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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

OPINION:From civic to citizen journalism: Has YouTube usurped the media’s role?

Alongside a recent Economist editorial “Is America Turning Left?” ran a political cartoon depicting an absurd rendition of a large elephant, exhausted and beaten, carried about on a stretcher by two medical aids straining with the effort.

The elephant was a satirical swipe at the Republican party’s mascot, and the stretcher/medic allusion was a metaphor for the demise of the “Western World’s most impressive Political Machine” that the article argued has been “driven off a cliff” by the Bush administration.

The Economist reported that only 19 per cent of Americans feel confident about the direction America is headed under the administration, and that “an astonishing 45 per cent of Americans support impeaching Mr. Bush (according to the American Research Group).”

This provokes an emphatic question for North American media. Why are American citizens reading reports on the failures of their government in an elitist financial journal and not having them  broadcasted in front-page, prime-time syndication?

You could ask Dan Rather why not.

In America, an 81 per cent loss of public confidence evidently doesn’t justify a call to action. The people must instead wince and count the months, or years, till the next regularly scheduled election. 

Americans, while they’re waiting, got the highly stylized YouTube debates, hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper last November. 

The premise is compelling: An open-forum in citizen journalism that exercises the peoples’ right to speak and ask their potential leaders tough questions. 

All you needed was American citizenship and a functional webcam, and all of a sudden any person, regardless of social or economic standing could partake in the Republican debates. 

It was a brilliant concept — but it didn’t work. 

You would anticipate the ensuing conversation to be a remarkable forum in which outraged citizens held politicians accountable for their policies, actions and inactions.

You’d think you’d see the people rise up.

Instead, the YouTube debates were a stage show featuring unsettling questions from an unprepared audience that were successfully spun by the slickest rhetoric.

The questions were unchallenged by journalistic scrutiny and the result looked like complete media complacency. 

Network darling Cooper facilitated the debates, but his role looked more like Alex Trebek’s scorekeeping on Jeopardy than that of a seasoned journalist whose job it is to ensure answers are provided to the toughest questions.

Cooper prefaced the debate by reminding the candidates that the focus must be to answer the question that is posed — and not to spin it.

The YouTube debates then handed the questioning power over to the audience. And so the web-cam wielding public became both policy critic and media analyst on prime-time national television.

This media shift reflects the public’s ruptured faith in mainstream media’s coverage of national politics.

The network’s aim was to satisfy the demands of the audience — and the audience wanted citizen journalism.

And they should have it. But citizen journalism such as YouTube postings is still in nascent stages, and media professionals must still do their jobs. Cooper should have been able to step in when the debates needed his journalistic prowess. Failure to do this reflected American media’s passive role in politics.

Questions in the YouTube debates pitted former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney against former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani took Romney out in the first round by exposing his  “illegal immigration” hypocrisy.

Apparently, if your political mandate includes opposition to migrant worker’s being employed illegally, you shouldn’t be employing illegal immigrants sans papers in your own home.

There was no dialogue about US’s dependence on migrant workers’ labour for economic subsistence. Migrant workers from Mexico seep into the US’s porous borders to perform the manual labour that American citizens do not. A critically engaged journalist should be aware of this angle, and pose the questions that weren’t asked by the public.

Giuliani talked tough on crime, taking credit for ‘cleaning up’ New York’s streets. His policies didn’t solve poverty, crime and homelessness, but rather drove them underground. Ever wonder what happened to New York’s street dwellers? Many are reportedly living in squalor in the tunnels under the city.

The YouTube questioners proved to be both politically savvy and quasi-deluded. One podcaster sat in his living room, pointing to the Confederate Flag hanging behind him on his living room wall and asked the candidates what they believed the flag represents. 

The confederate flag is, for many, a symbol entrenched in racism and has been long associated with segregation in the south.

No candidate was willing to risk alienating an entire demographic of Confederation flag-waving potential votes, and so no candidate spoke out against the flag’s implicit connotations. “People are free to hang what ever they wish in their homes and I’m not going so say any more about it” was the general consensus among candidates.

Another podcaster asked candidates a chilling hypothetical question: “If Roe vs. Wade were overturned and a woman obtained an abortion illegally, what would her punishment be?”

Most of the candidates are standing on a firm anti-abortion platform with the exception of Giuliani. Candidates hemmed and hawed and generally agreed that the decision would be up to the state. 

A pro-life agitator from the extreme right posed a scenario in which a woman be stripped of her constitutional rights and then persecuted and not one murmur of disagreement was heard from one of any one of the next potential leaders of the free world.

And Cooper, designated scorekeeper rather than journalistic mediator, maintained a  silence that represented the media’s acquiescence to audience autonomy.

The result was an absence of accountability — an escape from media’s interrogation.  

Not even from Ron Paul, the renegade Texas congressman, made a peep. Paul did speak out against the war in Iraq and has made ‘bringing home the troops’ his campaign mantra, much to the chagrin of John McCain, who sneered openly at Paul’s brashness. Iraq was not a popular topic, although the nominees, with the exception of Paul, appeared in favour of continued interventionist foreign policies.

Gun control legislation also made the debate agenda. Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson supported Americans’ ‘right to bear arms’. He nostalgically recalled the sound of gun cartridges ejecting from his father’s rifle as they hunted quail together during childhood. “It’s about family tradition”, he argued. 

Romney chimed in with a smile and a nod to his son Ron’s gun collection. 

A poignant moment was captured when McCain said simply, “I fought in Vietnam. I don’t own a gun.”

No candidate discussed what gun-control legislation could do for the nation’s violent crime rate. America boasts the highest death-by-firearm rate in the world, but neither Cooper nor the podcasters confronted candidates with this reality. A prepared interviewer would ideally invigorate the discussion with this line of questioning. At the YouTube debates it just didn’t happen.

Cooper patiently kept time, gently reminding the candidates when their air time was up and of the need to move on. He stood without agenda, stripped of his designated role and journalistic prowess.

Isn’t it the journalist’s job to ask tough questions and stand up and demand accountability when the public trust is as stake? CNN did not engage itself in the dialogue surrounding the debates. This void can only aggravate the loss of public faith in media coverage of national politics. 

Post-debate coverage merely provided a recap of the events for the audience that may have missed it. Sensationalized clips of the Romney-Giuliani sparring session over migrant workers were highlighted, but journalistic interrogation of the discussion’s implications was absent.

One paramount question that escaped scrutiny at the Republican debates was the question of health care coverage, which a large number of American citizens are perpetually without.  

Many tough questions escaped scrutiny both throughout the debates and in post-debate network coverage. 

A critical viewer would note the complicit nature of the media’s coverage and wonder what has become of the journalist’s mission to remain on guard and critical at all times of its governmental policies, both domestic and international.

The YouTube phenomenon is a force to be reckoned with, and any network that will remain relevant in the new technological age of user-oriented media must engage the citizen journalist. It is impossible to argue against this reality. But the media must create a hybrid between civic and citizen journalism. Journalists cannot step back and take a passive stance when so much is at stake.

AMANDA STUTT holds an MA from the UBC School of Journalism. She completed a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. Her writing has appeared in the Ubyssey, The Seed, the Tyee, the Thunderbird and The Vancouver Sun. She specializes in advocacy reporting.

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