Youth debate fail to 'keep it real'

Posted: Nov 14, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

First of all, this all nonsense. Young people are not members of the Coalition of the Oppressed, and, save for a few specific issues like Social Security reform, there's no issue that remotely speaks to the interests of all young people everywhere.

There are dumb young people and smart ones, poor and rich; the only thing that unites them as a group is that, as a group, they've got longer to live and more to learn than old people. Generational stereotypes are nothing better than a form of secular astrology appealing to the vanity of people who can't find a more substantial ideological allegiance.

As the late, great, social scientist Carl Ladd once observed: "Social analysis and commentary has many shortcomings, but few of its chapters are as persistently wrong-headed as those on the generations and generational change. This literature abounds with hyperbole and unsubstantiated leaps from available data."

Oscar Wilde was pithier. "In America," he observed, "the young are always ready to give those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience."

What's funny is that those who fetishize youth in politics consistently complain that young people are stereotyped and not taken seriously, even as they appeal to young people by stereotyping them.

The CNN debate was festooned with tiresome buzz phrases and stereotypes. Several candidates provided rap videos to introduce themselves, and Anderson Cooper even used the phrase "keep it real" within the first five minutes of the show.

That's bad enough. But this time the producers went even further. In a debate designed to "reach out" to the youth, they persuaded a young woman to act like the cliché rather than to keep it real.