Television has never been unimportant in politics – beginning with Nixon’s “Checkers” speech in the 1952 campaign and progressing into JFK’s victory over Nixon in the first televised Presidential debates in 1960.
But, more recently, lots of people — including me — have been talking about how Barack Obama in 2008 and Republicans in 2010 won by mastering social media – or, what I call “new new media.” Paul Saffo even coined a new term – “cybergenic” – to describe Obama in 2008, an evolution of JFK and Reagan being telegenic.
Has television come back? Newt Gingrich clearly smashed Mitt Romney in South Carolina because of two brilliant performances in television debates the week prior. With one more debate coming up in Florida this week, the question of the impact of television debates could be crucially important.
On Saturday night, CNN’s David Gergen said that he thought Gingrich’s victory indeed shows that television is playing the decisive role in this year’s primary – so far.
I’m not surprised. Even though I’ve written extensively about the role of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in today’s politics, I’d never discount the role of television. Older media don’t just disappear when new media arise. The written word is still important today, as is radio.
Television never really went away. The Internet is still crucially important. But for the right candidate, television can be even more important, precisely because of its old mass media magic – its unique capacity to speak to millions of people at the same time.
Gingrich clearly is such a candidate. His particular talent? Looking great on television, attacking television.
But Obama is powerful on television, too. That’s part of his being cybergenic.
Stay tuned for an exciting election.
Paul Levinson, PhD, is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in NYC. His nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), Cellphone (2004), and New New Media (2009), have been translated into ten languages. He reviews television in his InfiniteRegress.tv blog, and was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Top 10 Academic Twitterers” in 2009. Follow him @PaulLev
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