Approximate 4 minute read
A while back Phil Cooke wrote an article which appeared on his website entitled, “The Medium is Really the Message.”
I have to admit even now many months later I am uncomfortable with the brashness of his title.
Upon first reading it I wanted to scream out, “Jesus’ work on the cross is the message, Phil!” Or, “God’s love for us is the message, not the medium!”
You get the picture.
My church-upbringing causes a kneejerk reaction to defend what seemed to be an attack on the preeminence of God and His gospel message. It is quite easy to assume that because the gospel is neither pretentious or contrived that it is beyond any affect which may be generated by the manner in which it is delivered. Communications competency and efficiency are metrics which should not be considered.
I am reminded of the motion picture “The King’s Speech.” The movie opens with a scene showing the second son of King George V, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, stammering through a speech at Wembley Stadium. The 1920’s, a decade not unlike this one, was a time of great technological advancement. One key advancement was the proliferation of radio.
Prince Albert had all but given up hope for a cure of his stutter. His wife Elizabeth persuaded him to see Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist residing in London. After a feeble attempt at Logue’s therapy, Prince Albert decides Logue’s methods are ineffective and unsuitable. Logue however wagered Albert a shilling that he could recite Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech, without the slightest difficulty if the Prince would simply attempt to do so only while listening to Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” played over headphones. Logue recorded the Prince’s successful speech on a gramophone in his office resulting in Logue and Prince Albert’s subsequent heartfelt friendship.
It was the emergent technology of radio which required, even forced the Prince to address his disability. A different medium, say for example print, would have it’s own set of demands but would also equally cloak the Prince’s speech impediment. The power of radio and its potential for great good was cause to demand improvement by the Prince. The message was not only influenced by but was also contingent upon the medium. Message and medium are indeed inextricably intertwined.
The first televised United States Presidential debate (Kennedy / Nixon) in 1960 also illustrates this point. Nixon arrived at the TV studio after spending two weeks in the hospital due to a knee injury. Prior to the debate he had lost weight while in the hospital and as a result his clothes no longer fit well. Nixon’s suit color and the upstage scenery behind him were a similar shade of grey when viewed on black and white television (the standard of the day) making it difficult to define where the Vice President of the United States ended and where the scenic flats began. Sinking into the background is not an impression a Presidential Candidate intentionally makes!
Don Hewitt (pictured above in the photograph seated between Kennedy & Nixon), the CBS television director for the debate recalled Nixon hit his knee on his car’s door jam entering the studio. Nixon, in great pain entered the studio and limped on stage.
Kennedy arrived shortly thereafter recently arriving from California, his rugged good looks smartly tan. This, quite a contrast from Nixon who appeared pale. Hewitt asked both, “would either of you like make-up?” Kennedy responded quickly “no,” afterall Kennedy didn’t need it. Nixon hearing Kennedy’s response replied “no” as well. His pride required Nixon’s response. The truth was however Nixon had a thick 5 o’clock shadow, he looked pale and sickly.
During lighting tests Nixon’s handlers were invited into the control room and were asked, “are you happy with the way your candidate looks?” They responded, “sure, let’s go!” The CBS staff, observing Nixon looked awful on camera hinted to his handlers that Nixon really should go to make-up. Instead, the handlers pulled Nixon aside and plastered VP Nixon’s face with beard stick, making Nixon appear even paler than he was moments before.
By most accounts, radio listeners of the first Presidential debate thought Nixon won. However for the 70 million who tuned in via television, Kennedy was the clear winner.
A few years later Hewitt saw Nixon at a party and said, “You know Mr. Nixon, if you had let my make-up person take care of you I’d be calling you ‘Mr. President’ right now.”
Nixon responded, “You’re right.”
The medium is really the message. They are inextricably intertwined.
After the first debate the CBS lighting designer was (incorrectly) blamed for Nixon’s poor appearance and performance. Imero “Immie” Fiorentino was brought in instead to light the second Presidential debate.
Immie set-up an individualized lighting hang and focus for each candidate. He optimized for the facial features of both men. He also consulted with both candidates regarding what type and color suit and tie they should wear to look best on television.
When John F. Kennedy’s brother Bobby walked on-stage at the second debate in advance of his brother, he first stood behind his brother’s lectern and then stood behind Mr. Nixon’s.
Bobby Kennedy started counting the various lights set-up for Nixon and then walked across the stage and counted the lights hung for his brother. Bobby then called Immie over and protested, “Nixon has eight more lights than my brother and you need to treat both candidates the same!”
Immie tried to explain, “they have two different faces.” “I am trying to make both look as good as possible on television, the lighting for your brother is perfect for him.”
Bobby insisted, “set up the same lights for my brother that Nixon has! The same types and the same quantity!” Bill Paley, head of CBS News even pleaded with Bobby Kennedy to keep the lights as they were, but Bobby would have none of it. Fiorentino was ordered to change Kennedy’s lights to match Nixon’s.
Immie later admitted that he kept Kennedy’s added lights at just a glow, so Bobby would see they were on without it making his brother John Kennedy look worse.
The medium trumped the message. They are indeed inextricably intertwined.
After the 1960 Presidential debates a survey was done. More than 50% of all voters reported that the debates had influenced their opinion.
Whether or not one feels that a Presidential election should be influenced by a candidates’ performance on television, or any medium for that matter, the facts are that it certainly does.
Immie Fiorentino went on to light many more Presidential debates and also lit each DNC/RNC convention from the 1960s until his passing. He also consulted with each President’s office since Eisenhower.
Fiorentino said that the debates and conventions were very tiring to work, because “every four years you need to start over and teach a new group the same things you taught the previous group four years ago.”
The original version of this article was published September 13, 2013.