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April 26, 2005

Paging Howard Beal

Justicesundayfrist

This post is not going to tell you anything you don’t already know.  That said, it probably says a few things about what we see and how we are trained to look.

The radical Christian Conservative “anti-filibuster” telecast, “Justice Sunday,” was broadcast this weekend.  If you haven’t been following this story, the religious right put on this show to organize grass root support to change U.S. Senate voting rules. These reactionaries want to prevent the Democrats from blocking extremist judicial nominations by eliminating a long standing institutional parliamentary procedure.

Boy, did that show earn some press.  In fact, this shot was the lead image on the cover of yesterday’s NYT (not to mention, still another photo inside).  There’s Bill (“Brother, Can You Spare A Cat?”) Frist up on the screen, like Big Brother (or the Creator himself), almost single handedly breaking through the church-state barrier.  He is framed next to a flag and against a background of what looks like law books. 

When it comes to the culture war, these crusaders do a wonderful job massaging the message.  In varying accounts of this program, I’ve seen it described primarily (by an all too malleable press) as a rally or a religious meeting.  These terms are specifically reinforced to convey legitimacy and associations to sanctity.  Except, this was not anything close to a service or a rally, it was a political infomercial. 

From the news images and the news reports, you might also think it was held in a church.  Technically, it was.  But this edifice — the Highview Baptist mega-church in Louisville, Kentucky — is as much a broadcast facility as anything else — with walls, balcony, and ceiling filled with sophisticated lighting, sound and staging systems.  In examining these houses of worship broadcast, what we are really witnessing — especially with productions like this — are studios reminiscent of churches filled with studio audiences reminiscent of parishioners.

Of course, even a simple broadcast in a church is going to reveal some signs of production.  There are elements you find here, however, that strip off much more of the religious veneer.  One hint, for example, is the guy slouched against the near lower wall.  If he was an usher, he would at least be feigning attention.  And even if he was just a production guy, in a more formal event, it’s hard to imagine he would be resting his foot on the wall.

Justsun4

Then, of course, there are the handlers.  Completely invisible when you take a quick glance at a shot like this, there’s this guy up in the balcony hovering at the rail, his posture fitting a director.  Like any production team just beyond the camera, there are also a number of such heads dotting the balcony line.

Justsun5

If there was any point, however, where the press got finessed into representing this as a legitimate local event, it was in the way they characterizing the attendance.  Twice the NYT article (link) described this gathering in the proud town of Louisville as “packed.”  Well, I looked at the image pretty closely, and it’s not packed. 

Here is the section second from the top.  It’s a little hard to see at this scale, but the arrows I inserted indicate a number of empty seats toward the back of this section.

Justsun2

Also, there are two other sections on the floor — the one’s at each end — that also have plenty of open seats. 

Justicesun1

Justsun3

Which takes us back to the semantics, and the subtle way in which the media got spun. 

Think about it this way.  If you are going to characterize this event as primarily a staged political infomercial, than the place was packed.  (In this media age, everybody understands a studio needs space to establish site lines for cameras, and that a t.v. show typically condenses an audience into the middle to make the place seem full.)  If what you’re trying to conveying is a rally in a church, however, you can’t say this place was nearly full.

(Photo headline and caption:  In a Rally in Church, Fighting Filibusters: In  a videotaped statement at an evangelical Christian rally at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville yesterday, Bill Frist, the Republican leader, renewed his threats to change Senate rules to prevent Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees.  The telephone numbers encouraged people to call lawmakers.)

(image: Patti Longmire/APApril 25, 2005 in The New York Times)

  • http://www.slyfelinos.com/slyblog/ jillian

    Blue Meme has a little photo comparison….
    http://bluememe.blogspot.com/2005/04/churchstate.html

  • MonsieurGonzo

    you’re soaring on this analysis, BAGman ;-)
    Empty Seats…
    …not enough popular poll punch to pack this court, padre !
    and it’s a clean single to right field, folks; we’ve got Frenchy on first base!
    next up is …? and here’s the pitch:
    Preaching to the Choir…
    (otherwise known as pissing into the wind )

  • patvogel

    If you really want to understand how this event smashed the barrier between church and state, you have to realize that many conservative churches still hold church services on Sunday evening in addition to the Sunday morning services. Many people will attend both the morning and the evening service. This is normal and expected. The particular church pictured here has a regularly scheduled worship service at the exact time of this simulcast. So not only was this telecast an invasion of the worship space (such as it is; an auditorium is not my idea of a sacred space, but there’s no accounting for taste) but it was also an invasion of the worship time as well. Just imagine that for a moment. I’d say it boggles the mind but my mind was boggled long ago by this regime. Does anyone have a term that means “boggled to the nth degree”?

  • http://drewthaler.blogspot.com/ Drew Thaler

    I’m still waiting for the girl to run down the aisle and throw a hammer into the screen.
    http://www.uriah.com/apple-qt/1984.html
    “We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology. Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths.”
    Indeed.

  • praktike

    brilliant.

  • aethorian

    This post is not going to tell you anything you don’t already know.” is perhaps not the most open-minded way to start dissecting news imagery, but let’s probe a little more anyway.
    Big Brother on the Big Screen — Due to the photographer’s POV and wide angle lens, the relative size of the rear projection screen in the right foreground is greatly enlarged, making it appear to loom threateningly over the congregation. This exaggerated visual effect is the same as with Ann Coulter’s feet on Time’s recent cover.
    Highview Baptist’s sanctuary is laid out in a semi-circle. If you were to flip the the photographer’s position from the right side of the balcony to its left side, she would have been standing about here, quite close to the opposite screen. Her wide angle lens (probably a 24-28mm focal length) is necessary to capture as much of the interior as possible, but it unavoidably enlarges subjects close to the camera. If this shot was taken at a normal focal length (about 50mm), the screen in the foreground would be about half the size and not nearly as overwhelming.
    1984 it’s not, nor 2000, nor 2004. Besides, it’s not the big screen we should worry about: it’s all these ubiquitous little ones. Fortunately, the eyes of knowledgable BNN readers are not fooled.
    Flag & PoliticianAbsolutely nothing new here. How would we know the brand behind the faces otherwise?
    Church Broadcast — Without the First Amendment, none of us (from Highview Baptist to the NYT to BNN) would be having this conversation. Many churches broadcast their services: should we start cracking down on the church part then, or the broadcast part?
    Regarding visible production staff, they are no great distraction. There will be several at any church this size with a regular TV broadcast, including camera operators, electrical/lighting grips, directors, audio-visual techs, and others. Go to any large church service (Oh, go on: nobody will bite) and you can’t miss them.
    Out of Sight — As the BagMan points out, there are some empty seats, but many of these may be blocked by camera, lighting, or sound equipment. Even if the NYT overzealously described Highview Baptist as “packed”, the empty seats are still good news. They just mean that the vast, right-wing, radical Christian conspiracy taking over the country—monolithic block that it is—is less domineering than we’ve been led to believe.

  • http://molly.douthett.net Molly

    i don’t think it is the broadcasting of a worship service per se as what was preached at said service that is the issue here. We are free to broadcast our worship; my husband’s church is stepping into the land of podcasting! Whoot! But most broadcast services are worship – not political antics with a guest appearance by the senate leader decrying the politics of the “other side”. So, no we shouldn’t crack down on either the church or broadcast part. We should crack down on special guest stars from Washington DC who have nothing to say other than political slams.

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