The Transcendence of Media as a Spectacle Culture



The one hundred years that sandwiched the 1890s and 1990s was a century filled with technological innovation and a general boost in well-being for the individual. Factories were being built up at an astronomical rate, and as the decades went on, America was steadily moving into a postmodern society. Postmodernity created quite the distinct polarities between the two aforementioned eras. Apparent societal influences such as the technological revolution are to blame for these polarities, and some aspects of American life were altered due to this phenomenon. For example, American media had two completely different identities in the two decades. The 1990s had obvious advantages such as digital cameras and the internet, but these advantages actually changed the whole idea of the media as a whole. In the 1890s, the media was straight to the point, succinct. There wasn’t any fluff or color; it would tell you what you wanted to know, and that’s it. But as time went on, and technology was evolving, American media became more of a spectacle. Think of the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, and that story didn’t even have pictures! American citizens were fixated on more of a story-telling media now, rather than a concise one. And as contemporary society was fastly approaching, the American media was becoming more reality series than a news source. Presidential candidates such as Bob Dole had  headlines on “becoming cool” rather than his plans to cut the department of education. All in all, it’s easy to say that American media was drastically modified by the technological innovation that postmodern and contemporary societies had to offer.  


Comparing 1890s media to 1990s media can be deemed a bit unfair. The 1990s had all the technological advantages and better means of communication. But it is truly fascinating analyzing the dichotomous nature that becomes of American media due to this innovation. My article is a series of William Jennings Bryan speeches all the way from Chicago to Milwaukee. He begins in Chicago where he addresses his support for bimetallism. Bimetallism is the incorporation of silver as a legal tender. Bryan states. “Some believe the success of the free silver cause would be very detrimental to the country. They of course are earnestly opposed to us… But it is not for one man to say how another shall think or act or vote, but I believe we have a right to urge upon you the importance of studying the question for yourselves and not allowing any body to think for you” (1). Bryan is emphasizes that if you truly believe that bimetallism will help this country, you should be proud of that. It seems to me that his speeches are both a combination of policy and morale-boosters. He later states in the town of Racine,”If the people of this country would all recognize the power of the ballot and use the ballot as they should, they would see less complaint of injustice” (2). Bryan strictly emphasizes  the power of the vote, and really encourages everyone to go out there and cast their vote. But that is all this article has to offer. Besides brief introductions before the transcribed speeches, there is nothing flashy or eye-popping about this article. It’s strictly factual and straight to the point.

This same approach is used in Bryan’s famous cross of gold speech. In this speech, Bryan bashed the gold standard and told the people to stick up for bimetallism. Bryan states,”I reply that, if protection has slain its thousands, the gold standard has slain its tens of thousands… We go forth confident that we shall win. Why? Because upon the paramount issue of this campaign there is not a spot of ground upon which the enemy will dare to challenge battle”( Bryan 3). Bryan is very emotional and gets his supporters riled up. This approach is what ultimately got him the presidential nomination; before that he was a dark horse. Despite there being some sort of extra-curricular and unneeded comments, Bryan’s main focus was to promote his newfound policies and to abolish the gold standard.  



1990s news articles address similar concerns that the American people have, but they do it in a completely different way. For starters, 1990s media is dominated by pictures and headlines. These new “media innovations” attract the reader for a fun and fascinating read. The old way of media became too mundane for the fast-pace 1990s individual, so the media needed to adapt as well. This phenomenon is proven in articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer published on September 6th, 1996.

Page A47 starts off with an article about Republican policies on funding public education and affirmative action. They do explain their policies and attitudes towards Democratic policies, but they do it in such an “us vs them” mantra. Douglas Lederman, author of this Philadelphia Inquirer article dubbed “The Chronicle of Higher Education”, writes ,”The Republican platform rejects the use of affirmative action in higher education: ‘We scorn Bill Clinton’s notion that any person should be denied a job, promotion, contract, or a chance at higher education because of their race or gender” (A47).  In the 1890s article, there is little reference to the opposing party in Bryan’s speech. He states his policies strongly and then proceeds to the next topic. Further on in the article, they discuss more potential plans for the Republican platform. The Republicans don’t understand how colleges keep on raising their tuition, and they “suggest families to prepare for the financial strains of higher education” (A47). The article even goes on to express the conservative feelings toward the Department of Education. Bob Dole has plans to cut the DoE out of the cabinet all together in an attempt to “reform the government”. As this section of the paper is about to end, a new article begins titled “Democrats Vow to Make Education a Key in Their Drive to Keep the White House”.

This is where the difference of 1890s media and 1990s media is most prominent. After the conclusion of the conservative article, an article backing Bill Clinton and his policies follows. In the 1890s piece, the entirety of it is just Bryan’s policies and concerns. Nothing more. The 1990s now has adapted this story-telling ethos where it is “Democrats vs Republicans” in order to attract the reader. This article is also accompanied with a photo of Bill Clinton, looking more jovial than stern, at the Democratic National Convention. Image is also important in this era, due to the fact that the American reader is now infatuated with the storylines as opposed to one’s policies. This statement is true in the conservative article. In that article, Lederman states that the conservative party will be pledging their support to women’s health and AIDS, two foundations that they have ignored in the past. This is clearly a PR stunt to help attract more voter. Back to the Democratic article. Lederman then goes on to promote Clinton’s enamoration towards public education and how he plans to give every third grader the opportunity to read. Lederman writes, “Speaking before an enthusiastic crowd in Wyandotte, Michigan, during his four day train-journey to the convention, Mr. Clinton said that the plan would be part of a larger effort to insure that all American children are able to read by the time they enter the third grade” (A47). It’s obvious that education is of utmost importance to Clinton, and that’s what the American citizens needed.


After analyzing both documents, it’s easy to say that American media is for the people, but different time periods express it in different ways. It is apparent that both citizens of the 1890s and 1990s are passionate about the wellbeing of America, and are intrigued by the governmental policies that are enacted. They want to get the most insight as possible in order to further their education. For example, in the William Jennings Bryan article, he stopped and made four speeches in the rain from Chicago to Milwaukee. Every speech was attended by thousands of people and all of his speeches were transcribed for the news the next day. It’s obvious that these citizens were hungry for any insight a political figure had. In this specific case, Bryan was discussing monetary policies to these midwesterners and they were ecstatic to be there. Bimetallism vs the gold standard was the central issue of most of Bryan’s speech. Bryan spearheaded the Populist movement and he was getting a humongous following, and it was his strong charisma that was paving the way of its success. At this time, Americans were fascinated by Bryan’s ability as an orator and his unprecedented wisdom. But this is not the case in the 1990s. Due to technological innovation, American appeal shifted towards a more flashy approach. Jack Barlow, author of Jack in, Young Poineer!, wrote ,”Absolutely nobody predicted the extent to which little beige bit-spitting boxes would become the substrate of civilization in the 90’s.”(Barlow 2). Barlow stated that this technological revolution was absolutely unprecedented and it will absolutely alter American life. The American media was one of those things that was altered.

For example, the 1990s article creates a narrative so the reader can read it like a story. There are two sides, and you forced by society to select one of them. Both of these sides are fighting over the same issue: education. Republicans in this case don’t understand why college is so expensive and have plans on cutting the department of education. Democrats have plans to invest in public education and applauds direct-lending programs. As this hollywood-esque media was taking over, another thing was becoming apparent. “Coolness” actually plays a factor in these contemporary elections.

Bill Clinton was the perfect candidate for the popularity contest that the 1990s was. Clinton was the personification of cool, and it was exemplified in his famous interview on the Arsenio Hall interview. Hall himself was a television icon and promoted his image through his popularity. Hall has his own swagger too; rocking the one dangling earring in the interview. This interview did wonders for Clinton’s campaign. Associating himself with Hall, an African-American comedian, Clinton was able to get the attention of a wide variety of audiences.Which was important in this decade, because your image is what will get you votes. The show started off with a saxophone solo by Clinton [in a pair of shades I might add] and a brief comedy sketch by Hall. Then the two got together to talk about business. Clinton and Hill cleared the air of the apparent racial tension in America and talked about how to fix it. This interview and the new approaches to media were known as a spectacle. Guy Debord, French Marxist theorist, describes spectacle as, “This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by intangible thing, which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which at the same time are recognized as the tangible par excellence”(Debord 110). Debord is saying that society is fascinated with the intangible; something that is just famous or popular. It doesn’t matter what or who it is, if there’s mainstream popularity towards it, society will most likely accept it.

With the media being more of a spectacle culture in the 1990s, other politicians needed to look out for their image. In that Philadelphia Inquirer article, there’s a headline titled “Republicans Try to Convince Students that Voting for Dole is “Way Cool”. Dole funded the first ever Young Voter Convention and preached to them how they’re our future. As innovative as you might think this is, you would never see that headline in the 1890s. Politicians weren’t as notionally covered nor was there the technology to support it. The radio wasn’t around in that time period.

In the 1990s, not only were the American people debating over governmental policies such as educational cuts, but the American people were also discussing the fame of each candidate. Never before was this a part of any election. The 1990s was seriously influenced by the rise of media, and the media was being transformed into a spectacle.


Image result for cross of gold

This image came quickly after William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech. Bryan is pictured a savior protection the nation from the evils of remaining on the gold standard. Bryan is also ready to take down anyone who opposes him and his team.


Image result for bill clinton catches football

Image result for bill clinton saxophone

These two images perfectly encapsulate the image Bill Clinton was aiming for. Clinton always had an innate appeal to the younger generation and that help him through his campaign. Bill wanted to be seen as a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy you could trust.


jeburdick. YouTube, YouTube, 30 Oct. 2015,!.pdf



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