YouTube/CNN Debate Illuminates Positives and Pitfalls

On Saturday, I'll be discussing ways that women who blog can impact election coverage, as part of a BlogHer conference session titled, "Earn Our Votes: What Questions Do Women Bloggers Want Candidates to Answer in Election 2008?" (For more details on this session, see my previous post about the session, and also the BlogHer program description.)

My role in the session will be to discuss specific strategies that women who blog, who engage in political activism, who care about media, and other concerned individuals can adopt to positively impact election coverage. I'll likely be writing more about this -- including a list of some of these action steps -- in this space over the next several days, but for now I wanted to mention the use of new media as a useful tool for shifting public debate, in light of the recent YouTube/CNN debate.

As an experiment bridging corporate media and citizen journalism, the YouTube/CNN debates showed both the possibilities/opportunities and the challenges/limitations of attempts to change the tone and content of public debate when corporate media remain the firm gatekeepers.

To wit: on the plus side, video bloggers reportedly sent in approximately 3,000 questions they hoped Dems would answer -- on the down side, producers of the YouTube/CNN debate chose only 39, many of which addressed the same ideas and topics that would normally come up in the usual televised debates, and most of which garnered the same overly rehearsed, uninspiringly practiced talking points that the candidates could spout out in their sleep.

But, also on the plus side, there were some undeniably different moments in this online experiment than in traditional debates, as when an African American minister demanded to know why Democrats such as John Edward still consider it acceptable to use religion to justify curtailing the civil rights of gays and lesbians when we understand that it was morally wrong to use religion to justify slavery, denial of women's suffrage and the like, or when two young women from Brooklyn, NY made the political quite personal when they asked the Democrats "Would you allow us to get married [pregnant pause] to each other?" or when a Black male college student asked Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barak Obama how they respond to all the op-eds and commentators who unfailingly reference gender and race in discussing the candidates' "authenticity" -- and how they each address the notion that they are, respectively, "not feminine enough" and "not Black enough." (Interestingly, it was John Edwards, not Hillary Clinton, who took the question as an opportunity to discuss policy issues that would specifically affect and improve women's lives -- specifically, raising the minimum wage and finding active solutions to women's poverty -- where Clinton's answer had involved mostly platitudes about the positive role model message her inauguration would send to little girls and boys.)

Another positive effect of the YouTube/CNN debate was the renewed relevance and clarity with which even the most standard questions hit home when posed by American citizens who were deeply concerned about and will be impacted by the answers, rather than by corporate journalists working for media outlets that donate huge sums to political campaigns to assure their corporations some quid-pro-quo action.

One of the most telling differences between this "real people ask the questions" debate and the usually cozy confabs between politicians and their journo friends was illustrated by Bay Area resident Stephanie Mackley, who posed a question about energy policy to the candidates from her bathroom, where she uses compact fluorescent light bulbs:

"I use these to decrease my personal energy use and I hear politicians talking about alternative energies as a way to decrease our energy impact as a whole. But my question to you is, how is the United States going to decrease its energy consumption in the first place? In other words, how will your policies influence Americans rather than just using special lightbulbs?"

Mackley's question pierced through the usual government (and media) spin that attempts to frame collective problems as if they were really individual problems, requiring individual solutions rather than widescale societal responsibility. She asked about broad policy impact rather than individual band-aid steps.

Unfortunately, it was just as telling that when CNN's Anderson Cooper bumped the question to the candidates, he watered down Macklay's very clear emphasis on policy by rephrasing her question to the candidates as follows: "How do you get Americans to conserve?" Then, when Sen. Dodd talked about corporate accountability standards such as a corporate carbon tax on environmental polluters, demanding highly energy efficient standards for automobiles, moving away from fossil fuels as steps to deal with global warming, Cooper interrupted him, saying, "The question was about personal sacrifice." [No, actually, it wasn't -- her question, which we all heard clear as day, was about whether Democrats will enact political policies that will go beyond personal steps like using energy efficient bulbs, to decrease our national energy consumption.] Then, as a flashy "gotcha" moment, Cooper asked for a show-of-hands to find out how many of the candidates flew to the debate in a private jet. (One hand after another popped up, some sheepishly; only Sen. Gravel said, "I took the train!") But as symbolic as that sad lineup was, the larger issue of collective, societal responsibility -- and, of course, the public policy question -- got lost, and this time it wasn't the politicians burying political policy and corporate responsibility under the sheen of personal choices and superficial band-aids, it was CNN's silver-haired golden boy who did that for them. How pathetic.

Incidentally, after screaming a few times in a gleeful video blogging response to her question being selected as part of the debate, Mackley noted another problematic aspect of the debate that is all too typical of corporate media -- the underrerepsentation of women's voices in the debate. Even during a campaign in which a woman is, for the first time, considered the front-runner for a major party's presidential nomination, only 12 of the 39 questions selected were asked by women, according to Macklay's tally, men asked approx. 70% of the questions. [NOTE: I have not independently verified these tallies.]

Update/correction to Mackley's numbers: Rachel Joy Larris, in a National Women's Editorial Board blog post, puts the number of women's questions at 11, not 12, as follows:

The questions women were shown asking: question #7 on race and class being a factor in the Katrina disaster, #9 on gay marriage, #13 a mother asking how many soldiers have to die in Iraq, #19 a young woman asking the candidates to name their favorite teacher, #22 a Planned Parenthood worker from Pennsylvania asking whether the candidates talk to their kids about sex, #25 about energy consumption by the U.S., #27 about whether they would work for minimum wage, #29 a quick one on paying Social Security to those earning over $97,500, #29 featuring two women and two men asking health care-related questions and, lastly, #34 a woman asking, she said, on behalf of "friends," about whether their health care plans would include undocumented workers.

The fact that YouTube and CNN would bill their debate as a bold new step for participatory democracy yet would so significantly underrepresent women's participation is another indication that media accountability is needed even in this brave new world of online communication, despite the much-ballyhooed gender equity it was supposed to bring.

I bring up the positives (a slightly broader, more impactful range of questions from individual people using new media tools to make their voices heard) and the negatives (with CNN at the helm, still not a huge divergence from the usual media script, with much less of an emphasis than is needed on policy positions that would affect women's economic, social, sexual, reproductive and political rights, and candidates who tend to hue too closely to their prewritten soundbites) because it's important for media activists and bloggers to understand that there truly is no simple, "five minutes a day" way, no Improving Election Coverage for Dummies booklet, to transforming the media. The Internet will not "save us" or "liberate us" from biased, sexist, racist or otherwise commercially compromised reporting, political content and entertainment fare (especially on sites where corporate media are still at the gatekeepers), so we still need to invest time, energy and resources into long-term strategies for changing mainstream media content, production and policy -- but it is undeniable that we can use the Internet and new media as key tools in our arsenal for media change-making, as one aspect of a larger, multi-layered media strategy which must include critical content analysis, media literacy, strategic communications, relationship-building within major media, media accountability advocacy, media policy activism, support of independent, community and ethnic media, and more.

This post originally appeared at WIMN's Voices: A Group Blog on Women and the Media , a project of Women In Media & News, the national women's media analysis, education and advocacy group. To bring Jennifer L. Pozner to speak to your campus or community group, or to send her blog tips, email To subscribe to WIMN's free media alert list, see the Action Center here.