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Mise en scene

Mise en scene

October 18th, 2007  |  Published in Foundation  |  1 Comment

In a recent post at Augean Stables, Richard Landes opens a discussion of the al Durrah affair with a contrast between American and French attitudes to truth in TV news reporting.

In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Gal Beckerman offers France2 some friendly advice. In the process, he shows just how inadequate both the MSM’s clichés about “coming clean” are in dealing with this affair, and how inadequate the imagination of seasoned reporters in even beginning to imagine the role of Pallywood in news production. It illustrates the difference between American journalists who can’t even imagine that al Durah might be staged and European reporters who blandly assert:

“You know, I think this whole affair is dead in the water,” said a senior journalist at France 3 TV, Clement Weill Raynal, who is also a well-known contributor to Jewish media. “Karsenty is so shocked that fake images were used and edited in Gaza, but this happens all the time everywhere on television and no TV journalist in the field or a film editor would be shocked. This has become more about him than anything else.”

Landes is discussing the cynical excusing of deliberate fraud in TV news and I completely support his efforts to get to the bottom of the al Durrah affair. (Note: I have italicized the quotation by Raynal as it appears in Landes’s post about Beckerman. The extended text surrounding it is from a different Augean Stables post – the one linked inked with the words “European reporters who blandly assert” so the context of Raynal’s assertion is absolutely clear.) Essentially what I want to say is that I think Raynal’s claim is true – and I mean this without cynicism – in that it describes the very nature of TV news. It is not true, however, that because reporters and editors have to construct the material they present to us that they are in any way justified in deliberately faking news and presenting it as real.

While I don’t know if the French are more sophisticated than Americans about media I do know that the French have, and English lacks, a word for the actual process of creating everything from entire films to ordinary news clips. Mise en scene is a French term that originated in the theater which literally means “putting on stage”. It has migrated to film and television and broadened to include all or most of the elements of the finished production. In film and television I find ‘putting in the scene’ a bit clearer. Perhaps significantly, there is a lot of argument about what is, or is not, included – voice over narration for instance. But for me that is beside the point because I believe the term’s importance lies in that it points directly to a larger process for which we have no generally accepted term in English. That larger process might be called ‘storytelling with film and television’ to keep our terminology to simple English. Indeed, children demonstrate they can work with mise en scene when the edit in the camera without any training in media studies. The process itself is not in the least obscure, but the absence of a term for it makes it more difficult to understand. I think of it as standing for all that is constructed or more simply ‘put into’ a finished film or news clip. Mise en scene starts when the scene is framed up in the camera – what is put in and what is left out, what angle is chosen. It continues with editing which takes out everything that is not necessary or helpful to the story and makes certain that what remains flows naturally.

The core problem is that this process, mise en scene – belongs to drama not the business of objective reporting. TV news is made up of moving pictures and sound – sometimes with sound from within the scene but typically with voice over narration. Narration in practice follows the general rules of print journalism and informs us of who, what ,when etc. Furthermore, the traditions of Western journalism call for a high level of unemotional delivery in the verbal portion of a TV news presentation. The emotional content is normally carried by the pictures. The newsreader cannot say: AAAAHHHHG, just look at what that shaped charge did to that tank.!!!!” But the film editor can and does all the time. The pictures follow a completely different set of rules. The rules of drama. The primary requirements of the visual part of TV news are the same as the requirements for cinema. They must be engaging, as compelling as possible, and display continuity. The pictures owe their first loyalty to dramatic effect, not objectivity. In comparing the war coverage of CNN and Fox News during 2004 I was surprised how much the pro administration Fox news followed the dictates of their medium and ended up using the same kind of footage as their anti administration rivals. Fox couldn’t resist burning vehicles and stringer supplied shots of insurgents in action despite the fact that it undermined their agenda.

To play the game is to produce highly processed dramatic material. Even in the most innocent situation the job of the news camera operator is to get footage the editor can work with – that is, cut together into a series of visuals which will first and foremost fit the requirements of cinematic presentation. Normally, the editor hasn’t experienced the actual event, but is focused on assembling a presentation to fit a time slot and works dramatically. A good editor has due regard for truth but works through mise en scene. So even when there is absolutely no intention to lie, stage or falsify TV journalists and editors are accustomed to transforming the raw material of their trade into dramatic material by the process of mise en scene. It is quite another matter when editors see raw footage that is clearly staged and edit it to make it look real – as they evidently did in the al Durrah case. That’s deliberate fraud no matter how you try to rationalize or justify it. Just how we got from the sort of staging where we have a dignitary ‘cut another ribbon for the camera’ to al Durrah is a long road and one paved, lake another famous road, with good intentions.

I want to follow this post up with a discussion of the how TV news can be such an enveloping and credible experience in itself that it often merges with in our minds with real experience and how the Blogosphere – including the work of Richard Landes – is making us more aware of that merging. Further to the issue of credibility I also want to discuss the anomalous nature of all photography and how we often accept photographs on the basis of the the assumption that seeing is believing.

Crossposted at Yankeewombat.


  1. Richard Landes says:

    October 26th, 2007at 9:21 pm(#)

    interesting post. i’ll tyr and respond shortly (when i don’t have to prepare my class).

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