Monday, July 23, 2007

Tonight is the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, which – no offense to democracy or anything – is a new low in our staple lazy, dilute field of journalism. No matter what Anderson Cooper bloviates, it's not a revolution; the questions for the second 2004 presidential debate and the third 2000 debate (supposedly) came from average Americans. The only difference here is the involvement of YouTube, which has already brought us important contributions to the political discourse, such as Nora the Piano-Playing Cat and the "Will It Blend?" guy. New populist technology gives Time Warner a massive boner.

It's not that Americans aren't a naturally curious bunch, but that our curiosity is about as directionless and easily distracted as the war on terror. I assume that "television's number one political news team," a.k.a. CNN's unpaid summer interns, will weed out the "Boxers or briefs?" and "Could you take a moment to pray for Oregon, for us, right now?" sorts of questions, but you've still got Bill Richardson, who's negotiated with freaking Kim Jong Il for Christ's sake, answering questions from fifth-graders. (Okay, obviously the questions were parent-scripted, but there's still a cuteness over substance issue going on here that's not healthy for a functioning democracy.)

The problem is that your answers reflect the style of the questions. Jeffrey Sachs and some attention whore in a cow costume could ask the same question about ending global poverty, but — thirty second time limit aside — Sachs would get an answer that addresses all the facets and gray areas of a complex issue, and the cow guy would just be patronized to. Which is pretty much what happens in these debates, and that's why I generally avoid them. This is why we have journalists — people (theoretically) trained to ask piercing questions and to recognize when the response is lacking. There's a difference between asking Hillary, "Why haven't you apologized for your vote to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq?" and "To what extent was your vote to authorize the Iraq war influenced by the fact that 70% of Americans supported the war in 2002?" The former lets her do that political, passive voice, weaseling-out thing ("I was duped.") and the other actually holds her accountable not just for her actions, but for her whole concept of how a democratic government should work. Should our leaders reflect the consensus of the governed, or transcend it?

But that question can't be answered in two minutes.

Here's what I'd like to see: lots of debates. Twenty-eight, minimum. Just two candidates, and one topic for the entire hour, that really gets explored in terms of the candidates' views, their past actions, and their philosophy on governance in general. No ad hominem attacks, which are just a cheap way to eat up your thirty seconds without answering the question. Maybe we'd even have a panel of experts on whatever topic they're talking about.