Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Reality of Cable Television

I continue to question the Obama campaign's media strategy.  Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' claim yesterday that there is a gap between cable news and the public illustrates what I described in my previous post as Obama's failure to understand the importance of premediation in the current media environment.  Here's Gibbs:

"But I mean, you know, I think David [Axelrod] talked to you about where the public is on this and I think it's illuminating because it may not necessarily be where cable television is on all of this. But, you know, we're sort of used to that. We lost on cable television virtually every day last year. So, you know, there's a conventional wisdom to what's going on in America via Washington, and there's the reality of what's happening in America."

Gibbs (and by extension the Obama team) fails to understand what Niklas Luhmann characterizes as "the reality of the mass media." Luhmann writes: "Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media." When Gibbs opposes the "conventional wisdom to what's going on in America via Washington" (by which he means via cable television) to "the reality of what's happening in America," he fails to understand the way in which the mass media construct that reality through what Luhmann calls their "operations" and their "observations."  It is the failure in particular to understand the media's "operations" that threatens the success of the Obama administration's plan for economic recovery.

Heady from the Obama campaign's brilliant and innovative use of social networking software in the Democratic primaries and the general election campaign, Gibbs et al underestimate the role of the mass media in contributing to the Obama victory (think especially MSNBC or The Daily Show, but also CNN, SNL, and so forth).  Gibbs further misunderstands the role of the mass media in premediating the possibility of a change in the course of events as a way of insuring that there will be more news tomorrow--or in the next hour. The fact that cable television news kept alive the possibility that the front-runner might stumble is not an indication that they got it wrong but an example of how they work to leave open the possibility of a "change in the weather," i.e., how the system of the mass media generates new information. 

As Luhmann so brilliantly recognizes, the system of the mass media is relentless--it is continuous in its operations, in its generation of the possibility of surprise. Failing to take advantage of its premediated formats, topics, and programs will not serve Obama well. Organizing through social networks, distributing videos via YouTube and other Internet outlets, and participating in news conferences and town halls are all useful media tactics. But to think that these "public" media operations are, or should be, distinguished from mass media like cable television is to betray either an amazing arrogance or a stunning naivete about the workings of media in the current media regime of premediation. 

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Failure of Obama to Premediate Economic Recovery

The Obama administration is struggling mightily to get Congress to pass an economic stimulus bill that will do what Obama and his team feel is necessary to turn the US economy around.  As Paul Krugman notes in today's New York Times, the debate over the stimulus package is being controlled by the terms of the Republican arguments of the last eight years about tax cuts, excessive government spending, and so forth. Unlike the Bush administration, which did a masteful job of controlling the terms of the political and, perhaps more important, media debate, Obama and his team are on the defensive, reacting to Republican and media talking points rather than shaping or guiding the political media flow. 

The reason for this is plain to see--and Dick Cheney's recent attempt to terrify Americans about Obama's security policies underscores the problem with Obama's handling of the economic crisis. What Cheney reminds us of is the way in which, especially during the run-up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration blanketed the print, televisual, and networked media with hundreds of spokespeople premediating both the terrible things that would happen if we did not invade Iraq and the wonderful things that would happen in the Middle East after we succeeded in establishing a beach-head for democracy in the Muslim world.

What Obama and his team need to do, and what we have seen very little of over the past few weeks (or in the transition period between the election and the inauguration), is to undertake their own premediation campaign on the economy. And they need to do it now.

First, what needs to happen is that they need to premediate a second Great Depression if we do not act large and act fast.  Where are the images of soup-lines, of abandoned storefronts, of hungry children?  Obama's team must send out its emissaries to all of the cable news networks to remind the nation of the potential consequences of failing to respond adequately to the current financial crisis.  And their appearances need to be accompanied not only by images and sounds from the era of the Depression, but also by downward graphs, diminishing (and increasing) numbers, and shrinking charts to dramatize the potential implications of failing to pass the stimulus package that Obama is convinced that the country needs. 

Simultaneous with this, the Obama team needs to premediate a successful recovery. They need to provide potential scenarios of economic rebirth based on the elements of their plan.  These premediations must not only take the shape of a return to business as usual, but must present potential futures that are transformative and made possible by the important, forward-looking elements of the stimulus package.  Here, Obama people need to bring with them, or circulate among the media, images of wind-farms, of solar installations, of rebuilt bridges and roads, of a renovated and modernized power grid. And they need charts and graphs and numbers. And they need images of future prosperity--again, not a return to some past era but a compelling, attractive, desirable future with green energy, smart consumption, fuel-efficient cars, and so forth.

Some may see this as cynical. But I would call it realistic. Collective public mood and affect are shaped and modulated these days by the premediated flows of print, televisual, and networked media. Arguments do not prevail on their "merits" or on the rational calculus of individual citizens. Mood and "structures of feeling" are contagious and are shaped by the repetition of audiovisual images of potential futures. As with Iraq, the key is not that any one future be premediated, or that these premediations prove true in any specific sense, but that our everyday media are so replete both with negative premediations of failing to follow Obama's stimulus plan and positive premediations of the recovery that will happen if we do follow this plan that the force of public sentiment behind Obama's plan grows so strong that those who would oppose it must get out of the way or be overrun. 

The difficulty here, as opposed to the period in the run-up to the Iraq War, is time. Bush-Cheney had months during which to beat the drums, to deploy their troops of media spokespeople with (s)talking points and figures and images and maps. In the current economic crisis, time is of the essence. If Obama fails to get a stimulus robust enough to begin to turn the economy around, and if things begin to get worse, the current economic crisis will no longer be felt to be the fault of the Bush administration or of the Republicans in Congress who watered it down.  If Obama does not stick to his guns and make it clear that anything short of his plan could lead the nation into its second Great Depression, he and his administration will be made to own the economic mess that should rightly belong to the Bush-Cheney administration and their Congressional Republican collaborators.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Premediating Dick

So, barely a fortnight after leaving office, the gnarly old Dick is at it again, premediating on Politico.com the end of the world, or at least a terrorist attack on US soil that will make us appreciate 9/11 for the walk in the park he thinks it was. Next time, he says, we will face “a 9/11-type event where the terrorists are armed with something much more dangerous than an airline ticket and a box cutter – a nuclear weapon or a biological agent of some kind.”

On Huffington Post, Mark Ginsberg, former US ambassador to Morocco, paints Cheney as a Wyoming Dorothy, skipping through the darkened forest exclaiming, "Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!" Ginsberg reminds us, as have many other commentators on Cheney's paranoid premediation, that Cheney, Bush, and Rice, among others, blithely ignored warnings in the summer of 2001 that Al Qaeda was planning an attack on US soil.  And to Cheney's prediction that Obama will simply open the doors of Guantanamo prison and let loose hundreds of hard-core terrorists to wreak havoc on the US, Ginsberg points out that Cheney et al have already been responsible for the release of a dozen or more Guantanamo detainees who have now found their way into leadership positions in Al Qaeda-related organizations.  

Perhaps most indicative of Cheney's inability to accept responsibility for anything that the Bush administration did or didn't do are his comments on the current economic crisis: “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Cheney said. “The combination of the financial crisis that started last year, coupled now with, obviously, a major recession, I think we’re a long way from having solved these problems.” The financial crisis and the recession, like 9/11 or Abu Ghraib, were things that just happened, like Hurricane Katrina. Who could blame the Bush administration for a hurricane? Or for that matter, who could blame Bush-Cheney for failing to provide funds to repair and maintain the levees or failing to provide sufficient and timely relief aid or failing to provide adequate funds to rebuild the levee system and restore New Orleans to something approximating a pre-Katrina level of functionality?    

For wrinkled Dick Cheney, the Bush administration bears no responsibility for anything negative that happened during its time in office, while the Obama administration is to blame for all of the negative things that haven't yet happened during its time in office, but which Cheney is certain are inevitable. This is the logic of premediation par excellence by the master premediator of them all. And the consequence of this kind of premediation is that if or when such an attack like that predicted by Cheney does happen, it will prompt among many Republicans the response that (unlike the attacks of 9/11) these new attacks are to be blamed on the administration on whose watch they occurred.

This is not only devious. It is evil.  

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lecture at Ryerson University's Infoscape Lab

Here's a link to a lecture I gave on Thursday at Ryerson's Infoscape Research Lab.  The lab is directed by Greg Elmer, who holds the Bell Globemedia Research Chair at Ryerson.  The lecture was co-sponsored by Ryerson's Digital Cinema Laboratory, as well as by York University's Augmented Reality, Future Cinema, and Mobile Media Labs.