Crawl Across the Ocean

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Blocking the Box

So I made it back from being in New York (pictured above) on business, but tomorrow it's time to head to Ontario for some Christmas holidays. So this month is going to be pretty much a write-off when it comes to blogging, I might get some in over the holidays, but I'm not making many promises.

Coming back after missing a week, it doesn't seem like too much has happened. If I get a chance I'd like to respond to Ian's comments on proportional representation. Also, I have a post on child care that needs finishing.

But for now, something occurred to me while reading Paul Wells' criticism of the post-leader's debate coverage. Says Wells,
"What nobody in Canada said last night:

"Gee, now that I've watched four men for two hours discussing the future of a country that spans a continent, I sure hope the reporters in Vancouver can interrogate them about the debate format."


Folks, King Kong opened on Wednesday night. Peter Jackson spent $200 million and took two years to produce an unprecedented spectacle of thrills and chills for the whole family. I've got this nutty idea that just about everyone who is obsessed with spectacle was out watching King Kong last night. I suspect very few people said, "Y'know, I'm going to stay home and watch the leaders' debate. I think that's gonna be waaay more of a thrill-ride. I just hope they let Paul Martin interrupt Jack Layton! My night will be ruined if the debate format is boring!"

Now I certainly agree with the sentiment that it would be nice if reporters focussed more on the issues and less on trivialities like the format of the debate, but I think that Wells is missing the bigger picture, which is that inane post-debate questions by journalists are just the icing on an entire cake of superficiality and style over substance.

I could mock (as Wells does in an earlier post) the endless quest for the knockout punch, the concern over who sounds or looks Prime Ministerial, the worries over whose makeup was poorly done or who sounds like a nagging schoolteacher or a used car salesman, or angry or defensive or whatever, but this is one lost cause I don't feel like fighting.

It's been years since Marshall McLuhan explained to us the basic concepts here about how what matters is less what is said but more how the message is delivered, and years also since Neil Postman helped explain what kind of message television sends, regardless of what channel you are on, and I think we've all seen enough television ourselves to know instinctively that it's not just some fluke that people refer to television as the 'boob tube' or the 'idiot box'.

Television provides passive entertainment - that's all it does. It doesn't matter what questions the journalists ask, or whether they ask questions at all. Further, it doesn't matter what the leader's say. I've heard lots of people say that you can read how a debate is going better with the sound off and I think that this is probably true.

To the extent that someone decides who to vote for based on a debate, they are likely falling into what Malcolm Gladwell describes in 'Blink' as the 'Warren Harding' error. Harding was an unremarkable man who, in Gladwell's retelling, became President almost solely based on the fact that he looked like a President - with historians now classifying him as one of the worst presidents ever.

Of course Harding was president before the era of television, but the point is that people's instincts can fail them if they make decisions based on appearance and my point is that in the world of television, appearances are all that matter.

Later on in Blink, Gladwell talks about auditions for symphony positions and how they are now done using 'blind' auditions where the selecting judges can't see the person auditioning. It is only since the advent of this method that women have started to be hired by symphonies. And this historical inequality was not purely down to conscious prejudice, it turns out that the combination of seeing a woman playing, combined with a subconscious judgement about the relative merits of male vs. female players actually made the female players sound worse to the judges, even in a case where the woman auditioning had already played in the symphony as a temporary fill-in in the past.

So my point is that, if we accept that we should have televised leaders debates and that we should allow television advertising for political parties, then we have already accepted that voting decisions should be based on sound-bites and appearances and trivialities (footballs, hairnets, screams, etc.) Worrying at this point about whether the journalists are asking stupid questions is akin to the proverbial worrying about poorly arranged deck chairs on the titanic.

Post Script: One piece of advice I've seen a few times with regards to writing fiction is 'Resist the urge to explain' and I try to follow that rule on the blog as well, but I'm going to break it here, just cause I feel like it.

The title to the post refers literally to the picture at the top of the post where the white van is stuck on the cross-hatched part of the intersection (the box) directly underneath one of New York's ubiquitous 'Don't Block the Box!' signs.

Applying the same words to a different concept, the post title is also referring to the idea that we should block television (the box) from being a factor in politics by keeping politics off TV as much as possible.

And applying the same concept to different words, the post title also refers to how my 'traffic' of work trips and vacations is blocking 'traffic' in the other direction such as writing blog posts.

Anyway, I figured that was all cryptic enough that it might be worth explaining.


  • Much of what you say about debates and spectacle makes sense. However, it is funny that you cite McLuhan and then repeat the cliches about TV that McLuhan tried so hard to discredit. He argued that TV was far from a passive medium, that it was a "cool" medium which engaged all the viewers senses and produced profound cortical responses. Too bad McLuhan is more often referred to than read.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:39 PM  

  • Well, it's been a couple of years since I read 'Understanding Media', so perhaps I've misremembered what McLuhan wrote about TV, but I think I am largely in line with his thinking on the topic.

    However, you're right that what I wrote about it being 'passive' was unclear. What I meant (but didn't say very well) was that watching TV makes you passive (outside of the act of watching itself), as opposed to the act of watching television being passive in the sense of it having no impact on the watcher or in the sense of requiring no participation from the viewer.

    It is in this sense that McLUhan wrote that if there had been mass television viewing in the 30's, World War II wouldn't have happened because of TV being a cool, low intensity medium (or something like that, as I said, it's been a while since I read it) - which in turn leads to what I think is the strongest argument for keeping TV in politics - it's role in keeping tempers and spirits calm, but I digress.

    Having said all that, I can see how what I wrote would instead feed into the idea of watching TV as a 'brain-dead' activity, when all I was really trying to say is that watching TV is about entertainment and visual appeal, not about consideration of abstract ideas (this argument coming more from Postman than from McLuhan), so thanks for pointing out the need for clarification.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:27 AM  

  • "...watching TV is about entertainment and visual appeal, not about consideration of abstract ideas..."

    I'll disagree a little here, in that I think that TV is primarily about entertainment, abstract ideas are actually quite common, particularly involving time and location. For instance, in a show like "CSI", the viewer must keep the timeline straight even as different plots (or even parts of the same plot) are being followed.

    May I suggest "Everything Bad Is Good For You"? Despite the gimmicky title, it's actually a good read, and a suitable rejoinder to Mr. Postman's thesis.

    By Blogger Thursday, at 1:48 AM  

  • It's a good suggestion, except I've already read that one too.

    I think we're still talking (to some extent) about two different things. The process of watching TV requires participation from the viewer and certainly helps build TV watching related skills such as being able to follow complicated plotlines or keep track of what is happening on multiple channels. Perhaps watching TV even builds the capacity for (certain kinds of) abstract thinking, but I still don't think that TV lends itself directly to consideration of abstract ideas. This is why even shows which aim for this (documentaries, political punidt shows etc.) generally end up as entertainment, with fox news, for example, providing better entertainment than CNN and documentaries at their most powerful when presenting strong images as opposed to strong arguments (see most of Michael Moore's work for examples).

    By Blogger Declan, at 2:52 PM  

  • Not willing to give up quite yet...

    I'll say that for many people this is the closest that any (myself included) will come to seeing, and consequently judging, any of the leaders live and in person. Yes, I realise that they are reading off a script that says SPONTANEOUS EMOTIONAL OUTBURST HERE, but oddly I still want to see them while they are speaking. Perhaps it's a comfort thing, that I need to see someone in motion before I can quite trust them, plus I want to know if someone believes what they are saying, or if it's just platitudes, and live debate is the second best chance to spot the difference (gotta love those media scrums!).

    Side note: tv is a good place to be introduced to new concepts, abstract (teamwork; religion) or concrete (physics; cooking), even if it doesn't encourage active thought about them.

    By Blogger Thursday, at 12:37 AM  

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