The Celebrity Frame and Activism

The following paper was presented at Salon: the FIMS Undergraduate Research Conference. It looks at the tensions in mass media coverage exploring a movement through an individual and the damaging frame of “celebrity.”

Abstract: Todd Gitlin’s book, The Whole World is Watching: mass media in the making & unmaking of the new left, is a comprehensive analysis of the role mass media played in the success – and lack of it – in the student left movement during the 1960s. He argues that celebrity is one of the damaging frames employed by mass media to misrepresent and discredit the movement. Equipped with an understanding of the negative effects of celebrity, modern movements such as Occupy and the Montreal Student Movement (MSM), took actions to combat it. Despite their best efforts, both movements were subjected to damaging techniques by the media, which speaks more to a corporate-hegemony model of media than a negative critique of celebrity. A comparison and analysis of sixties star radical Mark Rudd, Montreal’s “telegenic” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, and the lack of spokespeople in Occupy, will explore the contradictions of celebrity in activist movements. There is a hesitation between wanting the increased visibility of celebrity but not its limitations. Celebrity, an inherently individualistic frame, is not suitable for the goals of a collective movement.


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Todd Gitlin’s book, The Whole World is Watching: mass media in the making & unmaking of the new left, is a comprehensive analysis of the role mass media played in the success – and lack of it – in the student left movement during the 1960s. He argues that celebrity is one of the damaging frames employed by mass media to misrepresent and discredit the movement. Equipped with an understanding of the negative effects of mass media and celebrity, modern movements such as Occupy and the Montreal Student Movement (MSM), took actions to combat it. Movements, especially over time, have more information on how mass media and movements intersect. Movements and activists have their own analysis of mass media that in turn has effects on how they conduct themselves and create awareness. Albeit their best efforts, both movements were subjected to damaging techniques by the media, which can be used to support a corporate-hegemony model of media. A comparison and analysis of sixties star radical Mark Rudd, Montreal’s “telegenic” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, and the lack of spokespeople in Occupy, will explore the contradictions of celebrity in activist movements. There is a hesitation between wanting the increased visibility of celebrity but not its limitations. Celebrity, an inherently individualistic frame, can be seen as not suitable for the goals of a collective movement, while at the same time seen as having utility to a movement’s end goals.

Gitlin starts off his argument by noting that personalization and human interest stories are well known journalistic approaches. With respect to the student left movement, he argues that these approaches end up turning leaders into celebrities that can no longer be held accountable to their movement. These approaches are entrenched in a “cultural system – of which the news system is part – [that] routinely has needed, and produced, celebrities” (Gitlin, 147). Turning leaders into celebrities becomes increasing problematic when we consider the critique of celebrity. For Boorstin, “the celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness” and not ability (Boorstin, 57). Boorstin discusses the idea that “we have willingly been misled into believing that fame – well-knownness- is still a hallmark of greatness” and is critical of an inherent quality that results in celebrity (47). “Instead of leadership there is popularity” and this undermines the “possibility of authentic authority based on excellence of character, experience, knowledge, and skill” (Gitlin, 148-149). What results is the possibility of a pseudo-authority, which is “‘whenever the claim to authority is based substantially on the manipulation of symbols rather than on the invoking of standards’” (Wolpert qtd. in Gitlin, 149). A movement cannot survive on pseudo-leadership, it needs real leadership. The very nature of celebrity, the cyclical trend that one can maintain celebrity status after a certain point just by being a celebrity or “well-known,” creates an unaccountable space for movement leaders. Gitlin claims that this manufacturing of celebrity is particularly disastrous for movement leaders, who have a greater responsibility to their collectives. In defense of a more balanced view, John Street argues that “representative democracy is not to be seen as a ‘second best’ to direct democracy” and “voting has to be seen as an ‘expressive act’” and “as an expressive act, the vote is understood as allowing the voter to identify with politicians and to seek out what they (the voters) find ‘politically attractive’” (Street, 443). The discomfort people feel when they see politicians embody the aesthetic of celebrities can also be seen in followers of a movement when their leader becomes more well-known than the movement itself. But this aesthetic should not be devalued because it is still democratic – these leaders identify with members of their movement and bring attention to it even if some can critique their ways of doing so as “celebrity.”

Gitlin continues to examine how leadership is converted into celebrity in the news media. In the search for spokespeople, news media gravitate toward the more dramatic and more articulate. On the extreme side of this argument is the idea that “the media invented movement stars,” but some onus is still placed on the “self-nominated spokesmen” (Gitlin, 149-150). The effects of celebrity are best understood through an example. Although Gitlin cites many leaders, Mark Rudd achieved a more lasting celebrity being head of the Columbia Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) chapter in New York, the “media capital of the world” (Gitlin, 150). Kirkpatrick Sale, an editor for the New York Times Magazine, recalled that the magazine rejected stories on the Columbia strike “in favour of trying to find a piece on Rudd alone” (150). During the Columbia protests, an article was published in the New York Times entitled “Mrs. Rudd Wants Most That Her Son Get Back in School” which not only detailed how his mother felt about his actions but also, and not exclusively so, that “The Rudds live in a substantial home in a middle-class neighborhood of Maplewood” (The New York Times, 70). The interview of his mother and coverage of his personal life tell us more about Mark Rudd as a person instead of the issues he stands for. This serves as an example of coverage of Rudd that is removed from the context of the movement, and focused more on Rudd himself. Later on, there is more coverage of Rudd’s charges and court appearances. There is even a story, “Mark Rudd Seized in Marijuana Case” that deals with his run-ins with the law outside of student protests. Articles that would be more beneficial, such as in-depth coverage on SDS as a whole, were few compared to the amount of content on Rudd. In addition, some stories covering the events at Columbia still included Rudd in the headline, such as “Rudd and 15 Other Students Accused” or the subheading of “Mark Rudd is Among Those Disciplined by Columbia” (New York Times) (Appendix A). That shows deliberate attempt to single Rudd out, and by drawing more attention to him the news media helps to manufacture him as a leader celebrity.

Mark Rudd’s inflated rhetoric also became “the standard by which the movement was judged” (Gitlin, 150). He was one of the more radical members of SDS, eventually splitting and helping found The Weatherman – a militant group known for “property destruction.” A collective movement judged through the actions and rhetoric of an individual results in misrepresentation of the movement itself. Rudd reflects on his own role and the contradiction that the news media seeks out individuals to describe a mass movement:

“One great failing on my part (of which there were many) was the fact that I allowed this role as spokesman to be converted into that of symbol. To some extent, though, this was inevitable, since the press by nature has to point to one man to exemplify and personify an entire movement. Ideologically, however, the press is not equipped to see that the strike is a mass movement, that we had developed forms of democracy in which each person could and did participate in decision-making, that the strike came out of the failings and problems in our society, not the plottings of a well-organized cabal” (Mark Rudd qtd. in Gitlin, 151)

In retrospect, he shows an understanding of the damaging effects of the type of coverage he received. He also acknowledged advantages, such as “ability to use [his] name to draw large audiences, make money, etc” (Rudd qtd. in Gitlin, 151). However, he still reflects that his role was turned into a symbol, one full of celebrity instead of substance. The celebrity frame complicated the procedure of accountability for leaders, and weakened intra-movement moral as certain people were pulled out by the media and given attention who were “no better qualified than anyone else” (Gitlin, 162). Through Rudd, it can be seen that the celebrity frame resulted in poor coverage of the issue itself or a misrepresentation through a dramatic narrative.

One of the ways the Montreal Student Movement can be seen to prevent an accumulation of attention in one leader is to have rotating spokespeople. The main three were: Leo Bureau-Blouin, FECQ president; Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, CLASSE leader; and Martine Desjardins, FEUQ president[1]. They were leaders who were representative of larger student groups, and communicated messages and viewpoints that were agreed upon through methods of direct democracy (i.e. a General Assembly). Unlike some of the sixties leaders, they were not “self-nominated spokesmen” and all achieved their position through an electoral process. There were also methods in place for accountability which are key for combating the enticing effects of celebrity. In many ways, the organization of the MSM was an improvement from the sixties. However, there is some evidence that shows a media focus on Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the leader of the more ‘radical’ group versus his more moderate counterparts.

Firstly, Gabriel received significantly more media coverage than the other student leaders. Part of the reason could be because he represented CLASSE, the student union most likely to be described as “militant” or “hardline” by the news. His refusal to explicitly condemn the violence that accompanied the strike was spun as a promotion of violence, and he was consistently singled out by Premier Charest for it. This supports the trend that news media gravitates toward the dramatic. Even though those in the MSM rotated spokespeople, the media still preferred their celebrities. A CBC News cameraman noted this affinity for celebrity when he watch Dan Siegal, leader of the People’s Park movement, try and resist celebrity by suggesting others be interviewed. What ended up happening was you either “allow them [the media] to make certain people stars or you don’t get your message out over the air” (Lighthill qtd. in Gitlin, 154). The difference here is that all three MSM leaders were there from the start, so media attention was split from the beginning.

Much like Rudd, Gabriel also had news stories based on him. An article published in The National Post was entitled “Radical never looked so good; Quebec student leader’s charm masks extremism” and talked about how “the telegenic 21-year-old history major has become the most prominent face of the protest movement” (Hamilton, 2012). The article reveals how he made appearances on the TV Talk Show Tout le monde en parle, the music video-network MusiquePlus, and a show on RadioCanada. All his media appearances might be good exposure for the movement, but “talk-show hosts [did] not press him on his radical views” because they were “dazzled by his good looks and ease in front of a microphone” (Hamilton, 2012). It is important to note that the shows he did go on – like talk shows – are not known for pressing political coverage in the first place, so it makes sense that they do not dive into details of the student movement. Regardless, Gabriel used his time on air to insist “he is just a mouthpiece for the coalition’s members, who arrive at decisions through a process of direct democracy” (Hamilton, 2012). It can be seen he is trying to denounce his personal importance, but part of his statement is eroded by the article’s next line of – “But regardless of his official title, his charisma, intellect and self-assured manner have made him the de facto student leader” – that continues to single him out (Hamilton, 2012). After Gabriel is “stung by accusations he’s turning his movement into a one-man show,” he responds by refusing to “give interviews that stray into personal matters,” which shows self-reflection and attempt to combat the facilitation of the discussion away from movement issues by the news media (Perreaux, 2012). Regardless, news articles begin to cite “those close to him” and divulge personal information through other means. The celebrity leader only has so much control over their media depiction, and in a larger sense, the movement only has so much control over their media depiction.

There is also significant reference to his looks in most articles that mention him. The Globe and Mail makes note that “Girls and television hosts fawn over him and a movie director called him sexy” as well as “On the street, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois can scarcely walk a block or sit down to share a pitcher of beer in his favourite east-end watering hole without being set upon by young, mostly female, admirers” (Perreaux, 2012). He is referred to as “sexy” or the “rockstar of the student movement” (Appendix B). Attention is given to the movement through focusing on something else – like his looks. Reporting on his personal life and appearance parallel the media coverage celebrities would receive. His celebrity helped bring attention to the movement, but it also risked its misrepresentation or trivializing the issues it stood for. However, it should be noted that not paying attention to the “serious” aspects of a movement is not bad. Solidarity is a kind of sociality, and a multi-faceted movement that speaks to the issues and the social aspect of activism is needed if it is to attract broader attention. For example, the “casseroles” in Montreal where people would bang pots and pans out of frustration at the anti-strike Bill 78. An activity like that is fun with low barriers to entry, and invites larger participation among the public. It can be compared to the benefit concerts during movements in the 60s. While noise-making or concerts were not directly related to objectives in the movement, they help create support. Lighter involvement in a movement – whether it be students staying up to date with the Quebec student strikes because they fancy its leaders, or because they like its style, is still valuable to a movement that relies on its message being taken up by the larger public. Sometimes these become steps to getting more seriously involved in a movement.

One of the key differences with the MSM was that there were always methods to hold the elected leaders accountable. Whereas in the sixties, some of the leaders could get lost “living in an artificial world of jet-plane schedules, press conferences, talk shows, and fancy restaurants,” the MSM leaders were consistently subject to criticism by those they claimed to represent (Gitlin, 161). This element of accountability was key for Gitlin. He noted that “whether extravagant or moderate, movement leaders could get certified as celebrity-leaders although they were not accountable to a movement base” and ended up floating “in a kind of artificial space, surrounded by haloes of processed personality; [where] the media became their constituency” (Gitlin, 155). The world of celebrity for Gitlin lacked substance. For a national anti-war movement, creating methods of accountability was difficult. The sustainability of the student left movement faltered as a result, “for if leaders could rise to glory as spokesmen without being held accountable to a movement base, the movement could never quite develop internal controls and lines of advancement for prospective leaders” (Gitlin, 156). MSM was different because the student organizations existed on their own and there were structures in place to elect new representatives. The general assemblies were ways leaders were held accountable. Gabriel was even subjected to a vote of confidence on his leadership – which he barely survived. The vote arose from various factors such as the media attention he was getting and accusations he was not radical enough. Regardless, all the leaders were in organizations that had structures in place for responsive and accountable leadership. Gabriel’s celebrity was less susceptible to be lost in the world of spectacle.

The Occupy movement took a different approach to avoid the celebrity frame – it opted to have no spokespeople. Having no spokespeople came with its own challenges such as the movement being seen as disorganized or aimless. A distinction needs to be made between “spokespeople” and “leaders.” Even though the movement did not have spokespeople, it still had leaders and sub-committees that maintained a relatively organized operation. However, there still was a risk of being misrepresented. For example, describing the one’s motivation to join Occupy as “I like the use of public space as a performative realm and I like the combination of bodies in space” (O’Neill, 2011). Or having a feature in the New York Times fashion section entitled “What to wear to a protest?” (O’Neill, 2011). With no spokespeople to turn into celebrities, the media still employed damaging frames such as making light of the movement’s style and dress. Gitlin makes note of these other frames throughout his book, as they work to discredit the student left movement. Celebrity is just one factor of a hegemonic mass media system that subtly undermines dissenting movements.

The celebrity frame, which elevates an individual above others, is seen negatively by movements that attempt to avoid hierarchical structures. It shifts the focus to the individual instead of the collective. The volatility of celebrity is also detrimental to movements. The celebrity is not immortal and “[t]he very agency which first makes the celebrity in the long run inevitably destroys him. He will be destroyed, as he was made, by publicity” (Boorstin, 63). It is dangerous to think that if celebrity is fleeting, and a movement is dependent on celebrity, then the movement itself is fleeting. If “leadership tends to define the movement to the nation through the mass media, the discrediting of that leadership tends to discredit the entire movement” (Fruchter qtd in Gitlin, 160). It is much easier to depict Mark Rudd as a radical, or Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois as a promoter of violence, than it is to say a whole collective feels that way. Yet when a movement is seen through its leader, these dangerous assumptions taint the perception of it as well. Various movements have their own theories of mass media that in turn affect their practises. Viewing celebrity as damaging is one of their interpretations and has a resulted in a trying out of other means – rotating spokespeople in Quebec, or no spokespeople in Occupy. It is important to note that the critique might reduce the issue to a binary of a bad celebrity leader and good non-celebrity leader. Attention to the movement through indirect means such as celebrity or dazzling rhetoric can be seen as a pragmatic approach, and the end will justify their means. This is a messy issue and there is tension between movements wanting control over their portrayal and having to surrender it to mass media’s interpretation. Suggesting that collective movements by their very nature should resist individuation because it helps divide a movement would be too simple a suggestion given the broader landscape movements participate in. The left has always existed as a set of ideals and political beliefs – its leaders have not endured the same longevity. In the 60s, when activist leaders for collective movements were subjected to individualistic frames such as celebrity, the movement was divided and its strength was compromised. Moving forward, movements should adopt a more balanced critique of celebrity – acknowledging its benefits while trying to mitigate its risks.

 

Appendix

Appendix A: Singling Out Mark Rudd

Rudd and 15 Other Students Accused By MORRIS KAPLAN
New York Times (1923-Current file); May 30, 1969; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. 13

rudd

73 ARE SUSPENDED IN CAMPUS SIT-INS: Mark Rudd Is Among Those Disciplined by Columbia By MURRAY SCHUMACH
New York Times (1923-Current file); Jun 6, 1968; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. 51

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Appendix B: Gorgeous Gabriel

A look at the leaders behind the campaign

“Maybe it’s his bad-boy image, but Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is definitely the rock star of the student movement, the guy most likely to make girls’ hearts flutter as he takes the Liberal government to task for imposing tuition hikes. Like JFK and FDR, GND is well-known enough to be referred to by his initials. But he is far more controversial than those political leaders.” (The Gazette, 2012)

Charismatic Quebec student spokesman ‘in a tough position’

Girls and television hosts fawn over him and a movie director called him sexy. He’s on the cover, fist raised, of the next issue of Quebec’s main news magazine. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has become the rock star in front of Quebec’s student movement, but he’s always insisted he’s a simple spokesman rather than a leader. (The Globe and Mail, 2012).

Radical never looked so good; Quebec student leader’s charm masks extremism

With his private-school education and generous university scholarship, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is hardly your typical struggling student. But as the Quebec student strike over tuition fee increases drags on, the telegenic 21-year-old history major has become the most prominent face of the protest movement.

Last Sunday he received fawning celebrity treatment on the TV talk show Tout le monde en parle, where he was praised both for being “sexy” and for offering hope for the future of Quebec.(The National Post, 2012)

Works Cited

Boorstin, Daniel J. “From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-Event.” The Image: A Guide to            Pseudo-events in America. New York: Atheneum, 1971. 45-76. Print.

Gamson, Joshua. Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley: U of   California, 1994. Print.

Gitlin, Todd. The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making & Unmaking of the New            Left. Berkeley: U of California, 1980. Print.

Hamilton, Graeme. “Radical Never Looked so Good; Quebec Student Leader’s Charm Masks Extremism.” National Post [Montreal] 3 May 2012: n. pag. Canadian Newstand Major Dailies. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <https://www.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1011164819?accountid=15115&gt;.

“Mrs. Rudd Wants Most That Her Son Get Back In School.” New York Times 22 Sept. 1968: 70. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.

O’Neill, Brendan. “Occupy Wall Street Is a Fashion Show Masquerading as a Political Movement.” The Telegraph. N.p., 7 Oct. 2011. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/brendanoneill2/100109613/occupy-wall-street-is-a-fashion-show-masquerading-as-a-political-movement/&gt;.

Perreaux, Les. “Charismatic Quebec Student Spokesman ‘in a Tough Position'” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 11 May 2012. Web. 7 Apr. 2015. <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/charismatic-quebec-student-spokesman-in-a-tough-position/article4184539/&gt;.

 

[1] FECQ = La Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, represents 65,000 students // CLASSE = Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale etudiante, represents 50,000 students // FEUQ = Fédération Etudiante Universitaire du Québec, represents 125,000 students

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