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. 


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