04 December 2007

Accountability 2.0 (Another YouTube Debate Post-Mortem)

While we're not in a new era of transparency and accountability, We have seen a new digital wrinkle of participatory communication and democracy. And we've seen how quickly people are moving to game the system and gain advantage. We've got the public participation framework in place, but we're still working on that whole "accountability" thing.

The "Save the Debate" crowd are fightin' mad at CNN for sandbagging the YouTube debate with at least two questions from democrats - most notably one from an openly gay retired army general with ties to the Clinton campaign. Candidates thought this would be a "republican debate," free from gotcha-style questions. CNN spiked the punchbowl.

There's no way CNN was ignorant of the general's affilation or how this would color the debate. Putting candidates on the spot like that makes for good television, and it creates one of those "speak truth to power" moments the political establishment loathes. That's exactly what CNN wanted, and that's what they got.

However, CNN didn't select questions consistent with the public's priorities. Of the thousands of questions submitted, CNN chose a disproportionately large number of immigration/guns/bible questions that have been asked before in some form, plus their great big gotcha on gays in the military.

What did they leave out? Questions about America's top domestic priority - healthcare. Smart young Republicans like Rob Bluey and Mary Katherine Hamm made this observation. (btw, religion gets about 1% in the "top priorities" Gallup poll, and guns & gay issues don't even register.)

CNN's defense? If they didn't screen questions and left it to public "voting" on the 'net, the campaigns would try to stuff the digital ballot box to support the questions they want asked. You can't leave this process to the campaigns, who are relentless about message control to the point where they screen audiences, plant questions, or promote push polls. And they're right. But a presidential debate shouldn't be about a network's agenda. It should be about the public's priorities and how the candidates will address them.

The Save the Debate folks (all Republicans) are bashing CNN for having a "liberal bias." CNN is unquestionably biased, but it honestly has nothing to do with ideology. CNN has a NEGATIVE bias, as does absolutely every truly free media outlet on the planet. CNN is attracted to controversy, period. Controversy brings ratings. It sells papers. That's CNN's filter. That's why it asks "gotcha" questions. The media is still a critical component of our democracy and plays a vital role in holding people accountable (when they're at their best), but we can't count on them to play the role of independent arbitor of the issues. Nor should we.

10Questions will be the next step toward finding a platform for an unfiltered discussion between the government and the governed. It, too, will be flawed, but it will be progress - and those who choose not to participate will rightfully be criticized.

Most importantly, we're at a point of no return now, as the Washington Post's Jose Antonio Vargas told David All. People want more, not less, participation in the decisions our leaders make. You can't tell them that they won't be able to ask questions simply because it makes those in power uncomfortable.

Businesses would be well-served to prepare for the unfiltered digital discussion coming their way as well, and they can learn by watching the canidates struggle with the new format. Large global companies have unquestionably grown in power over the last decade. Some CEO's oversee companies with more wealth than the GDP of many countries. It's just a matter of time before someone figures out how to pull off the "YouTube annual shareholders meeting." And there will be no turning back.

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