Just say "No!" to YouTube Debates

I breathed a sigh of relief when most of the Republican presidential hopefuls declined to participate in the next YouTube debate. I think they displayed good judgment and common sense in refusing to be inveigled into what is at best a CNN publicity scheme and at worst a ruse to force Republican candidates to display themselves in an unfavorably biased environment.

Relevance

The only valid reason for a YouTube debate, or any kind of debate, is to permit the voting public to assess the relevant qualifications of a candidate. As I wrote in a newspaper op-ed in 2000:

C. Northcote Parkinson, of Parkinson's Law once suggested that candidates for public office should be selected by a series of tests based on the qualities required... If we want a prime minister to have dedication and courage, each candidate should have to fight three rounds with the current heavyweight champion.  If eloquence is necessary, require all candidates to persuade a Baptist Convention to rock and roll....

In a sense, our election process does use this method by means of whistle-stop tours, TV debates, and behind-the-scenes horse trading.  The campaigns have evolved into a grueling test of each candidate's physical stamina, skill in negotiation and compromise, ability to form a team and pick the right advisors, capacity for endless talking, and other such political virtues.  We don't test intelligence or knowledge or statesmanship but we at least test a candidate's ability to seem to possess those qualities.  We don't determine whether a candidates will really give the people what they want but we do test his ability to make the public believe that he has or will do so.  So the running-for-office gauntlet insures that, when the public gets the candidate it thinks it wants, he will have at least some political skills.
Note that the essence of Parkinson's principle is that any test of candidates should be relevant to the skills they would actually need in office.. By this criterion, although it is doubtful whether agility in debate is a true test of statesmanship, the traditional TV debate is somewhat relevant, inasmuch as a president must on occasion be able to think on his feet and give a quick answer.

But even that limited approbation holds only for conventional TV debates with (hopefully) impartially screened questions from a representative segment of the population. In lurid contrast, the YouTube set, who by their very appearance on that website reveal their predisposition to narcissism and exhibitionism, are a very select group. They are likely to be more interested in displaying themselves, and their self-assessed wit or wisdom, than in clarifying the positions of the candidates in important issues.

And thus it was that the Democratic candidates in the first YouTube debate found themselves being questioned by talking snowmen and comedians dressed as hillbillies. This may be a suitable test for a TV game show host but it has little relevance to the duties of the President of the United States. Therefore the YouTube debate format fails to meet Parkinson's criterion and should be ignored as the self-serving publicity scheme it appears to be.

Fairness

But even Parkinson's criterion does not guarantee the fairness of a test. It does not follow that a political candidate should automatically agree to any test that any opposing candidate proposes. As Goethe said, "who is so cultivated as to refrain from cruelly stressing, at times, the qualities in which he excels." In the 1960 campaign, Kennedy pressed hard for a series of TV debates because he knew he would outshine Nixon in that particular format. And thus the course of history may have been changed by a choice of debate venue.

It would therefore be foolish for a candidate to accept a challenge from an opponent to participate in an event with a biased or hostile audience or sponsor. As Peter Barry Chowka has already pointed out in his careful analysis of the first YouTube debate, both the questioners and the sponsor (CNN) appear to have been strongly slanted leftward.

There is in fact evidence that left-wing activist groups have been trying to bias the venue of this year's presidential debates. One such group is the ultraleft propaganda organization Brave New Films, which has produced and distributed films attacking Wal-Mart, Fox News, Tom Delay, John McCain, Iraq War "profiteers", and Dick Cheney and which has attempted to perpetrate the apparently bogus "Iraq War Memorial." In February, BNF launched its "Fox Attacks" website, claiming that
Fox is not a legitimate news channel. They are a dangerous element in our democracy: dangerous in the way they influence other media, dangerous in the way they force stories into the mainstream without any evidence, dangerous in the effect they have on their viewers.
and urging its readers to organize boycotts of Fox sponsors. In March, BNF launched a campaign to prevent Fox from hosting the Nevada Democratic presidential debate in August. They succeeded, proclaiming " We want to continue the work of calling attention to the distortions, lies and propaganda that is Fox News." Then in April, when Fox was scheduled to host the Congressional Black Caucus presidential debates in September, BNF launched a petition to cancel those debates. In announcing victory, BNF proclaimed:

The CBC Institute has already announced another debate with CNN, which candidates can opt to attend instead of the Fox debate.

In short, Brave New Films approves of CNN. but wants people to boycott Fox. In case you're wondering, Fox incurred BNF's wrath by saying something unfavorable about Obama. 

Therefore, in addition to Chowka's demonstration of CNN's bias before, during and after the first YouTube debate, we have BNF's endorsement, which some would consider even more damning. 

I therefore recommend that Republican candidates

  • give a wide berth to YouTube and CNN. As the old Chinese saying goes, "it is unwise to agree to a boxing match wherein the referee is your opponent's mother."
  • propose to meet the Democratic candidates in a standard debate on Fox, with questions selected at random from those submitted by any registered voter.
  • refuse to worry about being considered "chicken" by the younger 'wired' set. Fear of being called "chicken" is itself a form of cowardice. My reaction to the refusal of Guilliani and Romney was favorable---they had the courage to just say no.
I breathed a sigh of relief when most of the Republican presidential hopefuls declined to participate in the next YouTube debate. I think they displayed good judgment and common sense in refusing to be inveigled into what is at best a CNN publicity scheme and at worst a ruse to force Republican candidates to display themselves in an unfavorably biased environment.

Relevance

The only valid reason for a YouTube debate, or any kind of debate, is to permit the voting public to assess the relevant qualifications of a candidate. As I wrote in a newspaper op-ed in 2000:

C. Northcote Parkinson, of Parkinson's Law once suggested that candidates for public office should be selected by a series of tests based on the qualities required... If we want a prime minister to have dedication and courage, each candidate should have to fight three rounds with the current heavyweight champion.  If eloquence is necessary, require all candidates to persuade a Baptist Convention to rock and roll....

In a sense, our election process does use this method by means of whistle-stop tours, TV debates, and behind-the-scenes horse trading.  The campaigns have evolved into a grueling test of each candidate's physical stamina, skill in negotiation and compromise, ability to form a team and pick the right advisors, capacity for endless talking, and other such political virtues.  We don't test intelligence or knowledge or statesmanship but we at least test a candidate's ability to seem to possess those qualities.  We don't determine whether a candidates will really give the people what they want but we do test his ability to make the public believe that he has or will do so.  So the running-for-office gauntlet insures that, when the public gets the candidate it thinks it wants, he will have at least some political skills.
Note that the essence of Parkinson's principle is that any test of candidates should be relevant to the skills they would actually need in office.. By this criterion, although it is doubtful whether agility in debate is a true test of statesmanship, the traditional TV debate is somewhat relevant, inasmuch as a president must on occasion be able to think on his feet and give a quick answer.

But even that limited approbation holds only for conventional TV debates with (hopefully) impartially screened questions from a representative segment of the population. In lurid contrast, the YouTube set, who by their very appearance on that website reveal their predisposition to narcissism and exhibitionism, are a very select group. They are likely to be more interested in displaying themselves, and their self-assessed wit or wisdom, than in clarifying the positions of the candidates in important issues.

And thus it was that the Democratic candidates in the first YouTube debate found themselves being questioned by talking snowmen and comedians dressed as hillbillies. This may be a suitable test for a TV game show host but it has little relevance to the duties of the President of the United States. Therefore the YouTube debate format fails to meet Parkinson's criterion and should be ignored as the self-serving publicity scheme it appears to be.

Fairness

But even Parkinson's criterion does not guarantee the fairness of a test. It does not follow that a political candidate should automatically agree to any test that any opposing candidate proposes. As Goethe said, "who is so cultivated as to refrain from cruelly stressing, at times, the qualities in which he excels." In the 1960 campaign, Kennedy pressed hard for a series of TV debates because he knew he would outshine Nixon in that particular format. And thus the course of history may have been changed by a choice of debate venue.

It would therefore be foolish for a candidate to accept a challenge from an opponent to participate in an event with a biased or hostile audience or sponsor. As Peter Barry Chowka has already pointed out in his careful analysis of the first YouTube debate, both the questioners and the sponsor (CNN) appear to have been strongly slanted leftward.

There is in fact evidence that left-wing activist groups have been trying to bias the venue of this year's presidential debates. One such group is the ultraleft propaganda organization Brave New Films, which has produced and distributed films attacking Wal-Mart, Fox News, Tom Delay, John McCain, Iraq War "profiteers", and Dick Cheney and which has attempted to perpetrate the apparently bogus "Iraq War Memorial." In February, BNF launched its "Fox Attacks" website, claiming that
Fox is not a legitimate news channel. They are a dangerous element in our democracy: dangerous in the way they influence other media, dangerous in the way they force stories into the mainstream without any evidence, dangerous in the effect they have on their viewers.
and urging its readers to organize boycotts of Fox sponsors. In March, BNF launched a campaign to prevent Fox from hosting the Nevada Democratic presidential debate in August. They succeeded, proclaiming " We want to continue the work of calling attention to the distortions, lies and propaganda that is Fox News." Then in April, when Fox was scheduled to host the Congressional Black Caucus presidential debates in September, BNF launched a petition to cancel those debates. In announcing victory, BNF proclaimed:

The CBC Institute has already announced another debate with CNN, which candidates can opt to attend instead of the Fox debate.

In short, Brave New Films approves of CNN. but wants people to boycott Fox. In case you're wondering, Fox incurred BNF's wrath by saying something unfavorable about Obama. 

Therefore, in addition to Chowka's demonstration of CNN's bias before, during and after the first YouTube debate, we have BNF's endorsement, which some would consider even more damning. 

I therefore recommend that Republican candidates

  • give a wide berth to YouTube and CNN. As the old Chinese saying goes, "it is unwise to agree to a boxing match wherein the referee is your opponent's mother."
  • propose to meet the Democratic candidates in a standard debate on Fox, with questions selected at random from those submitted by any registered voter.
  • refuse to worry about being considered "chicken" by the younger 'wired' set. Fear of being called "chicken" is itself a form of cowardice. My reaction to the refusal of Guilliani and Romney was favorable---they had the courage to just say no.