Barack Obama, David Palmer, and the Hypermediation of the Political Realm


With this historic election year upon us, I’ve been pondering the connection between the candidacy run of Barack Obama and the role of the mass media in this bid for the position of Leader of the Free World.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about the first season of Fox-TV’s hit show “24,” which featured counter-terrorism super-agent James Bond, oops I mean Jack Bauer, trying to save America’s first -and very promising–African-American Presidential candidate from an assassination attempt.

“24″ has actually featured African-American Presidents (or to-be Presidents, or ex-Presidents) in every one of its six seasons, which strikes me as remarkable. The show gathers a considerable audience of about 13 million viewers and has had, according to many critical accounts, an impact on American culture. Not only has it reflected post-911 fears of terrorism and concern with National Security, it has also reflected difficult and conflicting attitudes about gender, race and “the Other.”

Writing in “Canon Fodder” in June of this year, Lucia Bozzola drew some similar links in a very insightful analysis that I quote from here.Bozzola asserts that 24

“has made the presence of an African American president not only normal, but also desirable. Take, for instance, how the presence of the dearly departed David Palmer, and in this season his brother Wayne is treated by the show. Their race isn’t a big hairy deal. It’s certainly not the point of the show. Contrast that to Hillary Clinton’s canceled TV avatar Commander in Chief. The presence of a female president was precisely the point of the show, because oh my God, isn’t that just so high concept weird?”

So a woman President was treated as the central point of CiC, highlighted, emphasized, but 24 just accepted an African-American president. See also this related blog on Palmer Obama.

Then there is the matter of the characteristics of this racially Other President. On 24, [the actor] “Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer is smart, charismatic, informed, judicious. . . One of the reasons a freshman senator from Illinois with only two years of D.C. experience under his belt is even in the mix, let alone a major player, is because Obama proved in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that he has the presence to be ‘presidential’” (Bozzola 2007).

It’s interesting to draw the link, as Zack Pohl does here, between Haysbert’s contributions to Obama’s campaign and the two Presidential images.

Bozzola speculates here:

“Could such a state of affairs translate to real world actions? It depends on one’s faith in the general population outside of the bluest blues that are allegedly more open to such things. Considering all of the noise year after year about the deleterious effects of TV sex and violence, not to mention negative stereotypes, it would be unwise to completely discount what one of our favorite TV shows has been telling us for most of the Bush presidency. Indeed, one writer noted that the cabal of older white men currently in the White House have done such a bang-up job that we finally might be over the knee-jerk assumption that anyone but a white Christian man wouldn’t be right for the presidency”

Part of my early research has concerned itself with the way that mediated representations of future realities had a way of slipping into reality, sort of like the sort of morphic crystallizations that scholar and thinker Rupert Sheldrake has written about and that have been taken up in paranormal metascientific discussions of the Hundredth Monkey phenomenon. Think about it. So many contemporary devices have been envisioned and named by writers before they were created in physical reality: rockets, space travel, submarines, robots, computers, communications satellites, mobile phones, table PCs, big-screen TVs, and so on. The list goes on and on. These are, to borrow a nice turn of phrase, “The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of.”

In past writing, I have coined the term “hypermediated” to try to capture some sense of the cultural influence of our pervasive mass mediated images and symbols. George Gerbner’s influential school of “Cultivation Theory” argues quite persuasively that the mass media acculturate particular perspectives, making things seem normal or prevalent. In our field of consumer research Tom O’Guinn and L. J. Shrum are our native experts in this field, and their award-winning work has shown how cultivation effects lead heavy mass media viewers to over-estimate such things as numbers of police officers or attorneys in the population, or amount of actual violence occurring.

Media theorist Tony Bennett (1990) consider the reality-creation role of the mass media. He explains that the mass media have often been described and studied as “definers of social reality,” and that this description has very important social effects in regards, for instance, to news reporting and the democratic political process. However, the idea that the mass media define social reality still partakes in the older notion that the mass media reflect social reality, and thus that social reality and media reality are separable. Bennett rejects this idea, contending that the media are agencies of mediation between thought and action, and provide frameworks for interpreting events that actually structure our consciousness.

As Sarup (1993: 165) puts it:

Media practices have rearranged our sense of space and time. What is real is no longer our direct contact with the world, but what we are given on the TV screen: TV is the world. TV is dissolved into life, and life is dissolved into TV. The fiction is realized and the real becomes fictitious.

I like this quote a lot. Dissolution, intermingling. We can’t tell one from the other. That’s the essence of hypermediation rather than cultivation. I’ll be writing more on hypermediation theory soon in this blog.

From there, it’s only a small stretch to think that the media images of an African-American President can become a strong cultural influence and accustom people to particular new forms of governance.

Is 24 helping to prime America for an African-American President by virtue of the fact and the way that this President has been fictionally portrayed? I think that my own hypermediation theory and Gerbner’s cultivation theory would say yes. The determining question is, is this effect widespread enough to show up at the polls? Is Barack the candidate going to be as charismatic as Palmer the fictional president? And what about the competition, not only from Hillary Clinton, who is running a historic campaign in her own right, but from the Republican party candidate as well.

Real world complexity complicates every attempt at social scientific prediction. But I think Obama’s chances are very good. And maybe he can thank Jack Bauer and his writers just a little bit for that.


  1. rpwagner January 16, 2008
  2. rpwagner January 16, 2008
  3. ron January 17, 2008
  4. dsethi February 7, 2008
  5. The Weekly Rader February 8, 2008

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