect with either the creators of the works about which we claim expertise or the bulk of viewers who comprise a medium’s audience, especially when compared with entertainment journalists who have broad access and readership. I’ve been reading the coverage of The Wire‘s with both admiration of the many thoughtful and insightful writers covering the TV beat, and jealousy of the access that journalists can get to talk with David Simon and other cast & crew. I want to connect with television creators, but find the gulf between academy and industry too wide to easily cross. And yet these same journalists often call us academics to offer an “expert” quote on the broader historical or social significance of television. So who is the elite here? And what’s the role of the academic who reaches out to a broader audience, not from the lofty heights of the university but via the generic frame of a WordPress or Blogger site? Who has the power-knowledge here?



      5 Responses to “An interesting spoiler war”

      1. Great post. I love the fact that you are questioning your own place as an academic while still trying to maintain an idea of what it means to be a journalist for someone like Vulture.

        Thoughts on the end of The Wire?

      2. 2 Casey

        As someone who writes about entertainment media in both journalistic (freelance journalist/reviewer) and academic (grad student in NYU’s Media, Culture and Communication program) contexts, I have been repeatedly baffled by the gulf between academy and industry that you discuss here. Why, exactly, do you think that it’s too wide to cross? Why does the academy so often resist talking directly to the producers? I don’t think it’s merely a problem of access (especially in the case of intermediate and lower levels of the industry hierarchy)–having one’s perspective valued/validated by a scholar is great for the ego, and if there’s one thing people love it’s talking about themselves and what they do.

      3. I can see why you find this squabble interesting in the ways you discuss it, but I’m not sure I’m with you that one element of the so-called divide between academics and journalists is journalists’ enviable access to the industry and to audiences, something academics want but can’t have. The can’t have part is debatable, of course, but it’s the “want” that I want to question here. I think that many media scholars do not want, nor do they feel the need to, have contact with the industry as a scholarly resource. And they need not, if the work they are doing is not primarily concerned with such matters. In addition, access to the industry provides no greater “truth” than does any other research method. In fact, when this kind of research is conducted and left to speak for itself, without the necessary contextualization, additional research, and analysis necessary to make a valid and persuasive scholarly argument, it amounts to little more than poor scholarship. I know I, for one, do not have journalist-envy; I’m grateful that I don’t have to make the kinds of facile claims journalists sometimes do (for a variety of reasons, many surely outside the control of the individual journalist). What is most challenging, but also most rewarding, about media scholarship as a distinct entity is the constant pressure to do more with whatever research materials one is accessing than seems evident on their surfaces.

      4. Thanks for these reflections, Jason. I hadn’t thought about my encounter with Vulture in these terms really. I thought their point about my superiority was mocking! But you’re probably right that each of us sees the other as claiming a certain kind of power that we each resent.

        I know what you mean about access to those in showbiz. But I also think that journalists often do a good job as our surrogates and I respect the work they do. Anyhow, I’m not convinced that a TV showrunner would tell me anything different from what they would tell a writer from the MSM or from Script magazine. I guess it’s worth a shot, though.

        I suppose it would be nice if more of the journalists who share our interest in television and other contemporary media had a sense of what kind of work we do. But I’m not sure what our incentive is to share with them or what theirs is to pay attention. Are we after a share of their spotlight? Is this vanity or a sincere desire to spread the word? Are they prepared to understand us if we say something more challenging than easily quotable truisms and factoids? Are they prepared to be critical of the media industries and of dominant social institutions in the way many media scholars are? Do they really want from us anything more than a few facts and the legitimacy that comes from quoting someone they can call “professor”?


      1. 1 The Chutry Experiment » Power Blogging

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