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Howard Dean's "I Have A Scream Speech": The Making Of A Media Event

The Event. At a boisterous rally following the Iowa primary, Howard Dean was intent on thanking his supporters and revving them up for the next political go-round. The packed hall where he spoke was so crowded with raucous fans that it was nearly impossible to maintain a conversation. 956-206x250_dean.jpgCaught up in the event [a rally of high-energy campaign workers], the moment [a screaming crowd], and the subtext [the need to jack-up loyalists after a political defeat], Dean unleashed a powerful blast of escallating oratory punctuated by loudest cheer he could muster.

The Visual Frame. News cameras shot the event from the back of the room with telephoto lenses, framing Dean's speech in a head-and-shoulders shot that visually isolated him from the surrounding mayhem. The framing emphasized facial features generally invisible to the audience. The event became "the face." The camera saw what only the camera could see.

The Audio Frame. Dean was using a microphone designed specially for noisy situations. It has the property of significantly lowering ambient crowd noise while emphasizing the voice of the speaker. Most TV viewers who listened to the event as Dean's own PA mic recorded it got the impression that he was screaming wildly. Yet listening to other microphones that captured the same event one can barely hear Dean's voice above the crowd's roar. It seems clear that Dean was yelling as an oratorical ploy to rally his audience, and because he could barely hear himself speak. As we kow, political rallies have a customary rhythm in which the speaker's key points are interrupted by cheering. Here Dean sought to break the pattern of call and response by continuing to yell over the cheering audience. [See video of the event from the perspective of a camera in the crowd.]

Behavior, Framed. Dean's speech sought to bring his audience to a frenzy through the patterned phrases typical of big, rallying political oratory. His face reddened noticeably from the effort, and at times revealed hyper-intense expressions that alternated with smiles. Seen in context, it seems fair to say that the candidate whooped as loudly as he could for several seconds of peak, red-faced effort, then smiled immediately after as if to say "how did you like that one?!" [Writing this, I'm discovering other video of the event and realizing that the clips I happened to see on TV news isolated a very few seconds from this speech, which were framed as being near pathological. All that remain, of course, are reports.]

The Denotative Frame. Having decontextualized Dean's behavior from the larger event [the innevitable effect of any framing], mediating images now offered a new set of visual and aural "facts" open for interpretation. That intense look on Dean's face seemed to demand interpretation. For evolutionary reasons, humans are particularly attuned to reading facial expressions and can distinguish hundreds of distinct variations. Faces beg to be interpreted—and Dean's was, in spades.

The Interpretive Frame: Seeing What You're Looking For. In previous weeks, speculation had circulated in the media about Howard Dean's "anger." Depending on the political viewpoint, these stories framed Dean's behavior as good, reflecting his passion and willingness to "say what needs to be said," or bad, suggesting a lack of self-control and so forth. Because the candidate was unknown to most of the country, each side sought to label these behaviors positively or negatively. The press, working from its habitual storytelling strategy of emphasizing opposites and forcing extremes for dramatic effect, repeated these dichotomies along the lines of "Howard Dean: Angel or Devil? Which Is It?" The press poured a set of particular facts into a conventional storytelling mold. Political spin-meisters worked overtime.

main_deanshout.jpgComplicating the issue is that fact that the "face" Dean makes when expressing "intensity" and "commitment" may [I'm uncertain about this myself] in certain instances be taken as a face some might consider angry. Obviously, this is a matter of interpretation, which is why I am stumbling over so many conditionals. Psychology reminds us that we tend to see things that confirm our world view. Facial expressions are largely unconscious and only occasionally controllable. Try going through 8 or 10 pages of Howard Dean pictures in Google's Image Search. What do you see? Keep in mind that the camera's instant selects, isolates and monumentalizes fleeting expressions, inviting us to take their part for the subject's whole. Is the underlying issue here a matter of unconscious facial expression, and of how faces are read, particularly in the case of highly polarized interpretations? Is it possible to look angry without being angry? Can you win an election because you look like you'd be fun to have a burger with, or loose one because in moments of intensity some may see your face--apart from your behavior--as angry? Do candidates need facial semioticians on the campaign staff?

Anchoring: Framing the Visual. Because visual images are often inherently ambiguous [frequently they seem to have multiple meanings], they are typically presented with accompanying written or verbal texts that "anchor" or specify their meaning. [Try to find a picture apart from words that position them; it's not easy.] If commentary accompanying the video describes Dean as "angry," we will probably see him as angry. Another caption or commentary might anchor his image as "passionate." Anchoring stipulates meaning by limiting it. Overwhelmingly, the press choose to anchor the meaning of Dean's red face as anger and excess. On the right, it was an effective label to stick on the candidate. In the media, it was a hot button to push again and again. "What do you think about Dean's 'I Have A Scream' Speech?...Wasn't it over the top?"

Framing Narrative: The Runner Stumbles. Over the last decade or so, the press has developed a theory about the perilous path a candidate travels on the way to claiming his party's nomination.dukakis-1.jpg A key element of this mythology includes the notion of "the stumble." Pundit speculation revolves around whether a particular campaign incident might be a stumble, or perhaps the stumble that finally topples a candidacy. Pundits memorize a litany of historical stumbles in order to recite them with fluency as an indicator of their analytical insight. Recitations of stumbles, for example, inevitably include the story about how Dukakis lost after a camera caught him in a campaign stunt looking a little goofy in his military helmet while riding in a tank. [The picture I include here is the one that circulated at the time. You may notice that Dukakis doesn't look particularly goofy. The label, attached so firmly at the time that it may have cost him the Presidency, has evaporated over the years.] If you reflect on these stumbles—another example is Al Gore "sighing" into a microphone during a national debate—you notice that they are invariably events caught by the camera and then circulated repeatedly in a chorus of commentary. Dukakis tanked not from the event, but from the report of the event churned in the press and seared in our memories. Stumbles are flash-points of drama reporters can shape easily into a story. They become media events that are reified through repetition.

A Good Story Needs A Good Handle. Stories are most readily passed along if they have an easily-grasped handle. [One of the reasons "stumbles" circulate like lightening is that the notion of a stumble itself is easily grasped, even when the underlying facts are not.] A picture can serve as a good handle, as it did with Dukakis, and as it does here with Dean. Verbal phrases or tags also make good handles, particularly when they seem clever or punning. [Reporters are often simultaneously contemptuous and envious of punning titles.] That's why the Dean speech quickly became the "I Have A Scream" speech. On reflection it seems a rather lame pun on "I Have A Dream," motivated by the fact that the speech was given on Martin Luther King Day—a fact that was lost to nearly everyone. But the handle sounded so insightful and insiderly that reporters from Wolf Blitzer to Katie Couric to John Stewart repeated it as though they were passing on valuable, newly-minted social currency. [Of course, most of us repeat these phrases too. But not with the legitimating effect that comes from being a public journalist.]

A Story Loose in the Hen-House. Political stories circulate rapidly these days, but none more rapidly than tragedies, and a stumble is a grand instance of political tragedy. hen.jpgSeeing blood, reporters and editors, like chickens, peck uncontrollably at the red. They peck where they see others pecking. This is particularly the case in these days of ad lib news culture, where on-air pundits speculate on the fly, rather than deliberate at the keyboard. Because only a tiny fraction of reporters actually have anything like first-hand knowledge of an event, most simply pass along the reports, questions or phrases of others. We should not be surprised by this, since it is a fundamental element in the social production of knowledge. Still, seeing red in Howard Dean's video-face got the pecking going like little else in recent memory.

Mythic Frames. We typically fit stories into shapes whose underlying patterns give them deeper meaning. These story-forms often reflect long-standing cultural myths that have been with us as long as people have told stories around campfires. I'll suggest three in this instance. I trust readers will have other, better suggestions. First, Dean's "I Have A Scream" story seemed to fit a "To Every Hero A Tragic Flaw" script that emphasized Dean's anger and invited speculation about whether this trait would sink his ship. Or perhaps it was a "Trouble in Paradise" story-form, one that took a certain pleasure in seeing Dean's seemingly unstoppable candidacy suddenly in jeopardy. Or maybe it was the "Hubris" idea, drawing on the Greek notion of "excessive pride" and turning the story into a narrative of ironic personal failure. Of course, several myths can intersect and reinforce one another. Reporters shape news into stories, and in doing so follow the well-worn psychic grooves of storytelling. For example, the Howard Dean "Trouble in Paradise" story, once it had played out, was soon replaced by the "David and Goliath" story, with John Kerry cast in the role of David and John Dean as Goliath.

When A Meeting Event Becomes A Media Event. The point here, of course, is that Dean's meeting event, what seems in retrospect to have been an unremarkable moment of zeal in the context of a political rally, was transformed by the press into a media event, a congeries of audio-video and accompanying interpretation that became something entirely different, entirely separate, something that coursed through the massively-mediated body politic with its own contemporary logic.

If Howard Dean looses, historians will recall that his candidacy was initially forged by the new media of the Internet, and finally undone by the old media of television and print journalism.

[Hen turkey photo by Deirdre Eitel, Bozeman Daily Chronicle; http://www.nppa9.org/stills/2002clips/0211/0211fea2.html]

March 01, 2004 | Permalink


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linteresting and valuable piece. has it been forwarded to those slavering nincompoopish power idolators at cnn, fox, abc, cbs, nbc and so on?

Posted by: george at February 4, 2004 08:07 PM

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