“Anchors Away!: Or, Can the Subaltern Get a Soundbite?”

Something interesting happened when famous comic bad boy Russell Brand showed up for an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and it’s been making the rounds online ever since.  Hosted by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the morning show is made of a roundtable of pundits and talking heads, mostly discussing politics and current events while making daily dips into pop culture.  And while the co-hosts certainly have their soapboxes (Mika has famously made a second job out of railing against obesity, and Joe was a state representative, for crying out loud), they pride themselves on being serious reporters interested in providing a balance of perspectives when talking about an issue.

But it would seem that the likes of Russell Brand’s grimy allure was too much for the folks at the table (Joe wasn’t there, but renowned lead anchor of BBC World News America Katty Kay was).  After a short exchange of flirty banter surrounding clothes and appearance, the interview took a turn.  When he tried to talk about his new show Messiah Complex (which has since canceled gigs in Abu Dhabi and Lebanon for safety reasons), his hosts responded disinterestedly, bringing him back to absent exchanges over his accent.  At one point, Katty Kay mistakenly refers to him as “Willy,” and the group begins to talk amongst themselves about him in the third person.

So, he responded, calling them out and attempting to make them answer for their strange interviewing tactics.

Lots of the internet hype has been (perhaps understandably) reveling in the comedian taking total control of the segment away from the anchors and sticking the question to them, “Is this what you people do for a living?.”  Bloggers and web-based media writers have shared the clip with glee as safe onlookers to the awkward war of words.  Gems include Brand’s response to one of the hosts, “Thank you for your casual objectification,” when his looks and accent were discussed in the third person.  The emphasis in the online conversations has been much to do, then, with interview etiquette: the hosts’ rudeness and carelessness and Brand’s subsequent smackdown.  Fair enough.  I think the scene also provides, though, a chance to think about insider/outsider politics and the structural interests of interviewing as a practice—both certainly of interest to scholars working in the domain of cultural studies.

In other words, what I think really made the Q&A session a big hullabaloo was not so much the quippy back-and-forth or Brand’s ease with playing provocateur.  Rather, I would suggest that the awkwardness came from the object of study—in this case, Brand—pointing to his status as object.  He broke the cardinal rule of interview protocol by calling attention to the structure of the discussion.  He did so early on by interrupting a host and pointing out the people working off-camera on the set of Morning Joe.

More broadly, by talking about the work of news anchors and about the way in which they were speaking about him (rather than to him), Brand pulled back the curtain on a fact to which those hosts—and definitely many scholars engaged in ethnographic study—don’t like admitting.  Namely, interviews (or, in scholarly lingo, recovering the voice of the other) require carefully maintained levels of form, ones that the interviewer gets to determine.  When the object of study treats the questions and topic of conversation not as a natural or obvious thing, the situation becomes super uncomfortable.  We go in assuming that we’re all on the same page about the clear differentials stacked up between subject and object, even when we’d like to suggest that we’re doing progressive work by bringing to light voices that would otherwise be left unheard.

The interview on MSNBC has been compared to Jon Stewart’s famous 2004 appearance on the now defunct CNN show Crossfire:

In that case, Stewart launches a similar (and more sustained) structural critique, chastising the format of the show and suggesting that its form (with two pundits—a liberal and conservative—trading jabs surrounding a talking point) is what supports a vitriolic and polemical political climate in popular discourse.  When then-hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala asked Stewart about his own line of questioning to politicians (specifically John Kerry) on The Daily Show, Stewart again made the issue one about form.  As he noted, his show at the time immediately followed Crank Yankers, after all (wherein puppets dramatize prank phone calls).  He’s a comedian.  As such, he told Carlson and Begala that his role is not at all the same as theirs, since they are getting paid to be hard-hitting journalists.  Now, it’s worth noting the potentially obvious: It takes a nice level of prestige, popularity, and access for the object of study to vocalize its objectification.  In that sense, there is privilege even in the self-identification as “other.”  Nonetheless, the scene creates a wonderful moment where the tables turn and we get to see the interviewer squirm.

In a pseudo-response to the interview with Russell Brand, Mika Brzezinski a little self-righteously admitted to not knowing who the actor/comedian was…and her colleagues followed suit: “Isn’t he the guy who was married to Katy Perry?”  She poked fun at his accent again and then remarked about her marginalization, saying that she had never received the kind of anger and hatred online as she had for that interview.  Dismissing Brand—whom many often find obnoxious, myself included—was far easier than turning a critical eye to the form of the interview and line of (clearly unprepared) questions.

Now, if only some scholars, after publishing articles about the “voices from real people on the ground,” would follow Mika’s lead and give a similar justification to hers of such work: “It was a very long day.”  I’d totally post that on youtube.

2 Replies to ““Anchors Away!: Or, Can the Subaltern Get a Soundbite?””

  1. Merinda Simmons’ analysis of the “talking heads” format of MSNBC and its round table participants’ often total disregard of even one another’s points of view as they chatter on and play to the camera, is indeed masterful. It is a gem of instruction and critique that all interviewers of whatever status or stamp would be well advised to ponder.

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