We need to listen to the impact of audio technologies on politics.
As I dual-screened the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention on Monday, I noticed a discrepancy between what I heard on television and some of the tweets from reporters in the Wells Fargo Center. According to many reporters on the scene, the booing and anti-Hillary/pro-Bernie chanting was not widespread or even particularly loud by the time Corey Booker and the other headline speakers took the stage. The sounds shaping the global media narrative of the evening, they said, were simply not that prominent in the room. According to The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, even the evening’s raucous first half-hour wasn’t as bad as we at home were led to think:
And yet, with my own ears, I could hear the booing, jeering, and chanting coming from the convention floor. If these sounds were really not so prominent in the arena, why was I able to hear them so clearly at home on TV?
While some will answer by questioning these reporters’ objectivity (or hearing), the full answer has at least as much to do with changes in the technological medium of television over the past half century.
Audio Technology and the Sound of Live TV
Advances in audio technology have strongly impacted TV production, revolutionizing the coverage of live events. In particular, the low noise of digital audio has enabled engineers to add many times as many microphone inputs to a sound mix before the overall quality is degraded. Meanwhile, wireless handheld and parabolic microphones allow for sound capture from any source in a large space. Sound engineers use huge digital mixers and signal compression to combine these many sources into a detailed surround-sound mix of both loud and quiet elements. This mix offers the home audience an “ear of God” perspective that no one at the actual event could possibly experience.
These audio techniques are now standard practices in “electronic field production.” The televised aural experiences they create can be very powerful, but audiences tend not to notice their fabricated nature. Usually, we listen as if we were hearing a simple transmission of reality, rather than thinking about the effort and motives behind these elaborate audio productions. As my colleague Travis Vogan and I have detailed (PDF), the NFL and its broadcasters have used these audio capabilities to monetize emotionally affecting sounds such as crowd roar and the crack of helmets against one another, turning the home into a virtual stadium.
Likewise, both the networks and the political parties have incentives to create an emotionally involving “you are there” convention experience through sound. By mic’ing, amplifying, and compressing the sound of the arena, the sound of the delegates on the convention floor becomes an affective resource for the production. First, we get a sense of “liveness” because we don’t just hear the speaker’s voice from the podium mic, but also its echoes in the hall. Second, thanks to compression, we can hear both murmurs and roars from the crowd, making the former audible without letting the latter blow out our TV speakers. This turns the crowd into an audible “character” in the drama of the convention. Of course not all televised crowd sound is intentional (see PBS and NPR’s struggles to be heard this year), but the DNC hopes the dramatic sound of cheering delegates will inspire you to embrace their message, while the networks just want drama to keep you tuned in.
Listening to 2016 vs. 1968
On Monday night, however, these standard practices may have backfired on the DNC, giving a relatively small number of hecklers an outsized presence in the sound mix. Listen, for example, to the effective disruption of Elizabeth Warren in the clip below. Listening closely to the clip, I discern only two voices chanting, “We trusted you!” Think for a moment about the impact of only two voices in a huge sports arena, full of people, fighting the amplified voice of a politician over a PA system. These two guys were probably inaudible to most of the audience, but we hear them clearly at home.
For sake of comparison, let’s listen to a clip from the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, in which actual fights break out on the convention floor. Back then, the sound mix was limited mainly to the mics used on the convention podium and those used by reporters. As the clip begins, the reporter’s malfunctioning mic leaves the viewer in near-silence, as there are no other sound sources in the mix. When another reporter’s mic is brought up, we hear only the immediate sounds of the scuffle on the floor, not the general pandemonium that was taking place in the hall. While two agitated voices have a huge presence in 2016, hundreds or thousands of upset voices were largely inaudible in 1968.
Media Bias, Medium Bias, and Democracy
Without an understanding audio production technologies and practices, TV audiences are likely to simply believe their ears, listening uncritically. In this case, they might attribute the difference between what they heard and what reporters said to “media bias.” Like many reporters in my Twitter feed, Hertzberg is politically left of center, but not a leftist radical. Therefore, one can argue, he is motivated to dispute the narrative of booing that undercut the Democrats’ attempted show of unity on Monday night. There is some truth to this argument — we are all motivated listeners, hearing the sounds we feel to be important with greater acuity than those we deem insignificant.
But the media bias answer does not entirely satisfy: not only does it tend to unjustly assume bad faith and unprofessionalism on the part of reporters, but it also renders “the media” as one amorphous, immaterial entity. “Media bias” ignores the important material and technological reasons for differing perceptions of sound — and reality more generally — in our mediated age.
Just for convenience, let’s call these other kinds of factors “medium bias.”
Marshall McLuhan famously asserted that every medium amplifies some aspects of reality while reducing others, extending our capabilities of perception and connection in some ways and atrophying them in others. While McLuhan tended to attribute too much power to media technologies and not enough to the people who used them, contemporary media scholars often study how the specific “affordances” of a particular medium encourage — but do not determine — how we perceive and act in a given situation. (For example, HTML and the user interface of Medium encouraged me to link out to the definition of “affordances” just now. So, one medium bias of Medium would be to encourage links and sharing.)
It’s good that media scholars do this work, but analyzing media technologies is a job for everyone. As Bruno Latour has shown, it is important to keep an eye on both human and non-human actors in social and political life. Adding the technological idea of medium bias to our sociological conception of media bias gives us a fuller picture of how particular narratives and practices come to dominate in news and public life. Changes in even seemingly mundane aspects of media technologies such as microphones and compressors can interact with politics in unpredictable ways. Critically analyzing these interactions is an important skill for all citizens in our mediated democracy to develop.