Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chris Matthews Channels McLuhan: Is McCain Too "Hot" for Television?

It was a good night for media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) on MSBC's Hardball tonight, as Chris Matthews wondered if John McCain was too "hot" for television...

Let's unpack this, as the philosophers like to say.

Back in the 1960s, McLuhan put media into two categories: "hot" or high profile, clear, and intense in delivery of information vs. "cool" or low profile, blurry, and soft-spoken in presentation. Photographs were hot vs. cartoon drawings which were cool. Motion pictures and hi-fi radio were hot vs. television which was cool...

Further, McLuhan thought that people who communicate in hot or cool ways do better in media which are the same. The Kennedy-Nixon 1960 debates were McLuhan's grand example: JFK was cool, relaxed, confident in contrast to Nixon's hot, nervous, sweaty delivery. Those who saw the debates on television thought JFK won easily; those who heard the same debates on radio thought Nixon did better. Fortunately for the nation, at least 90-percent of Americans saw the debates on TV. (And the election returns were razor close - did television make difference?)

In subsequent elections, the contrast was not that obvious, but you could still make the case. The same nervous Nixon in 1968 was cooler than the voluble happy warrior Hubert Humphrey. Mumbling Carter was cooler than over-enunciating Ford. But then you had to work a little harder - wasn't Reagan far more articulate and large sized - hotter - than Carter in 1980? Well, maybe the country was ready then for a movie star. George W. Bush was certainly less articulate than Gore in 2000, and- but, wait, Gore actually won the popular vote.

So, hot and cool is far from an exact science. But this election certainly gives us one of the best examples we've had in years. Obama conveys that quiet confidence of JFK - just as McCain comes across as angry, even bitter, like Nixon.

But, you know what? I expect Obama to score big over McCain in the debate this Friday - not just because he's cool and has by far the more Presidential temperament, but because he has the best policies.

See my 1999 Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium for more hot and cool and McLuhan.
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