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How CNN Demeans the Internet

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, November 29 2007

If you want to know how CNN's crack news team picked the video questions that would be used in last night's GOP presidential debate, you can watch this video of CNN's David Bohrman, the show's executive producer and the network's DC bureau chief. Just don't expect to come away enlightened.

Bohrman seems far more enamored of his glitzy mobile newsroom with its "terabytes" of video storage capacity than he is in offering us any insight into the process. "i like questions that are interesting...well done...that lead to differences among these candidates," he says about halfway through. Well, duh.

The one interesting nugget you can mine out of this little behind-the-scenes-but-not-really video is that CNN doesn't really collaborate with YouTube's political editors in the making of the show. Bohrman explains that "Steve" (meaning, I assume, Steve Grove, YouTube's dynamic young politics editor) doesn't know which questions CNN is selecting, so while YouTube does pick a bunch of "super-YouTubers" to attend the live debate, he has no way of being sure that one of their questions will be asked. Thus the odds of someone being in the audience to do what Bohrman himself says is the "obvious, natural thing to do" and say whether the candidates answered their question, are pretty low. All this, so CNN can keep the questions a tightly held secret until the live event.

Scanning the post-debate commentary, I've decided I'm with Jason Rosenbaum, who blogs at He writes, "It's a trap!":

Once again, CNN failed the American people. The “YouTube debates” were supposed to embody a revolution of online democracy. But they failed to broaden the argument around the issues or even truly grasp what online democracy is all about.

Last time CNN held a YouTube debate, I accused them of misrepresenting America’s youth:

"[The debates] were targeted towards the youth in America and designed to bring out new viewpoints and presentations that don’t usually get airtime on mainstream media outlets. People who submitted questions were asked to be creative, personal, and focused. In truth, the set up seemed promising, and I feel that many politically active young people were very hopeful that in this debate, their views would be heard. The videos chosen by CNN, however, failed to broaden the issues, and instead misrepresented the youth of America badly."

Tonight, I’m convinced CNN did worse than that. By heavily moderating the questions, and by deliberately choosing silly, fluffy, or offbeat videos to show the nation, CNN is reinforcing the old media idea that the Internet entertains, but does not offer real, serious discussion or insight. [Emphasis added--MLS]

A quick look at the important issues that were left out of this debate proves that CNN wasn’t out for discussion, it was out for infotainment. Instead of a stupid song about the candidates (that had no question, I might add), an animated cartoon of Dick Cheney, and a question about the confederate flag, we could have had a question about the drug war. Or about energy policy. Or more than one question about Iraq (and one about Iran). Or one about health care.

By including silly questions in a nationally televised event, CNN pushes the idea that the Internet isn’t real. Behind every screenname and every video submitted stands a living, breathing, thinking citizen. Yet when CNN airs fluffy videos, they tell America that we shouldn’t turn to the Internet for our real news, we should turn to the “experts” on CNN. It is a testament to the authenticity present online that some truly well worded questions made it through CNN’s moderation process.

Still, CNN is not reaching out to online communities by holding YouTube debates. CNN is undermining them and trying to co-opt them into their mainstream media narrative. They set a trap, bait it with national exposure, and then subtly tear down the very people they claim to respect. By moderating heavily, by not allowing users to vote on videos in any meaningful way, and by choosing style over substance, CNN is insulting the American people, not only those online who put their time into making serious questions for the candidates but those who watched thinking they were being treated to a real discussion on policy, politics, and values.

The Internet is just as viable a medium for news, information, and serious discussion as any major media outlet. In fact, I believe that online sources of information are better, as they allow more viewpoints, more participation, and allow us to control our consumption instead of ceding control to faceless editors or pundits. There is more truth online than there has ever been on CNN. Their portrayal of the Internet does not represent me, and I reject the notion that a talking head on a major television station is any more informed or worthy of my attention than a commenter on Digg or reddit.

Why not just let the people vote on videos? It can hardly be worse than CNN editing and moderating…