Film as Philosophy Term Project: 

Signification Restriction in Media and Journalism


note: this essay discusses (& therefore contains) transphobic slurs

In many ways, it’s easier to examine the basic methodological questions of journalism than it is to examine those of practically any other area of study at MCLA—so easy, in fact, that there are thousands of people doing the same thing, especially following Donald Trump’s campaign and inauguration. Questions about the function of journalism in modern society, the correct methods of practicing journalism, and whether the institution of journalism as a whole has been tainted irreparably, are more or less constantly being examined in modern political and social discourse. At the core of it all, though, is the issue of how we use language to literally create the physical world around us, and what it means when a media source is fair.

            Whether journalism is conducted “properly” or not depends entirely on objective morality: that of the journalist, of their peers, and of the society in which they live and work. When a journalist is unable to adequately explain or support their reasoning to the everyman, they will be perceived as having failed morally as well as rationally. The standards a journalist uses for valid reasoning can be as academic as a grammar stylebook, or as subjective as their religious or cultural background, but no matter what standards they hold themselves to, those of the public will always be more demanding and more arbitrary, much like the relationship between a filmmaker and the constantly-shifting needs, desires, and requirements of their audience.

            This was illustrated most clearly during the Film as Philosophy course by the 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman. At the time of its release, it was groundbreaking as an independent film, if not quite as groundbreaking in queer cinema (Cabaret was kinder to gay men in 1972). Kiss came out in the midst of the AIDS panic in the United States, and tried to portray a sympathetic gay character—Molina, a crossdresser and pederast, but kind, thoughtful, and loving. It was a good enough movie that Hurt as Molina won an Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film was nominated for three others, including Best Picture—the first independent film ever to have the distinction.

However, viewing the film in the year 2017, it is difficult to overlook its many flaws: its depiction of gay men as generally predatory, hedonistic, and politically disinterested, for example, or the confusion over whether Molina was portraying a crossdressing gay man or a transgender woman—a distinction that was not common knowledge in 1985, although there were certainly transgender activists at the time who could have been consulted. Some of the films’ missteps are forgivable in retrospect, while others, like the decision to change Molina’s crime from the novel’s “corrupting a minor” (which could have referred to a wide range of moral-but-illegal gay activity in 1980’s Brazil) to straight up pederasty, seem reprehensible even given the era and political climate at the time.

Certainly, journalism is subject to the same after-the-fact criticism of reasoning. The cringe-worthy stories following Caitlyn Jenner’s transition are nowadays for the most part viewed as having been in poor taste, but just a few years ago the public seemed to love that particular brand of yellow journalism, and in many places today they still do. Contrastly, we have stories like the Daily News’ “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty” published way back in 1952, which holds up today as a well-written and respectful (if slightly sensational) depiction of a transgender individual’s transition.

What happened in-between? Some shift in public knowledge, and in the attitude and tone of news sources, caused a sharp change in rhetoric. People became more curious about what transitioning entailed, and less interested in the day-to-day experiences of the individuals. The AIDS panic erased the growing goodwill and humanization in media of gay and transgender individuals. When the language changed—“she-male,” “tranny”—so too did reality.

Some English linguistic philosophers believe that language creates the possibility of humanity. Journalists must be constantly aware of the inverse of the idea: that language can dehumanize just as easily. The issue of signification is, obviously, constantly studied in media. A basic understanding of signification in journalism looks like this:

“How concepts are represented in media can change the public’s understanding of those concepts.”

A slightly more advanced approach:

“What signifier we use for a given thing will create the signified meaning in the mind of the public.” This new meaning can’t be totally at odds with the old one, so those involved in creating these signs must be cognizant of the current state of things and affect gradual change to popular structures of belief.

An optimistic view of this relationship between signs and public perception would focus on the use of language to propagate basic moral tenets of humanity. This is practically no different from the pessimistic (or neutral) phrasing: that language is used to create commands for others in order to force them to perceive and experience humanity the same way the signifier does, for better or for worse. Either way, one must accept that one of the primary functions of language (and therefore, of journalism) is to command the sign-receiver to understand or conceptualize the target idea in a certain way, and those with the power to make and disseminate these signs should have strict boundaries in doing so.

It’s more important now than ever to understand who gives these commands, and their implications. The journalist decides not just how to cover a given topic/event, but also which topics/events are worthy of coverage. Each of these decisions is made with the input of society, peers, editors, etc., but in the information age, the journalist is always eventually responsible. One of the muddiest areas in journalism, in terms of reasoning and moral representation, is the presence of the partisan opinion piece in otherwise supposedly unbiased mediums. It has been fascinating witnessing and being involved in disputes about the function of opinion articles at MCLA’s paper The Beacon, especially since the same disputes are happening publically right now at newspapers around the world.

One such issue occurred at our paper when a Co-Managing Editor penned a column, which essentially argued that the “Wage Gap” was a myth and that women tended to choose poorly-paid positions with less strenuous education prerequisites. I observed with interest (and took part) in the conversation that took place in the newsroom in the days prior to publication, where the disagreeing individuals tended to either prioritize integrity and respect for our readers, or freedom of speech and online pageviews. “Freedom of speech” being a red herring, of course, since neither side was proposing that some governing body prevent the Co-Managing Editor from speaking his mind; rather that the publication of an article the day after International Women’s Day blaming women for their own mistreatment might be viewed as misogynistic by the writer, and apathetic at best by the other editors on the staff.

Newspapers are not democracies, and the decision was made by the Editor In Chief. As expected, the article did receive a great deal of traffic, and the reputation of the paper suffered. A similar situation occurred in The New York Times recently, when conservative columnist Bret Stephens published his debut column “Climate of Complete Certainty,” in which he argued that while the science of climate change was mostly agreed-upon amongst scientists, liberal politicians and activists were often misrepresenting the facts to support their own agendas, and that the actual science didn’t adequately explained the expensive pieces of legislation they were proposing. In a way, Stephens’ article was about its own inevitable backlash—a political and social “climate” in which opposing viewpoints on complex issues like climate change were publicly derided.

However, Stephens and his supporters have a slightly stronger argument than our Co-Managing Editor. It is not some vague notion of free speech that necessitated Stephens’ column, but rather an effort to include varied, potentially contradictory viewpoints in order to preserve the spirit of honest debate. There’s also the issue of the publication itself: The New York Times is an entity which prides itself on being a last bastion of truth in an age where most news sources are considered “fake news” by at least one major demographic or political group. Appearing impartial is important for such an entity, because without a diverse set of perspectives amongst their staff, the paper would run the risk of alienating those readers whose own standards of valid reasoning fell outside those of the Times.

In the aftermath of Stephens’ column, many readers have cancelled their subscriptions and written lengthy letters to the Times about the spread of “alternative facts.” It’s a sticky issue with no clear answer, at least not for me. It makes sense from a moral and philosophical perspective to allow for the questioning of even prevalent ideas like man’s effect on climate change, and at the same time, I take issue with Stephens for using his position of power to promote indecision and apathy among conservative readers in the face of what even he agrees is likely destructive and man-made climate change. I do accept his point that individuals should be allowed by society to second-guess the prevailing knowledge of the day—this is the basis for advancement in every field of knowledge, after all. I’m stuck on whether his article had to exist, though, simply to give The New York Times the objective credence they were after. It seems to have had the opposite effect, but then again, those with grievances are always more vocal than those who are content.

Finally there is the function of journalism as the “Fourth Estate:” a societal force whose job is essentially to help the public retain control over their government. In the past, the American news media has often been at odds with the government, and rightfully so; if the government were always transparent and made decisions with the public’s best interest at heart, there would be no need for political journalism. In fact, when any news source begins preaching the faultlessness of the government, it’s a clear sign from an educated journalist’s perspective that that source is failing to live up to its responsibility as a resource for those disturbed and mistreated by governing bodies. News sources should never exist for the purpose of telling us about the positive things our government is doing.

            Journalists are policed primarily by the public, who are policed by the government, who are in turn policed by journalists. As members of a field constantly at odds with its own methods of reasoning, it’s natural that journalists will often misstep or screw up, and often, these missteps will be indistinguishable from deliberate malice, but also indistinguishable from individuals simply having different beliefs and methods from their contemporaries. However, allowing for these differences is how a collection of biased individuals approaches a sort of cumulative fairness. Since they are creating the world we live in, we can only push them closer and hope.