"The Full Ginsburg"

Barack Obama has gone on a full-court publicity press to sell health care, deploying the ultimate weapon: The Full Ginsburg.

Obama will be interviewed Sunday on five shows -- ABC News' "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," CNN's "State of the Nation," CBS's "Face the Nation", NBC's "Meet the Press" and Univision's "Al Punto with Jorge Ramos" -- in what is called a "full Ginsburg."

In modern media lore, the first time someone pulled the five-show feat was 11 years ago, in 1998, when Monica Lewinsky's attorney, William Ginsburg, made the rounds to defend his client. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., did a full Ginsburg in 2007 after launching her presidential bid.

For both Ginsburg and Clinton, Fox News Sunday made the cut, and Univision didn't. Such is not the case for Obama: Democrats said the Fox News Sunday audience is largely entrenched in its opposition to the president, essentially beyond persuasion, and so submitting to an interview might not be the best use of Obama's time.

For the media mavens, this is the equivalent of winning a tennis Grand Slam. Wikipedia says only five people in history have ever done it.

* William H. Ginsburg, February 1, 1998

* Dick Cheney, 2000

* John Edwards, October 10, 2004

* Michael Chertoff, September 4, 2005

* Hillary Clinton, September 23, 2007.

But there's a subtle difference in the comparison. While you can't win too many tennis matches, it is said you can appear on too many times on TV. It is supposed to result in something called "overexposure". Some pundits -- admittedly Republican -- warned of this dread media effect.

Republican strategist Kevin Madden said it's too much. "I think the worry is it's gone beyond overexposure and now we have what I would call the 'Obama omnipresence.' You almost can't escape this president," Madden said on ABC News' "Top Line." "It goes beyond just cable news and it goes into whether or not you're flipping on ESPN and you're seeing him talk about basketball or you turn on the Lifetime channel and you hear what Michelle Obama is wearing this week. And I think that begins to wear on a lot of people."

There is remarkably little literature on when "overexposure" occurs. On the Sunday talk show circuit, for example, are two appearances better than one for a celebrity? Why is a "full Ginsburg" considered so good, yet at the same time believed to be near the cusp of something bad? At what point does N+1 yield worse results than N? There seems to be no empirical basis for an answer. There is something called "Communication Theory" which purports to shed light on the subject. But since "communication theory remains a relatively young field of inquiry and integrates itself with other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, and sociology, one probably cannot yet[update] expect a consensus conceptualization of communication across disciplines" -- that looks like a disclaimer that it actually provides any answers.

From first principles it would appear to be the "density" of appearances, not their total number, which is at issue. If Barack Obama appeared on 10 TV shows over the course of a year that would hardly be "overexposure". If he appeared in 10 shows in the course of a single day, then it might be considered excessive. Why exactly does this happen?

One intriguing Japanese medical study noticed that a series of EEG readings called the P300 latencies increased with repetitious tasks. People literally got "tired" of doing the same thing over and over again. Maybe people get "tired" of hearing the same message repetitively as well. That's when the Full Ginsberg fails to deliver anything but boredom.  Yet it's possible that at even higher doses of exposure something else kicks in:  brainwashing. Brainwashing first came to popular attention after the Korean War.

In the late 1950s, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton studied former prisoners of Korean War and Chinese war camps. He determined that they'd undergone a multistep process that began with attacks on the prisoner's sense of self and ended with what appeared to be a change in beliefs. Lifton ultimately defined a set of steps involved in the brainwashing cases he studied:

1. Assault on identity

2. Guilt

3. Self-betrayal

4. Breaking point

5. Leniency

6. Compulsion to confess

7. Channeling of guilt

8. Releasing of guilt

9. Progress and harmony

10. Final confession and rebirth

None of this can be achieved in a single "Full Ginsburg" cycle. But if a message can be sustained long and ubiquituously enough, so it is encountered at every turn, a minor kind of mind control can occur. When I was boy, it was customary for people to go the cemetery on the Feast of All Souls. Hundreds of thousand thronged the graveyard, ostensibly to visit the dead, but mostly making merry and drinking. But as the Feast of All Souls that year happened to coincide with the run-up to Election Day (in November), a loudspeaker truck had parked itself right outside the graveyard and broadcast some campaign propaganda. Unfortunately, whoever rented the truck neglected to provide the operator with more than one 45 RPM record (yes, they played records in those days). One side consisted of "Let Me Tell You About the Birds and the Bees" and the other was a bombastic screed for the candidate. ("Vote for Senator Roseller Lim!") And so it went for hours, one side alternating with the other. By the end of the day when people were heading home, some were involuntarily singing that immortal classic or repeating the slogan, almost unconsciously like zombies. Does brainwashing work? Maybe for a few hours. Now let me tell you about the birds and the bees ...


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