Is Television Ruining Our Political Discourse?

“The medium is the message.”

Of the countless theories, concepts, and aphorisms generated by academia within the last half-century, few have been as insightful or as influential as the notion that “the medium is the message.” Coined by the Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) in the 1960s, this concept refers to the way that the content of any communication is largely shaped by the medium through which it is transmitted.

To put it another way, the form that a message takes will greatly affect what that message can and will say. A postcard is an ideal medium to use to let a loved one know you are thinking of him or her, but it would be absurd to use a postcard for other purposes, such as for messages that require far more or less writing space than a postcard provides – not to mention messages that are best conveyed in person.

Any medium may be appropriate for some specific kinds of communications but inappropriate for others, and this is no less true than when it comes to political discourse.

As Neil Postman (1931-2003), a protégé of McLuhan and the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death put it, “My argument is…that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content.”

According to Postman, not all media are equal when it comes to discussing important matters like politics.

“On television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words,” hewrote. “The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.”

One might thus argue that print is the most ideal medium through which to debate political issues: a writer can take his time to carefully craft his ideas – with as few or as many words as he needs – so as to maximize their clarity. By being cast in print, opponents cannot easily or rightly misconstrue or misrepresent these ideas, and readers can read and re-read them at their own pace. Moreover, the nature of the medium forces readers to focus on the words and ideas themselves, unlike in other media, where the audience might be distracted by the voice, gestures, or appearance of their source.

But is TV really ruining our political discourse? This question requires looking into the past – as far back as the time of the country’s founding.

Print-based political discourse

For at least a century, America operated as a predominantly print-based society. Thomas Paine’s pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense soldapproximately 500,000 copies within two years of its publication in 1776. In today’s terms, that is the equivalent of selling 50 million books in a country of 300 million people.

This culture of reading was also on full display during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, when newspapers all across the country printed not only articles for and against ratification (including the now famous Federalist Papers), but also complete copies of the draft of the Constitution itself. The public’s awareness of the features of the Constitution and the debate surrounding it was so great that a correspondent wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “I believe no Question has ever been more repeatedly and strictly scrutinized or more fairly and freely argued, than this proposed Constitution.”

The literacy not only of America’s elite but of its regular citizens was noted by foreign observers. During his famous visit to the country in the early nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville expressed shock at discovering the plays of Shakespeare in a frontier cabin, and he remarked in 1835 that “[t]he art of printing opened the…resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the palace.”

Yet American history shows that even spoken debates were of a high quality in the days before television. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1850s showed that, once upon a time, the American attention span was considerably longer. While famous for their structured three-hour debates, many encounters between Lincoln and Douglas spanned an entire afternoon.

For instance, during one debate in Peoria, Illinois in October 1854, the audience sat and listened for several hours to a speech by Douglas, and when it was Lincoln’s turn to speak, he announced he would need several hours to respond. Lincoln proposed that the audience return home for supper and come back for four more hours of debate, which is exactly how the evening proceeded.

While some audience members did interrupt such debates with cheers, applause, and taunts, the speakers reminded the audience that their aim was to defeat their opponent through argument rather than demagoguery. At a debate in Ottowa, Illinois, Douglas said, “Silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms.”

It was this emphasis on rational persuasion and careful, thoughtful argumentation that led Postman to include the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the “Age of Typography” – the printed age.

“For all of the hoopla and socializing surrounding the event,” he wrote, “the speakers had little to offer, and audiences little to expect, but language. And the language that was offered was clearly modeled on the style of the written word [emphasis added].”

Yet in the middle of the twentieth century, television became the dominant medium in American life, and it therefore naturally re-shaped the relationship between politicians and voters.

Television-based political discourse

Perhaps the most illustrative example of this new relationship was the public’s reaction to the first televised debate: the Nixon-Kennedy debate of 1960. Those who listened to the debate on the radio believed that the debate was a draw or that Nixon had won based on the content of his remarks, while those who watched the debate believed that the telegenic and poised Kennedy had defeated a sweaty and sickly-looking Nixon.

This debate thus inaugurated a new era in American politics. It drastically shaped the nature of journalism, debating, and campaigning.

In journalism, the televisual medium privileges imagery over argument. The hours-long townhall debate has been replaced by the eight-minute news segment. In this limited time, well-coiffed speakers condense their ideas into memorable (and increasingly shorter) sound bites and easy-to-remember talking points. Indeed, the pressure to condense and to fight for the right to be heard often becomes so intense that not only do speakers talk or shout over one another, but they rely on emotional or hyperbolic language to compensate for the inability to speak at length: in other words, what they cannot express in calm, sustained rational argument, they express in overheated rhetoric.

This change in journalistic format is mirrored in the new format of televised debates. Not only are the arenas for such debates increasingly glamorized in order to appeal to the eye of the viewer, but the rhetoric itself has become more cliched and substanceless as time limits force the candidates to crunch their remarks into shorter and shorter snippets. Sometimes, candidates are given just a minute or even 30 seconds to answer a question, which can lead to moments that are more confusing than they are enlightening.

Finally, television as the new dominant medium has affected the nature of political campaigns such that candidates now rely on advertisements to promote themselves much in the same way that companies promote their products. Politicians’ embrace of traditional marketing perhaps began in earnest with Dwight Eisenhower recruiting Rosser Reeves, the ad-man behind products like M&Ms, to his campaign. Since then, advertising techniques have played a major role in political campaigns, from catchy slogans to niche marketing to the creation of candidate “brands.”

Postman argued that, on the whole, television as a medium is not suitable for serious political discourse, and given the general distrust of TV news today (near 80 percent in 2014), many are likely to agree with him.

Evidence shows that Postman was right to be skeptical. Today, Americans lead largely televisual rather than typographical lives. The average American watches more than 5 hours of TV per day and reads 5 books per year. This unbalanced media diet has consequences for the knowledge base of the electorate: a study by Farleigh Dickinson University found that while some TV news outlets are less informative than others, public radio is more informative than television altogether (though even NPR listeners’ knowledge of current events was itself disquieting).

So, one might ask, what is TV good for? According to Postman, its purpose is not to inform, but to amuse.

“The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter,” he wrote, “but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.”

This conception of televised politics as entertainment was cogently explained by none other than Donald Trump. Explaining the way that his popularity on television is self-reinforcing, he commented:

It`s a simple formula in entertainment and television. If you get good ratings…then you`ll be on all the time, even if you have nothing to say. If you come up with a cure for a major, major horrendous disease and if you don`t get ratings, they won`t bother even reporting it. It`s very simple business. Very simple.

But must this mean that TV as a medium is doomed? Is it irredeemable?

The future of political discourse

Not necessarily: there is nothing inherent in the medium that requires speakers to prioritize image over speech or to shorten their remarks to accommodate a scheduled commercial break. While network and cable news programs do produce short and largely superficial coverage in their televised segments, this is because viewers continue to tune in.

This means that while the media may be responsible for the debasement of our political discourse, TV viewers are complicit in that debasement. TV executives can argue that they are simply providing what the people want, and in a sense, they are right.

This conclusion shows that there is only one way to improve the political discourse in this country, and that is for the public to support and demand programs – across all media – that provide a steady stream of non-trivial news and that serve as platforms for substantive debate rather than, say, glib speculative analysis or the dissection of the latest poll results.

There are plenty examples of such programs, past and present: William F. Buckley’s Firing Line was a truly inclusive and serious forum for intellectual debate. There are also contemporary models from overseas worth emulating, such as the BBC’s Question Time and Q&A on Australia’s ABC network.

Our political discourse can improve, and – as the TV examples cited above demonstrate – there can be quality programming across all media, but only if the people demand it, and create it.

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