How Mass Communication is Mediated is the Message

This is not a candidate endorsement post, although some might infer such. Instead, it is a meditation on how political communication works, as opposed how it used to work.

When I was in graduate school, the phrase “mass mediated communication” meant something. It meant that the masses required somebody, or group of somebodies, explaining things in order to obtain information about the world at large. As mediators of information, those somebodies had a lot of power. In the 1920’s Edward Bernays more or less invented public relations by encouraging those somebodies to — as Noam Chomsky would later put it — keep the rabble in line.

That the mediation process has flattened should be obvious when phrases such as “macaca moment” entered the lexicon in 2006. Yet when communication has been mediated by elites for centuries, the shift is not always clear to everyone. In his column this morning, Frank Rich says as much:

Most politicians lie. Most people over 50, as I know all too well, misremember things. So here is the one compelling mystery still unresolved about Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia fairy tale: Why did she keep repeating this whopper for nearly three months, well after it had been publicly debunked by journalists and eyewitnesses?

…That Mrs. Clinton’s campaign kept insisting her Bosnia tale was the truth two days after The Post exposed it as utter fiction also shows the political perils of 20th-century analog arrogance in a digital age. Incredible as it seems, the professionals around Mrs. Clinton — though surely knowing her story was false — thought she could tough it out. They ignored the likelihood that a television network would broadcast the inevitable press pool video of a first lady’s foreign trip — as the CBS Evening News did on Monday night — and that this smoking gun would then become an unstoppable assault weapon once harnessed to the Web.

He concludes:

The 2008 campaign is, unsurprisingly enough, mostly of a piece with 2006, when Iraq cost Republicans the Congress. In that year’s signature race, a popular Senate incumbent, George Allen, was defeated by a war opponent in the former Confederate bastion of Virginia after being caught race-baiting in a video posted on the Web. Last week Mrs. Clinton learned the hard way that Iraq, racial gamesmanship and viral video can destroy a Democrat, too.

Hundreds of comments have poured in reacting to the column, the bulk of which fall either on the “yeah, she’s a liar” side or the “why are you such a Hillary hater, Frank?” side.

Both sides are astigmatic, in my opinion. There’s something happening here, and Frank Rich, who knows a thing or two about communication, is only trying to make it clear. Mass mediation no longer is a top-down enterprise.

That’s a tough one to get, especially if you, like me, are of a certain age. Baby boomers and their seniors spin their perceptual wheels in the mud of battles past, which is significant, because we vote on the basis of what we perceive.

So how can we know whether we’re stuck in the mud of the 20th Century? I offer three kool-aid tests:

1. Characterizing the Rev. Wright’s remarks as “anti-white” “racist,” or “anti-American.”
Doing so displays an incuriosity about context. Isn’t there more to a sermon than a 30 second sound bite? What did the rest of the sermon say? And aren’t some styles of preaching different than others? Curiosity would at least withhold judgment as long as such questions lay unanswered.

There’s also a whiff of smug arrogance in these statements. Like the old fable of the blind men holding a part of an elephant and insisting it is like a fan (ear), hose (trunk), tree (leg), etc., there’s a stubborn insistence that one’s own “hand on the elephant” is grasping the essence of the elephant. I think of the “ugly American” abroad complaining that “nobody here speaks English like normal people.”

2. Characterizing discussion of one’s favored candidate’s mistakes as “[my candidate] hating,” or a discussion of an opponent’s mistakes as “see, that just proves how bad he or she is.”
This reflects a siege mentality at best, pop-Manicheanism at worst. It’s a siege mentality when we get defensive about our candidate’s flaws. It’s pop-Manicheanism when my candidate can do no wrong and yours no good. How easy it is to forget we’re electing politicians, for crying out loud, not canonizing saints.

3. Characterizing Obama’s followers as “cultish” or his campaign as Messianic.
This reflects the probability that Mr. Rich’s column made little sense to the persons saying this. Cults are top-down by definition, and those characterizing the Obama campaign as cultish can probably only perceive reality in top-down terms.

As indicated, the internet medium has created a “bottom-up” milieu. Barack Obama shows evidence he thrives in such a milieu, just as his temperament fits into a “horizontal leadership” style.

Not that there’s everything right with that. A more horizontal than top-down approach to leadership has its own weaknesses, as recalled by fellow students at Harvard Law School:

Obama was so evenhanded and solicitous in his interactions that fellow students would do impressions of his Socratic chin-stroking approach to everything, even seeking a consensus on popcorn preferences at the movies. “Do you want salt on your popcorn?” one classmate, Nancy L. McCullough, recalled, mimicking his sensitive bass voice. “Do you even want popcorn?”

On the other hand, John F. Kennedy probably did save the world by doing a lot of listening in October, 1962.

However that may be, the qualities of incuriosity, astigmatic world-view, siege mentality, pop-Manicheanism, top-down processes — all of these are disturbingly familiar, along with their disturbing results, are they not? I’m not saying that Hillary Clinton reflects these qualities — I personally don’t think she does. But many have said that George W. Bush has them all in spades. And look at the world!

The question for the future is all about the electorate, because ultimately, our elected leaders reflect the vision and astigmatism of ourselves. If you keep drinking the 20th Century kool-aid, you just might find yourself living with political cyanide.

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