Yawning Bread. February 2007

Incredible wife makes disappearing act




Melissa Etheridge
Photo from Logo Online

"I have to thank my Tammy and our four children," Melissa Etheridge said when she was awarded the Oscar last Sunday night (California time). [1]

Wrong. That's not what she said. That's what you would have heard her say, if you had tuned in to Channel 5's repeat telecast of the Academy Awards ceremony.

What she had actually said was, "I have to thank my incredible wife Tammy and our four children...." Mediacorp edited out the 2 words that I have shown in italics.

Eileena Lee, the leader of the lesbian online forum RedQueen, caught the station redhanded. She had noticed that Etheridge's words during the direct telecast (Monday morning, Singapore time) and the repeat telecast (Monday night, Singapore time) were different. Her suspicions were confirmed when she found a YouTube video capturing Etheridge's acceptance speech. [2] 

First question: Is it ethical journalism to quote a person directly (showing that person speaking is the same as quoting her directly), and yet alter the words?

Second question: Ethics aside, what purpose does such an edit serve? Especially since the actual words had been broadcasted earlier on the same station, and continue to be broadcasted by other stations around the world?

If Channel 5 wanted its viewers to think that Etheridge was referring to a male spouse called "Tammy", then the station would have been out to promote a lie. If, on the other hand, it believed that viewers would nonetheless hear "Tammy" as a female person, then why bother to cut out "incredible wife"?

Perhaps the station felt that the reference to "incredible wife" would give legitimacy to same-sex marriage, something that it believed our government (the owners of Mediacorp) would not want. But that means that, because a concept is banned, then the use of language to describe that concept must likewise be banned, even as the rest of the word uses language in such a fashion. Aren't we then making sure Singaporeans do not understand English as it is used?

The fact is, the use of "husband" and "wife" to refer to same-sex spouses, legally married or otherwise, is creeping into English. For example, when US Congressman Gerry Stubbs died in October 2006, the New York Times, in its obituary said, "Gerry E. Studds, the first openly gay member of Congress and a demanding advocate for New England fishermen and for gay rights, died early Saturday at Boston University Medical Center, his husband said. The cause was a vascular illness that led Mr. Studds to collapse while walking his dog ..." [3] 

That was the New York Times, and its use there reflects the usage's currency, as well as accord it linguistic legitimacy.

Here in Singapore we have the government decrying the spread of Singlish [4]. Singaporeans should speak internationally-understood forms of English, the government has said, because being understood is essential to maintaining a competitive advantage as a global city. Yet by such silly -- no, paranoid -- editing of TV, we leave Singaporeans deaf to the modern usage of language. Provincial language and provincial attitudes reinforce each other. No use wishing to be a cosmopolitan, global city.

* * * * *

The same thing had happened in August 2003 when gay couple Chip Arndt and Reichen Lehmkuhl won the TV reality show Amazing Race 4. The comments they made to CBS in a post-race interview were edited out by Channel 5 when they carried the interview. This was what Singapore audiences did not hear:

"This Race was about a lot of things. It was about competitiveness. It was about showing the world that gay people can do anything that anyone else can do." Said Reichen Lehmkuhl, a former US Air Force officer and flight instructor. "There's such a stereotype of the feminine, homosexual male and we wanted to break that and show that we can do anything."

He also added, "But the most important thing I learned is that I'm very loved by my partner, and I can feel safe and happy and protected when I'm around him."

Chip Arndt, a finance consultant, concurred, "There's no way I could've gotten through this without Reichen's support and patience. What I realised throughout the Race is how much I need him and how much he needs me. In the end, people look at both Reichen and myself and they see love, and they realize that Reichen and I are partners, and together, we can do anything."

Admittedly, the sentiments were rather over the top, but I'm sure over the top was not the reason the station edited them out. In all likelihood, it was simply the very mention that they had a relationship [5].  The station would have been mindful of how Mediaworks' Channel i was fined S$15,000 by the Media Development Authority (MDA) just 2 months earlier in June 2003 for airing a program in which Anne Heche spoke quite calmly about her ex-relationship with Ellen Degeneres.

Interestingly, the cable channel AXN showed the Lehmkuhl-Arndt interview intact on Friday, 22 August 2003. Cable channels are not part of Mediacorp, but carried by Singapore Cable Vision (SCV).

They might have got away that time, but SCV itself was fined S$10,000 by the Media Development Authority (MDA) in October 2006 for airing an episode of the series Cheaters. See the article Cable TV fined over lesbian sex.

* * * * *

The MDA governs through their Codes of Practices. There are separate codes for free-to-air and subscription TV, with slightly stricter standards for free-to-air.

Part 5 of the Free-to-air Television Code says "Information, themes or subplots on lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transsexualism... should be treated with utmost caution. Their treatment should not in any way promote, justify or glamorise such lifestyles." [6]

What I can't figure out in an hour's research is what the source of MDA's power to levy fines is, in terms of legislation. I searched the Broadcasting Act and the Media Development Authority of Singapore Act, but couldn't find any specific provision in there for MDA to impose summary fines based purely on its administrative discretion.

The reason it bothers me is that under the present system, the MDA is acting as both prosecutor and judge. What if a TV station disputes MDA's finding that it has breached the relevant Code of Practice, what processes are available to the broadcaster to be given a fair and independent hearing? Why don't such issues go to court before fines are imposed?

Centuries of judicial practice have elaborated a system, whether by jury trial or judicial review, in which interpretation of laws and by-laws are thrashed out in public, with the involvement of disinterested parties. Yet here we seem to have a system that bypasses all such quality controls. How can this be right? As it stands, it serves the government, but does it serve the public interest?

If any reader can point me to the appropriate provisions in law, it'd be much appreciated.

Yawning Bread 



  1. Melissa Etheridge won the 2007 Oscar for Best Original Song "I Need to Wake Up" in the film  An Inconvenient Truth.
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  2. The YouTube video has since been taken off due to copyright violation.
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  3. New York Times, 15 Oct 2006, Gerry Studds, Gay Congressman Who Served 12 Terms, Is Dead at 69. 
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  4. The local patois that is mainly a mangled mix of English and Chinese.
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  5. Reichen Lehmkuhl and Chip Arndt have since split up.
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  6. Media Development Authority, Free-to-air Television Programme Code, Part 5. www.mda.gov.sg/wms.file/mobj/mobj.612.fta_tv_prog_code.pdf 
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  1. 7 March 2007: I just learnt that Mediacorp snipped off more than that. There was another cut made. When it was announced that Etheridge had won, the camera swung over to her getting up from her seat. As she moved out to the aisle in order to get up to the stage, she bent over to kiss her wife seated next to her. This part (see picture below) was censored. Instead, Channel 5 showed Etheridge getting up and then disruptedly showed her a few feet away walking to the stage.