Debating the debate

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 deciding which of the thousands of books available we will be offering tonight.

Go home.

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.


  • Eric Gauvin
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  • Jeff, I don’t think you and me are very far apart on this – and certainly I was talking in my blog about the fusion, not the merits of YouTubing an election.

    I hope I made it clear – big journalism’s monopoly is over; good. But that doesn’t mean a)YouTubed political media are ipso facto Good Things or b) ‘citizen media’ has supplanted or can supplant ‘big media’.

    I accept that you and I share the same anxieties over the Macaca-isation of political CM – but where you’re an optimist, I’m a pessimist.

    You misrepresent me, too; I pointedly never accused you of having a personal value system ascribing high worth to Macaca moments – I’m sure you don’t. What I did say was that ascribing a high value to Macaca-moments lies behind social networking sites … whether you and I like that or not. In fact, ‘citizen media’ are no better than ‘big media’ when it comes to over-valuing the scalp.

    But if you want an example of what I mean by this unwritten value system, you only need to take a look at your own interview with Joe Trippi on PrezVid back in April when he joined the Edwards camp.

    I’ll remind you of what he said – apologies if my transcription skills aren’t up to snuff:
    “I think we’re going to look back at 2008 and see … that there was a YouTube moment when whoa … that really gave that guy or that woman some momentum. I also think we’re going to be looking back at the end of 2008 and saying ‘whoa …that person was doing really well until someone caught them with that cellphone camera and they didn’t really know how to explain it; they got caught in an off-guard … unguarded moment and that took down their campaign”.

    In short, I don’t think I’m projecting my view on you of what I want to think you said – I think I’m summarising what happens when social networking meets the political conversation.

    But back to the fusion – where we seem to agree. Context is everything … and as I think is clear from the comments on my original blog, the UK context is utterly different from the US.

    UK ‘big media’ has a long and continuing tradition of bringing ‘the people’ into the political conversation – and not just at election time. Over thirty years ago, one of the biggest ever ‘big media’ beasts, Sir Robin Day, hosted a radio show called ‘It’s your line …’ – where the likes of me and you called to put our questions in our voices to political figures. Another radio show – one of the oldest on the BBC – ‘Any Questions’ has a high audience and high-reputation because of its format; again, we the people put our questions in our voices to a panel of public figures. The format also runs on TV under the title ‘Question Time’. And UK local and regional radio’s staple is the phone-in – again, often involving we the people questioning in our voices local leaders.

    I appreciate the US context is different – and I suspect had CNN taken more lessons from the UK media (or, indeed, if there was more of a tradition of the format in the US) it might have avoided many of your own criticisms. But it didn’t – and that’s why I think the fusion failed.

    My main point, though, was that we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm – and I am an enthusiast, for citizen media – persuade us that ‘big media’ has lost all legitimacy and/or that ‘citizen media’ can replace traditional journalism or anything that traditional journalism does. CNN may have messed up on this attempt at fusion – but that doesn’t mean that if CNN had succeeded, it would have been conniving in its own decline.

  • Eric Gauvin

    I don’t think this is nearly as complex as you’re making it out to be. A TV show used YouTube videos as set dressing. They know that YouTube is enormously popular and gives the impression of unveiling the hidden truth (an issue the Web 2.0 zealots don’t seem to want to deal with). This is no different than those fake hand-made signs you see at Trader Joe’s or the early Snapple commercials that featured real people. The sales pitch sneaks past the consumers’ filters by giving the look of spontaneous, unscripted, grassroots (“netroot”) reality, but it’s none of those. This is especially not so new or revolutionary since “reality” TV is already such a well-honed skill.

  • Eric Gauvin

    My last comment was directed at Jeff Jarvis’ original post…

  • You still have to get past the natural inclination of pols not to say anything that can be used against them – ever.

    No matter what the format, they will continue to bob and weave.

    When you get someone who is outspoken they become a phenomena. Look at George Galloway in the UK – suspended from parliament. Or Ken Livingston (called by his enemies Red Ken).

    The public likes pols to be direct, their political handler’s don’t. In the US right now discourse is being driven by the handlers.

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  • robert is right – and the handlers are in the way as much as the newspeople who think it’s their god-given RIGHT to FILTER the public’s questions, as Mike Rosenblum pointed out.

    TRY to catch a candidate actually speaking his mind, for real, unrehearsed and unprompted. The best place is going to be either on camera during an interview with Charlie Rose, or one someone’s cellphone camera outside a restroom and uploaded to YouTube. Outside of that, it’s all teleprompters and rehearsed lines…the usual swill politicians, not statesmen, serve up in this nation-wide beauty-pageant we call election season.

    This is why people have so much trouble distingishing stand-outs from a field of mediocrity – they’re ALL THE SAME. Occasionally the mavericks tell the handlers to shut-up, luckily for us, and we get a McCain, who’s deservedly going down the tubes for sticking to his guns…regardless of the fact that the barrel is stuck up his NOSE. This enables us to indentify people whose beliefs we don’t agree with, or do agree with, and to cast our votes accordingly. The rest of it is just playing with Barbie Colorforms sets – paste on this hat for conservatives, or that pants-suit for liberals, and plan a PICNIC…

  • Kevin, Jeff,

    Kevin is certainly right to say that in the UK we have a tradition of involving viewers and listeners-although we should acknowledge that talk radio has an honourable tradition in the USA too (well, a tradition, anyway).

    But while BBC’s Question Time is a model of participation in many respects, there are still some barriers to getting your voice heard. And let’s face it, QT and other programmes have hardly arrested the decline in journalistic standards (if you agree withTony Blair) or the decline of poiltical integrity (if you agree with Jeremy Paxman-a leading UK rottweiler/pundit).

    We have to find a way to show them they can’t get away with spin and as Robert says above,´’bobbing and weaving’. A mass public rejection of this is probably the only way. Using home polling technology through the Internet or cable TV (eg Sky TV’s red button) to follow up debates is one way of doing this.

    I think we ‘ll see a successful meeting of old/new, big/citizen in the next year or two-I’ve tried to analyse how this might happen in my blog:

    Jeff, fancy agreeing to answering some crowd sourced questions? I’m using the definition 2´s company 3 is a crowd at the moment but the site has just launched and it is very early days!

  • As mentioned earlier, it is the canned, bob-and-weave, style of our pageant of candidates that affords the greatest opportunity for the media—whether big or citizen—to provide service.

    What we all need is the knowledgeable, fearless moderator who challenges the respondent—through the follow-up question, the request for clarification, the noting of inconsistency, the pointing out of facts that conflict with the offered statement. “Big media” should be able to provide such an individual, and allow them the time to “cross-examine.”

    How to wield the power of crowdsourcing to accomplish this same thing, the online equivalent to someone standing before the House of Commons and taking the heat? You can almost picture a candidate making her or his statements, then everyone, including the moderator, watching questions/comments/follow up roll across a giant screen, the moderator selecting choice ones for the candidate to respond to.

  • What remains deadly silent in all these debate post mortems is the true problem with our dysfunctional democracy. The dirty little secret in American politics is not that journalists don’t ask the right questions — or that better questions can be asked by average citizens (if you can call the tiny sliver of the adult population that knows/cares about posting a video to YouTube representative of the citizenry at large, which you clearly cannot) — or that pols responded no differently in this debate than in all debates past.

    The real problem lies in the actual reason they remain unshakably on script. And that has nothing to do with the nature of the questions, who is asking them, or what format they’re delivered in. It is because the politicians know who they are talking to — a nation which is, by and large, filled with citizen slackers.

    Civic apathy, and the civic ignorance that flows from it, is rampant in America. For just one out of hundred recent pieces of empirical evidence, take a look at the recent Pew study on “Public Knowledge of Current Affairs.”

    And the dismal results reported there were just for civics 101 questions, like asking people if they could name all 3 branches of government (42% could not!). Imagine the results if asked about the nuances of competing health care plans or foreign policy strategies.

    I constantly beg my blogging friends to stick their heads outside the bubble once in awhile and remember they don’t (yet) speak for/represent the mass of Americans any more than pols and pundits who arrogantly proclaim what the great “American People” want or don’t want, think or don’t think about this issue or that.

    I’m not saying that the new forms of political activism on the internet aren’t fantastic — they are. But even though bloggers and net activists have the tools to do so, and the ear of the MSM and the political machine, they make next to no effort to reach out to 99% of their fellow countrymen who are not part of their “conversation.” And until they do, the netroots is just another collection of special interest groups. Groups of folks with an agenda that they want to see implemented, regardless of what the rest of the country thinks.

    True, they have revolutionary new tools to do it with, and those tools and their own creativity makes them effective and potentially powerful. But the big picture goals remain mired in pre-Politics 1.0.

    So what to do? Think big. And broad. And long term.

    America faces multiple existential crises, and and an endless array of other crises and challenges. They cannot be fixed by any president or party acting in a sea of civic ignorance. Yet the painful reality is that the vast majority of the American people refuse to take their jobs as citizens seriously. Unless that changes, pols will always evade and pander.

    You can tinker with debate formats all you want, but until and unless candidates are asked, over and over, in all forums of all kinds, who among them has the courage to channel JFK and challenge the average apathetic American — to ask us to “ask not” — but instead to truly measure up to our obligations as citizens, by fully informing ourselves and engaging in a real way in self-governance — until that happens, absolutely nothing substantive will ever change for the good — not in debates, not in journalism, and most critically, not in public policy.

    Bloggers and net activists are our last best hope to raise the curtain.

    Any takers?

    Jeffrey Abelson

    p.s. This is a modified version of an exchange that started at

  • Seth Eagelfeld

    I have to agree with Jeffery– and Jon Stewart, not to give away my age:

    The questions were relevant, probing, and at times even moving, but the answers were exactly the same. The YouTube debates and their various spin-offs will never be anything more than a novelty until there is developed some equally democratic mechanism for the “You”‘s to hold these people accountable for the answers they give (I say this under the assumption that the MSM won’t be filling that one loophole anytime soon).

  • chico haas

    Why would any politician ever say what’s on his/her mind? Why would anyone in the public eye? It’s career suicide. We’ve put a wire up everyone’s ass and then wonder why they’re sitting still. As a result, we get politicians instead of public servants. The real leaders go into business.

  • Frankie

    I think Clinton cleaned up on that debate, though I really liked Gravel’s honest (too honest?) responses. Who do you think won? Vote for your candidate: