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( a one hour talk delivered to students at Academy of Art University in San Francisco on Friday, March 1, 2012. There was no recording. Slides appear in order here as images, and some video clips and links have been added to this online version).
Good afternoon, I am M.T. Karthik.
I’ve organized this talk chronologically, and into three general parts, starting first with historical examples of mass media used for sociopolitical language here in the US;
then second, a line between politics of the past and the present drawn by the invention and use specifically of television,
and finally politics in the Digital Age, which will conclude with some discussion of the contemporary situation.
The largest arc of this one hour talk is pluralism of mass media in sociopolitical language – from pamphlet to newspaper to radio to television to cable television to the Internet to FB to Twitter over the last 236 years.
In the last part of the talk, I will also be sharing some of my original work in the field. I have sought to report upon, document and portray through art, certain social interests primarily because I believe they are being written out of history, even covered-up by specific interests and aggregation of public opinion around a monocultural viewpoint of our nation’s political past.
No discussion of American political thought and expression can start without the Declaration of Independence –
– Thomas Jefferson’s seminal document authored against the monarchy in England, which set off an age of revolution on behalf of individuals against kings and nation-states and which, with the U.S. Constitution, created the bond between the Colonies that holds as Federalism to this day.
It’s important to read the Declaration in context, because of the scale of Jefferson and the Colonists’ reach.
Jefferson was influenced by the French and other European thinkers as a result of visits there, but really, the scale of the task was unprecedented.
How would you author a letter to all the Kings and governments of the nations of the world declaring the creation of your own new country – led collectively – with an unprecedented democratic governmental structure set up by its citizens?
It’s said Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, has supported secession of Texas from the United States. How would his Declaration of Independence read, today? Would he address it to the UN, the Senate, the President, the Supreme Court? – none of these institutions existed for Jefferson to appeal to. He was writing to the nebulous notion of a “world at large” and against the British Monarchy.
What kind of persuasive language do you use in such a context?
“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
But how was it possible for Thomas Jefferson to set down these words in Virginia with such confidence? The seeds had been sown by a Philadelphian, who wrote and published a pamphlet which became an instant best-seller here and abroad.
Perhaps more than any text in that nascent revolutionary period, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense – addressed audaciously to “the inhabitants of America” – pushed the colonists toward independence. The text demanded an immediate declaration of separation from England a full year before Jefferson sat down to write the great document.
With Common Sense, began the era of the political pamphlet in the United States. The authors of the Revolution used the format in the next ten years to author the Constitution. Should we refer to the American political pamphlet as a medium?
Here’s a recent one:
The pamphlet brings with it the creation of whole industries: printing, typography, stenography, journalism, cartooning, and begins an arc of American sociopolitical language that pluralizes to include newspapers, magazines, radio, television, cable television and the Internet. This talk will discuss the use of all of these and pluralism of media over the 236 years since the Declaration of Independence was written.
The serial publication of essays, viewpoints and even texts of speeches became the normative method for political discourse in the Colonies. It birthed the centralization of thought in new-born cities and the media channel of our oldest newspapers and journals.
77 of these were published serially in The Independent Journal and The New York Packet between October 1787 and August 1788. A compilation of the 77 and eight others were published as The Federalist or The New Constitution in two volumes in 1788.
From these documents and the discussions they generated, came our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Promptly thereafter, colonial cities birthed the “two-paper town” as the newly minted First Amendment of the Constitution produced contrasting viewpoints in the form of newspapers, which bore, defined and built the “constitution” of American political thought for a hundred and fifty years.
The era made editors-in-chief men of great power a hundred years before Citizen Kane.
Note that the Presidents of the US at this time are mostly forgettable bureaucrats. Perhaps Van Buren stands out for his hemispheric reach, but great debate and intellectual work wasn’t being done by the President. It was occurring in the Senate, at the level of the Supreme Court and with the birth of newspapers’ Editors-in-Chief like Horace Greeley of The New York Tribune – who began to take on greater responsibility for political language.
During the period of 1840 – 1860, after years of the establishment of new civic centers and States, with their own newspapers and journals, the country faced its greatest sociopolitical unrest. Correspondingly, an era of great newspaper publishers and editors representing contrasting viewpoints emerged.
By 1858 it was common for newspaper-editors to employ stenographers to attend speeches and to publish the speeches in totem in their papers.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for Senate in Illinois and the incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate. At the time, US Senators were elected by state legislatures so Lincoln and Douglas were vying for control of the Illinois legislature.
The main issue in all seven debates was slavery and ultimately all of the issues Lincoln would face in the aftermath of his victory in the 1860 Presidential Election – issues which would lead directly to the first dissolution of the Union and the first Civil War in U.S. History.
The debates were held in seven towns in Illinois, but became so popular that they were distributed by papers elsewhere.
But editors of papers who favored Douglas would take the stenographers’ notes and clean them up, fixing errors of notation, context or even meaning only in Douglas’ words. Papers that favored Lincoln did the opposite. The power of the Editor was never before so clearly visible.
Lincoln lost the Senate election, but afterward he had all the texts cleaned, edited properly and republished as a single book – which was read broadly and helped lead him to the nomination in 1860.
The issue of Slavery was defined for vernacular discourse by the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, a remarkable moment in U.S. political history and language. Here’s the Centennial Stamp:
And so for long years newspaper men and politicians were bound in this country and great cultural and social consciousness that helped define the nation emerged through muckraking and whistle-blowing, but also, inevitably, corruption and yellow journalism.
The Spanish-American War may have been born from such yellow journalism, as the sinking of The Maine, falsely attributed to the enemy by papers in the U.S., pushed Americans into the war. More examples exist, and indeed as media pluralizes over the next century, this cozy corruption between politicians and journalists has been exacerbated by new media.
By the turn of the 20th century, the dominant medium was the printed word, and then, the word as heard through radio and both were being used to push political interests and social agendas.
Radio, a warm medium, a tribal medium with which President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the fireside chat, became the primary media tool for information about the wars abroad that defined the century. As Wiki points out, Every US President since Roosevelt has delivered a regular radio address.
News and official information delivered by voice over the airwaves is warm and available, lucid by the intimation of the sound of the voice, not subject to interpretation of the reader. Baseball and music and DJ’s sounded great on the radio and political communicators quickly recognized it.
Writing for broadcast began.
An excellent metaphoric example of the power of radio before television as a vernacular medium in politics can be found in the Coen Brothers musical film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Set in the southern state of Mississippi before television, one narrative thread of the film follows a Governor’s race. Throughout the film, various people in the State are shown at home following the Election by listening to the radio.
Three escaped state prisoners form a musical group on the run, and anonymously record a single at a rural radio station which becomes immensely popular throughout the state through the power of radio. The men appear in disguise to perform their song live at an event which both candidates are attending.
The Governor’s opponent is insensitive to the popularity of the group, focusing instead on denigrating the men for both their fugitive status and their race. In a moment that predates television’s power in this regard, the challenger is revealed to be a racist statewide over the air. The challenger, unlike the incumbent, has no grasp of the power of the radio.
In the climactic scene, the incumbent Governor of Mississippi, seeing the immense popularity of the three escaped state prisoners, pardons the musical phenomenon the ex-convicts have become. The whole of the dialogue is shown to be carried out on radio throughout the State to the folks listening at home, who even hear the challenger run out of the hall on a rail as the Governor leads the crowd in a rousing chorus of “You Are My Sunshine.”
The entire scene is here:
[with respect to the Coen Brothers]
These scenes are remarkably faithful to the truth. In Louisiana, Jimmie Davis, a popular singer and the attributed author of the song, “You Are My Sunshine, became Governor.
The blogger LaLouisiane is eloquent on this matter:
“I remember my granddaddy saying that if Jimmy Davis would come around and sing “You Are My Sunshine”, (he wrote it you know), that everybody in the state would vote for him and never even ask him about a policy, a road, a bridge, nothing. We just really like that song down here, I guess.”
This talk, Political Media, Messages and More, is a follow-up to a talk I gave as News Director and Elections Coverage Producer for KPFK 90.7fm in LA, seven years ago at C-Level Gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, which was subtitled, Pluralism of Media in the Age of Surveillance [mtk 2005].
Pluralism of media is evident at the addition of each new mass medium – radio doesn’t arrive at the newspaper’s exclusion or the pamphlet’s exclusion.
The pamphlet and certain newspapers remain significant modes of sociopolitical communication. They are at the heart of some, arguably all, of the United States’ greatest movements. Women’s Suffrage,
So Pluralism of Media means we media-include, not media-exclude.
Where before you read pamphlets, now you read pamphlets and newspapers. Where before you read print, now you read print and listen to the radio – you add TV.
We add each medium and the media morph to fit our desires of them. Talk radio, drive-time radio, live radio, each is its own form.
This is what Marshall McCluhan meant when he said any new medium contains all previous media in it.
This is all changing now, of course, as Pluralism of Media has matured since 2005 to become the fluid, the cloud, the totality of data that we swim in today, post-TiVo, at the dawn of the streaming era of the web.
END PART ONE
Part Two: THE TELEVISION PRESIDENCY 1945 – 2008
The Television Presidency, born when Truman used it to announce the end of World War II , instantly made the Office of the President of the United States different from every presidency before TV – and television dominated until the Internet and the digital age, a period of twelve presidents.
Ike was the first President on the tube, and in his most important moment on TV, his exit speech, President General Eisenhower famously warned against the growing presence of a “Military-Industrial Complex”
… perhaps it would have worked in color.
But forever the line that defines the Television Presidency will be the Kennedy-Nixon Debates of 1960.
If you’ve seen Frost/Nixon you know that Nixon to the end of his days considered television, and the close-up, his undoing.
In the televised debates with Kennedy, Nixon’s problems with perspiration accumulating on his lip and his jitteriness in general on TV, came over as nervous and untrustworthy – on radio or via text this would never have been transmitted to the public-at-large. Nixon was ridiculed mercilessly for it by critics.
Imagine the contrast, Kennedy’s cool, youthful good looks and Nixon’s shiftiness.
I really like the blogger J. Fred McDonald’s take on this, who states, in his excellent essay on Kennedy’s relationship with TV: “For JFK, television could turn defeat into victory.”
Kennedy addressed the people of the country often and personably, but politically used the tool at critical junctures to save himself: after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s use of television was pitch-perfect.
So, the relationship between live color television and the Presidency began with Kennedy’s handsomeness but then, typically of all things new, was taken promptly after discovery to the other extreme, the visual abuse of his savage assassination.
The 1968 Olympics were the first televised live and in-color around the world. They took place at the end of one of the most tumultuous years in history, a year I refer to as The People’s Year. This image of a staged protest against race and class oppression, thanks to live television, was impossible to stop:
(At this point in the talk, I describe the Tommie Smith/John Carlos statue project anecdotally and include personal, non-published images of the construction of the statues.)
The impact of the moment as seen on television is described well by this Mormon blogger, who tells of being young and white and American and watching with her father. She describes his reaction both at the time and after watching ceremonies of the courageous act on video 20 years later – his change of heart is set in universal terms.
TV was the king of the failure that was The Vietnam War. It ended the Nixon Presidency. But politicians, as they had in the past, reacted by learning to manipulate the new medium to their advantage. Predictably, it was an actor who synthesized the power of the “small screen” for political propaganda.
Ronald Reagan overcame the tool’s power to reveal – with charisma. TV’s investigative potency withered with the mic in his hands.
Reagan and TV media convinced most Americans that people in Russia lived in a dreary, black-and-white reality, trudging when they walked, standing in interminable lines as black-booted officers of the Kremlin marched past with truncheons to beat them if they acted out.
Reagan asserted our freedom to shop and drive and declare vast spaces ours to tame. Trained and experienced for fifty years in delivering lines written by others, he powered through TV.
Consumer technology was represented in its farthest reach by television, broadcast into millions of homes then on four channels, perhaps a fifth. It was a medium dominated by the Networks, and owned by private corporations. The unholy alliances between corrupt newspaper men and politicians had become de rigeur for relationships with corrupt television execs.
TV was manipulated on the greatest scale by Reagan. In those days, to be broadcast all over the world on US television was as close to “global communication in real-time” as existed and, on the evening of my sixteenth birthday, the actor-president went on television and gravely told us it was imperative to invest our tax dollars in a Strategic Defense Initiative to protect us from nuclear war. Reagan described this SDI as “Star Wars” technology, in the vernacular of the pop-movie phenomenon.
Every legitimate scientist in the world knew SDI was a ploy of language, a technical and political impossibility to deliver, and indeed, it was later revealed that Reagan’s own speechwriters had advised against his including it in public presentation – he’d made the decision on his own that day to do it. Generals, scientists, politicians and writers protested; others were put on the spot, but somehow the language was never exposed.
Conservatives have used the phrase to justify defense spending for offensive weapons for decades – even now in Europe. Years later we live with these TV-generated myths, like the “dirty bomb”. (cf. The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis)
It was 1984, and the United States was described by most as being a free society, totally unlike the one in George Orwell’s prophetic novel named for that year.
That image – of totalitarian fascism that produced false-flags and enslaved citizens to a national narrative – was projected by the U.S. President onto the Soviet Union, a country he called “The Evil Empire”. It was a term taken directly from popular movies and, wielded by a movie actor through the ubiquity of the medium of television, it became successful political propaganda.
Reagan used his charisma on the small screen to push corporate, private, and even illegal agendas, until the veneer finally broke in the Iran/Contra hearings. But even then, his “I can’t remembers,” delivered pitch-perfect on national television, got him off the hook.
The Dawn of “Pluralism of Mass Media”
By my senior year of high school in 1985, say 10% of students were writing papers with word processors and printing them dot-matrix to take to our teachers. The movement started with stand-alone word processor devices, which were typewriter-like machines that had single-line or paragraph-wide monitors at the top of the keyboard, allowing writers the ability to read what they were typing without printing it first, for the first time ever.
Looking back it seems both obvious and amazing how quickly we made the transition to using the word processor and eventually software on a pc to write. It was a natural step that changed writing forever. Cursive and the typewriter are all but dead. Content began its high-speed ascent. USA Today and CNN were born.
But though the computer was on the verge of changing writing, publishing, and expressing with text and image forever, the single most dominant force of mass media technology wasn’t yet the computer. It was still television, which had expanded through digital technology that created cables delivering far more visual information directly into American homes.
George Herbert Walker Bush, the former head of the CIA, wasn’t close in the primaries when he ran for President in 1980, but was appointed to the bottom half of Reagan’s ticket and became Vice President. Now the actor was termed out.
The Republican Party seized the lessons of the small screen, and having had eight years of method training by a great actor, extended that training to a former serviceman. George H. W. Bush’s team was precise and almost militaristic at staying on message.
Bush repeated phrases without giving policy details, promised Americans more of what Reagan gave them and then repeated the same two or three positive phrases again.
Democratic Presidential Candidate Michael Dukakis’ imagery was by contrast horribly clunky – footage of him in a tank with an ill-fitting helmet had the opposite effect of projecting the desired image of a strong leader.
Bush had the immense advantage of the Office of the Vice President for air-time, but used it sparingly, with few details. When Bush’s campaign did use TV ads, it was to attack – the Willie Horton ad ran ad nauseum and painted Dukakis as a bad judge of character.
This was the beginning of catchphrase culture.
A culture manifest most strongly on television by ads, and in political communication as satire of the timeliest manner on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, featuring Dana Carvey as a repetitive robotic message man George H.W. Bush against John Lovitz as an exasperated Michael Dukakis, who finally shrugs, and delivers the punchline:
[click that link above to see the bit … Chevy Chase birthed portraying the President on SNL, but Dana Carvey nailed it before Phil Hartman or Will Ferrell]
Though we have been pluralizing mass media from the pamphlet to the television, this era is the dawn of the Pluralism of Mass Media that delivers us to the Internet Era of sociopolitical propaganda – not only because of the birth of word processing and cable television, but because radio returns for what it’s good at.
RADIO and TV in concert
Radio broadcasting shifted from AM to FM in the late 1970s because of the opportunity to broadcast music in stereo with better fidelity.
Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio show was first nationally syndicated in August 1988, in a later stage of AM’s decline. “Limbaugh’s popularity paved the way for other conservative talk radio programming to become commonplace on the AM radio,” states his Wikipedia entry.
Radio became the drumbeat for the President’s made-for-TV messages. The cool medium was used sparingly for headings and rubrics and catchphrases, while radio was used for tribal intercommunication of long, warm discussion of the message.
Limbaugh had an immense following and Bush made sure he got as much access as he needed. My father remembers seeing footage on network news of President George H.W. Bush welcoming Rush Limbaugh, shaking his hand and then picking up his bag for him before turning to walk into a personal meeting.
This potent image deliverable only by television (wordless communication in background footage, not a press conference with the President) was transmitted for the conservative President and his media agent on ABC, NBC, CBS, and perhaps PBS and the TV message – short, cool, specific – conjoined with the radio message, long, rangy, warm – to create a uniform statement.
The 1988 Election was the last Network News Election. The four-channel era of television was over.
Cable News Network, CNN, began and had its watershed moment by being the first embedded network live during wartime. At last, TV had provided war,itself, live and in-color.
George H.W. Bush and his Gulf War versus Saddam Hussein over Kuwait gave CNN more than a billion viewers worldwide, birthed CNN International and pushed Cable News past Network News in terms of relevance.
Television production became tighter, faster, snappier, with jump-cuts and camera motion. Technology was on the cusp of the fluidity of digital. The TV talk show incorporated radio stylings.
The cable news era, which is only just winding down, began with The Gulf War, and the 1990’s are littered with what cable TV invented: Newstainment, and, critically because it signals the demise of the Academy, the creation of star faculty and pundits.
These define cable TV in the 90’s, composing formats used today by Rachel Maddow, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and so many more pseudo-intellectual, corporate-financed, opinion-making cable TV “shows,” designed by marketing and legal teams, by groovy execs and demographers more than journalists.
Whole channels have emerged – and here the Daily Show/Colbert are uniquely successful – from what was drawn so poorly in the 1990’s. The medium’s highly refined message delivery system operates full-tilt, 24/7, and millions call it real-time.
The21st Century : The Internet Meets the Television Presidency
Part Three notes are much less formal as the latter part of the talk is filled with anecdotal descriptions of several projects I have engaged in. However, I am writing it up cohesively and will add it here when finished.
This section starts with the 2000 Election that ended in the Florida Fiasco and into Howard Dean’s successes with the Internet, then moves through the Kerry-Bush Election, the first-ever Congressionally-contested election and then the Obama-McCain election, ending finally with the unique situation of politicians in SF running for Mayor and using Twitter for the first time even as they granted Twitter a huge tax-break to stay in the City. I reference works of my own that parallel these circumstances.