Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Medium Is The Message

Those who have complained that tonight’s presidential debate will be lacking in substance (because of the myriad rules agreed upon by each campaign) are missing the point.

Sure, they’re correct about the debates lacking substance. But what they don’t seem to understand is that televised debates are not meant to be about “substance.” They are meant to be about image.

As the lateNeil Postman points out in his paradigm-shifting book Amusing Ourselves to Death (and as the late James Montgomery Boice echoes in a tape series I was listening to the car other day), our society no longer processes information rationally and linearly through our minds. Instead, our “information” comes to us in image after disconnected image, bypassing our rationality and appealing to our gut. Thus, the image left after the debate is all-important—and has little to do with the content of the debate itself.

This is not new. It goes all the way back to the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. Surely they talked about substantive issues there, but what does everyone remember about it? That Kennedy looked tan, fit, and handsome, and that Nixon looked pale and haggared. And so the myth of Camelot was born.

The pattern has continued on ever since. Think about all the recent debates you can remember. The entire effect of each one can be summed up in a sentence or two.

  • Ford-Carter: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Ford is dense and clueless.
  • Carter-Reagan: “There you go again.” Reagan is a polished charmer, Carter is a dull dishrag.
  • Reagan-Mondale: “I will not exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience for political gain.” Reagan is self-effacing and witty, Mondale gets hoisted by his own petard.
  • Bush-Dukakis: Dukakis’ blasé reaction to a hypothetical scenario involving the rape and murder of his wife. He’s a passionless robot.
  • Clinton-Bush: Bush checks his watch. He’s bored and disconnected.
  • Clinton-Dole: Did they even debate? It was already such a blowout nobody paid any attention.
  • Bush-Gore: Gore sighs (and sighs and sighs), gets up and looms over Bush. He’s creepy and calculated and robotic.
In none of these debates can anyone recall what policy positions were advocated by any of the candidates. Policy positions are beside the point. That’s how television works.

In the 1800’s, people would gather in the town square (standing!) to hear debates, such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which lasted six or seven hours at a time. They weighed the positions of each candidate, which were expounded at length, and judged the candidates based on a rational appraisal of their words.

In the 21st century, people watch 20-second soundbites on the television news and see who has the better skin and which guy launched the better one-liner. They decide who makes the better “impression” and which candidate has more “star quality.” The medium is the message, and the message is image.

I’ll be watching, because I love politics and I enjoy the duel. But you won’t hear me complaining about the lack of substance, because it’s nothing new. It’s the inevitable culmination of the television age.

(Amy Ridenhour has some worthy thoughts in a similar vein on her National Center Blog.)

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