Engaging Culture

The Medium Really Is the Message

Regardless who you were pulling for in this year’s Vice-Presidential debate, one thing is clear: The medium is just as important as the message. In one discussion afterwards, commentator Charles Krauthammer put it best. When asked who won the debate he said it depended on how you encountered it.

If you read the transcript, it was probably even. Both candidates had their facts, both had done their homework, and it was pretty evenly matched. However, if you heard it on the radio, you probably assumed Joe Biden won. On the radio, he sounded commanding, was bold, and to the point. But if you watched it on TV, Ryan clearly won. By seeing Joe Biden’s rude sneers, condescending tone, and dismissive attitude, he will be perceived as an out of control bully. Indeed, by unofficial media counts, he interrupted the Republican some 80-100 times. Ryan finally pushed back with, “Mr. Vice President, I know you’re under a lot of duress to make up for lost ground, but I think people would be better served if we don’t keep interrupting each other.”

How you encountered the debate had a significant impact on how you perceived the winner.  So now the question turns to you and your message. How are you best perceived and what medium is best to deliver it?  Should you be writing books, launching a blog, hosting a radio program, producing a movie, or creating a online or broadcast TV series?

Does your style hurt you visually? Are you an articulate and passionate writer? The truth is, too many politicians, pastors, nonprofit leaders, artists, and  creatives spend years working in a medium that doesn’t help them express their story.

Think about it. Ask for advice. Before you invest your life in sharing your message, decide which medium will share it best.

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  1. Ryan was calm, informative and gracious even when Biden was being rude and out of order. Biden was not always truthful. He was political but not polite.

  2. “The medium is just as important as the message” is an adage
    we often forget. Politicians have historically
    fumbled poorly on this point. The motion
    picture “The King’s Speech” chronicled the importance of the then new medium of
    radio on the communication of King George VI of England to his subjects in the late

    The very first televised United States Presidential debate (Kennedy
    / Nixon) in 1960 illustrates this point as well. Nixon arrived at the TV studio after spending
    two weeks in the hospital due to a knee injury.
    He had lost weight in the hospital and his clothes no longer fit
    well. His suit and the upstage scenery
    were a similar shade of grey when viewed on television making it difficult to
    define where the Vice President of the United States ended and where the upstage
    scenery began. Sinking into the
    background is not the impression a Presidential Candidate wants to make. Don Hewitt, CBS television director for the
    debate states that Nixon hit his knee on the door jam of his car entering the
    studio. Nixon, in pain entered the
    studio and walked on stage. Kennedy
    arrived shortly thereafter and Hewitt trying to introduce the two said, “I guess
    you guys know each other.” Kennedy had
    just travelled in from California, his
    rugged good looks were smartly tan. This
    quite a contrast from Nixon who was pale.
    Hewitt asked both, “would either of you like make-up?” Kennedy responded immediately, “no.” He didn’t need it anyway. Nixon hearing Kennedy’s response also
    responded “no” as well. He didn’t want
    it to appear he was any less than Kennedy.
    Nixon however had a thick 5 o’clock shadow, looked pale and sickly. During lighting tests Nixon’s handlers were
    invited into the control room and asked, “are you happy with the way your
    candidate looks?” They responded, “sure,
    let’s go!” The CBS staff seeing that
    Nixon looked awful pleaded with the handlers to send Nixon to make-up. Instead, the handlers took Nixon aside out of
    view and plastered Nixon’s face with “beard stick” making Nixon appear even paler.

    By most accounts, radio listeners of the first debate
    thought Nixon won. But for the 70
    million who tuned in on television, Kennedy was the clear winner. A few years later Hewitt met Nixon at a party
    and said, “You know Mr. Nixon, if you had let my make-up person take care of
    you I’de be calling you Mr. President right now.” Nixon responded, “You’re right.” The medium was just as important as the

    After the first debate the CBS lighting designer was blamed
    for Nixon’s appearance. Imero “Immie”
    Fiorentino was brought in to light the second Presidential debate. Immie set-up a different lighting hang and
    focus for each candidate, optimized for the facial features of both. He consulted with both candidates regarding
    what type and color suit and tie they should wear to look best on
    television. When John F. Kennedy’s
    brother Bobby walked on-stage to check everything before his candidate-brother’s
    arrival he stood behind John’s podium and then walked across the stage to stand
    behind Nixon’s. Bobby counted all the
    lights set-up for Nixon and then walked across the stage and counted his
    brother’s lights. He then called over
    Immie and protested, “Nixon has eight more lights than my brother and you need
    to treat both candidates the same!”
    Immie tried to explain, “they have two different faces.” “I am trying to make both look as good as
    possible, the lighting for your brother is perfect.” Bobby insisted, “set up the same lights for
    my brother that Nixon has! The same
    types, the same quantity!” Bill Paley,
    head of CBS News pleased with Bobby Kennedy to keep the lights as they were,
    but Bobby would have none of it. Immie Fiorentino
    was ordered to change Kennedy’s lights to match Nixon’s. Immie admitted however that he kept some of
    Kennedy’s new lights at just a glow, so Bobby would see they were on, without
    it making his brother John Kennedy look even worse. Regardless, the technicians on-site felt
    Kennedy looked better before Paley ordered the change. The medium had become more important than the

    After the 1960 Presidential debates a survey was done. More than 50% of all voters reported that the
    debates had influenced their opinion. 6% reported that their vote was based on the debates

    Whether or not one feels that a Presidential election should
    be influenced by a candidates’ performance on television, or any other medium,
    it certainly does. Immie Fiorentino went
    on to light many more Presidential debates and lit for each DNC/RNC convention since
    the 1960s. He has consulted with each
    President’s office since Eisenhower.
    Fiorentino said that the debates and conventions were very tiring to
    work, “every four years you need to start over and teach a new group the same
    things you taught the previous group four years ago.”
    – Tom D’Angelo, TV Director, Technical Artist

  3. What Charles Krauthammer said was so profound, I posted it on Facebook right after he said it. I’m so glad you wrote on this subject Phil. Good advice to your readers to ask for advice before investing in a medium.

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