Brow Beat

Marshall McLuhan Talks Presidential Debates on The Today Show, 1976

Last week, the terrific website Open Culture posted a remarkable clip from The Today Show: a ten-minute segment from 1976 in which media theorist Marshall McLuhan—the author of Understanding Media among many other books, best known these days either for saying “the medium is the message” or for appearing in Annie Hall *—discussed the Ford/Carter presidential debate with Tom Brokaw and Edwin Newman.

McLuhan, whom Brokaw introduces as “practically a household word in this television-conscious society,” explains that he watched the debate, “not so much from a policy point of view, but from a television point of view,” on one black-and-white set and two color sets (one tuned to CBS, the other to NBC; they looked quite different, he says).

McLuhan thought the arrangement of the debate was idiotic. “I never saw a more atrocious misuse of the TV medium,” he says. TV, according to McLuhan, is not a debating medium: It won’t work to have two men stand at podiums and talk at each other. “All that matters” in such a format “is that they hold the audience on their image, no matter what they say.” He thought the the debates needed to be shorter and more conversational, with the two men sitting across from each other as guests are on The Today Show. (Charlie Rose would apparently agree.) Brokaw asks if that would mean a series of 15-minute conversations, one a day, and McLuhan says that sounds “reasonable.”

Other suggestions by McLuhan seem less reasonable. This particular debate between Ford and Carter may be best known for its technical difficulties: At one point, the speakers went out, and viewers at home couldn’t hear the candidates for a stretch. McLuhan calls this a “glorious moment” and describes it as “the rebellion of the medium against the bloody message.” Pressed on the point by Brokaw, McLuhan insists that TV was, in some fashion, revolting against the awfulness of the debate format. “The vibrations got through to the amplifier and it said this cannot continue.” When Brokaw seems incredulous, McLuhan insists, “The vibes really did get through. The medium was the message.”

This wild idea should perhaps be no surprise coming from McLuhan: As Gary Wolf wrote in Wired in 1997, “Even in areas where McLuhan was expected to be more dependable… his pronouncements were often incredible.” What seems most incredible to me about this cultural artifact is that there was ever a time when The Today Show would spend ten uninterrupted minutes talking about the presidential debates with a media theorist.

* In his Annie Hall scene, McLuhan famously chides a pontificating professor by saying “You mean my whole fallacy is wrong.” As many fans of the movie have pointed out, that sentence makes little sense: Fallacies are by definition wrong—and why would McLuhan correct someone by acknowledging his own fallacy? According to an academic paper by W.J.T. Mitchell, McLuhan wrote the line himself.

Bonus pop culture artifact: In the first season of Mad Men, Joan tells Peggy, “Well, you know what they say: The medium is the message.” Was the phrase really in common currency in 1960, when that episode is set? It seems unlikely: McLuhan’s big popular breakthrough was with Understanding Media, from 1964; his previous book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, was also popular; it was published in 1962.

(Further viewing: Marshall McLuhan Speaks, a website created this year for the McLuhan centennial—he was born in 1911—which includes, among many other clips, a 1984 documentary about McLuhan narrated by Tom Wolfe.)