07 September 2005


FEMA has "requested" that no news footage be taken of bodies being recovered from the disaster in New Orleans (and presumably elsewhere, as well). Reporters are apparently being actively blocked from filing stories or broadcasting from inside the Houston Astrodome, a major shelter for evacuees. TV broadcast trucks are being turned around by the National Guard at Jefferson Parish, on the way towards New Orleans. And those listening in on emergency radio frequencies for updates are finding those signals suddenly jammed. All of this suggests an Iraq-like clampdown on information and news getting out, now that the White House - and President W himself - has taken an interest in the disaster. (I will leave aside my cynical and bitter editorial comment - you can fill in the blank, if you wish.)

My non-cynical and distressing comment has to do with the role that television news plays in creating news, that is, creating that which a society believes is important. Marshall McLuhan would say that there cannot be more than one active war in the world, since the television camera can only point in one direction at a time. Think about it in today's context - does Iraq "still exist" (in the consciousness of the average American)?

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of the levees, major television news outlets were there with their cameras and microphones, recording the tragedy and people's responses to it. This became the news of the country, and it was only through the outcry of both local officials and residents that federal relief efforts effectively began. But because of the disaster that was the initial (i.e. for the full first week) federal response, the Bush administration had a (political) crisis on its hands of unprecedented magnitude. As the Army Corps of Engineers stemmed the flow of water into the flooded city, so too did the White House Corps of Engineers, led by Gen. Karl Rove himself no doubt, begin to stem the flow of information out of the flooded city - and all cities flooded with evacuees and stories of their plight.

"If we show what's actually going on in there, the terro... err... hurricanists will win!"

The Bush administration is a television administration - possibly the last of a long line of television administrations that began with Kennedy. It has never been able to deal with the phenomenon of emergent transparency enabled by ubiquitous communication and pervasive proximity, even from an area that has been effectively knocked off the grid. Thanks to those who need only to get out a snippet of information each, a large and comprehensive picture can be constructed, and that picture is even more revealing about the distressing failure of a government, in so many more dimensions than television could ever begin to reveal.
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CF said...

Why is this administration "possibly the last"?
Isn't it just the next stage in an evolution?

Mark said...

Good question, CF. The guidance for this comes from McLuhan's Understanding Media, in which he says, "A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them (UM 174)." The effects of the 'net (resulting from ubiquitous connectivity and the ensuing pervasive proximity) are actually reversals of television's effects. Today's television induces a state of hypnosis; being actively engaged on the 'net involves creative participation. Broadcast politics, that began with Kennedy (and were very different than the radio politics practiced in the 1940s and 1950s) rely on an individual or small group controlling the "message" (which in this case means information content; not McLuhan's meaning). 'net-dominated politics necessitate active involvement of broad constituencies. We began to see the beginnings of these effects in the "Howard Dean Experience." The fact that he did not win does not alter the reality that the nature of political engagement (characterized by, among other things, emergent transparency) has fundamentally changed. Governments will have an increasingly difficult time "staying on message" and controlling the information that is disseminated, since the mass-media now have a cornucopia of sources other than the government. (The decision to "embed" journalists in Iraq, the lived circumstances and the outcome make a fascinating study into the tension that is created at this juncture in political time.)

The next administration, either in Canada or in the U.S. may well begin to learn how to take advantage of the power of the 'net to gain (more) control over their "message." Or maybe not. Even though television will not disappear as a means of political manipulation (the President of the U.S. still does weekly radio broadcasts too, a holdover from FDR), its unchallenged dominance is over, giving way to the power of the 'net to disrupt the hypnotic spell.

t_lann said...

I'm collecting pictures of the dead and posting them here.. more to come.