Submitted by John W. Pell on September 30, 2011 - 6:24pm
In the last two weeks I noticed that a number of bloggers, journalists, and executives have released statements via the internet in order to clear up what they perceived to be public misconceptions about their person or corporation. Two of these instances provide excellent material for exploring with undergraduate students the complicated nature of "audience," a term both fraught with uncertainty and essential to the study of rhetoric.
The first is an interesting letter issued by Alec Baldwin through The Huffington Post following the Emmy Awards (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alec-baldwin/alec-baldwin-emmys_b_970323.html). While there are a few television programs I enjoy, I don't really have any clue as to when the Emmy Awards are held. Therefore, when I read Baldwin's post, I found myself unconvinced that many Emmy viewers were actually as concerned about his absence from the show as he perceived.
I come to this conclusion based on Baldwin’s own words. In the statement his issued, Baldwin explains that before the award show he filmed a commercial spot for the telecast in which he made a remark about the recent phone-hacking scandal involving NewsCorp owned News of the World. After they completed filming, producers were informed that FOX would not allow the commercial to air, at which point Baldwin, in his own words, “asked that the entire piece be omitted, as I felt the joke was, perhaps, the funniest thing in [the commercial].”
What I find so interesting about this Baldwin’s public text and also why I think it provides a wonderful, contemporary example of the problematic nature of audience for students, is the ways in which audiences are simultaneously addressed and created. First, Baldwin seems to be addressing an audience of viewers that watched the Emmy Awards, or to be more specific, an Emmy-watching bunch that also peruses the pages of The Huffington Post. What is problematic about this perceived audience, however, is that they could not know that Baldwin was missing because they saw his commercial with Jane Lynch and assumed he would be attending the awards ceremony—the commercial was never aired. Baldwin’s intended audience, or at least the audience intended by the language of the letter, could have only been made aware of his absence through the Emmy telecast. For example, when he did not appear in a live shot as his name was announced for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. That is to say, there would have been no way of knowing of the controversy between Baldwin and NewsCorp from just viewing the award show.
Moreover, Baldwin clarifies that he missed the Emmy Awards not because of an artistic feud between himself and NewsCorp; rather, Baldwin was attending a charity event to which he committed before the Emmy broadcast changed airdates. Thus, if we as readers try to imagine the “ideal audience” for Baldwin’s statement, we run into a real problem: it doesn’t seem possible for them to exist, or in the very least, his audience would have to be one that was doing quite a lot more than just watching the Emmy Awards on a Sunday night.
It seems reasonable to suggest that Baldwin is using his relationship with the Huffington Post to take jabs at NewsCorp (a practice often engaged by bloggers on the HuffPost website). And, it seems clear that the audience addressed in his statement is actually a fiction. That is, and here is where students begin to perk up, the imagined audience of devoted Baldwin followers that watched the Emmy Awards are not an audience but an occasion for Baldwin to address an entirely different group of readers—the sympathetic readers of the Huffington Post who also dislike what they perceive as NewsCorp’s journalistic tyranny.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings used a similar rhetorical tactic in a blog post entitled “An Explanation and Some Reflections” (http://blog.netflix.com/2011/09/explanation-and-some-reflections.html). Here Hastings offers an apology to Netflix members about the “lack of respect and humility” Netflix exhibited when they separated their DVD by mail business from their streaming service and began to charge for each. What is fascinating about this public text, with regards to audience construction, is the fact that Hastings seems to believe that customers have a desire to hear “a full justification” as to why Netflix is separating DVD and streaming.
When examining Hastings’ blog/letter the cynic in me finds it is hard not to read this text as a desperate plea to shareholders not to abandon ship (a plea, I might add, that did not work given the losses Netflix stock sustained following Hastings’ announcement). That is, students and I find it hard to believe that anyone cared about Netflix’s reasons for raising prices – we only care that the prices were raised. Thus, again, a “public” figure is constructing an audience as an occasion to speak to another audience altogether.
These examples, while seemingly trivial, provide students with accessible cases through which to explore just how difficult it is to articulate a clear description of a speaker’s perceived audience. As Mary Jo Reiff notes in Approaches to Audience, there is quite a difference between an ideal audience and a discourse community. In both of these examples it is easy to see how Hastings and Baldwin address something akin to Perelman’s notion of the “universal audience,” a group with relatively similar discursive experiences in the world as a result of their shared humanity. However, the issues and context to which these authors are responding reminds us that they are in fact addressing a particular discourse community, which as Jack Selzer reminds, is quite different than a universal audience. Discourse communities are often comprised of textual exchanges that incorporate specialized language and specific shared conceptions. That is to say, a discourse community more nuanced then say “those people that watched the Emmy Awards.” Or, to put this idea into terms that might provoke student discussion, these examples demonstrate for students how the polis a speaker addresses is often no more than a trope (or fiction) that creates the occasion to address another audience altogether, one to which the polis may have no access.