Fields and Performance at the 2012 Democratic National Convention
I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Medvetz’s last post on blogging – I would just add that being a guest blogger during the end of a semester makes for slow blogging of a different sort, although I also suspect that I shade towards the “slow and formal” that is not quite the appeal of the form (Twitter is my fast and casual).
All that said, I wanted to hopefully partake of some (not quite “pre-scholarly”) dividends. I was inspired by Neil Fligstein’s excellent guest posts and the ensuing discussion to blog a bit about some work that is very much in the ‘in-progress’ category as a conference paper. It relates to fields, and ultimately, our attempt to think through what happens when fields in different domains of social activity overlap and the role of symbolic work in creating and supporting relations of dependence and interdependence.
The empirical project was an ethnographic study of media production at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Myself and two graduate students (Ph.D. student Laura Meadows and M.A. Student John Remensperger) explicitly set out to re-create the sort of field observations of the production of media events that Eugene Lang and Gladys Engel Lang conducted so brilliantly half a century ago, but that have generally been absent from the current literature (save excellent work such as Sandra Sobieraj’s Soundbitten). The project was inductive in the sense that we had only vague research interests in studying a contemporary convention. Our research team secured press credentials and went to Charlotte for five days. Beginning around 9am and ending well into the night after the arena activities, we circulated through hundreds of official and unofficial sites of media and political production at the convention. We focused our multi-sited observations on locales that we determined to be the major loci for political and journalistic actors once we were in the field.
During the course of our time there, we became interested in explaining what looked most foreign to us coming from a journalism school and well versed in the media events paradigm. Here is a photograph:
This was the MSNBC stage, the most extravagant (but by no means the only) stage for journalistic production at the convention. The stage was set up in the ‘media zone’ at the Charlotte EpiCentre, a massive four-story complex featuring restaurants, shops, and other amenities that was the site of media work and production for outlets such as CNN and Bloomberg. MSNBC was at the center of the complex with its sizable broadcast stage, a jumbo screen broadcasting the network’s programs, and signage that transformed the EpiCentre into a wall of promotional advertising. From massive “Lean Forward” (the network’s tagline) banners to the promotional images that cloaked the four-story elevator bank, MSNBC effectively took over the courtyard of the EpiCentre. Chris Matthews broadcast his 5:00pm show live from the stage every evening. Hundreds gathered for these events every night, with many enthusiastically reacting to Matthews and the cameras that panned the crowd and boom mic that swooped overhead.
Explaining this journalistic performance became our research interest. By performance, we draw on Jeffrey Alexander’s definition of “a social process by which actors, individually or in concert, display for others the meaning of their social situation. This meaning may or may not be one to which they themselves subjectively adhere; it is the meaning that they, as social actors, consciously or unconsciously wish to have others believe.”
We came to understand journalistic performance as taking shape across three levels. For one, journalistic actors performed for the embodied public that flowed through spaces such as the Charlotte EpiCentre, as well as the mediated public at-large. This is, perhaps, the most familiar interpretation of the MSNBC stage, as it clearly preserves the conceptual distinction between journalist as authoritative interpreter and audience as spectator. We go into this more in our paper, but I want to address the final two levels here: actors within the journalistic field performed their status for one another; and, actors within the journalistic field created performative spaces for the adjacent and overlapping political field.
First, the MSNBC stage was about the performance of status for other actors within the journalistic field. The most prominent actors in the field occupied the most imposing and branded spaces, which were often set apart from the regular media work and production spaces located in the Charlotte Convention Center (outside the Arena, where the speeches were held). The majority of journalists were located in the massive, concrete basement of the Convention Center. Even here, journalistic outlets sought to distinguish themselves and signal their position in the field. Outlets paid for the size of their spaces, which they outfitted however they chose. Some news organizations simply used heavy curtains with small banners; others engaged in more elaborate staging including public displays and wrap-around branding. What was clear from published accounts and from interviews on the ground was that journalists perceived the work spaces and sites of media production as outwardly indicative of the status of certain outlets (in much the same way that the color-coded media credentials designating levels of access to the arena and political actors – which were worn at all times in Charlotte – marked the status of journalists and their news organizations.)
But performances by outlets such as MSNBC, we argue, were not only directed at actors in the journalistic field. The convention was a defined site and ritualized moment when the actors and infrastructures of the journalistic and political fields became spatially co-located. We argue that actors in these separate, yet intersecting, fields performed for one another to vie for status, authority, and strategic advantage vis-a-vis competitors.
As Fligstein and McAdam note, fields in different domains of social activity can both overlap and have relations of dependence and interdependence. Actors can also have cross-cutting relationships with members of other fields, whom they seek to influence for strategic gain. The MSNBC stage was one site for the intermingling of journalistic and political actors. So was the CNN Grill, a former Mexican cantina commandeered for live network broadcasts by personalities such as Piers Morgan. The grill routinely featured a ‘private party’ sign after 5 p.m and resembled an ESPN Zone for politicos. Humorist Dave Barry, writing in the Charlotte Observer, provides a wonderful description:
“There is an innocent explanation for how I wound up on the floor of a bar with the governor of Montana. I was engaging in journalism. The key to political journalism is to gather insider information, and to do that, you need to go where the political insiders hang out. We’re talking about sophisticated, discerning people who are deeply immersed in analyzing the issues of the day. They do not hang out just anywhere. They hang out where there is free liquor.
At the political conventions, this means many of them hang out at the CNN Grill, a temporary bar/restaurant set up by CNN that serves free food and drinks. You need a special pass to get in. I don’t have one of these passes, because I am not seen as a political insider. I am seen as more of a writer of booger jokes. Maybe if I wrote positive things about CNN – such as “CNN is easily the finest achievement in human history,” or “without CNN, the Earth would quickly become uninhabitable” – I would get a pass to the CNN Grill. But for now, my journalism strategy is to stand around outside looking sad and homeless and thirsty, hoping that a pass-holder will take pity on me and invite me in.”
The CNN Grill was a site of exclusive access that performed the status and authority of these elites. For one, as Barry captures, the CNN Grill was an object of envy among journalists. The site also provided the infrastructure for the intermingling of elites from different fields. CNN seemingly created a space that was coveted among political actors. Not every political actor could gain entry, just as not every journalist could gain entry. Only the elites of both fields could gain entry, which was both a performance and function of that status. Barry reveals exactly such elite intermingling of the political and journalism fields at these liminal spaces. This happened to such an extent that CNN publicized a list of celebrities, journalists, and politicians who appeared at the grill, making visible this elite intermingling (in addition to broadcasts that had these elites as their audience backdrop.)
In this sense, having access to the elites of another field is what makes one an elite in one’s own field. For a network looking to secure interviews and access to the major players and celebrities at the convention, the grill provided both encouragement and a ready-made stage (and, the grill was also perhaps an argument for CNN’s relevance given the network’s recent viewership woes.)
I will conclude this slow and long post with a note that my co-authors and I would love comments (and more than happy to send the full conference paper along). I am also interested in finding more empirical studies that combine variants of field theory with expressly cultural objects of analysis.