The Cultural Capital of New Creative Industries

Adam Fish of UCLA contributed this occasional piece on the relationship of journalism and anthropology. -ck

On May 11, 2009, Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist once charged with espionage and facing eight years of imprisonment in Iran was released. While anthropologists should celebrate her freedom and the upholding of the freedom of press we should also be deeply troubled that two reporters remain detained in North Korea facing trial for spying. One of them, Laura Ling, a Vanguard Journalist for Current TV, is an important informant for my anthropological research into new media journalism. Her difficult situation sheds light on the limited cultural capital of emergent creative industries in the digital age. As professionals who regularly analyze the power dynamics in the production of media, border issues, and state-to-state conflict, Ling’s case is important. Anthropologists and journalists share many of the same methods, goals, and dangers.

Current TV and North Korea

My research is with new media journalists, the creative industries built around them, and the practice and rhetoric of democracy that these journalists and industries reflect and glorify. As part of my fieldwork, I have worked as a video journalist for Current TV, the Al Gore backed user-generated television and internet creative industry. Current TV supported my work in several conflict zones: the Green Zone of Cyprus, Belfast, a disputed border between China and India, etc. It
was in the course of working with Current TV that I met Laura Ling and her camera-person Mitch Koss. On March 17, Ling, Koss, and Euna Lee were near the Yalu River on the border of China to interview North Korean defectors. Koss escaped and Lee and Ling were
detained by North
Korean border. They are awaiting trial for espionage.

News Production in the Digital Age

On May 20, 2009, the US Senate lead by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) began hearings on the mortality of the newspaper industry. In the digital age, newspapers are going extinct. The way people read news is changing because of the ubiquity of networked personal computers. Journalism production is changing because of the proliferation of video recording devices and the broadband capacities of those networked computers to share information peer-to-peer. Enthusiasts call this the “democratization of news production.” These two trends toward online reading and viewer-production are fatally damaging the newspaper industries. As local newspapers die, new creative industries respond to capitalize on our need for information. Current TV is one of the new convergent media corporations developed to exploit the reformed production and consumption circuit. Nevertheless, their progressive status does not result in powers of state-to-state political persuasion such as to free their journalists. These new creative industries of news, it appears, do not have the economic or persuasive powers of major newspapers and television news agencies and thus do not have the cultural capital necessary to keep their reporters safe or lobby for their return. (In fact, Current is censoring any uploading of news articles referring to the detention of Ling on their social media site Our concern should be that anthropologists have even less institutional support. Journalists freedom from institutional constraint makes them susceptible to new dangers. Additionally, the strange paradox is that with the democratization of journalism comes an increasing problem about how journalists can report on the presence or absence of democracy in foreign countries.

Shared Methods

Anthropologists and journalists are both largely uncredentialed and independent. We work alone and try to retain anonymity. Reliance upon interviews and close proximity to our subjects are essential methods. Graduate degrees are prevalent. We are reliant upon the privileges of cosmopolitan travel. We are usually from the West and studying an ethnic other. Some of these qualities make for excellent fieldwork but challenge personal safety.

The best from both disciplines tie explicit details to social trends in cultural history and power dynamics. While anthropologists stay longer and collect enough fine-grained information for a book length manuscript instead of a column, only a few journalists stay with a population for years. Saberi lived and worked in Iran for three years. Ling and Lee were temporarily near North Korea reporting on transnational immigration as part of a series of global investigations into border issues–much like multisited transnational anthropology. This shared territory between anthropologists and journalists should makes us uneasy about how journalists are treated.

Most importantly, anthropologists and journalists share the same stratigraphy of cultural capital. Affiliated with institutions of weak economic and persuasive capacities both anthropologists and
journalists risk not existing under the radar of protective governmental bodies and the mainstream media. We are both seen by the despotically powerful as identifying with the less powerful. Despite
the high political profile of its founder, Current TV hasn’t the cultural capital as an under appreciated television network to demand for the release of their journalists. As recording devices are democratized in price and proliferate, states without a tradition of a free press will increase their assault on citizen and foreign journalists and thereby hide their countries’ violations of human

Anthropologists and new media journalists’ independence and solitary mobility create opportunities for the collection of intimate details. Our capacity to move transnationally helps in the production of
multisited investigations of a global world. The absence of credentials and affinity increases intellectual independence. However, the absence of paternal institutions that structure the development and deployment of cultural capital creates for a dangerous work environment for conflict studies. With mobility, anonymity, and independence comes with it a negative price: our information being ignored or worse yet our bodies being forgotten.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

2 thoughts on “The Cultural Capital of New Creative Industries

  1. I agree, in general, everything you said. As a Korean American anthropologist who has done a fieldwork in Geumgang Mountains tourist site in North Korea and on inter-Korean national politics, my whole hearted support goes to the detained journalists and I wish their immediate safe release.
    For my own personal academic curiosity, I would like to ask some questions. Have you considered gender, race (nationality), political orientation when speaking of anthropologists and journalists? Anthropologists have a long tradition of reflecting upon one’s position and identity as a researcher but also a product of her/his own culture and society. So gender, race, and other factors that define your position and identity have great implications. For example, would it make any difference if two journalists were white male?
    When you said “Our capacity to move transnationally helps in the production of multisited investigations of a global world.” Isn’t it true in often times that the capacity is conditioned by what national passport one carries. And lastly, how would anthropologists and journalists or Current TV gain more cultural captial?

  2. A journalist with a network news operation, a wire service or a big paper will get more backup and support than any citizen journalist will. Ling had lots of experience, all at Current. Lee had been a tape editor, and Koss has twice as much experience as both of them together.

    An anthropologist at a large university has more clout than someone from a small school, and both have more an independent scholar.

    Current didn’t give these people the support they needed (who hired the now-vanished local fixer?) It’s not that Current is “underappreciated” but rather that Current hires people with little or no experience, pays them nothing, and throws them into hot spots to sink or swim. This model isn’t working, clearly.

    Hard to believe, but sometimes professional journalists have skills and instincts that “citizen journalists” don’t have. These women are professionals, but should never have been given this assignment without more support.

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