This essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, is actually comprised of several shorter essays on the same theme. It’s very timely, considering the media circus surrounding the presidential primaries here in the US.
Anyone who is even vaguely aware of the US primaries will likely agree with Eco’s assertion regarding how a politician can dominate the media.
He makes promises that—good, bad, or indifferent as they may seem to his supporters—are a provocation to his critics. He comes up with a provocation a day, and if they are bizarre or outrageous, so much the better. This allows him to occupy the front pages of the paper and the breaking news on television, with the result that he is always at the center of attention. The provocation must be calculated to ensure that the opposition cannot avoid picking up the gauntlet and reacting vigorously.
One thing I found enlightening in this essay was Eco’s explanation of how news stories use structure to validate their arguments while positioning their view as the truth in a debate.
Television works this way. If there is a debate about a law, the issue is presented and the opposition is immediately given the chance to put forward all its arguments. This is followed by government supporters, who counter the objections. The result is predictable: he who speaks last is right. If you carefully follow all the TV news programs, you will see this strategy: the project is presented, the opposition speaks first, the government supporters speak last. Never the other way around.
A media regime has no need to imprison its opponents. It doesn’t silence them by censorship, it merely has them give their arguments first.
(pp. 144 – 145)
Finally, Eco asserts that electoral campaigns have become a spectacle focusing on appearances.
The electoral campaign emerges as a spectacle of form, in which what matters is not what the candidate actually stands for but how he appears to others.
So what is a voting citizen to think about all this? It’s a legitimate question and one that Eco poses as the conclusion of his essay.
When you finish reading, you wonder: Is this really what democracy is all about? A way to gain public favor, based only on orchestrated appearances and a strategy of deceit?
Ever the idealist, I’d still like to believe that democracy means more, that it is still about advancing humanity and civilization. As always, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read thought-provoking stuff.