By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

How CNN blew it

If CNN executives took citizen media seriously, then they wouldn’t be facing charges that they’re in the tank for the Democrats. Well, OK, they probably would, but the charges wouldn’t seem as credible.

Following Wednesday night’s CNN/YouTube debate, it was revealed that retired general Keith Kerr, a gay man who asked the candidates a pointed question about why they oppose letting openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, was a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton’s. And that turned out to be only the most notable of what conservative blogger Michelle Malkin is calling Democratic “plants.”

Well, of course, it was incredibly stupid of CNN to do such a poor job of vetting the 5,000 or so videos that were submitted by YouTube users. And it certainly didn’t help that Kerr was allowed to hector the candidates from the audience. His question was perfectly legitimate, but his Clinton affiliation should have disqualified him. (And it’s too bad that Anderson Cooper is getting tainted by this. I thought he did an exceptionally good job of keeping the proceedings moving along while remaining substantive.)

But why is CNN deciding which videos to use in the first place? As my former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein wrote after the first Democratic YouTube debate in July, CNN “pretty much created a TV show out of the free raw video materials, not entirely unlike an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

So let me repeat and expand on a suggestion I made back then: If CNN wants to harness the power of citizen media, then it should go all the way. Here’s what I’d do:

  • Have people upload videos in six or eight subject categories — the war in Iraq, terrorism, taxes, immigration, the environment, whatever.
  • Subject those videos to light vetting to make sure none is tilted for or against a particular candidate, or is grotesquely offensive.
  • Let the YouTube community vote on the best video in each category. Those are the questions that will be asked.

Such a system wouldn’t be perfect. One problem, of course, is that the candidates would get to see the questions ahead of time. But so what? We should be looking for thoughtful answers rather than making these debates a test as to who can spit out the best instantaneous soundbites.

There’s also the possibility that the process would be hijacked in some way. But I think that’s a risk worth taking. Besides, how would that be any worse than letting people associated with Hillary Clinton’s and John Edwards’ campaigns ask questions, as CNN did?

“Score this one for the people,” says the Boston Globe in an editorial today. Well, no. This was CNN’s show from start to finish. Let the people decide — then we can celebrate.

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  1. Tim Allik

    There is an inescapable hum of derision emanating from the continuing conversation over the blogosphere, particularly from professional journalists, but also the well-educated public at large. “How can you trust what you read on Joe Shmoe’s blog?” is the common question. I’ll turn that question on its head. “How can you to trust what’s on CNN?” Far from muddying the waters when it comes to truth and legitimacy, the blogosphere has cleared things up, at least for me. Thanks to the blogosphere, I’m skeptical of all sources now, including both blogs and mainstream media outlets. The fact that The Boston Globe published an editorial on Nov. 30 praising the YouTube debate as a win “for the people” without even acknowledging the multiple conflicts of interest that were widely revealed by the blogosphere the day before backs up my point further. I think it’s critical these days to take *everything* with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions based on the total sum of what you read/hear/watch. And that applies to the mainstream media as well as blogs, most definitely.

  2. Anonymous

    I don’t get it. What makes it more raw or edgy or “by the people” or “citizen media” by having people make videos of questions, rather than just have real-live people ask the questions from a chair in the audience? I mean, I get the novelty and the whole Youtube phenomenon. But here’s one question I have? Why would it be so hard for Anderson Cooper to have asked those questions, just from scanning newspapers, checking blogs, seeing what people are concerned about? Sure, we wouldn’t have been able to see some guy throwing guns around (groan!), but what do these little gimmicks actually add to the discourse? Although it’s already getting close to primary season when the weeding out will really take place, my fantasy is to have small sort of working-group rountables with different combinations of candidates. Have, say, Dodd, Obama, and Kucinich spend a few hours debating and answering audience/moderator questions. Then the next one can be Guliani, Paul, and Huckabee. Clinton, Biden, Richardson. Romney, Tancredo, McCain. And on and on. A more intimate setting like that might decrease the mudslinging and open up the discussion a little more. OF course, the campaigns and the TV people would find all kinds of ways this wouldn’t work, but I think a lot of people are craving substance this time around. There are real problems with this country and the world, a lot of which we brought on ourselves, and seeing which person can display the most hate for immigrants, or boast of how many guns they have, or spend 40 minutes talking about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants just doesn’t do it for me. We have all seen, laid bare for the past eight years, what happens when we choose the guy who is more macho, or who talks tough, or the guy we’d like to have a beer with. Let’s get serious.

  3. Anonymous

    While I disagree with the idea that only those vetted as “undecided” have any right to ask questions, the method you propose has been used for years at many websites including for exactly this purpose. An article is posted saying something like “I have an interview with noted media critic Dan Kennedy next Friday. What would you like me to ask him?” Questions are then posted in the responses and are voted on by the readers. The top 20 (or 10 or whatever) win.

  4. Anonymous

    Dan,I think your recommended changes would have saved CNN a lot of embarrassment and damage to their reputation. I also agree that Anderson Cooper is the best CNN has to offer, and it’s too bad he is tied up in this.I’m wondering where are all the high-minded journalism critics? Covering up for CNN it seems. Instapundit did a little research (CNN should try this sometime), “SO I LOOKED AT EDITOR AND PUBLISHER and there’s nothing about the CNN planted-question scandal. There’s one story on the debate, but it’s a puff piece about a cartoonist getting his video in. Then I looked at Poynter and all I could find was this piece on covering the debates. But I’m not seeing anything about the planted-question scandal. I’m not seeing anything at the Columbia Journalism Review site, either. Journalism, cover thyself!Well, actually I think they are covering . . . .”Dan, what excuse could they possibly have for not covering this? If the debate was on Fox News, and pro-Rudy questioners were asking Hillary and Barack slanted questions, do you think the CJR, Poynter, etc would be all over this like white on rice?One final point, it just wasn’t the retired general, but about 1/3 of all questioners had ties to Democrat campaigns or affiliated groups.

  5. The Scoop

    Candidates already give rehearsed, sound-bite responses to questions that they don’t know beforehand. Can you imagine how boring and substance-free these debates would be if they were able to see the videos beforehand? That’s a terrible idea.

  6. Bill Baar

    The solution is forget YouTube and give us serious journalists asking thoughtful and probing questions.

  7. Leonard Witt

    I know it is just the end of the journalistic world that someone from the opposition got to ask a question. However, here is my bigger question: What journalistic standard was at work to allow Grover Norquist, a money laundering stooge for convicted embezzler Jack Abramoff, to get to ask the candidates to take a pledge? Out of 5,000 Americans’ questions this is the best they could do?

  8. Don (no longer) Fluffy

    Some Republican candidate could have sewn up my vote if he had refused to participate in that CNN dog and pony show. Even better, if he had walked off when he saw where it was going, I would have applauded as well. Didn’t Bill Clinton demean the office enough?

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Leonard: Personally, I don’t see a problem with someone from an advocacy group, even a pro-Republican advocacy group, unless he’s backing a particular candidate. I don’t think Norquist is in anyone’s camp.Along the same lines, Michelle Malkin is outraged that someone from the Council on American-Islamic Relations got to ask a question. Why? That is directly analogous to Norquist and his group.

  10. Anonymous

    Putting the questions up for a vote is definitely the answer to all of these problems. What the debates really need is to have more canned answers written beforehand by a committee of campaign consultants. Your idea would definitely make that work for us.

  11. Peter Porcupine

    Fluffy Don – you may recall that Mitt caught hell as an anti-populist for not wanting to participate. I admit, I was among those urging him to participate, as I think a WELL DONE/RINGER FREE You Tube debate would be preferable to ANY TV journalist debate, unless we can get either David Brinkley or Jack Paar to come back.The snowman even came back to taunt him at the beginning.

  12. zadig

    I’ve heard local talk radio frothing at the mouth about this for days, and I still don’t see why it’s an issue. Who cares what the source of the questions are? Either they’re good questions for the candidates to answer, or they suck. Solution: omit the sucky questions (Hillary’s diamonds or pearls, and the Republican “WWJD?”, for examples) and let the good ones through no matter what the source is. Jeez, we waste a lot of time on trivialities.Quick test: if Michelle Malkin is outraged, it is by definition a meaningless controversy.

  13. Dan Kennedy

    Hey, Kevin — The New York Times and the Washington Post both did big stories on this today, and they were linked from Romenesko’s media-news site — the #1 media site, far bigger than CJR. Search Google News for a few hundred more.

  14. Anonymous

    Hey Dan,You nicely avoided my questions, “What excuse could a “journalism” site have for not covering this?”and”If the debate was on Fox News, and pro-Rudy questioners were asking Hillary and Barack slanted questions, do you think the CJR, Poynter, etc would be all over this like white on rice?”I’ll answer them for you.A. There isn’t oneB. It would be their top story for daysI didn’t mention either paper, or the MSM in general. I didn’t claim this wasn’t being covered by the media. It was the silence of the “journalism” sites that I mentioned. I just checked E&P and saw nothing. CJR covered it today, with one story headlined “CNN Needn’t Apologize”.Whatever. In the words of a certain football coach, it is what it is.Kevin

  15. Dan Kennedy

    Kevin: I wasn’t avoiding your questions. I was ignoring them. There’s a difference. When the two leading newspapers, the leading journalism website, and dozens of other news organizations cover the story, your claim that the mainstream media are avoiding it is ridiculous.You mention Poynter … do you not know that Romenesko is Poynter?Kevin, you’ve got to do your homework. There’s more to life than ideology. Like facts. You and I are roughly on the same side of this issue, but I’m dealing with what actually happened, whereas you’re dealing with some fantasy of what you assume happened. Like Jay Severin.The Times and the Post are not obscure publications, Kevin. I’ll bet even Gregg has heard of them. And Romenesko’s site at Poynter is far more influential than E&P and CJR put together.And, oh yeah, the Project for Excellence in Journalism linked to the Washington Post’s story. Kevin … roll that around on your tongue. The Project for Excellence in Journalism. They’re acknowledging that this is a big deal.This was the biggest media story in the country today, and you think the liberal media are ignoring it. Amazing.And keep watching. A lot of media critics are not into instant reaction. You’re going to keep seeing stuff into early next week. Guaranteed.

  16. Anonymous

    Dan,Excuse me, but where did I “claim that the mainstream media are avoiding it”That’s right, I didn’t. I was pretty clear,”I didn’t mention either paper, or the MSM in general. I didn’t claim this wasn’t being covered by the media. It was the silence of the “journalism” sites that I mentioned.”I was talking about specific sites that allegedly cover journalism. Not the MSM. It’s plain as day in my two comments, yet all you are talking about is how much the liberal media covered it and how I should know that. This is pretty rich too,”You and I are roughly on the same side of this issue, but I’m dealing with what actually happened, whereas you’re dealing with some fantasy of what you assume happened. Like Jay Severin.”My last comment WAS about what actually happened, not some fantasy of what I assume happened,”I just checked E&P and saw nothing. CJR covered it today, with one story headlined “CNN Needn’t Apologize”.Your last comment is Severin-like in its accuracy.Roll that around your tongue.Kevin

  17. Dan Kennedy

    It was covered by the two leading journalism sites, Kevin. You specifically cited Poynter as not covering it, and you were wrong. Give it a rest.

  18. Dan Kennedy

    As I reflect on this, I realize that it isn’t necessary for the candidates to see the winning questions ahead of time. With most Internet polls, you get to see a running count. But there’s no reason the results of this particular poll couldn’t be kept secret until airtime.

  19. Anonymous

    ” There’s more to life than ideology. Like facts.” It would be nice if that concept were more widely embraced.

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