Understanding What’s At Stake

by Mike Pyatt

Mike Pyatt

Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, media and communications scholar, in 1964, popularized, “The medium is the message,” coining terms of “hot” and cool” communications. He often quoted artists, politicians, statesman, and poets like Yeats, Whitman, Eliot, de Tocqueville, and Bacon, demonstrating how words impel one to think, feel and react. He stated the obvious, “Language is the main means of human communication,” understanding the transforming power of words, cinema and photos. The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates were defining moments in American politics, where substance, style, and visceral reactions moved a political nation as never before. At the time, CBS President, Frank Stanton, stated bluntly, “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully…Nixon looked like death.” Those watching the first TV debate declared Kennedy won by a landslide margin. Radio listeners gave a slight nod to Nixon. TV was “hot media.” Radio was “cool media.” Subsequent polls and surveys reflected the stark chasm between visual and listening audiences. Post debate newspaper coverage in1960, was balanced, suggesting not a landslide, but a slight edge to Kennedy. Most surveys lacked controls such as pre-debate preferences like party affiliation, religious preferences, education, etc., making it difficult to measure how much the debate altered pre-debate views. Roughly 88 per cent of households had TVs, compared to 10 per cent in1950. Demographically, most radio listeners were more rural, predominately Protestant, with a skewed bias against Catholic Kennedy. The role of the visual image was the singular difference in the first debate.

McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media, was a “tool kit” for analyzing how one responds to the stimulation of words and images. It’s the content of the medium, he maintained. “Hot media” is that which engages one sense completely, like TV commercials, designed to rapidly “heat up” or capture one’s attention, aspiring one to action-to buy a product or idea. “Cool media” is that which engages several senses less completely. It demands substantial interaction, high participation on the part of the audience, paying close attention to details, like phone conversations, news broadcasts, documentaries, where participants must be more engaged; one’s reaction may require reflection and distillation of data. Those principles revolutionized the advertising and political landscape. McLuhan never anticipated laptops, cell phones, social media, and the unprecedented explosion of technology, that changed communication forever. However, he understood what was at stake; the heart, mind and soul of American culture. Communication, devoid of truth, serves as a vehicle of manipulation. The American public continues to snooze at the wheel-most are unaware of what’s at stake in the arena of words.

Time Magazine’s July 2, 2018, cover of a crying Honduran toddler, with photo-shopped President Trump towering over her, next to the caption, “Welcome to America.” The little girl, who was reportedly separated from her mother, became the symbol of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border. It was the latest example of the “fake news” that Trump has pilloried since his campaign. Despite the fact the girl’s father told the Washington Post that his child and her mother weren’t separated at the Texas border.

Time’s editor-in-chief stood by the cover, “The June 12 photograph of the 2-year old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America…Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.” A “hot media” moment. It didn’t matter if it was true or not. They understand what’s at stake. Only the image mattered. Designed to viscerally move hearts toward the plight of the asylum seeker. The story was false. Neither brave or bold. Exploitive symbolism. No facts required. One didn’t have to read the story. We’ve been primed to accept this sort of imagery. The Left thrives on distortion; a one-sided slant to fit their messaging. They understand what’s at stake.

Imagine a very different scenario on Time’s cover, with a May, 2013, President Obama, following his addressing Planned Parenthood, standing, arms folded defiantly, towering above the grisly remains of an aborted 23 week old dismembered baby, lying in a sanguinary state, with a caption, “Welcome to Planned Parenthood.” Those merchants-of-death wouldn’t stand for that imagery. They know that image would turn multitudes against abortion-on-demand, and understand what’s at stake-dried up coffers, and women’s “right to choose” would be significantly marginalized. Their flood of support would evaporate like a puddle-of-water in the Wyoming wind.

Most acknowledge labels are often misleading. The label “political conservative” is about as transparent as a London fog, during Wyoming’s primary elections, where nearly every candidate embraces that mantle. Pro-life’s become a convenient euphemism for “abortion sometime.” Euphemisms are older than our Republic. In 1656, Thomas Blount defined it, “A good or favorable interpretation of a bad word.” Euthanasia advocates prefer “death with dignity.” Liberals prefer “undocumented” instead of “illegal” for those violating our borders. Formerly deviant, abnormal behavior is now “an alternative lifestyle.” Religious leaders are adrift in a theological bog. The Anglican Church redefines shacking-up as “covenanted relationships.” George Orwell introduced the idea of “Newspeak” in his 1949, classic novel “1984.” He warned that euphemistic words and phrases not only distort meaning, but also impoverish language and rational thinking, where absurdity of words reign, to breech the truth. President Jimmy Carter called his failed Iran hostage rescue attempt an “incomplete success.” Conservative rallies are branded “Hitler type.”

Evangelicals understand what’s at stake-reclaiming our biblical lexicon. One should be leery of vacuous phrases like, “Stand united with people of faith.” Without investigation, that statement is an elusive aphorism. What’s at stake? As custodians of timeless verities, one must resist hucksters, masquerading behind religious smoke and mirrors. G.K. Chesterton warned when theological truths are replaced by sappy cliches and religious mumbo-jumbo, don’t be astonished when a culture drifts toward paganism. Reclaiming our words begins, when one understands the stakes of doing otherwise, is calamitous. Our calling: Speaking biblical truth and straight talk to this generation. What do you think?

Mike Pyatt’s a Natrona County resident. His email’s roderickstj@yahoo.com

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