What Marshall McLuhan Might say About Trump on TV

21Oct16

Inspirational motivational quote. We don't see things the way they are. We see them the way we are. Simple trendy design.    Dennis Gallagher

With more presidential television debates looming I am reminded of what Marshall McLuhan, the media ecologist, wrote about the influence of television on our first televised debates in 1960 and their influence on our politics. To try to explain the nature of television and its effect on viewers, he christened TV a “cool” medium and only “cool” laidback personalities did best on the cool medium of TV.  “Hot” personalities were unacceptable on TV.  He stated a “hot” personality is to say that anybody whose appearance strongly declares his role and status in life is wrong for TV.

Nixon looked classifiable and viewers felt uncomfortable with his TV image.  The viewer says uneasily, “There’s something about the guy that isn’t right.”  Furthermore, “Kennedy did not look like a rich man or like a politician,” McLuhan wrote.  Kennedy “presented a not too precise or too ready of speech so as “to spoil his pleasantly tweedy blur of countenance and outline.”

JFK, sun tanned and rested from his compound at Hyannis, armed with his blurred ample hair falling over his forehead, aided by easy humor, and a great smile charmed TV viewers in the debate. Nixon got a haircut for the debates, probably wanting to look “clean cut” with lowered ears, fine upstanding and real American. That high definition image did him no good on the cool medium of TV.  On top of that, he had a cold and sweated profusely during the debate.

JFK’s dad told him to “Look at the camera, don’t look at Nixon, he’ll never vote for you. Look at the voters behind the camera, they are the ones who count.” Great advice, Joe. Nixon instead looked at Kennedy not the voters with his dark brooding eyes that stared blankly at times. All that did not help him on the medium of television.

Those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy with his visually less well-defined image and nonchalant attitude won the debate. Those who listened to the debate on radio, however, gave Nixon the win. His hot personality and deep radio voice won it for him on the “hot” medium of radio. “I am not a crook.”

The hot personality of Donald Trump should be sinking him according to the McLuhan theory of hot and cool personalities on TV.  And Hilary is a more blurred image that should help her on TV.  A grandmother, secretary?

So how did Trump break the McLuhan theory of hot personalities flopping on the cool television medium?

We must look to McLuhan’s fellow media ecologist, Neil Postman, whose message on the back of his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985, shares that “Television has conditioned us to tolerate visually entertaining material measured out in spoonful’s of time, to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs”. Postman alerted us to what, in my view, is happening with the media in this election. There are “ready and present dangers and offers compelling suggestions as to how to withstand the media onslaught.” 

Trump breaks the mold because he is a television entertainment personality. Was Trump on TV more than another movie television president, Ronald Reagan? Trump’s “You’re fired,” and Reagan’s “Bonanza” land with a twenty mule team inoculated Americans with years of television entertainment. Hilary does not have that advantage. Watch out, Democrats. And Richard Lanham in his book Economics of Attention shows us that our attention span has shortened dramatically.  No four hour Lincoln-Douglas debates here ever again. TV creates bottled celebrity and machine made fame.

In the final chapter of his book, Postman muses that culture can whither in two ways. Orwellian-culture becomes a prison.  Huxleyan-culture becomes a burlesque. Postman adds that “entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.” Entertainer Trump is doing well on his medium, television.  This presidential campaign season shows us that we have already turned over politics, education, religion, and journalism to the show-business demands of the television age. 

The final paragraph in Postman’s book might be warning us about this election cycle as it describes what is happening to America.   Huxley believed like H. G. Wells that we “are in a race between education and disaster,” and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media.  For, in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”

Is it too late for us to figure out how media shapes our lives and politics and ways, in which we can, in turn, reconfigure them to serve our highest goals as a media savvy nation?

Source: North Denver Tribune, 

About the author Dennis Gallagher: https://goo.gl/HL9NqB

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3 Responses to “What Marshall McLuhan Might say About Trump on TV”

  1. 1 Joshua James

    Perhaps tv has become a hot medium, now with high definition and high fidelity TV programming concentrated in the inner American cultures. If you look at the Google trends map of election result searches, they closely mirror the blue states in America. Perhaps inner America is susceptible to hot tv programming like fox news whereas the internet may be cooler as you take a larger part in the administration of the media consumed. Media overheat and flip according to Eric and Marshall…


  1. 1 American Nation: Transpartisan Structure? – The Transpartisan Review
  2. 2 The Transpartisan Review Blog #25 - Citizens for HealthCitizens for Health

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