- Sound Bites: Rethinking the Circulation of Speech from Fragment to Fetish
From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, the place of oratory in U.S. public culture was shrinking—literally. In 1968, the average sound bite in presidential election news coverage was more than 43 seconds long. In 1972, it dropped to 25 seconds. In 1976, it was 18 seconds; in 1980, 12 seconds; in 1984, just 10 seconds. By the time the 1988 election season rolled around, the size of the average sound bite had been reduced to less than 9 seconds.1 Since then, the average length of the sound bite has been yo-yoing between 9 and 7 seconds. By the end of the 1980s, however, the time and space allotted to political oratory in the American mainstream media had already been incrementally eroded.
As political oratory—the traditional object of public address scholarship—was squeezed into smaller and smaller sonic segments, some rhetorical critics began to question the continuing relevance of public address. By 1990, Michael Calvin McGee had announced that “‘public address’ has clearly dissolved, being no longer a discrete object of study or a necessary ground of critical judgment.”2 Public speeches, he argued, had been replaced with “‘quotable quotes’ on the evening news.”3 Oratorical texts, once considered homogenous, whole, finished, and complete, had been fractured and fragmented. [End Page 613]
It is certainly possible to read the escalating circulation of sound bites, those ever-shorter fragments of political speech, as a symptom of the decline of public address: specifically, as a diminution of its object domain. But does the diminishing size of public speech necessarily index its diminishing magnitude? I argue that it does the opposite. Although political oratory has indeed been circulating in increasingly smaller snippets, public speech has not been dissolved but instead condensed. Rather than minimizing the significance of the oratorical object, textual condensation intensifies audiences’ attachment to public speech. Tracing the trend toward sound bites in U.S. public culture, I suggest that critics rethink the circulation of public address from the logic of fragmentation to a logic of fetishization.
Sound Bites as Textual Fragmentation
According to popular etymologist William Safire, the term “sound bite” first entered the American vernacular in 1980, when a Washington Post columnist quoted a media strategist giving advice to political hopefuls. However, Safire explained, that first recorded sound bite on sound bites “was not the sound of a phrase being coined; it was the sound of a locution known to insiders and experts being spoken to outsiders.”4 Interviewing news media veterans, Safire tracked the usage of the term-of-art back as far as the early 1960s. A guest expert on PBS placed the emergence of the sound bite even earlier, linking the development of the sound bite to the development of the television medium itself: “A sound bite is nothing more than a picture of a man talking, and it’s always been that way in television since the day we figured out that you could point a camera and make sound.”5
While the sound bite seems to date back to the very beginning of television broadcasting, the term did not gain widespread recognition in the popular imagination until the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign. Although for media insiders the phrase had already been “in the air” for at least 20 years, Newsweek explained that in 1988 newscasters turned “sound bite” into “a household word by self-consciously telling the viewers when they aired them.”6 Reporters dubbed the campaign “the Battle of the Sound Bites” and declared 1988 “the year of the sound bite.”7 By the end of the 1980s, the sound bite had become “the standard verbal unit of the electronic media.”8 [End Page 614]
Written in the wake of the 1988 campaign, McGee’s 1990 “Fragmentation” essay identified elision as the primary rhetorical operation that defines the production and circulation of this “standard verbal unit” out of political oratory.9 As early as 1985, notable op-ed contributor George Will explained that the dwindling size and quality of public speech was due to the time pressure of television’s limited news...