Plug In, Push Back, Wise Up

This column appeared Tuesday, December 5, 2017, in the Manhattan Mercury.

It seems to me a bit strange that the concept of “radio and TV” would be considered historic. A heavy brass doorplate bearing those words, salvaged from the decade-plus-long remodel job of the Kansas State Capitol building in Topeka, was billed as just that.

My wife participated in the once-in-a-lifetime online auction of Statehouse historical architectural accoutrements, outbid like-minded seekers of relics of times gone by, and surprised me with it as a keepsake. An homage (or at least a nod) to the chronological component of my career when I toiled as a journalist in the Statehouse room graced by that doorplate. First floor north, beneath the westernmost staircase.

Within those confines would be found a pair of massive videotape editing machines, state-of-the-art at the time. One to play, one to record. Visual images and sounds of the art and practice of public policy creation on behalf of the people of Kansas, captured on cassette spools of ¾-inch wide videotape, roughly the size of the Grisham novel on my nightstand.

Live shots from the Rotunda on the 5, 6, or 10 o’clock news. Standups on the west lawn, the setting sun at the golden hour illuminating the frame, me in the foreground offering reportage du jour, Statehouse in the background, copper dome oxidizing. The journalism that emanated from that room with the brass doorplate was shared via a terrestrial transmitter with a finite geographic range, roughly the northeast quadrant of Kansas, and received by anyone within that quadrant who possessed a TV.
Today, if I wanted to, I could edit broadcast quality high definition video on the phone in my pocket. Then, I could share that video with anyone on the planet. If I wanted to. Many people do, it turns out.

More media. More messages. Less discernment. It forces consumers to work harder. Many people don’t, it turns out.

Homage (or nod)... framed.

Homage (or nod)... framed.

A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan posited it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled “the scale and form of human association and action.” It was the advent of television that prompted McLuhan’s “medium is the message” message. He died in 1980. If he were still with us, I suspect he’d scan today’s media landscape and find a polite, non-threatening way to say, “Uh… dude… told ya so.”

It was in the space graced by that brass doorplate that I made the career decision to transition from journalism, to move, literally, to the other side of the camera and microphone as the message guy for a candidate for governor, Bill Graves. When he was elected, I moved up a story, second floor east, just down the hall from the cage elevator and John Steuart Curry’s mural of the anti-slavery Kansas icon, John Brown.

Latter-day John Browns rally around ideas they believe in. The like-minded organize into groups, many anonymously through social media. Some with pure motives, others nefarious, nowhere near ‘social,’ all seeking to advance an agenda, to influence hearts and minds.

Incendiary tweets from the President of the United States. Russians seeking to further polarize us. We allow this stuff at our own peril.

As recently as a generation ago, it was easier to pigeonhole the messengers according to medium. Media consumers went to diverse sources to scratch a specific cultural itch. The daily newspaper with a cup of coffee in the calm of the early morning. Radio on the drive to work. TV at the dinner hour.

Today, we are smack in the middle of what seems to me to be another really messy transition of media, message and culture. I’m not prescient enough to know what it’ll look like on the other side. My gut, experience and common sense tell me the notion of standalone terrestrial radio and television stations and newspapers that survive solely on a balanced content of news, opinion and advertising are on borrowed time.

Consumption habits change and evolve with technology. I can’t remember the last time I listened to AM or FM radio, and that’s where I started my career. You may be reading this “newspaper” column on a hand-held electronic device somewhere in Uzbekistan. Why, you may even be reading black words printed on cream-colored paper that was actually, physically delivered to your driveway, or if you’re fortunate, your front porch, within the finite confines of Manhattan, Kansas.

How quaint.   

Messiness provides fertile ground for those who peddle mischief and nefariousness. And this is before we even get to the conversation about whether smart phones are dumbing us down.

Plug in. Discern. Push back. Wise up.