TV is bad, but it's still king

THERE'S something a little unseemly about a news anchor proclaiming his own network's broadcast to be a "historic event", as Wolf Blitzer did hyping last Monday night's CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate.

By Matthew Yglesias

Published: Sun 29 Jul 2007, 8:35 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:52 PM

The results did not disappoint those of us expecting to be disappointed. Instead of moderator Anderson Cooper asking the candidates questions prepared by CNN staff, CNN staff waded through thousands of videos of people asking questions, picked a few to play and then had Cooper handle follow-ups. The results were, at times, cuter than ordinary, and at other times more aggravating than usual, but they were mostly notable for the fundamental sameness of the process.

The main difference was that instead of the questions being asked in a transparent way by a trained broadcaster, we were treated to the pretence that the questions were coming straight "from the people". This was a convenient way for the network to avoid responsibility for their selections, which involved a few questions solely designed to put the candidates in awkward positions. The problem with this is that YouTube doesn't work the way the debate did — it isn't a contest where users submit entries and the organiser chooses winners; it's an open forum where users' contributions rise to the top if other users are interested in them, and where the curious can explore idiosyncratic needs or interests.

Instead of delivering some sort of Politics 2.0, however, the debate only provided a further level of mediation between citizen and politician. The professional journalists portrayed themselves as liberated from any need to serve higher analytic functions by pointing to the authenticity of the questions. The questions themselves, meanwhile, tended to differ from the norm only by being more absurd and featuring performances of folksiness (one video asks the candidates to eschew "dippin' and dodgin'" and just answer the question directly). The results were mildly more amusing than your average debate, but not notably more enlightening.

The shame of it is that Internet video and video sharing sites really are changing American politics for the better. The very same day as the debate, John Edwards' campaign released a video on the internet mocking the Press for its obsessive coverage of a story about the former senator's expensive haircuts. The video went out to Edwards supporters and from there it landed on Josh Marshall's popular Talking Points Memo site, widely read among US Democrats and political journalists. At the time of writing this, it had been viewed 24,000 times. It's possible that the campaign may shame the Press out of its continued interest in his haircut. Alternatively, as The American Prospect's Paul Waldman points out, the video may "make 'John Edwards' hair' shorthand for the shortcomings of the news media".

Or, of course, it might fail entirely. But that's precisely the point. Everyone knows video is an effective method of communication, and that television advertisements are hideously expensive and hard to target. YouTube has hardly eliminated the centrality of money or the established Press to American politics, but it has undermined it somewhat, and the trend promises to continue.

The CNN debate, however, was mostly a reminder that for now at least television is still king, and still pretty bad. After one particularly egregious groaner, Cooper reminded the audience that it wasn't his question, even though the question had been pre-selected by CNN. It seems that rather than improving in the face of competition from the web, cable seems depressingly determined to use it as an excuse to get more vapid than ever.

Matthew Yglesias is associate editor of The Atlantic. He can be reached at

©The Guardian

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