Sunday, July 22, 2007

CNN: Missing the Point

I live for the day when we have presidential candidate forums that feature thoughtful discussion, rather than tiresome “debates” (the Latin derivative of that word is “to beat down” and that’s what we get in the current format). You know, events that aren’t scripted by the candidates’ hacks or the celebrity newsreaders at the networks. The ones that ask tough questions or call candidates on being unresponsive when they lapse into their stump speeches rather than offer thoughtful answers.

Dream on, you say! Ok, but don’t call me—or the millions of other Americans, especially young people who are particularly savvy at boring through the spin that passes as discourse—“cynical” or “disengaged” when we tune out.

But what would happen if real people were able to engage directly with candidates in a conversation? And if they were able to do so unscripted and unfettered by “rules”? And (gasp!) they were allowed to follow up if candidates didn’t respond to the question. Who wouldn’t tune into see what could be TV’s hottest and most interesting reality show—especially if it’s live?

A step, admittedly a baby one, has been taken by CNN toward that vision by asking people to make videos of questions they want to ask the candidates and then send ‘em in to the network. Working in partnership with You Tube, CNN claims the effort gives the public the chance to ask the candidates questions “directly.” But how direct is it when CNN’ still gets final say on whose videos appear? And where’s the interaction between asker and respondent?

Evidently, CNN, is like lots of others who think that because they “use technology,” they’re promoting cutting-edge democracy. Uh-uh. What makes technology democratic isn’t the technology. Technology is merely the vehicle for a larger process that invites open and free communication among all those engaged in the discussion—sans traditional institutional mediators and filters. If that’s not democracy, I don’t know what is.

Alas, most politicos don’t get that and continue to view technology as just another platform to push out their messages to a public they assume has no opinion (none that they want to hear, anyway). According to Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident, a bipartisan group blog that tracks online campaigns, in a recent Washington Post piece, “The problem with the format is it's not fully embracing the culture of how the Internet determines what's of value….Look at Wikipedia. The 'wisdom of the crowd,' as it's known, is not only a technological phenomenon, it's a cultural phenomenon."

Too bad CNN doesn’t seem to understand that—yet. On the bright side, at least they’re doing something relevant, which is more than we can say for their compatriots at the other networks. Still, don’t be surprised if the ratings for this latest extravaganza aren’t the chart-toppers CNN may be anticipating. The wisdom of crowds suggests that most folks, especially young people, will see through this as nothing more than old wine in new bottles and continue to look to alternative sources for their news—the ones that care more about democratic participation than ratings. We can only hope that might change things down the road.

1 comment:

Paul said...

I thought that the questions were good, but that the answers were not. I thought it was a step forward and agree that the candidate rules are the primary barrier. I thought CNN was too self-congratulatory and Anderson Cooper is such a showboat. The one follow up question when the minister was in the audience seemed more "aha, gotcha" than interesting (I did love the minister's question, though). I think it was a turning point with more turns needed.

By the way, gotta love Jon Stewart - has an Asst. Professor of Political Science from UT-El Paso on tonight. He did write a book on "Presidential Secrecy and the Law," but who else in the media would give this guy time and make him interesting to a younger generation.