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Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you. I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size. Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.

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Be careful who you blame                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Mar/15/2017 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Politics & Gov, Watching America,

With the conclusion of the 2016 Presidential election now a part of history and Donald Trump in office for more than a month, many are still asking how this could have happened. There are a host of theories circulating. Some have proposed that this means the Electoral College is no longer viable. Some folks want to point to voter fraud and there are a few who are sticking to the notion that “the Russians were involved!” Putting aside the notion of conspiracies, I believe that despite all their efforts to the contrary, the results of this election were determined more by the media than any other factor.

It would be very idealistic to believe that media has never had an influence in the outcome of local and national elections. Most newspapers have traditionally had an editorial bias. The era when newspaper bias was most prolific was in the 1890’s during the most significant period of “yellow journalism” in America. Most major cities of that time had at least two major newspapers who competed on street corners every day for the highest circulation. The best way to grow circulation was to have a better headline than the other paper. To be more eye-catching, headlines often focused on rumors, exaggerations, scandal-mongering or sensationalism to boost sales. Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘New York World’ and William Randolph Hearst’s ‘New York Journals’ day-to-day battle for circulation numbers represent the most striking example of this subscription battle. While claiming to be reporting the news, it might more accurately be said that these papers were creating much of the news.

In a more passive manner, television had a significant influence to the outcome of the 1960 Presidential race between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Kennedy had served eight years in the Senate. His opponent, Richard Nixon was the two-term Vice-President to the popular Dwight Eisenhower. Going into the late summer Nixon was ahead of Kennedy by 6 points in all the polls. During this time Nixon had been portraying Kennedy as a junior Senator who was inexperienced and unready to be Commander-in-Chief. September 26th 1960 was the first time that a Presidential debate had been televised. Kennedy prepared for the debate as though preparing for a college exam, including an afternoon nap to ensure he was fresh. Nixon spent the day alone nursing a knee injury which he further inflamed on the way to the studio by striking it again on a car door.

Radio listeners thought Nixon had won, but the visual for the television audience was different. Before the camera Nixon had pasty skin and a 5 o’clock shadow, he sweated and looked somewhat sickly. More important, for most of the debate, Nixon in true debate fashion faced his opponent when responding. In contrast, Kennedy often made his responses turning and appealing to the television audience, clearly aware of the power of this new media. Any margin that Nixon had over Kennedy was lost that evening as the power of television was first leveraged by a Presidential candidate.

Through the 1950’s and into the mid 1960’s television news was considered a public service. The advertising sold during the evening news was minimal, but would generally create some revenue. The news announcers of that era such as Chet Huntley, Harry Reasoner, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite all considered themselves ‘journalist’ and modeled there conduct after the legendary Edward R. Murrow. In this spirit, most of these ‘news broadcasters’ spent the day reviewing copy from other reports and the major wire services to write their own broadcast content. The program producers had to follow the broadcaster’s lead and each broadcaster developed a loyal television audience.

In this same timeframe the newest network, ABC was struggling to find a successful programming lineup. One of its few successes in the early 1960’s was ‘Wide Wide World of Sports’. The program leveraged the new media of video tape and sent crews all over the globe to tape events and rapidly fly the results home. Produced by Roone Arledge, he showed genius for picking only the most dramatic events and then putting the voices of Chuck Howard and Jim McKay on top for announcing. The famous tagline “Thrill of victory, agony of defeat” came from this program and the well edited video content that focused on spectacular successes and failures hypnotized audiences.

Leveraging his success in the sports department, Arledge successfully argued in 1968 to be put in charge of the news department at ABC stating that he could make it profitable. In his new format, half of all news items were required to have 30 second video clips and all writing was now controlled by the production staff and their news ‘writers’. The faces of the news such as Peter Jennings and Frank Reynolds were only allowed to read news copy written for them by others. The crashing ski jumper at the beginning of Wide Wide World of Sport was now the metaphor for the evening news. The new focus on emphasizing the dramatic brought new audiences to ABC and changed television news across nearly all channels forever.

In the 1980’s cable television started to enter American living rooms, soon the broadcast choices blossomed from 4 to 10, to 60 and then well over 100 channels. With so much competition, broadcast news departments moved into the realm of commentary and analysis. These programs offered the same look and feel as news reporting; fancy desks, good video feed and three piece suits. It became very difficult to tell commentary from ‘unbiased’ reporting, the line had clearly blurred for consumers. As always, extremism sells and therefore, the more polarizing and obnoxious the pundit, the bigger the audience and the advertising dollars.

When news transitions to entertainment, it is difficult to believe it is still news in the truest journalist sense.

During the new millennia the internet and all its components rose from a novelty to a staple of everyday life. With blogs, forums, streaming media and countless website it has changed the face of information. Now anyone, while still dressed in their pajamas and having their first cup of coffee can begin the day from their kitchen sharing an opinionated rant about the world. Opinions do not need to use or be focused on the truth or a complete set of facts. Most people focused on venting an opinion are more intent on having the ‘last word’ than actual dialog or fact based research. The result is twitter trolls, perpetual bloggers, and agenda oriented opinion pieces shared to millions. Much of this content appears under the web banners of major corporate media brands adding an air of legitimacy to the content.

In this 7/24 hour intensive media landscape a conventional 20th century politician simply can’t compete for center stage. Fortunately, in this new century we also have a new class of public personality, the reality television star. Reality TV, as it is known includes environments such as competitively surviving on an island, building motorcycles, competitive cooking, car building, living on the Jersey shore, and a pseudo corporate environment for pretend interns to undermine each other. The challenges faced in these programs often have very little to do with reality and much more to do with excessive behavior, ranting and conspiracy against their peers. Nevertheless, the production costs for reality programming is low, so a lot of it is produced.

The stars of these programs such as Gordon Ramsey, Paul Teutul, Richard Rawlings, Donald Trump and a host of others thrive on being the most obnoxious person in the room. As self-serving and narcissistic as their attitudes and behavior are, it is also clearly they are the only type of personality that can withstand the scrutiny, prying and abuse of living in a modern media 7/24 spotlight. Where most people want attention for their successes and to hide when there is failure, these reality TV stars thrive on any attention regardless of the circumstances.

The bloggers, news media and pundits continue to rant and rave about how it could have ever happened that a personality such as Donald trump became President, even in America. Yet they fail to realize that in such media intensive environment as they have created, no other personality could possibly be left standing in the end. It is interesting to look back on a fortuitous scene from the 1985 movie ‘Back to the Future' (1985). Dr. Emmett Brown is doubting Marty McFly’s story that he is from the future.

Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, future boy, who's President of the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor?
[chuckles in disbelief]
Dr. Emmett Brown: Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis?
[rushing out and down a hill toward his laboratory]
Later, upon realizing the impact of Marty’s video camera and what would happen if everyone had one.
Dr. Emmett Brown: No wonder your president has to be an actor. He's gotta look good on television.

Whether by accident or gifted insight, Robert Zemeckis, director/producer of ‘Back to the Future’ definitely hit the bullseye when seeing the impact of modern media on politics.   

While it would be nice to believe that the politicians who rise to the top of the ballot are those who meet the current needs and challenges of society, that notion is now at least partially obsolete. In our media rich landscape dominated by attention seeking pundits, the rules have changed. While expecting to berate a 20th century candidate, these new voices will questions how someone such as Donald Trump could possibly become president. Yet, these same commentators and pundits have created by their own behavior a new and toxic environment requiring a different set of survival skills for an aspiring politician. In this media intensive environment, only a political candidate who can be as garish and outlandish as the pundits has a chance of surviving and rising to the top.

The question of “why Trump?” is not an analysis or rebuke of where American society is. There is no doubt that a large number of American’s voted for him. It is also clear that the issues he focused on were paramount in the minds of many voters. Additionally, it is also clear that the news media left their safe corner of ‘unbiased reporting’ as they downplayed some issues while emphasizing others. Beyond cherry-picking issues, the media and its insatiable 7/24 news cycle with all its pundits has had an ever growing role in shaping the environment that a candidate must endure. Trump’s rise to the presidency is a direct response to his ability to endure and thrive in this new and hostile environment as other’s fell to the side.

It is clear that in such a competitive and toxic environment, a reality TV star would be well equipped. It will be interesting to see what corner of society our next president comes from.

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Margaret Thatcher
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