Earlier this month, CNN and an organization called "Rock the Vote" co-sponsored a Democratic presidential debate. In case you don't remember, it was the one when Howard Dean managed to simultaneously insult both liberal blacks and Southern whites by saying Southerners may be racists but he wants their votes anyway.
But that's all history now. What's news is that part of the debate was rigged. It was a tiny little bit of the debate - truly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things - but highly illustrative of why "youth politics" is so bogus in the first place.
One of the students, a young woman from Brown University named Alexandra Trustman, said, "I'm a freshman at Brown University. And going to college this year, I was confused with an important decision. My mom advised me one way, my dad the other. And so my question for you all is - and it's not quite boxers or briefs, but - Macs, or PCs?"
The answers were even dumber and duller than the question. But that's not the point. The point is that she was told to ask that question by a CNN producer.
Trustman received considerable grief from her fellow students for asking such a clichéd question, so she blew the whistle in the Brown student newspaper. She explained that the show's host, CNN's Anderson Cooper, "wanted the Macs or PCs question asked, not because he was wondering about the candidates' views of technology, but because he thought it would be a good opportunity for the candidates to relate to a younger audience."
CNN - where I'm a news commentator, by the way - apologized for its overzealousness in pursuit of hipness. "Our intention was to produce a forum where young voters could ask questions to the candidates directly and that those questions would come from those individuals in the audience," explained a CNN spokeswoman. "In an attempt to encourage a lighthearted moment within this debate, the producer clearly went too far. CNN regrets the producer's actions."
As a matter of journalistic ethics, I don't think this is a big deal. Most questions asked at political debates - indeed, most TV interviews of politicians generally - are scripted to one extent or another.
Producers, editors and colleagues consult or even dictate questions for the professionals-with-important-hair who sit in front of the camera. Just because CNN used an amateur to ask the question doesn't change much in my mind. Ultimately, what matters is what's asked, not who asks it.
But where CNN really messed up was in buying into this youth politics junk in the first place. The premise of groups like Rock the Vote is that young people are somehow united politically as an identity-politics group, that being young is like being black or poor or gay.
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