5. Example Incidents

The models discussed in this paper are not static by any means. They undergo constant evolution. Often that evolution is in response to a direct challenge of some form. In this section, we will discuss three incidents, each of which challenged some aspect of the author/fan models.

5.1 Story Ideas

Just today I received a legal piece of paper from a pinhead in Georgia who thinks I swiped his idea for a ZONE, and that's probably going to involve lengthy legal stuff to prove that I didn't do it. [5-1]
-- J. Michael Straczynski

In any society which attempts to establish precise ownership of intellectual property ideas, creative artists must exercise great care in limiting their exposure to material related to what they are creating. Yet one cannot be a creative artist without training and knowledge of the field in which one creates. This paradox of appropriation plays itself out in many forms. In a new media environment where a writer is in constant daily contact with the thoughts, ideas and suppositions of fans, there is a constant danger of contamination, in a legal sense, as the quotation above indicates.

Usually the ideas are nebulous and, given the wide variety of possibilities in a complex universe such as Babylon 5, there is little overlap. But it can happen. On August 15, 1994, JMS posted the following message to GEnie:

Kwicker..."What if Joe wrote a story in which a "memory-challenged" person DISCOVERED records of who or what he was?"

I was in the process of developing that as a b-story in an upcoming episode.

Because of that comment, I now have to scuttle the story.

I understand that this proceeds from enthusiasm on everyone's part, but let me repeat this as forcefully as I can: NO STORY IDEAS. No matter what anyone says, what disclaimers are put up, if I see a story idea that is something we're doing or contemplating doing...I have to scuttle it to protect the series.

This has just torpedoed what would've been a very compelling little b-story. [5-2]

The reaction to this incident was an almost universal condemnation of the fan in question. The absolute control of the auteur had been called into direct question and the fans closed ranks in response to what was perceived as a threat to the show. In response to the threat, a group of fans on Usenet stepped in. Previously, JMS had been receiving Usenet news messages directly; now the Rangers (as the fan group called itself, after the Rangers in Babylon 5) interceded and removed messages which could be construed as story ideas.

Eventually, a solution was found and the story was produced. It aired this (third) season, under the title Passing Through Gethsemane. In essence, the sinner recanted his sin, as JMS reported:

[...] this was the story that someone else (don't want to use names, no sense in blaming anyone) had accidentally suggested while I was working on it early in season two. So I had to scuttle the script for nearly a year. Finally, very chagrined over what happened, the individual gave me a notarized form explaining the situation. At that point, I was able to reactivate the story. So no, it's not any kind of "it's okay to do this" notion about story ideas; as it is, the story was tied up for about a year, and might never have seen the light of day had not the other person made great efforts to set the situation straight. [5-3]

It is ironic that the group set up to deal with the story ideas "problem" and prevent possible resulting charges of plagiarism is called Rangers; that title is itself appropriated from the works of Tolkein, as the Rangers in Babylon 5 serve much the same function as the Rangers in Lord of the Rings. In some ways the issue of appropriation from fans to author has shaped much of the discourse on the networks, but the issue of authorial appropriation from other sources has never been a topic of discussion.

This incident shows that the operative models (authorial intention, auteur construction) dominate the discourse. Challenges, when they arise, are dealt with inside the established framework. No one questions JMS's "right" to control the posting of story ideas on a supposedly open network. Even with the Rangers in place, the newsgroup guidelines still direct would-be creative efforts to another mailing list.

5.2 Racism Charges

[...] at one time our Xenobiologist was Indian, named Chakri Mendak. It was only after careful deliberation that I decided to change the character to an African-American, which was done for several reasons, not the least of which being that it would let me bring in some Indian characters in other roles that could be quite interesting. And yes, overall I want to draw from a number of different ethnic groups and heritages, because they each add something new to the mix. And the context throws into relief the fact that those OTHER guys are all aliens, but we -- whatever the ethnic background -- are all equally human, and I think that will do a lot to ease or even eliminate racism. [5-4]
-- J. Michael Straczynski

A recurring theme in several of the net discussion fora has been charges of racism made against JMS and against Babylon 5 in general by several different fans. It has taken several forms, from the very mild:

Well, (gulp) has anyone else noticed that the only major black character on B5 is a junkie.
-- harry knowles

to the very aggressive:

Racism is in the heart of this show and if not why did they replace the asia woman that was commander before Ivanova. We are to be impressed with the guess stars that are minority and yet there is only one minority on the show.
-- Blacnight9 (AOL screen name, real name unknown)

Accusations of racism are always hard to deal with, particularly for white men in positions of power. It is easy to read JMS's quotation at the beginning of this section as promoting tokenism; the notion that having one Indian character somehow prevents other Indian characters from appearing is hard to rationalize. On the other hand, JMS clearly constitutes himself via his public commentary as being against tokenism and in favor of color-blind casting. This "party line" is echoed by fans like this one, defending against knowles' comment:

Franklin was a junkie before a black actor was chosen for the part.

B5 casting is totally color-blind. This is because jms is, and everyone is in 2260.
-- Jay Denebeim

Of course, Denebeim has no way to know that this is the case; rather, he is stating his belief in the author-function he has constructed. In his model, JMS embodies that which is good about the series, a common phenomenon in fandom, as Tulloch and Jenkins note:

The tendency is to ascribe the series' virtues to those agents with whom the fans have the most direct personal contact (the producers, the writers, the actors) and to ascribe its faults to forces more removed from the fan's world and less easily conceptualized in personal terms (the studio, the network, the ratings system). [5-5]

So Denebeim naturally assumes that what is true of his model must also be true of the person behind the model. And, in fact, this may be the case; however, I am less interested in the particulars of the person than I am in the expression of the model we see in this sample exchange.

Interestingly, though perhaps by now not unexpectedly, we see that JMS does not share my belief. In his response to Blacnight9, he invokes a personal image:

I didn't come into the world with a silver spoon. We were poor. I'm not talking poor lower case letters, I'm talking POOR. We lived in houses without roofs, without heat in the winter, always on the run from creditors. You know where poor folks live, Blacnight? In the poor part of town, which was usually the ethnic part of town. Most of my life I lived in areas that were mainly black, or hispanic, or puerto rican. I lived in Newark just before the riots, as a kid, the only white kid on the whole BLOCK. I've got class photos from schools as a kid, and you look for row after row, and in the lines of brown and black faces, you find one -- ONE -- white face. Mine. It ain't a case of "well, sure, some of my friends were black," ALL of them were. Or Puerto Rican. Or Hispanic. [5-6]

As we saw in the previous section, a significant part of the construction of JMS as auteur comes through self-revelation. Here, by introducing his own lower-class and multi-ethnic upbringing he is seeking to bring to bear a set of associations which would make him impervious to the charges of racism leveled against Babylon 5.

However, the logic does not hold. Even if we grant JMS's premise that his childhood makes him "not a racist" (whatever that might mean), we still must make the further leap of granting him absolute power over the show in order to completely constitute the show itself as non-racist. Whether or not JMS actually exerts this level of control over a show produced by a major company such as Time Warner is unlikely, but not so interesting as the promotion of the concept in response to the charge.

Once again, we see that promotion of the concept contributes to the auteur myth. It grants JMS an absolute power, one that is almost magical, but one that is clearly believed by many of the fans. Furthermore, this incident demonstrates a way in which alternative interpretations are not granted conversational space.

It seems quite plausible to me that someone (knowles in this case, but in general any reader) could observe the cast composition, deconstruct its meanings vis a vis racial makeup and the standard American stereotype of the drug user, and arrive at this interpretation. JMS' choice of a black actor for that role has racial meanings and overtones irregardless of his personal views on the matter and notwithstanding his upbringing and his ability to control the casting and plot lines. If anything, granting JMS the control he implies makes the matter more interesting, because a deconstructionist view which acknowledged that degree of power would suggest that the choices were deliberate.

More than any other conflict seen so far in the newsgroups and discussion areas, the way that charges of racism are discussed shows how the particular models under which JMS operates differ from those of certain (ethnic and numerical) minorities within the fan community.

5.3 JMS leaves rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5

[...] rastb5 has been virtually taken hostage by a very few people who have no interest in this forum except to tear down this show in general, and me in particular. To that effect, they lie, manufacture facts, speculate based on premises that have no basis whatsoever in reality, engage in smear campaigns, insult and abuse users of this area, drop innuendo when they have nothing else to grab onto...they leap into threads that should by all rights be reasonably safe from flame and turn them into referendums on whether or not jms is a liar, in the kind of logic that stems from "are you still beating your wife?" premises. [5-7]

On November 27, 1995, JMS announced he was leaving the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5. Once again, his broadside contained a mixture of different models and reasoning that could by itself be a subject of extensive analysis. Additionally, one could analyze the purported issues of contention between JMS and his detractors, including the interesting claim that Babylon 5 fans are "sheep" who too slavishly follow JMS's utterances and do not engage in critical analyses of the series.

For the analysis in this paper, though, we will focus on only a few of the issues. Perhaps the most important element of this incident is that it happened at all. JMS's decision, the public way in which it was broadcast, the timing (he left Usenet at almost precisely the same time as he was invited to host a Babylon 5 area on AOL, leading to unsubstantiated charges that he was profiting from the AOL venture) and the resulting reactions, have changed the character of the newsgroup discussion in ways that still remain to be resolved. Even though the torrent of messages on the topic (well over 100 per day for several weeks afterward) has largely died down, it is still far too early to say whether this flare-up will significantly alter author-reader relations in this fan community.

On one level, this incident can be modeled as a fracas about technology and thin skins. As noted in the discussion of Net capabilities, there are technological (partial) solutions to the problem of dealing with articles or authors you do not want to see, for whatever reason. Despite JMS's self-professed level of net sophistication (he claims to have been on-line with GEnie for almost ten years), apparently no technology like this was used.

It is unclear precisely how JMS saw Usenet news articles, since he was not using a conventional news reader. As mentioned earlier, the Rangers were already filtering the group to remove potential story ideas. In addition, posters had taken to putting the tag ATTN: JMS onto postings which they wished him to read. Initially, these postings usually involve a question or other search for authorial interpretation. However, because people do not often bother to change the subject line of messages, this tag's utility rapidly decayed as it automatically appeared on every followup message to the original.

Additionally, one could be surprised that someone who had been on the networks for as long as JMS had would be unfamiliar with the extremely common Usenet habit of "flaming." This topic has been written about by other critics of new media in detail; suffice it to say that vitriolic personal attacks are nothing new to this medium and that they can be directed against anyone who attains notice in the forum. Simply put, one would have expected JMS to have a thicker skin.

In general, this sort of thick-skinned nature is something our society has forced upon public figures of all sorts. Celebrities learn that with public notice comes detractors and they learn to ignore the clearly outlandish ones; this is why no one bothers to sue The Weekly World News. However, the new media present three difficulties for this conventional model of celebrity.

First, there is the issue of celebrity itself. Despite all the evidence that we have seen to the contrary, JMS still publicly maintains his "innocence" in the face of the cult of personality he has helped create. He denies the auteur label and may indeed believe that fans do not see him this way, despite all the evidence to the contrary we have seen in this paper. While fan icons (such as Gene Roddenberry) have previously attained this status, none have done so in such a direct personal spotlight as the new media have cast on JMS.

Second, as we have seen, the new media have encouraged a closeness and intimacy which is largely unprecedented. JMS has felt free to discuss his religious beliefs, his childhood, his writing technique, his relationships with cast and production company members, and many other details of his life that would likely have remained unexplored without the new media. This degree of intimacy and self-revelation place Usenet vituperation in a different category, much closer to home than slander in a supermarket tabloid.

Third, there is the sense that the attacks on the auteur poison the fan community as a whole. For better or worse, fans develop and maintain relationships through the new media. They begin by reading each others' postings to the newsgroup and often move to private email exchanges and to face-to-face meetings at fan conventions. These conventions often feature parties themed around particular connections, such as the popular "@ Parties" which were held to bring together fans with email addresses, back in the days when this was a relatively rare phenomenon. Given this sense of community, constituted around a text for which JMS feels personally (and perhaps solely) responsible, it is easy to see a logic which leads him to feel he has to withdraw. As he puts it, the flames have:

[...] ruined this forum for not only me but a great deal of other people who've emailed me to say that they don't post here any more, because they've gotten tired of being attacked, tired of reading the endless tirades and smears and assaults on me and other users. [...]

I have become, in many ways, the football used to pull others on either side of the line into an ugly and destructive game. And the only way to stop it is to remove the football. [ibid]

This interpretation by JMS of the situation can be seen as incredibly paternalistic. Just as JMS asserts his authority over the text and discusses his control over it, he now extends that model to the fans. Remember that an encode-transmit-decode model requires a relatively passive reader, one with limited powers and limited imaginative structure, confined only to extracting the encoded meaning from the text. This indeed seems to be the model JMS subscribes to, that of fans needing his protection in their discussions, just as they need his help to keep Babylon 5 on the air in their local community.

JMS's departure spawned a host of messages by fans who indicated that they were "leaving" the community; that is, ceasing to read the newsgroup. One wrote: "With your departure, the worth of bearing their pettiness has evaporated, and I am content to leave it to the slavering visigoths that have made camp here." Clearly this gentleman fan subscribed to a model of community where the word of the auteur was the only currency of interest.

The specific fans named in JMS's posting as being responsible for his departure received significant vilification from the majority of the publicly-posting fan community. Messages suggesting that the named miscreants be "hanged" vied with messages suggesting they be banned from the newsgroup. Each posting they made generated a dozen or so followups, including many which urged the fan community to ignore or shun the offenders. Of course, such a coordinated campaign is impossible and the resulting debate only added to the notoriety they received.

Condemnation was not universal, however. There was some defense from parts of the community:

I would like to voice my unqualified support for Fuller at al. You would think someone in JMS's line of work would have thicker skin. B5 is ONLY a TV show!!!!! If JMS gets upset because some people think it sucks then he has serious problems that have nothing to do with this group.[...]

Criticism is part of the real world. Most of you are posting from the US so you don't cherish concepts like free speech, but I for one think Fuller at al have the right to say anything they please.[...]

Now that the King is dead perhaps this group might get an injection of democracy. [5-8]
-- Colin E Manning, Babylon 5 fan

This posting raises key questions about how disagreements between authors and fans can take place in the space created by the prevailing encode-decode models of this fan group. Not the least of of the telling points is the jab at fans in the United States (by someone posting from Ireland) for lack of respect for the speech of others who disagree with them, a position which echoes Chomsky's critiques of popular opinion formation in the U.S., such as he expresses in the film biography Manufacturing Consent.

Another, slightly larger sector of the fan community responded with sympathy for JMS, but condemnation of fans who abandoned the group. Huber expressed it this way:

I'm mildly insulted (very mildly) by the "JMS is gone? Then I'm out of here!" posts. Are the rest of us chopped liver? Are you just looking for a Q&A session? I hope that many of the folks who've posted here will continue to do so; I enjoy reading much of what is written, and hope that some of you like some of my posts as well. I prefer seminars and panel sessions to Q&A sessions. [5-9]
-- William Huber

This posting expresses the most cogent critical challenge I saw in the group in response to this incident. Here we find an explicit critique of the operative models used to support the auteur and a plea for more egalitarian forms of reading, wherein fans working together would create meaning without necessarily referencing a Delphic authority for dispute resolution and wisdom dispensation. The analogy of a seminar, presumably modeled on the free intellectual exchange of seminars in university graduate programs, seems closer to a traditional Birmingham School model of reader response than that expressed by the vast majority of the fans.

A logical question to ask is why this situation ever developed. Given that the Rangers already filtered the group for story ideas, could they simply not eliminate undesired postings? Human beings can perform the filter functions that software can only poorly emulate. Ron Jarrell, one of the leaders of the Rangers, addressed this point directly:

[...] we can eliminate anything out of the group. However Joe's not really interested in that, because even if we DID pull them out of what's HE'S seeing, they're still there. We'd also start having to delete messages that refer to them, and messages that refer to those, etc, etc. [5-10]
-- Ron Jarrell

Thus the fans, notably the opinion leaders in the newsgroup community, support the rationale of authorial personal responsibility outlined above. In a sense what seems to be happening is a form of reification, in which the abstract fan community comes to identify with the concrete person of the writer, and vice versa. In a sense he is "one of us" -- a fan of his own creation, and yet he is somehow special.

As I said before, this incident is still unfolding. On December 7th, the Lurker site announced that JMS would "rejoin" the newsgroup, via some (unspecified) mechanism similar to that initially rejected by Jarrell. He is receiving a filtered version of the group, consisting solely of the questions and posts directed specifically to him, presumably from approved posters only. It is hard not to draw a comparison to the king and his food tasters, sampling each dish to be sure poison would not pass the lips of the sovereign.

Finally, some closing comments.


Copyright © Alan Wexelblat

Alan Wexelblat <wex@media.mit.edu>
Except where otherwise noted
Last modified: Tue Mar 5 12:00:50 1996