Not-so-brave new media world



December 02, 2007|By ANDREW RATNER

After sorting through scores of videos prepared for last week's CNN/YouTube debate from the likes of a talking paper bag, immigrant sock puppets, Sparkles the Clown and a man dressed as Frankenstein, a mainstream journalist - me - thought back to the precious Saturday Night Live parody of the 1988 presidential debate between the first George Bush, played by Dana Carvey, and Michael S. Dukakis, portrayed by Jon Lovitz.

Bush: "Let me sum up. On track, stay the course. Thousand points of light."

"Governor Dukakis. Rebuttal?" asked Diane Sawyer, played by Jan Hooks.

Dukakis' classic reply: "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!"

New media in the form of YouTube videos may have brought a little novelty to the presidential debates, but it was hardly an improvement.

The Republican candidates in St. Petersburg Wednesday night were able to talk in circles because the videos didn't allow follow-up from the questioner. (One of the few follow-up opportunities actually left some egg on CNN's face when it was revealed that retired Brig. Gen. Keith H. Kerr, who was in the audience to follow up his own video question urging acceptance for gays in the military, served on a task force for Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.)

Judging by the numbers alone, the debate was a smash hit: Nearly 4.5 million viewers made it the most-watched primary debate in cable history, according to Nielsen data.

And half of the top 20 videos on YouTube by week's end showed the candidates' various responses, cumulatively drawing more than 1 million views, so the replay factor was potent.

There was nothing as goofy as the "talking snowman" video whose star turn in the Democratic debate last June gave Mitt Romney pause about whether he wanted to participate in the Republican one.

But there was a strange disconnect between the audience in formal dress and the questioners on the big screen in T-shirts with comic book character logos. When the eight men on stage decided to run for the highest office in the land, they likely never imagined their fate would be in the hands of people with Internet handles like "IamTheScum13" and "calciumboy."

CNN pulled back the reins a little on the wild-and-crazy format. Even though it received many more videos for the Republican debate - nearly 5,000, compared with about 3,000 for the Democratic one last June - the 33 it chose to air were tamer this time.

CNN didn't even attempt to spin the YouTube content as astute. "Silly, creepy, dangerous and just plain odd questions for candidates," its own online promo warned. The network appeared reluctant to let the St. Petersburg Times sit in on its vetting process for the videos.

Ironically, the old media seemed more infatuated with the CNN-YouTube format than many bloggers and vloggers themselves, who were grousing that CNN editors were still acting as the gatekeepers of which videos should air. The public should decide that, too, many of them wrote on various blog posts.

The mainstream media seem just as smitten with the novelty of mass blogging at next summer's conventions, although I don't recall anyone thinking too few reporters is what ailed the political gatherings.

The blog tracker Nielsen BuzzMetrics' Blogpulse estimates about 3 percent to 5 percent of all blogs are political in nature, about the same for entertainment news. Technorati, which tracks about 113 million blogs, says politics is one of the "three big" for blogging, along with technology and entertainment news, spokesman Aaron Krane said.

Many of the political blogs are partisan and derive their audience and energy mostly by preaching to their choirs in edgy and entertaining form. It's unlikely they'll reach the vast undecided middle, which will still take its cues from mainstream media, morning shows and late-night comedians (once the TV writers' strike gets resolved).

Too many Americans are turned off by politics, which they see as dishonest or at least disconnected from their lives.

A format that invites talking paper bags and sock puppets is not likely to help convince them otherwise.

Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.

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