Dave Studies Media

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pants on Fire

A while ago in class we talked about all the problems that arise when a news station starts putting out misinformation. I would have always just thought of this as bad reporting, a sign of a poor news source, and that's about it. Now I'm of the much less naive view that publicizing falsehoods is an attack on democracy itself.

I just about jumped out of my seat when Ian talked about the story of The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, the 1975 German film about a woman slandered by the media. In the story, an average, respectable woman finds herself in a romantic relationship with a man she has just met. It comes to light that the man is a terrorist, but the woman still admits to having feelings for him, since she didn't know his affiliations when they met. For this, a species of treason in the eyes of the public, she is mercilessly attacked in the press and other media. When she tries to clear her name and set things straight, her story is twisted into heinous lies that say the opposite of what she meant. Desperate for a way out, and also probably for revenge, the woman ends up shooting and killing the journalist who was behind most of the scathing publicity.

So why was I so excited about this? Because, in the week proceeding the class when we heard about this, I was closely following a news debacle that took place on Rupert Murdoch's notorious Fox News, or "Faux News" as the clever web community likes to call them. I was following the story as reported by one of my most-read blogs: GamePolitics, a site owned by the ECA that reports on how the gaming industry is currently affecting political issues, and vice versa. This particular story happens to mirror that of Katharina Bluth perfectly. "What's the story," you ask?

Faux news picked up on some mostly web-based controversy around BioWare's Mass Effect, a roleplaying adventure game for the Xbox 360. The concerns were all coming from the fact that, for one of the first times in the history of video games, there is an undisguised, somewhat customizable sex scene featured at one point in the story. Whoahbigdeal. I should mention that Mass Effect is rated M for Mature, meaning that stores agree not to sell it and similarly rated titles to people under 17. Meanwhile, this "sex scene" is so tame compared to what you can find in any given episode of HBO's Rome, that it's even featured on YouTube if you go looking for it. Still, I say, even if Mass Effect's sex scene were explicit enough to give you flashbacks from The Dreamers - so what? Why is there a double standard on what's ok to put in a video game and what's ok to put in a movie?

Mostly, it's because of the not-yet-obsolete idea that video games are for kids. This is the angle Fox News took when they decided to slander Mass Effect. Here are some of the lies, (not exaggerations - outright fallacies) they publicized:
-the sex scene contains full nudity for an extended period of time, and the player is in full control
-the game is marketed to young adolescents
-the incident, and the game in general, is boorish and objective of women

Fox's guest expert for the debate, a pop psychologist named Cooper Lawrence who had never actually played Mass Effect or viewed the sex scene they were talking about, earned the wrath of gamers when she went on the air and made every mistake she could have. Not only did she support Fox's outrageous statements without knowing anything about it, but was also condescending to the gamer representative she was there to debate against. Since there is little a sub-culture of irate gamers can do to retaliate against a media giant like Fox, they went after Lawrence. Her book, featured on Amazon.com, suddenly received an overflow of the lowest ratings possible, making it the least-reputable book on the site. "The Internet hath no fury like a gamer scorned."

Eventually, Amazon undid the damage to Lawrence's book, and Cooper herself issued a statement recanting what she'd said on TV. Of course, many gamers are still angry since the damage has been done - likely the only people who read Cooper Lawrence's amending statement were the gamers who knew better in the first place.

Anyway, I thought this was a really interesting parallel - in this real-life incident, we have Mass Effect, (and in a larger sense, the gaming industry/community,) as Katharina Blum: a party unfairly targeted for slander by the insuppressible media. And then comes Katharina's retaliation - in the movie, she shoots a prominent journalist. In this case, we observe this book-attack on Cooper Lawrence, and recognize that it is the most devastating retaliation gamers could think of and carry out.

All of this got me thinking: what could gamers have done, or indeed, any sub-culture do to retaliate against MSM forces when they catch them doing wrong? The reason I ask is this: just like Katharina Blum's shooting of the journalist is tragic, and ironic since it will condemn her to the image she was trying to avoid, the sacking of Lawrence's book does little good for gamers either. However, it's very difficult to come up with constructive alternatives. I asked Ian why we don't see more cases of news outlets blowing the whistle on one another, and he pointed out that doing so is usually not in the MSM's best interest. Still, I think this idea merits more thought. How could a bunch of random people discredit - to the masses, not just savvy media students - a powerhouse like Fox News?

Personally, I like the ideas put forward by some GamePolitics readers. Being of the opinion that the amazon attack was in poor taste, a poster called Sparky112 writes:

The best recourse is organization. Hell, the vast majority of people reading this blog are probably angry about the incident. Someone (the ECA?) needs to organize a letter-writing campaign to major newspapers decrying the incident in question, so that all those angry people can do something productive that’s going to last beyond the twenty seconds it takes some Amazon employee to delete all the negative postings unrelated to the book (which, as many people noted, was already failing quite well on its own without the help of angry gamers … so, wasted effort).

Plenty of people read the editorial sections of newspapers, and while it’s not Fox News, who really wants to be on Fox News anyway? ;) Seriously, though, if we spend all our time saying, “boo hoo, we don’t have any power,” then that’s going to continue to be true. And it just makes us look worse if we resort to extra-legal tactics to get our point across. If instead we respond through letter-writing and pestering video game companies (who DO have power) to make public responses to video game slights, then we’ll slowly but surely gain momentum.

Look at the success of MoveOn.org. They are an advocacy group which grew out of a single incident (the Clinton dalliances) into a vibrant organization. Now, they’re not exactly making any politicians tremble in their shoes for fear of offending them, but they receive media attention and organize meaningful campaigns for issues which are important to a certain segment of Americans. It’s not impossible for people to organize and move forward under a banner of common interest. There just needs to be an effort of this kind for gamers.

In response, NecroSen writes:

@ sparky112

I stand by what I said earlier about this situation. I believe the Amazon trashing was an equal and righteous action, simply because it gave a voice to the people that so many assume will just sit on their asses and do nothing.

You say we should all band together and find a more morally sound medium to carry our voice, and I agree: every one of us should show the responsibility to take this mentality to a political scale, to get the word out that we will not be marginalized and blamed for the ills of society.

All I’m saying is that you may not agree with the method of trashing someone’s book on Amazon, but see where it took us in the past few days. It gives outsiders such as Cooper Lawrence and the Fox News people that misled her a real perspective of our situation (though I doubt Fox News will get the point). It gives many of us jaded gamers a shining example of what we are really capable of if we band together. And, hopefully, it gives people a better understanding of the idiocy and utter uselessness of Fox News as a network.

Now, let me just state that I would also prefer we took action that had more moral justification, but I am willing to accept this as a victory to be learned from. Let’s all take this as a lesson not of what kinds of guerrilla attacks we can use in the future, but what we can effectively do as a collective group. Write to your Congressman, voice your opinion openly to friends and family, engage in intelligent debate with people who don’t agree with you, actively seek information about related issues in the media, and generally be an active citizen and a real human being, not a slave to the whims of talking heads.

…Especially those on Fox.


Additional stuff:

Click here to see the original Fox News report that started all the fuss.

Below are some of the articles from GamePolitics that followed this story as it happened:

Fox News Smears Mass Effect

Cooper Lawrence: "I Misspoke" About Mass Effect

ECA's Hal Halpin Calls on Fox News to Retract Mass Effect Story

Is it Time for Gamers to Forgive Cooper Lawrence?
a particularly good discussion of the whole issue transpired in the comments to this post...note it is from here that the above excerpts are taken.

MSM Shoots Self in Foot with Sensationalized Game Coverage

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