July 23, 2007
The CNN/YouTube DebatesBy Peter Barry Chowka
At first glance, it looks democratic, with a small "d." Two high profile nationally-televised debates, featuring the major Democrat and Republican candidates for President in 2008, but with a significant twist: All of the questions will come from ordinary Americans - speaking, or in some cases possibly singing, dancing, rhyming, or acting out their queries - in short video clips that they recorded themselves and uploaded to the massively popular video sharing site YouTube.
The spin behind this novelty is that grassroots Americans, armed with a video camera or a cell phone, will come up with better questions for the candidates than the typical inside the Beltway bromides served up by the professional journalists and TV anchors who normally ask the questions.
As CNN Anchor John Roberts described the process on July 20: "Get ready for democracy at lightspeed." On cue, CNN Co-Anchor Kiran Chetry added: "For the first time ever, we're turning over an entire presidential debate to you, the voters!"
After a week's worth of this kind of on air reporting about (or, more accurately, shameless promotion for) the first CNN/YouTube Debate featuring the eight Democrat candidates in South Carolina on July 23, however, it looks like CNN's longstanding reputation for tilting left may be reinforced once again.
During the pre-debate week of July 16, CNN dedicated six full hours of special prime time programming on six successive nights to debate "preview" shows, three of them hosted by CNN anchor Paula Zahn. In addition, most of the regular CNN programs that week, like Anderson Cooper 360°, also gave extensive time to the July 23 debate. Cooper, a CNN star anchor since 2005, will be the host of the debate.
You didn't even have to be paying all that much attention to notice that almost all of the scores of video clips littered liberally throughout CNN's programming during the CNN/YouTube pre-debate week were coming from the left. And not only that: The methodology, including the names CNN gave to its debate preview programs, also projected a not-too-subtle left wing bias. On Wednesday, July 18, for example, CNN's debate preview show was titled "Fixing America's Broken Health Care System; YouTube Generation's Top Priorities."
It's a significant and highly questionable value judgment, of course, to identify America's health care system as "broken." That description is hardly objective: It is one shared by exactly all of the Democrat candidates for President, and by none of the Republicans. It's an article of faith for people who are demanding government run "universal health care." And it's also reminiscent of CNN's extensive series of programs on "broken government" that aired last fall (not coincidentally, many critics charged) on the eve of the 2006 Congressional elections.
Beyond the prejudicial program titles, the July 18 debate preview show's content itself presented a corresponding litany of biased "facts" and analysis, including the following exchanges which are typical of the hour:
A little fact-checking: Regarding the figure of 9 million children supposedly without insurance, according to statistics by the federal government and the American Academy of Pediatrics,
Meanwhile, although it's a favorite Democrat talking point, the contention that Americans are, or should be, rushing to buy cheaper Canadian drugs has been repeatedly debunked, including by the Toronto Globe and Mail on May 24, 2007:
To paraphrase bleeding heart anchor Zahn, one might see such oversights and obfuscations in CNN's reporting as "unacceptable."
The most compelling video clip that CNN showed on its July 18 prime time debate preview show, and on a number of other programs, too, was submitted by a woman identified as Kim from Long Island. In a made for TV moment, shortly after she began speaking, Kim grabbed and removed her wig, revealing a bald head. Looking directly into the camera, she said "I'm 36 years old and hope to be a future breast cancer survivor. Like millions of Americans, I have gone for years without health insurance. What would you, as president, do to make low-cost or free preventative medicine available for everybody in this country?"
Immediately, it's a moving and unforgettable image, and it's hard for most viewers not to empathize with a person with cancer. However, if Kim was trying to establish a link between the left's favorite cause du jour - "free" universal health care - and her own case of breast cancer, it's not clear what the relevance was - and what kind of "preventative medicine" she was referring to that she implied she was denied because of a lack of insurance. There is, in fact, no "preventative medicine" paid for by insurance that could be used to prevent breast cancer, with the possible exception of a breast cancer screening test like mammography. But even that association is a stretch because, according to the American Cancer Society, mammography is not prescribed for women younger than age 40.
Moreover, the current evidence regarding what might help to prevent breast cancer has nothing to do with "preventative medicine" that you need insurance for, but instead involves basic personal lifestyle choices that entail individual responsibility. The staff of the Mayo Clinic has a list of the most effective "breast cancer prevention strategies" based on the latest scientific research. It's a short list: "limit alcohol. . . maintain a healthy weight. . . stay physically active. . . (and) consider limiting fat in your diet." The medical establishment has shied away from it, but there is highly suggestive evidence that not having an abortion also helps avoid breast cancer.
Discussions of other current issues identified by CNN as key in the upcoming July 23 debate, including (as CNN identified them) the Iraq War, global warming, the genocide in Darfur, government support for education, environmental injustice, and poverty at home and abroad, echoed similar "progressive" themes. Among the YouTube videos that CNN broadcast:
Left wing academic Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania (she's one of Bill Moyers' most frequent guests on his PBS programs), is already gushing about the CNN/YouTube debates. On July 19, Jamieson told the Washington Post,
In a feature news article on June 14, "YouTube Passes Debates to a New Generation," the New York Times visibly endorsed the new trend. Quotes in the article included: "The impact of the YouTube debate can't be over-estimated," and "We're moving to a society that is video-based from one that is text-based, whether we like it or not. . . The Internet culture recognizes that Internet video is more authentic, more granular, less scripted than television, and it is an antidote to sound-bite politics."
In reality, what YouTube does, and what CNN is now appropriating as its model for 21st Century journalism, is not journalism at all. Instead, YouTube elevates the highly personal, anecdotal, and telegenic or sensational performance/sound bite to a level of importance that overtakes and overwhelms facts, statistics, context, and reasoned overview - the usual standards of "Journalism 101."
The narcissistic, totally self-absorbed, new age YouTube experience, made possible by the toys of high tech (resulting in millions of personalized cell phone video clips posted on YouTube and other video hosting sites), arose from the ethos of the "Me Decade." In the emerging 21st Century post-Bush era, a new ethos is being proposed by CNN and other taste makers in the mainstream media-political nexus. This alternative ethos overlays or complements the purely personal, Me-centric, experiential one that is passing into history and helps to advance the new collectivist Zeitgeist that's more in sync with the leftist"We"-centric public policies that Democrats see on the political horizon. As leading 2008 presidential candidate and prime "We Decade" proponent Sen. Hillary ("It Takes a Village") Rodham Clinton (D-NY) described it while campaigning in New Hampshire on May 29, 2007, "I prefer a 'we're all in it together' society" to an "on your own" one.
The way that CNN is promoting the YouTube debates can be seen in another context, too, not only political and ideological but one involving the more down and dirty business behind the box.
In January 2002, CNN (founded in 1980) was embarrassingly dethroned from its first place ratings reign by the upstart Fox News Channel (which went on the air in 1996). For the past 5½ years, CNN has been slugging it out for second place with the third cable TV news channel MSNBC (which also started broadcasting in 1996). On a recent day (July 18), in the 25-54 demographic that is the most critical metric in TV ratings, Fox News Channel had almost twice as many viewers as CNN both throughout the day and in prime time. MSNBC as usual was third, but not as far behind CNN as it has been. (Interestingly, MSNBC has finally been making some ratings headway this past season by encouraging and promoting hyper-left Bush-bashing programs hosted by DailyKos.com darlings like Keith Olbermann.)
CNN had already experienced a rating coup with the previous Democrat and Republican candidates' debates that it hosted this past June. According to Inside Cable News on June 5, "CNN's Democratic Presidential Debate on Sunday, June 3 averaged 2.8 million total viewers - more than any other presidential debate of this election season."
It makes sense, then, that CNN, having done better than expected with the June 2007 debates, which it also promoted heavily, chose to combine forces with YouTube for the next round. CNN covets YouTube's enormous audience and must see the CNN/YouTube collaboration as an opportunity to pump up its own ratings, both on cable and online. According to research reported by Nielsen Net/Ratings on July 21, 2006, YouTube, only 1½ years old at the time, is a genuine online phenomenon: "YouTube's Monthly Unique Audience Has Skyrocketed 297 Percent since January 2006. . . to 12.8 million unique visitors." And significantly, YouTube's prime audience is also young: "Visitors between 12-17 years old index the highest among the various age groups." This is the kind of audience that cable TV news channels (which trend significantly older) especially prize.
Last fall, Google Inc. acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock. One self-described Liberal blog says "Google's founders are Left-wing, and the company spends lavishly on Left-wing causes." In early 2006 Google made a deal with the government of Communist China to offer its search engine to Chinese Internet users. In the process, according to the AP,
Google has been roundly criticized on the Internet for this decision.
In the midst of CNN's success in the debate arena, the Fox News Channel, alone among the cable and commercial broadcast TV networks, is having trouble pulling off any of its planned Democrat debates. This past spring, three of the leading Democrat candidates announced that they would not participate in a broadcast debate that Fox News is co-producing with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute on September 23. As The Hill reported on May 23, in April
Meanwhile, the same three candidates have agreed to participate with the other five politicians who currently comprise the Democrat field in another Congressional Black Caucus Institute debate next January - to be broadcast on CNN.
In a less ideological time, competing electronic news outlets like CNN might have put their differences aside and lent support to Fox News in the face of what are clearly politically driven, questionable, and potentially dangerous challenges to its legitimacy as a bona fide news organization. Instead, CNN seems to be taking advantage of Fox' weakened position vis-à-vis the provocations whipped up by the extreme left.
In another example of how the business of CNN's YouTube debates intersects with ideology, recent studies and polls report that the YouTube-oriented youthful demographic is predominantly left wing. According to "The State of the Youth Nation: 2007," a national opinion poll by CBS News/MTV/The New York Times of 17 to 29 year olds released on June 26,
In this writer's opinion, if the CNN/YouTube Debates are changing journalism, it can only be for the worse. Which is not to say that the status quo is anything to crow about. But using the Vox populi (or a small segment of it) in the manner that CNN/YouTube is using it is, for one thing, totally open to manipulation - a fact acknowledged by CNN.
On the July 20 prime time debate preview show, CNN Chief National Correspondent John King admitted that the Democrat presidential candidates' campaigns
The CNN/YouTube debates also violate what is, or what was in the past, a cardinal rule of journalism - to never allow the interview subject to know the questions in advance. All week, as a number of YouTube video questions have been played and replayed, CNN's anchors and reporters have said that some of these same videos will be used in the July 23 debate. In any case, all of the videos that have been submitted for consideration by CNN may be viewed and studied by anyone at YouTube.com.
The estimated 50 or so videos that will make it on the air during the 2-hour debate on July 23 are being chosen from a final list of around 2,000 by a secret group led by CNN senior vice president David Bohrman. Reporting on the selection process, CNN correspondent Tom Foreman said "They are all graded, some for cleverness and some for earnestness. . . Exactly how they are being chosen is a secret. Even around here." So much for transparency.
More excerpts from CNN's debate preview on July 20: