July 23, 2007

Why CNN Suppresses YouTube's Internet Democracy

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Today marks a new milestone in political debates with tonight’s CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate. Yes, the questions will come not from journalists in the upper echelons of the mainstream media, but from simple people submitting questions via YouTube videos. However, while the questions will come from the people, ultimately CNN itself will decide which questions to select. This has created a bit of a ruckus, as people wonder why they can not only submit the questions but choose them, too. Needless to say, the principles of democracy get invoked, anybody who disagrees gets labeled a fascist…OK, I am exaggerating somewhat, but I have a point to make here.

The Promotional Video for The CNN/YouTube Debates

The problem lies in the fact that anyone can submit a question. The word anyone deserves to be repeated. One question comes from a person dressed as a Viking, another deals with extraterrestrials, and others look so weird they do not even deserve to be mentioned. What if one of these questions got selected? This may sound unrealistic, but fads spread quickly on the Internet, so if the Viking costume becomes new newest 1337 thing on the Internet, watch out! For those who do not believe that humorous or ridiculous things can drive traffic on the Internet, “Obama girl” has 2.5 million reasons and counting why that is not true. Now imagine what happens if she submits a YouTube video question to Barack Obama. I will leave her question to the reader’s imagination, but needless to say, the debate’s credibility as well as the reputation of CNN would quickly tumble.

Also, with the Republican debate in September, a likely scenario for online voting would dramatically alter the debate. One of the second-tier candidates, Ron Paul, realistically does not stand a chance of winning and received only 2 percent of the vote in the CNN’s June 22-24 poll, yet his online following would make one think that 2 percent of people did not vote for Ron Paul. At one time it appeared that Ron Paul’s cash-on-hand for the campaign, raised almost entirely through the Internet, exceeded the cash-on-hand figures for McCain (McCain’s fundraising numbers later came out to be higher than expected, though). I easily could envision a scenario where an online poll could almost exclusively select YouTube videos that come from Ron Paul’s supporters or relate to him somehow. Even now, although Ron Paul is running as a Republican, a website set up to vote for YouTube questions at one point listed questions from a Ron Paul supporter as the most popular question for the Democratic debate. Now that question’s ranking has changed since then, but it still serves as a clear warning of what could happen. In fact, if Ron Paul’s online army catches wind of what I just said like they caught wind of my previous blogs, the comments below this blog may very well prove my point.

Even though CNN ultimately has the final say for good reason, it does not mean that the debate will not very similar to your standard, boring political debate. The questions themselves have impressed even the biggest names in CNN: “There are questions that we, the journalists, we, the mainstream media, would never think to ask in the presidential debate,” [CNN Senior Vice President David Bohrman] said. As I write this blog, CNN’s website list of recommended articles includes one about how YouTube has taken control of politics away from the candidate themselves. Just ask George Allen. I remember full well how his loose tongue cost Republicans control of the Senate. CNN has taken an interest in creating unscripted debates where it takes more than pre-prepared speeches to win. At their previous debates in New Hampshire, the questions from audience members served exactly that purpose. In fact, the single best moment of the Republican debate came in response to an audience question from a family member of a fallen soldier in Iraq. Not even the best question journalists could devise could recreate a moment like that.

Mike Wacker is a blogger and an Assistant Web Editor at The Sun. He can be contacted at [email protected].