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Fusing big and citizen media

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 16:36 UK time, Tuesday, 24 July 2007

It was a terrific clash - but not the intended clash of aspirant presidents tussling to give frank answers to the people’s questions in the people’s circus. It was, instead, a clash between two media cultures; old-style 'big journalism' and new-style 'citizen media'. On this showing, 'big journalism' is safe.

There's been a long scrap between the American networks and US social networking sites over the role of each in democracy there - and not just in this campaign. Four years ago, webmeister Joe Trippi persuaded the Democrat contender Howard Dean to focus his campaign online; the Dean campaign blogged, networked and raised funds online.

Trippi was so excited, he wrote an account called 'The Revolution will not be Televised; Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything'. It wasn't. Dean never even made the presidential slate and Bush won for the Republicans.

YouTube presidential debateThis time round, social networking has moved on and YouTube has entered the stage, along with zealots advocating the role of ‘citizen media’ in helping America choose the occupant of the most powerful office on earth.

Uber-zealot Jeff Jarvis – who blogs here at Buzz Machine - was one of those behind a website called ‘Prezvid’ – its aim, to bring video sharing into the democratic process. Fine – except that behind it is the unwritten value system that ascribes the highest worth to so-called ‘Macaca Moments’ - named after Virginia Senator George Allen’s apparently racist comment in an unguarded moment. The relationship between media and democracy has got to be more than catching out the unguarded or unprincipled.

To fuse ‘big’ and ‘citizen’ media, CNN came up with a simple proposition. It invited voters to submit their questions for the presidential candidates via YouTube.

The network then selected questions, flew some of the questioners to be at the debate in person and in a two-hour show, anchor Anderson Cooper linked their questions to the candidates – last night it was the Democrat candidates, on 17 September it will be the Republican candidates. There was also the battle of the videos … on the ‘anything you can do’ principle’, live blogging on site after site. CNN even offered viewers the chance to be their own analysts.

Citizen media’s advocates, like Jeff Jarvis, had high hopes:

“The YouTube debates could fundamentally change the dynamics of politics in America, giving a voice to the people, letting us be heard by the powerful and the public, enabling us to coalesce around our interests and needs, and even teaching reporters who are supposed to ask questions in our stead how they should really do it.”

Too high. In the event, nothing new was revealed and a snowman was the star. No candidate was especially tested – indeed, they all seemed to find their key task (don’t get out, don’t give hostages to fortune) substantially easier than with a format such as ‘Meet the Press’ … or even the traditional anchor interview. As far as I could tell, the dynamics remained unchanged.

Contrast Jeff Jarvis’s disappointment after the event with his hopes before it – he and others blamed the format, blamed the anchor … even blamed the system for producing too many candidates.

He misses the point. ‘Big media’s’ monopoly of communication in the democratic process is over. Good. But hopes for ‘citizen media’ need to be realistic; as does any assessment of the enduring merits of ‘big media’ … like its ability to pose and press the really tough questions; like its persistence in coming back to the unanswered questions; like its ability to field ego against ego, personality against personality … not the most attractive aspect of ‘big media’, but its most necessary given the politics that we have.

Maybe there is a way of fusing ‘big’ and ‘citizen’, ‘old’ and ‘new’, but this wasn’t it.


Funny how the BBC - perhaps the epitome of 'Big Media' - are so quick to assert the relevance of the Big Media and the inadequacies of Citizen Media. I spy a vested interest; most of my fellow 'Citizen Media' pundits tend to take the opposite view.

  • 2.
  • At 05:19 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • Frank wrote:

Well said Kevin. This was nothing more than a sideshow. The revolution doesn't need to look like this.

  • 3.
  • At 05:25 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • PeeVeeAh wrote:

I think you assign "big" and "citizen labels at your peril! There are a whole lot more citizens out there than 'big' broadcasters!

However, I do think trial-by-blogging has little place in the democratic armoury. Ostensibly anonymous questioning across the ether - especially without eye-contact - has little reality - and even less statistical relevance. Bloggers are 10-a-soundbite! Easy fame by armchair wannabes. Count me in that number, I guess!

Very true.

Bloggers (which I am, so there's a certain level of self-depreciation here!) can't handle an 'interview' situation as well as big media.

It's only natural. For example- for all the complaints people make about him, Jeremy Paxman is an experienced interviewer who gets answers to his questions and puts his interviewees on the spot. Bloggers who have little experience of political exchange beyond their computer screens can't hope to have the presence (and, yes, ego) needed to push an interviewee into giving honest and frank answers.

Doesn't mean we don't want to, though. Need someone to do some work experience in the newsroom, anyone?

  • 5.
  • At 06:35 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • anthony wrote:

I can't believe how consistently bad CNN are at running outside broadcasts like this.

This debate was no exception. In addition to cameramen constantly in view and Anderson Cooper's lackluster moderation, viewers couldn't see the candidate videos as they were seen from a camera positioned about 50 metres away from the screen.

They need less gimicky youtube rubbish and a better focus on professional broadcasting.

Viewers couldn't see the

Just to add, surely we all know these "democracies" and their "elections" are simply television programmes for the masses to enjoy the illusion that their voice is being represented by the figureheads in power. As Franklin D Rooselvelt wrote some time ago, "The real truth of the matter is, as you and I know, that a financial
element in the large centers has owned the government of the U.S. since
the days of Andrew Jackson."
Not that one expects much in the way of truth-revealing from the mainstream media.

  • 7.
  • At 06:43 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • Rajat wrote:

You can't say however that Youtube does a better job of keeping politicians in line than a great 'big media' show like Hardtalk. Citizen media is indeed overrated - I might want to get little tidbits of specialized information or analysis from the blogosphere or Youtube, but never my mainstream news. 'Citizens' just don't have the incentive to be as disciplined and thorough when analysing/reporting the news as a motivated 'big media' journalist.

  • 8.
  • At 07:06 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • David Attila Tamas wrote:

Well, really nothing else, just a low comedy...

  • 9.
  • At 07:11 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • Cliff Vegas wrote:

Delimiting Big versus Citizen (aka 'little') media as separate and unequal is fundamentally flawed. You ignore the fact that the Internet is a growing social outlet – 10 years ago, we didn’t have it, now it’s practically in every American and European household. This event is proof that the process is evolutionary (and always has been). And contrary to your naïve conclusion, clearly the major outlets understand this.

  • 10.
  • At 07:22 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • Heidi wrote:

It was an interesting idea which failed to deliver anything really different. The Youtube people asking their questions was only really what Question Time has been doing for years. However, the real disappointment was the sameness of the answers given by the candidates to the very similar answers they have given in previous debates. Back to the drawing board...

  • 11.
  • At 08:03 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • greg wrote:

There is still a long way to go until the internet is used to its full potential. Even the questions on youtube were carefully selected by the event organizers, and the candidates had all clearly watched the clips beforehand and got their responses ready.

The only candidate that is prepared to take any questions directly on the internet is Ron Paul, which is a good indication of why he is by far the most popular online in every category, Yutube, Myspace, facebook and all of them together. If the news really was paying attention to the internet he would be on the mainstream news, yet they continually ignore him as he's apparently not a 'mainstream candidate'.

to put it frankly the main candidates are scared of the questions they would get asked if they were to answer direct questions without handpicking them, and i hope that the mainstream news will soon realize that the best way to see pubic opinion is now through the internet and not through corporately controlled media.

  • 12.
  • At 09:01 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • Allie wrote:

Is anyone surprised by this outcome? Or, to put it another way: well, durrr!

`Big' journalism is real journalism. It's the work of trained, experienced, professional journalists. People who know what they're doing. People who understand the skills, techniques and craft of journalism, and the issues at hand. In other words, it's the opposite of `citizen media', which is just the unfocused outpourings of the geekosphere.

I want my news from people who know what they're talking about, people who can write, people who can give depth and context and value to their reporting. I don't see why the professionals' efforts should be given parity with what some bloke in his pyjamas posts on his blog.

After this latest feeble, failed attempt to make the bloggers feel important, could the major news organisations like the BBC, CNN, The Guardian et al now please get back to the job of journalism, without wasting time and space on so-called `citizen media'?

  • 13.
  • At 09:36 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • Imogene wrote:

I take issue with the example of "the enduring merits of ‘big media’" being "its ability to pose and press the really tough questions." Maybe in England, but in the U.S., big media often rolls over the tough questions and gives in. Whichever kind of media, big or citizen, we definitely need more honesty and practical ideas from candidates instead of slogans and campaign tricks.

  • 14.
  • At 10:25 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • NathanStrange wrote:

I think the big success is the you tube site showing the results of the debate:

You can go at a glance see what the question was and who answered it, and then watch a short clip. This is great for someone like me who doesn't have time to watch the debate on TV. I can just find out what I want to know about the candidates and skip the standard questions where I either already know what they would say or all of the candidates will answer the same.

I can't wait for an extension of this format where candidates can give longform answers (not soundbites for TV) and I can then mouse straight to the question I want to know about and the response of the particular candidates I want to hear more from.

  • 15.
  • At 10:29 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • towcestarian wrote:

The main problems are that the candidates are basically VERY boring and contrived individuals and the format is currently VERY limited. Watching dull political marionettes on a 3 by 2 inch window is not my idea of entertainment. Bring back the public hustings and politicans with real presence.

  • 16.
  • At 11:19 PM on 24 Jul 2007,
  • Fred wrote:

That anyone in the press was referring to this debate style as "groundbreaking" for democracy shows at best naivete and, at worst, craven self-marketing.

The point so many seem to be missing is this: questions selected for the debate were still carefully screened by network advisers. When CNN (or any other outlet) says the questions are thing "reporters might not ask", it could be half-true; the questions may be more blunt, and certainly more colloquial, but the central topics selected for discussion remain the same. New mouths asking old questions does not constitute a breakthrough, nor does the selection of queries by a network panel in any way show a triumph of democracy.

  • 17.
  • At 12:11 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • Chris wrote:

For the record: I am American and watched this live.

As to the assertion that the candidates "obviously" got all the questions ahead of time, that was not something that even occurred to me. Maybe I'm just naive. But are we really that cynical?

This debate (or forum if you'd rather) was not perfect in any sense of the word, nor could it be, since nothing quite like it has ever been tried before. The September version will probably be much more streamlined. Was the fomat Gimmicky? Yes. Anderson Cooper not a good moderator? Well by American standards he was good. Certainly better than anyone else CNN has (domestically).

That leads me to another point stated above, that many are discounting the novelty of the format, comparing it to Question Time and other shows that the BBC has aired for years. This is America. We don't have Question Time or anything like it; I wish we did. The nation would be much better off for it.

Further stating that "real" journalists are better at asking "tough questions" to candidates and that so-called Citizen-journalists and questioners by definition cannot possibly compare to the established powers is an insult to those on the internet who actually do care about the quality of their writing and have been asking tough questions that American media has not.

It completely discounts the reason that Citizen Journalism started in America in the first place. Millions of Americans do not trust their media, at all, and they definitely do not trust the "Real" journalists to ask anything other than softball questions and/or "gotcha"-style smears. Just because someone has journalistic training and a degree does not mean that they are good at their job, something far too many Europeans take for granted. (not meant at all to bash the BBC or any other org, just a reminder of how different American media is from its European/Canadian counterparts)

  • 18.
  • At 12:30 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • jeff cushway wrote:

sorry to say that i think you've missed the point of this completely. sure, they hand picked weird questions, but there is definitely something different to usual going on. things like the cancer sufferer who questioned the candidates make a real difference. to hear a question about race relations coming from a black person, makes a difference. this is just the first iteration - as time passes, they will get better. vive la revolution!

  • 19.
  • At 12:44 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • jim wrote:

To say, "a clash between two media cultures; old-style 'big journalism' and new-style 'citizen media'. On this showing, 'big journalism' is safe"

Seems like "big journalism" had a stacked deck. Who chose the questions, an unbiased panel? Ya, right. The show format, does need a little tweaking. The unbiased panel needs to be shared between the 'big journalism' and new-style 'citizen media'

As a British expatriate living in the US, I read this column with a mounting feeling that its author really didn't know what he was talking about -- a feeling that surprised me, because the Beeb's usually more on the ball than the US domestic media when it comes to covering American political matters.

It was at the end of the column that my unease coalesced. Consider this:

"... as does any assessment of the enduring merits of ‘big media’ … like its ability to pose and press the really tough questions; like its persistence in coming back to the unanswered questions ..."

Dream on, Kevin Marsh. That may be exactly true of the UK broadcast media, but with very, very rare exceptions it's just a fantasy here in the US. Once upon a time, yes, there were TV interviewers here who wouldn't rest until they got to the heart of the matter; no longer. Programs like the BBC World Service's "Hard Talk" come as a complete -- and exceedingly welcome -- revelation to American viewers, who're used to a diet of almost unmitigated pap from home-grown political interviews. Only on PBS, the public broadcasting service much derided and abused by the current Administration, can you find a couple of first-rate television political journalists.

Matters are somewhat better in the printed media, but only somewhat. The best of the newspaper journalists are as good as you'll find anywhere, but today -- even at prestigious newspapers like the New York Times and especially, alas, the Washington Post -- their voices are almost drowned by their mediocre and sometimes plain incompetent colleagues. As a single example, before the invasion of Iraq there was hardly a print journalist in the US who bothered to question the Administration's propaganda on Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" and "nuclear weapons program" even though the findings of the various UN inspectors that these did not exist were being openly and widely reported in the foreign media.

Remember George Bush's fury a few years back with an Irish TV interviewer who refused to let him avoid answering her questions? That was because no one in the US had *ever* subjected him to the kind of reasonable fact-finding interview that you lucky Brits take for granted.

  • 21.
  • At 02:30 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • doug wrote:

Despite its visibility, the Internet is, ironically, still an underground medium - it's like a huge warren of loosely interconnected burrows, each with its own view on the world. Putting YouTube on CNN is looking down only one of a billion rabbit holes.

  • 22.
  • At 04:25 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • HKLivingston wrote:

At the end of the day, it is less a question of "Which is better--big media ('vested interests!) or blogs/internet fora ('democratic!')?" The question should be "Are politicians listening to people who actually bother to walk to the ballot box on election day?"

David Cameron rebranded the Conservative Party by brandishing 'green credentials', but lost elections anyway. Could it be because while environmentalists shout loudest,
1 they are only loud in volume but few in number, and/or
2 they do not necessarily vote?

In the same way, just because your blog has thousands of hits, just because you shout loudest in an internet forum, and just because there are many others of the same view who shout as loud or even louder online,
1 does not mean you vote yourself, and/or
2 does not mean you get many to actually vote.

  • 23.
  • At 04:29 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • Jaime wrote:

Indeed! In the US, 'Big Media' is heavily focused on Entertainment, and entertaining news, and rarely on hard truth and facts. Such sensationalism in mainstream journalism makes me long for more INDEPENDENT media - be it citizen-based or otherwise. And while the YouTube debate did not delve deeply and the like, it certainly allowed one to contrast the public persona and personalities of the 'mainstream' candidates in a fashion one might not see during a traditional 'Big Media' event. Who knew that some politicians have a sense of humor?!

  • 24.
  • At 04:32 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • HKLivingston wrote:

QUESTION: If the most zealous bloggers actually voted, if their most zealous subscribers actually voted, if those with the loudest voices in internet fora actually voted, why does America not have a President Kerry now?

Spare us the 'rigged-election system' excuse.

People actually taking time off from their computers on election day, stretching their legs for the walk to the ballot box, even more welcome--and would be healthy for democracy.

  • 25.
  • At 04:32 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • patrick wrote:

I think that this editorial was a bit harsh in its interpretation of the new "citizen media". However I do agree with it's author's opinion that the "citizen media" has a long way to go before it is serious competition for "big journalism" then again, what do I know I am just a Sophomore in college.

  • 26.
  • At 05:42 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • Liangatang wrote:

The entire dichotomous approach - either citizen media or big journalism - is the error with the approach to this subject from the start. This is NOT an issue of ONE or the OTHER - they can both simultaneously exist and enhance the ways people access information, especially political information.

When searching for the real truth, anybody knows that you should not rely on one source. "Citizen media" such as Youtube, blogs, and other Web 2.0 formats all give citizens new channels of accessing data and opinions. No one should believe everything in the the blogs around the world, but they do present a more "street-level" take on many issues that "big journalism" cannot.

I frequent BBC, CNN, and other sources regularly, but also love scanning through the blogsphere, wikipedia, or youtube to get some other takes. By putting the videos of the debate on YouTube and having people that could be your neighbor asking the questions - it made everything feel so much closer and authentic. It was also more fun to watch - which is key for the general public. In the past, I've flipped channels around on the debate. Plus, I've gone to YouTube numerous times since the debate to show favorite parts to friends who have no interest in politics at all - and we have enjoyed a few good laughs while also hearing what the candidates had to say. But should this format completely replace the "formal" debates that are usually held? Definitely not.

CNN's approach to link up with YouTube was ingenious. But both sides of the "citizen media" and "big journalism" debate need to settle down and realize it's not a winner take all competition - it's the existence of the two that will make US Americans more aware and knowledgeable about politics or news in general. I've already seen it affect mine.

  • 27.
  • At 06:07 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • Tom Doff wrote:

The CNN/YouTube 'political debate' was very revealing.

It revealed the paucity of thought of the typical US citizen, and/or the inability of the show's editors to discern between dross and drivel.

The only inane question not asked was, 'If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?'

If that question were asked of the voters, the only correct answer would be: 'A stump'.

I believe many missed the point again. While this event would seem like a chance for "the people" to ask questions, CNN still selected those questions from over 3000 submitted. After the first debate, Mike Gravel caused quite a stir. There was a lot of interest in hearing from him. I'm sure there were more than two video questions out of those thousands that were directed to him. Once again, the system is deciding for citizens who their candidates are going to be. Also, did anyone actually believe there would be any real tough questions thrown at the candidates? What the US needs is real debate and not these weak question and answer sessions.

  • 29.
  • At 06:24 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • Max Rust wrote:

Thank you for this much needed criticism. I kept hoping the whole time during the debate that one of the candidates would yell out: "This format is idiotic. I don't care about what 'Whocares' Johnson thinks about tax reform, etc. Ask me a real question!" That would have swayed my vote.
The problem with the YouTube format during the debate, as is the problem with much of"Citizen media/journalism," is that it just plain sucks.
The problem lies partly in the false idea that nearly anyone can efficiently and successfully convey/translate/communicate--"MEDIATE"-- information to masses of people. That doesn't just happen. People learn and practice how to do it well, and do it well enough to attract audiences via printed word, radio and video. Enough so to keep them employed and capable of honing their skill.
Last night's debate illuminated the unfortunate current state of YouTube and other "everyone can do it" news and entertainment web sites: A celebration of mediocrity.

  • 30.
  • At 06:34 AM on 25 Jul 2007,
  • Feral Grognard wrote:

It is rather strange to have a BBC Editor of the College of Journalism expound on the clarity of visions here given his College’s lack of imbedding a clarity between distorted untruths from real truths at the BBC as has been so recently exampled.

However, I contextually agree with the piece. The debate was yet another old media - Political party hat trick played with different color cards lacking any real differences, in purpose and or meaning, just pos the hype given to it. It was the same old, same old, “the people speak, pre-selection and screening hat trick played on us all by CNN-YUK-Tube and the DNC in this debate.

CNN Editors/Producers, perhaps along very likely DNC Operatives, controlled topically the entire spectrum of questions, who they were directed to and the topical agenda as if the entire event were a focus group specified inspired concerns.

They played us all, like all politicians do, ever day, making it appear like it was about us the people, when it was exclusively about “we the people of CNN and likely in this case, the Democratic party, contrived in closed backrooms, deciding what the topics were and who was to answer them. As if that was not blatantly obvious.

It would be no different if Republican were upon that stage except in pretense of topical “random answers” inquiring minds of the streets of America” want to know.

Likewise, who is really fooled into buying this is "the first time the people have asked the questions?" Perhaps, daydreamers, hyper-pundits and media hype-drama journalist were, but not we the people. American’s were perhaps born at night, BUT NOT LAST NIGHT!

It's early days for citizen media and it's direct intervention into how governance is elected and then run. We shouldn't dismiss the opportunities for positive, direct and issue based interactions between the ideas of the citizenry and those that represent them.

The CNN experiment, and lets face it, it was probably more an exercise in increasing ratings and a demonstration of their technological relevancy in a fickle marketplace more than anything else, was just that: an experiment.

As David Bohrman the Washington bureau chief for CNN pointed out to the New York Times: "You can’t set out to make a revolutionary shift, but you can set out to push the definition of a debate.” He also helped to select the You Tube clips shown.

Which is the primary point, while "Big Media" is still the primary conduit between the governed and governance, they are more than partly responsible for setting the tone and relevance. Is it any wonder that all the questions were overly general soft balls in light of concerns regarding audience sensitivity and ratings?

In the same manner, could the BBC be trusted to have a less filtered citizen led debate in the next general election in the UK? There is usually a screening process of the studio audience members who witness (and sometimes participate) in a more traditional televised round table debates, of course the conversation and controversy is stilted. Mediating that relationship merely serves to tighten the methods of control.

CNN and You Tube wasn't glorious, but it was a good start. And anything that gets people involved interacting in the democratic system is surely a good thing . . right?

To set the record straight regarding this statement from Mr. Marsh:

"Uber-zealot Jeff Jarvis – who blogs here at Buzz Machine - was one of those behind a website called ‘Prezvid’ – its aim, to bring video sharing into the democratic process. Fine – except that behind it is the unwritten value system that ascribes the highest worth to so-called ‘Macaca Moments’ - named after Virginia Senator George Allen’s apparently racist comment in an unguarded moment. The relationship between media and democracy has got to be more than catching out the unguarded or unprincipled."

As one of the founders of PrezVid - - I can tell you that our mission is to cover the 2008 election on YouTube as a beat: to display and comment on videos from campaigns, news organizations and voters (VoterVid). I don't possess an "unwritten value system that ascribes the highest worth to so-called ‘Macaca Moments.’"

Jeff Jarvis and I are interested in covering this new development in American politics as it plays out during a crowded, elongated presidential campaign. The agenda you ascribe to our site apparently exists in your mind - for whatever reason. Even a casual visitor to PrezVid would see the site for exactly what it is.

You're right, the format was little more than a dressed-up version of the same old debate format. Whether it's some random guy singing a song about a tax question, or Anderson Cooper just asking the question, there still isn't any variation in the questions.

With so many questions asked via the "citizen media" format, CNN was able to pick and choose which questions would be asked. That's why so few hard questions were asked, and little new was discovered about any of the candidates.

It's a good idea to give citizens to record a question and have a chance of seeing it played on TV, but it's not really any different from having audience participation with pre-screened questions. Good concept, but the question gate-keeping is always going to prevent real debate from taking place.

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