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David Weinberger Headshot

Suppose They Held a Debate and Everyone Came?

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In case you missed it, here's the narrative of last
night's YouTube/CNN debate. Ordinary folks got to
post grainy videos that beforehand were hyped as
posing the sort of questions journalists never ask.
Instead, the questions were either the same-old-
same-old or were quirky, eccentric and marginal. It
was a fun and different way to hold a debate, but
not the revolutionary step that had been promised.

That is the narrative being read to us, in sonorous
voices, by the mainstream media.

Here's what really happened: We saw yet another chunk of the media's
role that we can do as well, and, in some important
ways, better.

The traditional role of journalists in politics was
created by the very nature the mass media. Since the
media are mass, they're one-to-many. Therefore, we
need proxies to speak for us. Because the mass media
use a real-world infrastructure, air time is scarce, so the proxies
have to be a special breed -- knowledgeable
professionals who know what's important. They are,
in fact, at least the equals of our political
leaders. They certainly are not schlubs like you and
me. Because air time is so precious, politicians need to
be pinned down to answers that are concise, simple
and definite. Politics becomes policies.

So, we get these rituals in which two sets of
proxies -- the journalists and our would-be
representatives -- face off, each standing in for us
but each also implicitly declared to be unlike us.
How do we know this? Because they get to speak and
we get to listen.

Any wonder the citizenry is so alienated?

Last night was different, and more important than
the media generally are letting on.

Not because now we don't need professional
journalists. We do need them. Desperately. The professionals do
some things very, very well. Last night was
additive, not a replacement.

Not because people asked questions that had never
been asked before. That was unlikely, if only
because CNN chose the 1% of submitted questions that
were aired.

Not because the answers were especially revelatory.
The format didn't allow for the sort of conversation
in which people get past their safe responses.

Last night was important because, for all its flaws,
it showed the price we pay for the usual layer of
professionalism.

For one thing, the professionalization of media
politics turns politics into policy. But, when a gay
couple asks, "Would you allow us to be married to
each other?" it's not just policy any more.

For another, even the sober, serious image of the
professional journalist inculcates an attitude about
politics. It becomes an argument between men in
suits (with an occasional woman in a pants suit
allowed in). On the other hand, when a citizen with
a guitar gets to ask a question, it's silly, but it
also expresses some of the joy and vitality of
politics. Politics is not just about us getting to
raise our hand at a well-behaved town meeting. It's
us in our lives, including our humor, exuberance,
silliness, and flaws. Imagine, politics isn't just
about the exchange of views on policy!

Last night didn't change politics forever. That
change has been underway for years now. We are
filling in every conceivable niche in the political
ecology, from the pure bottom up to the pure top
down, and every direction in and out the middle.
Last night we got to see what yet another political
structure might look like if the experts got out of
the way occasionally. And it looked pretty damn
good.

No wonder the media are telling us we should have
found last night's experiment disappointing.