Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy.
Despite the fact that a majority of Americans alive today were born after he was assassinated in 1963, the name Kennedy and his imagery still evoke a powerful response. Commemorative stories of his 100th birthday are the order of the day on all the major TV networks, something we did not see on July 14, 2013, the 100th birthday of Gerald R. Ford.
Kennedy is often referred to as the “first television president.” If this is the case, then perhaps Donald Trump might be referred to as our “last television president.” Last because the next will be far more social media-based; even if this one does tweet, he is still primarily a product of television. The rather stark difference between JFK and Trump, and there is one, is perhaps reflective of what has happened to television itself in the intervening 50 odd years and speaks volumes about what has happened to us.
Most, if not all commentators on TV today will show clips of the Kennedy/Nixon debate, the first televised Presidential Debate in the nation’s history. They will point out that Kennedy looked good on TV, and he did, and that Nixon looked like a swarthy used car salesman, sweat running down his lip. All of this is true.
Kennedy got elected by a hairs-breadth, and many ascribed his success to his “telegenic good looks.”
But maybe it was more than simply his understanding of how to use the new medium. Maybe it had more to do with the sway that the medium itself already had over the nation. Maybe TV groomed the nation for the likes of JFK.
Television as a medium had exploded onto the national scene with a force and rapidity that was hitherto unknown. At the beginning of the 1950s, almost no households had a TV set. By the end of that decade, 90% of American homes had one. Television remains to this day the most rapidly adopted device in history ― far faster than cars, radios, computers or even iPhones.
It is not that [Trump] "understands" the medium. It is that he is the medium.
Not only did people bring TV sets into their homes, they suddenly spent endless hours watching them ― something that had never happened before either. Today, the average American spends a mind-boggling five hours a day watching TV, and 8.5 hours a day staring at screens if you include phones. And more and more of the content on those phones is video. We are a nation of watchers. Watching far outpaces baseball as the national pastime.
What happens to a nation that spends so many hours a day watching stuff? Does all that watching have an impact on how we see the world? What we buy? For whom we vote? I think so.
In the early days of TV, the content was, for the most part, pretty literate, pretty intelligent. It was a new medium, one that had never existed before, and people had high hopes for what it might accomplish. It was often seen as an “electronic university.” In 1958, Edward R. Murrow had said: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, it can even inspire...”
How naive we were then.
But the programing in those early days was in fact filled with documentaries, serious history, powerful investigative work ― in short, intelligent programming. From Harvest of Shame to The World At War, the medium was, for them most part, dominated by intelligence. OK, there was I Love Lucy and Mr. Ed, but in the realm of nonfiction, it was thoughtful and deep. Watching that kind of content hour after hour created an electorate that resonated to intelligence and depth as well.
Today, we still watch endless hours of content. The world of cable has brought us quite literally millions of hours of content a year from which to choose. And make no mistake, in the realm of fiction, the offerings are quite intelligent and deep. But in the world of nonfiction, we are inundated with a tsunami of garbage. The Kardashians, The Real Housewives of Wherever, My 600-Pound Life. Endless hours of crap. Yet this is who we are. The networks only show what rates, and this is what rates. It creates a kind of viscous circle. It is also what influences what we buy, how we think and for whom we vote. It has to. We spend hours and hours every day staring at it.
And then, along comes a candidate who acts as if he is in a reality TV show all the time. There may be no depth to what he says, no thought, no demonstration of any real intelligence, but just like the best of reality TV, he is endlessly shocking and endlessly entertaining.
Is it really any wonder that he gets elected?
It is not that he “understands” the medium. It is that he is the medium.
And it is not just him.
When Greg Gianforte body slammed journalist Ben Jacobs from The Guardian, was he disqualified from running? Nope. He was elected. Not only was he elected, but there was an outpouring of support of his “manly” actions.
Bodyslamming. This is the kind of stuff that really rates on The Real Housewives. That’s the kind of stuff that people love to watch on WWE. And you know what? You can actually watch Donald Trump body slam Vince McMahon at Wrestlemania XXIII.
Isn’t this EXACTLY what Gianforte did to Jacobs?
You bet it is.
Now, could you ever see JFK doing this?
I don’t think so either.
This is what makes for great TV these days.
And now, apparently, this is what gets people elected.
JFK once represented what was the best in us. Donald Trump represents the worst.