Thursday, December 29, 2005

Okay, I've had enough...

I'm kinda tired of people thinking that the common folk are stupid. Recently, Crawl Across the Ocean's Declan, who usually is very optimistic about the intelligence of "the people", criticized this post by Paul Wells, writing:
It's been years since Marshall McLuhan explained to us the basic concepts here about how what matters is less what is said but more how the message is delivered, and years also since Neil Postman helped explain what kind of message television sends, regardless of what channel you are on, and I think we've all seen enough television ourselves to know instinctively that it's not just some fluke that people refer to television as the 'boob tube' or the 'idiot box'.

Television provides passive entertainment - that's all it does. It doesn't matter what questions the journalists ask, or whether they ask questions at all. Further, it doesn't matter what the leader's say. I've heard lots of people say that you can read how a debate is going better with the sound off and I think that this is probably true.
Whatever. Here, I'm going to say it: A) Too many people have only a cursory understanding of Marshall McLuhan's famous theory. And B) I think Neil Postman is, may he rest in peace, mostly full of shit.

Take, for instance, this hoary old claim about the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960:
The Great Debates marked television's grand entrance into presidential politics. They afforded the first real opportunity for voters to see their candidates in competition, and the visual contrast was dramatic. In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.

In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.
Hold on a second, here... Isn't it possible that the people who listened to the debates on the radio were older and more likely to live in rural areas and therefore more likely to respond to Nixon's message? And wouldn't the people who watched on TV have been, on the whole, younger and more urban and thus more likely to vote Democrat?

Why must we assume that people are so shallow? Am I being naive here to think that most people actually listen to the content of a politician's message, weigh said content against their own interests, and then come to a decision on who they are going to vote for? Why is this the contrarian position? Why do so many communications theorists and pundits assume that they and only they are able to notice the man behind the curtain and everybody else is a mindless sheep?

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