Blog Post

Obama and (international) media communication

On the Tuesday, September 8, season premiere of The View, Whoopi Goldberg, the shows moderator, discussed President Obama's school time address, stating somewhat cautiously, Is this an unusual thing for half of the country to tell their children not to listen to the President of the United States?  Is the message being sent, This is not your President?  Millions of Americans were concerned that their children would be politically indoctrinated.  There are two aspects to this story, of which we should be aware: one that rewards the Obama Administration for its fluency in digital media communication, and another that requires understanding in the way Americans issues are communicated internationally.

Obama, in addition traditional media, frequently avails himself of new media, from a weekly video address, to a You Tube channel, to targeted mass emails.  In giving ample time for people to discuss possible impropriety on the part of the President, the Obama Administration received free publicity, addressing the target audience and grownups like us, who wondered what the fuss was about or why there wasnt enough fuss. 

There is another aspect to Obamas speech in relation to how the protests were covered from across the pond. Issues of Americas multiculturalism are discussed well beyond US borders.  At a recent conference in Germany, I was asked if I thought our President could still be considered American because his election was so significant to millions of people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds worldwide.  

In Germany, in particular, journalists dissected both sides of the school speech issue; it was a Stern magazine article, however, that caught my eye.  There was particularly strong opposition in Texas, the article said.  Coming from Illinois, where many parents, journalists and school administrators were vocal in their opposition to the speech, I thought it interesting that Obamas home state wasnt mentioned.  Texas was left to stand in as a stereotype of The South, where minorities once were terrorized.  Sadly, race-based aggression has not abated, but the South shouldnt be used as a stand-alone symbol for racial oppression. 


Many Germans identify strongly with US goals of equality and civil rights.  Hurricane Katrina made national German news, in part, because it was understood as a human rights issue.  Germany and the US have a history together that is deeper than the Allied Forces, Hitler and Jesse Owens; we cannot assume that coverage of American politics and culture is done with a blind eye. 


That leads us to question how, in this case, Texas was used as a referent and how Obamas significant digital presence impacts the way Americans are represented and understood, globally.  We should arm ourselves with the tools to understand how certain images and statements resonate beyond US borders. Of course, we should not hold our tongues to present a pretty picture for others, but we should understand the ways others understand us.  This is equally important for politicians and those of us who travel for business, research or pleasure.  Better understanding of international perception leads to better international communication.


1 comment


Great post! Immediately after Obama's health care speech, I received an email from "President Barack Obama" in my inbox asking me to write my political representatives to support his health care bill. After that, I read Daily Kos, which had already started a funding and publicity campaign for the Democratic opponent to the South Carolina rep who heckled Obama. So something is going on with the communication and social networks of the Internet and political representation in both senses of the word: representation as symbolism and representation in the political sense. Lots of ink has been spilled on this, already (or should I say, many keys have been typed?), but you right that we are just starting to grapple as scholars with what the digital dimensions of political representation mean.

I think you are right that Obama's savvy use of the Internet is changing the very representation of him, but in ways that are at once extensions of old-fashioned political organizing and also something new.

But the thing your email got me really thinking about was this: the relationship between nation and digitalness. What country are we in on the Internet? Or, as you start to ask, how does the nation get represented online? Digital utopians seemed to imagine the Internet as a global, transnational, or postnational phenomenon, but your comments suggest something else: the nation doesn't vanish online, but it starts to transmogrify into some kind of new geography.

Look forward to reading more!