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Culture & Society

Prolegomenon to a theory of slump media
James Compton and Nick Dyer-Witheford
Media Culture Society published online 28 August 2014
DOI: 10.1177/0163443714544867
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and carries uncertainty to the entire world market. acquiescent or rebellious. David McNally (2011) calls this vast faltering of capital. Ontario N6A 5B7.sagepub. London. the ‘global slump. a mustering of intellectual resources and laying out of initial hypotheses. explaining why conceptual instruments forged to analyse media’s role at the start of neoliberalism Downloaded from mcs. by guest on August 29. Within this theoretical perspective. 2) as a relay for the ideological confusion and disarray of ruling elites caused by market catastrophe. one of the many industries ravaged by recession. as preliminary introduction to such a study. is forecast to last a generation. to the convulsion. with some adaptations. and hence shaped North Campus Building. the press. be applied to the crisis that may mark its end. not quite falling over. 3) as a casualty of the crisis. Email: jcompto3@uwo.sagepub. Canada Introduction: slump media The great crisis whose onset was marked by the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 has now lasted some six years. teetering on the brink of massive depression. passing from financial meltdown to general recession to an age of austerity that. we then posit five moments of news media involvement in the global slump: 1) as a causal contributor to the bubble economy and its implosion.1177/0163443714544867Media. Culture & Society 1­–11 © The Author(s) 2014 Reprints and permissions: sagepub. Room 240. University of Western Ontario. culturally defined its 2014 . Canada Nick Dyer-Witheford University of Western Ontario.544867 research-article2014 MCS0010. were themselves its economic victims.’ This article is about ‘slump media’: focusing on news media in North America. the Internet and social media at once contributed to the making of the James Compton University of Western Ontario. yet promising only long term stagnation. radio. it discusses how television.nav DOI: 10. 4) as an agency Corresponding author: James R Compton. The article begins by presenting the major critical concepts that inform it. in North America and the Eurozone. Culture & SocietyCompton and Dyer-Witheford Commentary Prolegomenon to a theory of slump media Media.1177/0163443714544867 mcs. It is a ‘Prolegomenon’ in that it is not so much a report on research findings.

The ‘social production of news’ was. or by movements from below challenging the system. What loomed back into view was that system failure was an endemic possibility. to which we aim to contribute. Bush’s memorable comment at the height of the crisis. Cultural studies are today sometimes charged with ignoring issues of class and crisis. News media were thus crucial sites for making or preventing articulations between various class forces that would determine which historical bloc would emerge ascendant from ‘conjunctural crises. 2008). All this generated revived interest in Marxism. the collection Culture. either by fractions of the ruling class with a new agenda. yet could be contested. Media. and the rise of digital networks raises questions about their continued validity. and economic crisis a crucial driver of modern history. Downloaded from mcs. subject to a complex of pressures tending to reproduce dominant ideology. belief that the market had escaped the possibility of catastrophic perturbations died. In particular.2 Media. combining Marx. rather it adapts and applies to today’s situation theoretical tools developed by previous media scholars. To take up these tools after 30 years of apparent universal capitalist victory. political and economic analysis aimed at understanding how media perform in a crisis of capital. we reply. Althusser and Gramsci to analyse news media as sites of hegemonic struggle and ideological interpellation operating within the determinate constraints of political economy. contradictory capitalist welfare state falling apart in festering class confrontations centuries old. Language (Hall et al. propelled by resistances such as the Occupy movement and the Montreal student revolt. ‘this sucker could go down’ (cited in by guest on August 29. we draw on the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCCS). Texts such as Policing the Crisis (Hall et al. Stuart Hall.. politics. Let us confront the most fundamental: ‘Why still Marxist?’ Because. 1978). We address a free market regime blowing up at what looked like the top of its game in a gilded age of naked greed. uprisings from Tahrir Square to Wall Street pushed into view the possibility of radical social change from below. With George W. Concepts: ‘this sucker could go down’ Our analysis does not set out to reinvent the conceptual wheel. Culture & Society  for the restoration of new hegemonic ‘common sense’ legitimating private sector bailouts and public austerity. 1980). we evidently write about a very different conjunction from that the Birmingham theorists addressed: not the exhaustion of British social democracy. Three years later. Nonetheless. achieve a synthesis of cultural. massive trauma on the left. They described a beleaguered. confronting the onset of the very neoliberal regime which is today in crisis. and cynical consumerism – the consequence of the victory of the very forces whose media-assisted rise was analysed by Hall and his colleagues. but the explosion of a US-centered neoliberalism. and later work by the Centre’s leading theorist. ideology – ‘convene’ or ‘condense’ to produce a ‘ruptural fusion’ (Hall & Massey 2010: 38). and 5) as a circuit within which challenges to this ideological construction unexpectedly erupt. But early BCCCS work dealt with the rise of Thatcherism in the UK. in 2011. BCCCS proposed. 1992).’ when tensions or contradictions developing at different levels of society-the economy. imperial triumphalism.. global alterations in media businesses.sagepub. 2014 . the financial catastrophe of 2008 marked the end of ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama.

’ In the light of such lurid events we reaffirm the importance of corporate ownership and logics in news-making. a somewhat heretical attempt to release Marxist media analysis from a mechanistic economic determinism in favor of more complex models of the relative autonomy and contested representation. 2014 . much of so-called ‘citizen journalists’ is derivative of work of professional journalists. not less. acquisitions. compelling force of the economic ‘last instance. free of ideological filters. however. Writing in a British context marked by the continuing influence of public broadcasting. and attempt to preserve.’ without losing a sense of the many mediations through which this determinant power emerges. Moreover. while the growth of networks and social media has extended popular access to the means of communication. for the left of its era. participatory field of public discourse. Our view is that networks have increased the volatility of media arena. emphasizing the more subtle interplay of journalistic work routines and reliance on accredited sources.Compton and Dyer-Witheford 3 However. and have indeed enlarged opportunities for ideological contestation from both left and right. distractions arising from information overload. these elements of BCCCS analysis. we have only to point to the Murdoch empire whose rise and scandalous fall is so symptomatic of ‘slump media. extinguished. Since the 1970s. global mergers. One of the numerous contradictions we seek to historicize through conjunctural analysis is ‘why. Cause: in debt we trust The accelerated financial flows that contributed to the global slump were made possible by huge investments in information and communication technologies (ICTs). when people now seem to be well-versed in a demystified version of things. transparent. Hall and his colleagues downplayed (though never forgot) the role of capitalist media ownership in the ideological shaping of news. No view is more commonplace than the Internet has inaugurated a democratic. where it provides an imprimatur of authenticity even as it is reframed within dominant paradigms. and c) corporate media increasingly fold grassroots digitally generated content back into their production cycle. no longer aiming to free media critique from a crude base/superstructure model. the institutional concentrations of mainstream media power. and to neoliberal by guest on August 29. the changed context makes our analysis if anything more. yet think the stick can now be bent back in the other direction. frankly Marxian than that of the BCCCS. but instead giving a renewed attention to the constraining. do they nonetheless continue to follow the script as it is?’ (Best and Belanger. and a decline in attention to news media and current events. and in some ways actually reinforce. incarnate in the BBC. They have not.sagepub. Their work was. their spread has been accompanied by an increasing emphasis on a cultural diet of entertainment. 2012). contributed to the crisis of newspaper journalism. As David Downloaded from mcs. Our position flies in the face of the greatest media dogma of our epoch – that digital networks dissolve the problem of media ownership. b) news accessed via the internet frequently originates within institutional media. and expansions have created an oligopolistic media sector with startlingly direct and unabashed institutional ties to the financial sector. We point out that: a) television continues as a primary news source. We admire. in a way running the Birmingham School’s experiment in reverse.

does not provide the rational check on financial speculation he Downloaded from mcs. such as Nouriel Roubini (‘Dr. and financial-advice programs. are now part of these value chains. Culture & Society  Harvey (1989) has argued. In both broad ideological support of credit-driven consumerism and failure as financial watchdogs. Doom’) and Joseph E Stiglitz for answers (Schiffrin. promoting ‘lifestyles’ unsupportable at actual wage levels laid the ideological foundations of the housing bubble in a thousand real estate sections. of CNBC’s Mad Money. Food. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Anya Schiffrin puts it directly: ‘The growth of international capital markets and the spread of the Washington consensus-style economic liberalization served to promote the free market gospel globally’ (Schiffrin. More narrowly. Individual selfinterest. in their words: ‘naturalized the symbolic violence of neoliberal reasoning’ (Chakravartty and Schiller 2010: 677). ‘low-priority bleats from the back of the paper’ not ‘investigative stories that confront directly powerful institutions about basic business practices. CNBC. Confusion: a state of shocked disbelief When the house of cards comes down. was the Clown Prince of the genre. this 30-year expansion transformed the structural orientation of the news industry which. which constitute what Wayne Hope calls a ‘mediated fusion of money.sagepub.4 Media. the press missed Wall Street’s massive move into the high risk mortgage market. 2011).’ The most authoritative study is Dean Starkman’s comprehensive review of business press coverage of the US housing bubble from 2003 to 2008. the last great crisis of over-production. design magazines. he discovers. According to Paula Chakravartty and Dan Schiller. there were plentiful affirmative stories about financial institutions (Starkman 2011). clothing. 2014 . Broadly. The vanguard were the 24-hour cable news channels. experienced during the 1970s. confesses to ‘a state of shocked disbelief. This finds that during the critical years of 2004–2006. CNN. editorial news services. and Fox News institutionalized spectacular news events and scandals alongside a global expansion of economic journalism that ‘played a direct institutional role in legitimating the larger financialization process’ (Chakravartty and Schiller 2010: 685). yes. Jim by guest on August 29. Alan Greenspan. the question is how far business media failed in its supposed early warning function – of the precise balance between ‘unheeded warnings’ and sheer ‘indulgence of madness. was overcome in part through the use of these technologies to provide a ‘spatial-temporal fix’ that allowed for the globalization of supply chains. TVs. It wasn’t until the aftermath of collapse that reporters turned to Ivey League critics of Wall Street’s high-risk behavior. advertising-driven media’s interpellation of audiences as consumers. coverage was limited to useful-butnot-sufficient consumer-and investor-oriented stories. reality TV reno-shows. in his prophetic film In Debt We Trust. Some economists saw the crisis coming.’ Instead. and. news media contributed to the hegemony of finance capital. the ruling class is in disarray. Corporate media contributed to the bubble of consumer debt that burst in 2008.’ The self-described Ayn Rand enthusiast is at a loss for words and is forced to apologize. US Federal Reserve Chairman. This was pointed out before the fact by marginalized media critics such as Danny Schechter (2007). but they were marginalized. 2011). information and economic activity’ (Hope 2010).

the journalistic process may be relatively more chaotic.’ and ‘subsidiz[ing] the losers’ mortgages. That they will by guest on August 29. as bankers ritually enact repentance. and they’re not going to take it anymore. burst. or irresponsible homeowners who had borrowed money to live beyond their means? Was it a story about the structural contradictions of finance capital. it isn’t clear who to take orders from. ‘Wall Street is mad as hell. Dissension within elites gives a real fluidity to this moment. In neo-Gramscian terms. Ruling class fractions compete to hegemonize the crisis – divided between Democrats and Republicans over the stimulus package. Casualties: lay-offs. According to W. Market bubbles expand. In a famous analysis of Vietnam war reporting. less visibly. Neoliberal consensus is shaken.’ Slump media are situated within a contested space of contradictions where a popular late-night comedy program. media become a key site where new discursive articulations are made. corporate media are among its casualties. But with TARP.sagepub. clarifies the core issue: how the US state engaged in a massive transfer of wealth from below to above. the mediascape is itself melting down. within the Obama regime between centre-right and centre-left factions. New media performances are given. not the 24-hour cable news channel devoted to covering Wall Street. and where the ruling class grasps for a new narrative.Compton and Dyer-Witheford 5 predicted. With this chaos may come a decline in the familiar ‘official’ narrative structure. opening the way for anomalous news narratives told through disparate social voices. and eventually.’ ‘Yah man!. the Right had found an anchor for its own hegemonic narrative. as they did for 17th-century Dutch tulip traders. or one of personal moral failure? The populist Tea Party uprising chose the latter explanation. who had criticized the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) for ‘promoting bad behavior. Unless by it you mean $2-trillion dollars in their own bailout money. 2014 . Daniel Hallin proposed major media become porous to previously unspeakable possibilities when there is division with ruling elites (Hallin 1984). and of Newsweek’s famous February. or. Having helped create the crisis. Lance Bennett’s indexing thesis. and. new subject positions stitched together. Whatever critical capacities existed within them Downloaded from mcs. But while the villains were narrowly defined. It is the moment The Globe and Mail runs reports on the revived fortunes of famous Marxist academics. Understanding the complexity of credit default swaps was beyond the reach of most people. and are equally ritualistically berated by staunch defenders of the market. the victims would be many. or consensus position. 2009 ‘We are All Socialists Now’ cover. speed-ups & media profits Meanwhile. (Bennett 1990: 107) This is the moment when the complicity of the business media in the crisis is lambasted in Jon Stewart’s famous takedown of CNBC business analyst Rick Santelli. when official opinion is in disarray for any of a variety of reasons. Over six weeks at the end of 2008. to put it more politely. Who would personify the villain? Wall Street bankers.’ responded Stewart. The moment of confusion was ripe for populist intervention. what is the authoritative perspective. previously derided Keynesian public-spending is suddenly legitimated.

producing contradictory outcomes and practices. News Corporation buys MySpace. took both concentrated and diffuse forms. Tribune and Postmedia Network which bought the newspaper holdings of the now defunct CanWest Global (Langeveld. Slump media have contributed to a Downloaded from mcs. and Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) – remain dominant players in their respective markets. Not the least is that while incidents of so-called ‘citizen journalism’ are on the rise.6 Media. the overall share of the finance sector jumped from 11% to 12% of GNP in the 1980s. fueled by finance capital results in enormous debt loads. serious reporting and investigative disclosure. investigative or otherwise. employment prospects for reporters are on the decline. One prominent player Alden Global Capital has played a direct role in the recent bankruptcy ‘shakeups’ at MediaNews Group. ‘What we are observing. such as Demand Media and other so-called ‘content mills.sagepub. ‘is the coexistence and interconnection of mainstream media. crime and scandal. struggling to make short-term debt commitments stumble. Contradictions abound. But we need analysis sophisticated enough to recognize that media conglomerates are institutions with uneven and contradictory composition. fall. underway since the 1970s. or if not. were tied to local and national markets. standing in dialectical relation to each other. News media ostensibly serve local and national readers/audiences but they are answerable to globally integrated transnational capital which commands large cross-media by guest on August 29. as newsrooms hemorrhage jobs and finance capital strengthens its grip on news organizations. more commentary (not to be confused with diversity of opinion).’ take advantage of user-generated content (UGC) and the expanding reserve army of volunteer or under-employed workers who produce it. It may seem paradoxical to condemn the compliance of major media with neoliberalism in preparing the crisis and simultaneously lament their auto-incineration within this selfstarted firestorm. A recent survey of publicly held American newspapers conducted for the Nieman Journalism Lab found that the top investors in these companies are banks and hedge funds. But since the 1990s. in that a handful of corporate media behemoths – that is. 2010: 375). In each case the pattern is similar: cross-media consolidation. find success through new efficiencies at the expense of quality journalism. and autonomous Internet sites’ (Castells. Post-Fordist networked capitalism is concentrated. This impact has become more pronounced as the role of the finance sector has swelled over the past couple of decades. The transformation from Fordist to Post-Fordist media production. New companies. forces push to disaggregate and de-emphasize convergence strategies (Yong Jin. 2012). 2007: 253). in which powerful tendencies towards subordination to and replication of ruling interests collide with residual traditions of journalistic responsibility. On the other hand. It is these latter elements that are most threatened in the crisis. newspapers and television have become integrated into the global mergers and acquisitions market. media and newspapers in particular. and fewer resources invested in the labor of reporting. Culture & Society  for analysis. We see more spectacular news coverage of celebrity. corporately owned new media.’ argues Manuel Castells. 2014 . In the US. ‘to 20–21 percent by 2004–2005’ (Philips. 2011). News Corporation. Prior to the 1980s. cited in Winseck. investigation. Otherwise profitable companies. critique and reflection become more and more stressed. 2009. Google now controls YouTube and thousands of small new media sites become networked with mainstream news media. Comcast. Simultaneously.

but we suggest that in the ‘framing contests’ following the crash a related. This rapid exoneration of finance capital (and of capitalism itself) provides a striking instance of what Arjen Boin. been manifested in the Occupy movement and the student tuition strike in Quebec. one that neutralized the radical implications of the disaster. And yet very soon.’ street robberies. while simultaneously making those contradictions visible. Paul ‘t Hart and Allan McConnell (2009: 16) term ‘crisis exploitation framing. ‘the aftermath of a crisis and its outcomes can be usefully understood in terms of “frame contests” between the various actors that seek to exploit this crisis-induced opportunity space’ (82). When a crisis delegitimizes power and authority.’ a crucial operation is one the BCCCS theorists highlighted in their examination of the ‘moral panics’ that accompanied the rise of the new right: scapegoating. in part. and perhaps ultimately most telling. despite the continuing material effects of the crash in unemployment. so as to define a crisis of ‘law and order’ favoring authoritarian neoliberalism. Common sense: age of austerity As we have already seen. a frame promoted both by the Obama regime and the business community. Mean streets are a long way from Wall Street. By a remarkable series of Downloaded from mcs. served to condense a whole range of anxieties. This last frame – ‘we are all to blame’ – was particularly important in providing discursive support for what gradually emerged as the hegemonic route out of the crisis: a private-sector finance bailout paid for by public austerity. but not necessarily so. We would add that in these ‘framing contests. which avoided (explicitly) stigmatizing particular groups.Compton and Dyer-Witheford 7 crisis of political legitimacy that has.’ Speculations about the justice and viability of capitalism unspeakable for decades briefly flashed across TV screens and newspaper headlines. In Policing the Crisis. Third. process of media ‘scapegoating’ was at work. First was a ‘bad apples’ frame. liberal version of the same idea. ‘structural change is desired and expected by many.’ As they explain. 2009). foreclosures and insecurity.’ Measures taken at the height of the crisis became the basis of policies designed to preserve finance capital at the expense of indebted homeowners and taxpayers. in collusion with welfare recipients and immigrants. was a softened. Such change can happen. usually by black youths. Another ‘common sense’ congealed. they examined how media representations of ‘muggings.sagepub. when the crisis broke the financial implosion threw media into a disarray reflecting the confusion of the supposedly authoritative primary definers of hegemonic ‘common sense. singling-out for moral opprobrium individual ‘corrupt and greedy bankers’ (Castree. Its watchword: ‘age of by guest on August 29. this moment of ideological turmoil subsided. around economic decline and social disintegration. if more complex.’ Whether it does or not depends in part on the discursive framing of the disaster. Second was the right-Republican frame of targeting feckless mortgage takers (particularly poor racial minorities) and the Federal programs that subsidized banks for offering those mortgages: this frame made the crisis a result of Big Government. 2014 . and often loudly repudiated ‘playing the blame game’ but then attributed the crash to generalized consumer greed. Slump media is constitutive of the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism.

And then. Challenge: we are the 99% For three years. The latter is now difficult to discuss intelligently. and the not so small scale resources of media celebrities. Culture & Society  elisions. occupy. and titled ‘The Battle Ahead: Confronting Public Sector Unions. the independent. liberal small scale media capital or would-be capital. like a gunpowder trail: the initial Adbusters Internet call to occupation then relayed through a circuit of left blogs and news sites. But the spark was virtual. North America saw no major challenge to austerity. and networked social media strategies. articulating it to the WikiLeaks struggles. By January 2011. Occupations depend on bodies filling space. because Liberal commentators so heavily fetishize it – as if Facebook and Twitter. evictions. yet intersecting.8 Media. establishment of the Tumblr micro-blog. All this emerged from a vortex that mixed individual digital users.’ Confronting disaster arising from the global fluidity of networked capital. to use Paul Mason’s (2012) phrase. infused not with the optimism of ‘another world is possible’ but with the grim confrontation of ‘no future. The preconditions for Occupy Wall Street (OWS) lay in material conditions: an official US unemployment rate officially at 9%. The Economist. slow to emerge. highly politicized. ‘We are the 99%’ where the photo and text testimonials of the victims of the global slump attracted a mounting number of hits. in reality close to 16%. bankruptcies. Now this was notably absent. in 2011. Resistance.’ Capital had clearly found how to police this crisis.sagepub. And since such cuts involve the jobs or wages of those employed by the state the new enemy of ‘all us’ became. It took about two weeks before the mainstream media response tipped from a vicious circle of silencing dissent to a virtuous circle of movement amplification. there were sequence of virtual sparks. or capitalism. not banks. grotesque income polarization. the response was to seize space. If ‘all of us’ are to blame. the US had witnessed a wave of left-activism making wide use of networked indymedia. A decade before. this universalization of responsibility proffered a very specific scapegoat. shoestring budgeted media collectives. when it did had a very different tone from alter-globalization. Then things changed again. flagship journal of capital. not unemployment. overtly declared the new common sense with a cover showing placard waving demonstrators arrayed on the crest of a hill like barbarians awaiting the charge of Roman legions. At this point in our narrative we must directly confront the issue of digital networks and social media in the political mediascape. suddenly. the costs of the crisis must be met by a reduction in government services. in at least two aspects: horizontal general-assembly decision-making. the endorsement of the occupation by hacker network Anonymous. a transition marked Downloaded from mcs.’ and kicking off in North America as the Occupy Movement. and one that locks attention on middle class activists at the expense of those of workers and the poor. and as the representative of ‘all of us’ is the state. rising food prices and authoritarianism. But they also involve communication. in the era of the anti-globalization movement and the Battle of Seattle. hold ground. It was also on-line that news of OWS radiated out. but the public sector. Or better. ‘things were kicking off everywhere. The very slow and very fast. were the cause of uprisings in Egypt – a backhanded way of vindicating hightech advanced capital. and ‘all of us must’ by guest on August 29. 2014 .

even in this brief manifestation. or not-for-profit sectors. And this was pretty much the dynamic unleashed by OWS. OWS did leave traces. mark a new phase in the story of slump media. commercial. the occupiers evicted and sites dismantled by police. Nonetheless.’ Even as OWS vanished from US cities. expanded the collective lexicon. inaugurating a period of intensified struggle. and grapple with the real contradictions of slump media. and Greece.sagepub. As Dorothy Kidd (2012: 3) observes ‘OWS disrupted the frame of the dominant corporate media. namely: stage a dramatic event. More generally. A mere three months later. OWS was over. by October 15th. at a global media center. and of the Washington neoliberal consensus’: With the phrase ‘We are the 99%’. one week following the tenth anniversary of 9/11. To contribute to a progressive project for the future. on the political landscape.Compton and Dyer-Witheford 9 by the New York Times decision to cover OWS in depth. It is. much of its spirit – not to mention its media tactics – migrated north. [and] put poverty and systemic inequality back on the political agenda. as the weather turned cold and media attention waned: journalists had lost patience trying to decipher protracted assembly debates. by the anomalous irruption of critical reporting about police violence against the occupiers on the network news of MSNBC. Spain. Downloaded from mcs. Conclusion: uncertainty and possibility This prolegomenon has mapped a theoretically-informed narrative history of slump media. in particular by Policing the Crisis which in the 1970s studied how a law and order crisis prepared the way for ‘authoritarian populism’ of Thatcherism. 2014 . Funding This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public. to the equally remarkable and more immediately successful revolt of Montreal students against tuition fee increases in Quebec’s Maple Spring. and in media discourse. as we said at the beginning. it ‘finger[ed] Wall Street and the tiny minority of Americans… for the economic and social crises affecting the great majority of people. and internationally. Within a month. and second. In the aftermath of 9/11 security pundits declared that Al Qaeda had mastered a ‘netwar’ by guest on August 29. synchronized occupations and demonstrations proliferated across large and small cities in the US Canada. and signaling that capital might not have things all its own way in the making of hegemonic common sense. OWS appearance alongside the other 2011 movements of Egypt. Grasping the dynamic complexity and the process of change within the mediascape in a period of conjunctural crisis is crucial for the strategy and tactics of movements whose project for the future aims for greater social equality and public control of economic resources. generally under municipal public safety and anti-vacancy ordnances. inspired by the work of the Birmingham School. conveying an unmistakable message and exemplifying a modus operandi that can be relayed to and replicated without central control by numerous franchising groups. media scholarship must go beyond fatalism about ideological domination or euphoria over social media.

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