Charting the public’s engagement with disaster media

This week in North Philly Notes, Timothy Recuber, author of Consuming Catastrophe, writes about our media-induced empathy for disaster victims, and the problems associated with empathetic hedonism.

From October 4th to October 10th, Hurricane Matthew trudged up the Atlantic coast from Cuba to North Carolina. It killed hundreds in Haiti and caused billions of dollars in damages in the United States. And for several days, it monopolized our attention, elbowing its way into public consciousness alongside the US presidential elections, as news networks provided live coverage in the States while citizen journalists sent shaky, handheld camera footage from locations throughout the Caribbean. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, harrowing tales of rescues mixed together with heart-wrenching stories of loss and earnest appeals to charitable giving on our televisions and computers. Then we began the process of forgetting. Presidential election coverage returned to its absurd heights. War crimes in Yemen took center stage among the foreign news reports. And life for all of us distant spectators of mass-mediated disaster returned to normal.

While this pattern of public engagement with disasters is not surprising, it deserves scrutiny. What does it mean to understand the suffering of others in these ways? How does the increasingly intense and intimate coverage of catastrophes encourage certain kinds of reactions, and discourage others? What sorts of narratives win out when we understand disasters and loss through the succession of powerful yet fleeting mass-mediated experiences, where one disaster and then then next appear and disappear before our eyes? And how are new media technologies altering or reinforcing these patterns?

consuming-catastrophe_smThese were the questions I set out to answer in Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster. I focused on a particularly tumultuous time period in recent American history: the first decade of the twenty first century. From the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, the financial crisis in 2008, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, America was rocked by some of the largest disasters in the country’s history. Yet despite very significant differences in the duration, cost, and amount of lives lost due to these disasters, each followed a fairly similar path through mass-media and public consciousness. Using close reading and discourse analysis of news transcripts, documentary films, reality television programs, and digital archives, I was able to trace out some of the larger cultural norms that emerged during this period.

Chief among these norms is the obligation to show empathy to those directly affected by disasters. In the book, I develop the concept of empathetic hedonism as a way to understand the media-induced pleasure in attempting to imagine what others are feeling, even if those feelings are painful. We are, I argue, increasingly asked to empathize with a whole host of suffering others today. And this certainly can be a good thing. But that empathy often comes at a cost. It is easily focused on individuals and their personal problems, but hard to direct towards structural issues. It is intense but short lived, such that the long aftermath of rebuilding is often ignored. And it works best with spectacular, acute disasters—like hurricanes—rather than long, slow, diffuse disasters—like global climate change, even though the latter has more damaging consequences than anything else. Thus we need to think critically about where and how our attention and emotion is being directed during and after disasters. And as I suggest in Consuming Catastrophe, we need to focus on the less spectacular work of creating a more just society all of the time, not just when disaster strikes.

Telling the story of a bitter conflict over sexuality in the airline industry

This week in North Philly Notes, Ryan Patrick Murphy, author of Deregulating Desire, blogs about the flight attendants’s gains. 

In August 2016, flight attendants for United Airlines ratified a new contract that raised the top wage to over $71,000 per year. The deal provides pay and benefits that far exceed the standard for most jobs in the service economy. Whereas workers in restaurants and in big box stores can be forced into overtime at the last minute, United flight attendants get time and a half if they volunteer to work on busy days. Whereas those in retail and in fast food lose pay when business is slow, United flight attendants are guaranteed their monthly wage regardless of the demand for air travel. In an era when white men continue to out-earn other workers, the new United contract delivers a living wage to a majority woman workforce in which half of new hires are people of color.

deregulating-desire_smFour decades of tireless organizing allowed United flight attendants to lock in these gains. Since the middle of the 1960s, flight attendants have been on the cutting edge of social change. In an era when most middle class white women married and had children right out of high school, flight attendants – or stewardesses as the airlines still called them – stayed single, married later, and delayed motherhood. Living in the downtown areas of major U.S. cities, many stewardesses joined the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements, and helped transform dominant cultural ideas about love, sex, and kinship.  As people’s attitudes about sexuality changed in the 1970s, however, the economy failed to keep pace with the social transformation. On the one hand, most people’s families began to look more like flight attendants’, with people marrying later, having children outside of marriage, or choosing same-sex relationships. But on the other hand, the ideal of the traditional nuclear family became ever more important to the political debates of the 1970s and 1980s as phrases like “female headed households,” and “out of wedlock births” became means to blame poor women – and especially women of color – for their poverty.

Rather than avoiding these heated cultural debates, flight attendants made ideas about family and about sexuality the centerpiece of their union agenda. They built alliances with LGBT and feminist groups outside of the industry, and argued that a living wage, affordable health insurance, and a secure retirement should not be reserved for white men in heavy industry and in corporate management. Flight attendants’ new movement was immensely successful, and real wages for flight attendants at many airlines doubled between 1975 and 1985.

While the category of sexuality galvanized flight attendants, it also became the centerpiece of management’s effort to challenge the flight attendant union movement.  Business leaders in the airline industry – and among the Wall Street bankers who financed their operations – argued that a decade of rapid social change had undermined the values that had always made America strong. To alleviate the vast new economic pressures facing the middle class in the 1970s, managers pushed to restore those bedrock values: deferred gratification, personal responsibility, and hard work. Ordinary families’ stability, big business argued, rested on rolling back the cultural changes that flight attendants and many of their allies had initiated in the 1960s and 1970s. The new alliance between pro-business and pro-family activists presented a daunting challenge for flight attendants, and by the 1990s, unions at many airlines had been forced to forfeit many of their previous gains.

Deregulating Desire tells the story of this bitter conflict over sexuality in the airline industry. While it illuminates the challenges that flight attendants and all feminized service workers have faced as neoliberal reforms transformed their industry, the book shows that an ongoing commitment to feminist and LGBT activist movements has helped them maintain a heavily unionized workplace. As the recent victory at United Airlines demonstrates, flight attendant unions have delivered concrete economic resources for their members, resources that most workers – including much of the white middle class – lack in the 21st century. In an age when economic inequality is the centerpiece of national political debates, and when there is little concrete analysis of nuts-and-bolts efforts to fight economic inequality, Deregulating Desire documents flight attendants’ often successful struggle for workplace justice.

Meet Temple University Press’ new acquisitions editor, Ryan Mulligan

This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with our new acquisitions editor, Ryan Mulligan.

You are acquiring books in sociology, criminology, and sports as well as regional titles. What is your affinity for these discipline?
I worked on sociology books in my previous position and found the discipline to be so vibrant and necessary. Sociology places the human faces we see into the contexts that shape them and make them the way they are. Conversely, it also puts real, complex, human faces on the contexts we make assumptions about. So much of academia is rightly concerned with showing the ways the real world resists our assumptions and heuristics, but sociology is extra important because assumptions and heuristics about people can be so dangerous.

This is a great moment to be getting into criminology, as there is so much skepticism and room for questions and answers in law and order today. Criminology has a close relationship with sociology. It has been mostly published by larger publishers and I’m excited about the opportunity to take a more targeted topical approach to specific subfields that merit a tighter focus but have broad implications.

Everyone who knows me knows I love sports and Philadelphia sports in particular. Everyone describes Philadelphia fans as passionate but we are also demanding and informed, which makes us a voracious readers and consumers of perspectives and information. In other words, it’s a great environment in which to be publishing sports books. Beyond my own fandom I’m also excited about the sports list as a publishing opportunity. So much of sports publishing has traditionally been nostalgic and I think there’s a real opportunity, especially for a university press, to publish books that are curious, socially engaged, forward looking, and concerned about how sports arrived at where they are and where they are going. I see so many outlets online serving a broadly interested and educated sports fan and think that shows a readership underserved by many of the sports books on the bookstore shelf.

I’ll especially look to continue Temple University Press’s strengths in urban sociology, criminology, labor studies, social movements, social stratification, and sexuality and gender studies.


What book (or books) made you fall in love with reading and the power of words?
I’m going to go to my childhood with E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. It was interesting, later on, to read White’s indispensable writing guide, The Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr.) and see him explicitly outline what had enlivened his writing for me as a child: a charming honesty and understated directness. Ray Bradbury deserves a shout-out, too.

What was the last great book you read? (Can be academic or not)
Just before starting work here on the sports list, I read The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, published last May, a book by two analytics-oriented baseball writers who had the opportunity to take over baseball operations for an independent league baseball team. They describe the victories, defeats, and culture clashes resulting from their attempt to put the strategic consensus of the SABR community in to the game plans of the all-too-real coaches and players that inhabit their would-be sandbox. It underscores how hard it still is to get everyone, whatever their view of baseball, to come to grips with their uncertainty, more than a decade after Moneyball.

What one book would you recommend everyone read?
As long as I’m talking about uncertainty and data, everyone should read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. The fun of it is reading well-told stories from several fieldsweather, politics, economics, sports, earthquakeson how the best prognosticators make the best predictions. Everyone can learn something about how the best in a field you don’t know find sense within the mountain of information available to them. But the message that I think should resonate for scholars and civilians like myself alike is how the most knowledgeable people are honest with themselves about what they don’t know

What book or author do you wish more people knew about?
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy. This is an intervention in one of those debates where there are two cogent sides but neither approaches the crux of the problem: Leovy shows that whether we institute more policing or less policing, we would benefit from better policing.

What titles might we be surprised to discover on your bookshelf?
Learn to Surf, by James Maclaren. Not really the vibe I give off – maybe because I haven’t been very successful at it.

What author(s), living or dead, would you be most interested in meeting, or having over for dinner?
Shakespeare. There’s a Titus Andronicus joke to be made here, but I can’t quite work my way around to it.

595_regWhat Temple University Press title could you not put down?
If declaring a favorite child is an unwise parenting strategy, choosing a favorite child among the many you just inherited seems doubly fraught, so I’m going to venture outside my own lists here at Temple and choose a great book on Temple’s backlist that I read as an undergrad philosophy student: The Philosophy of Alain Locke, edited by Leonard Harris. Locke’s philosophy provides background and context for the Harlem Renaissance and for so many pride movements to follow.



Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!



Ray Didinger on “Tommy and Me”

This week in North Philly Notes,  Ray Didinger, author of One Last Read and The New Eagles Encyclopedia, recounts bringing his play Tommy and Mebased on his life, to life on stage.

I didn’t know it was possible to have an experience that is both exhilarating and painful. But that’s what I was feeling Sunday night as Tommy and Me, my first—and probably last—stage play had its final performance at the Fringe Arts theatre.

It was exhilarating because the sellout crowd sent the play off with a standing ovation and afterwards people stayed around to say how much they enjoyed it. The story flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s and the career of Eagles great Tommy McDonald and dozens of people came up to me to relate their own memories of Franklin Field. Some still carried the ticket stubs in their wallets. Three bucks for a seat in the end zone. Yes, it was a long time ago.

TommyandMe SetThe painful part was walking back into the empty theatre and seeing the crew dismantle the set. During the two-week run from August 3 through 14, I virtually lived in that theatre. It became my world and each night when the lights went down and the actors took the stage, I was transported back to my boyhood when I was the freckle-faced fan who wanted nothing more than to carry Tommy McDonald’s helmet as he walked to the practice field. It brought a lump to my throat every night. But on Sunday, seeing it stripped down and silent, reminded me it was, indeed, over.

I knew this night was coming. I knew there would be that moment when I had to let go and Tommy and Me would become a memory, but it did not lessen the sense of loss. We sat at the bar for a long time—the cast, the crew, the whole Theatre Exile team—and talked about the play and how it grew into something larger than we first imagined. All 12 performances were sell outs and each show ended with a standing ovation that seemed to grow louder each night. Tom Teti, the veteran actor who played Tommy McDonald, said, “This was a rare one.” The others at the bar nodded in agreement.

Picture_r688x459Once we left the theatre that night we would be going in different directions. Joe Canuso, the director, is going back to work on Rizzo, the play he successful staged last year and is reviving at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in September. Matt Pfeiffer, the actor who played me as an adult, is headed to Naples, Florida, to direct a play. Ned Pryce, the actor who played the young Tommy McDonald, is already in rehearsal for a role with the Iron Age Theatre. Tom Teti is rejoining the team at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern. Simon Kiley, who played the 10-year-old me, is getting ready to start sixth grade at Girard Academic Music Program. I would return to talking about the Eagles on WIP Sports Radio and Comcast Sports Net.

The New Eagles Encyclopedia_smBut for a little while longer, we were sharing the bond that was Tommy and Me, the play I wrote about my boyhood hero and our unlikely 40-year journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had never written a play before and when I started I wasn’t at all sure it would ever be produced. But thanks to Joe Canuso, who believed in the project, and Bruce Graham, the superb Philadelphia playwright who helped in its development, we were able to bring Tommy and Me to life. To sit in the theatre each evening and hear the audience laugh, sometimes cry, boo any reference to the Dallas Cowboys and ultimately applaud at the final curtain was a thrill unlike anything I had experienced before. I know I’ll never forget it.

Each night ended with the cast returning to the stage to answer questions from the audience. The very first night, a woman stood up and said: “I’m not an Eagles fan. I don’t even like sports…” I thought, “Where is this going?” Then she said, “But this story really touched me.” Several theatre critics [reviews below] made the same point: it isn’t a football story. It is a story about a boy, his hero and dreams coming true. It is a story I always wanted to tell and that’s why on Sunday night it was hard to let go.

Read the DC Metro‘s review. 

Read the Broad Street Review‘s review

Read‘s review

Read NewsWork‘s review

Read Philadelphia Magazine‘s review 



Public Security: The Most Important Theme in Rio de Janeiro

In his second Olympic-themed blog entry, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, addresses the theme of public security in Rio during the Games.

Two term Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes, who has easily been the most interviewed and quoted public authority for the Rio Olympic games, has said more than once that public security is the most important theme in Rio de Janeiro. For Olympics organizers, a main question always has been will public security forces be able to control Rio de Janeiro’s rising street crime and newly emboldened gangs. A much less publicized question—How can anti-Olympics protesters be repressed without violating their human rights?—has already been answered: It can’t be done. The protesters demonstrate against what they view as public money misused on the Olympics because it is needed much more for health, education and various social programs. There are also protesters—some doubtlessly the same individuals—fighting against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. They see impeachment now entering its final phase as a coup d’etat by her political party opponents against Brazilian social democracy. Not discussed at all in politically charged Brazil is the fear of sabotage by opponents of the Olympics or the government—such as setting fires in Olympic installations. All of the above are the various public security fears that must haunt an authority such as Minister of Justice Alexander de Moraes. Focused on Brazilian behavior which is what he knows best, Moraes has played down the possibility of foreign ISIL inspired terrorist attacks.

In the lead up to the Olympic games, public security preparations were usually discussed as numbers of police and of funding them. Taking the lead in providing security is the state of Rio with more than 30,000 police available for Olympic duties. However, for most of 2016, the state of Rio has been broke. On June 17, 81 year old vice-governor and economist Francisco Dornelles—acting in the place of Governor Luis Fernando Pezão then undergoing treatment for lymphoma—rattled Olympic organizers when he declared that Rio de Janeiro was in a “state of public calamity.” It was the first time in Brazilian history this designation had been used to describe anything other than a natural disaster. An immediate effect was the return of 50,000 Olympic event tickets. Dornelles also took experts in public administration by surprise. They questioned whether a “state of public calamity” could be applied to a fiscal collapse. But the wily acting governor, a veteran of 30 years of political combat in Rio de Janeiro, got what he wanted. He activated an immediate transfer of 2.9 billion reais, about 900 million dollars at the current exchange rate, from the federal government to Rio de Janeiro. The money was to help strengthen public security at a time when state police forces more and more appeared not up to the job protecting the people of Rio, the athletes, and the half million tourists expected for the Olympics. The transfer meant police and other public service professionals including teachers and health workers could expect to receive their salaries. One or more local gangs took notice and responded by hijacking a truck transporting containers just arrived from Europe. The containers carried the equipment of two German TV networks for transmitting the Olympic games. The truck was later abandoned. The containers had not been opened, and the valuable equipment was untouched and safe. But the gangsters served notice that they had interests of their own. Following this show of strength, some arrangement might be expected whereby organized crime groups will play a part in keeping Rio de Janeiro safe during the Olympics. Retail and wholesale drug trafficking no doubt continues with little interference. Brazil ranks second on the list of countries in consumption of cocaine, and Rio de Janeiro is a major port for the export of cocaine to Africa and Europe.

The police began to receive back salaries dating to May. Still, on July 4, the civil police staged an event at Rio’s international airport when they received passengers with  “Welcome to Hell” English language banners, and with stuffed figures of dead, bloodied police spread on a terminal floor. The message: Police would not die for Rio if they were not being paid. An exasperated Eduardo Paes viewed the spectacle as yet one more public relations disaster. He went on CNN and in an English-language interview pronounced Rio’s public security “Horrible.” He blamed the police, and the Rio state government. He insisted the city government of Rio had nothing to do with public security which is a state responsibility. But he also knew help was on the way. The next day Mayor Paes welcomed the arrival of federal armed forces, federal police, and soldiers of the National Security Force. Together with state police, they are now conspicuously present in order to discourage crime, and reassure visitors that Rio de Janeiro is a safe haven. Accordingly, 51,000 members of security forces have been deployed in metropolitan Rio. 22,000 members of the armed forces and federal police are assigned to protect the Olympic installations, the routes and public transportation taking people to and from the games, and the Tom Jobim international airport. With security apparently well in hand, a much subdued Paes declared on July 5th that the Olympics would surely be a tremendous success and leave a positive legacy for the city of Rio.

Layout 1This optimism lasted a little over two weeks. The evening of July 21 brought news that police were arresting 13 homegrown ISIS inspired would-be terrorists. All were self-indoctrinated converts to Islam. They communicated with each other via social media. Calling themselves “Defenders of Sharia,” they pledged allegiance to ISIS as virtual acts on the internet. One suspect was said to have tried to buy weapons in Paraguay.   Minister of Justice Moraes said the individuals were clearly amateurs, and in the early stage of planning something.

The arrests and revelations clearly added to public uneasiness in Rio de Janeiro, and mobilized authorities. Would Brazilian security forces be up to the job of thwarting one or more terrorist attacks? There was skepticism as can well be imagined. But people soon learned that the project of thwarting had become internationalized. Other countries, including the United States, France, Israel and Russia with their more experienced intelligence services were present for the Olympics and working with Brazilians which brought reassurance. Intelligence and other security agents—no doubt feeling their backs to the wall after all the recent terrorist attacks in different countries—seem absolutely determined to stop terrorists at the Olympics, be they a Brazilian home grown variety, or foreigners infiltrated into Olympic crowds and groups of tourists. It’s them against us. In this spirit of providing safety, wherever crowds of people gather in Rio, there are substantial numbers of well-armed police or other security forces reinforced by plainclothes agents.

Many people in Brazil and elsewhere no doubt believe that terrorist acts cannot be stopped entirely. The Rio Olympics offer a chance to show otherwise at least for a moment when several billion people around the world are watching the games on TV.  Minister of Justice Moraes has lately declared “minimal” and “approaching zero” the probability of a terrorist attack.

Ready or Not: Rio on the Eve of the Olympics

On the ground in Rio, Philip Evanson, co-author of Living in the Crossfire, reflects on what life is like as the games begin.

For the months leading up to the 2016 summer Olympics games, media reporting has been largely critical of Rio de Janeiro’s, and by extension Brazil’s ability to complete preparations for the mega sports event. This critical viewpoint was shared even by the Brazilian patrician press with perhaps A Folha de São Paulo taking the lead. A stream of reports from inside and outside Brazil focused on delays and mishaps. As late as July 1st,  The New York Times published an article Brazilian journalist Vanessa Barbara about “Brazil’s Olympic Catastrophe.” The article took us into a world of chaos and uncertainties that seemed an inherent part of preparations for the Rio Olympics. Thomas Bach, the German president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that Brazil was an example of a country that liked to wait until the final hour to complete a big task such as preparations for the Olympics. However, he remained optimistic and sure that the Brazilian hosts would get the job done in time for the opening ceremony August 5.

This was his view just the day after delegations of athletes from several countries, including Brazil itself, refused to occupy their assigned residences saying they were unfit for habitation. They entered apartments where pipes leaked, toilets might not flush, and electric wires were exposed. In fact, only 15 of 31 new high rise apartment buildings in the Olympic Village were ready to receive delegations as of Sunday, July 24 when they opened for occupancy. 630 workers were quickly hired to work around the clock to complete the work by Thursday. This was one more public relations disaster and not to be overcome so quickly. Ministry of Labor inspectors made an unexpected visit. They found that Brazilian labor law was being flouted. Workers had not been hired according to rules of formal sector employment. They were working longer hours than permitted, in one case 23 hours straight, and not enough time was allowed for meals. The Ministry fined the Rio Olympic committee nearly $100,000. Still the work was completed and delegation complaints then turned to praise.

Now in the early 21st century, the port area in downtown Rio is once again a main target of urban renewal. Demolition of an old, dirty elevated freeway, remodeling older buildings and putting up new ones has dramatically changed the area, making it an inviting zone of high interest. For the residents of Rio and visitors, the important lures will be new museums and cultural centers. The Museum of Tomorrow is architecturally the most striking and important structure. Hailed by The Guardian on its inauguration in 2015 as one of the world’s most extraordinary contemporary buildings, it is dedicated to the idea of human and planetary sustainability.

My wife Regina and I decided to see changes in the port area and downtown Rio. We took a ride on the new light rail tramline that circulates between the bus station and the domestic Santos Dumont airport. We could see how in much of the area traversed, the planned renewal has largely been completed and ready to receive tens of thousands tourists who will come to the Olympics. There are Olympics connected projects in the area that are not strictly about sporting events. We got off at the stop on the newly christened Olympic Boulevard where Brazilian graffiti artist Eduardo Kobra is finishing an enormous multicolored mural “We are all one.” The mural celebrates the unity of the human race in five continents, and the search for peace. We wanted to see it, and to see him at work partly because we live in Philadelphia which is a leader in the outdoor mural movement and have become interested in this form of public art. Kobra’s mural is spread over a block long cinderblock wall and occupies about twice as many square feet as the world’s next largest mural. We watched him spray paint areas while standing on a hydraulic lift platform, but there were strong gusts of wind that must have made the work more difficult than usual. He was working from what seemed a color chart. We plan to return to watch again this remarkable work in progress. Kobra is hurrying to complete it by the official opening day of August 5.

We are now in the countdown phase to the opening ceremony—counted in days (now only 3 as this is being written), hours, minutes and seconds. An Olympic media slogan aims for social inclusion “Somos Todos Olímpicos,” or “We are all Olympians,” but a poll published on July 19 showed that 50% of the population was against the 2016 Rio Olympics, 40% in favor, and 10% did not know where they stood. 63% think Brazil will be worse for the Olympics. A certain lack of enthusiasm, even opposition to the games was obviously taken to heart by Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes whose emotional fever chart is always on display. In an interview on August 1st with A Folha de São Paulo. the mayor lamented the fact that Brazilians were in a bad mood due to the hard times (three years of recession),  also the political crisis of impeaching a president, and the endless Operation Carwash investigations of corrupt practices in the highest places of politics and corporate business. He said to the contrary that Brazilians should feel good about the Olympics. Largely by themselves, Brazilians had been able to overcome all the problems and emergencies associated with the games and that similar problems occurred in other summer Olympic games. The IOC was grateful for the way we responded to contingencies, and surprised that Brazilians had such a low opinion of themselves. Paes called it “our complex of being a mongrel people.”As for critical local press reporting, including in A Folha de São Paulo, it had contaminated public opinion when times were so difficult, in effect, turned people against the Olympics. However, looking at Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing urban transformation as spurred by the Olympics, the mayor brightened. He was sure it would be “more profound” than what even had occurred in the famous Barcelona Olympics of 1992 when Barcelona consolidated its reputation as a great cosmopolitan city.


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