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The video revolution helped fuel the rise of Trump by Howard Green

Jul 4, 2017

Source: Globe and Mail

So much has been written about the impact of social media on Donald Trump’s rise to power. But another media evolution, predating Twitter and Facebook, has been overlooked.

There was a time when television news and current affairs segments were shot on 16-millimetre film. The cameras sported 400-foot “magazines” which amounted to about 11 minutes of celluloid. That was considered enough to stitch together a minute and a half for the evening news, a ratio of film shot to film used of about 7 to 1.

I worked with film in the 1980s as it was fading away and a roll cost about $400 to purchase and process. Program bosses were quick to remind indulgent reporters and producers of the cold, hard expense. If you broke into a second roll, you’d better have a good reason.

In a 1974 National Film Board of Canada documentary entitled Waiting for Fidel, a precursor to the Michael-Moore-waiting-on-Roger-Smith genre, the crew followed Newfoundland premier and the province’s broadcasting mogul, Geoff Stirling, to Cuba where they hoped to meet with El Jefe. They waited for days. At one point, a bored Mr. Stirling berated the director for shooting a ratio of more than 20 to 1.

With the rise of portable videotape cameras through the 1980s and 90s, which then morphed into the digital systems of the 2000s, Mr. Stirling’s fury would be irrelevant. It ceased to matter how much you shot. A 20-minute tape only cost $30 or so. Once you’d purchased the camera equipment, the cost of each successive frame you shot fell. And although cinéma vérité had already existed in the film world, the advent of cheaply produced imagery gave rise to an explosion of reality television – or something that masqueraded as reality. As image-gathering technology improved, directors instructed crews to shoot all day and night until the coveted nuggets of “reality” were captured.

A sense of preciousness was lost in a world awash in ever tawdrier images and “moments.” The attractive economics associated with this new technology helped fuel the rise of people such as Mr. Trump, drawn to pixels like moths to a flame. Not only that, as “live” broadcast capability increased and got cheaper, CNN could run Mr. Trump for hours, wallpapering the country with his bombast, poses and alternate reality.

Because film had to be developed in chemical solutions, the footage was a derivative of reality. Yet, its scratchiness gave it an authentic quality, deemed to be worth saving. It was archived in a library, unlike the disposable tweets and Facebook posts that come, wreak havoc and evaporate as instantly as they arrive (although they’re lodged in a server farm somewhere).

The medium unquestionably frames perceptions. In 1960, the televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon highlighted Mr. Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow and sweaty brow. It crowned JFK, while radio listeners thought Mr. Nixon had won. Broadcast journalist and author Robert MacNeil wrote that in 1968, Nixon looked more “personable” because of the advent of colour film and TV, less sinister than eight years earlier. Mr. MacNeil wondered whether Nixon lost to Kennedy in part because of black and white – or beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, in part because of colour?

Certainly, the reasons for Mr. Trump’s ascent are many – income inequality and a sense of hopelessness among a large segment of voters, a pendulum swing from former president Barack Obama’s administration, a distrust of Hillary Clinton, James Comey’s late-in-the-game intervention, the Russians and Mr. Trump’s on-camera ability compared with other Republican candidates.

But things never occur just for one reason. They are the result of chains of events or a series of factors intersecting at the same time. Often, the roots are long.

While Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda movie, Triumph of the Will, helped publicize Hitler, the video revolution preceding the digital and social-media revolutions is one of the Trump era’s deep roots. It enabled the spreading of faux-reality, creating an arena where a con artist could flourish.

© Globe and Mail