FIRST, MY DISCLAIMERS. I have a home network of six computers, as well as broadband wireless cards in both of my laptops. My first e-mail account dates back to 1984. I got onto the Web before anyone I know and would feel nude walking out of the house without my world-edition BlackBerry. That said, this week’s CNN/YouTube Democratic debate was a fraud. Billed as first-of-its-kind, it was the worst-of-its-kind.
Someone tell me, please, what melting snowmen, fifth-class homegrown comics, singing taxpayers, questioners filming themselves in their bathrooms and several jagoffs playing their guitars on camera have to do with enriching the political process. Is making the American presidential race even more of a circus than it is already what America really needed? Does being “Internet savvy” — to use the clueless media’s favorite generational descriptor — mean pointing a lens at yourself while acting like a jackass? And just when the fate of the most powerful country on Earth is at stake?
Nor was there anything “interactive” in sifting 39 final video questions from among the total 2,800 submissions. Indeed, this was just one more gussied-up version of tightly managed, unilateral and highly scripted business-as-usual politics. In the end, the questions were posed, or better said, served up to the candidate, who was then free to say anything he or she pleased with absolutely no interaction, no response, no follow-up and therefore no challenge from the questioner. Strip away the digital nonsense and the candidates merely had to prepare to handle about a dozen easily anticipated areas of questioning and then stick to their talking points.
When you think about it, the technology to conduct this sort of pseudo-debate already existed back when Lincoln and Douglas faced off nearly 150 years ago. All you had to do was solicit the citizenry to send their questions in by pony express, and 39 could have been chosen by whoever it was who moderated those grand debates. Or, if you wanted something more instantaneous, you would have waited until the era of FDR, when most American families had phones and could have dialed their questions in the same night of the debate.
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What we really saw was a perversion of Web technology. The Net really does provide a potentially formidable challenge to both establishment politics and mainstream media — but not when cheaply manipulated the way CNN engineered this farce. Authentic Web-driven power surfaces most dramatically when online communities exercise collective accountability over institutions and individuals that were once invulnerable to instantaneous public reaction and feedback. Just ask George Allen about Macaca or Dan Rather about a certain 60 Minutes segment and they’ll tell you about the real power of the Net. Or ask Howard Dean how he once went from zero to $40 million thanks to a legion of keyboarders.
There are other immediate ways, if there were a will, to make this season’s debates truly interactive. But to get there we would need a lot more helicopters and a lot fewer webcams. How about carting the candidates from one local auditorium to another, from Nevada to New Hampshire, and confronting them with live audiences, where questioners would be free to not only ask whatever occurs to them but would actually be allowed a follow-up? Imagine the cold fear that would freeze the hearts of each and every campaign staffer under those ground rules.
The second way to ratchet up the interactivity of these debates would be, well, to make them debates. This week’s CNN version was the fifth or sixth of the season I have watched, three of them in person as a reporter. And they have all been equally inconsequential, if not downright trivial, as the Democratic candidates have simply refused to take on each other. So short of submerging this crew into a series of open-ended town halls to which they would never (ever, ever) consent, the next best thing would be to force them into a format where the only folks on camera are the candidates themselves verbally duking it out. Just as Lincoln and Douglas did, sometimes for six or seven hours at a time before truly rapt audiences. I’ll take that any day of the week over some goateed Web-savvy dope mumbling a “wassup?” into his webcam.
I wish I could say that this was the first and last of YouTube debates, but CNN has scheduled the Republican version of the same for mid-September. One can only imagine the auto-videoing wing nuts that will smoke out. To paraphrase the current secretary of Homeland Security, my gut tells me that even CNN will figure out how pointless and ultimately ridiculous the YouTube debates are. They seem destined to quite literally go down the tubes the same way that Smell-o-vision did 50 years ago — and for the same reason. They stink.?