prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Late Night with Prez Obama

Posted by prof e on March 20, 2009

NUP_134498_0162Last night President Obama made history when he became the first sitting president to appear on the Tonight Show. While Washington D.C. was embroiled in the AIG bonus scandal, our Chief Executive was discussing policy, and his bowling score, with Jay Leno in Hollywood, CA.  Something about it all seemed slightly unseemly and a little bit strange… as though the leader of the free world was seeking the kind of exposure that late-night TV hosts typically provide to comedians and film stars. Usually “the press” travels to DC and the White House to interview the president. There’s a certain seriousness demanded by the office and the oval office that bestows a sense of gravity to the whole affair…a gravity that is sorely lacking on late-night TV.

Some have argued that this is just the sort of relief that the American public needs when the economic hardship and the resulting rancorous debate in Washington has us all feeling slightly under the weather.  According to this line of thinking,  a little levity from the chief executive might provide some relief from our misery. But I suspect that Neil Postman might see it differently. Postman was a media theorist, and author of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. According to Postman, television is wholly unsuited for serious discourse and trivializes the most important of issues. Postman would not have been surprised that an American president would appear on a late-night comedy show. In fact, he would probably conclude that this was the inevitable outcome of a society preoccupied with entertainment and enraptured with celebrity. In his book Postman provides a short history of politicians intentionally presenting themselves as sources of amusement. JFK allowing the camera crew of Ed Murrow into his home, former President Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh In, former President Gerald Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger taking brief roles on Dynasty, Tip O’Neill showing up on the sitcom Cheers, and Mayor Ed Koch hosting Saturday Night Live…these and other examples demonstrate that political celebrity is nothing new. President Obama’s actions simply take it to a new level.

And what is the result?  Postman concluded that, “Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.” I wish he were wrong.


14 Responses to “Late Night with Prez Obama”

  1. Alex Timmons said

    Neil Postman’s intellectual work was not more than philosophical criticism. Why he is commonly considered a legitimate theorist is unclear. Name any falsifiable prediction he made based on solid evidence Postman gathered and organized into a “theory”. At best, he only ever described American usage of technology, namely the media technology available to him in the 1980’s, which I will agree tends to turn people into ignorant couch potatoes. But that’s a very easy point to make — it’s not a theory. It’s the criticism of a literary snob who probably couldn’t do anything but read and write – let alone devise an experiment to test his claims and make a useful prediction. So while you are wishing he were wrong, Dr. Ebersole, prove him right. In what way does the example of Barack Obama’s appearance on Leno bare out Postman’s thesis?

    Leno’s interview with the Prez was indeed informative, substantive too, aside from light banter near the end. Obama’s strategy of using all media to communicate his policy initiatives, and not just the corporatized press whom many Americans severely distrust, seems at first glance to be working. More people are engaged in politics these days, not fewer. The election results prove that much. Obama’s campaign pledge to make government more transparent has been honored. One need only visit the planned online town hall meetings, policy info websites or watch on TV the rigorous presidential news conferences like the one I just watched. Obama was tonight asked what He expected of the American people in lieu of the economic adversity we’re facing, and his response was simply for us to keep participating in the debate.

    Obama’s appearance on Leno is hard to dismiss as mere entertainment. Obama reaches beyond our inane 4th estate and seeks the direct engagement of the common man, the couch taters who don’t always watch the news. And this is now more likely thanks to the technology the undercover-Luddite Postman warned against. New media technology brings Obama to a more savvy audience, not a more ignorant one. This much should have been obvious, if in fact one truly studies current media effects. Although, I will agree that apathy still rules the majority, but they don’t vote.

    Whether one agrees with his ideas or not, Obama uses the late night option to present his plan to the public, instead of hiding behind a formal press interaction that no longer works. The press primarily seeks analysis from authority figures, otherwise known as “leaders,” from the corporate, political or academic spheres, and just look where those assholes have led us. Whether people utilize more effectively the newest tools for participation afforded to them by new media and late technology is certainly up for discussion, but it’s too soon to claim the end of the world, or death by amusement. I’m admittedly more of a cynic than a well reasoned skeptic, but even I am not ready to throw in the towel.

    A lot of idiots have cast aspersions on Obama’s Presidential stature using this same argument of celebrity overexposure. Being caught relying upon the false authority of dead pseudo-scientists like Postman is embarrassing. It’s time to put down those empty theory media textbooks and offer some first-hand insight.

  2. sebersole said

    Alex, thanks for your reply…once again your acerbic intellect comes through even though we disagree about Postman’s credentials and prophetic stature.
    Note to my students–don’t be put off by Alex’s comments. He is (to the best of my knowledge) a college grad who enjoys lurking under blog bridges, snaring small children who wander by, and snacking on them for lunch. But don’t worry, he hasn’t done any harm in the real world…yet! 🙂

  3. Alex Timmons said

    haha… that’s pretty much true. Overall, I’m pretty harmless and have made no impact in the real world much like this blog site and the uncountable others just like it. Most of my posts are indicative of my own sense of powerlessness in this scary world. So I choose to toil over the insolvent questions posed here — in my favorite and only blog of choice.

    Although, I prefer much bigger game than children. Sedentary college professors are easier targets, and after a relatively easy snaring, they render much more meat.

    All joking aside, I am fully aware that my posts have a tendency to alienate, and I genuinely regret that. However, I bring a lot more to the discussion table than the average blogger/student.

    Thanks for allowing a frightened little troll to find shelter under this bridge.

  4. Cassi Brunson said

    Many people can see the issue of celebrity publicity in many ways. In my opinion, I feel that it is a positive image for celebrities to make specail appearences just like President Obama did on the Tonight Show. The main reason I feel this way is because it actually makes the celbrities look like “real people.” By this I mean, not having everthing handed to the ceebrities and not being the best thing since water. Many people who view celebrities on tv, radio, magazines, etc. may get the impression that the celebrites are snobby, rude, selfish, etc. So it is nice, in my view, to see a celebrity actually doing something like President Obama did with the Tonight Show.
    However, I also do agree with Professor Ebersole that in some ways it does present the celebrities in a comical way. I feel that with the way the economy is right now, we as a whole, need to come together and put all jokes a side and solve this problem!

  5. Alex Timmons said

    Dr. Ebersole, you’re correct to note that we don’t agree on Postman’s credentials or his status – and that’s because credentials and status mean nothing. I plainly asked that real evidence be presented in support of Postman’s ideas, to which you offered no meaningful reply. It’s misleading to categorize Postman’s beliefs as theory, even though some of the points he makes are agreeable.

    In fact, Postman’s claims never extend beyond his academic purview – beyond his authority as an intellectual. You might have heard that scientific eminence is always trumped by scientific evidence. John Stuart Mill said, “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.”
    In other words, anyone with a title can observe that when the sun sets on the horizon, it becomes dark. But if she or he makes the claim that the night sky is dark because the sun sets, he or she is flat wrong. That person is only noticing a coincidence – just like Neil Postman. See Olbers’ Paradox.

    Postman’s beliefs can only survive within a field (social-science) that describes evidence but doesn’t explain it. Media studies have produced a collection of theories that don’t meaningfully build upon one another and typically contradict one another. To this point, such theories are useless in the real world. Incidentally, beliefs resemble a key characteristic of any religion one can name, where the end of the world and life as we know it is eminent. Ironically, there is some truth in that.

    Ideally, Postman’s claims would have to be sufficient enough to reject what’s known as a null hypothesis: If a theory is put forward merely because it is believed to be true (the world is flat), or if it simply serves as a basis for an argument (if you come too close to the edge, you will fall off), it must be assumed false unless and until it is substantiated by evidence.
    Subsequently, Postman’s views were never sufficient to reject the former in favor of his alternative. So the question remains: Are the infusion of technology and entertainment directly causing a decline in American education? The answer is not as clear a Postman would have his followers believe – just as a sunset does not equal darkness in a universe filled with stars.

    Lastly, any intelligent examination of a media theory textbook will reveal a graveyard compendium of dead belief systems; however, these are not exiled to the pages of history like the bad theories once held in other disciplines. Instead, social theories linger like terds that just won’t flush and are stinking up today’s discourse about media effects. Postman’s prophetic stature is just a form of messianic cult worship. And you, kind Dr., are clinging to Death by Amusement as if it were biblical prophecy.

    Now that I’ve feasted upon yet another tasty professor, I will retreat to my cozy spot underneath the bridge. Oh, and in case bloggers want to label me arrogant – know this. What separates me from you is not that I’m smarter or even particularly talented. It just that I am just more aware of my own stupidity than you are of your own… 

  6. Amanda Olds said

    I do not see a problem with the President going on late night with Jay, I mean how many Americans watch that? TONS! It is a homey feeling to know that the man running the country does things that the people he is leading also do too.
    I would like to see more and more laid back appearances, such as this in the 4 years to come!

  7. Michelle Mankins said

    President Obama going on the Tonight Show is a brilliant PR move. Not only does the show have such a high viewing rate, but the fact of the matter is that it makes our President seem more relatable. Yes he is still in a suit, but instead of debating or making a speech at the podium, he is sitting in a chair and conversing with Jay Leno. He is talking about policies in a more relaxed manner. The fact that he is talking about his family and his bowling score and such makes him more relatable, going back to when there would be pictures of JFK with his family. It makes our President look more human and therefore I think that it was a fantastic move.

  8. sarah beddall said

    Seeing the leader of the free world on late night talk television is disturbing at best. Even though the White House has been rocked by scandals and stories of scandals it should still demand respect. Late night television does not demand respect. We know that Obama was the first president to use the “infomercial” to campaign. This last presidential election seemed more like of a popularity conest than something historical. I can understand a president wanting to relatable to his public. But he isn’t supposed to be a celebrity by getting onto talk shows. He should obtain respect and ratings with the decisions he makes for this nation in the White House. I think it was a sad stunt. I don’t want to think about the president of the United States and immmediately associate him with Drew Barrymore or Carl’s Junior. He already won the election. Why is he seeking approval through Jay Leno? Let his approval ratings come from making the changes he promised to make.

  9. Spencer Allenback said

    I thought that it was great for president to be on the late show. I believe that Obama is humble enough to do a late night show, and what this country needs is humbleness.

  10. Bilal Carter said

    The president on a late night comedy show? He has time to appear on a late night show that is intended for laughs and giggles. I love the idea of the one single man in the country with the stress of the country resting on his shoulders being able to take a slight break and laugh and make fun of things in front of his people. I highly doubt that the appearance was strictly for fun, I was unfortunate to miss the broadcast on TV but I’m certain that there was a certain degree of fun and jokes behind it, along with him tackling topics that the people would love to hear about but maybe in more of a fun tone. The fun tone can defuse the people and the script writers of the late night show is some of the best at making the people laugh.

  11. spiffysam said

    I don’t watch TV, and I haven’t seen the episode, but I think that a president that can connect with the people is beneficial. Being able to talk to our country in a less formal way, just as a human, and not as the most powerful man in the world. I think that being able to relate to the president allows the American people to see who he really is, and not just what his policies and plans for the future are. I believe that as a president, he has been more relaxed and laid back about his position, he just seems more fun than previous presidents. He spent a lot of his campaign on connecting with the people. He even has a MySpace! I think it is fantastic that he is putting for the effort to become more personal with the people of his country.

    -Sam Acar

  12. Chester Qualls said

    I have thought we should take the idea of politics and entertainment to the next level. It would require a rewrite of the US Constitution I realize but we could change the whole Presidential Election process to be more of a reality TV show. I’m thinking like American Idol only of course call it American President. They could all compete against each other and every week a new candidate would be voted off the show. Challenges could be designed so that we really get to know more about our Presidential hopefuls and it would be much more fun than a debate. We could actually make money off the election with commercials and allowing AT&T the “text to vote” rights as in Idol. May be fun to even have Simon Cowell provide critique but maybe that would be bad to hand it over to a Brit (although “Judges” wouldn’t have to be born in the US as the President is). Just a thought.

  13. Chester Qualls said

    Oh yes forgot to mention that we should definitely have a host such as Ryan Seacrest who can announce “THIS… is American President”!

  14. Whitney Johnson said

    I think that Obama being on the late show with Jay Leno gave politics a new look, a spunk that it has never seen before. I think that there is nothing wrong with the fact that Obama went on this show. However it is interested to see what people will do to rcieve publicity and make sure the whole worle is listening to what they have to say, and who they are. I know that this is what Obama was doing, even though he did in a comedic way. He definitely was trying to step out of the box by reaching a broader audience and not limiting it to just the politic juckies. My insight on the whole thing is that it made it seem like he was human just like us, and it hit a soft spot in the viewers hearts, which was definitely one of the goals. playing on ones emotions is a great way to get someone to side with you.

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