is a columnist for the
Washington Post Writers Group
One can understand why Howard Dean feels that the world would be better off without the press, as he suggested recently to a group of bankers.
Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, was responding to a banker's complaint that candidates speak only in sound bites.
His solution: "Have candidates in to meetings like this, and bar the press."
Now there's a concept from a man who should know.
Few have benefited less from media exposure than Dean, who will be forever remembered as "The Scream" for his war whoop during his 2004 presidential election bid.
Then again, Dean, of all people, also should know that citizen journalists are everywhere, even at banking conventions, and that nearly everybody has a video phone and access to YouTube.
"Barring the press," alas, would require human extinction. Another concept for another day. Meanwhile, we know what Dean meant. And, doubtless, many Americans reflexively agree. The media are not beloved by many - at least not until the many consider the alternative. Saddam Hussein didn't like the media, either.
But Dean has a point, which is that the omnipresent, omnivorous (not omniscient) media more often distort than reveal the truth. Driven by corporate profit motives, media conglomerates pander to the least noble of man's appetites, and become "infotainment," as Dean put it.
We've all bemoaned the shallowness of news coverage that pays lip service to issues while plumbing the depths of paternity when an illegitimate child is born to a money-filching, drug-addicted stripper. Oh, sorry. I mean a widowed mother who worked her way up from small-town obscurity to prominence through the visual arts.
Thus, inadvertently, Dean was making a case for the written word. When we speak of media today, after all, we're really talking less about newspapers and magazines than of cameras and video screens. In a world where television, YouTube and the Internet dominate the media field, visual imagery necessarily dominates discourse.
If one were to play the word-association game with top presidential candidates, saying the first word that a person's name inspires, that word most likely would be visual - or possibly auditory. In either case, both are captured by film and tape, as opposed to words on the printed or virtual page.
Admit it: Say John Edwards, we think hair; Hillary Clinton, pantsuits; Barack Obama, so far, a smile; Mitt Romney, starched shirts and soap; John McCain, forever a POW; Rudy Giuliani, the man from Ground Zero.
These are superficial characterizations, but images matter. They register with the unconscious as symbols, and evoke a visceral response precisely because they are processed by the brain's right hemisphere, where our emotions hang out. Written language, on the other hand, is processed by our left hemisphere - home to reason and logic.
Our right lobe feels; our left lobe thinks. It's no mystery why the Democratic Party, identified as the more-feeling party, is also home to more artists and actors, while the Republican Party tends to attract more business-minded folks.
This is an oversimplification of the workings of brains and politics, clearly. We're all a little bit this and a little bit that, and the lobes, though one usually dominates, communicate with each other through 250 million or so nerve fibers. Some of us are even ambidextrous, though we try to keep it quiet.
But the issue Dean raises about honesty vis-a-vis media in the political realm underscores the danger of relying too much on what the camera delivers versus what the mind deduces from reasoning through the written word. What we see is not all of what we get.
We don't want to live by words alone, obviously. Emotions aren't frivolous, but they are another form of information. Visceral responses, otherwise known as "gut feelings" or intuition, are often reliable, if primitive, ways of knowing.
Yet when it comes to understanding issues, television becomes the enemy of thought, and YouTube is inherently unfair by the deliberate exclusion of context.
Of course, thinking is harder than feeling, which may explain why reading has fallen in disfavor and candidates scramble to post their own flicks on YouTube. But Americans who want to make informed choices would do well to spend more time reading than watching.
The "boob tube" got its nickname fair and square.