Communication and Politics

By Tom Burke

(Word Count = 621)

Both George Washington and Barrack Obama used political speech to secure their respective elections.  However, the form and audience of political communication has greatly changed in recent centuries.  During the founding of the United States, political speech was either delivered in person to a live and relatively small audience or published in newspapers.  A politician’s audience consisted of the propertied and educated elite as political debates were frequently conducted behind closed doors.  It was not until the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that political speech was successfully aimed at the general public.  Events in the 1830s also helped to increase the scope and scale of political communication.  “First, the property qualifications for the right to vote were dropped, expanding the electorate to all white men.  Second, the United States was beginning to industrialize, migration to large urban centers was accelerating, and literacy rates were climbing” (155).  Improvements in printing technology also allowed newspapers to cut costs and vastly increase circulation.  Not only did this amplify a politician’s voice, but it allowed newspapers to achieve financial independence which, in turn, allowed them to be politically independent as well.  The press’ shift from (at least professed) political neutrality to (at times, blatant) partisanship can be readily ascertained by tuning into today’s Fox News or MSNBC cable networks, which clearly expound conservative and liberal viewpoints on the whole, respectively.


The advent of the telegraph followed by that of radio, television, and finally the Internet immensely changed a politician’s communication with the general public.  For instance, FDR took full advantage of the radio by using his “Fireside Chats” to inspire hope, quell fears, and establish a more personal relationship with the American public during WWII.  His tactic was most effective because “For the first time, thousands and then millions of people could actually hear a candidate’s voice” (157).  Barrack Obama, presumably cognizant of the media’s power to influence voters, used social media to help secure his infamous 2008 presidential election over John McCain.  In order to see the massive differential of “social media savviness” between candidates, it is helpful to consult some statistics.  Obama outmatched McCain in numerous categories including Youtube Video’s Posted (1,819 to 330)Facebook Wall Posts (495,320 to 132,802), and MySpace Comments (147,630 to None Listed).  A visual representation of these differentials and more can be viewed at


Why was Obama’s social media presence integral to winning him the presidency?  Well, as with radio, the Internet allows a politician to establish a more personal relationship with his or her constituents.  Yet, this updated version of FDR’s “Fireside Chats” has many advantages.  Rather than simply hearing a candidates voice, potential voters can see the candidate in action.    While a candidate’s stance on issues is surely weighed by voters, recent evidence suggests that voters are swayed by a candidate to the extent to which they can self-identify with a candidate.  Next to speaking with the candidate in person, streaming interviews and speeches online is the best way to get a sense of a candidate’s personality.  The Internet also allows potential voters a forum to actively participate in discussions at any time, rather than having to passively listen to political speech.  Furthermore, unlike the radio or television, Internet broadcasts do not have to be streamlined for a general audience, and therefore, can incorporate far more political material.  Finally, as blogs and videos may be uploaded for free, candidates are now able to expound their views without having to incur severe financial burden.

There have been immense changes to political communication since the birth of the United States and, for better or for worse, it seems that the American public will encounter their candidates virtually instead of through the radio or printed word.


On the Question of US Statehood for Puerto Rico

By Tom Burke

This video explores Puerto Rico’s background and the island’s current as well as potential political relationship with the United States.  I chose to make this video because my family has always endorsed the incorporation of Puerto Rico into the United States, yet I did not know much about the subject.  Accordingly, I set out to educate myself about the island’s history and political status.  After making this video, it is my opinion that although the incorporation of Puerto Rico into the US is in the island’s best interest, Puerto Rico’s political status should be determined by the will of the people of Puerto Rico.  Yet, given that the people’s will remains inconclusive, I think any action taken to change the island’s political relationship with the US would be premature.

This video was produced in the prototypical “lecture” style with visual aids to help the audience retain the facts and figures given.

The most time-consuming elements in the making of the video (in descending order) were research, script-writing, and the addition of visual aids.

Celebrities on the Web: Sam Harris

By Tom Burke


Sam Harris is an American author, philosopher, public intellectual, and neuroscientist.  He has written such works as “The Moral Landscape” and “Letter to a Christian Nation” which won the 2005 PEN Award for nonfiction.  He is the co-founder and CEO of “Project Reason” that convenes conferences, produces films, sponsors research, and awards grants with the intent and hope that science and secular values will eventually eradicate dogmatism and bigotry.  For the most part, Harris has greatly benefitted from the influence of the mass media as his notoriety stems mostly from his many “youtube” videos.  Well aware of this, Harris has become particularly social-media savvy.  He operates a website which promotes essays, interviews, and debates on political and philosophical subjects that Harris sees as particularly pertinent to society’s general well-being.  He also frequently takes advantage of twitter posting links and quotes supporting Project Reason’s cause.  He has incurred some bad PR however.  Because his arguments are so controversial, some go to great lengths to smear Harris’ name by distorting fact and opinion through such means as “quote-mining” or “trolling” as he calls it.  Therefore, Harris’ greatest asset – the communicative power of the Internet  – is also his greatest liability as these distortions proliferate into society’s consciousness.

1984 Mac Super Bowl Ad

By Tom Burke

The year was 1984.  Tensions between the US and its Cold War enemy were high.  The USSR had boycotted the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles in response to the US boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.  During this time, Apple was seen as the underdog as PC and IBM captured nearly all of the market.  In an effort to assert itself as a legitimate contender, Apple hired Director Ridley Scott and spent $900,000 on one of the most expensive 60-second commercials in history (adjusted for inflation) to unveil its release of the Macintosh personal computer during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII.  Apple truly “bet the house” on this ad.  Its hesitation can be noticed considering Apple’s board of directors almost pulled the ad before its inception.  Fortunately for Apple, it bet the house and won.  Residents of Oakland and DC may remember the 38 – 9 Raider victory over the Redskins, but the “1984 Mac Super Bowl Ad” was what everyone else was talking about.


The commercial begins with an army of zombielike drones marching single-file through a metallic tunnel lined with many small television sets.  The audience sees the face and hears the voice of a man proselytizing on the screen.  The man is an incarnation of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” and his words are precisely calculated governmental propaganda.  The audience sees flashes of a beautiful blonde athlete carrying a hammer fit for Thor.  She runs down an open corridor towards a large movie screen touting Big Brother’s speech to the zombies now seated in a theatre.  Orwell’s “secret police” chase the blonde heroine down the corridor as the subtitles on the screen read “One Will, One Resolve, One Cause.”  The police seem within arm’s reach but fail to neutralize the freethinking threat before she hurls her hammer at the big screen like a shot put.  The hammer meets the screen with a blinding explosion following the talking head’s assertion “We shall prevail!”  The bald and mindless zombies watch in awe and across the screen reads “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh.  And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”


Although its creators claim that the ad intended only to symbolize the struggle of “the few against the many” and against conformity, the ad, at least in part, certainly piggy-backs off of the prevailing anti-communist sentiments of the time.  The ad can be translated as American propaganda against the societal structure of its Cold War enemy.  The heroine (Anya Major) in the ad seems to represent the prototypically American “hot blonde” and the zombies seem to connote an oppressed Russian populace.  The heroine dressed in red shorts uses one of the very symbols of communism – the hammer – to liberate the people.  It can be argued that she is of the regime and rebels from within.  However, her blonde hair amidst the sea of bald drones and athletic prowess seem to foreshadow an American Summer Olympics victory.  Apple strategically underplays the true origins of the positive and widespread emotional reaction of the American public to the commercial.  Rather than simply an analogy for nonconformity, the American public, perhaps only subconsciously, revels in the heroine’s victory as if capitalism finally triumphed over the collectivist systems of the day.  The modern reader may well notice the irony of Apple’s “intended” message of nonconformity as Apple now enforces strict copyright laws and has nearly monopolized the consumer electronics market.  Regardless of its message, the ad had a glorious reception taking home seven awards since its debut, including TV Guide’s “Number One Commercial of All Time.”

“Evocative Objects: Things We Think With” Book Review

By Tom Burke

I read a book review by Chris Foster on book by Sherry Turkle entitled, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With.  The book itself is a compilation of works analyzing human relationships to objects.  The book is split up into sections giving general perspectives on our relationship to objects.  The first section, objects for design and play, outlines the theory that objects can be used as metaphors to build our understanding of the complex world.  The second section, objects of desire and discipline, conveys the power of objects to incite strong feelings of yearning.  Each person chooses whether to give into or to shun their desire.  The third section, objects of history and exchange, deals with how objects subtly mutate overtime due to their respective historical trajectory.  The fourth section, objects of meaning and memory, gives a psychological interpretation of the human relationship to objects.  It shows how people can come to know more about themselves by connecting with objects.


I quite liked Foster’s book review.  It was well-written in that he gives the reader a lot of information about the book in a few paragraphs and avoids going into too much detail.  Although I enjoyed the review, I am not inclined to read Turkle’s book.  While the subject – objects take on different meanings based on those differing perspective we bring to them – is interesting, I think the author attempts to enumerate theories on our relationship to objects that are in their infancy; that are far from being substantiated.  It is one thing to suggest a way in which we view objects.  It is another to definitively categorize the ways in which we view objects.  The review did tie in nicely with our chapter 3 reading on semiotics.  It seems that objects are essentially “sound-images” whose meaning changes along with the concepts one associates objects with.