Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Medium Is the Message

A fellow blogger recently criticized David Emerson for avoiding the media in the middle of this crisis. The guy said "Disrespect of the media is an abomination. They are there for the good of democracy and to increase transparency." I was shocked by his idealism. I think he was confusing the concept "media" with "freedom of speech". The "media" are working stiffs like us, that communications professionals try to tame, court, feed, seduce, avoid, play- well in general, live every waking hour trying to manipulate in some organizational form or another.

The very notion that the message must get out, even when there isn't one, is what has led us to the sorry state we are in democratically. Politicans are obsessed with talking, and the volume of talking they do, leads to spewing empty phrases even when they manage to stick to message. The media are the megaphone for the triumph of style over substance, hardly champions of democracy. Of course, I am generalizing when I say "media".

Ok- stay with me here. Marshall McLuhan once said "the medium is the message". His media were machines and means of communication - static technology. The "media" we are talking about are hardly static, predictable machines (though some may argue that point). Our media are dynamic, living, imperfect, stressed out, tempermental humans driven by emotions, thoughts and editorial constraints. But what McLuhan was getting at was that the important thing to consider when looking at the tools by which we communicate is the effect that those tools have on humans. Political messaging is merely the content of a medium, not the medium itself. Reporters themselves are not the "medium"- they are channels to a medium (i.e. print, TV, electronic media). While purveyors of political messaging have tried in vain to grow with the pace of instant, digital technology, they have been doomed to failure.

The very nature of messaging is that it is static- rooted in a moment in time. Digital technology is like a nervous system. Constantly changing and reacting, not proacting. That is why traditional ideas of fixed messages don't work well in the instantaneous world of the web- the two are incongruous. Politicians repeating their well-crafted, but often empty-sounding messages are dinosoaurs in the world of communications technology. That is why thinking on one's feet will once again become an essential skill in public life. It's too bad that the corporate communications infrastructure has doomed politicians - the primary sources for media content- to a bygone world. Emerson was avoiding the media because a) spin experts who 'knew better' could think of nothing crafty to say OR b) he had no confidence in his ability to think on his feet. It's a shame that communications has come to this, but it happens every day. canada, politics, k-dough, canada, political, liberal, conservative, Harper, Canada, politics, k-dough

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Anonymous DiKu said...

I'm not sure I can agree with all your thoughts, but for starters, you’ve made some accurate points about your fellow blogger. It sounds like he’s correct in his intentions, although he may be a little naïve. Sure, an independent and fair media are critical to democracy. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to issue the blanket statement he has, particularly understanding the conduct of many members of the media.

Likewise, I can’t accept that media have become the “megaphone for the triumph of style over substance,” as eloquently as it is written. Clearly, there are shortcomings to the media and in particular, television media. They’re constrained by time, by deadlines, by attention span, and by their visual nature. Those reporters – and reporters of any medium – have become too quick to paint their picture as a “he said, she said” situation and then call it a day. Too many reporters, especially private-sector television reporters, leave out every-important context, leaving it “up to the viewers to decide.” Well frankly, that’s a cop-out. To use an example, if 99% of Canadian economists think that Harper’s idea to cut the GST is stupid, that’s more important to your viewers than Paul Martin’s take on the idea. This is where journalists are failing.

However, journalists are succeeding in championing democracy, and the Emerson case is an excellent example. The media are shouting what Conservative voters are thinking, that they voted for change and got more of the same – mere seconds after the new prime minister was sworn in.

And while journalists continue to champion democracy, I think that traditional messaging still has a place in a digital world. How are key messages dinosaurs in a digital world? The medium of the message has changed to include the web, but most people still get their news from the television first and newspapers second (including online versions).

Perhaps Emerson was avoiding the media for reason (c) He knows this will blow over if he keeps quiet and controls his message.

1:32 PM, February 10, 2006  
Blogger K-Dough said...

Diku- you asked "How are key messages dinosaurs in a digital world? ...most people still get their news from the television first and newspapers second (including online versions)."

If key messages are static- i.e. responding to a context that changes historically from minute to minute and therefore frozen in time, and that tempo of change is refreshed every ten minutes by online reporters, the relevance of some messages can be left dangling in the past, and become obsolete in the present. I'm not disputing the strategic relevance of pulling the wool over the eyes of the masses. That in my view is the problem.

News feeders like CP file stories on the minute. Bloggers and online papers (even the Star)are just as fast. I am questioning the relevancy of repeating a message over a period of time that relates to a certain historical context that no longer exists. There is a technological/epistemological lag here between our ability to communicate and our ability to understand the relevance of the information we are actually communicating. We are distracted by the medium (because it is indeed the message).

Speaking of distraction, the philosophical argument we are having distracts from the point at hand- how is our democracy well-served by either the media (in general)or political messaging?

I believe you were grossly generalizing when you said "journalists are succeeding in championing democracy". I think those kind of journalsts are few and far between. The mainstream media (MSM) are championing nothing but their own fortunes by writing about juicy scandal and political gossip, and masking it as a public service. Either that or idealists are intrepreting it that way. Or both.

3:06 PM, February 10, 2006  
Anonymous mAtt said...

3:50 AM, February 11, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a feeling there is lots more to the Emerson story.

It took him almost two weeks to make up his mind-not until the Sunday before cabinet was announced.

I think Emerson does not want to be put in a position to air Liberal dirty laundry that may have helped him make up his mind.

After all, he was voted in as a Martin Liberal - and Martin quit on him within two hours of the polls closing.

Who betrayed who here.

6:44 PM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous DiKu said...

Thanks K-dough, for the thought-provoking post. I actually thought about it as I visited frosty Montreal this past weekend – and I still respectfully disagree.

True, the media has changed and in some ways, so has the message. For example, look to the effects of the 24-hour television news cycle, where stories are rebroadcast continually every hour (sometimes changing substantially, usually only changing in wording) and the media demand answers and answers now(!) When the story/issue truly changes, then the media are there asking politicians to speak. But generally, the story hasn’t changed, even if others have added their opinion to the mix.

With that latter example in mind, how do updates to the Toronto Star web site or even a 1,000 new blog posts (written by armchair pundits – myself included – and not reaching the majority of Canadians) therefore require changes to the messaging? Has the historical context changed, as you argued? I don’t think so. The story and the issue aren’t changing; they’re just being updated and commented upon.

And despite the many large examples to the contrary, I think that, on a daily basis, the mainstream media are contributing to democracy by asking the questions we’re asking, holding politicians to account, and, yes, reporting on that juicy scandal, because we do need to hear about all of these. It’s just too bad that: (a) the media don’t supplement that high-profile coverage with other matters of policy; and (b) more Canadians don't tell the media they desire policy coverage.

3:52 PM, February 14, 2006  
Blogger K-Dough said...

Well we seem to agree on one thing-the masses need to be feed high-fibre ignorance, and the MSM are ramming the McNews down their yawning throats as fast as they can.

Re: MSM fulfilling democratic principles, I'd argue that so is the Easter Bunny...


4:51 PM, February 14, 2006  
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3:01 AM, March 16, 2007  

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