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Oppenheim: Managing Audiences

On the night of Trump’s Vermont speech, I was on a plane returning from Florida. At the start of the flight, Delta Airlines proudly announced this was a Wi-fi flight, so I got on the Internet.

Soon I realized, not only could I catch up on what was happening with the Trump visit, but I could actually more or less watch the speech, streaming live. The buffering and plane noise didn’t help, but I got the gist of how it all went down.

Then, back on the ground in Burlington, I learned how Trump’s organization did what it could to weed out anyone who wasn’t a supporter from coming into the event.

Personally, I think political events should be open, places where people can disagree with or challenge a candidate – which is exactly what some Trump opponents had in mind when they tried to get in. Their logic was, even if they didn’t disrupt Trump’s speech, their presence would at least dilute an all-worshipping crowd.

But that’s not how this event worked. Neither Trump nor the Burlington Police were outside the law when they picked the crowd. Trump paid for the space so it was his to use as he wished, in this case as a rally for his supporters. And while I may find that morally questionable, it’s not illegal.

Nor is it uncommon. Other campaigns in current and previous elections seasons have done the same thing. They’re simply following one of the fundamental rules of live television.

To illustrate: a couple years ago, I went to see the David Letterman show in New York. The staffers who prepped us were so effective, they got us responding to the live show like we were wind-up monkey toys, ready to clap and squeal on command. I left feeling like I had fun, but also kind of used.

So it is with political campaigns. The live audience is a prop.

More than most, Donald Trump understands this. Sure, it looks like he’s playing to the crowd in front of him. When he says “Get him out of here” when a protester’s carried off, he knows most people who will observe this moment are not in the room at all. The whole thing is an electronic stage.

So given that reality, the actual audience inside the Flynn was far less important than the vast electronic audience everywhere else, maybe outside on Main Street, maybe at home watching TV, or maybe up in a plane, far far away.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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