Cooperation with the Corporation?

Kperogi, Farooq A. 2011. Cooperation with the corporation? CNN and the hegemonic cooptation of citizen journalism through iReport.com, New Media & Society, 13: 314-329 http://nms.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/13/2/314 (Accessed April 3, 2011).

Can user-generated content, promoted and contained by a corporation, constitute an alternative or resistance to mainstream media? This is Kperogi’s timely question. Its asking portends a new era of realistic criticism of the once ballyhooed liberatory capacities of “peer production” and “participatory culture.” Kperogi’s answer is a resounding no. CNN’s iReport project to stimulate and aggregate user-generated news is not the threat to mainstream news but instead plays into the economic and hegemonic designs of the non-fiction industrial complex. In this argument Kperogi goes too far, failing to problematize his primary distinctions between mainstream and alternative journalism, ignoring the agency of iReporters, audiences, and UGC producers, and forgets to discuss the particular affordances of video and internet systems.

It shocks me that a journalist, with his own Facebook fan page, would fail to capitalize on a discussion of what affordances in video, editing, and network technologies are provoking the production of user-generated news? How has CNN transformed a decentralized publishing tool such as the internet and controlled it through the iReport graphic user interface? How do these portable and affordable recording and editing systems change the capacity to make alternative news? What will this new news look like? How will it be distinguishable from the old news? What exactly does new news do to make it new and alternative? Reach new audiences? Tell stories in new ways? What would an alternative news report look like? Would it be edited, reflexive, expository, observational, or just raw footage? How would it be financed? In what ways would it be distributed? Is there an audience for it? Does an alternative audience do different things with its novel and diverse content that a mainstream audience does not? Answering several of these questions would help Kperogi to flesh out the look and utility of the so-called alternative news he so pines for.

Anthropologists can usually critique other disciplines for their methodological inadequacies and this is no exception. He cites Gramsci and Zizek throughout yet without once quoting an iReporter or CNN staff person. This omission makes his duality, mainstream v. alternative news, possible. After reading the article one is left with this dystopic claustrophobia that resistance is futile. On the one hand you’ve got CNN staff consciously scheming or unconsciously programming initiatives such as iReport to incorporate and naturalize this possibly disruptive new visual representational modality. On the other hand you’ve got iReporters who knowingly or unknowingly are defanging citizen journalism’s radical potentials as they upload, narrate, and sanitize their raw footage for CNN and  the empty possibility of televisual fame (and no small fortune). Neither hand is clean of overwrought assumptions as my personal and professional experiences with corporate-led user-generated initiatives suggest.

A unified hegemony internal to a media corporation is impossible. I have personally spoken to several people involved in CNN’s social media campaign. While they will admit that they are presently experimenting with developing their best practice surrounding the use of user-generated content, and they often state that they don’t know the secret to a successful integration of user-submitted content, they never speak to issues of exploitation and hegemonic incorporation. I ask of CNN employees and others in similar pro-corporate contexts such questions and they understand my concern that alternative media is threatened, that UGC could be exploitative, but they insist that they are responding to what they see as major transformations in the production and distribution of news by learning to work with collaborating UGC producers. These online community managers for news companies admit that they are pushing against different internal departments with more traditional views of passive audiences. The point is that there are so many contested issues and variously aligned individuals within each media company that a totalizing hegemon is unlikely. I don’t doubt that if the opportunity presented itself CNN would implement a strategy to monetize and control the excesses of participatory culture, and, as my experience as a producer reveal, these corporations do have a vested interest in transforming the more untamed yet fascinating citizen visions into televisual spectacle, but I disagree that they are achieving either of these goals in any sufficiency to warrant the moniker of hegemonic.

My experiences and fieldwork reveal the numerous desires and professional and personal sacrifices and gains made by individuals who volunteer to contribute user-generated content. We are an active bunch in the early stages of various careers and personal practices that are generatively motivated by the UGC experience. We are not, as Kperogi implies, merely faceless content farmers. In my work as a video reporter for Current TV, a global cable network who also provoked and collected user-generated video news, I was instructed by Current TV’s creative executives on how to tell a story in short form televised video. This process, beginning clumsily with my first awkward reports and ending 15 shorts later in more polished and viewable segments, initiated a route towards professional opportunities and personally rewarding instances of narrative experimentation. This training gave me tactics I use as a commercial and feature producer, an ethnographic filmmaker, and a more skilled experimental and alternative reporter. Kperogi would see this personal process as an acculturation into a hegemonic system dominated by narrative tropes and pro-corporate styles. I disagree, iReporters like Current TV’s VC2 or viewer-created content producers, engage with the opportunities afforded by CNN and Current TV for a number of reasons many of which trump the claim that we are tools for the perpetuation of domination and mainstream middle class values.

While Kperogi’s understanding of the values and motives within the firm and within the user-generating population fail to acknowledge the discursive dimensions of daily working life, so too does his implicit thinking about CNN’s audience. If the employees are the enactors and the UGC producers the embodiment of the MSM hegemony then the viewers too are but another integer of the hegemonic system. I counter this implicit assumption but reminding Kperogi that audiences are versed in critical readings of news, the subjective biases that inform it, and increasingly, how mainstream news sources selectively utilize UGC in their broadcasts. Like employees and citizen journalists, each audience member critically engages news content to satisfying divergent motives and values.

The last questions I want to pose against Kperogi’s conclusions returns to the issues of the existence of alternativity and/or a mainstream. In a fractured world and a diversified cable spectrum, the assumption that somethings contain the ingredients, birthright, or passwords to be inside the mainstream while other issues are too risqué, revolutionary, and ridiculous to be included is patently strange. Marketing corporations have been co-opting the signs and symbols of revolution for decades and yet both continue. And yet those revolutions agitate for that most mainstream of values, democracy, free markets, fair courts, education, human rights. There is nothing more mainstream while necessarily revolutionary than these issues. To achieve these issues revolutionaries use whatever tools they can, ridiculous street performance and tactical media and professionally produced and televisually clean documentaries as well.