By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
5:11 PM EDT, September 2, 2011
With this week's skirmish over whether President Obama or a debate among the GOP presidential candidates would dominate prime time Wednesday night, a couple of observations seem impossible to ignore.
The first is yet another reminder of how wrong conventional wisdom can be especially when it involves major media change, such as the generally unexamined bromide that TV is a dinosaur.
The next time someone tells you how yesterday TV is when it comes to politics, and how all the action is now in social media and the Internet, remind them of the fight this week over who and what would be showcased in prime time on network and cable TV Wednesday night.
Team Obama and Team Boehner, otherwise known as The Presidency and Congress, weren't squabbling about Twitter or Facebook, were they? No, they were fighting over who drives prime-time mass viewing Wednesday by nature of airing at 8 p.m. And just as a comparative pittance was spent on Internet and social media in the mid-term 2010 election, so will hundreds of millions of dollars be spent on TV advretising by Obama and whoever the GOP candidate is 2012.
For better or worse, we are still primarily a TV culture.
The bad news: That's why we are overweight and have been overspending for years -- thinking we deserve a great sex life, perfect teeth, guaranteed jobs for life and homes with three bathrooms and six bedrooms (whether or not we have earned or can afford any of it). American TV, with its birthright in Madison Avenue, has taught us to consume like no other nation on Earth
Give me a minute, and I'll think of the good news.
But here's the other observation: Not only isn't Obama the gifted TV performer he seemed to be during the 2008 campaign, TV is now one of his worst enemies.
My first fuzzy notion of this idea came while I watched Obama address the nation after the debt ceiling compromise with its crackpot, kick-the-can centerpiece of a so-called Super Committee. Obama had performed pitifully during the crisis, and yet, here he was on TV thinking he could spin the economic embarrassment as "Good President Battles Bad Congress" or Responsible Adult reins in Mean, Selfish Children."
But as I looked at the screen, I couldn't help thinking how diminished Obama looked and how thin his voice sounded. I wondered if there actually was something happening physically with him.
So, I went back to a DVD I have of him speaking on election night 2008 in Chicago's Grant Park.
Of course, I lost myself in a flood memories as I watched. I remembered how that TV moment sent thousands of college students and others into the streets of Baltimore celebrating. And it was the TV moment, not just the election victory. Young viewers watching him onscreen wanted to share that energy in a communal, physical sense with others.
Viewing him now on TV in his promise-not-realized persona made me both sad for what might have been and angry for letting myself believe in the TV imagery of a night in Grant Park in November.
Knowing something about shared memory and the way the national psyche intersects with media, I believe millions of viewers like me unconsciously associate the Obama they now see on TV spinning and dodging and looking like a worried man with the giant they thought they saw in 2008 -- the one we kept comparing to Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan as great media presidents.
I admit I thought he was a going to be a great TV president -- in fact, the last great TV president, the book end to JFK, given the way media were headed.
But I now know I was looking at neither greatness nor the end of the TV Era.
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