I have to say I’ve been disappointed with the way the Republican presidential candidates have been handling the YouTube/CNN debate. When I first heard that only Ron Paul and John McCain were committed to appearing and how Romney wasn’t gonna answer no questions from no damn snowman, I immediately thought of Henry Jenkins.
Henry is the Director of the Comparative Media Studies graduate program at MIT. I read one of his books several months ago, “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide” and it was very much one of those right-book-at-the-right-time kind of things. The book is about the ways in which new communication technologies are empowering and encouraging participation in media by people who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to do so. It also discusses the gamut of response to these new possibilities; some welcoming, some smug, some fearful.
But I thought of Henry, because I knew he’d be thinking about how the whole YouTube/CNN debate format is appears to be an almost watershed moment for these technologies. And he’s blogged an edifying post about it.
In the 1990s, an alternative — the town hall meeting debate — emerged and Bill Clinton rose to the presidency in part on the basis of his understanding of the ways that this format changed the nature of political rhetoric. In the town hall meeting format, who asks the question — and why they ask it — is often as important as the question being asked. The questioner embodies a particular political perspective — the concerned mother of a Iraqi serviceman, the parent of a sick child who can’t get decent health care, the African-American concerned about race relations, and so forth. We can trace the roots of this strategy of embodiment back to, say, the ways presidents like to have human reference points in the audience during their State of the Union addresses — Reagan was perhaps the first to deploy this strategy of using citizens as emblematic of the issues he was addressing or the policies he was supporting and in his hands, it became associated with the push towards individualism and volunteerism rather than governmental solutions. These were “individuals” who “made a difference.”
What Clinton got was that in this newly embodied context, the ways the candidate addressed specific voters modeled the imagined interface between the candidate and the voters more generally. Think about that moment, for example, when George Bush looked at his watch during a Town Hall Meeting debate and this got read as emblematic of his disconnect from the voters. Contrast this with the ways that Clinton would walk to the edge of the stage, ask follow up questions to personalize or refine the question and link it more emphatically to the human dimensions of the issue, and then respond to it in a way which emphasized his empathy for the people involved. People might make fun of Clinton for saying “I feel your pain” a few times too many but this new empathic link between the candidate and the questioner shaped how voters felt about this particular candidate.
It seems that increasingly, the prize will go to those who know how to navigate this new media landscape. And by that I don’t mean those who learn to game the system, I mean those who recognize that the transparency it creates demands that they be genuine humans.