Anyone who’s either taken an introductory course in media and communication studies, or who lived through the event, will recognize the significance of the Nixon-Kennedy debates as a seminal moment in television and political history. Kennedy looked fresh, young, tan, and wore a bold, TV-friendly suit. Nixon refused make-up to avoid looking like a “pansy,” as he put it, and appeared pale, unshaven, and washed out thanks to his light grey suit. Radio audiences agreed that Nixon performed better in the debate, while television audiences preferred Kennedy. The dawn of television in electoral politics had begun, and its first important lesson had been learned.
Fast forward more than 40 years and we’ve seen television play a dominant role in the direction of American democracy and political campaigning…arguably as the single most important aspect in the shaping of the Republic. Politics have been reduced to the most imagistic and iconic treatments and politicians have to be more actor than action-taker as a result of the dominant mode of communication. It’s better to look good, say nothing, and leave the dirty details of policy to the back rooms where they’ve always lived anyway. Of course in the age of the Internet, even the back rooms are taking front stage, and so we see a big shift in the public relationship with governance.
Still, nothing dominates discourse more than television, at least in the iconic myth-making process that are American election campaigns. If anyone had any doubt about that after the Obama election in 2008, and its successful use of viral new media strategies that by-passed television in favor of highly targeted demographic outreach, enter the 2012 Republican primary season. Television has been A#1 again in bringing the circus into our living rooms, even as newer media forms have played off of the dominant television narratives. The 8-or-so Republican “debates” have been produced more like reality programs than as serious political dialogues, probably thanks to the death of the newspaper business in the interim. There is no literate anchor to our public discourse anymore, as the Huffington Post is more relevant to political campaigning than the editorial pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal. TV is like the child who’s eaten all his Halloween candy at once and has been let loose in the streets to rampage.
To wit, take a look at this segment by the inimitable Jon Stewart as he satirizes the over the top treatment of debate programming by CNN. (embed failed, so please click the link.)
The most recent evidence that the Kennedy-Nixon lesson is still carries ongoing importance, and even moreso as YouTube lets us all relive every awkward trip, gaffe, and offhand remark, is the stumbling of both Herman Cain and Ricky Perry this past weekend. Perry seemed hopped up on goofballs at an appearance in New Hampshire, prompting Rachel Maddow to call it ‘over’ for him. You can decide for yourself.
Herman Cain’s campaign is wrapped up in potential felony charges about inappropriate campaign financing, yet his 15-year old sexual harassment entanglements have taken center stage at the circus. In true television form, the prurient interest always trumps the substantial, but even more than that Cain’s troubles stem from fumbling and bungling his response to the vague revelations, moreso than the actual accusations themselves. Again, Jon Stewart.
So…how much of a role will television play once the Obama people enter the campaign and start to take message control via the Net again? Will the TV drama treatment persist? In the “debates” the answer would have to be “yes” but beyond that we’ll have to see. Someday television will be marginalized beyond our ability to imagine, but not yet…not yet.