Matthews was criticized and has since expressed regret for this calloused comment. In an on-air apology he said, "What I should have said is how impressive it is for people in trouble and how they react to see politicians working together across party lines, as they did during tropical storm Sandy and how people like to see that."
I will not question Matthews' sincerity about feeling sorry for coming across as uncaring toward those struggling in the storm's aftermath. However, he makes it clear he believes Hurricane Sandy gave the media an opportunity to portray positive images of President Obama.
Matthews' comments indicate he believes the image of the president surveying the storm damage helped in the election. The most impressive photo-op for Matthews seemed to be the bipartisan stroll taken down the beach by Democrat President Obama and Republican Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey.
Exit polls conducted by one broadcast network confirmed Matthews' assessment. CBS News polling found that President Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy "was a crucial factor for two in five voters nationwide."
What Matthews understands is that perception that is created by an image -- a picture, moving or still -- is reality for many people. Images also have the power to create and even shape emotion, and thus have become a persuasive tool for politicians.
We live in a world dominated by media -- images and music - that is powerfully persuasive. In fact, we are so inundated by media that most don't even realize the influence it has upon us. And make no mistake, media does influence us.
"If you want to know about water, don't ask a fish," states an ancient Chinese proverb. A fish's entire existence has been in water. It knows nothing else. It simply accepts water. So it is with media, especially for those for whom it has always existed. We really have no concept of the influence it has upon us.
"Democracy, under the influence of television, is likely to pay inordinate attention to the performer and interpreter than to the planner and thinker," predicted Gerald Wendt, director of science and education at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
Wendt's prediction has come to pass. Politics is now performance. Very little serious discussion takes place during an election. Televised debates are little more than well-rehearsed sound bites, and candidates are scored by what kind of image they project to an audience.
In his book "The Vanishing Word," Arthur W. Hunt, III observed, "Images have a way of evoking an emotional response. Pictures have a way of pushing rational discourse -- linear logic -- into the background. ... Substance gives way to sounds and sights."
Add to the reality of media-produced perception the advent of post-modern thinking and the ability to create -- even manipulate -- emotion becomes even more profound.
In post-modern thought the idea of absolute truth -- one idea being true as opposed to other ideas being false -- is irrelevant. Post-modern thought holds that all truth claims are equally valid. Truth becomes nothing more than a matter of perspective. When applied to politics it is called "spin."
Political advertising is now image-heavy, designed to create a positive perception of the candidate and a negative picture of his or her opponent. Television has been augmented by video, available on all matter of technology. Thus a constant stream of perception-creating images is available on demand.
Politicians' claims and counter claims are made via sound bites, and fact-checkers do their best to keep up, but the images burn perceptions into the minds of media consumers. Truth becomes irrelevant, because, after all, each candidate's truth claims -- spin -- supposedly are equally valid.
Post-modern sensibilities revolve around communities and demographic categories. Thus, politicians must convey that they understand and empathize with the various demographics and communities with which voters identify. Post-moderns are swayed by an image that creates the perception of empathy.
When an election is tight and the opportunity presents itself to create the perception of your candidate as sympathetic and caring to the plight of suffering citizens you take advantage and promote that image.
Savvy pundits like Chris Matthews will see the photo-op for what it is, the opportunity to let people see "good politics." To a political provocateur, that is perfectly acceptable. After all, we dwell in a post-modern culture dominated by image and perception. And when truth is irrelevant all is fair when creating political spin -- I mean perception.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention's office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message, www.baptistmessage.com , newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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