Amusing Ourselves to Death: News Media, Social Media and the 2016 Election

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In a somewhat ironic interview for the twentieth-century television series Open Mind, media theorist Neil Postman laments television’s role in degrading public discourse. During their conversation, Postman's interviewer cites critics of Postman's theories and points to inconsistencies in his argument, but ultimately acknowledges that Postman does not take a Luddite stance toward television; he turns out to be quite prophetic. While television was the dominant medium of Postman's day, his claim that “all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment” (3) easily translates to our current era where the Internet is the medium dictating culture. Postman’s idea is most exemplified by the 2016 presidential election—almost eerily so—and Donald Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination: it is probable that this has been due exclusively to Trump’s bold theatrics at the center of public discourse. The Internet of 2016 has allowed the public to be entertained by and connected with  all the presidential candidates in ways that do not require the intellectual rigor for which Postman grieves.

Postman's 1985 text Amusing Ourselves to Death translates to our current political arena when he first argues that former president William Taft would not have been able to win a presidential election in contemporary times because of his “multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound” (7) appearance. In Postman’s view of 1980s America, the television not only allowed for public discourse to occur primarily through visual imagery, it necessitated it. Politicians’ visual communication overwhelmed their speech, a shift which “dramatically and irreversibly changed the content and meaning of public discourse” (8). The Internet has caused a congruent change today, and like the television once did, it reigns as “command center of culture."  Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been enabled by the speed and quantity of communication that the Internet necessitates, both visual and written. Once a laughing matter, the entrepreneur and reality TV star rose in the polls rather quickly due to the attention he received for bullying his competitors on their looks (Carly Fiorina), low-energy level (Jeb Bush), and sweating (Marco Rubio). Provocative statements on his intended plans for the presidency garnered even more attention (banning Muslims from entering the country, closing mosques, building a wall at the Mexican border, etc.), and while Trump’s candidacy may seem silly to some, his insistent promise to “Make America Great Again” has resonated with many. With video clips, articles, photos, tweets and other social media posts, the Internet has proliferated Donald Trump’s presence in public discourse so that the possibility of a literal entertainer becoming president is feasible.

But the Internet not only works for Trump: the nature of the Internet grants Americans deeper access to the lives of presidential candidates, and gives candidates various platforms to express themselves, or in Postman’s words, engage in a “performing art” (5). One of the most amusing instances of this “dangerous nonsense” (16) occurred in February 2016, when an inordinate amount of news coverage was given to Marco Rubio when he cracked his tooth while eating a Twix bar. In an attempt at humor, Rubio stated he was old and the Twix bar was frozen, but a US News article stated that, “The reception of this self-deprecating humor wasn't exactly red-hot, though the crowd could be heard chuckling a bit” (Dicker). Rubio’s ability to entertain took a blow, and furthered the opinion of those who “considered [him] a robot.” In a more general sense, social media gives candidates the venue to ‘perform;’ the various profiles they can build on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are places where they (or rather, their staff) can display more personal moments from their lives. Hillary Clinton’s Instagram account, for example, participates in pop culture trends when on Thursdays the account sometimes posts old photos of Bill and Hillary with the hashtag “TBT” (Throwback Thursday). Seeing the number of people who ‘like’ the photos show how many people Hillary has entertained by her post, and therefore how many people are devoted to her campaign. Examples like these abound for all candidates.

Near the end of Chapter 1 of Amusing Ourselves, Postman writes, “in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself” (14). So what is the “idea” for the Internet? The Internet reveals what people seek most: connection. With a medium that allows people to connect easily with each other, American citizens not only want, but also demand the same kind of connection with politicians. It is a place where they can access information about presidential candidates while simultaneously making their voice heard to presidential candidates. This is a shift in the meaning of democracy. And as Postman says on Open Mind, “therein lies the rub,” or the epistemic truth: The political candidate who can use the Internet as a medium to entertain citizens and connect with them is the one who Americans citizens are going to want to be their president—even if the ‘establishment’ disagrees.

Works Cited

Ashikmlakonja. “Neil Postman Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death Part I, Dec. 1985.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 December 2011. Web. 6 March 2016.

Ashikmlakonja. “Neil Postman Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death Part II, Jan. 1986.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 December 2011. Web. 6 March 2016.

Dicker, Rachel. "Marco Rubio Chipped His Tooth on a Twix Bar: And he brought it up at a rally in South Carolina." U.S. News and World Report. U.S News and World Report. 12 February 2016. Web. 6 March 2016.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985. Print.

About the Author
Editor for: McCornack/Ortiz, Choices & Connections: An Introduction to Communication, 2e Brooks/Pinson/Gaddy Wilson, Working With Words: A Handbook for Media Writers and Editors, 9e