I’m writing my Guardian column this week about the YouTube debate (no surprise) and as I thought about it more, I decided that it was a clash of media. Here’s my take and then I’ll show you the quite contrary take of a BBC editor. But it’s my blog, so me first:
. . . But TV got in the way. The candidates responded to most of this with their over-rehearsed, well-spun, often-used cant: empty words about change and experience – and if anyone mentions a soldier in the family, the candidate is obligated to deliver the thanks of the nation. This is how politicians behave before the big cameras. But the folks on the YouTube videos were speaking to little cameras; they were more direct, intimate, authentic.
The two media did not mix well. CNN displayed the YouTube videos in small squares on a big screen shot by a big camera – reduced, finally, to postage stamps on our screens at home, so we could barely see them. It seemed the network was afraid to show the videos full-screen because they would not look like real TV. But, of course, that’s just the point. They weren’t real TV. They were bits of conversation.
But TV doesn’t know how to have a conversation. TV knows how to perform. The moderator of the event, prematurely white-haired Anderson Cooper, acted almost apologetic about the intrusion of these real people, who speak without benefit of make-up. He interrupted the candidates constantly, allowing them shallow soundbites a fraction the length and depth even of a YouTube video.
So I wish we’d have the YouTube debate on YouTube and leave CNN at home. A few of the candidates are beginning to answer voters’ questions and challenges directly, small-camera-to-small-camera (as Nikolas SP Sarkozy did in his campaign and as David Cameraon does on his web site). Thus they are opening up a dialogue between the public and the powerful that was not possible before the internet: a conversation in our new public square. That is how elections should be held, amid the citizens. . . .
And then I read the BBC editors’ blog with the opposite take from Kevin Marsh, a big-TV veteran and head of the net’s “college of journalism.” He writes of the debate:
It was a terrific clash – but not the intended clash of aspirant presidents tussling to give frank answers to the people’s questions in the people’s circus. It was, instead, a clash between two media cultures; old-style ‘big journalism’ and new-style ‘citizen media’. On this showing, ‘big journalism’ is safe. . . .
This time round, social networking has moved on and YouTube has entered the stage, along with zealots advocating the role of ‘citizen media’ in helping America choose the occupant of the most powerful office on earth.
Uber-zealot Jeff Jarvis – who blogs here at Buzz Machine – was one of those behind a website called ‘Prezvid’ – its aim, to bring video sharing into the democratic process. Fine – except that behind it is the unwritten value system that ascribes the highest worth to so-called ‘Macaca Moments’ – named after Virginia Senator George Allen’s apparently racist comment in an unguarded moment. The relationship between media and democracy has got to be more than catching out the unguarded or unprincipled.
Mr. Marsh says that “it” — PrezVid — has an unwritten value system ascribing high worth to Macaca moments. Mr. Marsh, show me where that is my value system, written or unwritten. I have never said any such thing. In fact, I have fretted that we would have too many such moments yielding an resulting in an unforgiving electorate but — characteristically, for me, if I may be the judge of that — I came down on the side of optimism, believing that we, the people, are smart enough to discern the difference between a mere mistake or blooper and a character flaw. That is what I actually have said. Mr. Marsh chooses to project his view of what he wants to think I said on me. Either that, or he has a real problem with his antecedents. In either case, a rather surprising lapse from a “big journalism,” I’d say. He continues:
Citizen media’s advocates, like Jeff Jarvis, had high hopes:
“The YouTube debates could fundamentally change the dynamics of politics in America, giving a voice to the people, letting us be heard by the powerful and the public, enabling us to coalesce around our interests and needs, and even teaching reporters who are supposed to ask questions in our stead how they should really do it.”
Too high. In the event, nothing new was revealed and a snowman was the star. No candidate was especially tested – indeed, they all seemed to find their key task (don’t get out, don’t give hostages to fortune) substantially easier than with a format such as ‘Meet the Press’ … or even the traditional anchor interview. As far as I could tell, the dynamics remained unchanged.
Contrast Jeff Jarvis’s disappointment after the event with his hopes before it – he and others blamed the format, blamed the anchor … even blamed the system for producing too many candidates.
He misses the point. ‘Big media’s’ monopoly of communication in the democratic process is over. Good. But hopes for ‘citizen media’ need to be realistic; as does any assessment of the enduring merits of ‘big media’ … like its ability to pose and press the really tough questions; like its persistence in coming back to the unanswered questions; like its ability to field ego against ego, personality against personality … not the most attractive aspect of ‘big media’, but its most necessary given the politics that we have.
Maybe there is a way of fusing ‘big’ and ‘citizen’, ‘old’ and ‘new’, but this wasn’t it.
Well, we agree about the fusing but disagree, clearly, about the cause. The citizens spoke with eloquence and directness, when they were permitted to by the big media. It was the big media that messed that up.
Here is my friend Michael Rosenblum, former big-media guy now small-media guy, taking my side on the question of CNN selecting all the questions:
A few days ago, CNN started running a promo in which CNN News VP David Bohrman and a few producers sat at a table in front of laptops. “We’ve gotten hundreds of questions so far” says Bohrman, “and we have to pick the best ones to ask”.
Why does David Bohrman (or anyone for that matter) have to pick the best questions, or any questions. Why not just post all the video questions on the web and let the public decide which ones they like the best.
In the online world, David Bohrman, (or anyone else doing this) simply gets in the way of the process. The beauty of the web is that it does not need, nor does it want ‘executive producers’ or ‘vice presidents’. Neither would I want David Bohrman to be on Amazon.com deciding which of the thousands of books available we will be offering tonight.
The same goes for Anderson Cooper.
Get out of the way.
Hell, even Adam Cohen on the New York Times editorial page — big media of big media — understands how it would have been better for the people to have had a role in the selection:
Whatever the ideology, these questions had an authentic feel that is too often lacking in the scripted words of paid professionals. The questions could become even more real in future debates, if the organizers drop the filtering and let YouTube users pick the questions.