Monday, July 23, 2007

CNN's Grass Roots Mythology

Yesterday I tried to take a pragmatic look at Cindy Sheehan's "challenge from the grass roots" against Nancy Pelosi's seat in the House of Representatives. My theme, as stated in my lead paragraph, had to do with "thinking beyond the passion of the moment to the consequences" of taking action. Today's News Blog post by Josh Wolf provides another take on that "passion of the moment" and how, as was the case with Ms. Sheehan, mass media can convert the best of political intentions into marketing opportunities. Now, just to be fair, that last sentence does not capture any assertion that Mr. Wolf made in his post; so I shall try to explain why I have chosen to read his report that way.

Let me begin with what Mr. Wolf did report:

When I first heard that CNN had partnered with You Tube for two upcoming presedential debates I was intrigued. For the first time in history, on July 23 at 7:00PM (ET), the general public will have a chance to ask a question to the man (or woman) who might become the next president of the United States.

But what does this approach really mean to the future of U.S. politics? As a recent article on CNN points out, while the questions may come from the public, the news agency is still making the choice which questions will actually be asked. Does this approach really democratize the debates or is it simply a chance for a few lucky individuals to have a chance to be on national television. According to Joshua Levy at, "There are two parts to opening up a platform like these debates to the community: 1) Let individuals participate in unprecedented ways, [and] 2) Give up control of the voting to the community."

In other words Mr. Wolf wanted to raise the question of whether or not CNN had hit on an innovative approach to democratizing the debating of issues, which, hopefully, would lead to the selection of candidates for the Presidency of the United States. My own reading was that this was not a story about political processes, democratic or otherwise, but just another brick in the wall constructed from the unhealthy relationship between the service of informing the public and the business interests without which (apparently) such services cannot be rendered.

I still believe that the cardinal rule of investigation is "follow the money." Following the money in this case leads to asking about CNN's motive for running this debate; and my guess is that the motive has nothing to do with politics (unprecedented or otherwise) and everything to do with bringing lost eyeballs back to the CNN channel (which leads to charging more for advertising slots, which, in turn, means, of course, more money). Now that both CNN and Headline News have their veins full of the Kool-Aid of entertainment fluff being passed off as news, they have discovered that the gain in viewers who want that kind of "news lite" has been overwhelmed by the loss of viewers who want "all news all the time" (if anyone still remembers that motto). Of course, many of the viewers they have lost have not gone to another channel; they have gone to the Internet, where you can now get "hard news" from just about any source you desire and editorial opinions of every conceivable stripe. CNN has become the drowning man coming up for air one more (last?) time; and grabbing the YouTube life preserver for a new take on a so-called "open forum" will likely result in as feeble an effort as their recent previous "forum" programming.

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