Is Obama the first 'cybergenic' candidate?

The Baltimore Sun

The new great truth in media and politics is that Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama will be America's "first cybergenic president" if he is elected in November.

The basic idea is that like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who were the first to grasp the importance of radio and TV, respectively, Obama is the first to understand the many ways in which the Internet and other new media are transforming politics and American life.

It isn't really true, of course. In fact, if you want to be McLuhanesque about it, a more apt description of Obama should he get elected might be the "last TV president." But that hasn't stopped the cybergenic buzz from becoming conventional wisdom - and there is nothing the media cling to quite as tenaciously as newfound conventional wisdom.

Taking on such glib media truths is a dangerous game in today's nasty, instant-attack, online world. But this one carries the kind of political cargo that could seriously confuse rather than help voters make sense of this historic election. And so, it seems worth the risk of daring to go inside the sound bites to do some explaining as to where we are when it comes to the relationship among TV, the Web and presidential politics.

The seeds of the idea have been planted in a number of places in new and old media during the past six months, but they burst into full bloom in a June article by Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Sasso that ran on under the headline "Obama's 'Cybergenic' Edge." The notion reached critical mass last Sunday in a New York Times piece by Mark Leibovich headlined "McCain, the Analog Candidate."

The Times piece took two politically loaded subtexts embedded in Sasso's piece and ran with them.

First is the notion that just as Obama gets the world of new media, Republican candidate Sen. John McCain doesn't. As Leibovich put it: "The self-described 'Neanderthal' of the Grand Old Party (emphasis, old) has been catching flack for admitting he is no techno-geek. He not only did not invent the Internet, he can barely use it."

The other subtext involves linking Obama to such legendary presidents as Roosevelt and Kennedy. The Times went one better, extending the chain of transformative media leadership from Obama back to Abraham Lincoln. Tom Wheeler, described as an Obama fund raiser and author of Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War, was the expert used to connect the dots.

But there are other experts who disagree - and none is a fund raiser for either candidate.

Paul Levinson, a Fordham University professor who specializes in media history and evolution, questions almost every aspect of the Obama-as-first-cybergenic-president argument from premise to conclusion.

"Although it's superficially attractive, that's the kind of statement that glosses over so many different facts that, in the end, it's simply wrong," says Levinson, chair of communications and media studies at Fordham.

"Lincoln was not an expert in the use of the telegraph. He didn't use it to win 1860 or 1864. And with JFK, it was basically more of an accident. He did the TV debate, and everybody saw that he did much better than his opponent, Richard Nixon. Because it was a razor-close election, with the wisdom of hindsight, everybody said Kennedy understood television. But Kennedy was not an expert on TV any more than Obama himself is an expert on the Internet."

Scott Jacobs, editor of The Week Behind Web site and of the book Talk's Cheap, Let's Race!: Posts Along the Campaign Trail, offers a more succinct critique of the cybergenic-president hypothesis: "It's malarky," says the veteran of four decades of campaign coverage.

As media historians like Levinson see it, the cybergenic-president argument is based on a flawed view of media cycles as discreet and separate eras - thinking the radio epoch ends on one day, and the TV era begins the next.

But the role of media in a nation does not work that way - one era bleeds into the next, and the previous cycle hangs on, often never going totally away.

Think of radio, or consider the network newscasts that have been labeled dinosaurs for more than a decade. While they are undoubtedly headed for extinction, they still amass a nightly audience of 25 million viewers while earning tens of millions in profits for ABC, NBC and CBS. The graveyard is still a way off.

While the number of people who say the Internet is their primary source of campaign news has grown to 15 percent of Americans this year (up from 6 percent in 2004), the number who rely first on TV is still four times as large at 60 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press. In fact, the media story of this exceptional election year is not one of Internet growth, but rather TV resurgence, with debate and primary-night coverage setting new network and cable TV audience records across the board.

And for all the talk about a Paris Hilton or Obama Girl YouTube video, the impact of such TV-quality productions is only felt after they are shown and discussed in newspapers or on TV and legacy media Web sites.

Nothing speaks to the primacy of TV over the Internet this year like the record $5 million and $6 million spent by the Obama and McCain campaigns, respectively, in advertising buys on the Olympics. Follow the money if you want to know what the candidates and their handlers really believe in - and it's TV, not the Internet, that comes first.

And for all the money that Obama's campaign team has raised online, Howard Dean and Ron Paul did it first in cyberspace. What ended the candidacy of both was TV - the cameras capturing Dean's strange yelp during a post-Iowa news conference in 2004, and simply focusing their unblinking gaze on Paul during his first televised debate in 2007. Dean and Paul had the cybergenic thing down cold; it was the telegenic part that killed them.

That's the underanalyzed story of the political year: how skilled and attractive a TV candidate Obama is. Yes, better even than Kennedy.

It's TV, not the Internet, stupid. And that's historic, too, because this could be the last time the really important stuff in a presidential election happens on that old media screen.

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