Presidential Debates and Social Media, or Neil Postman Was Right

imageI’ve chosen to take my debates on Twitter. I’ve done so mostly in the interest of exploring what difference it might make to take in the debates on social media rather than on television.

Of course, the first thing to know is that the first televised debate, the famous 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debate, is something of a canonical case study in media studies. Most of you, I suspect, have heard at some point about how polls conducted after the debate found that those who listened on the radio were inclined to think that Nixon had gotten the better of Kennedy while those who watched the debate on television were inclined to think that Kennedy had won the day.

As it turns out, this is something like a political urban legend. At the very least, it is fair to say that the facts of the case are somewhat more complicated. Media scholar, W. Joseph Campbell of American University, leaning heavily on a 1987 article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, has shown that the evidence for viewer-listener disagreement is surprisingly scant and suspect. What little empirical evidence did point to a disparity between viewers and listeners depended on less than rigorous methodology.

Campbell, who’s written a book on media myths, is mostly interested in debunking the idea that viewer-listener disagreement was responsible for the outcome of the election. His point, well-taken, is simply that the truth of the matter is more complicated. With this we can, of course, agree. It would be a mistake, however, to write off the consequences over time of the shift in popular media. We may, for instance, take the first Clinton/Trump debate and contrast it to the Kennedy/Nixon debate and also to the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates. It would be hard to maintain that nothing has changed. But what is the cause of that change?

dd-3Does the evolution of media technology alone account for it? Probably not, if only because in the realm of human affairs we are unlikely to ever encounter singular causes. The emergence of new media itself, for instance, requires explanation, which would lead us to consider economic, scientific, and political factors. However, it would be impossible to discount how new media shape, if nothing else, the conditions under which political discourse evolves.

Not surprisingly, I turned to the late Neil Postman for some further insight. Indeed, I’ve taken of late to suggesting that the hashtag for 2016, should we want one, ought to be #NeilPostmanWasRight. This was a sentiment that I initially encountered in a fine post by Adam Elkus on the Internet culture wars. During the course of his analysis, Elkus wrote, “And at this point you accept that Neil Postman was right and that you were wrong.”

I confess that I rather agreed with Postman all along, and on another occasion I might take the time to write about how well Postman’s writing about technology holds up. Here, I’ll only cite this statement of his argument in Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“My argument is limited to saying 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–in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.”

This is the argument Postman presents in a chapter aptly title “Media as Epistemology.” Postman went on to add, admirably, that “I am no relativist in this matter, and that I believe the epistemology created by television not only is inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.”

Let us make a couple of supporting observations in passing, neither of which is original or particularly profound. First, what is it that we remember about the televised debates prior to the age of social media? Do any of us, old enough to remember, recall anything other than an adroitly delivered one-liner? And you know exactly which I have in mind already. Go ahead, before reading any further, call to mind your top three debate memories. Tell me if at least one of these is not among the three.

Reagan, when asked about his age, joking that we would not make an issue out of his opponent’s youth and inexperience.

Sen. Bentsen reminding Dan Quayle that he is no Jack Kennedy.

Admiral Stockdale, seemingly lost on stage, wondering, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

So how did we do? Did we have at least one of those in common? Here’s my point: what is memorable and what counts for “winning” or “losing” a debate in the age of television had precious little to do with the substance of an argument. It had everything to do with style and image. Again, I claim no great insight in saying as much. In fact, this is, I presume, conventional wisdom by now.

(By the way, Postman gets all the more credit if your favorite presidential debate memories involved an SNL cast member, say Dana Carvey, for example.)

Consider as well an example fresh from the first Clinton/Trump debate.

You tell me what “over-prepared” could possibly mean. Moreover, you tell me if that was a charge that you can even begin to imagine being leveled against Lincoln or Douglas or, for that matter, Nixon or Kennedy.

Let’s let Marshall McLuhan take a shot at explaining what Mr. Todd might possibly have meant.

I know, you’re not going to watch the whole thing. Who’s got the time? [#NeilPostmanWasRight] But if you did, you would hear McLuhan explaining why the 1976 Carter/Ford debate was an “atrocious misuse of the TV medium” and “the most stupid arrangement of any debate in the history of debating.” Chiefly, the content and the medium were mismatched. The style of debating both candidates embodied was ill-suited for what television prized, something approaching casual ease, warmth, and informality. Being unable to achieve that style means “losing” the debate regardless of how well you knew your stuff. As McLuhan tells Tom Brokaw, “You’re assuming that what these people say is important. All that matters is that they hold that audience on their image.”

Incidentally, writing in Slate about this clip in 2011, David Haglund wrote, “What seems most incredible to me about this cultural artifact is that there was ever a time when The Today Show would spend ten uninterrupted minutes talking about the presidential debates with a media theorist.” [#NeilPostmanWasRight]

So where does this leave us? Does social media, like television, present us with what Postman calls a new epistemology? Perhaps. We keep hearing a lot of talk about post-factual politics. If that describes our political climate, and I have little reason to doubt as much, then we did not suddenly land here after the advent of social media or the Internet. Facts, or simply the truth, has been fighting a rear-guard action for some time now.

I will make one passing observation, though, about the dynamics of following a debate on Twitter. While the entertainment on offer in the era of television was the thrill of hearing the perfect zinger, social media encourages each of us to become part of the action. Reading tweet after tweet of running commentary on the debate, from left, right, and center, I was struck by the near unanimity of tone: either snark or righteous indignation. Or, better, the near unanimity of apparent intent. No one, it seems to me, was trying to persuade anybody of anything. Insofar as I could discern a motive factor I might on the one hand suggest something like catharsis, a satisfying expunging of emotions. On the other, the desire to land the zinger ourselves. To compose that perfect tweet that would suddenly go viral and garner thousands of retweets. I saw more than a few cross my timeline–some from accounts with thousands and thousands of followers and others from accounts with a meager few hundred–and I felt that it was not unlike watching someone hit the jackpot in the slot machine next to me. Just enough incentive to keep me playing.

A citizen may have attended a Lincoln/Douglas debate to be informed and also, in part, to be entertained. The consumer of the television era tuned in to a debate ostensibly to be informed, but in reality to be entertained. The prosumer of the digital age aspires to do the entertaining.


6 thoughts on “Presidential Debates and Social Media, or Neil Postman Was Right

  1. Hey Michael, good to see back online.

    For what it’s worth, I’m old enough t remember quite a range of Pres. debates. The Reagan – Carter of 1980 has a particular relevance to this post. For several years before the debates we chose not to have a TV set. We listened t the radio for news and some entertainment (we especially enjoyed EG Marshall’s “CBS Radio Mystery Theater”). Anyway, we listed to the Reagan Carter debate on the radio.

    While Democrats, we consider ourselves fair minded people. The next day, everyone raved about Reagan’s performance. What we had heard the night before was something of a muddle on both sides, but with Reagan being just about incoherent a fair amount of the time.

    “The Great Communicator” seemed to us as almost completely an artifact of either TV or mass hysteria.

    At the time I applied a McLuhanesque analysis to the radical difference of the debate that we experienced from everyone else. Hot/Cold media etc. And I think this is largely right.

    While TV is no incredibly higher definition than it used to be, that added information is yoked to quick cuts and a fast pace that undermine the left brain info in favor of the right brain info.

    1. Thanks for this anecdote. The hot/cold distinction is helpful, although often ignored. I failed to mention it myself. But I do think what each medium invites/requires us to supply for meaning to emerge is an important part of the picture.

  2. You seem to have some good writing on your site! Postman’s ideas are definitely worth revisiting in terms of epistemology or a theory of knowledge that can be multidisciplinary. We have no theory and that is the problem. This is partly due to the power of the medium itself to overwhelm the mind with distractions, but also a flood of information and images that merits training to navigate. The knowledge deficit has grown pretty entrenched threatening democracy. See the book The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Also see The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, by Stephen Akron (foreword by Martin Scorsese)

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