Our Medium-in-Chief: Like Television's Hegemony, the Imperial Presidency Didn't Outlast the Cold War

By Douglas, Ann | The Nation, May 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

Our Medium-in-Chief: Like Television's Hegemony, the Imperial Presidency Didn't Outlast the Cold War


Douglas, Ann, The Nation


Bill Clinton is our first postmodern President, the first baby boomer, the first not to know a pre-television America and the first to be at home in the new world of computer technology. Splicing conviction with con artistry, the vividly local with the cosmically global, a too-ready empathy with the brutal brushoff, ever eager to trade in someone for everyone and evade firm definition, Clinton plays like the representative of a new American psychological species, a personality type for which the media are not only a means of transmission or expression but a model of being. Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message: Clinton, too, can process anything he gets; an appetite looking for objects, he too needs to be fed.

The media themselves are in the midst of a transformation, one as radical as that overtaking the presidency and conducted along closely parallel lines. Running the media through the roughly chronological series presented by Jon Spayde (who hypothesized four Baudrillardian "Faces of the Fake" in the July-August 1997 Utne Reader; in the category of Presidents, F.D.R. was picked as the "real," Reagan as the "real fake" or "classically bogus," Gerald Ford as the "merely bogus" and Clinton as the "hyperfake," "so bogus it threatens the idea of the real"), I come up with the press, radio and movies, TV and online. The importance of the Clinton scandals is, I think, that they have dramatized the turf war between the older, "real fake" media and their newest, computer-generated, "hyperfake" descendant, a competition in which the defeated stand to lose cultural clout as well as market share.

In the era of near-universal literacy in the West, the place of origin for all the media, the audience of any mass medium is by definition almost unlimited. While none of the elite arts (whose patrons may need special education or wealth) insist on holding dominant status at any given time, sibling rivalry has always been the law of media development. Starting with the mass-circulation press of the mid-nineteenth century, each medium has fought in turn to control the news and entertainment market, and it's a matter of certifiable record that first the press, then the movies, followed by radio and finally television, held the top spot.

Unlike print, film, radio or the music business, television is a postmodern phenomenon with no "modem" past. A latecomer to media ranks, its development was the most carefully planned. Radio provided television's start-up capital, but unlike radio, TV was dependent on advertising and organized into mega-networks from its inception; it reigned, unlike radio (or film), unchallenged by any other medium for a good four decades. Historically, television is a creature of the cold war. As the lesser media carved out their own spheres of influence, TV's long rule imposed a "truce" in media land, a technological pax Americana that the computer revolution now threatens.

The recent legal troubles of Bill Gates, wonderfully coincidental with the legal woes of the other Bill, attest that the corporate division of the online pie is not yet finally determined; individual online users still enjoy far-ranging rights of interactivity and expression. Nonetheless, whichever corporations end up controlling the largest share of online profits, the shift in media star power, the awkward sense of falling ever further behind the stylistic avant-garde, is already palpable in the older media's top personnel. …

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