Another Shooting in Cowtown does not end up where you would think it would end up. Of course, where you think it would end up depends on where you encounter this strange text. If you, like me, encountered it in a reader (this strange word for a book of texts; who is the reader?) on rhetorical criticism, you might reasonably expect it has something to do with the pandemic of mass shootings that have plagued the US over the last decades.
The text does not cover mass shootings, however relevant such a title would be for contemporary discursive and rhetorical practices employed by media actors and politicians. It is tempting to say that there is another text bearing the same title, brutally implied but not yet realized.
The text at hand, though, is about media actors and politicians. Specifically, about how they intersect to create the messages average citizens are confronted with on a daily basis (more often in election times). Even more specifically, about that one time an academic scholar of political communication was invited to partake in the creation of the political communication of a particular political candidate in the late 70s. The titular cowtown is just that – a small burg in the middle of the vast American nowhere; the shooting refers to the creation of political television ads.
The driving question behind the text is this specific intersection: what happens when an academic confronts the thing he has spent so much time reading and writing about? Or, phrased another way: what happens when the process of making sausages is laid bare?
Of course, Benson, being a proper academic, questions whether it is ethical to join the production of political advertisement for a particular political candidate in an ongoing election. On the one hand, such participation might be construed as an endorsement – especially if he happens to be proficient at it. On the other hand, nothing is more informative than direct access to the empirical data, and gaining insight into the process of political communication is relevant to a scholar of political communication.
On the third hand, if he did not go, they would just hire someone else; it is the nature of modern division of labor that individuals are replaceable and interchangeable.
What follows is a shooting. Surprisingly, it is not unlike a high school shooting, in that the film crew runs into unexpected difficulties and overcome them by means of deadline-inspired improvisation. The process is much more ad hoc than the finalized product would indicate, and at some point during the proceedings Benson realizes that this does not matter. Or, to phrase it in slightly more informative jargon: the detailed study of result is not as useful as an a priori understanding of process, through which a better study of the result might follow.
The production team is divided into three overlapping parts: the technical crew, the bureaucrats and the person who ostensibly runs the show. The technical crew are those who hold the cameras, adjusts the mics, and in every sense of the word gets things done. The bureaucrats hold the money, and the meetings, and the documents – everything that goes into getting the message (only the one message, mind) out. The person who ostensibly runs the show is also the least important character in the story: it is his face and voice that is to be broadcasted across the mediascape, and his input into the production process is optimally minimal.
Or, phrased from the point of view of the politician: people come, they record the thing, they leave.
This state of things has implications for rhetorical criticism. And, indeed, for our understanding of political communication in general. While the finished ads are designed to make it appear that the politician does and says things, these things are determined by persons who are not him. Some of these things are determined by what the party bureaucrats want: positions, catchphrases, concerns about image. Some are determined by production factors on the day of recording; if something goes wrong, the improvised solution is what gets included in the final version. And if the bureaucrats and the crew disagree on something, this has far more impact on the messaging than the candidate’s opinions.
What does it mean for political communication that the politician is only barely involved with the communicative process, outside the need to be the person caught on tape?