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A Picture is Sometimes Worth Very Little

The toughest challenges any nation faces are usually systemic. And most are out of reach of  filmmakers or photographers.

The familiar saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is one of those aphorisms that is so self-satisfying that we know we are never going to be challenged when we say it.  But its not only wrong, its inverted.  In fact, a picture is sometimes worth very little, and—at times—a distraction that costs us dearly.

Nearly a century ago the philosopher Susanne Langer made the obvious but profound observation that images are presentational; they easily reflect a piece of the material world back to us. Presentational media allow immediate and nearly universal access to all that can be seen, aided by the fact that–unlike texts–we don’t have to learn how to “read” images. To be sure, we can become visually more astute. But some visual content like the human face is instantly ‘readable.’  Even infants have this capability.

To be sure we need images: perhaps to inspire us, or maybe to simply figure out which slot of an electrical outlet is the “hot” side. But as Langer pointed out, language goes where visual artists can’t.  It’s often the only suitable vehicle for expressing ideas, beliefs and values.  And though we may doubt it, all of these are generative: they are among the first causes of why we think as we do:  what we cherish, and what first principles we value.

Imagine you are putting together the 6:00 o’clock edition of a local television news show. In the competitive world of commercial television the last story you want to cover is one that needs an extensive verbal explanation.  Your survival depends on showing rather than telling.  In most cases news-gatherers are going to prefer blood on the pavement to sociological explanations that account for an increase in a city’s crime rate.  Similarly, the same preference for the visual will devalue a story with an advocate explaining, say, the advantages of a single-payer medical system.  The subject would make most video producers blanch. Other than a “talking head,” there’s nothing to show other than old “B” roll footage of patents sitting in medical offices, or perhaps a doctor taking someone’s pulse. A problem with television news is that its disparate and continuous search for interesting pictures distorts our attention.   First causes are hard to show.  So we may see patients describing the hardship of paying for out-of-pocket medicines.  Their fears and anxieties work well in presentational media.  But we are less likely to see a video analysis of American healthcare, or the parity-violating idea of rationing it. The uneven denial of some coverage—our de-facto system for all but the very rich—needs a rhetorically adept explanation. And if an expert goes before a the camera, they will be asked to keep their explanations very short. Think seconds rather than minutes.

Systems of belief can hide from the camera.  Hence we may never give them the scrutiny they deserve.

Here’s the problem, and its a huge one: the toughest challenges any nation or community face are usually systemic.  That is, deeply embedded problems arise from old and rarely examined attitudes, ideologies, procedural traditions or group fantasies that must be described rather than shown.  They are beyond the reach of even a talented video producer.  In our ocular-centric world we can indeed see the effects of our worst problems: for example, urban poverty, poor schools, serious crime, industrial pollution, and so on.  What can’t be reached with a camera are the fixed ideas–our ideological roots–that perpetuate them.

Consider a final brief example. Industrial pollution sometimes happens because industry lobbyists sometimes provide the legislative language for lax government regulations. But we don’t see that. There’s really nothing to show.  The real action is in the almost invisible transfer of regulatory power from elected officials who are too close to the regulated, a significant slight-of-hand that does not make very interesting pictures.  A competent political journalist or academician can explain these suspicious legislative alliances.  But a reporter doing this kind of story will have to beg for screen time.

The effects of news driven by the need for interesting pictures is that we are often only moved by portrayals of feelings.  That’s fine, but it often comes because we have a enfeebled tolerance for the discursive detail of print on the page or screen. Images are emotionally involving.  But ideas require literacy and our willingness to use its tools.


The President’s Rhetorical Style


There is still time, but at some point soon Trump’s trail of rhetorical malfeasance will deny him the legitimacy he needs to be an effective president.

After the first few weeks of the Trump Administration we can begin to see the rhetorical style he will adopt as the nation’s chief executive.  And it’s altogether unsettling because it is still mired in a rudimentary campaign style we expect leaders to abandon as chief executives.  Presidents need to act on the premise that they have the interests of the entire nation at heart.  What will work for an insurgent candidate—and Trump was a classic example—is not suited to the kind of useful bridge-building that we expect from a President.  The nation’s leader must be at least nominally respectful of the other branches of government: the courts, congress and the “fourth branch:” a free and independent press.  Presidential language is usually inclusive rather than divisive, better when talking about “us” rather than “I” or “me,” and usually aspirational rather than apocalyptic.   We want leaders to recount the myths about ourselves we want to believe.  “Making American Great Again” partly fits. But given Trump’s history, the phrase carries the stain of retreat at the very time that the American project has made enormous gains:  in LBGQ and women’s rights, economic recovery and a rising African American middle class, a more inclusive approach to health care, the rebirth of many American cities, and meaningful action to curb environmental abuses.  So for those who see social and political progress in American life, a program to make the country what it once was triggers the corollary question: what exactly is the moment in our past that you want to revisit?   Most college educated Americans are well-versed in patterns of recent history that indicated narrower opportunities for African Americans, women, and others who felt the effects of discrimination.  Is there anything that motivates this vision beyond the admirable but questionable possibility of more home-based manufacturing?

Trump’s recent rhetorical style doesn’t offer much reassurance.  Combine his sentimental search for a better past with the puzzling impulse to speak telegraphically, and there are few opportunities to amplify a coherent vision of where he wants to take the nation.  It used to be a liability to speak only in short sound bites.  Trump has tried to turn that style into a leadership asset that seemed to work best in counties with citizens who are generally less productive and less educated.1

Additional aspects of his style are now well known or will be.  Here are just three:

He is excessively self referential.  Trump has a hard time engaging values and ideas.  He clings to discussions of his actions and successes, along with those whose slights are renamed as threats.  Hence we get the rather offensive message delivered as an adolescent Tweet that “the media” are “the enemy of the American people.”  Among most American thinkers, Thomas Jefferson would been aghast to hear such a statement.

To be sure, Trump is not getting good press.  But he seems to have forgotten the old adage to not argue with people who buy ink by the barrel.

The President lacks subtlety, often veering into the realm of hyperbole.  His words now come back to him as caricatures:  “Sad!,” “disaster,” “loser,” “moron,” “bad,” “amazing,” “huge,” “sick,” and so on.  It’s a language hovering at the fringes of false dualisms.  Consider this segment from his press conference of February 16: “I inherited a mess, it’s a mess at home and abroad. A mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country. See what’s going on with all of the companies leaving. Going to Mexico and other places. Low minimum wages. Mass instability overseas no matter where you go. The Middle East, a disaster. North Korea. We’ll take care of it folks. We’ll take care of it all.”

This kind of disaster talk is the way a homeowner might first react on discovering a flooded basement.  But as President he will need to come to terms with the world as it was before Trump noticed. “Taking care of it all” is not in the cards. If ever a figure needed a sense of history and the soft touch of nuance, it is an American leader trying to govern a diverse nation.

His rhetoric signals an individual who is paradoxically needy, but not very “other directed.”  He seeks approval, but only on his terms, something that will be increasingly problematic as he is forced to maneuver within the federal establishment.  He won’t be able to “win” every time he tries.  And courtship and compromise with his competitors and opponents will have to be something he learns on the job.  He needs to start by turning himself into a better listener, reader and seeker of middle-ground solutions.

Trump is prone to scapegoating.  Defeats or setbacks always have an external cause.  Seemingly not given to self reflection, Trump redefines obstacles or criticism in terms of the venal motives of others.  And so there is a growing verbal salad of accusations made against others that comes closer to the language of webpage trolls than presidents who must cultivate a degree of forbearance.  Among the hundreds of diatribes uttered about those who have contributed to his opposition or the ostensibly weak state of the nation include, among many others: Macys (“very disloyal to me”), John McCain (“always looking to start World War III,”“sadly weak on immigration”), Mexico (“they’re killing us”), the mainstream media (“My rallies are not covered properly”), Meet the Press (“totally biased against me”), Barack Obama (“hollowing out our military”), Germany (“going through massive attacks to its people by the migrants allowed to enter the country”), Hillary Clinton (“the most corrupt person to ever run for the presidency of the United States”), and so on.  Trump’s logorea of endless persecution now runs into the hundreds (“The 307 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List,” New York Times, February 7, 2017).

It used to be a liability to speak only in short sound bites.  Trump has tried to turn that style into a leadership asset that seems to work best with the less productive and less educated.

True, presidents are not in the habit of public self-criticism.  But most resist the urge to find an external cause for every obstacle.  When the Obamacare first went “live” online and quickly became less than user-friendly, it was indeed the President who admitted there was a problem.  He promised a reset and moved on.

Sadly, this President doesn’t seem to recognize that his daily rhetoric throws off obvious signs of an outsized need for approval.  He seems to lack the requisite self-awareness of a fully functioning person.  So the august rhetorical tools of the presidency–among them, remaining silent in the face of criticism–mostly go unused while he entertains himself on social media and rails against cable news anchors.

There is still time, but at some point soon Trump’s trail of rhetorical malfeasance will deny him the legitimacy he needs to be an effective president.


1. Mark Muro and Sifan Liu, “Another Clinton-Trump divide: High-output America vs low-output America,” Brookings Institution , November 29, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/11/29/another-clinton-trump-divide-high-output-america-vs-low-output-america/