Mediated Authenticity

How the Media Constructs Reality

by Gunn Enli (Author)
Textbook 164 Pages

Table Of Content

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The concept of authenticity is everywhere. It’s a buzzword used in sales slogans for everything from jeans and coffee to holiday destinations and lifestyle coaching. Yet, authenticity is also about socially constructed notions about what is real, and the media play a key role in this construction of authenticity. My aim with this book is to investigate the notion of authenticity in relation to mediations of reality.

I have not investigated the notion of mediated authenticity without support from the research community and fellow media researchers. My sincere gratitude goes to the highly competent scholars Daniel Dayan, Knut Lundby, Peter Lunt, Hallvard Moe, Ole J. Mjøs, Vilde S. Sundet, Trine Syvertsen, and Espen Ytreberg. Thanks for the inspiring comments.

A key to success is the publisher, and I am indeed thankful for the pleasure of working with editor Mary Savigar at Peter Lang Publishing. Likewise I have had the pleasure of working with brilliant people, such as language editor Nils Nadeau, research assistant Anne Nordheim, and my colleagues at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo.

I dedicate this book to my three favourite people: my daughter Oda, my son Johannes, and my partner Kjell-Olav. Thanks for encouraging me to write the book, and for being a perfect support team.

Oslo, January 2015

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Sincerity—if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

—George Burns

The paradox of mediated authenticity is that although we base most of our knowledge about our society and the world in which we live on mediated representations of reality, we remain well aware that the media are constructed, manipulated, and even faked (Boorstin, 1987; Weaver, 1994; Luhmann, 2000; McChesney, 2013; Ladd, 2012). With this paradox as its starting point, this book seeks to launch and discuss the concept of mediated authenticity, which refers to how authenticity is a currency in the communicative relation between producers and audiences. Mediated authenticity is a social construction, but it traffics in representations of reality.

Mediated authenticity is achieved through production techniques and authenticity illusions, which range from minor adjustments such as lighting and sound effects to drastic post-production editing and photoshopping. In the process, raw material is manipulated so as to be compatible with the aim of reaching a large audience and fulfilling the media format’s criteria. Authenticity illusions are, for the most part, both accepted and correctly interpreted by the audience. For example, TV viewers understand that canned laughter, or the laugh track, is a technique for enhancing a comedy show, not the ← 1 | 2 → unavoidable outbursts of a real audience. I define this tacit understanding or agreement between producers and audience as an authenticity contract, but it remains a social construction, one that is based on a set of genre conventions, as well as established practises and expectations. When the authenticity contract is challenged, or broken, we face an authenticity scandal or, less dramatically, an authenticity puzzle. These two concepts both refer to a situation where the audience is uncertain of what is real and what is fake, but “the scandal” differs from “the puzzle” in that the former is about various degrees of deception, while the later is about various degrees of ambiguity.

This chapter has four main parts. Following this part, the next defines mediated authenticity and discusses its primary subcategories—trustworthiness, originality, and spontaneity. The third part further elaborates on the book’s main concepts—authenticity illusions, the authenticity contract, and authenticity scandals/puzzles—and outlines the key arguments related to these terms. The fourth, and last, part presents a brief plan for the book and a chapter outline.

Mediated Authenticity

Authenticity is a dominant tendency of contemporary culture, and our obsession with “the real,” “the genuine,” and “the authentic” interests scholars in various disciplines (Dovey, 2000; Fine, 2003; Guignon, 2004; Baudrillard, 2008). A common treatment of the term authenticity in academic literature is to position it in opposition to whatever is fake, unreal, or false, and further to acknowledge its multiple meanings. Authenticity is also seen to be an ultimately evaluative concept, and even though we try to develop value-free methods for evaluation, there are always subjective judgments involved (Van Leeuwen, 2001, p. 392; Lindholm, 2008, p. 2). Likewise, and quite paradoxically, in context of the media, authenticity is generally seen to be positive, and audiences appreciate seemingly raw and unscripted moments.

The concept of authenticity is deeply rooted within cultures, and as culture changes—and with it, tastes, beliefs, values, and practises—so too do the definitions of what constitutes “the authentic.” As such, authenticity is a moving target, meaning that the concept is continually adapting to changes and trends, and it is impossible to capture its meaning with any single, static definition (Vannini & Williams, 2009, pp. 2–3). One result of the multiple meanings of authenticity and its various applications in various academic disciplines, is that many scholars choose not to define it but rather to simply ← 2 | 3 → acknowledge its complexity, such as Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012), who wrote: “The authentic is tricky to define. Its definition has been subject to passionate debates involving far-ranging thinkers, from Plato to Marx, from Andy Warhol to Lady Gaga” (p. 10). There are, nevertheless, comprehensive definitions of the term, such as the specification of a genealogical or historical (origin) meaning, whereby something’s origin defines its authenticity, or a reference to identity and correspondence with facts (content) meaning, as with an original signature or document (Lindholm, 2008, p. 2; Vannini & Williams, 2009, p. 2). In their highly practical orientation, however, these definitions are less suitable to analysing the media than to analysing, for example, someone’s legitimate right to the royal throne (Geary, 1986) or the viability of a Munch painting.

In order to encompass the media as an institution of meaning production and an arena for the negotiation of symbolic power, I will suggest the term mediated authenticity to define the media’s relationship to this complex notion. Because mediation requires a refinement of the original, the term “mediated authenticity” does not imply any idea of an original to be classified as unchanged or unprocessed. Instead, it refers to mediated communication as carried out through the use of information communication technology and in the forms of mediated personal communication, interactive communication, and mass communication (Lundby, 2009). In the context of the media, authenticity is defined through as a communicative process, and the degree of authenticity depends on symbolic negotiations between the main participants in the communication. More specifically, the negotiations concern aspects of trustworthiness, originality, and spontaneity.

Authenticity as Trustworthiness

The media are a key source of knowledge about the world, and an essential point of navigation in our everyday world. Contemporary modern societies are highly complex, and we use various mediated sources in order to navigate our manifold roles in what Zygmunt Bauman (2000) labelled “liquid modernity.” The complexity of our modern lives demands our reliance upon a variety of sources outside our own experience to support our decisions, opinions, and actions as social human beings, and the media are the most important among them. The media are normatively supposed to provide the people with trustworthy, balanced, and neutral information about the world. Though we all know that this is not always the case, we have to rely on the media nevertheless ← 3 | 4 → (Luhmann, 2000). In the digital age, we depend on it for nearly everything we do, and to a degree, we live both through and in the media. In what Mark Deuze (2012) labelled the “media life,” our actual lives have become inseparable from the media and its technologies as they surround us and influence our activities, socialising, and decision-making. The media might even inform our social competence and relational skills, such as the sitcom Seinfeld, which, among other things, reminded us that double-dipping chips is frowned upon and regifting is unheard of within a circle of friends. The media influence our everyday lives in various ways, and questions of the media’s authenticity and trustworthiness are accordingly among the most urgent topics in contemporary society.

The significance of a trustworthy media becomes even more evident when crises affect public health and safety, such as infectious diseases (e.g., the spread of swine flu in 2009), natural disasters (e.g., the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, 2011), or terrorism (e.g., the September 11 attacks in New York, 2001). In such unpredictable circumstances, the mass media serve many functions, of which the most important are distributor of information and supplier of answers to the public’s questions, but also provider of an arena for collective crisis psychology through public debate and ritual grief.

A critical question raised, particularly in the field of news studies, however, concerns the degree to which the information provided by the media is in fact correct, accurate, and trustworthy. An extensive body of research in the field of news media has been concerned with exploring various forms of manipulated reality in news production (White, 1950; Tuchman, 1978; Gans, 1979; Schudson, 1995; Jaramillo, 2009), and in order to more thoroughly explore the notion of authenticity as trustworthiness I will now discuss the key findings and perspectives within this tradition.

Perspectives: News studies

In media and communications research, news studies enjoy a prominent position and have even, to a degree, legitimized the academic field itself. This influence is a result of the news media’s privileged discourse, or what Morse (1986, p. 55) defined as the genre’s “special relation to the Real.” The news media are expected to serve audiences as citizens; to inform and enlighten them; and to empower them in ways that enable participation in a deliberative democracy (Habermas, 1984). In the field of media and democracy ← 4 | 5 → studies, impartial, trustworthy, and balanced news reporting is regarded as a prerequisite for the proper functioning of democracy.

The legitimation of news journalism as a vital force in contemporary democracy increased significantly after the Watergate scandal (1972–1974), which was characterised by Michael Schudson (1995, p. 165) as “the unavoidable central myth in American journalism,” because the scandal found “a president guilty of crimes, waist-deep in deception, and forced him from office.” In recent studies of this journalistic myth, it has been argued that the journalists’ impact upon the Watergate scandal was significantly overrated, and that the investigative journalism was less heroic and less influential than the myth made it out to be. Yet the narrative—and the fictional movie All the President’s Men (1976)—contributed to an increase in the public prestige of news journalism throughout the subsequent decades (Zelitzer, 1993). As a result, the news media has since been linked with the idea of the investigative reporter as public watchdog, which further implies that journalists serve on the behalf of the citizenry to defend their civil rights and access to trustworthy information.

A large share of news studies has examined to what degree those high expectations are actually manifested in news reporting. A key concern in this research is that idealistic journalism is under pressure from the commercial imperative of the media industry, and that reporters are often tempted to prioritise sensation over sincerity. Examinations of news production have found sustainable support for this theory and documented news stories as the products of the so-called “news factory,” where they are manufactured rather than simply reported (White, 1950; Tuchman, 1978; Schudson, 1995; Jaramillo, 2009; McNair, 2009). Among the key contributions in this debate is Daniel Boorstin’s (1987) definition of a “pseudo-event,” which points to a tendency whereby the media report on stories that they have constructed for themselves. In this sense, the media make events happen, then report on them as if they were real news.

News journalism is never just about reporting facts but also about choosing an angle and creating a story: “No reporter just ‘gets the facts.’ Reporters make stories. Making is not faking, not lying, but neither is it a passive mechanical reporting. It cannot be done without play and imagination” (Schudson, 1995, p. 96). There is always a balance, however, between the weight given to factuality and the weight given to imagination, and a body of research sees the emphasis on compelling storytelling in news reporting ← 5 | 6 → as undermining the accuracy of the news. Weaver (1994, p. 14) claimed that the narrative storytelling in news reporting creates a “culture of lying,” in that “the lies are technically modest enough to win easy acceptance” but still substantial enough to manipulate reality.

Television news depends upon genre conventions, and elements such as music, studio décor, and anchors play such a prominent role in these performances that they can lend credibility to the news station simply by making ‘the news look like news.’ Relatedly, the degree of storytelling in the respective TV news production depends upon factors such as editorial policy and available resources. Comparative academic studies of the presentation of selected events on different TV channels are therefore useful for pinpointing aspects of storytelling’s impact on the accuracy of the news. One key example is Deborah Jaramillo’s (2009) analysis of 2003 Iraq invasion coverage by US broadcasters CNN and Fox News Channel, respectively. The study showed that television news made the war into what Jaramillo called a “high concept” affair, meaning that the raw material from the events was packaged and narrated by both channels according to the conventions of Hollywood film productions. Accordingly, studies of the media’s trustworthiness are interested in the potential for bias in news reports, and look at the ways in which political or economic interests might influence journalism and thus reduce its authenticity. As such, it is clear that mediated authenticity demands a fairly high correlation between events or facts and their mediated representations.

Authenticity as Originality

A second dimension of mediated authenticity is the question of originality, which is often associated with nostalgia. Authenticity is an evaluative term, and being characterised as “original,” “genuine,” and “real” is considered positively in most contexts. This explains the advertising and marketing industry’s extensive use of the term to distinguish products and thus gain an advantage in overcrowded market areas (Gilmore & Pine, 2007; Lindholm, 2008). As early as 1908, the Coca Cola Company started to use slogans such as “get the genuine” in their ads for the beverage (Orvell, 1989, p. 229). In the present day, the terms “authentic,” “pure,” and “original” are used to promote products and services such as blue jeans and luxury wines, as well as restaurants and travel destinations. ← 6 | 7 →

The nostalgia for authenticity is, as a rule, connected with the binary link between commercial/inauthentic and non-commercial/authentic, though this dichotomy has now been demonstrated to be both reductive and generally irrelevant (Banet-Weiser, 2012). Yet, as pinpointed above, definitions of authenticity do tend to reflect contemporary political and intellectual trends, and during the 1930s and 1940s, critical and anti-capitalist perspectives propelled the work of social theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, a neo-Marxist interdisciplinary centre inspired by thinkers such as Freud, Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Prominent intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Max Horkheimer developed a critical theory whereby the power of the mass media was questioned, and authenticity understood as unaffected by the logic and constraints of commercialism, a force that was determined to process and standardise art, products, and services at the expense of their genuine and original qualities.

This understanding of authenticity was not least a reaction to the contemporary development of mass communication, including radio broadcasting and mass-distributed advertising. The Frankfurt School criticised mass media and the reproduction of artworks as inauthentic in key works such as Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1969/1936). This classic treatise debates authenticity specifically in the context of reproduction and concludes that the “sphere of authenticity is outside the technical,” thus implying that the original artwork is independent of its copy. Accordingly, the act of reproduction removes the artistic value, or “aura,” from the original by changing its context.

Popular culture reproduction was regarded as not only reductive in comparison with the work’s original qualities but also as deceptive to, and even manipulative of, the mass audience. A key statement of this perspective was the book by Adorno and Horkheimer (2002/1944) titled The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. Here, their main argument was that popular culture and standardised media products such as films, television, and magazines are used by the ruling class to manipulate the masses into passivity, because the pleasures of popular culture make people forget about their political and economic situations. Adorno and Horkheimer ultimately regarded the popular mass media as a capitalist instrument of deception that cultivated psychological needs that could be fulfilled by consumption and more products. Along these lines, Boorstin (1995, p. 144) claimed that advertisements promoted “a paradise in which things were more real than in our everyday world,” thus ← 7 | 8 → marking the dawn of a “culture forever wedded to a dialectic between authenticity and imitation” (Benjamin, 1969/1936). The perfectionist version of reality in advertising aesthetics was a key critical argument against popular culture in the post-war era’s social theory.

The notion of the mass media as presenting a phony version of reality, and of the public as prone to believing these imitations to be more real than reality, was further developed in the context of postmodernist philosophy and semiotics in the 1970s and 1980s. Partly as a reaction to commercialisation and Americanisation of European culture, the term hyperreality was introduced to describe the condition in which the real and the fictional are interchangeable (Eco, 1973, 1986; Baudrillard, 1981). A prominent critic who engaged with hyperreality was the French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1981), who argued that the media-saturated world asks us to relate to simulacra and simulation, because copies have largely replaced originals. Arguing that the Disneyland amusement park is more real than America, he claimed that plastic imitations now stand for reality in postmodern society. Likewise, the Italian semiotician and philosopher Umberto Eco directed his criticism of hyperreality towards what he defined as “America’s obsession with simulacra and counterfeit reality.” Eco’s essay “Faith in Fakes” (Il costume di casa) was later revised into the book Travels in Hyperreality (1986), where he noted that “the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake” (p. 8). Taking Disneyland as a cue, I will now turn to tourism studies to explore the notion of authenticity as something original, as opposed to the constructed landscape of, for example, an amusement park.

Perspectives: Tourism studies

Tourism studies, or the sociology of tourism, is a research field in culture and communication studies that investigates aspects of authenticity. A key interest in tourist studies is to uncover how seemingly authentic places, live music, or local foods are in fact staged according to principles derived from both globalisation and commercialism. A pioneer in the sociology of tourism is Dean MacCannell (1973); in the article “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings,” he argued that the contemporary tourist seeks “authenticity” with a religious fervor that evokes the quest for a holy place. In contrast, the tourist industry is staffed with tourism operators, guides, and marketers devoted to encircling the consumer in a compelling but fabricated “tourist space.” Even as the concept of authenticity has been refined, these context studies of tourism remain concerned with the paradoxes of this staged authenticity. A key insight is that when we travel, we search for authentic experiences and not a feeling of being a “tourist,” and the travel industry increasingly seeks to fulfil our needs through commercial authenticity, and even constructed authenticity (Cohen, 1988; Golomb, 1995; Wang, 1999; Olsen, 2002). Media and culture audiences’ search for authentic experiences parallels the touristic search for authenticity, as they both involve paradoxes and pitfalls, such as the risk of mistaking stereotypes and dilapidated conditions as marks of authenticity. An anthropological study of blues clubs in Chicago, for example, found that club owners were reluctant to book white blues artists, because they contradicted fans’ expectations. Factors such as location and interior decoration also proved relevant to a blues club’s status among true fans; an authentic club would be typically situated outside the tourist area, preferably on a dark, secluded side street, and its interior would be shabby and dim (Grazian, 2004).

The growing industry of media tourism—through which film and TV locations are turned into what Nick Couldry (2000) defined as “sacred places” to which audiences and fans make pilgrim journeys—demonstrates that audiences seek physical manifestations of the fictional universe in the real world. Firms such as On Location Tours offer trips to the “other side,” and thereby celebrate the paradox of mediated authenticity. Media tourism is a result of the culture industry’s recognition of the paradox that viewers find pleasure in visiting these locations to see, and even touch, the physical manifestations of a fictional universe. A study of guided on-location tours to the long-lasting daily British soap opera Coronation Street demonstrated that the series’ fans were very interested in actually walking down the street that they had become so familiar with. Additionally, the fans enjoyed making calls from the on-location phone booths, thus forming a symbolic link between the “media world” and the “real world.” The paradox of media tourism as a hybrid space between reality and fiction illuminates the complexity of authenticity, because these visits to “authentic” locations are propelled by love for a fictional narrative. ← 8 | 9 →

Authenticity as Spontaneity

The third general dimension of mediated authenticity is spontaneity, which is paradoxical because the performers in the media are often expected to “be themselves” and “act natural,” but also always be compatible with the format criteria. Erving Goffman (1959) has written extensively on how we perform our roles in everyday life, and his works in particular pinpoint the paradox of pre-planned spontaneity. For example, a sports commentator needs to seem surprised and spontaneous rather than calculated and prepared when the national football team wins (Scannell, 2002; Ytreberg, 2008). Even though it might seem contradictory, a thoroughly planned performance might seem more spontaneous than a truly improvised performance.

Authenticity in TV performances is a paradox not least because of the pre-planned production process, and the scripting of studio shows, that the platform entails (Carpentier, 2001; Ytreberg, 2004). As argued above, performances can be formatted and scripted to seem spontaneous, and participants in, for example, game shows are often instructed to behave according to format criteria. In most cases, participants loyally follow these instructions, and this becomes particularly evident when participants work against the format, as in the stunt performance by comedian Andy Kaufman on The Dating Game (ABC, 1965–1973). This dating show’s formula was to help identify a possible “match” between two contestants, who would then go on a date: typically, a woman questioned three bachelors who were hidden behind a wall and, on the basis of their answers, chose one of them. The questions were often characterised by their crudeness and sexual innuendo. When Kaufman was asked such questions, he did not reply according to the format criteria but instead appeared to misunderstand the key premise that the potential partners could not see one another, repeating: “But I don’t know what she looks like, can I see her?” When pressed, he then answered the woman’s questions completely literally rather than playing along with their flirty undertones, producing absurdist comedy along the way. At the end, when the bachelorette did not select Kaufman to be her date, he acted truly heartbroken, insisting: “But I won! I won! I answered all the questions right.” This likewise went against the format’s conventions, which discouraged demonstrative outrage among the losing contestants. Although the producers must have know what to expect when they invited the experimental comedian, Kaufman’s protest in the studio might be interpreted as a protest against the TV genre’s preference for staged authenticity, and a desire to show real human feelings rather than to play along with the requirements from the commercial TV industry. ← 9 | 10 →

Accordingly then, Andy Kaufman’s performance illustrates the modern problem of the conflict between acting true to one’s inner self, and acting adequately according to social norms; and the ethics of authenticity is a peculiar feature of modern culture that originated in the Romantic period as a moral concept (Taylor, 2001). The ideal of authenticity arose out of people experience of the first wave of modernization in the West. In a pre-modern society, there had been little room for self-searching and searches for the “real reality” underneath the surface. Indeed, “authenticity has no place in the vocabulary of human ideals,” and it was modernism that brought with it an environment where it seemed imperative to be oneself in the world (Berman, 2009, pp. xxvii, 57). In earlier times, individuals had to connect with something outside themselves, such as a cosmos or a God; the Romantics asked the individual to connect with his or her inner core. This idea of authenticity as being true to oneself emerged in the late eighteenth century and was propelled forward thanks to the work of Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) and, later, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980). Their existentialism was concerned with questions of an authentic existence and life that was in accordance with one’s true self rather than external social norms.

This notion of authenticity as inwardness is manifested in modernism and the immense subjective turn in modern culture, and we have become increasingly aware of our self-presentation over the past century. The modern ideal of authenticity is related to the idea of being true to oneself, but it also implies the goals of self-fulfilment and self-realisation, as is clear from the industry of self-help courses, guidance books, and lifestyle coaching. Mediated communication is a core arena in which such ideals are exposed, debated, and exploited. The ideology of an autonomous self, independent of social relations, norms, and traditions, however, is problematic for several reasons. First, the ideal of an authentic individual could be taken to validate ugly extremes of social exclusivism, such as nationalism, racism, and sexism (Eriksen, 2002; Lieberman & Kirk, 2004). It might also work in tandem with ignorant self-interest and thus become an obstacle to the realisation of a community version of the authentic—one in which genuine social commitment would be considered superior to self-realisation (Sjørslev, 2013, p. 116). Lastly, the ideal of an authentic self collides with the ever-expanding possibilities for self-improvement in post-modern society—for example, through enhancement technologies such as Prozac and facelifts (Elliott, 2003, p. 85). In the music industry, the emphasis on image, style, and looks has become increasingly central since the 1950s, but yet, the claim to authenticity is a selling point. I therefore will take the above discussion ← 10 | 11 → about the complexity of performed spontaneity as an authenticity marker a step further by drawing on insights from music studies.

Perspectives: Music studies

Authenticity is a central concept in music studies, as well as anthropological and sociological studies of music as an identity marker and fan cultures (Kivy, 1995; Frith, 1996; Pattie, 1999; Moore, 2002). A major strand of research investigates the notion of authenticity within music genres such as hip-hop (Hess, 2005; McLeod, 2006), country music (Peterson, 1997), blues (Grazian, 2004), rock ‘n’ roll (Dettmar & Richey, 1999; Weisethaunet & Lindberg, 2010), and punk (Lewin & Williams, 2009). A common finding across these studies is that the performances are regarded as authentic if they respond faithfully to genre conventions, but also include spontaneous elements or improvisation.

Hip-hop artists claim authenticity through a formula of autobiographical lyrics about racism, crime, and drug abuse, with which they establish an ethos, or “street cred” (Moore, 2002; Hess, 2005). The demand for artists to “stay real” rather than to adjust to mainstream culture is not only rooted in genre conventions but also in a moral expectation of the artist to be a representative voice, meaning that the performance is a genuine artistic expression and not a plastic product. Successful hip-hop artists who become rich and famous either need to redefine some claim to authenticity that is other than a “voice from the ghetto” or face the verdict that they are “sell out” or fraud (McLeod, 2006). Authenticity is often undermined by success (Dettmar & Richey, 1999, p. 20), and many artists solve this dilemma by adjusting their image accordingly, so that, for example, fame and fortune is a part of their storytelling as an artist. An example is the hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who has replaced his “voice from the ghetto” cred with a cred based on a glamorous lifestyle.

In Moore’s (2002, p. 209) definition of authenticity the artists should “speak the truth of their own situation,” “speak the truth of the situation of (absent) others,” and also “speak the truth of their own culture, thereby representing (present) others.” These threefold criteria demand of the artists to invest their feelings and lived life in the music; because if music, like other symbolic practices, is to mean something to people, it must support some sort of architecture of authenticity. An artist who seems to lose control or improvise on stage will always seem more authentic to the audience than an ← 11 | 12 → artist who seems to keep strictly to the concert plan (Firth, 1996, p. 275). Obviously, the audience will believe in an artist who seemingly believes in his or her own songs, but for popular artists the engaged performance might also turn into a staged routine, and the emotional engagement might be just a part of the professional stage routine.

The paradox of authenticity is moreover evident in the moral judgment of artists as representatives for a movement or a subculture. Take, for example, the punk and grunge genres, both of which claim authenticity as alternative and anti-establishment and in opposition to the ruling mainstream culture. From the start, the punk culture had a deeply confused attitude towards authenticity, and it always included simulation and artificial elements, and these elements came to be seen as authentic (Barker & Taylor, 2007). Similarly, the grunge movement cultivated the anti-establishment attitude, even to the point where it became destructive to be a successful grunge artist, as exemplified by the tragic death of Kurt Cobain. The lead singer of the 1990s grunge band Nirvana, Cobain killed himself, and, as he explained in his suicide note aimed at his fans: “The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending I am having a 100% fun” (Barker & Taylor, 2007, p. 24). The demands for seemingly authentic performance might make it hard for artists to live up to their image, especially if their stage persona diverges significantly from their inner selves.

In the field of media studies, the term authenticity has recently merited little of the attention shown by scholars of other disciplines, even though media are often used as examples of an inauthentic popular culture. The aim of this book is to compensate for this research gap, and outline a tentative theory of mediated authenticity. In the next part I will define the main concepts in this theory.

The Main Concepts and Arguments

The book aims to explore the concept of authenticity, and its potential as a prism for understanding the media and its role in the construction of reality. In the following, I will discuss the three main components of the tentative theory of mediated authenticity: authenticity illusions, the authenticity contract, and authenticity scandals/puzzles. ← 12 | 13 →

Authenticity Illusions

The concept of “authenticity illusions” refers to the fact that mediated communication is representations of reality and thus bases its communication on illusions of authenticity. As described earlier in the chapter, this aspect is essential for news journalism and factual genres that claim to represent the real world through text, images, or sound. Typical authenticity illusions in factual genres include news conventions such as on-the-scene reports and eyewitness interviews, which are often used to underline the sincerity of a story (Scannell, 1996).

Yet, the characteristics of an authenticity illusion become even clearer when it is used to manipulate a representation of reality. A crowning example of the eyewitness as an authenticity illusion is the fake “man on the street,” Greg Packer, who over the course of 10 years was quoted as an eyewitness source more than 100 times in various publications, including The New York Times. His strategy was to arrive early at media events, identify journalists in attendance, and make himself available: “I’m the best person to come to—anywhere. I always give time and I always have an answer” (Geraci, 2004). After his strategy was exposed, the Associated Press instructed journalists to stop quoting Packer in their news stories, and Sheryl McCarthy, columnist for New York’s Newsday even argued that the “man-on-the-street interviews are worthless” in the wake of Packer’s deception (Geraci, 2004).

Authenticity illusions are no less important in fictional media such as novels, TV dramas, and movies than they are in fact-based media. In literature, the opposite of fiction is non-fiction; while the former is based on imagined and invented events, the latter is based on real and factual events. Some scholars have contested the notion of a distinction between fiction and non-fiction (Nichols, 1994; Underwood, 2008; Hustvedt, 2013). The Norwegian American author Siri Hustvedt (2013), for example, denounced the idea of the fiction writer as a “professional liar,” because fiction is based on personal experiences and memories as well as imagination and storytelling. This argument is in line with Underwood’s (2008) finding that the works of many canonical authors, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Joan Didion, are actually based on journalistic research and reporting. Certainly, fiction draws partly on real experiences, and the degree to which stories are entirely imagined differs greatly among authors.

The extreme version of an authentic novel is perhaps the six-volume My Struggle (Min Kamp, 2009–2011) by the Norwegian author Karl-Ove ← 13 | 14 → Knausgård, who “has recast the confessional novel in hyperbolic form” (Meaney, 2014). Knausgård wrote about his life from his childhood to the present day, lingering over his troubled relationship with his alcoholic father and the everyday struggles of being a father, a husband, and an ambitious author. Because the books reveal intimate details about people in the author’s circle, including his mother, children, wife, and friends, they were publicly debated and criticized as well as acclaimed. As an autobiographical novel, My Struggle is genre defying, and its relationship to reality is perhaps best understood in light of Roland Barthes’s (1968) term “the reality effect.” With this term, Barthes referred to elements in fiction, such as the descriptive details of a particular chair or a view from a window, that do not serve any direct purpose in the narrative, except to link the text to the real world. My Struggle includes a series of such signifiers of the real that are based on the author’s memories but also partly reconstructed and invented for the purpose of the work. I define these strategies for signifying the real in both fiction and non-fiction as authenticity illusions.

While textual authenticity illusions are used in literature, audio-visual authenticity illusions are used in movies and television, some of the most common of which are the use of exterior sets, where streets, parks, or houses are reconstructed. This illusion is enhanced by the coordination of exterior facades with interior studio sets, including matched-up windows and doors. Such geographical anchoring of a fictional narrative is a frequent authenticity illusion in genres such as the sitcom, soap opera, and drama. Even though most of the scenes in series such as Friends, Seinfeld, or Sex and the City are filmed in studios with interiors set up as apartments, exterior shots are used to contribute to the illusion of an authentic location in New York City.

The key authenticity illusion in Seinfeld was that it claimed to be a show about nothing, meaning that it sought to appear unpretentious, honest, and transparent; likewise, its comedy was derived from life’s mundane details, which resonated with the everyday experience of its viewers. Another authenticity illusion in the show was its display of real brands and reference to real products in its dialogue. This product placement obviously had commercial purposes as well, but the relevant point here is that it would be hard for a series that portrayed the complexities of consumerism and individualism in an urban environment to seem authentic if the characters were using fictitious brands.

Authenticity illusions in historic drama series stand in contrast to Seinfeld’s contemporary realism. For example Downton Abbey (BBC) was crafted with the assistance of historians with expertise on early century Britain, ← 14 | 15 → as they could advise on etiquette, dishes, props, clothes, and so on. Similarly, Mad Men’s emblematic use of 1960s objects and clothing, as well as the casting of actors without a strong presence in the public consciousness, constructs a historical specificity, which is also underlined by episodes set on specific dates. Mad Men inscribes historical costumes, make-up, and hair design upon fictitious characters, but also entreats the viewers to examine its historic accuracy, as it mixes genuine 1960s artefacts with fraudulent, manufactured ones (Butler, 2011). In Mad Men, historical sources are used selectively and idiosyncratically, in a mix with popular media and undocumented myths. For instance, the producers paid $250,000 for rights to use the Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966) in an episode in season 5, because the creator’s stringent requirements for period accuracy demanded an authentic beat (Itzkoff and Sisario, 2012). As such, “an overwhelming wealth of authentic details” will drown any anachronistic noise and make the viewers believe in the illusion of period reality (Butler, 2011, p. 58). To conclude this part, I will underline that authenticity illusions in both fiction and factual genres are based on elements of both fact-based and fiction elements, but that the claim to represent reality, and thus also closeness to empirical realism, is higher in factual genres, and that this difference is manifested in the authenticity contract.

The Authenticity Contract

In this section, I will first discuss the roles of the main stakeholders in this symbolic contract, then define it as a result of the genre system and established practises, but also a degree of irrationality, and discuss its relevance for mediated communication.

The main stakeholders in the authenticity contract are the producers, the audiences, and the regulatory authorities. In the context of the contract, the concept of the “producer” encompasses a range of roles, from executive director and chief editor to the hybridized functions of digital media described as, for example, “prosumers” (Toffler, 1981) or “prousers” (Bruns, 2008). The roles have in common that they influence, one way or another, the production of the media content in question. Likewise, the concept of the audience as a stakeholder in the authenticity contract is broad and interchangeable with viewers, spectators, and users. While the roles of producer and audience can overlap, I will draw upon British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall’s (1973) twin concepts of encoding and decoding to distinguish them by defining the ← 15 | 16 → role as producer in the practise of encoding, and the role of the audience in the practise of decoding. A key insight from Hall’s work is that though the producer encodes a text in a certain way to encourage a “preferred reading,” the audience will always decode, or interpret, the text through personal filters that are in turn defined by their social and cultural backgrounds. Media content, however, is seldom interpreted in solitude and usually involves dialogue with others, so that audiences will often verify the accuracy of, for example, a news story by consulting with friends and family (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955). The third stakeholder, the regulatory authority, plays an important role in twists about authenticity, such as when a TV company is fined for using fake footage in a documentary, or when a newspaper is found guilty of fabricating celebrity interviews.

These three stakeholders have in common that they turn to the genre system for guidance in their respective affairs. Genres can be seen as constituting a kind of tacit contract between authors and readers (Chandler, 1997, p. 6). The genre system is multidimensional, touching upon textual features as well as production values, market strategies and audience expectations. Moreover, genres evolve over time, and their mingling can result in new genres as well (Miller, 1984; Todorov, 1990; Neale, 2000). In spite of this ongoing process of reinvention, key genre features are always “stable, static and bounded,” because otherwise “they would not have any meaning at all” (Mittell, 2004, p. 176). I regard the genre system as fundamental to mediated authenticity, because producers use genre conventions as a way of avoiding misunderstanding, and the audience interprets media according to its genre expectations. The development of new genres is often a result of dated and over-used conventions, combined with a need for an adjustment to the existing genre system, even when this causes tension among the stakeholders.

In addition to the genre system and its established conventions, the authenticity contract is based on a certain irrationality, because audiences choose to believe in the illusions created by producers, in part because they want or need the pleasure of believing. To a degree, that is, the authenticity contract requires a “suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge, 1817), a longstanding concept in literary and art theory that describes the audience’s tendency towards believing, even when they know it is an illusion. From a philosophical perspective, we might agree with the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (2006) that authenticity belongs to the field of belief (in truth-as-authenticity), and, as such, modern, profane life inevitably includes elements of religiosity. In ← 16 | 17 → line with this argument, Peters (2000) has discussed the parallel between broadcast media and the idea of a God, pinpointing that both disseminate without any request for response and expect belief and trust without physical manifestations.

In mediated communication there is a void—or a missing link—between sender and receiver, because they are invisible to each other and lack a shared physical presence. The authenticity contract accordingly compensates for this void.

Authenticity Scandals and Puzzles

The notion of the authenticity contract is informed by genre studies, literature studies, production studies, and reception studies. The authenticity contract is based on genre conventions, as well as other norms for mediated communication, which are historically negotiated between producers and audiences. However, there are times when the agreement collapses, and miscommunication results. In such situations, producers might miscalculate the audience’s media literacy and interpretative skills, or they might deliberately and suddenly change the rules of mediated authenticity.

I divide between two categories of miscommunication, the first of which is the authenticity scandal, meaning that the mediated communication fails and further introduces problems for audiences, as well as society at large. An authenticity scandal often involves deception in the sense that the media company, the producers, or both, deliberately mislead the audiences for the purpose of, for example, economic profit or related motives, such as political or creative. Alternatively, the scandal can result from novel production techniques and thus also authenticity illusions and their unfamiliar effect on the audience, for example making them confused about how to interpret the mediated message.

The second category of miscommunication is the authenticity puzzle, when the media producers present a puzzle for the audience. The puzzle is characteristically playful and complex, as it combines elements of trustworthy and original material with inauthentic and simulated material, and includes scripted spontaneity. As such, the audience is invited to actively participate in solving the puzzle; to identify and separate the authentic elements from the fake elements, and thus engage in meaning production, but also in a kind of media criticism. ← 17 | 18 →

Plan for This Book

The book presents five case studies of authenticity scandals and authenticity puzzles, each of which is selected to illuminate a change in the relation between producers and audiences. The case studies draw on a combination of methods, including textual analysis of radio and TV programs, and social media posts, supplemented by analysis of media coverage and secondary literature. Each chapter in the book is dedicated to an introduction of a new media technology, a new media format, or a new media persona, which imposes a renegotiation of the authenticity contract. Drawing on McLuhan (1995/1964), I will analyse mediated authenticity as a historical development, in which the introduction of new media technologies requires a renegotiation of the authenticity contract. The historical phase of a novelty—when a new media technology is in the process of being established and incorporated as an “extension of man”—is of particular interest, as this is the phase when the negotiation of authenticity is at its most intense and most decisive for further media-audience relations.

Chapter Outline

Chapter 2: Genres as Authenticity Illusions: The War of the Worlds

The chapter explores radio broadcasting as a new phenomenon, and the relation between producers and listeners as a new “sociable relation,” and discusses the authenticity illusions in radio. In this era of radio’s novelty, the most infamous authenticity scandal in the history of broadcast media occurred with the radio drama The War of the Worlds (1938), during which a significant share of radio listeners mistook the artistic use of genre conventions for a real news bulletin about alien invasion. The chapter analyses the radio play as a negotiation of the authenticity contract between producers, audiences, and public institutions such as the press and the police.

Chapter 3: Money, Fraud, and Deception: The Quiz Show Scandals

Twenty years after The War of the Worlds, the novelty of television had significantly mitigated the initial fascination with radio. This chapter explores audio-visual authenticity illusions as a new turn in the relation between broadcasters and their publics. One of the most spectacular authenticity scandals in ← 18 | 19 → the history of television transpired with the US quiz shows of the late 1950s, in which it came to light that producers had manipulated competitions. The chapter explores the scandal, and the negotiation of the authenticity contract between producers, audiences, and public institutions such as the court and the regulatory bodies.

Chapter 4: Ordinariness as Authenticity: The Reality TV Genre

By the end of the twentieth century, television was influenced by the “participatory turn,” not least fuelled by the fast growth of the Internet. This chapter explores the authenticity illusions in reality TV and explores the notion of ordinariness and how it is constructed in TV productions. The case study of the construction of the Britain’s Got Talent (ITV) participant Susan Boyle as an ordinariness icon, explores reality TV as authenticity puzzles. Subsequently, the chapter investigates the negotiation of the authenticity contract in debates of the show in particular, and the reality TV genre in general.

Chapter 5: Fake Personas and Blog Hoaxes: Illusions in Social Media

In tandem with the emergence of reality TV, the participatory web emerged as a prominent arena for representations of reality. This chapter explores the emergence of web phenomena such as blogs and social media, and how these have become central elements in the new media ecology. Through a case study of three fake blogs, the chapter investigates key authenticity illusions in social media. The chapter demonstrates that authenticity puzzles are an inherent factor in social media and user-generated content, and that the reception mode is concerned with solving puzzles. Accordingly, the chapter shows how users engage as key stakeholders in the negotiation of the authenticity contract.

Chapter 6: Performed Authenticity: The Obama Campaigns

This chapter illuminates the construction of a politician as authentic, and analyses Barack Obama’s election campaigns as examples of how politicians perform as trustworthy, original, and spontaneous personalities in order to appeal to voters. The case study pinpoints the key authenticity illusions in the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012. The chapter argues that gender, class, and race play central roles in the crafting of an authentic president, but that these factors are also partly deconstructed, as if they were authenticity puzzles, ← 19 | 20 → by the press and the voters. In a way, the approval ratings might be a sign of how the promised authenticity contract constructed in the media is reflected in politics.

Chapter 7: Towards a Theory of Mediated Authenticity

This concluding chapter brings together the empirical findings of the case studies, and outlines a tentative theory of mediated authenticity. The theory builds on the triplet concepts of authenticity illusions, authenticity contract, and authenticity scandals/puzzles. The conclusion demonstrates that mediated authenticity is constructed by illusions of trustworthiness, originality, and spontaneity, and that these illusions are essential in mediated communication. Moreover, the chapter takes a step back and discusses the historical development of mediated authenticity, and argues that it has become one of the most urgent questions in contemporary media and communications research.

Reader’s Guide

The book’s case studies are primarily based on empirical material from the USA, supplemented by examples from Europe, such as Britain and the Nordic region. The Anglo-American focus is chosen because media technologies have traditionally been implemented early in these regions. The author is Norwegian and draws on examples from Scandinavia, in order to expand the scope of the analyses and discussions.

The chapters could be read individually and in any order the reader prefers, but the “preferred reading” is to read the chapters chronologically, as this will benefit the reader with a historical and cumulative insight into the notion of mediated authenticity. In total, this book provides a history of mediated communication during the almost 100 years between the introduction of broadcast radio in the early twentieth century and the spread of social media in the early twenty-first century. So, please, let’s start with the beginning, and join me in time travelling back to the 1930s, and the early years of broadcast radio. ← 20 | 21 →

| 23 →



The War of the Worlds

Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.

—Jim Morrison

Radio broadcasting was once a new invention, both as a communication technology and as a social institution, and it was not given that the audience would interpret the radio as a relevant and trustworthy medium. They could have dismissed the new medium as irrelevant, dangerous, and manipulative, in line with the critical approach of academics such as Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Walter Benjamin (1882–1940). This chapter investigates the construction of the radio as a relevant medium, and explores the reasons why the radio was embraced by audiences.

The chapter will use medium theory to identify the characteristics of radio, and how it addressed the audiences in order to build an authenticity contract, in which the listeners established a relation to the radio as their most important source of information and entertainment. Moreover, the chapter will investigate the use of authenticity illusions in radio programming as a strategy to come across as trustworthy and genuine. Lastly, I will use the authenticity scandal caused by the radio play The War of the Worlds (Welles, 1938) ← 23 | 24 → as a case to illuminate how the authenticity contract was broken, but also renegotiated, in the early phase of radio broadcasting.

Structurally, the chapter consists of two main parts. The first part explores the rise of radio broadcasting as mass communication and the initial establishment of the authenticity contract in radio. In the second part, I will investigate the The War of the Worlds authenticity scandal, and examine the key implications of this scandal.

The Rise of Radio Broadcasting

In its early phase, radio was envisioned as “point-to-point communication” (such as from ship to shore) rather than the “one-to-many communication” that it eventually became. The development of radio as a technology was based on experiments with the transmission of messages over distances, first by means of wireless telegraphy and later by wireless telephony (Crisell, 1994, p. 17). These experiments were conducted by scientists from many nations throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among whom the Italian Guglielmo Marconi was the most prominent. Marconi’s breakthrough in 1895 was built upon existing experiments with wireless communication, including Heinrich Hertz’s prototypes of a radio transmitter that demonstrated the existence of Maxwellian electromagnetic waves.1 Marconi was later joined by scientists such as Reginald Fessenden, who created an important thermal detector and managed to broadcast music and speech from a wireless telegraph company’s station in Massachusetts. By 1907, Fessenden could transmit speech over a distance of 200 miles, thus “inventing” radio (as opposed to wireless telegraphy), though, except from wireless operators on ships, “nobody was listening” to it at the time (Winston, 1998, p. 75). The fact that nobody noticed radio at first emphasises the distinction between the technological invention of radio as communication and the social “invention” of radio as broadcasting. Brian Winston (1986, ← 24 | 25 → p. 67) argued that radio is the most prominent example of a machine that comes quietly into existence but is not at first acknowledged as such.

The later “invention” of radio as a social institution was closely related to political and cultural factors that included the general population’s ability to move beyond the idea of radio as point-to-point communication only, which inhibited the growth of wireless communication until after World War I. With the technical advances in sound telegraphy that had been accomplished for the military during the war, radio began to represent something more than before; by the 1920s, new economic opportunities likewise occasioned new social definitions for the technology (Williams, 1975/1990, p. 25).

In the early experiments with broadcast radio, it was a usability drawback that the senders did not know anything in advance about who would receive the signals, or if anybody was listening to the transmission. The use of wireless point-to-point communication during the catastrophe on the Titanic as a tool to inform people on land about the situation on the ship gave a clear indication of how the technology might be used to communicate important messages across geographical distances. A person whose name has been associated with the invention of radio as a social institution is David Sarnoff, who was one of several wireless operators who sent out reports on the Titanic sinking. Sarnoff envisioned what we today understand as broadcast radio when he aimed to make radio into “a music box in every home,” and a “household utility” in the same sense as the piano or phonograph (Benjamin, 1993).2 This vision for the radio pointed in the direction of the development of a mass medium, which later became a reality, but which required more than a technical invention.

The radio was called the “wireless” in this transition phase between radio as a technology and radio as a social institution because this was the term for the technological innovation that emerged from “wireless telegraphy” (Crisell, 1994, p. 17). The term “radio” had already circulated in the 1910s, but was not used in everyday language until the 1920s, when the radio medium had entered the mainstream (Douglas, 1999, p. 48), while “broadcasting,” the elegant eighteenth-century term for sowing seeds, “was being applied for the first time in 1922, as a definition of America’s first radio station (KDKA), ← 25 | 26 → launched in 1920” (Winston, 1998, p. 77). The term radio broadcasting combines the technological and the social invention, and signalizes that the technology was more than a mere transmission of sound, but that it also redefined communication, and thus also society. Importantly, the social functions of broadcast media were made possible by technological innovations, but not predetermined by technology. Radio, and later television, was developed for transmissions to individual homes, though there was nothing in the technology that made this quality inevitable (Williams, 1975/1990, p. 24). Accordingly, the invention of radio broadcasting as we know it today was not given from the start but required an authenticity contract between the producers and the audiences.

A New Sense of Authenticity

Radio broadcasting marked a pronounced communicative shift from earlier Western models of cultural interaction. The evolution of electronic media such as radio and TV decreased the significance of physical presence in our daily experience of events and people, and has changed our social environment dramatically (Meyrowitz, 1985). Broadcast media brought with it new social phenomena, of which the most important are “intimacy at a distance” (Horton & Wohl, 1956), where audiences could feel that they knew people who spoke to them in broadcast media, and a “tribal drum” (McLuhan, 1964/1995), which promoted a sense of collectivism among members of its audience. Broadcasting technology made it possible to address a new mass audience all at once, creating a community without a required physical proximity.

Broadcast communication is, according to Paddy Scannell (1996, p. 23), a “sociable relation,” meaning that the relation between the broadcaster and the audiences is based on a social commitment. The social commitment in broadcasting is stronger than it is in other communicative forms because of the physical absence between sender and receiver. Broadcasting indeed created a new sense of authenticity from the start, based on the unremarkable ordinariness of everyday life, as well as sincere talk and eyewitness accounts (Scannell, 1996). John Durham Peters (2000) labelled the relationship between broadcasters and their public an “authentic connection,” meaning that audiences tend to experience the connection with a radio broadcast as real and genuine.

Among those who pinpointed the potential consequences of the radio as a mass medium was Raymond Williams (1975/1990), who diagnosed radio as “a new and powerful form of social integration and control. Many of its main ← 26 | 27 → uses can be seen as socially, commercially, and at times politically manipulative” (p. 23). The broadcasting era began around 1920, and with it came new opportunities to “manipulate the hearts and minds of the masses” (Barnouw, 1990, p. 23; Chapman, 2005, p. 143). In every nation where broadcast radio was launched, the populace reacted to the new medium with exceptional enthusiasm. By 1930, radio had successfully become a mass home medium over almost all the developed world; as the first broadcast medium it represented quite a novelty for the listeners (Winston, 1998, p. 87; Crisell, 1994, p. 19).

The manipulative potential of the radio was related to its ability to immediately and simultaneously reach the masses with one message. This potential was exploited much differently in dramatically disparate political and socio-cultural contexts—think of the propaganda aims of Nazi Germany, the ambition to enlighten and educate the people in Great Britain,3 and the interest in capitalising upon new commercial markets in the US (Chapman, 2005, pp. 147–158). As such, the radio had different purposes in different social and cultural contexts. In the following, I will focus on the US and explore the changes imposed by radio on the American culture.

The Zen of Listening: A Cognitive Shift

The power of broadcasting became increasingly clear as radio began to challenge the status of all of the existing culture industries and became a favoured destination for information, enlightenment, and entertainment (Winston, 1998). During its first decade, however, access to radio was limited to more heavily populated urban areas, but seemingly everyone wanted to join the new trend, which turned into a “radio bonanza” when the enthusiasm for it peaked during the “golden age” of radio in the 1930s and 1940s (Barnouw, 1990, p. 23; Chapman, 2005, p. 151).

Radio broadcasting contributed significantly to the growth of mass culture in the Western world starting in the 1920s. The radio was central in the establishment of a mass culture as it enabled people to stay in their homes yet be included in public life and engage with entertainment and information. Mass culture had already evolved over the past century and a half, through a process involving the concentration and standardisation of media products ← 27 | 28 → such as newspapers, but radio offered a more immediate communicative ethos, and invited a more intimate mode of reception.

The new social practise of radio listening has been characterised as the “zen of listening,” a term that directs attention to “the transporting qualities of auditory processing. It stems also from the unfathomable and magical nature of radio propagation” (Douglas, 1999, p. 36). Broadcast radio represented an unprecedented means of mass communication, and it required new media literacy skills to comprehend. Broadcast media created a shift from “print situations” to “electronic situations,” and thus impacted on a broad range of our social roles and how we relate to each other and society (Meyrowitz, 1985; Douglas, 1999). As there were no established social conventions for radio listening, people were relatively insecure about the expectations that surrounded it, and many discussions centred upon how to perform the role of “radio listener.” There were even matters of anachronistic formality to be dispensed with, such as whether one should remove one’s hat and rise from one’s chair at home when official leaders gave speeches over the airwaves (Peters, 2000).

The “zen of listening” was as viable as it would ever be during this experimental phase in radio broadcasting, when neither the social practise nor the genre conventions of the new medium were yet established. In terms of social practise, it is hard to imagine that the radio, as an invisible and taken-for-granted medium (Lewis & Booth, 1989; Lewis, 2000; Hendy, 2000), had once been a new medium and challenged established communicative rules. Broadcast radio represented a cognitive shift towards an emphasis on audio communication, which had begun to take place with the introduction of the telephone and then the phonograph. The cognitive shift was largely about emphasising the listener’s imagination, and the listeners are compelled to “supply” the visual data for themselves, which in turn implies a significant potential for communication failure. This is why in all radio much effort is expended on overcoming the limitations of the medium, on establishing different kinds of context that we would generally be able to see for ourselves (Crisell, 1994, pp. 5–7).

In terms of genres, the novelty of radio, in its interlude between debut and consolidation, can be illustrated by the 1930 radio newscast during which, when faced with a dearth of stories, the announcer simply admitted to all, “There is no news tonight” (Bell, 1991, p. 1). Today, this would be absurd, as the genre convention for radio news does not allow for there to be “no news” to report on, and because the production of news in itself generates ← 28 | 29 → news. The novelty of radio is reflected in its lack of medium-specific content; as there were no established codes defining a “radio program” and contrasting previous media, radio was primarily devised for transmission and reception as abstract processes, with little or no definitions of preceding content. Consequently, radio became a “parasitical medium,” which based its productions on distributions of, for instance, public sporting events and theatres. The supply of broadcasting facilities preceded the demand; and also the means of communication preceded their content (Williams, 1975/1990, p. 25). The radio was a technology and a social institution in search of content, and thus also an identity as a mass medium.

The search for identity started with experiments integrating public speeches and theatre plays into radio productions, which were made for radio, and not simple transmissions. In the next parts, I will first explore how radio became a medium for political communication in the US by analyzing how the political speech was turned into a radio format in the so-called Fireside Chats (1933–1944), and second, explore the radio play The War of the Worlds (CBS Radio, 1938) about an invasion from Mars that became infamous for its effect rather than its content.

Political Communication: The “Fireside Chats”4

The neat parallel between the radio’s breakthrough and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s formative years and later presidency makes it fruitful to investigate the role of authenticity in his series of radio speeches referred to as the “fireside chats.” Roosevelt was 15 years old when Guglielmo Marconi took out his patent for the “wireless telegraph”: “The radio and the boy became came to maturity together” (Buhite & Levy, 1992, p. xiii). Roosevelt is said to have understood the potential of the radio as a tool for political communication better than any political figure, not least because he grew up in tandem with the growth of radio broadcasting.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” comprised 30 public evening radio addresses he gave between 1933 and 1944 on all of the national ← 29 | 30 → radio networks. They proved to be highly influential because they resonated with radio’s ongoing cognitive shift; the term “fireside chat” itself indicates a new approach to political communication that was intimate and direct rather than formal and distant (Buhite & Levy, 1992). According to Roosevelt’s adviser and speechwriter, Samuel I. Rosenman, the president’s genuine personality was always evident in the speeches: “No matter who worked with him in the preparation, the finished product was always the same—it was Roosevelt himself” (Rosenman, 1952, pp. 5–6). Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins, who was an eyewitness to the broadcast from the White House, has explained that the president engaged with his imagined audience when he delivered the live speeches: “His face would smile and light up as though he were actually sitting on the front porch or in the parlor with them. People felt this, and it bound them to him in affection” (Perkins, 1946, p. 72). These accounts point out that Roosevelt’s speeches seemed authentic because he engaged emotionally and acted as if he was talking to his friends; he communicated as if there was no microphone and airwaves between him and the listeners. In fact, President Roosevelt even compared himself to an actor in a conversation with the actor and director Orson Welles, who was a regular guest in the White House during Roosevelt’s presidency: “You and I are the best actors in the country” (Biskind, 2013). Even though it might have been uttered with a sense of irony, this quote tells us that the president had noticed the similarities between a politician and an actor.

I will return to the comparison of actors and politicians later in the book, and subsequently in this chapter, I will discuss the role of Orson Welles as an experimental force in the contemporary radio industry, but to return to Roosevelt, I will pinpoint that he used the “fireside chats” strategically. Roosevelt sustained his illusions of authenticity by means of radio’s key characteristic, its “blindness,” which is the medium’s most prominent feature compared to other media. For Roosevelt, the “blindness” of radio communication was an advantage in his communication with the public, both because he mastered the medium with his voice, but also because it offered the ability to speak directly to the audience without the complication of visual images. The president and his advisors were always unsure about how the public would react to a disabled president, so it was largely hidden from the American people (Freidel, 1973). In this context, the radio had a high significance for the president, and his main aims with the speeches were to rebuild a sense of national identity, encourage individual participation in society, and forge an intimate bond with the public (Buhite & Levy, 1992). The radio medium ← 30 | 31 → thus required an expanded kind of authenticity, as if to compensate for the distance between sender and receivers.

These compensations included illusions of authenticity, which might have been used intentionally, or unintentionally, but which, either way, contributed to increase the intimacy of the speeches. First, the setting before a fireside was an authenticity illusion, as the President’s speech was not recorded before a fireside, but in a White House office. Second, he addressed the listeners personally, and extensively used personal pronouns, such as his use of the greeting “my friends,” and his referring to himself as “I” and the American people as “you.” A third technique to enhance authenticity was to use informal talk and simple language, in order to be understood by ordinary people: “He looked for words that he would use in an informal conversation with one or two of his friends” (Rosenman, 1952, pp. 92–93). Fourth, he communicated authenticity in spontaneous, or unrehearsed, talk, such as the trope of the “imperfect performance.” The best example of this is when the president interrupted one of his speeches to ask for a glass of water. After pausing to drink, Roosevelt confessed to his listeners: “My friends, it’s very hot here in Washington tonight” (“The president broadcasts,” 1933). This informal, intimate talk and the sharing of information about his thirst with his listeners made the “fireside chats” seem more like personal addresses to the voters than a public speech.

Intimacy was established through these authenticity illusions; evidence comes in the form of the millions of letters, from nearly every social segment, posted to the White House in response to them. People often wrote these letters within days, and even hours, of hearing the president speak directly to them through the radio, and they described how they felt during these addresses, almost as if Roosevelt had entered their homes and engaged them individually. These listeners generally expressed their admiration, appreciation, and confidence regarding their leader and radio “friend” (Ryfe, 1999, 2001). History has judged Roosevelt as one of America’s greatest leaders, in part because he maintained public confidence in seeing the nation through the struggles of the Depression and World War II, but studies have also explained his high approval ratings with his public communication activities and in particular his “fireside chats” (Baum & Kernell, 2001). Roosevelt had used them to gain public support, and by tapping into the “radio bonanza” and “zen of listening” as contemporary trends, he also exploited the radio’s novelty, which added to his speeches’ allure and mystique and contributed to this effect. Contrasting this seemingly flawless communication, I will now turn to investigate a fictional radio program, The War of the Worlds (1938), ← 31 | 32 → which also included illusions of authenticity, but that resulted in a communications failure.

Authenticity Scandal: The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds has become a mythical story about the manipulative power of mass media, and the communication failure has been studied widely in various fields, including psychology (Cantril, 1940), media panic (Pastel, 2002; Orr, 2006), media history (Hughes, Wells, & Geduld, 1993) and critical theory (Adorno, 1964/1973). The following analysis draws on secondary literature, including the above mentioned studies, in addition to a textual analysis of the audio drama and the transcript, with focus on authenticity illusions, but first I will give a short introduction to the play and why it has become an emblematic example of miscommunication in broadcast media.

The radio version directed by Orson Welles is the most infamous among several adaptations of The War of the Worlds, a science-fiction novel about a Martian invasion of the Earth written by H. G. Wells in 1898. This particular adaptation has become a legend not so much because of the play itself but because of the audience reactions, and the fascinating stories about how people mistook the play for a news report, and were scared for their lives after listening to the radio. If the actual audience reaction was rather less pronounced than the legend that has arisen around this broadcast, research has nevertheless demonstrated that the play did cause a degree of disruption in the lives of its listeners. Historians have calculated that around 6 million people heard the CBS broadcast, 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million became genuinely frightened (Crisell, 1994; Hand, 2006). Other accounts insist that over a quarter of those 6 million listeners believed what they heard, and that a number of people living near the supposed invasion site got into their cars and fled (Crisell, 1994, p. 206).

The miscommunication was not a result of an intention by master manipulators to deceive their audiences (see Bell, 1991b), but rather, the play was scheduled and announced as a fictional play. As if to underline the horror of its science-fiction narrative, The War of the Worlds was broadcast as a Halloween episode of a radio drama series, and it was advertised in the newspaper as a fictional play: “Today: 8:00–9:00—Play: H. G. Wells’s ‘War of the Worlds’—CBS.” By the time The War of the Worlds (1938) was aired, radio had truly become a mass medium—over 90 percent of urban households and 70 percent of rural households had at least one radio set. Yet broadcast radio ← 32 | 33 → was still in its infancy, and the average listener did not have more than three years of experience as a radio listener, and was thus still figuring out how to interpret and relate to the new medium.

In the specific genre of radio drama it is worth noting that although plays were easily transferred from the theatre stage to the airwaves, the social roles of the radio drama audience are radically different from those of the theatre audience. The radio audience is not only “blind” but also “absent” from the performers and each other: The listeners are not where the play is being performed but situated in their own separate environments (Dayan & Katz, 1992; Crisell, 1994). In the theatre, the spectator initiates the communication process by buying a ticket and thus enters into a contract of sorts with the actors. Moreover, as the spectator joins the other spectators in an audience, they are exposed to and influenced by the reactions of others, such as laughter (Elam, 1980). In contrast, the radio listeners were left to themselves to decide if the play was authentic or not, as they were given no social cues from the performers or the community of listeners. The fact that the listeners were invited to solve the authenticity puzzle in solitude, or in dialogue with others in their household, is important in order to understand why The War of the Worlds imposed an authenticity scandal. However, it is not a coincidence that just this radio play caused a scandal, and in the next section I will investigate the textual authenticity illusions, and how they led the listeners to believe the invasion to be real.

Authenticity Illusions in Radio

Through a textual analysis of The War of the Worlds, I identified three main authenticity illusions: “liveness,” immediacy, and spontaneity. The most important authenticity illusion was simulated “liveness,” which not only created an impression of a real broadcast, but also offered the real sense of access to an event in its moment-to-moment unfolding; “this presencing, this representing of a present occasion to an absent audience, can powerfully produce the effect of being there, of being involved in the here and now of the occasion” (Scannell, 1996, p. 84). Radio’s codes are auditory and therefore exist in time, which attenuates the sense of “liveness” that we get from radio (and the visual media) as opposed to print—when we begin a book, for example, we are aware that the last page has already been written. But radio, even when programmes are pre-recorded, seems always to be a “present-tense medium, offering experiences whose outcome lies in an unknown future” (Crisell, 1994, p. 9). ← 33 | 34 →

The radio version of The War of the Worlds unfolds like an authentic broadcast of breaking news; Welles had smoothly transposed the original novel into radio speech that incorporated a very realistic language and tone (Hand & Traynor, 2011, p. 23). Moreover, the radio version directed by Welles moved the play from the distant past to the present, and from a British town to a real US town called Grovers Mill in New Jersey.5 This adjustment to a contemporary setting, and detailed accounts of the geographic places involved, indeed increased the illusion of authenticity of the simulated live news.

The radio drama produced a fictional meta-environment to encompass the story about the Martians’ invasion. Welles admitted to using the meta-broadcast as a technique for increasing the realism of the source novel, and it worked well, because the simulations of the live broadcast indicated to the audience that they were listening to an unfolding story. Welles himself played the role of the storyteller who establishes the frame for the meta-broadcast and introduces its narrative. His voice was deep and serious, which was one of the abiding strengths of Welles as a radio actor; here, it exacerbated the uneasy atmosphere of this fictional universe, as we can tell from the introduction:

We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own … On this particular evening, October 30, the Crosley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios. (Welles, 1938)

This opening can be regarded as a meta-comment on the radio medium, which at that time was an attraction in itself, one associated with technological innovation and social progress. After Welles’s short introduction, the simulated broadcast started airing radio content that would have appeared perfectly typical for the time: the weather report, a live dance orchestra, and its news bulletin. The first two content types served the purpose of creating a trustworthy broadcast radio environment, while the news bulletin, in tandem with the subsequent bulletins in the play, represented the narrative machinery. Along the lines of Williams’s (1975/1990, p. 89) concept of “flow” in broadcasting, which draws attention to the fact that respective sequences ← 34 | 35 → become a flow rather than remain distinct, the dance music played prior to the invasion “news flash” set up a light, frivolous atmosphere, which might have then impacted the listeners’ reception mode, causing them to be caught off-guard.

Indeed, the slow pace of this evolving narrative built authenticity as well, because the story became more believable as it stretched out over time. The bulletins, in addition, were presented as “news flashes,” meaning that they represented an interruption of regular content for the purposes of an extraordinary news report. The authenticity illusions of the first news flash are introduced through this interruption of regular programming and reinforced through the judicious use of “authorised sources,” such as academics from elite universities:

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York. (Welles, 1938)

The second main authenticity illusion was immediacy, created by the news-flash genre that suddenly interrupted the program and thus seemed urgent and realistic. The news bulletin in general had only recently been introduced to listeners, and it was employed at length to report on dramatic world events, such as Hitler’s conquests in Europe in the late 1930s (Hand & Traynor, 2011, p. 29). The radio play was actually aired just a month after the Munich crisis and Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation, and “Americans had been glued to their radio sets” (Douglas, 1999, p. 165). The authenticity scandal is thus inseparable from the historical context of what has been termed the “age of anxiety,” because the US was in a post-Depression phase that was further troubled by endemic paranoia, due to the turbulent territorial expansions in Europe.

Immediacy was constructed through the eyewitness accounts of the reporter and his seemingly alarming experiences while reporting on the invasion from Mars. The listeners were given access to the reporter’s struggles and travel distances in his attempt to cover the event for the broadcaster; ← 35 | 36 → “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Professor Pierson and myself made the eleven miles from Princeton in ten minutes” (Welles, 1938). The live reporting appears to provide an unfiltered account, both through its eyewitness interviews and background noise, including startled screaming and a host of “unidentified” sounds. Authenticity in the narrative was likewise enhanced through the use of a first-person storyteller:

PHILLIPS: Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear, and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it … Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by … possibly gravity or something. The thing’s raising up. The crowd falls back now. They’ve seen plenty. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can’t find words. (Welles, 1938)

A third authenticity illusion in the play was unpredictability and spontaneity, which in radio includes imperfection in the transmission and silence in the broadcast. Early on, an atmosphere of unpredictability arises when “the reporter” informs the listeners that unforeseen events might interrupt his work:

I ask you to be patient, ladies and gentlemen, during any delay that may arise during our interview. Besides his ceaseless watch of the heavens, Professor Pierson may be interrupted by telephone or other communications. During this period he is in constant touch with the astronomical centres of the world. (Welles, 1938)

In this way, the radio play underlines the urgency of the situation and thereby enhances the illusion of reality in the fictional narrative.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2014 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 164 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Gunn Enli (Author)

Gunn Enli (PhD, University of Oslo) is Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo.


Title: Mediated Authenticity