Monday, July 23, 2007

A YouTube Presidential Debate Is Not a Good Sign of the Times

Tonight there will be a debate for the Democratic presidential candidates. Big deal, right? There have been a lot of them. What makes this one different? Well, it's the first one sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee. Not impressed? Wait one second. It's also co-hosted by CNN. Still nothing? Okay, here is the kicker: The other co-host is YouTube.

That combo of presenters means that Anderson Cooper will host, and questions will be posed by ordinary citizens via YouTube video submissions. I suppose the effort is to look like the party is operating on a 21st century level, and the idea works, only not for the reason the organizers intended. Instead, this unholy alliance is actually the death of news coverage of presidential campaigns as it was practiced in the 20th century. And that's not a good thing.

That's what you get, I suppose, when you put a presidential debate in the hands of an organization that thinks new items about Anna Nicole Smith's death, Paris Hilton's prison sentence and Lindsay Lohan's partying are more important than, say, topics like the war in Iraq, global warming and a White House that is far more skillful at assaulting the constitution than it is at administering any successful policies, and a website that specializes in music videos, pet tricks, and hand-held, shaky, home-produced videos of every minute piece of people's boring lives.

What am I so upset about? Well, you see, for the benefit of the youngsters reading this, there was a time when television news practiced what was known as "journalism." A group of people who practiced "journalism" professionally, known commonly as "reporters," performed functions like doing "research," conducting "substantive interviews" with "knowledgeable sources," and using their "professional education and training" to elicit answers on "important issues" from candidates. Practitioners of this lost art, from Edward R. Murrow to the last triumvirate of real television anchors, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, had something called "journalistic integrity," which caused them to approach the presidential campaigns as substantive, important events.

I understand, all of that seems terribly 20th century. And, unfortunately it is. Responsible political journalism should be the standard. Instead, it's a relic.

Now we have Anderson Cooper, an anchor whose primary qualities seem to be his good looks, his amiable personality and his ability to stand up straight in a hurricane. And rather than have professionals asking questions of the group of individuals seeking the nation's highest office, the queries will come from people with no journalistic training. Okay, I can hear the protests now: Can't the people have a say? Am I such an elitist that I think people's views aren't important? Aren't journalists out of touch with what people really care about? My responses would be yes, no, and the good ones shouldn't be. But, to an extent, those questions miss the point.

As a country, don't we regularly rely on experts with training to help us with our toughest, most important issues? If you get sued, don't you seek out a licensed attorney to counsel you? If you get injured, don't you seek the assistance of a trained physician? You don't even usually book a hotel room without consulting some kind of ratings guide. But with the most important decision we make as citizens, choosing the country's chief executive and commander-in-chief, we suddenly want to go it alone? Great.

Not to mention, we all have our own personal interests, but those concerns do not always translate to what best serves the country's collective needs. Remember in school when that one selfish student would go on and on about something only he or she cared about or failed to understand while the rest of the class was left to sleep, play hangman, or dream of ways to kill the offender? Well, think of that on a presidential scale, and that is tonight's debate. I mean, I'm very sorry the dry cleaner in your town is closing, but do you really think that presidential policy should be dictated by that one event? As opposed to, say, the war in Iraq that takes money out of everyone's collective pockets, puts everyone at increased risk of terrorism, and continues to kill the soldiers who have volunteered (or been back-door drafted) to protect us?

It's not like the American people did such a great job the last time around of figuring out what was important and what was nonsense. All those people who voted for Bush based on the gay marriage issue even though they disagreed with him on Iraq and the economy, how are they feeling right about now? Sure, there may not be gay marriage in their states (there wouldn't have been if Kerry won, anyway), but now we're mired in a no-win situation in Iraq and the middle class is shrinking faster than Scooter Libby's prison sentence. Not exactly a home run for the American people. And it's not just me, as Bush's approval ratings in the low-30s can attest.

No, I'm sorry. Call me crazy, but I think it's time we bring in the pros. I do not trust amateurs to pose the right questions to the candidates. There is nothing wrong with saying that the people can use some help in sifting through the issues. If it means dragging Brokaw, Rather and Ted Koppel out of basic cable exile, I'm fine with that. I want a trained journalist interviewing the candidates. I trust them to cut through the crap and try and get these overly scripted politicians to take real positions on real issues. Forgive me, but I trust Brokaw and his peers more than the ever-smiling Cooper, and certainly more than PartyAllNightWooHoo2007, whose only qualification to pose a question is his ability to successfully hook up his video camera to his computer (and whose last YouTube submission was probably something like his solo acoustic off-key cover of "Every Rose Has a Thorn," performed while sitting in his living room in his boxer shorts).

Even if you want to hear from the people directly, how does the video submission angle improve on the traditional town hall-style debates that have been held for years (going back to Bill Clinton answering the famous boxers-or-briefs query on MTV)? If the technology is being used because it's there, not because it adds anything to the process, that's not progress, it's a gimmick.

Call me an elitist, if you must. But, I'd rather be an elitist than be ignorant. Knowledge is a good thing, a fact that has been wholly lost on this administration. And we saw how well they did at running the country (into the ground) the last six years. This time around, I want to see professionals asking the questions. Leave YouTube for the homemade wrestling videos. At least when amateur grapplers go to work, the only thing they can damage is their own health. There is far more at stake in 2008, more than the video submitters and Anderson Cooper can handle.