Sunday, November 18, 2007

Marshall McLuhan and Barack Obama: Medium is the Message in this Presidential Campaign?

I was just interviewed by Mark Austin Thomas in my regular Sunday spot on KNX 1070 all-news radio out of Southern California - about what happened to Barack Obama in Thursday's Presidential debate.

It is generally agreed by observers, including me, that Obama did not do well in the debate. He certainly had some excellent moments - I thought his lecture to Wolf Blitzer that we shouldn't just accept the current technological options for energy was memorable - but, in general, he seemed not on top of his game, certainly not as much as in command as Hillary Clinton. But only a few days before, Obama gave the speech of his life in Iowa - electrifying his audience and building upon Hillary Clinton's weak performance in the previous debate.

Did Obama just have a bad night?

For better or worse, it's likely something more profound - a refection of something Marshall McLuhan famously pointed out back in the 1960s: the medium is the message.

What McLuhan noticed is that the means of communication can often have decisive impact on the message we receive. Obama clearly wanted to deliver the same message in the Thursday debate as in his Iowa speech. But he clearly is more comfortable giving speeches than standing up on stage with a group of candidates and answering a question every now and then.

Does this mean that Obama would not make a good President, or a weaker President than Hillary Clinton?

Of course not. Historians tell us that Abraham Lincoln had a voice that sounded more Truman Capote than Henry Fonda. Fortunately for America, there was no radio or television back then.

The enormous amount of exposure that our mass media, especially television, give to Presidential contenders is by and large a very good thing. Democracy operates best on a maximum of information. But we need to recognize that the way that information is presented - the forum in which it is offered - can often speak far more loudly than what it is the candidates are saying.
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