Power Blogging

Jason Mittell has an interesting discussion of a blog scuffle between Michael Newman, an academic blogger and a friend of mine, and the bloggers at Vulture, an entertainment blog affiliated with New York Magazine. The conflict began when Mike criticized Vulture for revealing spoilers in the headlines to at least of their posts. Vulture responded by ripping Mike’s use of academic language, and Mike has since responded, pointing out not only that others have complained about Vulture’s bad habit of spoiling TV shows in their headlines but also that Vulture’s spoiler habit is complicit with the major media outlets’ desires that we watch shows “live” rather than TiVoing them to watch at our own convenience.

I don’t know that I have terribly strong sentiments either way here, in part because I write primarily about film and not television, but I’m generally in agreement with Mike that spoiling in headlines is pretty uncool. That being said, I’ve been thinking a little lately about how “spoilers” might work in film reviews, and in particular, I’ve been wondering if the “conspiracy” between Miramax and U.S. film critics not to reveal a spoiler, such as the widely discussed “secret” at the heart of Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, would have been possible today, especially given the number of film and entertainment blogs out there (to date myself a little, I wrote my first paper as a Ph.D. student on the implications of the marketing of the secret). As I recall, only one or two mainstream critics chose to reveal the secret without a spoiler warning, and there was even some debate about the implications of nominating Jaye Davidson for a “best supporting actor” Oscar, given his role in the film. But now, I have little doubt that such a “spoiler” would have likely emerged sooner, possibly altering how Miramax would have marketed the film. Obviously this is speculation to some extent, but I do think that spoiling does fans a disservice, especially given that more viewers are encountering television asynchronously, in much the same way that a platformed release such as The Crying Game reached smaller cities weeks or months after playing in bigger cities and receiving reviews in national newspapers. That being said, I think the ultimate effect of the critics’ conspiracy of silence around The Crying Game may have been to stifle conversation about the film’s complicated politics of race, gender, and national identity, which was essentially my conclusion when I wrote the paper. Still, I think Mike’s larger point–that spoiler warnings are a matter of etiquette for those of us who watch TV asynchronously–is essentially valid.

But, like Jason, I’m equally intrigued by the ways in which power gets played out in this particular debate. As Jason points out, the folks at the Vulture fault Mike for “laying down ‘power-knowledge’ from on high” through the use of academic jargon. Mike, in turn, reads the Vulture blog–as I likely would–as part of a “media elite” (Jason’s term), part of the media industry itself, a perception that is reinforced by the access that many popular culture journalists have to popular culture creators through interviews, etc., access that is sometimes difficult to get as academics. Of course, as Jason points out, academics–at least those of us in tenure-stream jobs–are granted quite a bit of authority and autonomy, so this relationship is not a simple one by any means. These overlapping vectors of authority prompt Jason to ask, “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?”

To some extent, my guess is that this industry-academy divide may be complicated by a number of factors, including the academic desire for some degree of autonomy from the object of analysis, but I think that most academics writing about popular culture would like more access to people working in the industry and not less, as Jason points out in his original post. And the seal of approval associated with writing for a major magazine such as New York Magazine is quite a bit different than an academic writing on his or her personal blog. But I’d also imagine that it depends on the “industry” as well (that is, independent and DIY media makers might be more accessible than mainstream media producers), so I’m not sure there are a lot of easy answers here. But if any of my readers have any interpretations of how these power relationships work within the film and media blog communities, I’d love to hear them.

Update (3/16): I’m not terribly satisfied with the “divide” between academic and journalistic media blogs that I’ve described here. My sense is that the opposition between these two categories is somewhat blurrier than I originally suggested, and in my case, I’ve generally had cordial relationships with virtually all of my fellow media and film bloggers, so to suggest the existence of a “divide” seems a little misleading.

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