Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Metapost: When Semiotics Becomes News

Like many people, I was fascinated by the coverage of the contrast between the John McCain and Barack Obama speeches on Tuesday night.

Obama gave what we now take for granted--a masterful speech, this time declaring he had requisite delegates to clinch the nomination. On the other hand, McCain's was a widely panned speech that received bad marks for content, timing, and delivery. While there was a lot of coverage on the historic moment when the first African American clinched a nomination for a national party, there was also quite a bit of coverage of the speeches the two men gave. The assumption, of course, is that these speeches are indicators not only of thier campaigns but of their facility as president. Even so, while some coverage focused on Obama clinching the nomination, a surprising amount of coverage focused on not news but semiotics.

Ever since the Kennedy/Nixon televised debates, all facets of the media have been overtly attuned to the candidates as visual texts. This one is no different. For example, much of the coverage of McCain focused on his gestures, particularly the false smile; the lime green background that some compared to Jello; and, in particular, his recrafting of Obama's campaigns slogan--mocking of Obama's "Change We Can Believe In" through the use of "Not" before it. None of this qualifies as news coverage--it's all clearly interpretative work on the signs of the speech--the visual symbolism, the rhetorical devices, and overall performance, with very little focus on what he said. In other words, commentators interpreted the signs of John McCain's speech in a way that added up to an interpretation of the comparative performances of McCain and Obama.

This coverage acknowledges the way political coverage often works, with its obsession with the new. As I have said, I've been fielding a lot of questions about Obama's rhetoric versus his policies, and it confuses me a bit, because it's so clear to me how media outlets operate--they mostly focus on what is happening rather than what has happened, what people have said, or what they have done. So that means a focus on an interesting line from a speech, a primary result, or a poll rather than issues, which have been on the campaigns' homepages for months. Not exclsuively of course, as most investigative journalism and news analysis, in the form of magazine pieces, newspaper reports, and television talk shows, do go beyond the immediate. But news holes, the term journalists use for the space in their outlets that has to be filled each day, focus on the new in news.

I think the larger question is whether media outlets will focus on a broader, much more truth-aiming type of comparison between the two candidates, a task that has often failed before. But I thought the semiotic focus on Tuesday, when clearly McCain was trying to make news on an historic evening, was appropriate, especially when McCain seemingly made an ill-advised attempt to steal Obama's historic moment. It does show in any case how everpresent semiotic analysis is, even on network television.


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