Discussion focuses on role of media, technology in modern political campaigns

by Keith Barber

The week before Election Day, North Carolinians, like most Americans, were barraged with a vast array of political ads in every possible medium: print, internet, radio and television. As Nov. 4 neared, those messages increased in frequency and harshness of tone. During a seminar organized by Wake Forest University’s Phi Alpha Theta History Honors Society on Oct. 28, area educators tried to make sense of those messages by analyzing the mediums that disseminated them. Carol Dykers, a professor at Salem College, brought into sharp focus Marshall McLuan’s famous observation, “The medium is the message.” During her undergraduate days in 1968, Dykers said she vividly remembers watching America transform itself on a daily basis. Race riots, Vietnam and assassinations dominated the headlines and it was daily newspapers that offered the information she needed to make well-informed choices during the ’68 election. Dykers, a former newspaper editor, said technology has altered the landscape of national news in many ways, and the public must distinguish between journalism and entertainment.

“There are differences between who go out in the field and try to be accurate and fair and cover stories, versus people who are hired to yell at each other on air,” she said. Dykers also contended that the notion of a “liberal media” is a myth. “As a group, people who are journalists, who actually have been trained for working in journalism organizations are more centrist, than they are leftist or rightist,” Dykers said, “because they like the status quo a lot. It’s much easier to keep your Rolodex if you know who to call than if it’s topsy-turvy all the time.” A significant portion of the panel discussion centered on the media’s portrayal of Republican vice-presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama as part of a larger discussion of race and gender in presidential elections. Ellen Rosenberg, a professor of UNC School of the Arts, said Palin’s candidacy was distinctly different from that of Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984. Rosenberg praised Ferraro, stating, “She was really a woman on a mission and her mission was equity.” Rosenberg said Gov. Palin’s candidacy, despite the candidate’s assertions, is not about gender equity. “Changing the role of women is not part of Sarah Palin’s program,” Rosenberg said. Citing Palin’s position on reproductive rights, Rosenberg said the vice-presidential nominee capitalizes on her status as a woman but takes policy positions that are more closely aligned with a male point of view. Wake Forest University political science professor Katy Garriger said she believes Sen. John McCain selected Palin as his running mate to bring supporters of Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton over to the Republican side. “In fact I think it had the opposite effect,” Garriger said. “There were a number who were actually angered by the notion that you would support someone just because they were a woman, regardless of what they thought on various policy issues.” Delores Wylie, a professor at Forsyth Tech, said it’s no coincidence so few African- American women have been asked to give their thoughts on Palin’s candidacy in major media outlets. She said McCain’s selection of Palin was an insult to her as a black woman. “African-Americans put as much weight on your non-verbal communication as we will on what you say out loud,” Wylie said. “Sarah Palin’s non-verbal communication was so insulting until it was like, ‘Does anybody else see that but me?’ The arrogance with which she grinned, and she giggled and she slyly said racist things. That said to me, ‘This is dangerous for America.’ When we allow folk to get that arrogant and that condescending, America is in trouble.” Due to the fact Obama is the first African- American presidential nominee in our nation’s history, the media coverage of his campaign has proven to be fertile ground for analysis, Wake Forest University professor Anthony Parent said. This presidential election will tell us how far we as a nation have come with respect to prejudice and bigotry, but it’s not the ultimate test, Parent said. The ultimate test would have happened if Obama had chosen Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico as his running mate. “This generation may not see race as we see race, my generation that came of age during the Black Power movement, “ he said. “I know there are media constructions but everyone would have noticed a black man running with a Hispanic man, even one with an Anglicized name.” Wylie said Americans shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking race is not a factor in this year’s presidential election. “Race continues to play a major role in what we do in America,” Wylie said. “If race didn’t matter in America, we would not be highlighting Obama as a black male running for president.” Wylie said if Obama is elected president, it will not end racism in our nation, nor will it prevent the media from dealing in stereotypes. One of the popular misconceptions of African-American voters perpetuated by the media is why blacks vote for a particular candidate, said Wylie. “If you have no identification with the average African-American, we may even say we’re going to vote for you, but don’t,” she said. “Because we’re looking for the quality of the candidate, rather than the skin tone or the sex. Disappoint us, and guess what? Don’t run for anything else.” At this time, it would be impossible for Americans to be color blind, but perhaps that day could be hastened by a Barack Obama presidency, Wylie said. “Don’t be color blind; we don’t want you to be color blind,” she said. “We want you to know the quality of the candidate and the beauty of the culture from which he comes and his ability as the president of the United States to reach across racial lines like nobody else has ever done.” Parent concurred with Wylie’s sentiments, stating that Barack Obama’s candidacy inspires people who believe that America as a nation can move beyond race. “I do believe you’ll have a transformative presidency in that Obama’s principal goal is to include everyone in the process of democracy,” Parent said. “And that inclusion means bringing a safety net for health care and other things than we’ve not had in the past.” Marshall McLuhan said any medium is merely an extension of ourselves, and its impact results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves or by any new technology. Personal computers and the internet have put billions of facts at our fingertips, but the medium of the internet has also spread rumors and lies about political candidates. Garriger said polls show 30 percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, despite the fact he’s a Christian. That’s just one example of how the medium being an extension of ourselves can undercut the integrity of an election. Ultimately, democracy is not a birthright, but a privilege, said Dykers. Therefore, the lines of communication must remain free and unfettered. “A democracy is a continuing conversation among ourselves,” she said. Rosenberg added that diligence is the most effective way for Americans to prevent the medium from becoming the message in presidential campaigns. Rather than be passive spectators, people should take action. “What’s required is participation,” she said.

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Wake Forest University professor Anthony Parent responds to anaudience question about the role of media and technology in politicalcampaigns during a seminar organized by Wake Forest’s Phi Alpha ThetaHistory Honors Society on Oct. 28. (photo by Keith T. Barber)