The rise of new media brings new media manipulation and new media exploitation. This truism should be front and center whenever politics, media and technology intersect.
The CNN-YouTube debate, which should have been called America's Best Home Political Videos, was a noteworthy turning point in the way journalists and candidates will interact -- but not for the reason many pundits have put forth.
Many writers gushed about the fact that questions for the candidates were selected from video submissions made by ordinary people. But there is nothing new about contests where the winner gets a cameo appearance on a TV show.
As is typical of user-generated content, despite all the hype about empowering citizens, the individual was utterly powerless, except to try to please and serve the interests of the gatekeeper and thereby obtain some attention. Remuneration, however, was not part of the package.
In fact, the debate essentially acknowledged that the submissions were mere props in a standard political event as it opened with a hip, ironic, media-aware question: "I'm wondering if since this is such a `revolutionary' debate, that if you as politicians can do something `revolutionary,' and that is to actually answer the questions that are posed to you tonight."
Later, one questioner asked: "I know you all are going to run around this question, dipping and dodging, so let's see how far you all can get."
Whether any of the candidates could be pressed on their answer depended entirely on the debate's moderator.
But what was truly new, or at least very notable, was how cloaking the debate questions in an aura of citizen "journalism" could be used to present far more controversial content which would not otherwise be permissible under US journalistic rules.
That is, a moderator might be able to ask about gun control. But it would be a breach of decorum for a journalist to intone that some gun owners would say: "To all the candidates, tell me your position on gun control, as myself and other Americans really want to know if our babies are safe. This is my baby, purchased under the 1994 gun ban. Please tell me your views."
Yet the selection of a video of a gun owner asking that question was different. Under the unwritten rules of US journalism, it apparently counted as merely running the content of a third party -- or at least, that would be CNN's moral defense.
And as is common with data-mining, it's the central authority that ends up empowered. In a way, it's a very advanced version of the technique where if a journalist wants to put something in an article, he or she contacts a source who's certain to make that particular point.
Or, in today's environment, journalists go through blogs and forums in search of a post that could be quoted for the viewpoint.
But extending this idea to video presentations advances it to another level. Powerful visual images can be embedded in what are nominally questions.
In post-debate reaction, US Republicans seemed to have recognized this somewhere down in the deepest, lizard-brain core of their political body. It just might be a campaign-killing moment to justify continuing the Iraq war against a video backdrop of wounded anti-war soldiers, or to defend theocratic opposition to stem-cell research next to a display of someone suffering from an illness which might be cured. Pictures matter, and so the obvious Republican counter-move is to restrict such video-based debates only to favorable venues.
Thus, shifts in power will be met by incorporating such changes into the machinery of partisan propaganda. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with bringing different media sensibilities to political events. The talking head format is not sacred. But no matter how heavily marketers try to sell us on the idea of entertainment stardom -- even 15 seconds of clip fame -- as civic merit, we should never mistake a change in media style for any advance of citizens' power in politics.
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