Tuesday, July 24, 2007

YouTube Debate Was Worse Than I Thought It Would Be

You know how when you really don't want to do something, like getting a root canal, you build it up so much in your head that when you actually have the procedure done, you have a sense of relief and say, "Wow, that wasn't as bad as I thought it would be!" That did not happen to me last night while watching the CNN/YouTube debate for the Democratic candidates for the presidency. (CNN has provided a transcript of the debate online, broken into a first part and a second part.)

Yesterday, I wrote about what a bad idea it was to hold a presidential debate without real journalists posing the questions. I called it "the death of news coverage of presidential campaigns," adding that: "Responsible political journalism should be the standard. Instead, it's a relic." Even with those low expectations, I found the actual event to be disturbing.

First of all, in an effort to cram as many questions as possible into the debate, the candidates were given very little time to respond. It's bad enough that the political culture of campaigning by 30-second TV ads has forced politicians to try and address complex issues in simple, sound-bite-friendly oversimplifications. Aren't debates supposed to be the place where candidates get at least a little more time to flesh out the issues? Well, not last night. I think the person who got the most air time was moderator Anderson Cooper, who could repeatedly be heard saying "time" before the participants had a chance to even begin attacking an issue.

I was disturbed by the flip tone of the evening, which I found to be inappropriate for a gathering of presidential candidates and, at times, humiliating for the participants. Choosing the country's chief executive is not a joke. The consequences of the 2000 and 2004 elections were dire. In my opinion, the ramifications of the cataclysmic failures of the Bush administration will be felt for decades, through, among other things, the fallout from the foolish invasion of Iraq and failure to finish the job in Afghanistan, the lost moral authority in the world thanks to the war and atrocities like Abu Ghraib, and the appointing of young, right-wing justices to the Supreme Court.

So, forgive me if I was appalled when aspirants for the vital, society-changing position of the presidency were posed questions by, for example, a snowman and a guy singing an awful song while playing his guitar. It wasn't whimsical or cute, and it did not serve to get to know the candidates any better. It was a disgrace to the process, and the YouTube-gone-wild tone belittled the gravity of the moment. No wonder barely half of registered voters turn out on election day. How important can voting be if we leave the questioning to inanimate objects and morons?

Similarly, everything about CNN's broadcast felt more appropriate for "Deal or No Deal" than a presidential debate. The light-hearted tone was visible even in small details, like the on-screen graphics identifying the candidates. CNN chose a kind of weathered, graying effect on the letters. The message the network sent with its production values was that viewers were watching a piece of entertainment, not an important political event. Somehow I can't picture NBC using those kinds of graphics on "Meet the Press." I think if Tim Russert glanced into the monitor and saw a fancy super identifying one of his guests, a vein would explode in his head, giving him just enough time to say "Go Bills!" before he expired on the set.

Complaining about the graphics, though, seems a bit like missing the point when Cooper is the moderator. Writing the words "moderator Anderson Cooper" attached to a presidential debate feels like it makes about as much sense as typing "Secretary of State Paris Hilton," "Senator John Mayer" or "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales." Cooper might be at home in human interest stories, reporting from tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, or sitting on a stool looking metrosexually pretty next to Kelly Ripa while filling in for Regis Philbin. But, on stage, trying to moderate a discussion amongst eight politicians seeking the presidency? Cooper looked like a JV assistant coach trying to guide the varsity. But it's not like CNN didn't know what it was getting by tapping Cooper as the night's master of ceremonies. Just the opposite. The network's choice reveals how it viewed the event, which is to say that it was thinking more about ratings and fun than conducting a serious discussion of the issues.

As I wrote yesterday, I feared that left in the hands of non-professionals, the questions would be less appropriate than those asked by a journalist. So, I was not surprised to see a flood of queries that often lacked basic understanding of government or were of such a personal nature that they did more to obscure important issues than clarify them.

For example, Melissa from San Luis Obispo, Calif. (should we start making reporters at White House press conferences identify themselves that way: "Mr. President, Terry M., Chicago, how do you respond to allegations that ..."?) asked: "In recent years, there's been so much controversy regarding dangling chads, then no paper trail in electronic systems. I know it costs money to amend things like that, but if I can go to any state and get the same triple grande, non-fat, no foam vanilla latte from Starbucks, why I can't I go to any state and vote the same way?"

Is voting reform an important issue? You bet, it's vital. Is it a federal issue? Uh, not directly. States determine their voting systems. Sure, the federal government can use the power of the purse to "urge" states to adopt certain systems, but voting is, at its core, a state issue. See, this is where a professional can help. A trained journalist would, presumably, understand our system of government and know what issues are handled by the federal branches and what matters are controlled by the states. Melissa from San Luis Obispo cannot be expected to know as much as Ted Koppel. It's no shame. But it's also why Ted K. from Washington, D.C. should be asking the questions.

As a friend of mine pointed out, you can get a triple grande, non-fat, no foam vanilla latte from Starbucks in lots of other countries, too. Does that mean their voting machines should be the same?

I keep reading how the YouTube submissions produced questions that were more "personal." But, why is that a good thing? Policy decisions should be made on what is better for the greater good of the country, not on how an issue will affect any individual. That is why a bunch of questions bugged me, from the people in the refugee camp in Darfur who asked the candidates to look at the orphaned kids, to the man who identified the flags that draped the coffins of his grandfather, father and son, all of whom died in wars (the son was killed in Iraq). Nobody is saying that Darfur and Iraq are not tragic situations. But, policy should not be made based on a grieving parent. A parent who lost a child in the war in Afghanistan feels the same pain as a fellow parent who lost a child in Iraq. But, very few Americans think the war in Afghanistan was wrong, while most U.S. citizens oppose the war in Iraq. All wars result in deaths, and those deaths are tragic. The war in Iraq is wrong because it's wrong, not because one father tragically lost his son.

It's the emotional response versus the reasoned one. Again, non-professionals are expected to be emotional. You would expect a father of a fallen soldier to view the war in a very personal way. He has done nothing wrong. That is why we have journalists who (hopefully) have been trained to view the larger issues involved.

On CNN this morning, anchor John Roberts described the debate as "groundbreaking." He was right, but I'm sure he meant it as a good thing, in which case he was very wrong. Watching last night's YouTube debate provided a very unpleasant glimpse into a future where substance and professionalism are wholly replaced with flash and oversimplified, uneducated approaches to the issues. I would have loved to watch the debate with Koppel, Russert and Tom Brokaw and followed their reactions as the proceedings unfolded. I'm sure they would not have been happy, and I have no doubt that the debate would have been far more valuable if they were asking the questions. CNN will be happy, though, since Lindsay Lohan was arrested for drunk driving and possession of cocaine this morning, so the network will be able to get back to doing the kinds of stories it does best. CNN just is not set up for the serious world of politics. And that's a shame.