Television

ThemTube

|

Tonight at 7 in South Carolina, the Democratic presidential candidates will hold another debate. (Dave Weigel will blog it here at Hit & Run as it transpires.) The gimmick this time is that they'll field questions from ordinary Americans that were posted on YouTube.

Henry Jenkins writes:

You might want to take some time today to sample the kinds of questions submitted in their raw form. They reflect two of the dominant modes of production for YouTube. On the one hand, there are straight to camera confessionals—often deadly serious, frequently deeply personal, made by people who embody the issues they are discussing. These videos reflect the ways that Americans are taught, via television, to speak to presidential candidates and more often than not, they reflect the same agenda that has shaped previous debates. The CNN spokesperson did say that there were certain topics, Darfur for example, which cropped up much more often among viewers than among professional journalists. But, for the most part, these questions reflect the prevailing tone and style of American political discourse. The second set are parodies and satires—often bitingly irreverent, borrowing the language of popular culture to challenge the pomposity of the debate format. Sometimes, they spoof the very idea that citizens should be made to embody their questions—as in this video where a guy dressed like a Viking asks a question about immigration or consider this question from an LA based "celebrity". Sometimes, they make fun of what kinds of questions deserved discussion in this format—as in this video about alien invasions. Sometimes, they make use of borrowed footage—as in this JibJab style segment featuring a George W. impersonator.

It is going to be interesting, then, to see what kinds of selections the network makes amongst all of this material: will they naturally go towards those that adopt the discourses of respectful citizens and identity politics? Will they ask more or less the same questions that we've heard in the previous debates, only this time spoken through the mouths of YouTube fans? Or will some of the more wacky segments make their way into the air? And if they do, how will the candidates react and how will the pundits respond?

My prediction: Much as I relish the thought of Hillary carefully rehearsing an answer to the question about whether Arnold Schwarzenegger is a cyborg, I think it's safe to assume the goofball queries will be shut out tonight. The campaigns and the media have a long history of dressing up events like these with the illusion of popular participation, whether it's carefully-vetted questions from a studio audience or one of Frank Luntz's panels of stone-faced citizens toggling their joysticks while the candidates speak, giving Luntz a suitably pseudo-scientific chart to show the anchor when the event is over. ("As you can see, when Sen. Edwards said 'puppies,' his positives shot through the roof.") Once they've been filtered through CNN, these homemade clips will be more of the same. The chances of a YouTube debate that actually resembles the playful anarchy of YouTube are nearly as low as the chances of a presidential "town hall meeting" that resembles an actual town meeting.

I suppose it's possible that someone with a conventional query but an odd getup might get on the air (cf. the Viking), and perhaps some prankster will quietly slip a joke in through the back door, asking some painfully sincere question about the deficit while something odder hangs from the wall or runs on a monitor behind him. But don't expect a "boxers or briefs" moment: CNN isn't MTV, Hillary Clinton isn't Bill Clinton, and Hunter Thompson is dead.

If you want to see some of the stranger YouTube questions, 10 Zen Monkeys posted five of them last month. None of them, alas, are particularly funny in themselves, but you might get a chuckle or two from imagining what the candidates' answers might be.