Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mass Media Games

Although there might be much to discuss before jumping into topic-oriented posting here, there is no easy way to begin other than simply to do so with opinion regarding current events. At the time of this inaugural opinion piece, we are watching the waning hours of the Democratic Primary in the State of South Carolina. It has been a contentious few weeks of campaigning, mainly highlighted by Bill and Sen. Hillary Clinton's underhanded campaign tactics against front-running Sen. Barack Obama.

The Clintons have been accused by opponents of all persuasions of using misinformation to smear Obama, and many have even suggested that Bill Clinton is seeking to add a third term to his former presidency. As a Democratic supporter, I find the entire period of campaigning extremely distasteful and ultimately unproductive on a number of levels. The Clintons are far from squeaky clean, and are using their seasoned campaign tactics to damage a political opponent. Politicos everywhere will wag a finger at these tactics, but understand them as part of the process. The Clintons are far superior at these tactics than anyone involved in the race for the White House on either side. Those tactics, combined with a money machine unparalleled in modern politics, virtually assure Hillary Clinton of the nomination despite Obama's appeal among many voting blocks around the country.

All of that is neither here, nor there, however. The tactics that we see employed in this race and hardly new, and are hardly unfair in the climate of electoral business that has evolved over the centuries. Part of the game is understanding how to defuse and redirect the rhetoric and run an even more effective campaign. The entire process is about generating an iconic attachment with the voting public that transcends message and transcends policy. If you're paying attention to the speeches and "debates", it's probably obvious to you that nothing of substance is ever offered at any time. Policy is a simple wash of symbolic language and false platitudes. Television, as a medium of abstraction and entertainment, is best suited to building cognitive associations with characters based on their likability, poise, and the measure of perceived leadership quality emanating from the pixels forming the image on the screen. The cartoonish image of limited color and resolution that is the television screen makes this all happen before a mostly oblivious public.

The news organizations have shifted so far toward the abstract and so far toward the titillating and entertaining aspects of the electoral process, one will never glean enough valuable information to make a considered and accurate choice. Television is good at one thing, above all else, and that thing is sports. There is a contest set up with easily identified oppositions. There is only winning and losing, advantage and disadvantage. There is drama in sports, swirling around easy to understand characters, who depending on your perspective are either heroes or villains. Music, graphics, and the presence of experts add to the production value of the coverage of sports. The live aspect of the sporting competition leaves the outcome in doubt, but always gives the talking heads assigned to cover it plenty to speculate on and debate. This sporting formula is easily applied to election campaigns, by nature a competition.

CNN proudly advertises their election coverage during this pre-Super Bowl period as the Ballot Bowl '08. It's beyond veiled reference at this point. The language used to describe the campaign trail and all the drama of the electoral competition is straight out of the SportsCenter play book. The debates are a simple formulaic approach to the coaches' pre-game press conference. No one is going to give up their advantage by revealing their game plan. None of the players are going to risk showing their weak points by saying to much. The audience is thrilled by one-liners designed to score valuable image points with the audience and offer the pundits the opportunity to flap their gums about who's winning the PR battle before the big game.

We're all so used to it right now, no one questions the process. No one, or rather very few, demand more information. We are strung along by the mass media and the political characters until it's time to cast our ballot. By that time, we have suffered the paralysis of information overload, however this information is hardly the type of substantial information needed to make a true choice in the democratic sense. It is rather the false impression of information that leaves the process up to the abstraction made possible by televised politics as sports. If you don't believe me, consider the notion that voters questioned at the exit polls rarely understand the policy choices they've made by casting their vote for one candidate or another. Almost to a person these citizens repeat the campaign sound bites and talking points as their rationale for choosing candidate X or Y. If pressed on policy, most will never be able to describe the depth of their decision at all. This is the greatest evidence for the notion that we, as Americans, have given up our democratic selves in favor of a perceived democratic self that operates solely on symbolic associations and iconic abstractions.

Although his statements may simply boil down to campaign rhetoric aimed at spinning the mass media in a specific direction, Bill Clinton's recent spat with reporters was not only spot on correct in every way, but also should be heeded as a revolutionary stand against this particular aspect of our democracy. He said:

"They're feeding you this because this is what you want to cover; this is what you live for, but this hurts the people of South Carolina," he told a reporter. "What you care about is this and the Obama people know that, so they spin you up on this and you happily go along."

"The people don't care about this. They never ask about it," he said. "And you are determined to take this election away from them."

Again, this charge was leveled by the former president against a gaggle of reporters in South Carolina as a way to jockey for position with the Obama campaign regarding the perception of race as a campaign issue. There are plenty of ulterior motives here to consider, but the larger issue is the notion that the mass media outlets love to latch onto a "he said, she said" war of words regarding generally meaningless rhetoric rather than discuss policy differences and issues important to the real world lives of the electorate. Policy and issues require comprehensive coverage of complicated issues with multi-tiered roots. Marshall McLuhan famously said that thinking doesn't make for good television. Watching someone think is boring. Watching TMZ style celebrity expose in a gossip format is the modern form of televised coverage of virtually every story in the world. Who hates who? What did they say that might spark controversy? Boxers or briefs?

Whatever you think of the Clintons, Bill was right. Perhaps he's counting on this aspect of mass media coverage in his own strategy, but he's right. It hurts the people of the United States and it won't stop until we stand up and make them stop.

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