CNN/YouTube: A New "Low" In Political Discourse

Austin Hill

12/2/2007 12:01:00 AM - Austin Hill

I must begin here with a confession: I am a “gen-X’r.”

I say this with some hesitation, because I don’t fit the “slacker” stereotype of my generation (my depression-era parents raised me better than that). But I’ve certainly never been able to “relate to“ or “identify with” the mindset and the attitudes of the boomers, either, so I accept the fact that I’m on the front-end of the “gen-X” timeline and try to make the best of it.

And given the nuanced preferences and habits that mark each generation of Americans (my own included), I’m left wondering about an important question: for whom is the CNN-YouTube debate format appealing?

Seriously, who really likes this approach to presidential candidate “debates,” and why? I can’t imagine that anyone in my demographic would find it to be particularly enlightening or worthwhile, and my generation came of age in the era of Bill Gates and ever-emerging computer technology. Likewise, I don’t imagine that those in generations ahead of mine are particularly “into it” either. So is this a 20-something phenomena, or something intended to engage teenagers? What?

Ostensibly, the connection between CNN and YouTube is a media-created phenomena, intended to emulate a “convergence” of competing media formats - - the old-fashioned, uni-directional cable television news outlet joins forces with the new, hip, interactive web-based entity. Perhaps this little “experiment” has demonstrated in a new way that old and new media formats can collaborate, and thereby increase consumption for each other, rather than compete against one another and cannibalize each other.

But in terms of political discourse, I think we’ve reached a new low point.

I may be way out of step with my “generation,” but I find it embarrassing to realize that the future President of the United States - - and, therefore, the future leader of the world - - could be subjected to questions that are “asked” by a cartoon character, or a pretend snowman, or a pouty-looking college student who introduces himself by saying “..I’m nineteen, and my vote does matter…”

Some have argued that YouTube has enabled “everyday people” to speak candidly and directly to the candidates, in a way that they likely would not be able to otherwise. But I question this logic on two fronts.

First, who are these presumed “everyday people?” Are they people who are likely to vote in the respective primary elections? Or are they individuals who are sufficiently tech-suave and creative that they know how to record themselves and upload their video on a website, and are otherwise just eager to see if they “get to be on tv?” This latter category does not necessarily consist of the individuals who are likely to vote in the primary elections, and therefore determine the eventual nominees.

And most of the candidates from both major parties are holding plenty of town hall-style events in the primary states, and fielding lots of questions from prospective voters. It seems reasonable that the people who care enough to attend these campaign events are the “everyday people” who are likely to vote in the primary elections, much more so than those who flock to YouTube.

Secondly, the notion that the CNN/YouTube combination has created greater access to candidates is flawed from the get-go. Sure, anybody can upload a video to YouTube’s website, but only a small fraction of them get used in the telecast, and, thus, a small percentage of the questions actually get through to the candidates.

There is, however, one thing that the CNN/YouTube programming has impressed upon me that is valuable, if not troubling. The nature of the questions selected for the telecasts is something I can’t relate to at all, regardless of the apparent age of the person asking.

Based on the questions I’ve observed, it would seem that there are plenty of my fellow Americans who view the presidency quite differently than I do - - the president is apparently supposed to fulfill a parental, or even theological role in our lives, for some. And for others, the president is apparently supposed to be a great Santa Claus-type figure, who brings gifts aplenty and takes care of us and provides for our respective futures.

I’d like to ask all the candidates what they intend to do so as to protect human liberty, but I haven’t even heard the word “liberty” uttered from any of the YouTube videos. I may be way out of step with my generation on this point, but I don’t think so. My generation grew up listening to the rhetoric of Reagan, and unfortunately this campaign cycle seems devoid of Reagan-esque rhetoric, and ideas.

And unfortunately, an idea that is as simple, and yet as profound as liberty, doesn’t fit the format - - not at CNN, nor at YouTube.