Presidential Politics and the Fall of "Old Media."
As both an Internet entrepreneur and an avid political junkie, I’m just loving the presidential campaign this time around. I’ve been carefully watching what each of the candidates is doing online, and naturally paying a lot of attention to their e-mail strategies.
However, the subtext of last week’s NBC debate in Nevada wasn’t as much about the candidates as it was about the chasm that lies between the traditional media (i.e., television) world and the new media (i.e., Internet) world in which we are all now living.
If you didn’t see the debate, imagine the following scenario. You have the three candidates (in a last minute power-play, NBC managed to prevent Kucinich from participating) sitting at a large table across from two anchors, Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Then, about 15 feet away in some kind of theatrical Siberia sat NBC’s "Today Show" co-anchor Natalie Morales. What was she doing over there? Well, she was “taking e-mail questions from the public.” However, the e-mails had already been sent in — there was nothing live about it. The computer was a prop.
Let’s examine this a bit further. NBC chooses Morales to represent the voting public, but then sticks her back in a corner where the candidates can’t even see her without craning their necks. Isn’t NBC by its actions implicitly saying that its smart white guys belong "at the table" with the candidates, but questions from the voting public belong off to the side? Apparently our questions aren’t legitimate enough to be front and center.
And the chasm between the public and the candidates didn’t end there. The first 20 minutes of this two-hour “debate” were all about the journalists. Going into it, everyone knew that Clinton and Obama had kissed and made up to try to get away from the gender and race scuffle they had been engaged in for the last few days. So naturally, Brian Williams had to begin with questions about that. Okay, that’s fair, we expected it. But then it just didn’t stop. Russert chimed in. Question after question pounded away about what the candidates said three weeks ago, six months ago, and in books published a year ago. For the entire first section of the debate the candidates fought to get air time to address the issues that any American would possibly find relevant. But the journalists were intent on making it all about them. They had created the story, they had fomented the story, and now they needed to keep the story alive so that they could look good for having reported it in the first place.
Yet every day there is more and more evidence that as we the American public embrace the openness of the Internet, we demonstrate that we don’t want anyone in the middle anymore.
This was brilliantly exemplified by The YouTube debates in November, in which average Americans videotaped and sent in their own questions which were broadcast at the debate, and the candidates had to respond to them directly. These questions were honest, refreshingly direct, and always relevant. The YouTube debates signaled the beginning of a new era in which the domination by the national media (and its penchant for celebrating itself rather than focusing on the things that people care about) will come to an end. Why? Because by the next presidential election we all will be watching TV on flat-screens connected to the Internet, and we’ll control what we watch that much more completely.
This debate showed how our television networks still don’t get it. They believe that they are still living in a world in which they rule. Yet, as the Internet develops, the public’s demonstrated eagerness for authentic information will force an environment in which we are much more directly in contact with the candidates who have a story to tell. One can easily imagine a web-based nightly live "Obama-cast" from the campaign bus. Right now, we’re in the very beginning of the digital age, but our media structures are still stepchildren of the 1950s. As John Edwards says, “we can do better than this." And we will.