Fusing big and citizen media
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.
This 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.